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.