Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Genesis & Tornadoes

What a way to begin the story of God and God's creation. Genesis lays it all out for us. God is the source of all creation and proclaims that it's all good. God creates humans in his image, giving us the unique ability to make our own choices and pull away.  Being created in God's image comes with a calling: you will be blessed by being a blessing to others. The story of Abraham and Sarah and their family over the generations reveals that our families are not quite so flawed after all. If God can do amazing things through them, God will do amazing things through us as well.

I love then the way Genesis ends. Joseph, the unjustly mistreated favorite son of Jacob, forgives his brothers and shares a truth about God that still gives us hope.

Then [Joseph's] brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. - Genesis 50:18-21

Being human means living the ups and downs of life. At times we feel like we are king of the world. David felt that way in Psalm 8.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. - Psalm 8:3-5

At other times we know we deserve no forgiveness and feel deep bitterness and regret for our actions. That's the way Joseph's brothers felt at the end of Genesis. But God never gives up.

Consider these examples Genesis:
1. Adam & Eve eat the forbidden fruit, are banished from the Garden, but God still provides for them.
2. Cain murders his brother and is banished to wander, but God protects him from those who would kill him.
3. The wickedness of humanity moves God to flood the earth, but God saves Noah and promises never again by giving us the sign of the rainbow.
4. Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands and Abraham fathers a son Ishmael through Hagar, but God still blesses them with a son Issac.
5. Jacob tricks his father Issac into giving him the blessing, but God still creates a great nation through him.
6. The brothers of Joseph sell him into slavery, but God makes sure that they eventually will be saved from starvation through him.

I think of the tornadoes that struck central Illinois this past Sunday and I know that many families are devastated. Genesis reveals that God has not abandoned them. God will work through such disasters for good. In Christ, God is one with those who have perished. Look for the stories to come out in the aftermath of the tornado and the other disasters that surround us, and find our Creator God of Genesis in action.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a four-step process: reading, mediating, praying and contemplating, traditionally known as lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. It could be said these four steps are like a path that leads away from the noise of the city to the beauty of nature. These steps can be seen as relational – a deepening exchange between two friends. Or they can be called transformational – a microcosm of the change taking place in us as we go from creatures dead in sin to a new creation in Christ. It’s important to see these steps as natural, for they are common to any meaningful experience we have in life. First, we “read” the experience, then we reflect on it. Next, we talk about it, and finally, we bring it into ourselves and let it become part of who we are.

Lectio – Reading and Listening to the Text
Place yourself in a comfortable position and allow yourself to become silent. Some Christians focus for a few moments on one thing to block out the noise of life. A favorite prayer or Bible verse gently recited can help you become peacefully aware of God’s presence. Examples include verses from the Psalms like “Be still, and know that I am God,” or “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”  Then turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. Savor each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am for you today.” Do not expect lightning or ecstasies. In lectio divina, God is teaching us to listen, to seek God in silence. God does not reach out and grab us, rather, he softly invites us ever more deeply into his presence. Once you have found a verse or phrase that is special to you, stop your reading and move into the next phase – meditation.

Meditatio – Meditation
Now make the selected word or phrase of Scripture your own. Treasure it as a special message from a loved one. Although mediation is commonly understood as very passive, Christian meditation on God’s Word is an active encounter with the text. This is God’s Word for you. Deny for a moment the temptation to apply it to one specific situation in your life. Repeat it slowly to yourself, allowing it to interact with your whole world of thoughts, concerns, memories and ideas. Don’t worry if you are distracted by seemingly unimportant or unrelated thoughts. Memories and other thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during prayer, are asking to be given to God along with the rest of you. God wants all of you, and that includes even your most commonplace or most annoying thoughts. Allow this pondering to invite you into dialogue with God.

Oratio – Prayer
Speak to God. Whether you use words or ideas or images, or all three, is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. Give to God what you have discovered in yourself during your experience of meditatio. Experience God using the word or phrase that God has given you as a means of blessing. Give to God what you have found within your heart.

Contemplatio – Contemplation
This part is difficult to describe because it is God’s initiative – it is God acting on his desire to be present to you. All you have to do is be there. Simply rest in God’s embrace. Be patient. When God invites you to return to your pondering of the Bible passage or to your inner dialog with him, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of words when they no longer are necessary.  Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence, in spiritual activity and inner receptivity.

Remember

Sometimes in this process one will return several times to the printed text, either to savor the literary context of the word or phrase, or to seek a new word or phrase to ponder. At other times, only a single word or phrase will fill the entire time set aside for lectio divina. It is not necessary to anxiously assess the quality of one’s lectio divina. This is not a performance. The only goal is BEING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD BY PRAYING THE SCRIPTURES.  

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Like Trees Planted by Streams of Water

When I think about why anyone should bother digging into the Scriptures and becoming comfortable with studying the Bible I can come up with many reasons. But ultimately the answer is found within the Bible itself. Psalm 1 is an introduction to the entire collection of 150 Psalms and it makes a good case as to why you should continue to not only encounter the rest of the Psalms, but the whole of Scripture.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do no wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)

In the next few months I'm going on a journey with some of my friends in my church through the Greatest Story, which is the Scriptures. Psalm 1 will remind us why this journey is worth taking and continuing on. There are many paths we can take as we go through life. Most of those paths travel through the same worldly values and priorities and actions we're used to seeing and living every day. In Psalm 1 those paths are very familiar: going with the crowd, doing the same thing every day, cynically seeing only the poison that's out there.

Those grounded in the Bible travel a different path, one of hope. "They are like trees planted by steams of water." The Word of God reveals our Creator's love for us and the hope that we can abide in God's love for an abundant life right now.

Look at Chapter 1 of the Greatest Story: Bible Introduction and think about how the stories of Scripture can have that kind of power for you... to lead you on a path beside life-giving water.

What stories in your life have come to define you?
What stories and books from others do you find yourself referring to over and over again?

Let's go on this journey together.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

I had the chance to watch the new the movie Gravity yesterday. In 3D, its about as close as you can get to actually walking in space yourself. It's quite a movie.

Without giving too much away, there was a point in the movie that touched my soul. At a critical moment for Ryan, the Sandra Bullock character, when she seemed to be at the end of her rope, she was moved to pray. But in fear and frustration she admitted: "I don't know how to pray. Nobody taught me." Wow!

Many things ran through my mind at that point. How beautiful to naturally seek communion with God in a time of great terror. Even without prayer, and even in the vacuum of space, God is there. God certainly was with Ryan. It also confirmed what I have always believed: How are people going to know about Christ, and how are people going to know about God, about prayer, and about the hope about the Kingdom of God... IF NOBODY TELLS THEM?

Every moment we take to share the good news with a child is valuable. Even taking five minutes to pray with a child who might never have another opportunity to pray, matters. What a tragedy it is to ponder how many people are out there who are desperate to know the love of God, but don't because "Nobody taught me."

In Luke 11, Jesus' disciples see Jesus praying. Surly they have prayed before, but there is something about how Jesus prays and the power that it gives him, that leads them to say to Jesus, "Hey, Teach us to pray. John taught his disciples."

Jesus lays it out simply. The model of the "Lord's Prayer" lays it out this way: Call on the holy name of God, ask for his Kingdom to be fully be realized among us, and ask for all our daily needs, for forgiveness, and protection from the wickedness around us. Praying is boldly laying it all out to God with specific requests. Go ahead. God can take it.

Then after teaching these steps, Jesus, in Luke 11, shares stories to reveal to us that prayer should be done persistently... even without ceasing, as Paul puts it in 1 Thessalonians. If a person can be persistent in asking a neighbor for bread and if a child can be persistent in asking a parent for lunch... how much more should we be persistent in prayer? If the neighbor and the parents respond affirmatively to persistence, rest assured that God will respond to your prayers as well.

Keep on praying then. Go ahead. God can take it. Don't be afraid to lift up your needs... all of your needs to God. Keep on teaching prayer as well. May there never be another child of God in the position to say they can't pray because "Nobody taught me"

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Biting Off More than You Can Chew

When you think of the Fourth of July I'm sure your mind fills with images and memories of fireworks, parades, Uncle Sam, summer picnics, John Philip Sousa and the "Stars and Stripes Forever." For the past couple decades, however, our American traditions for the Independence Day holiday have also included ESPN at around noon and Coney Island, New York. The annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is held every year and since a small eating machine from Japan, Takeru Koybayashi demolished the former record of 24 hot dogs by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in 2001, a couple million viewers have made the Hot Dog Eating Contest a part of their tradition every July 4.

The current monster of the frankfurter, Joey Chestnut, has won the context the last seven years, setting a brand new record of 69 dogs just last year. And to look at Joey Chestnut or Koybayashi you wouldn't think they could eat 2 hot dogs, much less 69. There was a time that a big old schulb could just show up eat a dozen red hots and come away a winner. In fact for several years all it took was 9 to win the contest. That was before ESPN and before true professionals did daily, extensive training of their body and mastering their technique to consume dozens of Nathan's dogs at a sitting.

So don't look for me to join in on some hot dog eating contest. When you bite off more than you can chew, you just end up sick; with a dejected look on your face.

In many things in life its a whole lot better to train and prepare than to just step up to the plate and take your swings cold. It might look easy, but to be a success it takes dedication. The baseball image is an example. Likewise any child knows that riding a bike and learning to swim takes a whole lot of practice. A few years ago I tried cleaning a walleye after just watching a YouTube video.... It didn't work.  I gave up. Might we put living out a living faith in Jesus Christ in the same category?

I had an epiphany many years ago that while I believed I had been graciously forgiven and saved through the cross of Christ and my baptism into Christ, just a belief in an idea didn't in itself have the power to transform. That was the purpose of this blog: Love Christ Live Faith. Through a living faith in Jesus your life is transformed. Living faith, or discipleship, opens up the Kingdom of Heaven into your reality and gives you permission to live with love, freedom, hope, and joy.

Before my transformation, I saw being a Christian as simple as belong to a church and worshiping on a regular basis. Let God do the work and let me live my life. But something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote struck a cord with me: "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ." And life without Christ is a life of darkness and death... and not because I was evil or that I was a sinner and now I'm not. No, instead a life without Christ is a life where hope is not real and cynicism rules. It's going to church and just coming home sick and with a dejected look on your face.

Jesus warned us about this. Living in the light of Christ and allowing that light to fuel you means giving up your own selfish ways and desires and trading them in for the ways of Jesus Christ our Lord. Sounds pretty costly: The ol' cost of discisipleship that Bonhoeffer made famous. There is no half-baked way of approaching discipleship and life in Jesus. In Luke 14 the message is put starkly when Jesus flat out says that you can't be married to your old priorities and desires and be open to the freedom of the Kingdom of Heaven. He says you need to "hate" family. You need to give up your possessions. You need to take up the cross. You need to follow me. There must be complete clarity of purpose in order to produce the hope-filled, light and free life Jesus wants for us.

Jesus puts this many ways in the Gospels. In Matthew 13 we are given two parables in three verses that say it quite well. The Kingdom of Heaven is like stumbling on a field that contains the most valuable thing you ever could imagine. Without out hesitation, and with complete clarity, you would sell everything you had to do what ever it takes to claim that field and make it yours. Or think of this way, its like searching for the most precious pearl in history, finding it, and giving everything up so it can be yours.

Joey Chestnut and Koybyashi made a life commitment to being a hot dog eating champion. They have succeeded and they have received their reward.

But the reward of a life of discipleship, a life following Jesus and wanting to live your life as he would live it, is what I desire more than hot dogs. It is a life in the Kingdom of Heaven that opens up to you the truth in a way that is not always revealed easily before our eyes. It is a life that reveals hope when others only cry despair. Life in the Kingdom is a life of joy while the world only projects misery. Such a life in the Kingdom opens you up to true greatness so that you can be more and do more than you could ever have imagined. As Jesus says so well and so often: "The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is among us and around us, so repent, change your life, give up your selfishness and follow the way of Jesus."

Committing yourself to a life of discipleship might sound like biting off more than you can chew... and with texts like Luke 14, Jesus is completely honest about how you will change. Your old priorities will not be your priorities any longer. Know this. Know what it takes. It's like a army preparing for war, or a church preparing for a building project. It's going to be big.

Ultimately, though, the truth is that the Kingdom of Heaven and the way of Jesus is actually easy. It becomes as easy as Joey Chestnut with a dozen hot dogs: no problem. It is easy because Jesus had trained you, the Spirit has encouraged you, and your friends in Christ are right by your side.  It is easy because you know the truth.

There are many spiritual exercises that we can use as we train, but it is the discipline of prayer and dwelling the Word are the best places to start. If going for a walk, a jog, or a bike ride is important first step for physical fitness, having a regular routine of communication with God through prayer is central to growing as a disciple. Jesus modeled this for us. He needed prayer and we need prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts the power of prayer this way: "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened for you." Made into a habit, prayer becomes a very "easy yoke" in our training to be disciples.

Dwelling in God's Word is just as easy once its a habit. And like a jogger longs to runs, a disciple hungers to dig into Scripture. We can see this in a favorite passage of Lutherans, John 8:31a-32, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Freedom... It's such a gift. Freedom to be you. Freedom from fear. Freedom from hate. Freedom to love and be a light for the world. This is why we come forward and follow Christ Jesus our Lord... our Master... our Teacher.

The cost of discipleship is great... Yes it is. But the cost of not being a disciple is greater. To not be a disciple is to be chained to the dark cynicism of this world. To not be a disciple to to be a Christian without Christ. To follow the way of Christ, though, is freedom.

Monday, August 26, 2013

That's Not Fair!!!!

Kid's know all about "That's Not Fair!!!" Adults do too, because we were kids once.  At a very early age children just naturally know when they are being short changed of what ever it is they want. Just imagine the child who got one scoop of ice cream while the other kids got two... or got stuck with strawberry because all of the chocolate chip ice cream was gone. "That's not fair!"

Jesus often uses children as examples of how we are to live as disciples working for the Kingdom of God. "It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." It's a great analogy because children are completely dependent on their parents or other adults. Their simple and absolute faith is to be admired and is an excellent example of how we are to dwell in Christ. Children are not the best example of faith, however, when we start thinking about their natural, in bred, "That's not fair" radar.

While Jesus often compares the Kingdom of God to children, he uses many other parables and analogies to make the picture for us even richer and clearer.  Faith in the kingdom is not simply like being a child.  In Matthew 20 Jesus throws a wrench in our sweet, comfortable picture of life in the kingdom by telling us a story that flat out offends our American sensibilities. The kingdom is also like workers working in a vineyard, for various amounts of time, but all getting the same amount of pay when the day was over. They all earned the fair wage for working a full day, even those who only worked an hour.  I don't even need to type our gut reaction to that, do I? Just look at the picture of the kid.

In so many ways the story is just not fair.  Stop right now and read it. Here's a link to the text in Bible Gateway. Read it in a couple versions. I bet you can read it ten times and still look a whole lot like the kid in the picture.

So is Jesus just wrong here?  Is there some stretch of an interpretation we can make of this text that will satisfy our fairness radar? Some have made the point that those seeking work would have been hanging around without work because of their great shame and their suffering and not because of laziness.  Does that now make it fair? Maybe it should open our eyes to another reality.

God so loved the world that he sent his only son. He loves us all. Everyone of us: the righteous and the unrighteous; the insiders and the outsiders; the deserving and the undeserving. We simply are not equipped to know what our neighbor, our friend, our colleague, or our enemy has been through. We are in no position to judge. What we learn in Christ is that when he does judge, he chooses to be "generous."  

I like the way Thomas a Kempis puts it in The Imitation of Christ. "In judging others a person works to no purpose, often makes mistakes, and easily does the wrong thing, but in judging and analyzing ourselves, we always work to our own advantage." The workers who worked all day fall into this trap as does the child with only one scoop of strawberry ice cream. They do not know the truth underneath. Instead they simply are blinded by their passionate cry: That's not fair!

God wants our heart and gave us Jesus to show us the way. Our calling is to love and that is hard to do. You don't just wake up one day and decide to turn off the fairness radar. It takes a life lived in Christ daily to get to the point where you can sincerely desire others to receive what you have.

Thomas a Kempis puts it this way: "If you lean more on your own reason or diligence than on the strength of your life with Jesus Christ, you will have only a slim chance of becoming an enlightened person - and if you do, it will happen slowly, indeed. God wants us to conform our lives perfectly to his will and to reach beyond our passions and prejudices through an intense love for him."

The first step to even desiring to turn off the fairness radar is to love God. How do we love God? Pray about it. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

So Great A Crowd of Witnesses

Fifteen years ago I was a rookie pastor called to serve a small congregation in northeastern Ohio. While Faith Lutheran Church, in the harbor of Ashtabula, was far from my friends and family it truly was a great place for me to have my first call. The faithful brothers and sisters in Christ there took me in as a green twenty-six year old single guy, fresh out of seminary. They made me feel welcome and taught me so much. They also challenged me, which was important, because it allowed me to grow.

In Ashtabula, God blessed me with pastor colleagues who were willing to help me and support me with a listening ear just when I needed it the most.  There were only five ELCA churches in Ashtabula County (the largest county, size-wise, in the far northeast corner of Ohio.), which is a reason, I believe, the pastors of those five churches became really close. At the time I thought such camaraderie was just what always happened, but the last decade-and-a-half has taught me otherwise. Clyde McGee in Conneaut, Fred Grimm in Jefferson, David Hofer, just three blocks from Faith in the harbor, and Liz Eaton at Messiah in Ashtabula taught me so much during those early years and I honestly thank God for everyone of them.

Liz Eaton was elected on Wednesday as the next Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and I couldn't be prouder of her. I am grateful for my experiences working her and my other friends as a team to plan confirmation retreats, organize community gatherings after the Columbine tragedy, to talk and sometimes argue theology (Liz and David had some doozies), to cover for one another in case of emergencies, and to work together
for funerals and weddings.  Those experiences cemented within me the belief that the work of being a pastor needs to be collaborative work whenever possible. They had gifts that I didn't have, and visa-versa. They had stories and experiences of faith that opened my eyes to the work of Christ. It was the Holy Spirit that brought us all together for a few years around the time of the new millennium, and it was faith in Jesus Christ that gave us the power to do what we were called to do as pastors.

In Hebrews, the author makes a strong point about the power of faith to us by lifting up the examples of some of the great men and women God worked through in the Old Testament.  In Hebrews 11 we learn about the many things Abraham and Moses where able to do through faith. We also are reminded of the faith of great women like Sarah and Rahab and others who "received their dead by resurrection (Hebrews 11:35)", referring to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Hebrews 11:1 says this about faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." All these great people of God lived their lives by that type of faith. They are among the "so great a cloud of witnesses" who did amazing things through faith, even though, as the author so carefully points out, they did not have Christ to fulfill the ultimate promise of faith: life everlasting.

The Bible contains so many of these great stories of faith. They inspire us and point out God's presence in our own lives. They are "so great a cloud of witnesses" who cheer us on as we move ahead in the Lord. When I look back at my own life, there are so many witnesses who have shared their lives with me and helped me grow in faith. They are men and women, like my friends and colleagues in Ashtabula, who I'm so grateful for. As it says in Hebrews, where there was just not enough space to include the great faith stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Sameul, "time would fail me to tell" of all the people God has blessed me with.

But I know as I live by faith today, they are cheering me on, some even praying for me, as I move ahead into the next chapters of my life.  By faith the heroes of the Bible "conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness..." (Hebrews 11:33-34). By faith my friends have also done amazing things. It is through faith in Christ that Liz Eaton is now the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, not through ambition and not through chance.

As we journey through faith it is so important to have a community of witnesses to grow with. Be a part of a church, and allow yourself to be fed through the stories of faith found in your brothers and sisters in Christ. Tell your story as well and let the Holy Spirit create shared stories and experiences you can grow through together.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

If our faith-life is a race... a marathon let's say... then its a race for which we have been cheered on by countless witnesses who have helped us along the way. We are not alone today on this track. Our friends run with us and hand off to us the water and encouragement we need to press on. When the race is ended we will enter the arena (think of the end of the marathon during the Olympics) and so great a crowd will cheer us on. Our faith has not been in vain, it has gotten us this far and oh what a journey. So live by faith today and allow the cheers and support of others help you as are taken to amazing places.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Be the Community... In Your Own Small Way

Recently, Rich Melheim had a brief article included in The Lutheran magazine about reaching out to people without a faith community. The basis for the article was the age old question of whether it is right to baptize a baby, whose parents are solely motivated by an overbearing grandparent.  It's the "when are you going to get the baby done" question asked in countless grandparents homes across the country.

Our Theology of Grace says that power in baptism comes from God alone, and is not dependent on the parenting skills and good choices of mommy and daddy.  But our concerns about Cheap Grace call us to share expectations with parents: We expect you to raise your child as a Christian, to be a part of a faith community, to help your child to know about the love of Jesus Christ.  Do we baptize a baby who's parents do not intend to be part of a faith community?

Melheim's suggestion speaks to our call to be disciples. Yes, baptize the baby, BUT allow yourself to be the faith community in your own small way afterwards for the months that follow that baptism.  For as much as I like to emphasize to parents that baptism is not getting your child done... likewise pastors need to recognize that the act of making a disciple is not done after the water dries and the chrism washes off.

Both a blessing and a curse, our world is a whole lot smaller because of social media. Melheim reminds us that being that faith community is really only 12 clicks away.  He suggests monthly, brief, connections with those parents. What used to take a note card and a 46 cent stamp can be done via Facebook, or a text message or an email. Of course, if those parents respond to any of those attempts to reach out it's going to take a little bit more of your time, but isn't that what it's all about?

Community is a collection of friends, brothers and sisters, children of God supporting one another, growing together in faith, and witnessing together the power of Christ in their lives. But let's not forget that community is also a collection of individuals, all with unique gifts and talents to offer others.

So be the community. Reach out to your friends at church. Pray for your neighbors in your town. Inquire how those people you met two months ago are doing, even if they live 1,000 miles away. Be a disciple by making disciples... in your own small way.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Prayer: The Conversation Continues

C. S. Lewis once compared the relationship between God and a person in prayer to the relationship between a school headmaster and a student. The student is given by the headmaster a clear description of what sorts of things he or she can and cannot do. The list comes with an invitation, however. If there is something the student would like to do that is not clearly defined by list then the headmaster is open to having a conversation about the matter. The student may lay out his or her requests for as long as it takes. There will be give and take within the conversation. Once the conversation is over between the headmaster and the student the result will be... we'll see.

In Luke 11, Jesus compares prayer to the relationship between neighbors in a world where hospitality was shamelessly expected for any stranger who would approach your home with a need. A man shows up at a neighbor's door at midnight with a request for bread because a stranger has showed up suddenly at his door and cannot offer him bread because he is fresh out.  The neighbor makes every excuse in the book for not helping the man in need of bread and shuts the door on him.  When the the man continues to knock and continues to remain at the doorway, the neighbor grants him the request.  Ultimately Jesus makes this point: "I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs... how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:8, 13b)!"

Both of these analogies reveal prayer as a continuing and persistent conversation between you and God that lays out specific requests and continues beyond those requests.  This is not prayer as the "Magic 8-Ball" in which you ask your question and then see what turns up in the window after you shake. "It is certain."  Nor is prayer like putting a coin in a Nineteenth Century mechanical fortune teller who goes through his motions as the gears turns and the lights blink to spit out a card with your answer.

Prayer as "Magic 8-Ball" is prayer as a singular event, thrown up into the heavens, waiting to see what happens.  But Jesus describes prayer as continuous.  Had the man in need of bread only made is request and then walked away, the neighbor either never would have granted the request, or when he did finally decide the grant the request the man would not have been at the doorway anymore to receive the gift of bread.

One of my favorite lines of the Bible is Paul's concluding words in 1 Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for that the is the will of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)."  Praying without ceasing is the continuous and persistent prayer with God our Father that Jesus both teaches and models.

Did you catch that? I said "with" our Father and not "to" God our Father.  Prayer is continuous because it is conversation. The parables of Jesus about prayer compare it to conversations between neighbors or between a parent and a child. Prayer should play out in way similar to if I were talking with you face to face.

So does that kind of prayer look like the famous picture of the old man strenuously praying for his daily bread, or like a little boy knelling next to his bed praying for Aunt Jane and her knee replacement surgery? Yes it can... but the conversation continues. It means dwelling in the presence of God even while you eat that meal or feeling the presence of God even as you doze off in that bed ready for a good night's sleep.

Again I want to lift up the relationship between children and parents. On a beautiful afternoon three children are playing at a playground while their parents watch. They play for hours, having so much fun.  They know the boundaries. Don't leave the playground. Don't push your little sister. Take a breather if you start coughing.... things like that. The parents watchful eye is upon the children the whole time and every once in a while the parents have to yell "stop that" or a child comes and asks to go to the bathroom near by. There are moments of tears and moments of pure joy. At one point mommy pushes her son on a swing. It's a great afternoon at the park and while the kids are on their own to play on whatever equipment the choose and with any of the other children, as they choose.... they do it all while dwelling in the presence of their parents.  

What if prayer looked like that?

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

41

It's my birthday today. I came across a couple baby photos of me as I was working in my garage yesterday. I forgot that I had them. I know them quite well, they are the definitive baby pictures of me. I think my grandma might have had them on one of her shelves in her apartment. My parents have them out on display as well. But for the first time I did a double take yesterday: Are these really of me, or are they of my dad? After only a few seconds I reassured myself that indeed they are me... a much younger and smaller me.

It's my birthday today. I am grateful for all the ways that God has given me an abundant life. God has led me to where I am today and has blessed me with an amazing family and a wonderful life. I think about all the directions that little guy could have gone. I can remember many of the watershed moments that changed me for better and for ill. I know there are many more I neither remember nor understand just how significant they were. There were dark moments and times of dread. Those valleys could have defined me. But they don't. God made me. Christ defines me. The Spirit encourages me.

It's my birthday today. Late last night God presented me with a Psalm I know like the back of my hand. Psalm 121, more than even Psalm 23, is my staple and rock in bringing words of hope to people who are hurting and dread what they are facing ahead in their life. Last night, when Valerie and I entered a time of prayer it was Psalm 121, 122, and 123 that God presented to me. "Oh no," I thought, not Psalm 121. "Maybe its actually 123 I need tonight." But it was Psalm 121 that The Spirit presented us with and it is my song this morning.

It's my birthday today. I wonder what God has in store for me and my family. What's next? I know it's life in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Kingdom of the Possible. I know it's life with a call toward compassion and not contempt. I know God will be my inspiration and my light, an ever present help in times of trouble. Of course God gave me Psalm 121 to guide me and to guide Valerie.

I lift up my eyes to the hills,
from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved.
He who watches over Israel will neither slumber or sleep.

The Lord is your keeper.
The Lord is your shade and your right hand.

The sun will not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil.
He will keep your life.

The Lord will look over your going out
and your coming in
from this time forth and forever more.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Living Dead

There's another zombie movie coming out so the Chicago Tribune did an article in yesterdays paper about how over time the ever popular zombies have gotten faster and faster. It used to be that for as terrifying as zombies were, you knew you could always outrun them. Their strength was in their numbers and in their persistence. But lately zombies are as fast as we are, even faster. The dead suddenly have gotten a whole lot of pep.

You don't have to be a zombie though to be included among those called the Living Dead. We have an example of this in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in the Bible. This is how Luke describes this demon-possessed man: "As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs (Luke 8:27)." He lived among the tombs, with the dead. This is appropriate because the way his life was controlled by darkness it was like he was living a life of death.

Today we often look at this man and think of mental illness. In fact some translations he is even called a "madman." Mental illness would not have been on the radar of the first century audience that Luke was writing for. Its easy when looking at him to be caught up by our ideas of mental illness or by the scary thought of a mass of demons speaking in unison that we are "Legion."  Yes we find that here, but truth be known, people are constantly living in a reality that can be described as being "Living Dead" without ever getting to scary demons and severe mental illness.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Yes, if we were a zombie we would not be living abundant life, nor if we we were possessed with The Exorcist-like demons. But every day people are kept from living abundant-life through the forces of wickedness. The dangerous thing about the powers of darkness they usually work in an insidious manner. The Living Dead sometimes don't even know that they are living an existence that is not their own, bringing no life to themselves or anyone else.

But most of the time, though, we are fully aware when the life that we are living and the "choices" we are making are leading us to nothing but a dead end. When the man who was possessed fell down before Jesus' feet that was an indication that deep down this man was seeking help, though he could not express it or control his words. The demons were so strong within him. His only opportunity for freedom was Jesus Christ. And indeed it was Christ who gave him his life back. He became Alive... The Living Alive... The Living Abundant Life.

Paul understood all this. Famously he speaks for us all when he writes, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate (Romans 7:15)."  The devil thrives on this with greater success than through mental illness or zombies or The Exorcist. If we remain controlled by Living Dead-like actions then the days, months and years will just melt away without us ever experiencing the abundant life that is available to us now through Christ. Our hope to break free is the same hope that freed the demon-possessed man in the country for the Gerasenes: Jesus Christ. Through Christ we have abundant life. Through following our Lord's will and surrendering ourselves to him we have abundant life.

So many of us can feel it deep in our core when we are living a Living-Dead life. We want to change and want to be set free. For many it means being set free from addictions. For others its seeking to stop harming others and themselves. There is one source of freedom: and that is Christ. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25a)."

The Living Dead are all around us. When we are controlled by forces that lead us to make choices and do actions that bring no life, we are right there with them. The Living Dead are not zombies... nor are they the mentally ill... they are children of God who are seeking the hope and peace that alluding them. Abundant life is available to them and to all of us when we give our lives to Christ and follow him. Now "declare how much God has done for you (Luke 8:39)."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Heaven Invading Human Space

I'm reading Dallas Willard's classic book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. For some time Dallas Willard has interested me and I just have never gotten a chance to start digging into his books. After he died a few weeks ago I took it as a wake up call to pick one up. The Spirit of Disciplines is probably his most famous. In that one Willard makes his case for living out the spiritual disciplines as a means of embracing the gracious and loving presence of God.  In many ways Dallas Willard embodies what my whole purpose of this blog has been: gratefully receiving the unearned, eternal grace of God through Christ by living out that love through a life of gratitude, hope and joy. It's about time I read some of Willard's works.

Yesterday I got into a section of the third chapter of The Divine Conspiracy called "Heaven Invading Human Space." The images and language that Willard uses there is festering within my mind and soul. Willard emphasizes in his book that heaven is not some distant place where God lives and people go after they die. "The kingdom of the heavens," as he puts it, is not only breaking in, but is and has been upon us throughout all of human history. Jesus, God incarnate, points the way to this "kingdom of the heavens" and teaches how we can live as people of this kingdom right now.  I understand all of that, and do agree with him. As much as any place, John's Gospel reveals to us how we can live in this spiritual, heavenly kingdom right now. The problem is that, like so many of us, what I can understand in theory does not always play out in my life. Again, that's the call of this blog: Love Christ Live Faith. Start living the kingdom. Start living in grace.

Willard has given me an image that's going to stick for a long time:
     The inability to accept the fact that our familiar atmosphere is a "heaven" in which God dwells and from which he deals with us leads to some curious translations of biblical texts. In Acts 11:5-9, within a span of five verses, exactly the same phrase, tou ouranou, is translated in three different ways by the NASV, and by most others. It is translated "the sky" in verse 5, "the air" in verse 6, and "heaven" in verse 9.
     This, you may recall, is where Peter in a trance sees a sheet with all kinds of animals on it being let down through the atmosphere (tou ouranou). Among them are birds of the atmosphere. and he hears a voice from the atmosphere telling him to rise and eat. 
     Now our English sky means something quite different from air, and heaven means something quite different from either. The translation becomes entangled in these meanings. The sky is more a limit than a place, and as a place it is farther away than the air. Hence, we say, "The sky's the limit," not "the air's the limit." Heaven, of course, is strictly out of sight for us, beyond the moon for sure and quite likely "beyond" the physical cosmos.
     A consistent translation of tou ouranou drawing upon the biblical context could use "air" or "atmosphere" in each occurrence, as I have just done, and thus give the precise content of Peter's experience. God spoke to Peter from the surrounding "thin air," where birds fly and from which the sheet came. This conveys quite a different impression than the standard translations, which usually only speak of "heaven" in this passage. (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 3)
Willard makes this point by lifting up a passage from Acts as an example. But even before Peter and the sheet full of food Willard gives many examples even in the Old Testament of heaven truly invading human space: from God appearing to Abraham to Jacob bridging the gap between heaven and earth. What happens when we truly no longer think of heaven as being some distant place in the sky, but present among us like air and atmosphere?

Jesus says "and remember, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).  The Spirit is given to the disciples like a gust of wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:2). Jesus compares being born of the spirit and living in the spirit to wind in John 3. "Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Jesus' primary message to the world is that the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven or "the kingdom of the heavens") has come near. "Repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)." This repentance is more about changing your life than about confessing sin. It means breaking free from the confining structures of the worldly kingdom that limit us, tell us no, and enslave us to sin. Changing your life means loving Christ and living faith through embracing the consciousness of Christ. We are free to follow. We are free to live responsibly. We are free to live the Kingdom of God. And as Jesus says, this is "good news." Believe this "good news."

Back to the atmosphere, which is Willard's translation of literally "the heavens" in the Greek. What would it mean to feel a warm breeze and remember the presence of God and the inspiration of the Spirit? What would it mean to have the air conditioning blow upon you and remember you are a child of God, living the kingdom, partaking in the "Bread of Life" through faith.

As common as wind blowing through your hair are the moments of God's presence and guidance. God moments remind us of our connectedness and the helping hand of the Good Shepherd; they are moments of living in the freedom of the Kingdom of God.  And my friends, this is the truth you want to live in. It is a Kingdom of the Possible and a Kingdom of Hope. It is the reality of giving your burdens to Christ and taking upon yourself his yoke, which is so easy and light. The Kingdom of God, which is among us, is where we have life and have it abundantly.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Don't Leave Me

Today is Ascension Day. It's been forty days since Easter. A lot has happened, but it also doesn't seem so long ago. The ups and downs the disciples of Jesus went through over a two month span are enormous. The hope and optimism of Palm Sunday: Jesus will overthrow Rome. The bewilderment of the Last Supper: Surely not I Lord. The horror of the crucifixion: It is finished. The confusion of the resurrection: It seems an idle tale. The new hope and optimism of Jesus' resurrection life: My Lord and My God! Once we get to the Mount of the Ascension were right back to where the disciples started.

And then he leaves.

The disciples are left behind. Yes, they are left with a promise and a call... The promise: I will give you an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to help, encourage, and empower you to serve. The call: look around you and reach out into the world that needs to hear about Jesus.

But you left us Jesus.

Those two months, between Palm Sunday and Pentecost, was a period of transition unlike any other in history. For those who lived it and experienced it, how painful it must have been. It concludes with Pentecost. Jesus fulfills his promise when the Spirit is given to the disciples. The Spirit gives them the ability to answer their God given call and the encouragement to persevere through enormous odds against them.

The same Holy Spirit serves as our Advocate as well. God helps us and inspires us through the Spirit. We stumble upon God-moment after God-moment and recognize them as such through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us through our transitions. When we say goodbye to coworkers and friends, neighbors and family members the Spirit moves us forward with hope. We not only can get through this, we can come through transition stronger.

The Great Commission of Matthew's Gospel puts it well for us. Yes Jesus departs but he promises to be with us, to the end of the age. Jesus is with you and doesn't leave you stuck on the mount of your transitions. God has empowered with hope and gifts that move you forward.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Martin & Jackie; Django & Quentin

The film director Quentin Tarantino is known for making good movies and known for making violent movies. Yes violent movies can be good. Tarantino knows how to pull that off. In telling his stories Tarantino likes to pay homage to past eras through the costumes, language and look of his movies.  Some of his more recent movies are even set in the past. But instead of being non-fiction, his historical movies give you the sense of how Tarantino would have liked to have seen history play out. For example, in Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino creates an armed and extremely dangerous elite fighting corp of Jews who are parachuted into Germany during World War II. Instead of watching the horrors of Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis in his movie, we instead watch these soldiers giving the Nazis a taste of their own medicine. If only that could have happened in the 1940's. 

In his recent Academy Award nominated movie Django Unchained Tarantino goes further back into the past: two years before the Civil War. The slave Django is given the opportunity to work with a bounty hunter.  He gains his freedom and makes it his mission to track down and rescue his wife, who he hasn't seen in years and is being severely abused as a slave. In the movie Tarantino has Django march through the south (and southern salve owners) like Rambo on steroids. He fulfills, all by himself, the abolitionist John Brown's dream of a salve uprising in the south. If only that could have happened in the 1850's. 

I wonder how Tarantino would film a movie about Jesus. It would probably play out like many of the Jesus movies in the beginning, but the tide would turn in the Garden of Gethsemane  Not only would a Tarantino Jesus not tell Peter to put away his sword, he would probably have taken it from him to begin the revolution. Look out Pilate. It won't be Jesus hanging on the cross this time.  

Jesus models a truth that is different from Tarantino's truth. Tarantino reveals justice through violent pay back; the wicked getting their just desserts. Jesus models the Kingdom of God.  Jesus models the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Ultra-violence in the 1860's didn't come with a slave uprising, but did come with the Civil War... a war that did lead to the end of slavery but also a hundred years of Jim Crow. 

For as satisfying it might be to see Nazis and heartless slave owners getting their just desserts, real power and real change comes through love. Real change came when Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights protesters in the 1950's marched peacefully, even in the face of violence. Non-violent protest transformed into the riots of the late 1960's and the set back can still be felt in cities like Chicago today. 

What if Tarantino had made the current movie about the baseball player Jackie Robinson? It would have looked a whole lot different. Like King, Robinson responded to racist threats of violence with compassion, tolerance and love. He changed the world. 

If we are to model the life of Christ, taught to us in the Sermon on the Mount... If our conscience is to be the conscience of Christ, then we are called to boldly act with love and compassion. Yes, stand against injustice. Yes, stand with those who are oppressed. But do it prayerfully and with humility. Stand and let the light of Christ shine in your actions.  

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Lord, Teach Us.

We learn so much about what it means to follow Christ through three chapters in Matthew's Gospel: The Sermon on the Mount. Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt that the Sermon on the Mount was critical to understanding what Christ's expectations are for us. He lifted up ideas from Matthew 5-7 in many of his writings. In his Ethics Bonhoeffer wrote this:
The Sermon on the Mount are divine commandments for action in history insofar as they are the reality that has been fulfilled in Christ... Thus, the Sermon on the Mount itself confronts a person with the necessity of responsible historical action... The Sermon on the Mount is either valid as the word of God's world-reconciling love everywhere and at all times, or it is not really relevant for us at all.
Bonhoeffer was critical of the idea that we can compartmentalize faith in Christ. The idea of saving Christian love and charity for Sunday and then embracing worldly pursuits and values the rest of the week is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.  Jesus teaches us this very thing in the Sermon. "The eye is the lamp to the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)"  You either live the Sermon on the Mount or you don't. You either live and believe what God has done and is doing through love and through Christ, or you don't.

"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (6:24)."

The Sermon on the Mount is truth about God's love for us through Christ. It is truth about the claim that God is making upon the world and its values. Followers of Christ seek to live their lives as a refection of God's truth that God's Kingdom is breaking in. Because it doesn't work to live out Christ's love only some of the time or to reflect his light only some of the time, our prayer is that God will guide us to always be true to his calling for us.

This is the point of the "Living Christ Love" guide.  It is a reminder that being "the light of the world (5:14)" is not easy.  But with the Spirit's help it is a spiritual pursuit that is worthwhile because it is based on love, on God, and on truth. Jesus teachings, when lived out, are freeing to your soul. "My yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:30)."  Living Christ's love, you can be true to yourself. You can be in relationship with others, even with difficult people. You can always be hopeful through faith and prayer. You can engage with others in a spirit of compassion and humility. You can disagree and not risk everything. You can be vulnerable and trust others. You can stay connected and not give up your true self; your true call.

Lord, teach us. He has in the "Sermon on the Mount" and has modeled what he taught through his life, his cross, and his resurrection. Help us, O Lord, to serve only you. Help us, within community, to be the light of the world so that others may come to know what God is doing right now as his Kingdom is breaking into the world.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
 - Matthew 6:9-13

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tears of Joy

Near the end of Revelation, when the Seer sees "a new heaven and a new earth" there is a voice that is heard from the throne. What a voice and what a message:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)

Here is a message of hope for all time.
The first things... periods of time where there is death and mourning and crying and pain... have passed away. 
The first things... periods of time when it's not so clear that God is among us... have passed away.
The first things... periods of time when God's people freely choose paths of destruction instead of hope... have passed away.  
The first things... periods of time we dwell in right now as we struggle through the ups and downs of life... will pass away. It will not always be like this.  God, who dwells with us in Christ, will make us and all things new.

What a vision of hope for things to come. Write it down! Believe it! These words and this vision is "trustworthy and true."

Recently someone approached me in tears. We certainly do still live among "the first things." Her tears were not the result of any physical pain, or fear for her future, instead they were tears for her loved ones... for her brothers. She knows of the voice of Christ and believes in Jesus, but her brothers do not. They don't believe. "I don't think they will be saved. That scares me so much. What can I do?"

Scripture from Daniel to the New Testament does lift up the image of children of God being resurrected to both salvation and damnation on the Day of Judgement (Daniel 12, John 5, Revelation 20).  Imagine that... some raised to everlasting life and others raised to everlasting contempt. How does that connect with the image of Revelation 21? If our loved one's are judged poorly on that day, how could we possibly not feel pain, or mourning, or crying? Will we not be devastated?

An image of Christ's love and the power of the cross shared by the author Garry Wills helps me to understand what God has done for us in Jesus. It helps me understand this image of the Judgment Day.

One night a father was putting his eight-year-old daughter to bed when he notice that she was crying. "Why are you crying he asked?"

"Oh, it's nothing," she replied.

"No, tell me.  I want to know what's wrong."

"Well, I'm afraid that I'm going to hell. And hell is a terrible place where you are always on fire and feel pain and suffer and it never stops. I'm so scared Daddy."

The Father was stunned by what his little girl was saying. "Where in the world did you get that idea?"

"My teacher was telling us about hell and said that if I'm not good then that's where God is going to send me." The daughter was visibly shaken as she said this.

There was a pause as tears began to form in the Father's eyes. His first instinct was to say that her teacher was just flat out wrong. But instead he put it to her this way. He pulled his daughter close to him and he looked at her full in the face and said to her.

"My dear, know this... if that's where you are going to go then I am going to be right there with you, to love you and to protect you and to never let you go."

God so loved the world...
He suffered death and was buried...
If we have united with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

When that day comes when we are gathered together before God, when mourning, crying, death and pain will be no more, it won't be because we're glad we're the lucky ones or because we have had our hard drives erased so we don't remember those "left behind." Death, crying, morning and pain being wiped away means that God has fully reconciled creation to himself in Christ.

It will be just. 
It will be life. 
It will be love.
It will be new. 
It will be God. 

Crying will be no more... or maybe the crying will be made new just as we are made new: transformed into tears of joy. How amazing it will be when our faith becomes sight and we fully experience God living among us.

Now that we have written down these words and digested them into our souls we are called to live our lives in light of this news. Love one another. Be kind. Live in community. Be a light so that tears of pain may become tears of joy right now... for all God's children.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Matthew Warren

I was saddened this afternoon to hear the news that Rick Warren's son Matthew committed suicide today. The author of the best selling Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren is nationally known. I follow Rick on Twitter and am thankful for his ability to stand for a gospel of justice and spiritual life as he serves as Pastor of Saddleback Church near Los Angeles.

As I keep Rick and his family in my prayers I will also be lifting up the many families who have been struck by the senseless and tragic monster called suicide. When the darkness of mental illness casts it's shadow on a child of God it is terrible to think of what can happen. When such darkness results in suicide, it makes you want to fall to your knees in despair.

Walking in the light of Christ we are free to live love. It might be that no amount of love would have broken through the illness that held on to Matthew, but it is love that holds on to him today as he dwells in the hope given to him and the whole world through Jesus. Love will give the Warren family the chance to see the light of hope as they now wander in grief.  God is with them.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Skeptical Easter Faith

I picked up Bobby Knight's new book from the library the other day. It's title caught my eye as I was browsing through the New Books Section: The Power of Negative Thinking. Go figure. The famous... strike that... the infamous former Indiana basketball coach would title his book The Power of Negative Thinking.  Look up bully or grouch or mean in the dictionary, and there you will find Bobby Knight.

Instead of being a book about the value of loud intense screaming and intimidation to get results, the book actually is a testament to Knight's deep seated belief in skepticism. A skeptic is someone who doubts, questions or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.  So add skeptic to the list of adjectives you can use for Coach Robert Montgomery Knight.

Throughout the book Knight throws in some of "Knight's Nuggets." His take on society's generally accepted conclusions:

A picture is worth a thousand words. Said, I'm guessing, by a lousy writer or an illiterate.

The boss won't mind if I'm a little late. What do you suppose this pink slip means?

I don't care what the weatherman said, it doesn't even feel like rain. Umbrellas aren't all that expensive, compared to pneumonia.

You can't always believe that gauge. I know there's plenty of gas to get us home. Remind him of that when he's walking two miles in snow to find a station.

Don't worry, Dad. This test is going to be easy. Better idea, Son: Study.

What a nice little dog. And what mean teeth.

Have faith that you'll be OK. Get a good doctor. 

You can do whatever you really believe you can do. Now, YOU are the coach I want to play against.

You can be whatever you want to be. Sure, jump out of a tree and try being a bird.

Knight doesn't even come from the school of Trust But Verify... It's more like Doubt, Verify... and then... Maybe. 

In Luke's telling of the Easter story there is all kinds of Doubt, Verify... and then... Maybe.  It is the skeptics' version of the Resurrection Story. The women can't believe the news that Jesus has been raised.  They then tell Jesus' disciples and they don't believe either. "But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them (Luke 24:11)." Peter runs to the tomb afterwards to verify if this might be true.

On Good Friday we embraced Paul's wise observation and confirmed it through our own experience that "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18)."  We can put it this way:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are skeptical, pessimistic and doubt everything under the sun; but to us who walk by faith and live in the freedom of our baptism it is the power of God to live in the spirit and embrace a truth that not only can't be verified but stands against the lies even the skeptics fail to question.  

When the disciples refuse to believe the good news they risk remaining in the darkness of despair and sin.  It is a darkness where no one can be trusted and you get what you can when you can.  This is the primary lie of the world.  It fools us into thinking that "home-spun-Midwestern-skeptical-common-sense" are wise words for life.   

But you know... there's hope... even for the skeptics. God does not give up on those skeptical disciples and will not give up on us. The cross stands at the crossroads between the world's kingdom and a new Kingdom of Heaven that frees us to live in the Spirit now. God does not give up on them and will not give up on us.  Truth waits and dwells within your soul.

The tragedy is how much you are going to miss in the mean time.  Friday night my Michigan Wolverines beat Kansas in an amazing comeback game.  The biggest win for Michigan in twenty years.  After Good Friday services I checked the score and saw that Kansas was beating Michigan 70-59 with four minutes left.  When I got home I didn't turn on the game and had no idea what was happening until I got a text after the game was all over: "Now to you believe?"

Oh boy, what did I miss?

We miss so much when we embrace the common sense skepticism of the world. We miss so much what God is doing right in front of our face.  When we live in the Kingdom of the Skeptics instead of the Kingdom of the Possible, which Jesus institutes with the cross and empty tomb, we miss out on truth. 

God's not going to give up on you.  Faith will become sight and the day is coming soon.  In the mean time don't miss the power of the Christ's cross.  With God all things are possible. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cross

Jesus died on a cross.

The cross is the main symbol of Christianity.

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." - Jesus (from Mark 8:34b)

"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." - Paul (from 1 Corinthians 1:18)

The cross is at the crossroads of life in the flesh and life in the spirit. On the one hand the cross represents death. It represents everything that we fear as humans: betrayal, punishment, disgrace, mortality, the end of existence. Those that hold worldly power use it as a weapon to hold on to their power. To survive in the world the cross must be feared and ignored. Stay away from the cross as long as you can. Like the grim reaper, when the cross appears at your door. It's all over.

But the cross stands at the crossroads and points our way to a reality the world fights against: life in the Spirit. By dying on the cross Jesus, who is the living Word made flesh, enters fully into the reality of the world and claims lordship over it.  He opens the door to life in the Spirit and proclaims to us that we need not live in fear ever again. We are free.

When we Christians wear a cross... or place a cross in the heart of our assembly... we are saying that we stand in the crossroads as well with Christ. We are children of the flesh and live in the world, but the presence of the cross reminds us that we are born of the Spirit as well.  We are free from fear and free to serve our neighbor in love. 

To pick up this cross is this follow Jesus. To pick up this cross and give our life to this cross... well that's the meaning of discipleship. We are not slaves to the selfish ambitions and priorities of the world. We "deny ourselves" and instead live in the freedom of the cross. We are free from fear and free to serve our neighbor in love.

Of course all of this is foolishness, according to the world.  Paul's observation of the truth, is also our experience of the world's contempt for the cross.  Just plug into the noise the media makes. While we may be a society of tolerance it still is expected and quite acceptable to belittle, criticize, and laugh at those who would "carry their cross and follow" Christ.  This is to be expected., though.  We were warned. Our call from Jesus continues to be to live the radical love of the cross. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love. Love. Love.

The cross is the power of God giving us the freedom to live Christ's love. At the foot of the cross let go of the hate, the anger, the bitterness, our insecurities. Exchange the world's lies for the Lord's truth. May it define you. May it be what your bring to all of your relationships. We are free from fear and free to serve our neighbor in love.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Are You Listening To?

When the women first discovered that Jesus' tomb was empty, "they were perplexed (Luke 24:4)." To cut through their confusion they listened to the very first proclamation of Jesus' resurrection when two men in dazzling clothes said to them "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while we was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again (Luke 25:5b-7)." They couldn't believe what the men said but still the disciples the news, nonetheless. Peter, listening to the women, immediately ran to the tomb to see for himself.  He couldn't believe it either. 

Jesus had warned the disciples and the women about what was going to happen to him, but were they too distracted, because of all the other noise about Jesus out there, to hear him?  There were those saying that Jesus would be the new King David.  There were those who were vocal about Jesus being a fraud. Just a few days earlier the voices were saying "crucify, crucify him." They heard Jesus' message, but it was just one voice out of many. The women and the disciples were not prepared for the truth.  

What are you listening to? Consumer Reports recently reported that the average American is exposed to 247 commercial messages every day. Just what message are they giving to you? If it's a message of hope, it is a hope that surely is connected to the product or event they are trying to sell to you.  

What are you listening to? Take a look at the old-fashion media device called a radio. If you are listening to music, what is the music's message? I was recently shocked when I took a closer look at catchy song I had been enjoying for a while.  Did he really sing that?  If you listen to talk radio, is the tone of the conversation or monologue a reflection of Living Christ's Love? How can the moves of a football team cause such passionate anger in March?  What did he say about our president?  

What are you listening to? 

We live in a world where a great deal of time, effort and money is spent to get you to listen. Others want to make the choice for you. But you know what, you do have a choice. You can choose what you are reading, and watching and listening to! 

Jesus Christ is Risen! We who are baptized in Christ are called share this good news to the world in how we live Christ's love and serve other people. Living for Christ means living in light... living in hope... living in truth. Expose yourself to media that is life giving and not life draining. If you like music discover how much fun the contemporary Christian music is being played on K-Love 94.3.  If you like current events and news, don't miss the often right-on-the-money commentary and views on Relevant Magazine's website, blogs and Twitter. 

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news. Don't miss out on this good news because you have plugged yourself into the 24/7 spending, ranting, and complaining cycles. Instead open up to the Spirit and start discovering a fresh voice... based on Living Christ's Love.  The voice is out there.   

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Flavor of the Day

On Palm Sunday Jesus was the Flavor of the Day.
I downloaded the app for the restaurant Culver's.  I like Culver's. They have their roots in Wisconsin. The Culver family is also Lutheran. I almost feel its my duty to like Culver's. The butter burgers are okay. The Reuben is really good. But for me, most important than butter on the burgers is that they have Wisconsin Deep-Fried-Cheese-Curds on the menu and yummy frozen custard... a Wisconsin dairy treat.

Frozen custard should be vanilla in my mind, but Culver's soups their custard to make all kinds of different flavors.  They have a "Flavor of the Day" at every location, so if there is a particular flavor you have come to enjoy you better keep an eye open for when that flavor will appear on the calendar. This is where the app is such a helpful tool. At the push of a button you can find out what is on the schedule at your closest Culver's location.

Today the flavor is Kit Kat Swirl and tomorrow will be Oreo Overload.  The problem is that, lets say I just adore that Kit Kat Swirl. (Which is a pretty good bet, because I enjoy a delicious Kit Kat.) The next time I come to Culver's there's a really good chance they wont have it.  For they have moved on to the next one: Brownie Thunder or Just Drummy.  "I don't want Just Drummy, I would like Kit Kat Swirl," you say with a air of disappointment.  It wont matter.  Kit Kat Swirl is old news... at least until the next time it comes around.  McDonald's has made a three decade odyssey out of the ever popular McRib sandwich: always appearing and disappearing for a limited time.

On Palm Sunday Jesus was The Flavor of the Day.  I'd say week, but by the end of that week, the people have long ago moved on.  Jesus was celebrated as the new king, enter Jerusalem in triumph. Here's a flavor that will stick.  Here's a man with authority from God. He will surly put and end to the Roman's reign.

It didn't take long for the crowd to turn.  Jesus was not going to be the new King David, because what the world needed was a King of Kings for all time.  While the crowds at "Just Drummy" just reigned on the cross: meeting humanity at the very worst humanity can dish or experience.  He was the Flavor of the Week when people didn't even realize that the flavor they truly hungered for was the Bread of Life with a side of Living Waters.

Part of the human experience is that we all have experienced being the Flavor of the Week at some point. We've been the "Kit Kat Swirl" admired and popular one day; sent out to pasture the next.

Jesus has been there. He meets us in our struggles and knows how it feels to be abandoned for something or someone else.  God reveals to us that we are all Children of God. Even as other may forget us and move on to the next, Jesus never does. He loves you and embraces you today, tomorrow and always. You are God's flavor of all time.

I'm sticking with vanilla.    

Saturday, March 09, 2013

What's Your Number 7, 77, or 119?

Last night the Chicago Blackhawks lost their first regular season game in regulation time since March 25, 2012.  For 30 games in a row the Hawks had make a point.  For the first 24 games of this season the Hawks did not lose a single game in regulation.  And, up till last night, they had won 11 games in a row.  Those are some amazing numbers for Hawks fans.

Well... for most Hawks fans.  Not for lifelong Hawks fan, Steven Schucker.  The Chicago Tribune reported that the only number that matters to Steven is 119.  119... as in the 119-day-long lockout that postponed the beginning of the NHL season.  In fact, for a long time it looked like there would be no season, just as there was no season in 2004 for the same reason.  Steven is fed up with greedy owners and blames NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for all that is wrong with hockey. 

As a matter of principle, Steven vowed not to watch a single moment of NHL hockey this year.  Which, in light of his favorite team's amazing start, has made life very difficult for Steven.  Yes, difficult because it's so tempting to get on the bandwagon of enjoying the Hawks great start, but even more difficult because of the razzing he is getting from his friends.  Recently a "friend" posted on his Facebook: "Your (sic) a moron for not watching a sport because you don't like the commissioner."  At his favorite bars, Steven is immediately made fun of when they quickly turn the Bulls game off the big screens and put on hockey.  It's hard to hold a grudge on a matter or principle.  But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

It worked that way in the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. In Luke's Gospel Jesus uses that parable to teach as lesson about forgiveness and the joy it gives God when one sinner repents.  The youngest of two son's is a bit of a scoundrel in that parable. He is offensive in how he insists on his share of the inheritance now, runs off with it, and then wastes it. As a last resort he returns home to dad and dad takes him in with loving arms: celebrating his lost son's return.

As a matter of principle the older son who stayed home refuses to participate in the festivities.  It's not fair and its not right.  Like lost our Hawks fan, the older son's principles stand on holding on to that grudge as long as he can.  I'm sure the older son's buddies did a bunch of razzing as well.  I can just picture them waving some of that delicious roast calf in his face... a delicacy that was cooked just for the occasion.

These are the principles that God stands on:
- I love all my children.
- I will rejoice for one sinner that repents more than for 99 righteous persons who don't.
- I will love all my children, even when it's difficult.
- I will not cut off from my children, even when they turn away from me.
- I will forgive them 7 times. 
- I will forgive them 77 times.
- I will give my children the freedom to live with these very same principles.

You do not need to be chained to your grudge.  Does Gary Bettman deserve forgiveness? I don't need to answer that.  Does the NHL and the Hawks deserve our attention? I'm not going to answer that either.  God's principles, or your principles, do not hinge on the actions of rich and spoiled owners and players.

But does God want you to be chained to a grudge of hate? NO

Does God want you to remain in the shadows of sin because wicked actions of others? NO

Be true to yourself and true to your principles... but may those principles reflect the same image that you were created in: God.

Forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us.
      

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Coaching Fundamentals

I'm attending a coaching conference this week near Tampa, Florida and I'm amazed by some of the new things I have learned.  I'm not amazed that I'm amazed.  I expected that.  Events like this always challenge me and help me see things in fresh ways.  My experience of learning coaching skills and then using coaching skills has been life changing for me. It's helped clarify for my my calling to be pastor of a church, to be a leader among followers, and to be an equipper of disciples. 

This is how I define coaching.  Coaching is helping others move ahead to live and act true to their unique calling from God.  To me it ties in so well with Living Christ's Love.  As a coach I'm called to help people discover #1: "Be true to myself."  Coaching give me the tools to help people discover the truth that God has planted deep in their soul and imprinted within their DNA.  It leads people to discover who they truly are, what God is truly calling them to be, and how they can be true to both in relationship with others.

Action in the coaching converstation is always going forward. The way Jonathan Reitz put's it, coaching is "X arrow X" (or X -------> X ) meaning coaching is helping the coachee identify where they are today, where they are called to go, and the route to take to bring those closer together.  Coaching gives people permission to discover the route themselves.  In fact, let me put it another way.  The coachee does the work because God has planted that truth within them.

God has given us all unique talents and gifts.  Every one of us is unique in all the world.  A coach walks along side the coachee to help them discover those unique gifts and hear the call about where they are going next.

I thank God for the training I have received and I'm excited about how I can use these skills to help people from my church, my fellow pastors, and other ministries from this area discover who they truly are and the steps to take to get to where they feel called to go.