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)."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Living in the Spirit

Twice in Revelation John the Seer records that he was "in the spirit" when he received the divine revelation he describes in the last book of the Bible. "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet... (Rev 1:10)" "At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne (Rev 4:2)!" Make no mistake about it, John did not make this all up in his mind. In some trance-like state God revealed to him amazing things. Using his knowledge of the Old Testament he tried to describe what he saw as best he could.

All people contain God's Spirit within them simply because God created them. God the Creator made this universe and made us as well: in his image. God's hand is written in our hearts and moves us to want to seek him and know him.

The Spirit is within all who belong to Christ through baptism. That Spirit is actually Christ within us. In Matthew 28, Jesus' final words to his disciples are a command to go, baptize and teach. His words are also encouragement that though he will physically leave them he will indeed still be with them "always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:20)." The Spirit of Christ is with us always... leading us, guiding us... giving us hope in the face of sin.

The Holy Spirit, given to the disciples at Pentecost is the same Spirit given to us as well. More than just the presence of God or Christ within us... the Holy Spirit is power to become people we would not otherwise be. The disciples who abandoned Jesus at the cross now become men of courage, speaking new languages and spreading the gospel despite the dangers.

When John the Seer, writer of Revelation, is "in the spirit" on the Lord's Day I believe that he is in the same Spirit as the disciples at Pentecost. It takes over him. It gives him the ability to see things he would not have otherwise seen and do things he would not otherwise have done. This Spirit is within you right now... and I believe it's just waiting to take hold of you.

It's important that John mentions that it was on the Lord's Day when he was in the Spirit. It indicates to me that the fact it was Sunday morning, possibly even in worship, contributed to him being open to the Spirit taking over. When we cut ourselves off from the Scriptures, fail to recognize the Lord's Day, or do not participate in worshiping God, we smother the Spirit just waiting to move us in amazing ways.

Years ago I knew a woman named Lois who couldn't speak enough about being in the Spirit. She knew first hand what it meant to hinder the Spirit from doing its work and essentially spiritually sleepwalking through life. Year after year she went to church, potlucks, and sewing meetings. Year after year she said grace before dinner and sang in the choir. But, as she tells me, "I felt spiritually dead." When she was asked 20 years ago to lead a woman's Bible study for her church she was scared to death. There was no way in a million years she could do that, she thought. But out of some sort of sense of obligation and not finding it easy to say no, she accepted the job. It was like the blanket that was covering the Spirit within her was removed.

Teaching and leading discussions about the Bible lead her to learn more about the Scriptures and God than she ever knew before. It brought her joy, but with disappointment, because she felt as if she has been cheated of decades of chances to learn more about Christ. It was passages in John about "an Advocate" that really caught her eye. She recognized that empowering Advocate insider her. At times it moved her to speak in tongues. At times it moved her to question everything... which can be pretty frightening. Frightening to me as well listening to her. But even so, living the Spirit was something she says she would never give up.

I have to believe that John was shaken to his core by his experience of being "in the spirit," not just because of what he saw, but because of the very fact he was given the chance to experience God in such a powerful way. I'm sure John questioned everything at times too.

The Holy Spirit empowered both John and Lois to live their lives in a new way: a freeing way. They were empowered to live as children of God in a way they never dreamed they could have. John changed people forever by sharing his message of hope to a dangerous and dying world. Lois become a light to many other women who began to recognize the Spirit within them as well, just as the Spirit was present in their friend.

If Jesus has commissioned us to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you," then its going to take the Spirit within us to do just that. Empowered by the Spirit you will become a person of courage and strength you never knew you could be. Empowered by the Spirit you will bring the gospel to other people. Empowered by the Spirit you will walk in the presence of Christ every day of your life.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

People in Glass Houses

i feel so free
beauty is all around
finally the temperature is right

snow is a memory
puddles have disappeared
green has shown its might

the sun has set
and the sidewalk is begging
for a stroll along the avenues

the breeze is light and calm
a feeling of comfort hangs in the air
nature has accepted God's cues

with the king is my ears
and a smile on my face
i venture out to enjoy creation

but as i glance at the crescent moon
and its reflection on the sparse clouds
something is missing from my sensation

cars wiz by as they always do
planes on their way to o'hare
but there is a void before me

house after house
step after step
tree after tree

where are the people
thousands live here
but they have vanished from this scene

some homes are dark
but some contain a glow
revealing rooms emotionally clean

an eye searches for joy and finds only stuff
a baby swing silent and still
balloons from a party two days prior

the glow from the plasma
reveals cartman and joan rivers
but where is my neighbor

mile after mile no one is here
have they gone to a meeting
are they hiding below

no one told them that God is great
and perfection is found out their door
have they found it inside alone

so used to their castle they do not know what's out there
someone in back of the yards died
they say not me i will stand by my wall

through the windows more light is found
horses on shelves and Sox displayed proudly
a clock from the 60's hangs tall

people in glass houses

are they afraid
of the unknown
of community

uninterrupted i arrive at my home
noise from the traffic surrounds
better lock the door behind me

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Looking in the Wrong Direction

Ruby had some problems... of course we all do, but Ruby's seemed pretty awful. No, they were not health problems really, though, she did complain about pains in her sciatic. Her pains were more than physical. She was angry most of the time. Angry at her neighbors, her ex-husband, her community... the whole world really. Nothing was ever the way it was supposed to be. And when it came to church, it was never long before she up and left for a new one. Over her lifetime she had tried all of the churches in her small community.

The pastor was never what she expected in pastor. The ministries of the congregations never matched her idea of what church should be like. "If only it could be the way it was when I was growing up" is a phrase she often used. A smile would come to her face when she thought of her youth and her time in "show business." But that smile would turn upside when Ruby remembered that those days were long gone. When she died three years ago, she died angry and bitter. Oh the wonderful things she missed.

I've been looking closely recently at the Bible text about Jesus' ascension in Acts. The resurrected Jesus reassures his followers they will not be alone. The Spirit will be given to them in a few days and they have a calling to "me my witnesses... to the ends of the earth." But the disciples don't understand what Jesus means. They are still expecting him to establish the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the new King David and certainly he is going to build something great in Israel that will rival the power of Rome. But of course that wasn't the mission of the Messiah at all. (Was Rome really that powerful once?)

The disciples, like Ruby, don't understand what the Kingdom of God means. They cannot grasp the concept that wealth and power are temporary. They cannot understand that the Kingdom is experienced today when someone is helped, when the hungry are fed, when the injured are comforted. They cannot understand how love is the cornerstone of a kingdom.

So they look in the wrong direction. After Jesus is taken away two angels appear with the disciples. They speak loudly and publicly: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Strange question in light of what just happened. Its a strange question especially if you are convinced the Kingdom of God lies in the future and lies somewhere far from here.

Ahh, but the angels' question is not strange at all if indeed the disciples are looking in the wrong direction. The Kingdom of God is not found in some nostalgic look at the golden age of King David 1000 years ago. The Kingdom of God is not found in space and is not reached in a Space Shuttle. the Kingdom of God is not a promise of the future when Christ will take us away from this lousy place called Earth.

Now is the Kingdom and now is the day. Yes Jesus was taken away at his ascension... but yet we know that Jesus is with us right now. Yes Jesus will return again to establish his kingdom... but at the same time we know Jesus comes to us each time we celebrate Holy Communion and that Jesus is with us now because the assembly of believers is the body of Christ. This is a both/and situation here. We wait for Christ's Kingdom by living for Christ's Kingdom now.

And let me tell you living for Christ's Kingdom is not about being served by your local parish. Living Christ's Kingdom is not about power, wealth, blind ritual and structure. Living Christ's Kingdom today is centered on the main concept of all Jesus' actions and teachings: love. When we love others we are looking in the right direction. When we serve rather than look to be served, we are working for the Kingdom of God.

Before they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the disciples could not understand this concept of a Kingdom of God powered by God's love. Oh how things changed after Pentecost though. Today I believe that everyone who has been baptized in Christ has been given this same Holy Spirit. But even so, too many people ignore that Spirit convinced that life ought to be found in a different direction. I think this is what happened to Ruby. And because she was looking in the wrong direction she never saw what was around her the whole time: God's Kingdom.

Jesus is with you now. The Kingdom is unfolding above, below, and all around you. Do you see it? Are you serving it? Or are you looking in the wrong direction?