Saturday, April 26, 2008

Where Has God Placed You?

There is a point in Acts where Luke describes what happened when Paul witnessed to Christ in the great city of Athens. Now Athens was not quite the place it used to be four or five centuries earlier. The days of Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great were behind them. But Athens still held a special place in the hearts of educated people of the time.

Paul took special care in approaching the people of Athens with his gospel of Jesus Christ. These were wisdom loving pagans who were not used to hearing about God made human, dying, and then being raised again to new life. In order to preach to the Athenians Paul needed to think like them, observe their ways, know his story, stay positive, and be clever by using imagery familiar to the Greeks.

While on the Areopogas, Mars Hill just below the great Acropolis in Athens, he spoke as if he were a great Athenian orator of the past. Paul respected the pagan traditions of the people, complemented them, and found his opening through an altar dedicated to an unknown god. The pagans, who had temples and altars dedicated to the whole pantheon of gods, were always careful to include an altar dedicated to any gods they didn't know about. After all, it was not wise to offend any god, even if they were not aware of the god's existence.

Paul proclaimed before these wise Athenians just who this unknown god was: he is the Lord God, the one true God. Paul did not even bring up Jesus in his oration, knowing that his message that day needed to simply deal with the God who is One, who is Creator of heaven and earth. He spoke about God's relationship with his creation and in particular humans. He then lifted up the idea of Christ, without mentioning him by name. "While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:30-31)

This didn't go over too well for the Athenians. "When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, 'We will hear you again about this.'" (Acts 17:32)

Paul didn't stay long in Athens. He was never in danger there, but felt the need to move on because few were coming to faith in Christ. But that's not to say his work was in vain. Some did join Paul and became believers. Even in the tough crowd gathered at the Areopagus Paul's message was able to bring some to faith.

God has placed every Christian in an "Areopagus" somewhere. In Christian community we gather for worship and service and are surrounded by people who believe in Christ just as we do. However there are many times throughout the week when the crowd we are among is more like the Areopagus than it is of First Christian Church. In our families, our work places, our neighborhoods and places of leisure we encounter men and women who are just as clueless about Christ and the resurrection as the people in first century Athens. How do you share your faith with them? Think about these ideas as you answer your call to witness to Christ.

1. Know Your Faith. Do you know why you worship God faithfully or are part of a church? Think about what your faith in God means to you. How has God touched your life recently? Through prayer and meditation be aware of God's presence in your life.

2. Recognize Your "Areopagus." There are times during your week when you are around other people who are just itching to hear the gospel... desperate to have hope in their life. Can you recognize the "Areopagus" God has either dropped you into, or even sometimes placed in your lap?

3. Observe and Listen. Understand where other people are coming from. Show them respect and affirm the good things happening in their lives. It is more important to be a friend than to be a preacher. Paul was sincere when he affirmed how religious the Athenians were.

4. Share Your Story. Since you know why you have faith, do you know how to share your faith with others? Be true to yourself and your story. Share it in a way that respects others and lifts up the positive aspects of your faith. Remember Paul did not mention Jesus by name on the Areopogus which certainly would not have been Paul's first instinct.

5. Sow the Seeds and Let God do the Rest. Chances are that the sharing of your faith story will not have an immediate effect on those you are speaking to. They may scoff. They may say "I'll get back to you later." But that's alright. The seeds you sow might bear fruit months or years down the line. And then again, there is always a chance the lives of one or two might be changed forever because the light of hope finally shined in their heart. Praise be to God!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

10,000 Wins

The Lovable Losers won their 10,000th game last night. That's right, the Chicago Cubs have won 10,000 games in their history... dating back to 1876. During that time they have won 16 National League Championships and 2 World Series titles. Only the New York/San Francisco Giants have won more games as a franchise.

The 2008 Cubs have the best record in all of baseball right now. They are legitimate contenders to win the World Series. But of course to say that is to open yourself up to laughter and scorn... and that's from Cub fans. Sportswriters cannot even write a column in the paper about this very good Cubs team without devoting four paragraphs to goats, black cats, Steve Garvey, Will Clark, and that martyr left on the altar of the so called Cubs myth: Steve Bartman.

Personally, I'm more of a baseball fan in general than I am a Cubs fan. My heart will always belong to the Milwaukee Brewers even though they now play in that monstrosity called Miller Park and somehow ended up in the National League. But I did take in hundreds of Cubs games on WGN as a child. I chose to listen to Harry and watch the beautiful game of baseball played at Wrigley on summer afternoons on television instead of going out and actually playing the game with my friends. No regrets here. So I do understand the Cubs somewhat.

But I will never understand or accept this curse stuff. And quite frankly it makes my stomach turn. The Cubs teams of 1907 and 1908 are worth celebrating. And the history of the team is something to be proud of. I know I wear my replica of a 1908 Cubs hat with pride.

I hope last night's 10,000th win will remind those who love the Cubs of this team's great history and that they should not be afraid to embrace this year's team. Don't say "this could be the year" with a smirk and chuckle. Say it with pride. This team is good!

The world did not implode when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, nor did it happen when the White Sox won in 2005. Neither of those teams are anywhere close to winning 10,000 games (of course the Cubs had a 24 year head start, but let's not go there). The World will not implode when the Cubs win the World Series. It's just going to make the sportswriters' job all the more difficult because they'll have to find something else to say in those 4 paragraphs that always end up in columns about the Cubs.

Now the faith angle to all this. Today is what you make of it. We have been given great freedom and responsibility through Jesus' sacrifice for us on the cross. Freedom to embrace the blessings of today and the responsibility to live our life as a response to grace. When we allow the failures of our past to keep us down we miss out on too many of life's blessings and we continue to fail to be the people we can be. That is sin. Sin handcuffs people and even baseball fans. Sin takes innocent men and animals and blames them for 100 years of losing.

10,000 times fans have screamed "Cubs Win! Cubs Win!" There are no curses... only people unwilling to embrace God's grace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

National Start! Walking Day

I read in the paper that today is National Start! Walking Day. Which is pretty cool because it just happens to be the first time in 168 days that the temperature has reached the 70's in Chicagoland. Six months without without ever seeing 70 degrees, except on the thermostat! That's a long time. If ever there was a day to Start! walking it is today.

I Start!ed a routine of walking just about everyday last October. (I know, really smart, right at the beginning of the 70 degree slump.) For a long time I had been thinking about going out and walking a little, either by driving to a park or some other scenic venue. But I never could find the time and was never quite sure where to go. Finally I decided to just go... Start! Walking. My neighborhood is flat and sidewalks abound throughout this suburban paradise. Just do it I thought. It's time to get healthy.

But I still had my doubts. When can I find the time to do it every day? What am I going to do when the snows come? Are there really enough sidewalks? But as I kept on walking those obstacles and fears became minor because I discovered I enjoyed it so much. I have been able to find the time. Some days I'm moved to go for a 5:30 a.m. stroll for an hour. In December I often walked late at night, when the streets were bare, new snow was on the ground and half the homes were decorated for Christmas. It was a Christmas Wonderland. I actually found the cold winds to be quite invigorating.

But more powerful for me than energizing walks at various times of the day was the discovery of how spiritually moving a good walk can be. Since October I have learned to understand 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray without ceasing," in a new way. A good walk became a time for meditation and prayer. At times my walks have helped me gain fresh insights about myself, the world, people, and God. What started out as just exercise has become part of my soul. I don't know how I find the time, but I do for the most part find an hour a day to walk. I walk for my body and I walk for my soul.

There's a reason they put an exclamation point after the word "start" in National Start! Walking Day. Start! is a command. Its an imperative. Just do it. It doesn't cost a dime. It doesn't take specially designed areas, like you see in the picture of the bridge from Millennium Park I posted with this blog. All it takes is two feet, two legs and one hand to open the door outside. You may be surprised to discover who is walking with you.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

By His Wounds You Have Been Healed

A friend mine once went with a tour group to England, Scotland, and Wales. On the day they rural Scotland my friend was shocked to see a man treating the group of sheep he was leading along a road with such contempt. He was trying to get the sheep to move by yelling at them, hitting them with a stick, and even kicking them. My friend was appalled and expressed his displeasure to the man: "Is that any way for a shepherd to treat his sheep?" With a funny look the man responded with gruff voice: "You think I'm a shepherd? I'm not a shepherd. I'm a butcher. These sheep will be dog food soon."

Christians have a soft place in our heart for shepherds and sheep. There are so many images throughout the Bible that compares people to lost sheep and God to a good shepherd who gathers them in his embrace. Jesus calls himself "the good shepherd" in John 10. Even Christians, like myself, with very little knowledge of rural life can understand the beauty of the metaphor.

The shepherd image is used is a powerful way in 1 Peter. Writing to an oppressed people the author compares the suffering that early Christians faced with the suffering Jesus experienced in his life. Christ's suffering was for a purpose... he suffered for us. Christ's suffering allows us to face our suffering with both courage and hope. "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21)."

The type of suffering lifted up in 1 Peter is persecution at the hands of an oppressor. It was dangerous to your health to claim Jesus as your Lord in the first century. But with great courage thousands stood up to the powers and withstood the suffering they encountered, even as some of their brothers and sisters were killed. We are not far removed from such suffering. This past week was the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death on April 9. He was a martyr for the faith, being killed because of his opposition to the Nazi regime and their influence on the church in the 1930's and 40's. But as recently as last Saturday a Syrian Orthodox priest, Faiz Abdel, was killed outside his home in Baghdad. He is already being declared a martyr by his friends.

Persecution is not the only suffering one can face in this life, however. Everyday we know loved ones and friends who have suffered. I found out this past week at a colleague of mine, Larry Griffin, died in the end of March at too young an age. I know too many people who have lost their lives at the hands of the monster we call cancer, including my friend Fran who died just before Easter. I also have been thinking about the many people I know who continue to battle this disease, some traveling across the country to get answers. They all know suffering. They have felt the sting of being a sheep led by a butcher.

But of course the butcher does not win. The butcher's wicked tongue and harsh hands are stopped by the blood of the Lamb. "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24)."

Three years ago a good friend of mine, Lillian Files, lost her battle with cancer. She was an amazing woman. Soft spoken and frail, but still possessed the strength of 10 bulls, because she simply would not let her cancer take over her faith. She loved God, she loved her church and she was able to see the blessings of every single day. I always think of her when I have some good Yorkshire Pudding with roast beef. But more importantly I think of her when I ponder the power faith has over suffering. The last time I saw her, she was in bed... but not alone. Her 17 year old granddaughter was right there in bed with her. There was no sadness present. Just some giggles, much gratitude, and thick feeling of pure love.

"For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian for your souls (1 Peter 2:25)." Lillian, Fran and so many Children of God have returned to their shepherd and are held tightly in his warm embrace. The Good Shepherd's guidance has the power to give us direction and hope as we live today. No matter what you suffer, know that Christ suffered with you and for you. No matter what you face you can choose to discover the joy and blessings of this day. Allow the Good Shepherd to give you healing and wholeness today. Allow the witness of the saints who have gone before us to point the way to the power of this amazing faith.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

God Undoes the Veil

Tonight I led my first Bible study on the Book of Revelation. There is so much I learn in the course of studying and teaching a book of Scripture to a small group. While I do bring important facts and information to the group as the leader, I do not come to the table with the sole purpose of bestowing the answers to others. We journey through the book together. We grow together. They learn from me and I learn from them. Which is why I'm so excited about this new study. I know I will come out of this four month adventure changed. Through God's Spirit truth will be revealed... and that's exciting to anticipate.

The Book of Revelation seems to need a lot of revealing for us to understand. The word revelation comes from the Latin word revelatio which literally means "to undo the veil." What has been hidden is being revealed. Underneath the monsters, beasts, scrolls, and seals of Revelation is truth about God. I can read about the meanings of symbols on my own. I can study about the different ways to interpret Revelation. But something happens when you journey through a book together with ten other people. Insights are gained. People with different points-of-view ask questions you would never have asked and reveal insights you would never have valued on your own. By the end you prayerfully and lovingly grow in faith together. Its an amazing adventure and one of my favorite blessings of Christian community.

Little by little God will undo the veil of Revelation through study, reading, and prayer. The power of God's Spirit will also be expressed through the friends you journey with. Back to back opening days! God is good!