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.