Sunday, September 10, 2017

Professor Jesus

What comes to your mind when you think about Jesus? Theologically, you might think of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah: God's Anointed One. He's the one who died on the cross to save us from our sins. Salvation comes through Jesus. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.

Another direction you might go is thinking about Jesus as the nicest, friendliest guy who ever lived. Boy was he ever so nice. He loved sinners and enemies and children. He loves you and me. Jesus is the ideal of niceness.

Few might think of Jesus this way, however: as the smartest man who ever lived. Jesus was wise of the ways of the world and pointed toward the true ways of God's Kingdom at hand. He is rabbi and teacher... the master from whom we learn to live abundant life, today. It's a shame that we don't often think about this Jesus. When we forget about Jesus the Master Professor, we forget that we've been enrolled as students in the graduate level courses he teaches us. Our acceptance letter came in the mail when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit, and our enrollment form was filled out when we were marked with the cross of Christ through baptism. What's worse is that we also forget that Jesus the Teacher is here. We forget that he's ready to teach us and train us right now in the ways of God.

Matthew 18:15-20 is prominently placed within Professor Jesus' syllabus for life, because he knows humans. He knows us. Inside and out, he knows us. God created us to be in community, but the free will we have been given makes us uncomfortable, even as we are drawn to other people. We need each other, but when we get together we find people don't agree about things. People are difficult. Then we wonder, together, in community, what are we going to do with those that are difficult. How do we get them to change.

Jesus knows all about this, so he flat out names it: "if another member of the church sins against you..." When there is trouble with someone in the community, there has got to be a process for how the community can deal with this. He gives us one, and we see the process right here, moving right down the line if the step doesn't work:
  1. Go directly to the other (one-on-one)
  2. Go directly to the other with one or two witnesses
  3. Bring the issue to the community
  4. Consider the other like a Gentile or tax collector 
This is such a nice process that it's even been included in many of the organizing constitutions for churches and congregations of many different faith traditions. These are the steps we take for those sinners out there. For those who love process, it is a delight process to have. 

But how has it worked, these 2,000 years? I mean think about it, since the problems that were happening in the early Christian communities that Paul wrote to in the decades following Jesus' death and resurrection, have we grown in our ministry of reconciliation? Have we gotten better at this? Have legal proceedings and processes led to community bliss? 

I'm leaving those questions out there. But some of you might be wondering if we should maybe take another look at Professor Jesus' credentials. Maybe this lesson is more the result of Mr. Nice-guy Jesus... particularly if we consider the way he treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He's such a nice Jesus. 

Ahhhh, but if those are the conclusions we are suddenly coming up with, I'll going to wager that we haven't stayed for the whole class. You know what's happened: We got the nice four point process from Jesus' power point, but haven't actually learned the way of Christ at all. 

Let's keep reading: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there among you" (Mt 18:18-20). 

The smartest man who ever lived knows that we cannot grow through a legal process alone. Our egos and our selfish desires to take care of uncomfortable situations and uncomfortable people once and for all will always move us to want to focus on the process only. But we need soooo much more than four steps. We need Jesus. We need the Master. We need you, Lord. 

Jesus promises to be with us. Only when we open our hearts to this reality that Jesus is in our midst can we even begin to find reconciliation in community. Only when our eyes are opened to the very real Jesus among us can we thrive in hope in the midst of disagreement. Jesus teaches us: "I am there among you." I am here. Right here. And that can be in church, yes. But that's not all. Jesus is with us in our homes. In our places of work. In our schools. In our neighborhoods. Jesus says, I am with you. And there is both the beginning and the end to our possibilities for thriving together in the Kingdom. 

When we bind our differences. When we tie up our conflicts in processes and blaming and pointing fingers the reality of our gracious Father pouring his grace within us is missed. It is bound in heaven, in other words. Quit binding our pain and our fears and our agitations and instead allow the Lord to freely bring us together in grace. He's looking to loosen us up. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of Jesus being the mediator in every single relationship we have. Every one! After all, he is with us till the end of the age. So when we have a disagreement with John Doe and our egos pull us over toward Jane, like a triangle, so the two of us can both bemoan together how awful John is, the Master teaches us to quit going over there. Come to me, Jesus say. Come to me, let me be your mediator. Let me be your triangle... and find peace. 

So this is the homework that Jesus has given to us. Know about the processes that are available, yes. Go directly to those who trouble you. Talk about it. Listen. Be slow to judge and quick to love... yes. But first and foremost: Learn from me. Come to Jesus. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt 11:28-30).

Jesus is our salvation. Jesus is ever so nice, yes. But, Jesus is also sooooo smart. He knows us. He teaches us. He will carry our burdens and knows how much we need him. Allow the Professor to be your Mediator. And remember that Jesus is present with us right here, right now, and until the end of the age. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Persistence Over Pollution

Jesus makes a logical point in Matthew 15 that receives our nod in approval. We've heard this idea before. It's not what comes at us from outside that "defiles" us, nor is it the things that we touch that defile others, instead it is the ideas that we digest in our hearts, the fears that we take within us, and the hate that we allow to impact our thinking that really defiles. Then in turn its the words we say to others, the harsh actions, and the contempt we throw out into the community that do more damage than the germs we accidentally sneeze upon our neighbor while we have the flu.

We know this, in theory. And maybe only, in theory; because our actions far too often do not reflect this truth. It's easier to control the things we touch than it is the things we think and say. Just take a look at the zeal revealed by parents looking to prot
ect their young children with soap and water, flushable wet wipes and hand sanitizer. Oh wow... it's like a religion.

For example, Parents magazine encourages parents of newborns to stay vigilant these 8 ways:

  • educate yourself about the dangers of germs
  • keep your baby close to you
  • stay clear of crowded places
  • throw out unfinished milk or formula
  • place formula in the fridge
  • wash your baby's clothes separately
  • be smart about sterilizing
  • take precautions when it comes to your pets.

The Pharisees of Jesus' time had similar lists as to what defiles and what is safe and clean.  They were pretty good, but I'd say our twenty-first century world can go toe to toe with those of Jesus' time. We know scientifically how the body can be polluted through germs, viruses, and bacteria. We can look all that up on the internet... but I don't know, however, if we're all that good at understanding just how much pollution is produced by what comes out of minds, our hearts and our souls. Pollution from the heart are the words and ideas that get spoken, typed, tweeted, or expressed one way or another to others. They defile us and pollute society like nothing else.

What happened a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia defiled that community... our nation... and our world, and not because of the empty trash wrappers left behind, or the sweaty dirty hands that touched buildings and statues. The message of hate expressed was appalling and contrary to the gospel modeled and expressed through Jesus. The symbols of swastikas, confederate battle flags, and the evening marches with tiki torches made to look like the Nuremberg Nazi rallies of the 1930's were ugly and clear.

The response has been strong. Brothers and sisters from ELCA congregations in Virginia staged counter protests. The bishops of the Virginia Synod and Metro DC Synod participated. Countless Christians from a wide variety of faiths condemned the rally as un-American, yes, but more importantly un-Christian. Peaceful demonstration is powerful. It's been inspiriting to read about the local pastors who have been involved. My colleague, Pastor Brent Dahlseng from Grace Lutheran Church in Loves Park even attended the Memorial Service for Heather Heyer, who was killed during the events of last weekend. What a show of humble, compassionate, support that reflects the love and healing that God seeks to bring us in Christ.

Not all of the responses were so compassionate, however. On Twitter, tweet after tweet was thrown out into the Twitterverse using expletives, expressing disgust and disdain. Contemptuous tweets abounded toward those participating in the rally and for anyone who would not join in the refrains condemning the white supremacist rally. By the end of the weekend, from twitter to television, our nation was exhausted... seeming both defiled and polluted, inside and out.

I found it to be one of those profound coincidences that on Sunday, last weekend, the New York Times Magazine included an article written before the events of Charlottesville, that looked into the the dangers of getting on your high horse and using social media to condemn the world and everyone else, without actually looking at yourself. They called it "virtue signaling," which means taking a stand mostly to look noble in doing so. Jane Coaston, a Millennial tweeter herself and author of the article, has noticed is that virtue signaling is running rampant on social media and could quite possibly be leading us to stop believing that anyone actually has any real convictions at all.

Which brings us back to the teaching of Jesus: that our words, actions, and tweets defile more than anything you can put in your mouth, because words and actions reveal your heart. Are you actually sincerely interested in helping others, or is your motivation to impress others, look virtuous, and feel good about yourself at the expense of other people? Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that when you give alms, when you seek to serve your neighbor, you should do it in secret. "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Jesus says. Don't get stuck in the trap of being motivated, above all else, by simply looking like a person who cares.

Here in lies the danger of this pollution. Once such virtue signalling becomes the norm of our discourse, the norm of how we interact with one another... it then becomes a cultural tic and automatic and, as Jane Coaston writes, "almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false - as mere performance." We become a society of cynics... where nothing is trusted... nothing is real... everything is done just for effect; and the effect becomes less and less because we are numbed by the constant noise... pollution.

You know, 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote about this very thing. In The Freedom of a Christian he wrote: "We do not reject good works. On the contrary, we highly cherish and teach them. For we do not condemn them for their own sake but on account of this godless linkage and perverse opinion that try to seek righteousness through them... This makes them appear good on the surface when in reality they are not good. By such works people are deceived and, like ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing, they deceive others."

There we find the pollution... There we find what defiles. The one performing the virtue signalling is fooled into believing their contempt is righteous. And the one who hears this pollution from the heart is fooled into believing self-righteous contempt for others it is right.

So what is the student of Jesus to do? This is where we stand in awe of the gospel that is given to us in God's holy words. We are given an example in Matthew's Gospel to follow: a Canaanite women, desperate for hope and healing for her demon-possessed daughter.

The depth in this text is great: from the way she is rejected by Jesus himself, to the way she expresses a persistence of faith that only can be found in a mother's love for her child. In words and actions, she reveals the unexpected. What she brings to Jesus and to the world is positive and powerful. It is the opposite of defilement: It is holy. It is the opposite of pollution: It is pure.

May her words impact you like no statement of condemnation and contempt ever could. They are grace. They are gospel. Responding to Jesus' statement of "Its not fair to take the children's food and throw them to the dogs," she says: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters' table."

"Then Jesus answers her, 'woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly.

Our world is desperate for healing... groaning for wholeness and good news that would banish the demons that possess us. Good news is here. You are called to be the voice of good news for world. Following the persistent, determined, faithful Canaanite mother's model, the words we share will not defile. The actions we undertake will not pollute. Following the model of Jesus Christ our master and teacher we will be transformed so that we no longer seek to look virtuous, but actually become the people of character Christ has called us to be. And that's how God is changing the world... That's how God is throwing hate and bigotry into blast furnace of history.

Again... Martin Luther says this: "If you want to [be virtuous], then look here! Believe in Christ, in whom grace, righteousness, peace, freedom, and all things are promised you."

May God lead us from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from hatred to love, through Christ our saving help. Amen

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

God's Universe is a Perfectly Safe Place For Us to Be

There are many ways to describe the gospel: Jesus died for our sins; God so loved the world he gave his only son; Jesus gives us salvation... just to name a few. Dallas Willard has given us one of the best ways to put the gospel: "God's universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be."

That's a provocative statement because the world is a place of many terrors and there are so many things are out there to be afraid of. Society has placed upon us a supersaturation of fear and foreboding. Wake up in the morning and go ahead and pick your fear for the day: global warming, job loss, immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, drug addictions, crime, processed foods, school shootings, illness, the collapse of capitalism, political stalemates, nuclear war, zombie apocalypse... to name just a few.

My kids' high school became a focus for societal anxiety the past few days. No longer are fire drills and tornado drills enough for the modern educational institution, students now prepare for what they need to do in case an active shooter invades the school. So four days ago their entire high school underwent such training. Don't hide under tables or inside closets, instead grab a weapon and cause chaos to foil the shooter's plans. Okay, fine, now they're ready.

Was it a surprise when two days later, a note was found in the school computer lab threatening just such an attack? Police were called in, and parents were informed of this note, as the school responsibly communicated this information.

Guess what happened today? No, thank goodness, it was not an attack, but there was a great portion of the student body missing. Teachers could not instruct their students because of the low attendance and therefore students lost a day to help them prepare for next week's finals. I suppose everyone was safe in their homes, and since no one got hurt, all is fine. But I will not be convinced that all's well that ends well when fear is allowed to control us. What's tomorrow going to bring?

This is why I love this description of the gospel: "God's universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be." This truly is the message and model of Jesus. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8). God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1). Why do you worry about your life (Matthew 6)? Most Christians would be able to give the right answer that faith in Jesus frees us from worry, but at the same time most Christians don't live out this right answer as if they actually believe it.

What would it look like if Christians actually believed they didn't have to worry about their life, or what they eat, or what they wear?

What would it look like if followers of Jesus actually believed that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?

What would it look like if children of God lived in the light, instead of the darkness, and faced the chronic anxiety of the world with courage instead of fear?

I sang a great little song with a group of preschoolers this morning called "This Little Light of Mine." You know how it goes: "I'm gonna let it shine." What would it look like to let your light shine in the face of the real anxieties found in your life, your family, your community and your world?

The great thing about a living faith is that when you do let your life shine in very real situations with compassion and mercy, it makes a difference. Even one little flame can bring light to a darkened room. There will be pressures to poof it out. You will struggle internally to panic and hide and join in on the chronic anxiety... but love for Jesus will bring you inner strength to throw that bushel away.

God's universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be. The world's violence, cancers, struggles, and injustices hurt us deeply, but they are not the only reality we are part of. We are children of God, united to Christ through the cross. We shall certainly be raised in a resurrection like his (Romans 6). Face anxiety with courage and let your light shine. It will make a difference.

My kids learned a powerful lesson the past few days... I'm so proud that they have stood with courage. Christ was with them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Vortex of Faith

A week ago I had the honor to preside over the memorial service for dear sister in Christ, Marsha Dahlgren. She died on April 18 and her service was held at Our Savior's on May 4. These are the words I shared that morning with her friends and family:

Jesus teaches us: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

For the past several months I have been dwelling upon this moment… of sharing with you words of gospel as we together remember, honor, and celebrate the life of a very dear woman: Marsha Dahlgren. And in dwelling on this moment, my memories and my thoughts kept spinning around in circles. For you see, our dear sister Marsha was a person like no other. I’ve never met anyone whose mind was so eager to dig deeper and whose enthusiasm, likewise, propelled her into so many directions.

With great passion she would engage in ministry here around Our Savior’s: being a leader with WELCA, a member of the choir, an active participant in adult education programs and a leader of several of our small groups. I loved the way her mother, Odessa, described Marsha being at full attention during a worship service and taking detailed notes of the message being shared in the sermon. I would then be the recipient of those notes which always expressed praise mixed in with several lines or symbols that not even Google could translate.

I wager a few of you have received some of Marsha’s notes over the years. What a delight. What a magnificent mind of wonder.

With wonder she engaged the journey the past eight months.
With wonder she could not wait for our visits and conversations.
With wonder she accepted the generous support of the DeWitts… and with wonder she discovered an openness to vulnerability that was not always her first instinct.

In this place of wonder and grace Marsha and I over the past few months kept coming back to the word: abide. For Marsha, whose energy made the Energizer Bunny look like a snail… to abide… to remain… well, that was not always her instinct either. But the Lord placed the word upon her lap and I can just hear her deep breath of peace express the word “abide” with a smile of her face and a twinkle in her eye. For Marsha, God dwelled in the word abide and she discovered permission to simply remain. What is my purpose she would ask me… and then we would come back to the word, abide. “Ahhh… abide… yes… abide,” she would say with a smile on her face and an expression of great peace reflecting in her eyes.

Jesus said, “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” All of the chaos and fun and learnings and disappointments of a fully lived life can be wrapped up in those words: “abide in my love.”

I think about Marsha the equestrian… Marsha the biochemist… Marsha the swimmer… Marsha of Marshall Fields… Marsha the choir director… Marsha the Christian Scientist… Marsha the history buff… Marsha the Jeep Girl… and it all can be wrapped up in that word abide… the Spirit abided in our Marsha and boy did she abide in the Lord.

Again, Jesus said: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Marsha was a complete joy for this community and nothing can top her own words, some of which she journaled in this coloring book while she was hospitalized last September. Yes… if Marsha is going to journal it will be in a coloring book.

On page 20 she wrote:
“my final night here…
my care here has been excellent!
Pat & Jerry taking me home is beyond my wildest imaginations
This, Lighting Here can be a joy of friends in balance to a fear of unknown… UNKNOWN?!
FEAR = 0
faith in the ONE GOD WHO LOVES & created us… ALL.
This EXPERIENCE OF friends: Pat, Cathy, their husbands, our PASTORS, working SO hard to provide SOLACE, stability & privacy could not be a better statement to trusting the one living God, to come our way & keep us close… EACH person using their own expertise to make WHAT EVER CAME BEFORE THEM BE BETTER by FAITH… & HARD WORK… community, connection, God’s WORKTHEIR HANDS!

What a gift to this vortex of faith, that we had the opportunity to have served with Marsha… What great joy she brought to our work here at Our Savior’s.

God showered Marsha with an abundance of God moments the past few months of her life. Among the most delightful was being able to reach out and reconnect with Kevin… a dear friend. Sit down with Pat and Cathy sometime and let them tell you of all the God-moments.

And here’s a God Moment for you: that she wrote those words on the coloring book page 20, that quotes from 1 John 4:16… “God is love.” Marsha’s witness to us will be that truth: God is love… and she abided in that love. Marsha has been baptized into the body of Christ and has been promised the same resurrection life our Lord Jesus lives. Because God is love… our sister has been promised a future beyond what we see here.

But also, because this is Marsha, I cannot conclude this message with just that. Marsha’s ability to wonder took her in so many directions. I must conclude with our own dear sister’s thoughts… quotes from sources as diverse  as Henry Ford, The Apocrypha, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and a dog.

“Just when the caterpillar thought its world was over, it became a butterfly.” - Unknown

“Consult not your fears, but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but what it is still possible for you to do.” - Pope John XXIII

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” - Mark Twain

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” - Henry Ford

“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” - Francis of Assisi

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Example is leadership.” - Albert Schweitzer

Monday Sept. 26, 2016; 6:30am exactly; the DeWitt’s dog, Admiral Buddy puts his nose to Marsha’s door: “Follow me human, the day has begun.”

“Do not give yourself over to sorrow, and do not distress yourself deliberately. A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span.” - Sirach 30:21-22

Rejoice always, dear Marsha.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

You Might As Well Stop Breathing

What's this all about... this church thing? Really, what difference does Easter make? I wonder how many have pondered those questions as they considered whether or not to skip church services on Easter Sunday.

What's this Bible thing all about, as well? Here it's the best selling book of all time, but really what difference does it make for my life? It's full of all those old-fashioned stories, why was it even created? And what about the Gospel of John? It's several pages telling about the life and ministry of Jesus. What are we supposed to get from that?

For many of these questions there are no simple, easy answers. But when it comes to The Gospel of John, we do have an answer. It's included right in the text. The author lets us know what is the whole purpose of this book and these stories.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. - John 20:30-31

The purpose of John's Gospel is to lead the readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. That's what it exists for: to BELIEVE. The Gospel succeeds if when we are finished reading it, we believe in Jesus Christ.

But it doesn't end there. It's not enough that we believe... what's then important is what this belief opens up for us. To believe in Jesus as Messiah... To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to open up for yourself LIFE IN HIS NAME. It is the desire of God, the Creator and Master of the whole universe, that you... that we all... have LIFE. This stems from God's deep love for us and for the world. Which, of course is told to us famously in John's Gospel (John 3:16). God, who loves you, is God who is intimately interested in every aspect of your life. God, who loves you, gives us a Savior in Jesus, the Son of God, so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10), eternal life, LIFE!

The purpose of John's Gospel, The Scriptures, Easter Sunday, and the Church is so that we might have life in Christ's name.

In John 20 this truth is pointed out to us so wonderfully when the resurrected Jesus appears with his disciples the night after the morning it was discovered that Jesus' tomb was empty. The disciples heard about Mary Magdalene's encounter. They heard from Peter and the "beloved disciple" and now they are gathered together, still terrified. Jesus appears with a greeting of peace: "Peace be with you." Remember, God desires life, peace and hope for these faithful (and actually not all that faithful) followers. God knows they need life... Jesus desires in the depths of his heart that they have life... and so he breathes on them.

At this moment we are taken way back to the beginning of the Bible, to the creation stories of Genesis. In Genesis 2, God creates the first human out of the clay, dirt and mud. He forms the human, we know as Adam, like a master artist. There the earthling is... gorgeous... and dead. Like a statue or a big doll, I guess. But God desires to give life to that which he created. He breathes into the nostrils of the human the breath of life, and now that which was dead, is now alive.

As the disciples gathered in that room in Jerusalem, the evening after the first Easter, they were as dead as the earthling made of clay. Without Christ, and a living faith in Christ, they might as well be dirt. But, Jesus breathed into them... deep into them... into the depths of their souls. They were now alive: "Receive the Holy Spirit." Praise be to God.

But not everyone was in that room. Thomas had other commitments, I guess. Maybe like so many on Easter Sunday, he wondered: "Why should I bother?" I can just picture some of the disciples running into Thomas a day or so later. "Oh, Thomas, you have no idea what you missed!!!!" We know Thomas' response: "Unless I see this... Unless I touch that... Unless... Unless... Unless. You know what: I'm no going to believe."

For a follower of Jesus to choose to not believe is on par with us choosing to not breathe. How far are you going to get if that's the decision you make? You know, I'm tired of this whole breathing thing. I'm sick of the in and out of the lungs. I quit. I'm not breathing any more. Hmmm... Not a very wise decision is it? After all, God has given us all the air we need in the room your in, in the atmosphere that surrounds us. All you got to do is breath, to receive it's benefits. So breathe, already.

When followers of Jesus stop believing they stop breathing. And just as God has provided us with the air we need to live physically, as long as we breathe, so too is the God of the Universe who is intimately involved with every aspect of your life providing you with grace and life. It's everywhere. God's grace is being poured into you, whether you like it or not. Living out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit dwells within you and is always ready to guide and provide. So breathe... so believe... so be.

When we encounter the words of Scripture and the gifts of the sacraments we are breathing in this grace of God. When we participate in worship and look to serve, we breathe in what God is graciously giving us. But really, the very best thing you can do is a practice that puts the breaks on the crazy busyness of life that takes your breath away. This practice opens up your lungs, your heart and your soul to take a deep breath and just eat up all that grace God is providing you with: It's called the Practice of Slowing.

Dallas Willard couldn't express is any more strongly, for he felt that the very first thing a follower of Jesus needs as he or she seeks to encounter God is to "ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." Hurry suffocates our souls. It fools us into trusting ourselves over God. We stop breathing and we stop believing. But when we take time to slow down and to pray... then we are taking a deep, nourishing breath... then we take in what God is blessing us with.

The Lord has breathed life into you. God's breath surrounds you and it's ready to give you all that you need. As you slow down, pray and contemplate the grace of God in Christ, you will believe and you will have life in his name. Take a deep breath... and know that God is with you.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11: How The World Has Changed.

From 1988... My, how the world has changed.
Today being the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our country, I have been doing some reminiscing, some praying, and seeking some guidance about how God is calling us to move ahead.

My twins were born four days before 9/11. We were still in the hospital with them that morning because Grant had jaundice and needed to be under the bili lights. The concerns that Valerie and I had as new parents were compounded on September 11.  We were mesmerized by the events on the TV and devastated. While work places and schools shut down all around the country, the people at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland remained their professional selves. It was wonderful to see. I thought my trip to New York in 1999 and the photo of me from that trip with the twin towers just behind. It was still hanging on the wall at home. I thought of my brother and his wife who just moved to Manhattan because she was starting graduate work at Columbia University. I thought about the world that my four-day old children were inheriting.

It's been a difficult fifteen years...  Yes, fifteen years without a terrorist attack of the magnitude of 9/11, but yet fifteen years of perpetual war, of mass-shootings, of global acts of terrorism, of chaos and fear. I pray for our world and for all who suffer. I pray that God might change the hearts of those who would seek to express their frustrations through hate and violence. I pray for peace.

God's call for us remains unchanged. We are called to be students of Jesus. We are called to repent and be transformed my grace. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ, pointing the world toward the Kingdom of God, which is at hand.

Jesus teaches us important lessons about how the Kingdom of God contrasts with this worldly kingdom. He warns us that it's easy to fall for the lies that move our hearts to strike back with force when we are wronged. Jesus teaches us that there is a different way to live: it is a way of hope, of peace, of real power.

Matthew's Gospel draws clearly the contrast between worldly priorities and character against the priorities and power of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus faces worldly power head on when he is betrayed, arrested, put on trial and crucified. He faces the worst that the world can dish out. He teaches Peter and all of us students of Jesus a lesson through his actions when he was arrested. At the moment Jesus is arrested, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest's slave. Jesus responds this way: "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way? (Matthew 26:52-54)"

Christians will forever ponder the question of how we are to ethically respond to violence. We must continue to ponder. The past fifteen years have been a lesson in responding to violence and the use of power. What have we learned? What is Jesus calling us to do now?

Friday, July 08, 2016

A Vision and Hearing Crisis

The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America responded to yesterday's news of more killings that touch the exposed nerves of our nation by boldly saying: "We are killing ourselves." After an African-American man is killed in Minnesota in the midst of a routine traffic stop and five police officers are killed in the middle of a protest in Texas, Bishop Eaton cries out in lament, pointing toward the truth: "We're killing ourselves."

She then goes on to lift up the words of good news Jesus shares when he speaks at the synagogue in Nazareth, as shared in Luke 4. "'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...' Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Humanity lives with a vision and hearing crisis. The reality of sin serves as a cataract, shielding us from recognizing the kingdom of God which is at hand. Sin is preventing us from seeing it's very real presence among us. Jesus says that scripture is fulfilled in our hearing... but are we hearing? Do we hear and embrace the truth which Jesus has proclaimed and has come to establish?

We all know very well the eye-opening story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, but do we know that this teaching-moment story is shared within the context of the vision and hearing crisis humanity faces? Luke lays out this truth just prior to the parable in Luke 10:17-24. Jesus has just heard how even the demons submitted to the seventy followers he sent out. After they returned to him, Jesus was delighted to recognize within the hearts of those followers a faithfulness that allowed them to live into the kingdom of God reality. They watched, first hand, the lies of wickedness wilt right in front of them.

Jesus rejoices saying: "I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will... Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (Luke 10:21, 23b-24)."

See... a vision and hearing crisis! Without a living faith we do not see what the Lord sees. Without a living faith, we do not hear what the Lord hears. The Seventy that Jesus sent out believed: and Satan fell. Many have desired to have such vision, but having your eyes and ears opened takes faith, obedience, and an understanding that the way of Jesus Christ changes you completely.

The lawyer who approaches Jesus with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" doesn't see it. He knows the law. He understands the words... he's memorized the words... but he doesn't know what they actually do for the soul. For these are words that cleanse us completely and move us to love God and love our neighbor completely. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." The lawyer knows the words... he doesn't know the life.  Jesus says "Yes... Do this and you will live."

Well, how do you do this? How do you do this? Answer: Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus has given us a model, hasn't he? This is how you do this. Help people. Right?

Just last week I had the chance to throw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game. For a lifelong baseball fan like myself, it was a very cool moment. Problem is that I really haven't thrown a baseball all that much for years. Guess what happened when I got to the pitchers mound and took a look at the catcher squatting down behind home plate with his mitt open to give me a good target? I did what I had seen so many big league pitchers do. I stared ahead, went into the windup, and threw a fastball... that didn't even make to the plate. Bounce. There's my first-pitch experience.

Now I could have watched video recordings of Nolan Ryan and Jake Arrieta and Chris Sale until their images were burned into my corneas, and never have gotten to the point where I could throw a fastball. To pitch a baseball takes more than watching some guy... and becoming merciful, as Christ instructs us to do, takes more than just copying some Good Samaritan.

How many years of training did it take for Jake Arrieta to pitch that well? How long had the Good Samaritan been engaged in faithful living, in order for him to have his eyes and hears wide open on that day along the road to Jericho?

The Levite and priest in the story suffer from humanity's vision and hearing crisis. They don't see the man.... not really. They don't see or hear who this man really is... nor are their eyes open to what a living faith would naturally move them to do. They are blind and truth has been clouded. They walk on, enslaved by the world's wicked lies.

The Samaritan has been freed from those lies. He knows how the demons wilt in the face of God's Kingdom. He sees. He hears. He lives in the same freedom the Seventy we given. He lives in the same abundant life that all of us are free to live into if we allow ourselves to be fully transformed inside and out.

We can come back to this parable over and over and over again until its burned within our brains and never become like the Samaritan. No, Christ is not calling on us to help people... to then only allow the pressures of commitments and schedules and fear and everything else lead us to that oh so familiar corner of failure. No.

Christ is not calling us to help people, but to be TRANSFORMED into followers who reach out to help people from the depths of our character and being... who reach out to help people because its as natural as breathing. Christ is calling upon us to no longer be overwhelmed by the vision of and hearing crisis humanity faces, but to grow into followers who most definitely see and hear the presence of God and live into the that Kingdom of God which is indeed at hand.

It's not just about helping people, it's about loving the Lord your God will all your heart and it's about loving your neighbor as yourself because you know to the depth of your soul that you belong to God. It is about becoming a merciful person who can really do no other... because it's who you are.

I am grateful for Bishop Eaton's words to the church and to the nation. We have a vision and hearing problem. As we live into our faith in Jesus Christ, suddenly the kingdom of God comes into focus. You recognize God's presence, experience God Moments, and witness to the kingdom of God at hand. As our spiritual vision and hearing graciously improves we live out our faith and no longer see our neighbor through the tinted glasses of wicked lies. We see the truth: our neighbor is a human being. Our neighbors have been created by God, flawed, yes, but forgiven... Just as you and I are.