Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Merry Little Christmas NOW

One of my favorite Christmas memories growing up is of my grandparents and aunt coming to visit every year from Wisconsin. When they arrived it was like Santa arrived. There were smiles and laughter and lots and lots of presents to unload from the car.

Every year, while they were with us, my grandfather would take a spontaneous moment to sing some songs: usually in German. The sounds of my grandfather singing "O Tannenbaum" still ring in my ear at Christmas, even though hes been gone for 16 years. I miss those times.

I'm not the only one, I'm sure, who gets all nostalgic at Christmas time. It's almost a requirement for the season. It's why the radio is filled with holiday songs from generations past. Do people know that Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole sang more than Christmas songs? Would they be surprised to hear their songs still being played religiously over the radio in 2008? They are the soundtrack of the season... every year... year after year.

As timeless as Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra may seem to be, however, the story of Jesus' birth from Luke even predates them. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Angels proclaim the good news to shepherds. Heavenly Host sing: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" The promised Messiah has been born. God is acting to unfold his Kingdom and change the world forever. Hallelujah! Yes this is reason to celebrate.

But many find it difficult to celebrate the birth of Christ this year. Many have lost their jobs and homes. Our nation faces a future of possible economic disaster. Christmas just isn't the way it used to be. People miss their lost loved ones. They mourn the simple joys of the past and feel over scheduled and overwhelmed trying to direct a Christmas extravaganza for their families that is destined to flop.

One of the secular songs of our Christmas sound track really spoke to me this month. It's message touched my heart. We know the Frank Sinatra version best, but it was Judy Garland who first sang the song in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. The song is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." Sinatra had the lyrics changed to cheer it up a bit when he sang the version that gets played over and over, but Hugh Martins' lyrics sung by Garland are truer to the spirit of our times.

In the movie Garland's character sings the song to her seven-year-old sister. They are both sad because they might be leaving their home to move away from their friends right before Christmas. Garland encourages her to have a merry little Christmas because next year all their troubles will be out of sight. The last lines are the most moving: "Someday soon we all will be together/if the fates allow. Until then we'll just have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

While not intended these words had an even greater meaning for those who had loved ones serving in the military in 1944. Judy Garland brought American troops to tears singing this song. They didn't know what tomorrow would bring. They hoped next year the war would would be over... but what if it wasn't? What if there is no tomorrow for me? I guess we better muddle through... somehow. Let us have a merry little Christmas now.

After all... it is the birth of Christ that brings us hope in the face of uncertain times. Our future with the Lord is assured. The Messiah has come to bring salvation to all people. He is the Prince of Peace. War will cease and peace will reign. This is the gift of Jesus for the world.

The gift of Jesus for you is faith. You can stand up to your fears for you are empowered by Christ. You can be strong... because Jesus walks with you. You can muddle through with a smile on our face and warmth in your heart. Oh yes indeed... we can... and we will... have a merry little Christmas Now!

Glory to God in highest! Peace on Earth! Good will to all!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Graft

Before Israel had kings in the Old Testament they were a collection of tribes who would call a "judge" to lead them all only in times of crisis. Over time, however, Israel saw how many of their neighbors had kings and how successful their neighbors were. It seemed any successful "modern" nation would certainly be led by a king. So Israel demanded a king. Elders approached the prophet Samuel with their demands. Samuel warned them of the dangers of having a human king, but they did not change their tune: God did "bless" Israel with a king. This was Samuel's warning:

"This is the way the kind of king you're talking about operates. He'll take your sons and make soldiers of them - chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He'll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He'll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He'll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He'll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he'll take for his own use. He'll lay a tax on your flocks and you'll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don't expect God to answer (1 Samuel 8:11-18, The Message translation)."

The people still wanted a king, even after Samuel's warning. It's a good thing we don't have any kings in the United States or the State of Illinois.

Praise be to Christ: our Lord and King.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thank You, God, For My Shoes


The words of Martin Luther get me in the right frame-of-mind for Thanksgiving:

"I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property - along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. God does all this out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true." - Luther, from The Small Catechism.

Why do I dwell on the things I want? Why do I make lists about the things I don't have? Why do I envy the things others have?

Thanksgiving reminds me to think about what God has blessed me with. Thanksgiving reminds me that I have so much. Thanksgiving reminds me that the Lord is source of everything I have.

God provides us with all that we need every day. It's more than money. It's more than stuff. But God even gives us those things as well. Everyday should be Thanksgiving. Thank you, God, for my shoes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Synecdoche

All the world's a stage, and we are but the directors. (Shakespeare... kinda)

I have always been a fan of Roger Ebert, the movie critic. Lately he has been expressing great praise for the Charlie Kaufman movie Synecdoche, New York. I have no idea when I'll get the chance to see the movie, but Ebert's review, and subsequent expanded thoughts which he expressed via his blog, have my mind spinning. In his movie, Kaufman tackles a subject common in his films: the mind. According to Ebert, Kaufman depicts on the screen the very real struggle that all humans engage in daily to control (or direct) the people and world around them. It's a struggle that becomes more frustrating the more you engage in it.

Ebert composes a "parable" to try explain his thoughts: "The lodestars of John Doe's life are his wife, his children, his boss, his mistress, and his pastor. There are more, but these will do. He expects his wife to be grateful for his loyalty. His children to accept him as a mentor. His boss to value him as a worker. His mistress to praise him as a sex machine. His pastor to note his devotion. These are the roles he has assigned them, and for the most part they play them.

"In their own lives, his wife feels he has been over-rewarded for his loyalty, since she has done all the heavy lifting. His children don't understand why there are so many stupid rules. His boss considers John Doe as downsizable, and fears he may also get the axe. His mistress asks herself why she doesn't dump this creep and find an availableman. His pastor has a pretty good idea what goes on during the other six days of the week ("Roger Ebert's Journal," posted 11/10/08)."

Ebert, and apparently Kaufman with Synecdoche, are on to something that's as old as sin. In Genesis the advent of sin is described as humans' attempt to be like God. God is the director, but we aspire to be directors ourselves. We want to control our lives. This of course means controlling the people in our lives. They are the actors, as Shakespeare puts it. How many mother's are disappointed with their distant "selfish" adult children? How many merrymakers will fail this December at creating a Christmas spectacle because the characters who play "family" won't play their roles correctly?

When people don't act as we desire (and they never will) our quest to direct our world becomes an act of frustration. We become bitter. There is a reason so many people find peace and God while they are alone in the woods... trees take direction a whole lot better than people. Family, friendships and Christian community disappoint us far too much. We just can't control them. And so the futile play goes on. Lost in all this is the liberating truth that life is a gift and it unfolds wonderfully before our eyes every day as a gift. Selfcenteredness is the heaviest set of chains we allow to weigh on our souls.

Again, let me lift up Christmas as an example of this sinfulness. In the play John Doe direct in his mind about his perfect Christmas he will struggle to pick out the perfect card to send his actors and compose the most cleaver Christmas letter. He will buy gifts for the actors and attend events that fit his ideal vision of Christmas. He'll watch Food Network to prepare prefect meals for the 4 or 5 "family" and "business" get-togethers that are scheduled throughout the month. Of course, not to forget the reason for the season, arrangements will be made to attend a Christmas service at Grandma's church.

When December comes to an end John Doe is left both frustrated and in despair. "Why didn't Jane send me a card?" "Mike is such a jerk, he didn't appreciate my gift." "I can't stand that Lilly didn't come to the Festival with Lights with us." "Did you see how Jimmy and Mary acted at Christmas dinner?" "What a selfish p*** my brother is for not stopping by this year." "Why don't they sing any good Christmas carols at church anymore?" "How am I going to pay off these credit cards?"

Lost in this December song-and-dance is the gift of a Messiah for humanity; the message of Emmanuel, God with us; and the word of grace that our sins are forgiven. We miss the true Christmas gift that's available to the whole world when we instead seek to direct and control the world around us. The gospel truth is that through Christ we are free to embrace both the blessings of God's love and the meaning found in God's call for us to love others just to love them.

Christ is the answer to our ancient "synechoche" sin of desiring complete control. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his masterpiece Life Together warns us of the danger of playing the frustrated director of our own lives. He compares the spiritual love we are called to have for others through Christ with the self-centered "emotional" love that loves in order to receive payback. He writes that self-centered love "loves [others], not as free persons, but as those whom it binds to itself. It wants to do everything it can to win and conquer; it puts pressure on the other person. It desires to be irresistible, to dominate. Self-centered love does not think much of truth. It makes truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the person loved. Emotional, self-centered love desires other persons, their company. It wants them to return its love, but it does not serve them. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving (Life Together, p. 42)."

I've always known that Mark 8:34-35 is a call to liberation through discipleship and not a burden. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Jesus puts it another way in Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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." Yes, I've heard this before, but thanks to Shakespeare, Kaufman and Ebert I see this selfish sinfulness in a fresh way. It's time to give up our director's chair.

Friday, November 07, 2008

That's all I want.

Theologians have been debating the connection between faith and deeds for a long time. Lutherans rightly believe that humans are justified by grace through faith in Christ. It's dangerous to take that to an extreme however. If we believe that faith and deeds are not connected we might say through our actions that faith is good and deeds are bad. A poor Lutheran joke has a proud "faith alone" Lutheran telling someone: "Yes I've been saved by my faith alone, and to prove it I've made sure to never perform a good deed in my life."

A careful study of Paul's Letter to the Romans reveals that faith and deeds work together. He could not have imagined separating the two. Your faith must move you to action. Your actions must be a reflection of faith. Without actions you are not faithful. Without faith your actions are insincere.

This was a problem 2,750 years ago in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The people excelled at acting "faithful." They went to the temple, make their sacrifices and received help from the priests. This is what they thought God wanted from them. In the mean time they oppressed the poor and ignored those in need.

The prophet Amos was called by God to express God's anger to the leaders of Israel. They would be punished for the injustices they committed. It's not a pleasant message.

We can learn from Israel's mistakes. Living by faith we are called to act. Yes we act through worship, prayer, study and service... but that's only the beginning. God demands we speak out against injustice. God empowers us to stand against oppressors. The Spirit moves us to walk with our hurting neighbors. Be careful not to get comfortable with your regular routines. When you worship... do it sincerely from your heart. When you give money... do it out of thankfulness. When you help others... do it out of love.

The Message translation makes Amos' words hit home: "I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice - oceans of it. I want fairness - rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want." (Amos 5:21-24)

This is a healthy reminder. Yeah Amos puts it pretty strongly, but we need to hear it. Faith and deeds work together for disciples of Christ, therefore when we have religious meetings they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. When we organize conferences and conventions they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. When we plan religious projects and create slogans and goals they better be for the purpose of serving Christ and loving neighbor. Fund-raising schemes? Just who are you raising money for? Public relations? Image creation? Noisy ego-music? How we live, what we say and what we sing better be for the Lord and for the purpose of bringing the light of Christ's gospel to ALL people. After all:

That's what I want. That's all that I want.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Voted Today

I voted today.

I voted today as an American and parent. I voted today as a concerned citizen. I voted today as a person who loves his country. I voted today disappointed with the way government is working. I voted today with hopes for the future and dreams for a better tomorrow. I voted today to send a message. I voted today as a refection of my values. I voted today as a Christian.

Yes some of these reasons for voting may sound conflicted but they are all a refection of myself. I bring to the voting booth my years of experience and memories. I bring to my selections my faith in Christ and my calling to discipleship. I am Tony standing there casting my vote.

It's not an easy vote to cast. While this election for president may seem "black and white" on the surface... it's not. No candidate reflects all of my values or my dreams. No candidate is a perfect match for what is important to me. No candidate has a lock on the Christian vote. No party is a perfect match for discipleship.

These are facts that might disappoint some... but for me they are liberating. Standing outside the system I am free to call out for justice and speak against those in power. Standing with the gospel I am free to support people from all walks of life. Casting my vote as a reflection of my faith, first, I am free to stand against the wickedness of any party or political machine.

Therefore, I voted today and will vote again the next time around.

"Do you know what I want? I want justice - oceans of it. I want fairness - rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want (Amos 5:24, The Message translation)."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Made Free

Atheists in London, England have begun a campaign of sharing their views to the public through the use of advertising on the side of those cute, red, double-decker buses. Their message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." I find their message odd and not just because I believe there is God. Nor do I find it odd because atheists are expressing themselves... go right ahead. What I find odd is that they seem to assume that the opposite is true if there is a God. If there is a God then you should be worrying and should not enjoy life.

The message of Christianity is not to stop enjoying life or to worry. Actually the Christian message is one of liberation. It's bus slogan should be: "God is love. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life through loving others." But somehow that message has been missed.

"Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:31-32).'" There is liberation in the Christian message. It is not a message of worry. It is not a message of misery. Now when an atheist says "enjoy life" my first thought is that he/she may mean having a lot of stuff and doing fun things and thinking primarily of yourself. But that doesn't necessarily need to be the case. But I do know that the Christian gospel reveals to us that real enjoyment in life comes through love of others... not stuff or selfishness. Experience tells most people that this is indeed truth.

But what about this worry stuff? Being created by a loving God, who offers us salvation through the Messiah is the biggest release from worry humans have ever been given. If there is no God, as the atheists profess, then its time to worry because it means "dog-eat-dog" laws of nature are what life is all about and it's "every man for himself."

Wonderfully God provides for our needs and calls us to be bold in finding the deep, wonderful meaning in life that comes through love and service. Through faith you know the truth, and the truth has made you free. If this gospel of Christ is still hidden from the public then its about time we buy some advertising space on the side of buses and loudly proclaim:

Christ frees you from sin and death. Now stop worrying and enjoy life by loving others.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

I Regard Them as Rubbish

If anyone else had reason to be confident in winning it all in 2008, the Cubs had more: best record in the National League, home field advantage at Wrigley Field, with all those fans; a team of destiny; as for their pitching, some of the best; as for hitting, power up and down the lineup; as for beating any curses with interfaith blessings, covered. Yet whatever gains they made, this morning we can all regard them as loss because of the Dodgers. (Based on Philippians 3:4b-8)

They thought they had all their bases covered. "It's going to happen" actually meant something. This year they did have the power and the speed: It didn't just sound good in a song. They also had the pitching: A starter who pitched a no-hitter; another from Oakland who was lights out; and a former mediocre closer now pitching like Cy Young. And topping all of that, this year the Cubs were not going to let any curses stop them.

Oh yes the Cub curses: Billy Goat, Black Cat, and Bartman. The Bartman ball has been blown into smithereens. Goats are always welcome at Wrigley now. Shea Stadium, home of the Black Cat, has hosted its last baseball game. But that wasn't enough, Cubs Chairman Crane Kenney even brought in his friend Rev. James Greanias to perform a blessing of the Cubs dugout before the first game of the NLDS against the Dodgers this past Wednesday. Now they have all their bases covered, right? They certainly have earned their way into baseball heaven now, right? Hmmmmm...

Before he knew Christ the Apostle Paul thought he had all his bases covered too. He was a Pharisee all-star. He was born in the right family. He persecuted the right people. He followed God's law to the letter. Surely he was righteous in God's eye. Ahhhh... But learning about the gospel of Jesus Christ taught him that he was all wrong. Righteous is not found through a process of making sure you doing all things correctly, but actually righteous comes throug faith alone. All things that were so important to him before were now exposes as mere trash... rubbish... because they distracted him from what really mattered. The way we was before he neither loved God nor his neighbor as himself... He simply loved himself.

When Cubs manager Lou Piniella heard from reporters that a priest had be brought in to bless the Cubs' dugout he was confused. He doesn't believe in the cruses and would not want to acknowledge the mythical Cubs curses through another dumb stunt. He wisely said, "God doesn't care about a baseball game. But, you know, this thing here about the holy water, I didn't have anything to do with it. I didn't even know about [the curse removal]. No, I wouldn't do that... There's no curses here."

I have no idea if Lou is a man of faith or not... But I'm certain that he and Paul would get along real well. God does not care about baseball. And I don't expect that God would grant a stunt like pouring "holy water" all over Wrigley with his blessing. Over and over again in the Old Testament God reveals that he takes no delight in sacrifices, but instead desires people's hearts... hearts that are faithful... hearts that obey him.

So now, as we press on in our lives of faith, lets learn a thing or two from both Paul and Lou. From Lou, let's remember to keep our priorities straight and never for one second let the popular opinions of the masses convince us that God actual cares about baseball champions.

And from Paul lets remember what our goal is as we live this life of faith: that is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. There is nothing we can do and there are no bases that need to be covered in order for us to gain salvation because Christ Jesus has already made us his own. Therefore how we live our lives now is a response to that gift. We live by faith.

After losing the first two games of their five game series with Los Angeles someone realized that a base was left uncovered in the curse fighting front. A Catholic blessing was not enough. So on Saturday about a 100 Muslims gathered outside of Wrigley Field to pray for Allah to change the team's dim fortunes. An Islamic scholar was asked what he thought of such an event, and he responded by saying that seeking Allah's intervention is usually reserved for serious concerns such as bringing rain to a drought, "Usually Muslims do not do that for things which are, I would say, morally neutral, and which do not have any element of human suffering."

Ah yes... rubbish indeed. It's enough to turn someone into Cardinals fan. Pushing aside those distractions let's "press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14)." Let's find meaning in our lives through faith and not through rubbish.

Monday, September 29, 2008

God Reigns

The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, "Alas, alas, great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! -Revelation 18:15-17a

I believe that God reigns as the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Anything and everything else in all creation is secondary to God.

I also believe that in the history of the world, and in particular the history of the United States, a free market and free exchange of money has led to many wonderful blessings. Money and markets have fed millions of people, provided clothing and shelter, given security and safety, and brought peace and hope to so many of our brothers and sisters. But money and free-markets are not God. We must not worship money and markets. While they have been marvelous tools for good, we cannot find ultimate hope in money or markets. They will fail us eventually. Unfortunately the world is facing such a failure today in the current economic crisis.

It is my prayer that a solution for this crisis can be found, whether it be political, financial, or both. More people will be helped and kept safe if the markets can stabilize than if the whole thing crashes and burns.

But because money and free-markets are not God there is a chance that the whole thing could very well crash and burn. Ultimate hope and safety is found only in God. People who put their faith in money and markets will always be disappointed in the end. We see examples of this in Revelation, not because John the Seer is predicting 2008, but because John is pointing out what has been true throughout history: People have always been putting their faith in stuff instead of in God. In Revelation "Babylon" represents the Roman Empire, which itself represents any "thing" that pretends to be the ultimate power in the universe. "Babylon" is Sin and Death's beast. It lies to us. It pulls us away from faith in God. The beast convinces us that there is no power greater than it. Most of my fellow Americans have believed that money and free-markets are the most powerful forces in the world. My faith in God tells me that is a lie.

The current crisis screams at us that we have been believing a lie. If we thought our livelihoods were secure because of our money investments and economy we believed a lie. The truth is that the Lord is our rock and salvation, not money and free-markets. Unfortunately, however, we have lived our lives too often as if money and markets were our rock and salvation. In Revelation 18 the nations who had been suckered into believing the lie of "Babylon's" great power realize the truth like America is realizing the truth today. The nations in Revelation lament their choices and mourn the loss of everything that once was so important to them.

I have read articles and columnists today who sincerely believe our nation will never be the same after the events of the past few weeks. Our faith in free-markets, Wall Street, and businesses may be strained for generations. That very well may be the case, I don't know, but I do hope that this may be an opportunity for Christians everywhere put our faith back to where it should always have been: in Christ. May this also be an opportunity for us Christians to change from greedy ways and instead use our money always as a reflection of our faith. May we all become diligent in using the stuff called money to love our neighbor, serve those in need, help the poor, and be the light of Christ's gospel of the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My Seven Favorite Images From Revelation

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, speaks to Christians struggling to live faithfully in the face of societal pressures pulling them way from God. Using hundreds of images from the Old Testament, John the Seer describes as best he can the divine visions given to him while he was exiled on the Island of Patmos. Through symbolism, allegory, metaphors and layers of meaning John proclaims boldly that God rules and overrules in the affairs of humankind. These seven important images from Revelation help me remember that God wins!

7. The Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Messiah
Revelation 11:15-19
The kingdom of the world has become God's Kingdom: a Kingdom of justice and wrath. Those who choose not to serve God will suffer because of their choice. In verse 19 we are given an image reminiscent to the description of the events immediately following Jesus' death on the cross in Luke. Here, wonderfully, the temple "was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen..." Nothing separates God from his people.

6. Two Harvests
Revelation 14:14-20
In Revelation John describes two harvests. It's different from the harvest parables in the Gospels because there is no separation between good grain and weeds. First the "Son of Man" harvests all the "grain" on earth. In the second harvest an angel uses a sickle to collect "the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." All of the grapes must go through the "wine press of God's wrath" located outside the city. The grain and grapes symbolize people and all people, sinners that we are, will suffer the consequences of poor choices. But through the blood of the Lamb, shed outside the city, there is hope. The image in verse 20 of a river of blood 200 miles long coming from the press is quite disturbing, but this horror movie description is actually meant to point to the power of Christ's cross and the blood he shed for us "over ripe grapes" on that cross.

5. Nations Lament
Revelation 18
For as long as there has been sin, death, evil, and the devil people have been tricked into turning from God and believing the devil's lies. The nations discovered earlier in Revelation 17 that they had been deceived all this time by "Babylon" (which represents Rome, or to a greater extent sin, death and the devil). They now know that all that was so important to them was just a lie... but even so they lament the loss of things they once held dear. (Does this sound like Wall Street today?)

4. The Dragon
Revelation 12
The either cartoonish or sinister way the devil has been depicted in culture has always seemed like a joke to me. It's led me to keep my focus on Christ and his Gospel and not talk about some goofy devil. Revelation has changed that for me. In Revelation John the Seer uses the image of a dragon to symbolize the devil, sin, and death. The dragon pursues symbols of Christ and Israel and fails. He is defeated and banished from heaven and though his time is short he continues to lash out, seeking to destroy the woman's children, which symbolizes followers of Jesus. How true it is that sin tempts us and lies to us in order to pull us away from faith. A dragon, whose is on his last breath, is in hot pursuit. This makes a lot of sense to me. It helps me name the forces of sin that have an effect on my life.

3. New Jerusalem
Revelation 21
In his last vision of the end John describes a Holy City descending from Heaven. God now dwells among mortals. There is no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain. The age of the dragon is over. No one will tempt you to sin. No one can turn you from God ever again. This is God's new creation. "See, I am making all things new." says the voice of God from the throne. He has transformed us into his new creation.

2. Great Multitude
Revelation 7:9-17
So often one's vision of the end is peppered with thoughts of who's in and who's out. We might ask ourselves if we are good enough to "go to heaven." Is anyone good enough? John gives us an image early in Revelation of a "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" standing before the throne of God in heaven. Wow, that's quite a group. These are believers robbed in white and are a greater crowd of people than John could comprehend or imagine. So who's in? Boy, its A LOT of PEOPLE.

1. Eden Restored
Revelation 22:1-7
Genesis begins with a description of how people got into this mess of sin. It involved a man and a woman, a serpent tempter, fruit from a tree, and broken boundaries between God and creature. The dragon has been on the loose ever since then. Revelation ends with a description of the end of sin and death. It is finished. So within the Holy City the brokenness of Eden is make whole again. The tree of life is there by a river of life-giving water. It bears 12 types of fruit monthly and the tree's leaves bring healing to the nations; the same nations that lamented the defeat of "Babylon." There is healing, forgiveness, and new creation here. Best of all... you can eat all the fruit you want. Eden is restored! Praise be to God!

Friday, September 19, 2008

October Surprise

Now that September is winding down the pennant races in Major League Baseball are coming to some sort of conclusion. My hometown team, the Brewers, have choked. At one point they were locks to make the postseason, now they are locks for an early vacation. The Cubs are on the verge of clinching their second straight division title and the White Sox are ready rap up their place in the playoffs soon. What happens next is any one's guess however.

October is full of surprises. The phrase "October surprise" comes from the realm of politics. The Democrats and Republicans hold their "hands" close to the vest for much of an election year waiting for the last weeks of the campaign to play their aces so that the "surprises" they hold will have the most impact on the voters. I'm sure there will be a surprise or two about Senators McCain and Obama revealed next month.

In baseball the October surprise often comes in the form of a Cinderella team making waves out of no where. Just when everyone is talking about the Cubs, Angels and Red Sox it is the Rays or the Dodgers who win it all. Last year Arizona pulled off such a surprise on the Cubs. Pessimistic Cubs fans are convinced that it will happen again.

But maybe the biggest October surprise we can experience this fall will come from our Lord Jesus Christ. Wonderfully in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard Jesus tells us about a land owner who hired workers to work his vineyard. He promises to give them the fair daily wage for their work. Later in the day he hires more workers. Still there is not enough workers so even when there is only one more hour of daylight he hires even more harvest his grapes. When the work is over he gives every single worker the same amount of pay: the fair amount for a day's work. Those who worked the whole day are furious. "How dare he! It's not fair that those who worked only an hour get the same pay as they got!" There's your October surprise. The owner is generous. He is fair to the workers who worked all day and merciful to those who worked only an hour. All receive the same. God love for his children is the same for all.

So how do you respond to God's October surprise? Do you cry out "It's not fair?" Does it anger you? Have you convinced yourself that you deserve "the championship" because you're better than others? Truly, deep down in your heart, you know through the Spirit that such feelings are wrong. The generosity of God is to be celebrated and not scorned.

But sin leads you to ask: "Why should I toil in the vineyard all day then?" Ahhh... The truth is that service in God's name is a joy and not toil. Working in God's presence and in God's vineyard brings meaning to your life. Those who wait in nothingness don't experience such satisfaction and joy until God brings them into the vineyard to work for their hour. Grace is not an excuse to be faithless. Grace is a gift to be both treasured and shared.

Look for God's October surprises... even now in September. (An October surprise in September? Now that's surprising.) And as you encounter them don't fall into the trap seven-year-olds fall into. Don't cry out "It's not fair!" Instead cry "Thanks be to God!" All are welcome in the vineyard of the Lord... where the wages are fair and the cup of mercy overflows.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Power of the Cross

What is power?

Does power come from weapons? Some believe they gain power and respect with a gun in their hands. Are we only a powerful nation because we have largest military in the world? Does our power come from our weapons? Others say money is the source of power in the world. In the coming century it may be that the might of trillion dollar corporations will out weigh the power of a nation with a large military. In the United States we would like to think power comes from the people. We, the people, elect our leaders. We will choose who will be our president. We will choose who will pass laws and run our government. That's power.

Power found from weapons, money and politics goes back centuries. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great used all three to gain tremendous power. He was the first Christian Emperor and gave credit for his pivotal military victory at Milvian Bridge to Christ because of an epiphany he had the night prior. A cross appeared in a vision and a voice saying in Greek: "In this sign, you shall conquer." Constantine found great power in this "cross" and later in life became a Christian. A decade after this battle Constantine's mother Helen went to Jerusalem to see some of the sights of Jesus' ministry. Guess what she found. Miraculously she found the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Soon pieces of that True Cross spread throughout Christendom. Surely real power could be found in these pieces of wood.

Maybe... Maybe not.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Truly power is found through Christ's cross: But not through pieces of wood... or military power. Constantine and Helen and so many Christians after them have gotten it wrong. Power is not found in a relic, instead the true power of God comes through the message of the cross. And the message of the cross is that weapons and money and politics are not the true sources of power in the world: only God rules!

The message of the cross is that the Messiah reigns through death. Jesus loses. He has no weapons or money or political influence. He is the opposite of everything we would expect power to come from. But through that cross... that symbol of defeat... Jesus actually conquers and wins. He dies for our sins and defeats sin, death and the devil on that cross. Indeed: in this sign, you shall conquer... by giving up your whole life to follow him.

Many say its foolish to proclaim Christ crucified. But is it? What good did it do that Constantine won at the Battle of Milvian Bridge? That is just an event for the history books. Constantine and his Empire died off a long time ago. Likewise money comes and goes. Political power is given and taken away in an instant. Are those real sources of power... or phony sources of power that too many people have been suckered into believing?

Instead we are fools for Christ. We carry no weapons, except the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We seek no money, expect that which can support our work for Christ. We don't seek the approval of the masses either. Outnumbered 10 to 1... 100 to 1... 1000 to 1 we press on serving the Lord because we have been given real power through the Blood of the Lamb.

"For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25)." Yeah it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to our human minds. We are tempted to believe that real power is found in wealth and adoration. But truly our power is from God and God alone. So we proclaim Christ crucified. And stand in awe because though we are fools the Lord continues to do miracles through us every day in the name of Christ. That is real power.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

6 Word Story about God

A website I like to read through each month is Bill Dahl's "Porpoise Diving Life." I have a link to the site posted here on my blog. I enjoy his, and his guest writers', insights into faith from the perspective of the "emerging" or "emergent" church. Bill offered a challenge to his readers in August: Write a six word story about God. At first I thought the idea was either impossible or too simplistic. But looking at the brief messages one finds on different church's signs I began to think differently. Maybe in 2008 we need to take on the challenge of creating the briefest of statements (can it really be a story?) about God. Maybe in the multi-tasking, over-scheduled, mediaized society we live in we need to be able to share a story about God with just 6 words.

So I've been thinking about what words must be included in a 6-word-story about God. How about Jesus, grace or faith? Can you leave out love, forgiven, saved? What about the word "God?" Shouldn't it say something about discipleship or include commands like discover, live, share, and tell? How about wonderful, hope and joy? What about Creator, Kingdom and life? Which six words should I choose? Do I dare waste one of my six words with "and," "a," "the," or "it?"

Of course Bill got the inspiration for the title of his website from Rick Warren's bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life. I like that book, but like Bill and others there are aspects of the book I'm not so comfortable with (What happens on day 41 for example?). But one of the great catch phrases from Purpose Driven that has stuck with me is "It's not about you." That's not six words, but four, and yet I think it says quite a bit in regards to discipleship and our life in Christ.

But Bill's challenge asks us to create a six word story about God. Hmmmmmm. It is to say something about God in some sort of narrative way... after all that is what a story is. I think it should be my story about God and not a quote from Scripture. Okay... after some pondering and kicking by the Holy Spirit, here's what I got (Let me know what you think):

God loves so we can love.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Mistake

My youngest son Preston was born in Akron, Ohio in 2004 and of course when someone is born in the United States you have go through the process of ordering a birth certificate. We filled out the paperwork with the City of Akron. We mailed in the check, which was deposited by them. And then we waited... and waited... and waited. No birth certificate ever came. At around the time of Preston's 6 month birthday I decided to give someone a call. The person I reached within the city bureaucracy of Akron told me I would have to fill out the form again and send another check. Obviously I was not pleased with that response. After a few more phone calls (and a very fruitful e-mail) the mistake was discovered and an official copy of Preston's birth certificate was sent to us. The whole event confirmed my prejudice that government bureaucracy is a nightmare... bloated, unproductive, and a waste of taxpayers money.

When the government made another mistake involving my State of Illinois income tax this year I was convinced here was another case of bloated bureaucracy not able to get anything right. Four-times-a-year I send a estimated payment of my state income tax to Springfield. That amount is always the same. But somehow their records showed that one of those four payments was only for $59.97. $59.97? What planet are they from? My check for the correct amount had been deposited. I had a copy of the canceled check. I sent to Springfield my paperwork in May showing them their error and of course I waited... and waited... and waited. I hear nothing at all. No money shows up in my checking account. I thought, "what a mixed up government we have." Last night as I was filling out the cryptic forms and writing out two checks for renewing my Illinois licence plates I thought to myself: "Well it's only by faith that this going to work without any problems." Cynical Tony.

Today I received a phone call from a gentleman from the Illinois Department of Revenue. After playing some phone tag we got to speak to one another for a few minutes. The man's detective work and questions shed a light on my situation I never expected in a million years. Bloated bureaucracy didn't make a mistake: I did. I mistakenly sent to the Illinois tax man in June 2007 the $59.97 check I had written for my gas bill and mistakenly mailed my quarterly tax payment to the gas company. (No wonder I had that credit on my natural gas account last summer.) Now, I'm not totally to blame here: It was the bloated bureaucracy of government, utilities, and my bank that allowed those checks to go through to the wrong places. But I do admit that it was my hands that placed those checks in the wrong envelopes and my tongue that licked them closed.

It was also my mind that found satisfaction in blaming some faceless bureaucracy for my problems. It was my mind that took some solace in thinking poorly of a government that would "steal" money from me and never think twice. I was wrong.

Martin Luther was profound in his views about Christians blaming others or thinking poorly of their neighbor without just cause. When explaining his views about the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor he wrote: "We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light."

I did not act this way when it came to the Illinois Department of Revenue. I am sorry. And I pray God forgives me.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thinking about God

I was thinking about God. Which led me to think about the Kingdom: God's Kingdom. It's at hand. It's here. It's to come. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed. It is like treasure in a field. It is the most valuable pearl in the world that someone knowledgeable about pearls recognizes and sells everything she has to buy it. That's the Kingdom. I know... pretty mysterious.

Experiencing God in your life today means experiencing the Kingdom: and visa versa. But where do we find the Kingdom? Is it a feeling in the gut? Is it an event in your community? It is big? Is it small? Is it people? Is it things? Is is love? You know... from what I learn in Matthew's Gospel... the answer is yes.

Are these the Kingdom?

- A twenty-one-year-old father picks up his four-year-old son so he can take care of him over the weekend.

- Ten friends ride around an empty school parking lot on bikes: laughing and kidding around.

- A mother looks for help with her four young daughters because she has ran out of food and money.

- A teacher waits to meet her new students and their parents for the first time.

- A man joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group.

- A husband and wife cheer Team USA while watching the Olympics together.

- An elderly man returns home after spending eleven days in nursing home.

Where's the Kingdom of God? No pearls, treasure, or mustard seeds here. Or are there? Just as God surrounds us with his Spirit we are surrounded by examples of the Kingdom happening right now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Heart of Gold

It takes heart to do what Micheal Phelps has done in Beijing. Last night he became the first person in 36 years to win seven gold medals in one Olympic Games. More than just physical ability is necessary become such a champion because the mind must be 100% focused on a single goal. After the race Phelps said: "When you put your mind to something, anything is possible." I believe Phelps mind was as much responsible for his seven individual goals as anything else.

Funny thing, the mind. Physically we know that the brain and heart perform different functions for the body, but in English it is perfectly acceptable to speak of the mind and the heart as one. And centuries of history has told us that the human heart is most certainly capable of anything: "anything is possible," as the Olympic Champion says. The heart can produce great things... and unfortunately things not so great.

The swimmer who came in second to Phelps last night in the 100-meter butterfly (by 0.01 seconds) was not too thrilled. Surely the heart of Serbian Milorad Cavic is as much responsible for his amazing race. He came closer than anyone else to actually beating the human dolphin Phelps. But his heart was also responsible for his response after the race. The Serbs questioned the finish and Cavic stormed away after the race making no comment, upset by the outcome. Many a poor showing in the sportsmanship category is caused by the heart. In Olympic wrestling a Swedish wrestler was so outraged by his third place showing that he threw his bronze metal down and stormed off the podium in disgust. Yes the heart is responsible for the best and worst in the Olympics.

Jesus speaks about the heart in an interesting conversation he has with his disciples in Matthew 15. Jesus teaches that its not food or being unclean that pollutes a person, its what comes from within... what comes from the heart that makes a person unrighteous in the eyes of God . "It's from the heart the we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That's what pollutes (Matthew 15:19)." The heart is the source for humanity's greatest thoughts and most evil actions.

Having been given the Holy Spirit through our Baptism we have also been given the opportunity to produce good from our hearts. Instead of being slaves to sin we can become servants of righteousness. But we must put our minds to it. Feeding your heart with God's Word and exercising it through service, prayer and love is the best way to prepare your heart. Worship and study are the training we need so that our hearts can produce positive results for the Lord.

Daily we struggle to follow Christ as disciples. There are so many forces out there pulling us to produce sin instead of hope, but through training and hard work anything is possible if you put your mind to it. You will not be the only one rewarded through your heart of gold.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Fear Fear

Nothing freezes us quicker than fear. Nothing pulls us away from faith more than fear. Nothing overshadows hope more than fear. It's why Franklin Roosevelt was profound in his words to the nation near the beginning of the Great Depression: "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." Once everyone is overwhelmed by fear, hope is lost.

There are many things that we fear in life. Some of the fears we have are welcomed... part of the thrill of a ride or the movie. But most fears are crippling. They prevent us from functioning well in our relationships. Fear brings doubt. Fear enslaves us. Have you ever experienced these fears:

1. "Thrills" - This the fear we choose to face... the feeling you get standing in line for a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. It's fun and though we are afraid we "know" we're in control.

2. "Storms" - This the fear that we will fall victim to just dumb luck. You feel it when a strong storm comes through or when the jet you are on makes some funny noises. "This is it... a tree's going to fall on me." It can be terrifying and lead you to feel as if your life is flashing before your eyes. You've lost control.

3. "Changes" - This the fear that prevents you from making positive changes in your life and instead continue to hurt ourselves and others. It prevents addicts from getting clean, an obese person from losing weight, a diabetic from following a strict diet. The fear of failure is far worse than the fear of doing more damage.

4. "Trapped" - This is a fear that you have fallen into a "pit" so deep that you will never get out. Such a fear haunts the fugitive who cannot escape a pattern of crime. This fear sinks families into hopelessness because they are drowning in debts that will mean loosing their house and facing bankruptcy. Taken to an extreme such fear can lead good people to contemplate suicide.

5. "Illness" - This the fear that comes from learning of a terrible illness. It is like "storms" in that a person faces their mortality, but it lingers on and on because the battle with the illness can last months or years. Such a fear leads to helplessness and self pity and in extreme situations deep feelings of regret... particularly if the illness is the result of poor choices.

When fear takes over a life everyone around the person suffers. It ruins relationships. The light of the gospel is lost in the heart of someone driven by fear.

Jesus gives us permission to live without fear. In a cool story from Matthew Jesus famously walks on water to get to his disciples who are on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. The disciples think Jesus is a ghost when the see him approach. Jesus tells them "Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid." There is no need to fear when you have faith in Christ.

What takes place next is pretty interesting. Peter makes a strange request of Jesus, saying that if he is Jesus he should command him to walk on the water too. Jesus doesn't mind playing along with his foolish disciples at times and does indeed command Peter to come. For a few moments Peter actually walked on the water. But once Peter realized what he was doing he fell in the "Storm" type of fear. Why am I here???? I'm going to drown!

Wonderfully the loving, fear-liberating Christ takes Peter by the hand and saves him. Jesus offers to reach us today with that same hand. Yes, we will be afraid at times and sometimes fall into that trap. But because of our faith in Christ we don't have to remain in fear. Jesus will pull us out of the pit of fear with the hope of his gospel. So don't fear the curve balls life throws... fear fear itself. You might discover you can walk on water too.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Good, Evil & Shades of Gray

One of the enduring memories I have from the terrorist attack on 9/11 is the fact that when people were escaping Lower Manhattan it did not become the "every man for himself" free-for-all Hollywood has been selling us for years. Instead the world was flooded with story after story of heroism after the attack. Fire fighters were willing to walk up 100 stories to rescue people. Strangers helped disabled workers climb down stairs. Ordinary folks lent a hand to help those who were injured. I was reminded of those stories while watching the new movie The Dark Knight.

So often in the world of comic book good guys and bad guys everything is light and dark. The good ones are always good and evil is always bad. But life does not work that way. The reality is that all people are simultaneously sinner and saint. We are made saints through the blood of Christ but are still sinners capable of the worst atrocities. The Dark Knight shines a light on a world where not everything is so cut and dry... it is a world of many shades of gray... a world we know all too well.

Now when it comes to a villain like the Joker, its pretty clear he is pure evil. But where the Joker goes wrong is that he is certain that everyone else is as evil as him. Yes through his murderous mischief he does expose the darker sides of Gotham's most heroic figures, but he fails to understand that just as people are not all goody-goodies, they are likewise not simply all psychotic killers like him either. Instead people are shades of gray: capable of great harm and great good at the same time. People are a whole lot like the people in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.

There are moments in the movie when the hero, Batman, struggles mightily with the shades of gray. What's best for him, the people he loves, and the 30,000,000 residents of his fair city? He learns something that we all can learn. And believe it or not, its a Christian lesson. Batman learns the same lesson that was modeled by the prophets in the Old Testament and was definitively lived through Christ: doing what is right will cause people to hate you, and even want to kill you... but that doesn't mean you stop doing what is right. If Batman holds on to that lesson there is hope for Gotham. Because Christ lived that lesson there is hope for us.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Goodbye Tiger Stadium

Tiger Stadium was the best place I ever watched men play baseball. When I was a teen my family lived near Detroit and during those years in the 1980's I not only learned to root for the Tigers, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Chet Lemon and Sparky, but I learned to love their home park: Tiger Stadium. Of the 100 or so games I went to at Tiger Stadium, I sat in the upper deck for just about all of them, right on top of the action. Left handers like Gibby and Darrell Evans were a treat to watch. With what seemed like little effort they would pull a fastball up into the right field porch, sometimes clearing the roof. Old pictures of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, and Philadelphia's Shibe Park look a whole lot like Tiger Stadium: double decker stadiums where the upper deck was right on top of the action. The former three have been lost to history forever decades ago, an now, foolishly Detroit is tearing down their treasure.

There was a time I would be red hot with anger and sadness because of what's happening, but now I feel more nostalgic for the past and sorry for my old home than bitter. It's up to the people who live there to decide what to do with the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Detroit today is an economic disaster. Homelessness and helplessness effects too many people there. They need hope and need to both hear and experience the gospel. My prayer is that the Spirit will guide my brothers and sisters in Detroit to a brighter future. If tearing down Tiger Stadium is a step in that direction, that's wonderful, I am skeptical of that however. But of course God can turn the skepticism and cynicism of people into miracles. The Pharisees were nostalgic about their old time views as well and pretty skeptical about Jesus' gospel.

Goodbye Tiger Stadium.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oh Say Can You See CC?

I've taken vacation this week and have been considering various ways I could spend my time. CC Sabathia was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers a few days ago and pitched for the Crew last night. I made sure I watched that on MLB.TV. I can watch every baseball game on MLB.TV. Every day there are over a dozen games available to watch from noon to midnight. I can watch the Red Sox after lunch, the Indians after dinner, the Brewers of course, and then finish the night out west watching the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now that's day! It could be every day if I wanted it to be.

But of course I can't watch a dozen baseball games everyday because I belong to Netflix. They send me three DVDs in the mail and after I watch it I mail it back so they can send me more. Right now I have The Golden Compass, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and Sweeney Todd just waiting for me.

I would get right on those if it wasn't for the fact that my brother got me the entire collection of the television series Arrested Development on DVD for my birthday. 53 half-hour episodes in all. That would only take a full day, with no breaks, to watch. But when will that day come? It will have to wait because I've been itching to watch the three Lord of the Rings movies, which I own. Add those three director's cut movies together and you're talking a good 11 to 12 hours of viewing pleasure.

This week was not supposed to be about watching things on TV, however, it was to be about doing stuff in Chicago that I hadn't gotten to do before. For weeks I've been thinking about going to the Chicago History Museum, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Sears Tower, the Brookfield Zoo, tour some of the architecture in the Loop, the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff in Oak Park and Hyde Park, Graceland Cemetery, and go for a walk along the lake front. Oh, and there are about 100 restaurants I would like to try and the free concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center and the Grant Park Music Festival.

Man, what a burden to be limited to 24 hours per day. What a burden to have so much stuff available to entertain me. For the past week the Bible lesson from Matthew I mentioned in my last post has been stuck in my head. I keep thinking about my heavy burdens and Christ's light yoke. Some burdens really? Poor Tony. I'm sure you feel sorry for me. The saddest thing about these so called "burdens" of mine is that there have actually been moments when my inability to tackle all this stuff has gotten me down. How pathetic really. Yes Lord, your yoke is easy, your burden is light, and best of all picking up your cross is actually meaningful.

I didn't plan it this way, but I discovered something this past weekend that I have grabbed a hold of for the rest of this week: real joy and refreshment comes when I focus my time on my family instead of the stuff I can do and watch. Yes I did get to the Lincoln Park Zoo and saw WALL-E today, but it was with my wife and son. It's been great: walks to the playground, playing Hot Wheels in the living room, sitting in the backyard watching Preston on his little bike. Now I'm not saying my burdens or my "cross" has been all that amazing... but learning to love and do something for others instead of consuming and do stuff only for myself has been pretty cool.

I still haven't gotten to those Arrest Development shows, and my goodness there are baseball games going on right now that I'm missing as I type this, but that's okay and will stay okay as long as Christ calls me, and his Spirit helps me see that focusing on others is a real joy. You discover something the more you give and the more you serve: his yoke is actually easy and his burden really is light. In Christ you actually do find rest.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Heavy Burdens

God has blessed me with some vacation time this month. My wife and two oldest children are away right now which has left me alone here with my four year old son Preston until Tuesday. He's a cool kid and its great to be able to place all my attention on him. It gives us the opportunity for adventure! Today's adventure led us to worship at a church in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, just a few blocks south of Wrigley Field. First of all, we did worship God and hear Christ's gospel and not the Gospel according to Harry Carey. Second, I'm always amazed by all the life and excitement constantly happening around Chicago, even on a Sunday morning. Throngs of young adults were jogging along Lake Shore Drive. The beaches were filling up. Life was everywhere. Some of that life was even in a church.

The preacher's sermon was based on one of my favorite passages from Matthew: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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 (Matthew 11:28-30)." These are words of refreshment and freedom from Christ, but the pastor reminded me that deep down in our souls we don't want to give up those burdens we carry. We hold on to them, sometimes to our last breath, valuing our so called independence over the rest Christ freely offers through discipleship. On the surface the yoke, or cross, of Christ looks terribly painful; but after some soul searching we realize Christ's cross looks painful because we have made our burdens the center of our existence.

After the service Preston and I played for a while at a school playground across the street of the church and had a picnic lunch. Preston wondered where all the kids were. He was the only one around under the age of 10. That's not to say we were alone there in this small, urban school playground. There were dozens of twenty-somethings sunbathing, playing frisbee, walking their dogs, seeming to have lots of fun. I wondered if any of them were burdened. I wondered if they were curious about the music coming out of the old church across the street.

Yes, today was a good day. My parents celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary with two of my kids. Marriage is a great example of how blessings come to those who let go of their burdens and learn to love selflessly. Fatherhood works that way too. My days would be a whole lot different if Preston was not here with me. They might even be different if I wasn't married. Not that I would be sunbathing... but I might join the dudes who were gathered around the benches watching the show. To the young and single that's what life is all about. Husbands and fathers know better. They have learned through experience that life's greatest blessings come through giving your life to serve and love others. I know I've experienced that and maybe, just maybe, I can indeed see that Christ's yoke is easy and his burden is light. Real freedom and rest comes through faith. I wonder what adventure Preston and I will have tomorrow?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Unjust Hunger

200 campers at Bible Camp learned a powerful lesson tonight. I did as well. We had a little experiential education at dinner in an attempt to teach the campers that we in the United States are among the richest 10% of the world's population. The 200 were divided into five equal groups differentiated by a color sticker. The orange group was allowed to eat all they wanted at dinner. The red group was allowed to eat a smaller portion of everything and no dessert. The blue group got only rice, a dinner roll, lettuce and dressing. The green group received only rice, a roll and water. The yellow group was given only rice and water. Oh boy, you should have heard the cheers and groans. Really, this is an important lesson that all Americans should experience since every 3.6 seconds a person dies of hunger, the majority of those being children.

But I learned something about hunger tonight that the campers might have missed. Now remember the groups were divided equally, but in actuality it didn't work out that way. As I stood and watched the campers come up for food there was easily three campers with orange stickers for every one camper with yellow. I don't know how they did it but many of the campers cheated to make sure they got as much food as they wanted. Lesson: if you are friends with someone "in the know" or someone who has connections you did great because you got you the sticker you wanted. But, if you didn't have such a connection with someone "in power" you were stuck with the sticker you were dealt. Dog eat dog.

It works that way globally as well. If you have connections with those who are powerful and rich you do just fine. Can you believe that for about half of what Americans spend on pet supplies a year we could put an end to hunger areas of severe famine? I guess a lot of us have connections with those who are rich and powerful cause we do just fine. Even though there is an abundance of money and food in the world people in power continue to cheat the system to make sure they have more than the rest.

In Revelation the "black horsemen" reveals a truth about our sinful world by describing such unjust famine. People are starving, not because there's not enough food, but because people cheat the system so food is distributed unfairly. "I looked and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying. 'A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and wine (Rev. 6:5b-6).'" Those with little must pay a day's wages to get enough food for only one person. Those who are rich, the ones who use olive oil and wine, are unharmed. This is not a vision of the future as much as it is a commentary of the way sinful life has always been, certainly is today, and will continue to be until the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

In the Kingdom of God no one goes hungry. As disciples of Christ, agents for his Kingdom, we are called to live that vision right now. It should be the priority of every Christian to fight hunger locally, nationally and globally. It is an abomination that children of God continue to starve to death every 3.6 seconds.

Fight world hunger right now by supporting organizations like Bread for the Word (www.bread.org), World Vision (www.worldvision.org), Church World Service (www.churchworldservice.org), CARE (www.care.org), or Lutheran World Relief (www.lwr.org).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Top 7 Memories of Bible Camp

It's the time of year for Bible Camp. These are my top 7 memories:

7. "Puff the Magic Dragon"
Yes, we sang "Kumbaya" but what sticks in my mind from Bible Camp when I was a kid was singing about that old rascal Puff. I still can't understand why.

6. Hidden Yellow Jackets Nest
In 2001, as a group of us was walking up a trial at dusk, one after another campers cried out "Ouch!" as we stomped on a hidden nest of yellow jackets. Of course I had to become a victim that evening as well. Thankfully, everyone was fine.

5. Oatmeal
You can tell how good a camp's food will be by the way they prepare oatmeal. If they do oatmeal well your in for good stuff all week... if its uneatable... welcome to fat camp because you won't want to eat much all week. At one camp they had a song for oatmeal: "Oaaaatmeal; some like butter. Oaaaatmeal; some like sugar..." I still sing that one to my kids.

4. College-Age Counselors
Yes, sometimes they bring a little modern-day drama with them, but just about always the camp counselors, usually between 18 and 22 years-old, are wonderful witnesses of faith for younger youth. The seeds they sow in the hearts of young people have bore much fruit for Christ.

3. An Eight-Day-Old Camper
In 2004 my wife brought our eight-day old newborn to camp for an afternoon. He still is, unofficially, the youngest person ever to go to Bible Camp.

2. "Sanctuary"
I learned this song at Bible Camp. It always reminds me of God's grace, the blessings of nature, friends, and times of Sabbath... all of which allows me to become a better vessel for God's presence within me.

1. Tearful Goodbyes
You cannot tell me of any other place where adolescents can worship God no less than four times a day, have no access to any modern media, talk about Jesus with others and still feel horrible about leaving when it's over. God created us to desire him and long for healthy friendships. Those are the centerpieces of camp ministry. It's only natural that youth would want to stay.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Truly I Tell You, None of These Will Lose Their Reward

The past couple weeks large areas of the state's of Iowa and Wisconsin have been hit by severe floods. I was born in Wisconsin, and have many friends and family there, and lived in Iowa for four years during the 1990's. It saddens me to see so many who have lost their homes and even lives because of these storms.

This past week I went for a walk along a country road and remembered something about my friends from Iowa. As a car approached me at around 50 miles-per-hour the driver waved at me. Rarely in my walks in suburban Chicago has anyone ever waved at me. But out here, in the country, I got waved at, even as the man drove by so quickly.

When I lived in Iowa a friend of mine, a lifelong Iowan, taught me that whenever you approach a car along a deserted stretch of highway you give a little flick of your finger (No, not that finger! Your pointing finger). It's not quite a wave but still an acknowledgement that says "Hi, nice to see you, have a great day." Over and over during a drive in the country you give that little flick of a finger and receive a greeting back. I thought it was nice. It seemed so civil and friendly.

But what touched me most when I lived in Iowa was the way people responded in 1997 when the Red River flooded in Grand Forks, North Dakota. 70% of that river town was flooded. With little haste churches throughout Sioux City, Iowa collected enough goods to fill a tracker trailer truck full of supplies for the stricken area. They didn't hesitate to help people in need. So when I think of Iowa I never think of corn, pigs, or politics first... but the generous and hospitable people who call that beautiful state home. When Jesus speaks of the struggles and rewards of discipleship in Matthew 10... "whoever gives gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward (Matthew 10:42)" I must think of the people of Iowa.

Now they need our help. Many charities have been on the scene giving aid and providing shelter. In Cedar Rapids the Salvation Army has provided meals to over 47,000 people. Other charities are on the scene as well. I highly recommend supporting the American Red Cross or ELCA Domestic Disaster Response... a charity that uses over 95% of the money they receive to help victims. They will remain on the scene for many months to come. Gifts can be given to ELCA Disaster Response, earmarked for tornado and flood disasters, to P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764. Also Lutheran Services in Iowa is receiving donations. Lutheran Services in Iowa, ATTN: Disaster Response, PO Box 848, Waverly, IA 60677.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

His Time is Short

I've been leading a Bible study on the Book of Revelation the past couple months. It has been so much fun. Often ignored are the many images within Revelation pure grace for all creation. One of my favorite examples of that comes in Revelation 7:9-10: "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out with a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'" What a powerful image of salvation.

But of course Revelation is also filled with images of war, destruction and death. One of the most miserable comes in Revelation 9... the description of scorpion-like locusts coming from the Abyss to torture for five months those who are not sealed. "They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months (9:10)." The sixth trumpet, also called the second woe, gives another ghastly imagine of an army of mounted troops numbering 200,000,000 coming from the east and killing 1/3 of all people.

None of that really scared me though. (I must be heartless.) But something has struck a cord with me now that we've reached the dragon of Revelation 12: the chapter in which John the Seer allegorically describes the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ as a battle between good and evil. A dragon (Satan) wants to kill a woman's (Israel's) child , but the child (Christ) is snatched away (ascension) before he can be killed. A war is waged in heaven and the dragon is defeated (the cross). Through the cross Jesus defeats sin and death forever. The Kingdom of God is at hand. However, sin and death still exist. The dragon lives on, here on earth, causing pain and bringing death... but his time is limited: "He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short (12:12b)."

For some reason this image has scared me. I had a dream about it last night. In plain English we know that we have been saved through Jesus' death on the cross and our faith in him. We also know that we still live in a world where sin and death are present. The way John describes it: evil, personified by the devil, symbolized by the dragon is still on the loose. The devil knows his time is short and is looking to cause as much pain as he can before the Kingdom of God is fully realized on earth.

Like Kathy Bates in the movie Misery... just when you think the devil is defeated, dead and gone, her eyes open and she comes screaming into scene with hellfire on her breath, a knife in her hand and hate in her heart. Until Christ returns and puts that final bullet into the chest of sin and death we still live with the specter of evil surrounding us. Therefore, today "the devil" works to pull us away from faith, foil our plans, dash our hopes, and convince us he is the victor. Through his use of allegory John is explaining why the church of the late first century struggled through persecutions. But naturally, like all of Scripture, Revelation also helps us understand why our own time continues to be painful, especially for those who have faith.

What John writes poetically is really no different than what Paul writes in Romans 8: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us (Romans 8:18)." Paul ends that chapter with a message of hope in the face of "the dragon's" continued persecution. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, [nor the dragon, nor the devil, nor Satan,] nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39... additions are mine)."

Revelation is going the same direction as Paul goes in Romans. God has given John the Seer a vision of hope and encouragement. Yes John is exiled by the Romans to Patmos. Yes John's brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted, arrested and one has even been killed for the faith. But there is hope. This is going to end up being very good! The Kingdom of God is at hand. The time is short for sin and death. Jesus, the Messiah, the Lamb of God has conquered and will welcome "a great multitude" to sing his praises before him in the coming Kingdom.

So sleep well. Persevere. Feel the hand of God upon you this very day!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Taking Time to Hear

I don't know if the term "multitasking" was born in the modern era, but if it wasn't, our modern world sure has taken the idea of doing too many things at one time to the extreme. E-mail, cell phones, text messaging and computers are supposed to exist to help us get through the busyness of our world, but instead they tend to make our lives all the more chaotic. To be good at multitasking means being good at prioritizing... knowing what has to be done now and what can wait. It's the only way we survive this crazy world.

Centuries before the multitasking choices faced by modern people Luke retells a story in his Gospel about Jesus being invited into the home of a woman named Martha. Her sister Mary is also there and sits herself at the feet of Jesus listening intently to every word he says. Martha, following first century custom, is busy making preparations to do all that is necessary to make a guest feel welcome in her home. She is frustrated that Mary is not helping her. After all there is much to be done and a woman's place in a first century home was to do work, not only for guests, but for any male in the home. Martha pushes Jesus to "Tell her to help me."

Surprisingly to Martha, Jesus instead lifts up Mary as being the proper example of doing what is right. Listening to Jesus must be the number one priority and not any other work. Everything society had taught Martha told her that she was in the right, but Jesus points out that even society can be wrong. The number one priority for men and women is to listen to the Word of God. Everything else, even honorable tasks, must come second.

In 2008, when we face daily the difficult task of setting priorities because so much is expected of us, it is tempting allow listening to the Word to slide. There are more pressing matters. There are priorities society has set that are far more important than sitting and listening for God, either in worship, prayer, or both. Like Martha we are convinced we are doing the right thing and that even Jesus would agree.

But Jesus doesn't agree. Instead he offers us grace and rest. Go ahead and take a load off. Don't beat yourself up when you do the opposite of what society says and actually dare to make taking time to listen to God... to worship... to study... to mediate the number one priority of your life. The blessing you receive "will not be taken away (Luke 10:42)."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Smart Worm Stays in the Dirt

I just got back from spending three days fishing with my dad and brother in Kentucky. What a great time it was. The weather was great, the boat didn't sick, my brother caught 30 largemouth bass (we catch and release), and I had on the end of my line a giant catfish we now refer to as Captain Kirk (he released himself). We were reeling in so many fish we had to take good look around a few times to make sure we actually were on Lake Barkley and not inside the Shedd Aquarium.

There were times on Wednesday I immediately had a nibble on my bait the moment I cast my line out in the water. My bobber would instantly start moving up and down because little bluegills were nibbling on my red worm or nightcrawler. This posed a bit of a challenge because these guys were so tiny that when I pulled on the line I often wasn't able to hook them. All that was left of my bait was either some pieces of worm or just a bare hook. I thought, "it's a good thing worms stay in the dirt, because they sure don't last long in the water."

Being out on the lake for three days reminded me of Jesus' words of wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life (Matt 6:25-27)?"

On the boat I tried to imagine the scene below the surface of the water. It must have been amazing with fish of all sizes (catfish, bluegills, minnows, sunfish, bass, and many more) all swimming around eating all kinds of stuff... even each other. What I could see above the surface was also quite amazing: geese, turtles, cranes, and even an eagle, never too happy with our presence. But until we arrived next them on our boat they all seemed to stand as still as a statue just waiting to for their chance to pick from the seafood buffet. Not as disturbed by us were the three deer we saw relaxing just before dusk or the pair of foxes walking leisurely near the shore.

I was reminded of two realities about God's creation last week: it outshines anything a human could ever construct and it is a dangerous place. All of the creatures we encountered were involved in trying to survive. The fish took our bait because they were looking for food. The birds waited patiently along the shore waiting for lunch. Only the deer and foxes seemed to be taking life easy, but I'm sure dinner was not too far from their minds.

Things are pretty dangerous for the birds, fish and animals, but our lives are dangerous too. While we may not worry about where our next meal will come from, or whether something wants to eat us, there is plenty to worry about nonetheless. Can I pay all my bills? Are my children safe? Do I need to cancel vacation this summer? Will my loved one beat cancer?

Spending some time in the wild can remind you how pointless it is to worry. The fish, birds and animals work together in a constant give and take of life and death. You would think they would be frozen in fear, but instead they just live. Humans are called to just live as well, but not in a selfish way. A wise person lives life as a refection of faith... the very faith that gives us permission to stop worrying and start living. Jesus tells us to live by striving "first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Your food, drink, and clothing will come... therefore spend your time living as a disciple: serving Christ and the kingdom. Instead of worrying, try loving. Instead of living in fear, live in hope. Instead hording, look for opportunities to serve "and all of these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today (Matt 6:33b-34)."