Monday, December 24, 2012

God becomes human... We can be human.

The wonder of Christmas is that God becomes a human:
God becomes human through a young and humble woman. 
God becomes human by being born in a stable with farm animals. 
When God becomes human the good news is first proclaimed to shepherds, who were not the highest ranking people in the society by any stretch of the imagination.
When God becomes human, he really becomes human.  He's not a super human.  He's not powerful or impressive by any worldly measurements.  God becomes human by meeting us right where we are. 

Most nativity scenes don't do justice to just how lowly the whole situation was.  The barn, manger, and animals were common, less than common even.  The shepherds are way overdressed and far too clean cut.  The shepherds in the Bethlehem countryside would have been a messy bunch and I'm sure they would have had long disheveled beards.  In fact as I sit hear and ponder those shepherds I can't help but think of the Robertson clan in the reality TV show: Duck Dynasty.

The idea behind that show lies behind the real-life story of a true Louisiana red-neck (his words), who loves hunting and the outdoors, making it rich because of an extremely successful line of duck calls he created under the name Duck Commander.  Now Phil has gotten up in years and its time for his son Willie to take over the business as the CEO.  The TV show follows Willie's struggles with keeping both the successful business and his crazy "red-neck" family together.  It's hilarious.  Phil and Willie are the stars, but its Uncle Si and brother Jase who really steal the show.  Yes they have money, and they are successful by worldly standards, but that doesn't stop them from being the people God created them to be.  Money or no money, success or no success, you know that this gang wouldn't be one bit different. 

This is why the Robertson Family would make fantastic shepherds for any church's Nativity Play.  They are the real deal.  They are human.  They are not going to pretend for anyone... not even for God.

God entering into created reality at Christmas means that we may be and should be humans before God.  God, who can do anything God chooses do to, chooses to meet us right where we are, just as we are.  Be yourself... and certainly don't pretend.

The authenticity of the show Duck Dynasty has me shaking my head every week: "They can't possibly be acting" I say to myself, shaking my head as I watch them get into another crazy conversation about life. 

God gives us permission to be the real deal before him.  Come to the Christ child, just as you are.  God has met you in Jesus.  Oh yes, the world is going to change through this Messiah.  And he will convict us through his cross and give us life through his resurrection, but the change that is made in you will be authentic, coming from your heart.

So be yourself this Christmas.  Let your hair grow out.  Don't put on a show.  Come to Bethlehem and see the baby... just as you are.      

Saturday, December 22, 2012

We Made It!

So much for the Mayans.  Though their 5,000 year-old calendar expired Thursday, the world did not end and we are here to proceed on with life.  All of the predictions about the-end-of-the-world once again were proven false just by the fact that we're still here.  We made it.

Actually, those still connected with Mayan history have been pretty vocal for months that the conclusion of the old calendar didn't mean the-end-of-the-world at all.  Instead, those doomsday predictors were once again playing on our society's fears and expectations that the world is indeed ending.  The conclusion of the Mayan calendar was just another convenient tool for them to spread fear.

Mayans who actually know a thing or two about this calendar told us instead that the end of this calendar meant it was the end of the 13th Batkun, or age of about 400 years.  Time for a new Batkun.  Time for a new calendar.  I wonder if they will get one for Christmas.  We made it.  Time to turn the page.

For Christians, the birth of Christ ushered in and is continuing to usher in a new age.  God is one with us in Christ and his birth, death and resurrection means that the world is about to turn the page into a new reality.  "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent and believe the good news," was and is Jesus proclamation to us.  A wonderful place to read about this coming kingdom is in Mary's song to Elizabeth in Luke's Gospel.  A young and pregnant Mary visits her very old and very pregnant relative Elizabeth who's son will be John the Baptist.  Elizabeth, Mary's elder and the wife of a priest, differs honor and respect to young Mary who will be "the mother of my Lord."  Mary's song is one of the ages.  Faithfully she recognizes how God has blessed her.  She also describes a new age... a new kingdom... that will be ushered in through her son:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)

The world is going to change.  We have made it into the 14th Batkun, yes, but we have also made it into the Kingdom of God.  It's not yet fully revealed, but through faith in Christ we can already live according to this coming kingdom.  We can live by faith, share hope where there is only darkness, and know that God provides for all our needs.  The page is turning on the past age.  A new age is coming.  The humble are lifted up.  The hungry are filled with good things.  God's people are not forgotten.  The rich and haughty will have no part in this kingdom.  It will be a kingdom rich in mercy, justice and love.  Live this reality now. "God's mercy extends to those who fear him."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Prayers for our Nation

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. - John 1:4

The news of the events of at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT has struck our country hard today.  Once again the wicked acts of a single individual, lashing out his hate upon the world, has cost us the lives of too many of our brothers and sisters.  Please keep the families of those effected in your prayers.  Pray for peace.  Pray for hope.

I had the opportunity today to be at Foster School today, serving as a chaperon for a third grade field trip to the Field Museum.  The museum was alive... teeming with school groups of young kids from all over Chicagoland: learning, laughing, having fun, and goofin' off a bit as well.  All over this country millions of teachers, administrators and parents are doing an amazing job with these kids... providing love as they provide places of wonder and growth.  The desperate acts of evil will not have the final say.  Evil's days are numbered.  The Light of the World is dawning.  We can can live with hope and dedicate our lives to Christ who is the Prince of Peace.

Hold on to your kids and grandkids a little tighter tonight and answer their questions about what happened with care and honesty.  Pray with them and remain hopeful.  As the days get darker in this world know that the light of Christ's love get's brighter and brighter and brighter!  

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, 
who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I didn't hear as much about 12/12/12 today as I expected.  Most of the talk about 12/12/12 has been about the concert tonight for Hurricane Sandy relief.  I don't think people realize just how much struggling is still going on in the Northeast because of Sandy.  I hope tonight's concert is a success and has a big impact.

Today marks the end of the yearly cycle that began in 2001 of interesting repeating number days like this.  Start with January 1, 2001 (01/01/01) we have had one of these each year.  But one could argue that the first one only really occurred on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10).  After all, does anyone really write a "0" before the number?

These dates have been a bonanza for weddings.  And I must say it does help you remember if something big happened on the date.  I'll never forget that the first night game at Wrigley Field was on 8/8/88.  The game was rained out and wasn't official... but I sure do remember 8/8/88.

People who need a date like this to look forward to are already talking about November 12, 2013 (11/12/13), but I don't think that counts. Did anyone say a thing on October 11 of this year (10/11/12)?  Nope.

So we have to say farewell now to the repeating number dates.  The next will be on February 2, 2022 (2/2/22).  I suggest if you can't wait that long start looking for repeating patterns, like January 3, 2013 (1/3/13).  Being born on July 2, 1972 (7/2/72) I'd say I prefer them. 

Just remember... regardless of the number..."This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it."  Today is a gift.


Saturday, December 01, 2012

Plan Advent

There are certain cycles in our society that are so predictable.  The Christmas Season is one of those cycles.  As we move through the month of November more and more signs of the Christmas season appear in stores and public squares.  You see things about Christmas on TV and your hear Christmas music beginning to be played on the radio.  Then when Thanksgiving arrives the whole nation seems revved up and ready to go.  And to tell the truth I think that such a cycle has been more evident this year than in the past few.

It's as if the unpleasantness of the election season and the fatigue of a bad economy for over half-a-decade has made us all ripe for a full-blast Christmas season.  Through "Cyber Monday" (the Monday after Thanksgiving where people are encouraged to shop online) online sales in November where $16.4 billion for Christmas and $1.46 billion on that day alone.  Both numbers are up nearly 20% from last year.

Looking around its as if everyone is shopping like its 2004.  Won't we ever learn?  Will we always be stuck in the cycle of spend and spend and rush and rush?  Those who are tired of such cycles of work, debt, buy, and sprint are looking for a Plan B as an alternative that can free them from the stress of these endless cycles.  This past week many people looked toward Powerball as their Plan B.

That's right, with a jackpot of over half-a-billion dollars... HALF-A-BILLION DOLLARS!!! (Actually half-a-billion plus $88 million) the only cycle a person would need to ride is one completely of their own choosing.  Powerball promises the freedom do whatever you want the the allure of never being unhappy again.  Don't believe me?  160 million tickets were sold.  One for every 1.5 adults living in this country.  You don't sell that many tickets without making some pretty hefty promises.

But Plan B didn't work.  Now what?  Back on the cycle of spend and rush, buy and collapse from exhaustion?

The days are surely coming for a new plan.  "The days are surely coming says, the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 33:14)."  The days are surely coming when the cycles of the old covenant and the empty promises of the present will be exposed for what they are.  The days are surely coming for a new covenant, a new righteous Branch from the line of David, a new plan... a plan B which actually is a Plan A.  And today... this day... such a coming hope is not symbolized by the Powerball ticket, no.  The days of hope that are coming is symbolized by the Advent Wreath.

The days are surely coming... and are now here... when we can be still and wait upon the Lord.  We can dwell in his presence and bask in his light.  We don't need to be chained to this cycle of spend and rush, buy and collapse.  Instead we are welcome to embrace this Season of Advent that begins right now... not on November 1... not on Thanksgiving... not on Black Friday... not on Cyber Monday... not on Powerball Wednesday.  Now is the time and now is the moment to embrace the calm, peaceful truth of Jesus Christ who is the Lord... who is our righteousness.

As the Advent Wreath gets brighter... slowly and steadily... week after week: we know that Christ is upon us and giving us peace and hope.  As the world's days get shorter and busier... the Light of Christ will be our bright Morning Star.  The days are surely coming when we can embrace this peace: regardless of money, regardless of employment, regardless of stuff. Allow the Spirit to turn your Plan A's and your Plan B's into a Plan Advent this year.  "Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)"  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

We Are Not Squirrels

A true treasure of grace in Scripture comes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel.  "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing (5:25)?"  Life is more than food and more than clothing. 

Jesus uses examples from nature to make his point.  The birds don't worry and they are provided for.  The fields don't worry and flowers still grow to give amazing beauty.  If God will do that for them, how much more is God going to do for you... you created in the image of God? 

But nature also ends up being the example of worry to the extreme.  Look at the squirrels.  There whole existence is moving about looking for food, getting ready for winter, finding a mate from time to time I'm sure as well.  Their life is all about about.  Their existence is essential survival.  God provides for them giving them all kinds of trees to hop into, but there doesn't seem to be much else.

For us though, created in the image of God, life is so much more than food and clothing... so much more than searching for the essentials.  God provides us for those needs and provides enough for all of us.  I saw a tweet today from Bread for the World that states that "most hungry people now live in middle income countries."  God provides for our needs.  We are the ones who fail to distribute those necessity in a way that is just.

God gives us permission to stop acting like squirrels.  Stop hording.  Life is more than food and more than clothing.  Life is more than stuff.  Life is more than securing your future. 

Christ has secured our future for us through the cross.  We have received forgiveness of sins through his generous love and been promised eternal life, spiritual life through baptism.  God provides for our needs to day and promises us a future for tomorrow.

So how do we occupy our time if we are not spending it hording for a rainy day, preparing for the worst that life can dish out to us.  Oh life can sure dish it out.  Taking an image from Revelation: The dragon is on the lose and he hurts.  There is much to be worried about.  But through Christ we have been given permission to let it go.  Give it to God.  Christ has beaten the dragon, who is on his last breath.  Don't let worry control your life.  Stop being a squirrel.

Instead: "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (5:33)."  God gives you what you need.  Striving for righteousness and living in faith now opens you up to live the kingdom now and live in righteous light of Christ.  Squirrels don't live in that light.  We do.  Living faith frees us from worry and fear.  Living faith moves us to act on behalf of others, justly sharing with those in need.     

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where Have You Gone Twinkies?

"The future of the Twinkie remains uncertain..." so says a newspaper article today.  A couple days ago the bakery that makes the world famous Twinkie shut down in the midst of a labor dispute.  Since that announcement the nation has had to come to grips with the very real possibility that there will be no more Twinkies. 

I have not been surprised by the national response.  People everywhere are talking about it.  The Twinkie represents America in many ways and on many levels and the idea that these soft, spongy twin yellow cakes filled with delicious cream filling might be gone forever has struck a pretty strong cord.  The Twinkie that we have taken for granted might be no more. 

Is there any snack cake quite like the Twinkie?  It can withstand a nuclear blast.  Its convenient and cheap.  Its has a unique taste that we loved as kids but grew to think otherwise as adults.  The Twinkie represents our society's unhealthy eating habits and yet is ingenious: an easy snack for any time and place.  It represents American ingenuity and a simpler time when we didn't care about what we fed our kids.  It was the first purchase many kids made as young consumers.  Where have you gone Twinkies?

As much as anything the Twinkie touches our very sensitive nostalgia button: A button that is lit bright red (and green) this time of year.  "O the way things used to be."  We mourn our childhood and lost loved ones.  We miss at least the ideas of what life used be like and those Twinkies, just like Christmas, play an important role in those memories of the mind.

No spot is so dear to my childhood...
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?  Where have you gone Twinkies?  Where have you gone the happy Christmases of the past?  Where have you gone O church in the wildwood?

Nostalgia is to faith as Twinkies are to Holy Communion.  It is a phony, sugary substitute that is bad for our health physically and spiritually.  Jesus is Lord today and calls you to follow today.  When we do consider the past, we do it through the eyes of faith... thanking God for the great cloud of witnesses that sowed the seeds of faith in us and our community.

We will begin our Jubilee Year, Fiftieth Anniversary celebration this month at Resurrection with our Christmas Tapestry concert on Sunday, December 16.  We thank God for the many ways we have been Making Christ Known to All through the years and we will look back, not through the cloudy sticky nostalgic lens we use when we look at the Twinkie, but through the lens of truth based on faith in Christ.  God is on the loose right now and will be doing great things through all of you today and tomorrow because of the Spirit's unending power.

Personally, I think we're going to have Twinkies for a long time to come.  But if we don't I suppose we can hold on the memories of those delicious cakes and that cream filling unlike any other...  We will be fine.  We will also have Christ from now till everlasting.  Christ is King and his Kingdom will stand forever.  Having been bathed in the waters of baptism this future is assured.        

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Everything You Got

Open to abundant joy... and overflowing generosity.
There is a story in Mark's Gospel where Jesus does some observing.  He already has observed the scribes.  He sees their long robes.  He sees how much they enjoy the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  He also is watching how rich people are putting money into the temple treasury.  Many are putting in large sums.  It's the widow he points out to others.  He sees that she is poor.  We can imagine what he saw.  Jesus also sees that she puts into the treasury a couple pennies.  He knows it's everything she has.  "She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on (Mark 12:44b)." 

Jesus leaves it at that.  He doesn't tell us to go and do likewise.  He is just stating what he sees.  But we are moved by his observations.  Don't we like the best seats as well, nice clothes and the like?  Maybe we given, even large sums.  But have we given everything we've got?  Is this really what Jesus expects?  He doesn't say. 

The Spirit says, however.  We know Jesus loves us completely and we know that Jesus wants our hearts.  We have heard Jesus teach us that "where your heart is, there your treasure will be also."  Living in the light of Christ's love means living with your hands wide open... open to receive from God... open to give back.  A heart that belongs to Jesus is a heart that is filled with abundant joy, thankful for all the ways that God has provided for our needs.  It also is a heart that overflows with generosity.  We cheerfully give back while our heart sings out of gratitude and love.

Jesus doesn't say whether the poor widow was singing.  He didn't see that.  But we can be sure she was not giving out of obligation, nor out of guilt.  May she not be an example of the scribes devouring widow's houses as we hear in Mark 12:40. 

Instead she is a living example of living hope.  Completely dependent on God, she gives everything she has away.  The Lord, is it the source of hope for everyone and is her source of hope as well.  She is living that hope and can now live with the abundant joy Jesus offers to us all. 

By living with your hands wide open you are giving faith everything you got.  You are open to God's love and his blessing to be showered on you.  You are free to overflow with generosity.  Where's your heart when you live this way?  What's your heart singing?  As you live with your hands wide open may it be free to sing a song of praise and thanksgiving... experiencing the abundant joy that only comes through faith. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

Electoral College

One of my favorite computer games.
The game of presidential politics fascinates me.  It always has.  When I was a kid in the 1980's I would play the old PC game "President Elect" over and over again on our family's Apple IIe (the first and last Apple Computer I ever used regularly).  There were no graphics on that game.  Just lines of questions and choices about where to campaign and what issues to focus on and what type of advertising to use.  I would re-create the 1980 and 1976 races over and over again.  Rarely would Ford beat Carter in '76 and Reagan always triumphed over President Carter in '80 but it was fun anyhow.  You could even try running the races with different candidates.  How would Kennedy have fared in 1980?  I loved that stuff.

I take that back about the graphics... there was one screen with graphics in "President Elect": the big map of the US indicating which candidate was winning in each state and which states were too-close-to-call.  It's a map you are familiar with.  Back in the 80's though it was the Republicans indicated by blue and the Democrat states were red.  That's the way they were displayed in President Elect and there's a story that Nancy Reagan (always known for loving to wear red) wore blue at President Reagan's second inauguration because the whole map was colored blue for her husband on election day.
A blue Nancy Reagan

I loved pouring all my resources into states that were too-close-to-call.  What a great feeling it was when you could pull a state to your favor that way, but also how frustrating it was when, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't get a state to budge.   

In a lot of ways following the polls in our presidential election campaign the past month has felt like my old "President Elect" game.  Those polls just are not budging.  No matter how much President Obama and Gov. Romney put into those swing states the polls have pretty much remained just as they have been. 

I will be voting tomorrow and I hope every American eligible to vote will do the same.  I will also be riveted to the election results tomorrow night.  Thanks to my faith, I am able to look at the results with a whole lot more grains of salt than I used to when I was younger.  I see good in both candidates and understand human nature enough to know that no one party or candidate represents total good or wickedness.  God is the source of our hope and I pray God guides us to have leaders that will help us be a just and prosperous nation. 

I am fascinated to know if these unwavering polls are going to turn our right.  Will the President, who is no where near as popular as he was in 2008, really only going to lose a couple of percentage points nationally?  Are conservative Christians really going to come out in full force to vote for a Mormon to be president?  Will the President really win Ohio by 3 or 4 points?  Did Sandy have an impact of solidifying support for the President?  Do the polls actually short-change Republicans as some are claiming? 

I'm going to enjoy tomorrow night... and I'm sure I'll be up late.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I have never been through a hurricane.  Through the magic of media, however, I have witnessed the effects of an hurricane.  Being all nice and cozy in Ohio as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and seeing its terrible aftermath left me filling sick.  "Surely there is something we can do.  Can't we get down there to help?" 

I first heard of Katrina several days before it hit land.  I was on vacation. Valerie and I went to a mega church on Sunday morning for worship.  The pastor was all over Katrina: "They are saying its going to be a big one."  I remember thinking, "they always say that."  That time they were sure right.  Katrina still defines so much of what New Orleans is about, even today. 

Before I knew her as Hurricane Sandy, I knew this hurricane as "Frankenstorm."  A headline in the Tribune several days ago said that this "Frankenstorm" might be another "Perfect Storm" for the Northeast.  They made a movie about the Perfect Storm.  The media was all ready to make another one with Sandy... A Halloween horror. 

As the storm is now hitting the east my prayers have been with the people out there.  It is a frighting, devastating event.  Already lives have been lost.  God is walking with the people.  May they find courage and strength as they work together to get through. 

A week from today we will have an election in America.  I wonder what impact this storm will have.  Maybe none... maybe a world of impact.  Do storms like this move us to depend more on our leaders, or do they put things like elections in perspective?  Leadership means standing courageously for what you believe... even in the face of life's storms.  Even when it looks like all is lost, a leader will stand tall and inspire a people to the possibilities that lie ahead.

Faith in Christ leads us into a world of possibilities.  He stands with us in our struggles.  Christ suffers because we suffer.  He also strengthens us to stand tall, to reach out, and to step forward in faith.  So many prayers are being lifted up for just that kind of strength and guidance for what we face as a people over the next week.       

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Freedom to Be Bold

As Americans we know that we are free.  We even sing: "I'm proud to be an American because at least I know I'm free."  We are free to vote.  We are free to travel.  We have free speech and freedom of religion. We are free to buy what ever we want.  We are free to do whatever work we are hired to do.  I can go on and on. 

But are we really free?  When Jesus speaks to a group of fellow Jews about discipleship they are confused by his words because, like us, the Jews felt they were free.  Jesus said "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)." They say that they have never been slaves to anyone.  Since the exodus, when Moses led them out of slavery into freedom, they have always been free. 

Jesus explains himself quite well.  "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."  We don't have to be under the thumb of tyrants in order to be slaves.  We are slaves because of the sin we commit. 

There is a lot of ways of looking at this.  When hundreds line up for days to be the first to own an iPhone 5, that's an example of slavery. 

When a woman says "yes" to her neighbor, and "yes" to her sister, and "yes" to her co-worker, and "yes" to her kids... only to collapse late at night in anger and resentment: that's slavery. 

When a man refuses to call his dad on his birthday and will not speak to his ex-wife and considers his step-son dead to him: that is slavery. 

When a woman hoards her money, food and possessions to the point it squeezes out the rest of her loved ones: that is slavery.

When people remain stuck in patterns of destructive behavior for months and years and simply cannot make the bold step to become healthy: that's slavery.  All of these forms of slavery are alive and well; even right here in the United States. 

Sin enslaves us.  Fear enslaves us.  They prevent us from knowing and living the true freedom we have been given through the gospel of Christ.  And honestly... fear is at the bottom of every one of the forms of slavery I mentioned above.

Knowing the truth about Jesus is knowing that fear does not control us.  We don't have to have the latest thing, we don't have to be people pleasers, we don't have to hold those angry grudges, we don't have to self-medicate the pain, we don't have to think of ourselves as less because Jesus our Lord has though the world of every single one of us.  He died on the cross to set us free from sin and set us free from fear.

Knowing this truth is only part of the battle.  Don't just know that you are free; do something about it.  You live out your faith in truth by boldly throwing that fear in the wastebasket given to you through Christ.  Instead of hoarding you give generously out of gratitude and joy.  Instead of holding on to grudges and hate, you reach out to people, even when they are nasty.  Instead of pleasing people you are free to stand on your principles and values.  Some of the greatest heroes in the history of the world lived in the light of Christian freedom... and not because they had the Bill of Rights to back them up.

Martin Luther said "no" the doctrine of salvation through works and indulgences and yes to translating the Bible into a language that people could understand.  He didn't have the right do that, except under the shadow of the cross.

Abraham Lincoln said "no" to the idea that people could be property.  He easily could have been enslaved himself in the chains of public opinion, but instead he boldly stood on his principles and changed our nation forever.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer a pastor in Nazi Germany said "no" the requirements of the Reich's Church.  He had no right to say "no" to Hitler, but he did and he still remains an example of Christian freedom in action, even in the face the death.

Great men and great women have known the truth and have lived the truth.  Christ has made you great as well.  Boldly live our your faith for the cross has shattered the chains of sin and fear.  The acts of living faith: service and generosity, devotion and justice are yours.   "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36)."


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You Don't Stand in Your Furnace Alone

There is a great a story in Daniel about three guys with funny Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  Their names are Babylonian, but these young men are Hebrew... having been part of the group of important leaders and families who had been exiled to Babylon after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and conquered Judah.  They were doing just fine in Babylon until the King (another great name) Nebuchadnezzar built a giant golden statue and made it law that all people to worship it every time some wacky music played.  A line was drawn in the sand.  It was a line that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would not cross.  The penalty for disobedience was death: death by a really hot furnace.

I know it doesn't sound like it, but this often is a story included in Vacation Bible School curriculum for young kids.  It's also a story that's been made into a Veggietale, with Abednego's name changed to Benny.  (No wonder I often pronounce his name as A-BEN-de-go.)  It's funny how that often works.  Some of the Bible's most violent stories get turned into a children's Bible staple.  Just look at Noah's Ark.  The story of God destroying all creation by a flood becomes the decorating theme for a newborn's nursery.

Great lessons are learned from those stories, so why not teach them to kids.  In Noah's Ark God promised never again to destroy creation.  He gives us a rainbow as a sign of his covenant.  In Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego we get a lesson of faith that needs to be shared and heard, even by children, because it's impact is grace for our whole lives.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego worship the Lord and they are firm in their principles and values.  Up till them they had lived just fine under Nebuchadnezzar and have participated in the life of Babylon.  But when a line is drawn that would force them to compromise their values they don't struggle for a moment.  They say no.  No, we will not worship your statue.  No, my faith in the Lord will not permit me to do as you ask.  Threats don't sway them.  They know their punishment will be death, but they still hold on to their faith.  I ask though: what do they have faith in?  Do they have faith that God will save them?  This is what they tell Nebuchadnezzer in Daniel 3:16b-18:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.

They have faith in God.  They have faith that God will be with them.  Their faith is not that they will necessarily survive this.  No.  Instead, whether they perish or whether they are saved they know God will be with them.  They will not budge from their values.

Bound up, the young men do get thrown into the furnace, now seven times more hot than normal because Nebuchadnezzer is so angry.  When the king looks into the furnace he is amazed by what he sees.  The men are unbound and there is now another individual "like a god" there with them.  Old Nebuchadnezzer demands they come out.  They are saved.  Not a scratch.

God meets Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in their furnace.  God stands with them.  God loves them.  On that day it meant that the furnace would not devour them. Faith is a powerful gift.  But what do we have faith in?  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's faith was based on core values that they would not compromise.  Their faith was in God who would stand with them as they faced their furnace and while they were in the furnace.  Their faith was not that God would let them live that day, but instead their faith was that whether they burn or whether they live God will be with them and God will be God.  "We will not serve your gods..."

Chances are that there's a furnace that your facing right now.  We all have our furnaces.  In Christ, on his cross, God meets us and stands with us no matter what that furnace might be.  Allow the Spirit to empower you to stay true to your values, principles and faith.  No matter what: God is with you.      

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Milwaukee Brewers first World Series game.  In Game 1 of the 1982 Series the Brewers faced the St. Louis Cardinals and won BIG: 10-0!  Paul Molitor, the Brewers lead-off hitter, the Ignitor (and of course future Hall of Famer and holder of 3,319 career hits) got five hits in the game.  He still is the only player to have ever done that.  The game was also a 3-hit shutout for Mike Caldwell: a masterpiece.  It's also interesting to note that Molitor didn't go 5 for 5, but 5 for 6.  He made the first out of the game when he grounded out to Tom Herr in the first.   

Now I could say "unfortunately" and list what happened next for the Brewers that October and for the next 30 years... but I'm not going to do that.

Instead... what a great game!  It's a game worth keeping score and then framing the scorecard.  We'll always have October 12, 1982.


Here Comes the Sun

The Beatles song "Here Comes the Sun" is one of my favorites.  When my kids were babies Valerie and I would play music softly in their nursery.  We must have read somewhere that was the thing to do.  As new parents we were looking for all the guidance we could get.  At one of Valerie's baby showers someone gave us a collection of popular songs played as lullabies without words.  My favorite CD was "Baby Beatles" and my favorite song was "Here Comes the Sun."  Whether it's George Harrison singing it or just played as a lullaby... I love the song.

The song gives me hope just as the sun gives me hope.  "It's alright."  The last couple days I got to see the sunrise as I was walking around my neighborhood.  Those first rays of sunlight and the first appearance of that bright sphere in the morning gives me hope.  Today is a new day.  Today is a new beginning.  The world has been spinning for a long time.  It did before I was here and it will long after.  God knows.  It's alright.

Jesus, the Son, gives me hope.  It's alright.  The sun will rise again.  I belong to Christ, therefore I can embrace this day as the gift it is.   

Saturday, October 06, 2012

God's Celebration Train

I know the stereotype... so do you: Kids today, they don't listen to anyone.  No matter what you tell them, it goes in one ear and out the other.  Now, if you're talking about candy, or games, or Toys-R-Us then they're right with you.  But if you ask them to clean up their room... you might as well be talking to the wall.

Oh yeah, sure that's out there, plenty of examples of kids not caring about no one but themselves.  When you keep your eyes open, though, and really watch the kids, you might be surprised by what you see.  Go to a baseball game, the local playground, to a museum or a craft fair.  Most of the time you're going to see kids who are right on their parents' tail.  For a moment they might be distracted by something fun or something that comes to their mind, but it's not for long.  There seems to be that sixth-sense within them that tells them to stay close and keep up.  Like little ducklings, there they go into the crowds right behind dad.  You see it in grocery stores and you see it at the zoo: especially with the real little ones.

I get the chance to meet with a group of about thirty preschool children once-a-week.  I read to them a Bible story, we sing a song together, and close with a prayer.  It's great fun.  Those three, four, and five year-olds are so cute walking up the stairs together in a long "spaghetti" line.  Some are anxious to be the line leader, while other hesitate to take a step forward.  But all together they come up... one after another.  For the most part, they do a great job saying focused.

This fall I taught them a song called "God's Celebration Train."  With simple lyrics they are invited come aboard and choo choo choose "Jesus' love."  I use this song because they learn that they are God's children and God has invited them into the family of God through baptism.  "Come on board," I say to them.  Kids love trains too, so they get a kick out of making train noises and marching around the room pretending to be one long train.

Kids are experts at trains and they are pretty good at the whole staying in line thing.  The picture book Freight Train, by Donald Crews, is just about required reading in preschool.  In that book they learn about all the different cars in a train: the red caboose, the purple box car, the green cattle car, the blue gondola car...  They also learn that a train runs across "this" track, pulled by the black steam engine.  It is the train that is crossing trestles, moving in darkness and moving in daylight.  Going, going... Gone!

The fright train is made up of all those parts.  The orange tank car doesn't just sit on its own somewhere.  The purple box car doesn't go anywhere when its not connected to the freight train.  When connected... its part of something big... something exciting... something that will take all the cars past big cities and on to fantastic adventures.  Going, going, gone.   

When we march around the room like one big, long freight train those kids are part of something bigger than themselves and they love it.  They ask to do it again and again.  They are on board God's celebration train and i think they understand that God's invitation to this train is going to take them to some really cool places. 

Jesus teaches us and models for us the importance of our inter-connectedness in community.  We need one another.  We need the help of others and are called to use our gifts to reach out to help.  Like a train, as we pull the car behind us we are being pulled as well. 

So often those kids I see following their mom's tail at the mall or their father at the bowling alley, are far more aware of what's going on than even their parents, who too often are in the process of using their new i-phones or tablets.  Jesus knows that life is tough out there and the devil is ready to pounce with his lies and false accusations.  We need each other.  When Jesus speaks against divorce, like he does in Mark 10, I think his lesson is centered on this idea that we need each other.  Then Jesus immediately supports this message by scolding his disciples for sending kids away.  "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it (Mark 10:14-15)."

Adults fall for it all the time... another stereotype.  Be your own man.  Take care of yourself.  Don't be tethered to the demands of your "old lady."  The greatest cause of divorce is miscommunication... and the greatest cause of miscommunication is being self-centered.  When people don't listen to each other and just talk, talk and scream and scream over one another, it's just not going to work.

Jesus ends up using kids as the model for Christian community (and not just marriage).  Not the stereotype model, but the model of children who follow their parents because they don't want to get lost.  It is the model of children who listen and pay attention because they won't know what to do otherwise.  They receive that help and guidance from those they depend on and they receive the kingdom of God in a spirit of humility and need.  What a moment of genius for Jesus.  Children are a model for Christian community because they hop aboard God's celebration train willingly.  They don't want to become some lonely purple box car going nowhere.  On God's celebration train they go places and see great things.  Connected with others, and with Christ at the lead, they will be going, going, gone to places that are only available through faith.

Hop on board this celebration train.  Your ticket has been punched at baptism.  But you're going to miss out on the ride if sit one out and give it a try on your own.  No matter how cool a green cattle car you are, you ain't getting anywhere unless get on board this train.  All aboard God's celebration train.      

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Healing, Prayer, Community and the Power of the Lord

The Letter of James, that great work about great works in the name of faith, ends with a pep talk.  It's the kinda stuff an inspirational speaker would use to get people off their butts and on the move:

"Is anyone among you in trouble?  Let them pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let them sing songs of praise.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make them well, the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned they will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." - James 5:13-16

There's several things going on here.  First is the fact that this is for community.  The questions are not for you.  Are you sick?  Are you happy?  Are you in trouble?  No, the questions here are about the community.  As you think about your community, can you think of anyone who is in trouble?  Are there those who are happy?  Is there anyone who is sick?  Notice, you are being asked to think about others and then given instructions about the instructions you are to give to those people. 

And those wonderful James instructions are to do something.  Let them pray.  Let them sing songs of praise.  Let them call upon the elders of the community to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  Let them confess their sins.  Let them receive forgiveness from the righteousness among them. 

Our basic needs as people have changed very little in 2000 years.  People get in trouble.  People express happiness.  People get sick and people need forgiveness.  God gives us all these things through Christ and we experience all these things in Christian community.

The community is where prayer is encouraged.  We are all capable of praying on our own, but we are terrible at remembering to pray in the midst of life's troubles.  Of course we are.  When we are in trouble we're not thinking straight and we're not seeing the hope.  It takes friends in community to remind us to pray. 

This past month my youngest son started Third Grade and was experiencing some pretty tough times with spelling tests.  Even after working on those words every day, he was still not passing.  It was a big frustrations for him, for my wife, and for me.  My wife could see the hope, however, not in a new way of studying or doubling our efforts; but in prayer.  The last three weeks, with prayer added to the equation, my son has gotten A's every week.  True story.  There is power in prayer and it took someone else to remind him and remind me. 

In times of sickness, we need community as well.  Oh sure we need doctors and medical professionals.  Twenty-first century Americans certainly understand that.  But we also need our communities of faith.  There is something sacramental about leaders in the community being called to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil.  (Jesus commands it in Mark 6 and we sure have a physical element here in James 5.  And it does look like there's a whole lot of God's grace bestowed through the act.)  The anointing of the sick is indeed a sacrament for our Roman Catholic friends. 

There is power in those words and in that oil... power because it is done in the name of the Lord.  There in the midst of community God shines the light of healing upon the sick: both physical and spiritual.  The power of forgiveness is offered as well and we are reminded by our coach James that getting off our butts and living these spiritual disciplines in community is powerful and effective.  Christ is with us in community and will act.

This is where James is such a gift to us for living faith.  It's so easy to forget.  We don't pray like we ought and so we starve ourselves from knowing the true hope that Christ has given us in times of trouble.  We don't sing songs of praise when we're happy and forget therefore who is the source of all our blessings.  We go to the doctor when we are sick but forget the prescriptions we need are not just found at Walgreens.  We need to be prayed for... we need touch... we need others... we need to be told about the gospel again. 

Remember... James' pep talk is for you to think about others and be that shepherd who guides others to these disciplines.  It's a pep talk for the community... for it is in community we experience Christ as we ourselves are the body of Christ.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Affirm Hope

After a lifetime of walking on eggshells, pretending to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it feels pretty strange to accept the reality that conflict is normal.  It is normal among neighbors and friends.  It is normal in families.  It is normal in churches and Christian communities.  Accept conflict.  If God made us all unique and has given us all free will, then its going to be normal to disagree.

Faith doesn't leave us at acceptance.  To accept conflict alone is to be doomed to a life of suspicion, caution, and cynicism.  To be stuck on point one of "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" is to be alone with no hope for action or change.  Which is why faith automatically moves us to point two: AFFIRM HOPE.  God will work with and through people who disagree so that growth can happen.

Christ is the embodiment of AFFIRM HOPE.  A world that was stuck in the darkness of sin desperately longed to get unstuck.  In Christ, God meets us in our conflict and disagreements and models a way to get unstuck by moving ahead and seeing the truth of God's light.  The cross is that model and it moves us from hopelessness to life.

The civil rights movement is the great example in twentieth century America of a nation stuck in conflict moving ahead to positive change.  A people stood up and said "no more.!"  The eggshells were broken as thousands marched for freedom.  The 800 pound gorilla called Jim Crow was named as the wicked, immoral lie it was. 

The protests, conflicts, and disagreements of the civil rights movement were not comfortable for anyone, but God worked through the conflict.  It became an opportunity for growth and change.  God worked through the disagreements to lead an entire nation forward... and the journey continues.

Individuals who struggle are poised to have the Lord step forward and move them in amazing ways.  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."  Families and friends who struggle in their relationships have the opportunity to affirm their hope in each other and Christ if they stick it out and live according to love. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."  Congregations that struggle with finances have been given the chance to bask in the light of Christ, being led for the sake of mission. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

We can affirm hope as we live out our faith.  Affirming hope gives us the freedom to accept conflict.  It gives us the freedom to both speak and listen to our neighbor.  God will work with us.  God will lead us. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Accept Conflict

"There they go again."  Walking through the Gospel of Mark you find yourself saying that a lot when you focus on the actions of Jesus' disciples.  "There they go again."  Over and over again you see story after story of the disciples acting so... human.  They play out the truth that whenever you have two or three people gathered together you have two or three different opinions.  They mess up.  They misunderstand.  They say strange things that make you wonder if they are paying attention.  They argue.  Yes, these men were human.

Just look at Mark 9:33-34.  "Then they came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the way?'  But they were silent, for on the way they argued with one another who was the greatest."  There they go again.  Traveling the countryside with Jesus, and what do they do?  They argue with one another about who is the greatest.  You just wanna shake your head.

But, considering just how human these disciples are, it really should not come as any surprise that they have disagreements or that they argue.  It is human nature and it does us a whole lot of good as community when we realize and accept that disagreements, arguments, and conflicts are a normal part of how groups of people interact with one another.

There is a document that was produced by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center that has changed the way I view conflict.  It is called "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" and it lays out 12 points to help communities deal with disagreements.  There are points that lay out how you can come to a compromise.  There are points that encourage mediation.  There are points that affirm that even in the midst of conflict we are still one in the Lord: a reality that never changes. 

But at its most basic, it is the first half dozen of the points that get into the realities of who we are as humans and how Christ calls us to be in relationship with him and one another.  The very first point has changed my life.  "In thought... ACCEPT CONFLICT.  Acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church." 

Wow... accept conflict.  Conflict is normal.  All my life I have lived under the mantra of AVOID CONFLICT: Acknowledge that it hurts to disagree so lets walk lightly on those egg shells because its just to painful to experience conflict in a church.  How about that, avoiding conflict isn't actually a healthy way to be community.  Avoiding conflict forces you to be someone you are not because you will not share your views for fear of upsetting someone.  Avoiding conflict doesn't work because egg shells break really easy and when they do we all seem to end up with egg on our face. 

Instead, acknowledging together that disagreements are normal is so liberating.  No more eggshells.  You can express yourself.  You can have different opinions.  And its okay... even in the church.  The Gospel of Mark sure teaches us that as the followers of Jesus again and again model the fact that conflict and disagreements go with being community. 

But of course this list does not end with number 1: Accept Conflict... no more than Jesus lets it stand that his disciples argued with one another on the road.  As most of you know, a lot of people do a terrible job at expressing those opinions when conflicts arise.  The disciples did... and just about all of us have too.  Therefore in thought we also AFFIRM HOPE because God walks with us so we can work to growth.  In thought we also COMMIT TO PRAYER because we need God's help and we need to pray for a mutually satisfactory solution. 

James 5:16 puts it so well, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus was disappointed about the very issue they were debating.  He makes it clear that the one who is greatest is the one who serves. He takes a little child in his arms says "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me (Mark 9:37)." 

This is first a model for service, but it is also a model for how we behave when we disagree.  Points 4-7 of "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" call us to "In action... GO TO THE OTHER IN A SPIRIT OF HUMILITY.  Stay connected to the one you disagree with and express yourself in a spirit of gentleness, patience and humility.  What emotions do you usually feel when you need to express to someone that you disagree?  When you live according to the rule of avoiding conflict chances are that you will be quite nervous or even angry about needing to disagree, after all we're supposed to be avoiding conflict.  It doesn't have to be that way, however.  Can you express yourself in a spirit of love and humility even when you disagree, even if the person you are talking with is getting angry?

When Jesus picks up that little child and speaks of welcoming that child in my name, he teaches us all that even the least in society should be served.  But I also think he teaches us that in all of our relationships, even when there is disagreement, you should be able to approach your brother or sister as if he or she was a delicate little child.  We should grant that child of God the respect of listening to them, even when the option they share is different from yours.

"In thought... BE QUICK TO LISTEN and SLOW TO JUDGE."  Seek as much to understand as to be understood and suspend the labeling, name calling and threats.  

How many times in our families and in our workplaces and in our churches have we found ourselves saying: "There they go again?"  How many times have you argued over the same stuff?  How many times have you felt you were not listened to, even as you shut out what the other person was saying?  There we go again.

The disciples did and we do it.  But we don't have to follow the same patterns over and over again.  In Christ we have been given life and hope, which extends even into our relationships with others.  Accepting conflict helps free us from the bonds of fear that prevent us from being truly ourselves in community.  Among friends... among brothers and sisters in Christ... we can talk about anything and move forward to growth. 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Changes... It's All Good

My kids started school last week and I am in awe about how time changes things.  Not only did I turn 40 this summer, but now I have two kids who are in 5th Grade: their last year in Elementary School.  I have a son in 3rd Grade... and I wonder what happened? 

Today is the sixth anniversary of my first day as the pastor of my congregation. 

Tomorrow is my twelfth wedding anniversary.

My twins will turn eleven on Friday.  Where has the time gone?  And as time has moved on nothing has stayed the same.

It works that way in faith.  There are always changes.  In Mark 7 some Pharisees and scribes come all the way from Jerusalem to see Jesus and they are flabbergasted to find that his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat.  Now I know this would flabbergast many of you as well.  With all the germs that you can pick up in the strangest of places, washing hands before eating is important part of healthy eating habits.  The Pharisees are interested in such unclean habits both as a matter of hygiene but also as a matter of faith.  The Law and traditions of faith have always stated that its done this way.  "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:5)?"

What we learn in both the disciples' actions and Jesus' response is that in all matters of life change is constant.  It may have been that the ritualistic washing of hands and products used in the preparation of food was the right way for people to live out their faith at one point.  But now that is not the case.  Jesus "declared all foods clean (7:19)" in this text because what the Word reveals is that any act of faith or tradition much be done in light of the love God has for us and the expectations God has placed on upon us through this love.  Tradition never out weighs love.  What comes out of your mouth and out of your heart should be refection of the love God has placed in you.  All too often however, our actions reflect the sin that is always with us and constantly a part of us.  Because sin is unchanging we need to be careful and aware of dark directions wickedness will take us.  Thankfully God's love is unchanging as well.  And in order to live your life as a reflection of that love it means allowing your response to love to change.

Has my relationship with my kids changed over the years?  You bet it has.  I cannot live the same rituals as a father of 5th Graders as I did as a father of preschoolers, no matter how much I would like to pull out that Thomas DVD to calm my kids down

Has my relationship with my wife changed over twelve years?  You bet it has.  The ups and downs of life impact how we work as partners and how relate to each other. 

Has my congregation changed over the decades as well?  You bet it has.  My church would hardly recognize the work that was done in the name of this church over the years... nor would they recognize what is done today in the effort of making Christ known to all.

Serving Christ and going to Church has changed.

But this is certain: though my work as a father is different today than seven years ago, if it all has been done in a spirit of love, then it was right!  And God blessed the effort.

Though the ministry happening in my congregation is different today than it was in 1982, if that work was done in a spirit of love, then it was right and God blessed the effort.  If it was done solely in a spirit of "we-have-always-done-it-this-way" then chances are the motivation is off and the results might be as well.

Changes are constant because people change, contexts change, needs change, and techniques change.  The Word remains... it doesn't change.  But the way we interpret Scripture does change.  The message of God's love for us through Christ remains... it doesn't change.  But the way we express that love needs to change because the world is always in flux.  A different world will not hear us if we don't switch up the song when necessary.

Isaiah poetically reveals that the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God remains forever.  This is true.  But through the years this constant truth about God's love revealed in the Word has moved the church to change its view on slavery for example (even though many passages taken out of context could still be used to support slavery).  As we see in Mark 7 as well, faithful people has even been moved by Christ to change their view on the dietary laws: laws so important in some parts of Scripture.  For the sake of the Word, the Gospel, and the mission to sincerely live out God's love, change had to happen.  To fight off our natural tendencies to sin... to divide... to judge... change had to happen.  It had to happen, has to happen, and will need to happen.

Look at your life. Change has happened all around you, weather you like it or not.  But the Word remains!!!  Alpha and Omega is ready to lead us in change... and comforts us through the change with the arms and hands of hope and joy: which never change.

Finally: Change we can believe in.