Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ugly Christmas Sweaters and Peace on Earth

I get a kick out of the popularity of ugly Christmas sweaters. Over the past few years you see more and more about these 1980's fashion relics from grandmas' closets. A National Ugly Sweater Day has been established for the Second Friday in December. This year 5 million participated. Seasonal stores have been popping up: like the Christmas Sweater Depot in the Chicago area. Ugly sweater themed Christmas parties and pub crawls have become popular with millennials who are looking to have another excuse to dress up and act goofy. One leader in the apparel industry thinks that the whole phenomenon is a rebellion against the formality found this time of year: from stressful travel plans to dinner and office parties. "Everybody could use a laugh... the world is so incredibly stressful."

Knocking down the stress level a few notches just might be what the doctor ordered. During the darkest time of the year, as the sun disappears behind the clouds and the temperatures get colder, its tough enough to find the good news that comes with Christmas. But then when you add all the financial and time expectations placed upon you, this time of year can easily lead more people into a dark fog than toward the Light of the World.

Humor helps. I love reading the Christmas story to children and adults from a Children's Bible. It adds some humor, knocks down the stress, and still reveals the good news that is given to the world through the story. After the angel shares with the shepherds the news about Jesus' birth and the Heavenly Host sing "Glory to God," the shepherds are called to pay homage to this new born king. But they wonder what they should do with the sheep. They can't leave the sheep all alone. "Let the angels watch them," is what the youngest shepherd says. And I guess that's good enough. Later, at the manger with Mary and Joseph, the story is intentional to tell us about the "moo-o-o-o" and "baa-a-a-a" and "coo-o-o-o" of the cows and sheep and doves. Try making the sound of a dove right now. It will put a smile on your face.

Maybe by knocking down the stress levels a little bit and finding a chance to laugh we will be more open to power of that Heavenly Host song: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." When there was no room in the inn, you gotta believe that a little bit of a laughter would have been extremely helpful in Mary and Joseph not falling into deep despair. It can do us all a little good.

And may that little dose of humor move us to hear the Lord's call through the Christmas story: Our Savior has been born... born to bring us peace. Christ's peace will be a direct contrast to the peace that was found at the time in the Roman Empire. Romans celebrated the peace that Emperor Augustus brought through conquest by building the Ara Pacis Augustae in 9 BC. The peace of Christ will not be found through contempt for weak neighbors. The Prince of Peace points to a peace that comes through the Kingdom of God... it is peace and power through compassion... Freedom through service.

Armed with your ugly Christmas sweater, the news of Christ's birth and mission, some humor in your soul, and a heart eager to speak kindness, you are ready to become an instrument of peace. The world is so incredibly serious and so incredibility needs peace. Allow yourself to be a light of hope as we await the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Prince of Peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Indigo Christmas

You ain't been blue; no, no, no.
You ain't been blue,
Till you've had that mood indigo.
That feelin' goes stealin' down to my shoes
While I sit and sigh, "Go 'long blues."

Always get that mood indigo,
Since my baby said goodbye.
In the evenin' when lights are low,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

'Cause there's nobody who cares about me,
I'm just a soul who's
bluer that blue can be.
When I get that mood indigo,
I could lay me down and die.
("Mood Indigo," lyrics by Irving Mills)

On the longest night and busiest shopping day of the year... in the midst of cold and gray... facing full calendars and empty bank accounts... it's understandable if a person feels blue. Clouded by memories of the past and regrets for the present, many feel so lonesome they could cry. Missing loved ones and wondering about the future, indigo is just right.

Trying to navigate the hurly-burly, some lash out with anger: bitter because they feel that they've been suckered into feeling this way. Crying out: "Keep Christ in Christmas!" or "Jesus is the reason for the season" they are tempted to blame others for their blahs. "If only all that other stuff wasn't getting in the way, maybe I'd enjoy this."

Some fall into self-pity seeing only saccharine in the holiday cards that come in the mail, in cookies from Wal-mart stacked on the counters, and in the lineup of plastic wreaths, "'cause there's nobody who cares about me." Hearing Andy Williams piped out along the sidewalk by city hall, some sing to themselves: "I'm just a soul who's bluer than blue can be."

The Word of God found in Scripture suddenly gets lumped into a pile of green and red LED lights. "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will to all" shares space with Buddy Elf's four groups: Candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.

But the Word is exactly the place to find light dawning among the gray and blue and indigo. Let's leave the little town of Bethlehem for a moment and head up to Nazareth. An angel is approaching a young woman with a message. She will have a child who will save his people from sin. The young woman, Mary, can't understand it. It's impossible. She can't possibly be pregnant. Ahh.. and this is where that great line comes in, spot of orange appears in the sea of blue. "Nothing is impossible with God."

Nothing is impossible with God... A double negative that gives birth to life.

We can dwell in these blues... and be honest about them. It may be how you feel right now. Know, though, that God is with you in that indigo field. In Christ, God takes the nothing and impossible and gives us Emmanuel to meet us exactly where we are. God swirls the blues and the indigos into bright oranges, yellows and reds. God transforms gray clouds and cold air into his warm, comforting embrace. God will grab hold of this longest night and shortest day to present us with a gift of hope we can hold on to.

Nothing is impossible with God... A double negative on Indigo Christmas that tells us that a new day is dawning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thank You, God

Scripture reveals an amazing thing about grace: God provides for everyone. Jesus makes that point when he challenged people to pray for their enemies: "[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45)." On his way to Jerusalem, once, Jesus cleansed ten lepers after telling them "go and show yourselves to the priests." Only a Samaritan came back to say "thanks," but all ten were made clean nonetheless.

God provides for everyone. I like the way Martin Luther puts it: God creates us and sustains us. "God has given me and still preserves my body and soul..." God is also the provider of all that we need: "God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property - along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life." Thank you God.

That's right... THANK YOU, GOD!

Why say thank you? God provides, regardless of our gratitude. It's that way for humans and it's that way for creation. Surly the flowers and the bird are provided for without the requirement of gratitude. So, why say thank you? The story of Jesus cleansing those ten people of their leprosy gives us some insight. "One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him... Then [Jesus] said to him, 'Get up and go on your way; your faith as made you well (Luke 17:15-16, 19).'"

Christ cleanses all of them in this story, but only one discovers a faith that leads to wellness... a wholeness and wellness found in gratitude. Now, he will be able to go forth in freedom, empowered to live in Christ. Now, he will be free from the despair that leads so many to forget that God always makes available the things that are needed. It is a tragedy every time people forget that.

God's abundance is always available. We need Thanksgiving to remind us of what is real: God sustains us and provides for us. We need prayers of thankfulness and praise to plug us into the kingdom of abundance of which we are a part. When we say thank you, we open ourselves to the power that makes us well and sets us free.

God provides. The wicked and the righteous will continue to be blessed. Birds will continue to find water. Flowers will continue to receive nutrients from the ground. But Christ came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Through our gratitude, thanks and praise we plug into a living faith that transforms us from existing to thriving.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Landing our Lives upon the Way of Christ

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission was able to land their Philae lander on the surface of the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko yesterday. Amazing! Sounds like the stuff of fairy tales: Like hoping on a shooting star to catch a ride to Saturn... or at least it seems that way to me.

There are so many cool facts about this Rosetta mission: The comet itself is almost three miles long and two miles wide. It is flying through space at about 40,000 miles/hour. It's a problem for an AP Physics exam: How do you shoot an object from Earth into a comet moving that fast in the weightlessness of space? How do you get that object to slow down enough to perform a soft landing upon that comet? I guess there's a little bit of AP Calculus in there as well.

Another cool fact is that the weight of the Philae lander is only 1 gram on the comet. Their's just not much holding that thing on that comet. But I think the coolest fact of them all is that the Philae lander landed on about an inch and a half of some sort of dust. I'm just trying to think of this cosmic dust laying on the surface of this comet. How does it not blow off? Is it because there is no wind? I better go see the movie Interstellar. Wow.

This becomes a bit of a Psalm 8 moment for me: our wonderful You're-awesome-God-and-we-are-too psalm. "Lord, oh Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth! You made your glory higher than the heaven!" But don't forget us humans: Way to go guys! You landed that thing. "What are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them? You've made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur (Psalm 8:4-5)." God, you sure have crowned those know-it-alls at the European Space Agency with glory and grandeur.

In someways though, the know-it-alls have it easy. Crank out enough physics and calculus equations and boy look what you can achieve. Get the right engineers on board and you can actually build something that's gonna work. Yes, there are failures, like Virgin Galactic's crash last month, but we dust ourselves off and move ahead.

In matters of faith and the spirit, it doesn't play out quite as easily as rocket science. For as tough as that level of science can be, aiming for the life of Jesus Christ, and embracing the abundant life Jesus died on the cross to give us, can become so much more difficult. Instead of working harder, the way of Christ is about surrendering. Instead of creating bigger, better equations, the way of Christ challenges us to the simplicity found in child, even as we mature in faith.

Navigating the narrow way of Christ... landing upon the speeding comet of living faith... means getting back to the basics of who you are as creature. The calc problems we work on are the spiritual exercises of prayer and meditation, generosity and rest. Landing our lives upon the way of Christ then leads to the truth found in another Psalm. Living with, in and for Christ: "They are like a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time and whose leaves don't fade. Whatever they do succeeds (Psalm 1:3)."

Monday, November 03, 2014

Nik Wallenda in the Sky

Up among the rooftops of the Chicago skyline, Nik Wallenda's Sunday stroll memorized me. I The whole time I watched at home with my body halfway turned away. I grunted and groaned, much to the dismay of my wife. I was not looking for a disaster, but for beauty. There was even some inspiration to be found in the over-hyped, over-commercialized event. The showman is also the artist.

I've been interested in Nik Wallenda and his story for some time now. I'm generally pretty late to things like the whole Wallenda show: allergic to many of the "must-sees" of our culture. But Nik's walk over the Grand Canyon hooked me in. There is something about walking on a wire that leaves me spellbound. When I went to the Ringling Brothers Circus a few years ago I needed to be right under the high wire act and loved every terrifying moment. When I saw the great documentary, Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit's illegal walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, I thought it was one of the best movies I'd ever seen. Defying the laws of physics... defying the laws of fear... I love it. Truly, as Nik puts it: to walk the wire is to live.

There are so many levels to the Nik Wallenda phenomenon:
1. It's a dare-devil act, in the style rarely seen any more.

2. It's family. The enmeshedness of the family is fascinating. Generations have been taking up the family business. They take on all the responsibilities: mom made Nik's shoes, an uncle handles setting up the wires, dad talks Nik through every step, wife and kids await Nik's return. This is not a normal family, nor should they be seen as a model family, but the way they work together is amazing.

3. It's art. Iconic images (Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, Chicago Skyline) juxtaposed with this little dot-of-a-man casually walking across. It's beautiful.

4. It's mortality in your face. I can't walk across a high bridge or out on a 29th floor balcony without fear freezing me on the spot. I've been on top of the World Trade Center, outside, and in the open air section of the CN Tower in Toronto. The wind blows hard up there. How can he do it?

5. It's faith in God. Nik is a believer and credits his faith for his ability to walk on a wire, to be a husband and father, and to be the best person he can be. With all the gravitas of an evangelical preacher, Nik will keep saying "Thank you Jesus."

6. It's a lesson in training. You don't just go out and walk a wire. It takes daily discipline and practice. Because Nik walks the walk every day and physically trains he is then be ready to walk that walk 600 feet in the air. This connects again with faith, for in the same way it takes daily training in faith in order to produce the fruit of the spirit.

So Nik... Keep on walking. Place three hours of commercials before your show and even wear advertisements up and down your body. Pray with Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Billy Graham and Max Lucado before your walk. It's all fine with me. I'll be watching because what you do is beautiful.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Always Reforming

Here we are on Reformation Day and I tell you I am in awe of the power of God revealed in words like Renew, rebirth, reform. God reformed the church and the world forever through a German, Augustinian monk who had the audacity to translate the Bible into words people could understand and to proclaim a message grounded in Scriptures that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.

And God still is reforming us.  I had the chance to hear the author/Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, earlier this month.  Talk about change…  Talk about reforming… She’s not your Grandfather Ludwig’s Lutheran pastor.

She is a woman, first of all, stands at 6 foot 1 inches tall with spiky short hair, covered in tattoos and by her own admission she swears like a truck driver… with all due respect to truck drivers.

She was raised the conservative Church of Christ: a church more defined by their don’ts (like don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t play musical instruments in church) than their dos. She rebelled from this upbringing got her first tattoo at 17, became an addict and stand up comedian, and only after meeting her future husband, an ELCA seminary student, did she finally discover her true calling.  

She is the pastor of House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado and is the authentic embodiment of the renewal and reformation that God is doing for the world, for the church and for each and every one of us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus says in John 8, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus teaches that the life we are living now is a trap… it is slavery… and it is not based on truth because we continue to live as slaves sin.

I like how Nadia puts it, “the christian life is a life of continual death and resurrection.” Continually we are called to renewal… Continually we are called to reformation because every day through repentance and forgiveness Christ breaks us free from the worlds lies of fear and despair. Christ makes us free and reveals the truth. It is the Word that propels us on a journey of reform and renewal. With a living faith, everything never just stays the same. The one who has claims you in baptism has remade you and is remaking you from people of fear into people of hope.

Again, I see in Nadia as the embodiment of this reformation. She shared in her lecture that this past summer she was blessed with a sabbatical and used that time to travel to Greece and Turkey. You might be surprised to know that though Nadia seems to be the emblem of everything changing; she actually represents a that reformation is always grounded in tradition. She loves ancient liturgy, especially the fact that liturgy has its own integrity and doesn't demand her’s.

So while traveling in Turkey Nadia visited an ancient Byzantine cave church. She was moved to chant as she felt surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. The irony of her presence and action in that place didn't pass her by. There she was: A female, Lutheran pastor, former addict, covered in tattoos, child God, follower of Jesus, in the midst of a Muslim country chanting in a sacred space whose original community disappeared centuries before.

She wondered how often the Christians who called that space their church feared for the future as the world was closing in on them. She wondered if they were convinced that their way of life was going to end and that all would be lost… even the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And she thought: what a horrible shame it would have been if those Christians allowed themselves to be frozen by fear and unable to see the hope of Christ.

Could they ever have imagined that centuries later, disciples of Christ, followers of Jesus, would continue to go there? Would continue to share the gospel… would continue to chant the ancient liturgies and and continue proclaim Christ crucified… Christ resurrected from the dead?

Because if that ancient community had been frozen in fear... they were missing the truth that is revealed in Scripture. We are death and resurrection people. We are people of constant renewal and reformation.  What a shame it is when people claimed and loved by Jesus allow the chains and lies of fear to control. The truth has always been and will continue to be that are free in Jesus and his Word will endure forever.

If fear and despair control you and freeze you to your place… allow yourself to continue in the Word through worship and study. Being freed through grace you are free engage in this Holy Word so you know what that grace actually means for you. In that word you will finally know the truth… you will finally be free.

Today is a day of reformation. Don’t be scared to give up the lies that have tied you down…. the patterns of manipulation and contempt that may have become very comfortable for you. Don’t be soothed by the old lies of blame and disgust… Instead, find truth in Christ and life in his abiding grace. God is on the loose transforming us all into his kingdom. From Luther… to Nadia… to you. Hallelujah! Amen!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It's All on the Line

It's all on the line tonight in the World Series. It's Game 7! One team will be crowned the champions while another team will forever carry the label of "loser." The Texas Rangers are the last team to lose a World Series Game 7, after they had been only one strike away from winning the Series in Game 6. Ranger fans still feel that sting. My favorite team's only appearance in the World Series went the full seven games in 1982. Like this year's San Francisco Giants, they were up 3 games to 2, needing to win just one more in the opposing team's ballpark. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out too well for the Milwaukee Brewers, losing those final two games to their eventual arch rivals in St. Louis. Brewer fans' feelings about the Cardinals were forever cemented that October and a label of "losers" have gone with it ever since.

Baseball, like life, is played out for the long haul. Decisions are made with each pitch and hundreds of decisions are made per game. All of that occurs in a season that has 162 of those games. When you add the potential of playoffs: teams can play almost 200 games. Tonight's game will be the Royals 177th of the year, not including exhibition games.

But now it's down to one game.  One decision can make or break it. One decision can make the difference between being known as a champion or just another loser. With a loss, Kansas City fans will still only hold 1985 as dear. (There has not been much talk about 1980 over their run this month. They lost that Series.) With a loss, this Giants team will be forgotten in the shadows of the bright light of those championship teams in 2010 & 2012. That's a whole lot riding on one game... on one decision. It's all on the line.

Life give us plenty of all-on-the-line moments, though we may not realize it. We will go through the decisions of a day or take a look at several days within a week or a month and think that not much is at stake. We goof up. We hurt people. We sin. We reconcile. We say "we're sorry." We hold grudges. All-in-all it's part of life and life goes on. But every so often we are faced with choices that do put it all on the line. The choice we make might very well sever a relationship forever. A simple slip-up, while we're not paying attention, might injure ourselves or others.

Again, baseball is a helpful analogy. Playing 162 games may lead us to believe at the time that the blown game back in May really wasn't a big deal. But hindsight might say otherwise. Look at this season: when all was said and done it was only two little games that separated the Seattle Mariners from Kansas City's playoff spot. Boy, don't they seem like worlds apart now. Each game matters. Each choice has consequences.

As flawed people, how do we make the most of each pitch, each at-bat, each choice that we make? We're going to goof up plenty along the way. But remember, the difference between a player batting .350 and batting .250 is huge. It is the difference between playing or sitting on the bench. It is the difference between being an All-Star and being a utility player. Likewise there is a huge difference between children of God, sinners, who walk the way of Christ and those who don't.  It's not difference between batting 1.000 or batting .000. No, disciples still sin and make poor choices and people living solely in the world do make many good choices. But over that long haul, the difference between walking with Christ and not may be a whole lot like the difference between batting .350 and .250... or the difference between the Royals and the Mariners.

Jesus has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly. Walking in Christ and training to walk in Christ through daily prayer, study, service, and acts of gratitude can produce wonderful fruit for children of God. Spiritual disciplines becoming spiritual habits opens up the door of God's Kingdom at hand right now. Practicing a living faith leads you to naturally make the choices that bring life. You're now ready to bat .350 and experience that abundant life right now.

God loves the winners and losers equally. Christ died on the cross for the .350 and the .250 batter. We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God and we are all offered forgiveness. But in order to thrive and enjoy this abundant, meaningful life that God desires for us, it takes training... spiritual training. And after all that training, when you face those moments when it's all on the line, you will be ready. You will have fought the good fight and run the race as best you could.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


It's easy to be aware of God's hand in creation this time of year. I had the chance a week ago to head out to the area along the Mississippi River where the states of Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois all meet. The leaves are turning and the corn is ready for harvest. The rolling hills and bluffs make the autumn colors pop.

What a beautiful creation God has made for us. 

What a beautiful creation God had made for me.

It's a blessing to be aware of your surroundings and to be aware of your own personal connection to those surroundings. The busyness of life and the automatic nature of our day-to-day lives make it easy for us to miss the God of Wonders who is on the loose ready to guide you in your life. Therefore, the spiritual exercises of prayer, devotion, study and meditation help you become more aware of the Divine presence. God, you surround me.

Regular spiritual practices reveal God's hand in the beauty of nature and even in the humdrum. Yes, even what you see on your daily commute is a gift from God. What if you were to prepare your breakfast in awe of your kitchen and all that the Lord has provided for you there? What if you picked up your paper, or smartphone, or tube of toothpaste and acknowledged: God, you made this for me. Thank you. 

Sometimes when we think about the big picture we find it hard to focus on the small details within the picture. Yes, God provides for our every need... and God does this for all people... but God also provides you: second person, singular. That sidewalk you stroll on, the work space to practice your vocation at, and the books you can learn from are gifts for you to use. Thank you God for my coffee mug... a vessel to hold this magnificent hot tasty beverage. I am blessed. 

Spend some moments being aware of your surroundings. Ponder how God has created you and provides for all your needs. Take a moment to be grateful... even for the most common things. God provides. Aware of the presence of your Creator in providing you with so much, you might just think: Lord, I must be the richest person ever to live. Thank you.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Carpe Diem!

Of all the Robin Williams quotes being bounced around, my favorite (that doesn't involve sexual organs) comes from Dead Poets Society. William's character inspires his students to "seize the day" by saying: "No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world." Its funny, today we almost take such a statement for granted, its a bit of a cliche. Well... duh. The ideas that come from the heart need to be shared and maybe, just maybe, what we communicate can impact others. Suddenly a chain begins, and if there is truth to be found in those words and ideas the entire course of history can change forever.

For most of human history, Robin Williams' statement about the power of words has not been embraced. Instead, people have mostly sought to do what they were told and out of fear, keep their innovative thoughts to themselves. This was the reality Jesus encountered when he pushed the boundaries of faith and challenged people to see things in a whole new way. Jesus often taught others that genuine faith would produce actions that were actually the opposite of what they expected.

For instance, generations of people had been taught to obey God by obeying God's law. Over time that law became a list of many different rules and regulations to be obeyed at all costs. More then just the Ten Commandments, they were rules about where you could go and what you could eat... they were rules about people who were clean and unclean and processes were created to get yourself clean. They were rules that began to oppress the people and cloud the truth about what God expected from us. Jesus cleared the air about God's love for us and revealed that God desires our hearts. Hearts centered on God will be hearts that reflect his love and compassion.

Therefore, Jesus teaches us that unclean food doesn't defile, nor do messy fingers. Words are what can defile because words will reveal what's truly in the heart. If one's words are poison, so too would you find a heart that was polluted.  If one's words were contemptuous, so too would you find a heart shackled in selfish fear without the liberating air of faith.  Oh yes, words will change the world and Jesus' words continue to change the world as disciples build the Kingdom through hearts and words that express radical love, forgiveness and hope.

Matthew then does something really cool in this chapter. Immediately, this teaching of Jesus is followed by a fascinating story about Jesus' encounter with a foreign, gentile, unclean, Canaanite woman. Coming to Jesus with a request of healing for her daughter, Jesus' words do not reflect a heart of compassion at all. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It is sarcastic. It is dividing. It is closed minded and our understanding of what Christ teaches us needs to call it unchristian.

I could go all day unpacking those words and interpreting their purpose. But instead I want to look and focus on the words, actions and heart of the Canaanite woman. There is power in her faith-filled words... and they do change the world. "Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Her words come from a heart of faith. They are free of poison. They are un-defiled words. She is clean after all. She is an example, for all time.

God desires for us and all people to live in the joy and freedom that comes from possessing clean hearts. Through baptism your hearts have been cleansed and through the Holy Spirit you are able to live your life in such a way that your actions and words and deeds become a reflection of what God has done for you. Life in Christ is not about following rules that chain us to misery, but following Our Lord who allows to live with love and compassion as our defining traits.

Like so many, I'm saddened when I think about how many times Robin Williams made me laugh and how in the end he was chained to the dark shadows that seek to cloud the bright lights of hope. His work and words to endure. Many of those words I cannot share with you. But some... some do point to what Jesus has revealed to us about the Kingdom. Words... your words... will change the world.  May all of your words and your actions reflect that divine love God has given to you through Jesus, his sacrifice and his enduring hope.

Carpe Diem! Seize the day. Make your lives and words extraordinary.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

From Everlasting to Everlasting

Lord, you have been our help, generation after generation. Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world - from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God. (Psalm 90:1-2)

Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day. 
(Isaac Watts, from "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past")

The movie director Richard Linklater has done some amazing things connecting film, the human experience and time. His Before Sunset trilogy, which looks at the lives of two people, are each made a decade apart. The movies follow small slivers of their lives as they age, make mistakes, and search for meaning. These are characters who just happen to be exactly my age. In the lines of their faces and the gray touches in their hair and his goatee I cannot help by see myself.

Linklater has gone another step melding time and the human experience with his latest film Boyhood. In one picture he has followed the life of an American family, filming over the course of thirteen years. Together, we follow the "boy" as he moves from six to eighteen and witness his physical changes as his soul matures.  We see the parents age and can relate... because time has moved us down that ever rolling stream as well.

Scripture reminds us that as time marches on, God remains constant. Psalm 90 poetically paints the picture for us. Speaking toward God, the author observes: because in your perspective a thousand years are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch (v.4). We get so caught up in the drama of our day or week we forget how we play just a small part of a much bigger story. For some, a little perspective can weigh us down. I'm sure that many come out of Linklater's movies asking what's its all about and why does anything matter?

Faith's perspective, however, is liberating and not a weight upon us. Knowing the infinite God who has been revealed to us in Christ, frees us from the minutia of the tick-tock-constant worries and dreads of life and opens our eyes to the Kingdom of God which is at hand. Our walk in faith, our spiritual exercises of worship and prayer, generosity and compassion, give us wisdom that allows all of our moments to matter.

Teach us to number our days so we can have a wise heart. (Psalm 90:12)

As we move into the busyness of fall, don't drown in the ever rolling stream. Christ has given us the life-raft of faith. Upon this sailing vessel we can rest assured and wisely live as the people God created us to be.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Arby's is Delicious (TM)

As I was driving the other day, a phrase that caught my attention and has stuck with me. Now, studies have been done that reveal that every single day the average American is exposed to thousands of advertisements. TV and radio ads are just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless ads, logos and slogans that glare right at us on the road and around our town, even in our homes. Look up right this second. What companies are glaring right at you?  I see Dell, Gateway, AMC Theaters and U.S. Cellular logos.

But the slogan that caught my eye the other day was on the side of a soft drink glass. ARBY'S IS DELICIOUS (TM). Now, I don't necessarily disagree with that statement. At times Arby's is indeed delicious, but I find that I need to be in the mood for a Beef and Cheddar with lots of Arby's Sauce to really proclaim that in all caps. Usually when I try something different at Arby's I'm left just feeling like ARBY'S IS EXPENSIVE.

Regardless of all that, what I was left with the other day was the reminder right there in my car's cup holder that ARBY'S IS DELICIOUS.  I imagine if you read the statement ARBY'S IS DELICIOUS enough you might just come away always believing that... until you the next time you try an overpriced brisket sandwich. Then it will dawn on you again: "oh yea, Arby's is just okay... sometimes."

The chain that probably does the most with ramming how awesome they are down your throat is the burger place Five Guys.  I don't think they have anything printed on their cups, and you're not going to find Five Guys on TV or on too many billboards, but what you will find is that when you eat at a Five Guys you're going to be over-saturated with Five Guys propaganda. And yes, I do call it propaganda. Windows, signs, framed pictures all proclaim that you are eating the greatest burgers ever created and the most fantastic french fries that ever been served to human beings. After all, Washingtonian, New York Magazine and Atlanta This Week all say so. Jimmy Marks of Savannah, Georgia gave them four forks. Sometimes I'm left feeling queasy in my stomach because of the slogans. The red color scheme and the starkness of their signs remind me of something communist and sinister. I sometimes wonder if this is how it felt eating in Chairman Mao's re-education camps with stark slogans glaring down at you: "Chairman Mao is great..." "Chairman Mao provides for your every need."

The gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the cross is what we are called to proclaim. We do a pretty good job on Sunday mornings with that. There are solid ministries that get the word out via radio stations and some cable channels. But even that is a mixed bag. There are ministries preaching a gospel of love and service through their actions. Those will get some media coverage and Facebook blasts, but can easily get lost. At times the message about God, Jesus and the work of Jesus' followers is mighty soft compared to the messages of the corporate world.

I think it says a lot about the hollowness of the message when companies need to drown us in their slogans thousands of times a day. It reveals some desperation. Maybe if it's said enough, then people will believe it. That's what Mao hoped to do. But his best results came from a good batch of terror mixed with the slogans.

Wonderfully, the message of Jesus Christ has real meat underneath, unlike the rest. Jesus is truth... and the more it's message is suppressed the more powerful it becomes.  So whether it be easy or hard, let's keep the message out there: JESUS IS LORD. Let's keep pointing to the truth: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Let the people know YOU ARE OF MORE VALUE THAN MANY SPARROWS. Shout out: COME TO ME AND YOU WILL FIND REST.

Every year the world tries to strangle our message with more ads and slogans and logos. I would image the day will come when on an average day we will look at 10,000 or more. Even after that day comes, real truth will still only be found in Christ. Keep that message out there. A million cups may claim that ARBY'S IS DELICIOUS (TM) but it's rarely the truth.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Wild Abiding God

What a world we live in. What a God we have.

Being created in the image of God, God is uniquely revealed to people. No other creatures know God as we know God. This has led people of all ages and cultures, throughout history, to put a face to God and to worship God. World religions are diverse, but just about all of them speak to the fact that reality is more than what you can see in front of your face. Our wild God will act in the lives of people and gives us moments of experiencing that spiritual truth, right in front of our physical eyes. Even those who proceed in life with the thought that there is no God, will often find themselves in situations that seem otherworldly and mystical. God the Creator will not be chained off from the creatures he created in his image.

I have been reading a fascinating book by the atheist/author/activist/journalist/biologist Barbara Ehrenreich called Living with a Wild God: A Nonbelievers Search for the Truth about Everything.  Its fascinating. Ehrenreich is a lifelong atheist, the daughter of atheists. During the age of Vietnam, while getting her PhD in Biology, she became an activist and organizer and has made a career writing books exposing the "wrongs" of our society by reporting issues from her feminist point-of-view. Only recently though, has she been moved to share with others her "mystical" experiences from her teenage years. (Yes, she does call them mystical.) She writes about them and shares that these experiences revealed to her that nothing could be assumed. While in the midst of those moments it seems as if all of existence was connected and alive.

Ever the scientist and journalist, Ehrenreich is led on a lifelong quest for answers. Looking toward world religions, philosophy, science fiction and medical science, she tried to find answers for what she had experienced, but was never satisfied with what she discovered. She is convinced that her mystical experiences were not out of some bio-chemical imbalance nor were they the result of mental illness. She knows they were factual encounters by a very sane person about truths she is just not able to grasp. She is also convinced that many other people have likewise had similar experiences.

Failing to come up with definitive answers has not suddenly led Barbara to become a believer. She remains steadfast in her rational, scientific view of the world, and refuses to settle for faith and belief. She asks "Why believe when you can know?" So she continues to struggle, pressing on in her search to understand the truth of what happened to her.

As I read her book, and learned more about her descriptions of what she had experienced, I couldn't help but think about God, the Spirit, and the truth that Jesus points us toward. Of course Barbara Ehrenreich will not be swayed by a chapter of John, but for me the words of Christ reveal truth about her experience and even my own experiences of this wild God.

Human beings are not led to faith simply because some idea popped into someone's head. All that we know of God always involves some sort of physical manifestations, epiphanies and signs. God speaks to men and women in the Hebrew Scriptures. God makes things happen... visible things. God definitively is revealed to us through the Messiah who was flesh and bone. He spoke, he touched, he moved, he died. But this Messiah, Jesus, knew that he would not be remaining with his people forever in that way. Much of John's Gospel covers the process of Jesus preparing his followers for the fact that he would not be with them forever as they became used to. He comforts them and reassures them, and us, that he will gives us help... so that we might know the "unknowable" things of God. It will take belief. It will take faith. But Jesus will send us a "Paraclete" to help us, comfort us, inspire us, and be an advocate for us in this hard and confusing world.

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 
John 14:17

The truth about the universe is that there is so much more than what we can see in front of our face. Truth is so much more than what can be verified through scientific methods. Truth is more than what can verified through historical methods. The Holy Spirit that dwells in us is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit inspires us and guides and opens our eyes to so much.

Of course the world will be encountering the mystical and the mysterious. It's a part of God's creation. What a gift it is that God gives us Christ and the gift of the Paraclete to help us discern whats going on around us. We are free to dwell as both physical and spiritual creatures. We can be voices for the Kingdom of God breaking in.

The word "abide" becomes so important for me here. Already in John's Gospel he has been talking about how we are to live our lives and by what commandments we should follow. Just paragraphs before this text Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another. Jesus says if you love me you will follow my commandments. Followers of commandments and rules are people who abide by what is expected them. They make those rules their own. But what we learn in Christ is that this wild God doesn't just expected us to abide, but he promises to abide in us. God will make us his own. God will be in us. The wild God of the cosmos will connect us to his mysterious, majestic eternity. "He abides with you," our Lord Jesus tells us.

God abides in Barbara Ehrenreich as well.  She is a part of our species and a part of God's creation. A child of God she seeks answers and will dig and dig and dig. She will never believe. That is a dirty word for her. But with courage, she will share her experiences and in the process help us gain a wider understanding of that Spirit of truth that is out there. To Barbara, that wild God is not a god of love, nor is God benevolent. She likes the way the science fiction author Philip K Dick described the mystical experiences that he, another atheist, had in his life... He said it was like being mugged. More like a hit-and-run accident than discovering the Buddha. That how it felt to Ehrenreich as well.

But that's not how everyone experiences the presence of the divine. What Christ opens us for us is the opportunity to dwell in the Spirit of truth. Called to abide in Christ, his yoke, his teachings, and his ways as disciples... we are open to the amazing wonders that comes from the God of Wonders. He is our wild God who abides in us so we can live as the people we truly have been created to be.

Yeah, for an atheist to experience this... Of course it feels like being mugged. It's a punch in the gut. It's an epiphany that the principles she has been living under are simply not the whole picture.

But for those believe... and abide in Jesus' love... in his commandments... in his way... the experience of the mystical and divine is true comfort and hope. St. Teresa of Avila, who experienced the mystical and is quoted by Ehrenreich, describes the experience of the Spirit of truth and the God who abides in us this way:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing that you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and everyone of you.
-Teresa of Avila

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Father and Your Father, My God and Your God

I got the movie 12 Years A Slave in the mail yesterday from Netflix. It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and I was glad that it did. Even though I had not seen it, I was pulling for it to win the Oscar. I was excited after their name was announced at the end of the Oscar telecast.  I felt like celebrating with Steve McQueen the director and the various other cast members. It was nice to see. But, within a few moments it was all over. Ellen DeGeneres said good night. I turned off my TV and went to bed. Ultimately, while it was fun to watch the Hollywood celebration, it was their joy and not mine.

It's a mistake if people of faith approach Easter the same way. When we take a look at the resurrection stories in any of the four Gospels, are we just reading something on a page, or listening to someone tell this old, old story again? When we worship on Easter, do we go to hear a staff performing at the top of their game like it's their Super Bowl? Are we looking for an amazing show with trumpet sounds and colorful paraments and the smells of spring?  Easter is our celebration. Easter is our time. God turns our mourning into dancing... our sorrow into joy. John's telling of the resurrection puts that to us in a powerful way.

In one of the most touching stories of all Scripture, Mary Magdalene is overwhelmed with emotions on that first day of the week. She goes to the tomb, sees that it is empty and then goes to tells others that "they have taken the Lord." The other disciples believed right away when he saw the empty tomb, but Mary is still bewildered. After the rest had returned to their homes, she remains and weeps.  Angels appear to her first and then the resurrected Christ. She doesn't recognize him until he calls her by name: "Mary." Immediately her mourning turns to joy. It's a powerful story.

Jesus says something interesting to her that reveals that Mary is not the equivalent of me watching 12 Years A Slave win the Oscar. She is not simply a witness to something great that happened to Jesus. Instead something has also happened... or at least will happen... for her as well.  "Jesus said to her, 'Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God (John 20:17)."'"

Jesus' gift to Mary and to all of us, is that through the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension, and his promise to return... all of us have been united with these events. His life is our life... His celebration is our celebration.

When you celebrate Easter... Celebrate that Christ has done all of this for you. This is your hope. So join the party. Share the good news. Don't hold on to Jesus, or the performances of others. Celebrate and share the good news. Hallelujah! Christ is risen!  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Love and Humility

On this Commandment Thursday I once again think about the Law of Love. It is so tempting to rip out the page with John 13 from my Bible and start waving it around as I get into people's faces with some smug moral indignation. "Look at this guys. You're so quick to snub your nose at others in judgement. You're so certain about who is saved and who is going to hell. Well, let me show you this. There's a new commandment Jesus has given us. It's a commandment to love. How are you doing with that? I don't think he's making some suggestion here.  He says commandment. You need to love. So, what do you think of that? Hmmmmmmm?"

Judge not lest ye be judged.

The wonder of John 13 and much of the way that John describes Jesus' passion, is that Jesus is giving us all of this out of love and concern for his sheep. Followers of Christ are going to face all kinds of dangers. The temptations of sin are going to pull those who ought to be united, apart.  He prays for our unity and gives us a new commandment... not as some law to dangle over us again. This is not "do this and live." This is: "I know what it means to be empowered, to be liberated,  and live in peace as people of the Kingdom of God, and it all stems out of love. Love one another, my children, and you will be blessed."

All the images of John 13... the foot washing, the conversation between Peter and Jesus, the talk of betrayal, and the commandment to love... they all stem from the underlining reality of God's Kingdom: Greatness comes through service and humility. Freed from fear and doubt, you are now able to sincerely serve your sister in need. Freed from fear and doubt, you are now able to sincerely open up and be vulnerable... to allow your brother to minister to you in your need. All of this stems from a love that goes hand-in-hand with humility. The one living as Christ is the one who humbly approaches the other with compassion. The one living as Christ is the one who is not afraid to listen and receive what the other is offering.

Foot washing becomes the ultimate symbol of humility and Christian love. It calls upon us to serve. It calls upon us to be vulnerable.  When done with a sincere heart, it truly reveals what Christian community ought to be.  Jesus does command us to wash one another's feet and there are many ways that it has been done in Christian community. It is nice when a whole community ritually washes one another. It's touching when a spiritual leader can submit to the least in the community and wash. It makes a great point when a community may choose to wash hands instead of feet. It's all very nice.

But Jesus wants our hearts. Have genuine compassion for the friends in your community. Love through service. Allow yourself to open up and be served. When those are happening: it is foot washing and Jesus is present. I like the way Jesus puts it: It is not just in the act that your blessed... but it is in the knowing. You are blessed by what is found in your heart. "Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:16-17)."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Great Flood of Human Sinfulness

I got to see the movie Noah a week ago... a movie that has had its fair share of controversy. Among film-geekdom the question was: "Why would such a cool director want to make an old-fashioned Bible epic? What's he going to do next, Ben Hur? Among conservative Christians the question was: "Why would an atheist make a movie about Noah and change the story? Where's he going to go next, Hell?"

Noah is a breathtaking movie. It's good film-making and it does speak to life... even a life of faith. It looks amazing and its story pulls you in. It does get distracting when the director Darrin Aronofsky goes way off course in terms of sticking with the story. There were times I wanted to scream "come on" while I was twisting in my seat. It's not everyday you are exposed to rock monsters building the ark and a Noah wandering the narrow, short-sighted path of a zealot. But in light of where Aronofsky wraps up the film, I can now appreciate the struggle I had. It pays off in a fair way.  
Abandoning the priority of sticking with the Biblical account, this Noah seeks to go deeper into the very human sinfulness that led to the flood in the first place. That human sinfulness is why we still cling on to the promise of the rainbow.  Aronofsky lifts up in a powerful way the horror of the events that revealed to us in the early chapters of Genesis. Honestly, do baby nurseries full of cute pandas, giraffes, and elephants waltzing two-by-two into the sweet old man Noah's big boat really portray the story accurately?

In Noah we witness the title character's struggle with the enormity of what is about to happen, and with the realization that he is not so squeaky clean himself. In a terrifying scene, Noah goes among the humans to seek wives for his son, as if they are available for a price at a market. He witnesses unspeakable horrors and in the midst of all that he realizes that he is no different. The human sin that leads people to treat others with contempt is even found within him.

In the past when I have led conversations about the Noah story in Genesis, people are often surprised by what happens to Noah once he is able to re-establish life on land. Look at Genesis 9:20-29. I call this "The Naked Noah." You won't find this scene in any nursery.  Sin continues after the flood. Noah, like all of us, are at the mercy of a loving God who promises to never again do this.

Wonderfully, Aronofsky includes "Naked Noah" in his story. Of course he has, because it ends up being at the heart of his message.  We hurt one another. We don't understand life. We are afraid. Real meaning and real life is found only in love, when we can break away from the asinine choices we make out of fear.  Noah needed to discover that and we do as well. God is not going to leave us. He's not going to destroy us again. He has given us a Savior in Christ who points the way to this reality called love... called the Kingdom of God. I am thankful for what Noah contributes to our continuing struggle with what it means to live as God would like us to live.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Life Swimming through the Sea of Time

I recently watched three movies directed by Richard Linklater, made nine years apart, that look at three days, nine years apart, lived by characters played by Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy. In the first, Before Sunrise, a young man and woman meet on a train and spend an evening together in Vienna, sharing their philosophies of life, falling in love, only to depart with a promise to meet again. In the second, Before Sunset, the characters meet again after a nine year absence (they didn't make that promised connection from the first movie). Now 32, they spend the day wandering the streets of Paris, talking about their philosophies of life and throughout you wonder if this will only be a brief encounter again. In the most recent film, Before Midnight, they are now married with twin daughters, on a sabbatical in Greece. Now 41, and parents, (I'm also 41 and a parent) they get the all to rare opportunity to have a night to themselves to share their philosophies of life and for the first time in these films, they argue about their disappointments and failures.  At the end of each of three films you wonder, what's going to happen next with these two. Unfortunately, I'm now going to have to wait nine years instead of sliding in the next DVD right now.

What is love? What is life? What does it mean to commit to another? What do we gain and lose when we are tied to a lover, children, family, jobs, locations, and ideas?

I recently listened to a podcast of the NPR program This American Life. The topic for the week was Valentines Day and love, but the stories shared were certainly no Casablanca or even Before Sunrise. In one story a young man, now in his late thirties, described the amazing relationship he had with his ex-wife. They had been great friends in high school, the model of a perfect couple in college, and had a great marriage going until they made the conscious choice to take a break for a month. They never had experienced being with someone else sexually, and they were curious. After all, being children of our society, shouldn't they have the chance to experience being free and having fun? So they did. And one month became two and two become three. Soon, the writing was on the wall and they were finished. At the end of the story the man shared the lesson he's learned. He feels that all relationships need a seven year review (they had been married seven years) and that he will never be in another relationship without that. Which, then at the end of the story, the show host Ira Glass expressed how he disagreed. The "hip" and respected Glass actually shared an old fashioned, romantic view of commitments and marriage. The guy was left almost speechless. "I don't usually hear people say that. I'll have to think about that," is all he could say.

There is a really nice dinner scene in Before Midnight where our 41 year-old couple dine with three other couples; friends they are spending the summer with. The youngest couple (about the age our couple was in Before Sunrise) speak of their long-distance romance and Skypeing together as they fall asleep each night (If only there has been Skype, or even the internet in 1995... yes we 41 year-olds are old). They expressed the same philosophy of commitment and romance as the guy on This American Life. They know it's only temporary. Why not enjoy the here and now, and let's not pretend its forever. This fairly common view among young adults today, and was no surprise.

It's interesting though to compare this common belief among young people with what I experienced last week when I got to meet two couples in one day. The first couple I met has been married 63 years. They were together as the husband was continuing to recover from illness his wife was by his side. The second couple I met has been married 70 years. Yes, SEVENTY years! They live in their home and the husband does all he can to take care of his wife as she struggles with cancer. I immensely enjoyed meeting all four of them.

I'm sure for both of those couples they've had their share of philosophical conversations as well as many ups and downs in their relationships. Marriage is work, just as all relationships are work. So many of our instincts are to just take care of ourselves. Leave me alone and let me do what I want. We have instinctive radar that tells us what is fair and who has sacrificed more. The fight they have in Before Midnight, is a conversation every healthy couple is going to have.

But underneath all of this is a deep truth about life. We are simply sojourners. We only take up temporary residence here. Even the man who has lived in the same home since he was four is a sojourner. After he's died, the home sits empty with the residue of former dreams, conversations and arguments still echoing the halls. A point beautifully made in the three Before movies is that our characters briefly pass through centuries of history in Vienna, Paris and Greece. They are surely only sojourners. The question is, will they choose to sojourn together?

There is wisdom in Psalm 90:10 "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away." How do we spend those years. They surely could be only "toil and trouble," for we all get our share of that. The intelligent, successful characters in the Linklater movies don't hesitate to express their struggles with life's toils. But those toils need not define us.

Over the past couple years I've read the four John Updike novels about the character Robert "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike re-examined the life of this character every decade covering the years 1959, 1969, 1979 and 1989. They were fascinating to read, and not so much because Rabbit was such an appealing character, but to examine the way life swims through the vast sea of time, free to go all sorts of directions but always within that sea. Like the Before movies, I got to read them all after they were completed. How fun to view the sea... to view life... from hindsight.

But we're swimming in it, and it's hard to think straight, especially when the winds pick up and waves rock us to and fro.  It's no surprise that people struggle with these questions, and that new generations would dare to choose to give up on commitment completely. Selfishness is at the heart of sin... and humans have been sinners for a long time. I think about that young couple in last movie, Before Midnight, who seem so liberated and free.  They're not going to be bogged down in sentimental romanticism. They don't believe in God, or marriage, or duty... just themselves and the moment. Having the view of hindsight, we have a good idea of what lies ahead for him and for the guy telling his story on NPR. The days will tick away and they will "fly away."

Just as Genesis speaks of selfishness being central to sin, so does it speak of us needing others to make it through this life. God made a partner for the first human, and so we will continue to struggle with how to be independent and free and still yearn for the companionship of a partner. Instead of pulling my hair out in frustration because "kids today just don't get it," I'm going to be optimistic because there have always been "kids today." Hindsight is surly 20/20. Hindsight through faith is truth.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014


I often say that Jesus wants our hearts, but what I mean by that is that Jesus wants our whole self: Every bit of us, completely. People can be really good at having their hands do something to gain others approval, or have their words be pleasant so others hear what they want to hear. Children can even do that. People, for the most part, can obey rules well enough to keep the peace and possibly gain the admiration of those expecting them to toe-the-line. Many can do all of that without one smidgen of sincerity.

So when I say that Jesus wants our hearts, I'm saying that Jesus wants our hands, our actions, our words and our deeds to be consistent with our hearts as well.  Jesus not only wants us to obey, he wants us to want to obey. Jesus seeks our hearts and calls on us to live with integrity, where every bit of ourselves lives, breathes, acts, and thinks out of our love for Jesus Christ. When I say Jesus wants our hearts, I'm saying little more than Jesus wants us... all of us. Jesus says: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21)." But flip it around and its still speaks to truth. Where your heart is, your treasure will be also... as well as your hands, and words, and actions.

When the heart is centered on Christ, the words will follow, so will the hands and the actions. The call of Jesus is the call to live with integrity. The life that lives in two worlds and with two standards will not last for long. The person who acts, not out of core beliefs, but to please others only, will not please them for long, because the truth found in the heart will reveal itself. The person who shares Valentine's wishes on the surface, but swims in a sea of hate in their heart, will not be able to convince others of their loving kindness for long. The truth found in the heart will reveal itself.

This becomes the point of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It's not good enough to pat an enemy on the back while holding on to your hate in your heart. Sure you didn't kill your enemy, but Jesus wants you! Get your heart right, and allows your action of "not killing" come from your heart and NOT through insincere obedience.  It goes that way with adultery as well. Don't be "faithful" to your spouse and then bury your mind with desire for others. Jesus wants all of you. Live with integrity. Don't wait until your on the witness stand in the court room to be honest, under penalty of law. Forget the oaths. Instead live with integrity. May your "yes" always be yes and your "no" always be no.

Stories like "The Boy who Cried Wolf" from Aesop's Fables teaches the lesson well.  The person without integrity will not be trusted for long. Without integrity, your "yes" will be heard by others with skepticism and scorn. Just when you need them most, they won't be there for you. Go ahead and say "Your word is your bond" till you're blue in the face. It won't matter. You won't be believed.

The Kingdom of God is much more than that, however. And Jesus wanting your heart is more than a morality tale. The thoughts of others is secondary to the truth that living for Christ with integrity means finally being free. In the Kingdom of God we are freed of the pain of living as two selves, for two sets of values. That tight rope walk will only conclude with a great fall.

You're are united in values, in purpose, in truth, and in faith when your "yes" means yes and your "no" always means no. In Jesus Christ you can truly, fully, be yourself. No convincing. No pleading. You never will say "Your word is your bond" nor with even think of saying it... because you will just be... and speak... and act as wholly you.

I see it everywhere. People are tired. It's hard to keep your work you separate from your family you and then still keep that separate from your paling-around-with-your-friends you. Just be you: a disciple of Christ who loves the Lord and seeks to live as the light of the world consistently and always. Life with integrity is life in, with and for Christ, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Listen, Notice, Discover, Change

"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near." - Matthew 4:16-17

You never know what you're going to find when you start looking at things from a whole new perspective. A walk in the woods, along a path you have always taken, doesn't change all that much. You walk past the same trees, the same plants, the same abandoned tractor, the same squirrels even seem to be jumping from oak to birch to maple. Sure the seasons change, but its the same drill for the most part.

Do something different though, and you'll be surprised. Come at your woods from a different angle, and a whole new world appears.

A month before I moved to Rockton there was a cute article in the Tribune about a couple who build a pirate ship outside their Rockton home for their wedding. Yes, they got married on life-size pirate ship that they built in their yard and they've kept that pirate ship, even after their wedding. It's been getting quite a bit of attention, enough to attract the Chicago paper, local TV stations, and Good Morning America.

Well, for the first three months I lived in Rockton, I never came across that ship. Now, Rockton is not a really big place so figured I would come across it eventually.  But I never did... until one day recently. You see, I've been on all the main roads going to and coming from Rockton. Highway 2, Hononegah Road, Rockton Road. I've even taken a few other roads like Highway 75,  Rockton Ave., and Old River Road. Whenever I've taken Old River Road it was after dropping my kids off for school to then come down to Rockford... Going south. But then, one day recently, I needed to go to Stephen Mack Middle School from Rockford so I took Old River Road north...

And wouldn't you know. As I drove on that road into a big clearing, with lots of open, frozen farmland, and crossed Roscoe Road going north.  There it was... the jolly roger flying high and waving in the brisk wind above a big old pirate ship behind a farmhouse on Old River Road.  I had driven by that house a least a dozen times going south.  But it wasn't until I did a "180", and drove north instead south, was I able to discover the pirate ship that brought eyes of the country to Rockton just weeks before our move this summer.

"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."

In Matthew's Gospel the first message that Jesus had for the world, as he began his ministry, was very simple: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Jesus was ahead of his time. The constraints of just 140 characters for a Twitter post would not have crimped his style one bit. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  It fits perfectly in a tweet. What a message.

But does it mean? "Repent" just on its own means a whole more to it than you think. Sure it can mean "stop doing bad things." Yeah, it can mean I'm sorry for what I've done and I'm not going to do it again. But that's the beginning. Literally, to "repent" is to turn around. To change. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (as he claims to be in John's Gospel) then to repent is go another way... the opposite way... to do a "180." To turn around and to repent means that a new life lies ahead, because you're going in a whole new direction. To turn around and to repent means discovering that truth is a whole lot bigger than you ever imagined.  

That's a lot for one word: Repent.

It's gotta be a lot because the Kingdom of heaven means a lot. Sure it can mean the heaven of our future. Our eternal home with God. But that's just the beginning. the Kingdom of heaven which has come near has always been near. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But our knowledge of that Kingdom and our participation in what God is doing with the Kingdom of heaven has never been closer... because we now have Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, to show us the way. Jesus is our guide who opens our eyes to what God is doing. Jesus is our light who reveals the Kingdom to us, pulling us out of the darkness.

Isaiah wrote that "The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light." No wonder Matthew quotes that for us. Our light has come and we can live as Kingdom people right now.

But how do we?

It means more than going to church. It means more than being nice. Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near means more than wearing the right clothes and watching the right shows. Remember, "repent" is an enormous word. Its an upside-down, flip around, twisting 180 and seeing the truth for real... kinda word.

The difference between living as Kingdom people in the light and living in darkness without hope can be a simple as driving south down Old River Road, or driving north up Old River Road. The same road, the same places, but from the one direction you only see barren frozen tundra and in the other you see a cool pirate ship where no pirate ship should ever be.

It's time to change perspective. Take a different road. Look in a different direction. Go into that woods you walk through every week and sit down, lay flat on your back and look straight up. Discover branches and leaves and sky and clouds and birds you never had noticed before... at least in that way.

Look at the ceiling right now. Look straight up! Describe the angles in the architecture and the the play of light and shadow in the corners you never noticed.

Stand for what you believe in and be firm in your principles, but today, do something different. Listen first before you share.  Listen to a person you have never listened to before. If you have a home, converse with someone who does not. If you are a senior, talk about the economy with a teen. If you are woman, discuss 21st century marriages with a man. If you are American, talk with a Norwegian about the Olympics. If you are Christian, listen to a Muslim describe Allah's love.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus called fishermen to become disciples. He wanted them to follow him. If they were going to follow him they were going to have to repent. No... not confess their sin. Repent. They would have to do a  "180" and turn around.  If they were going to follow Jesus they would have live a new way. Yes they would be fishermen, but now without any nets. Yes, they would be fishermen, but they would not catch trout or perch or walleye. They would now catch men and women.  They will live as Kingdom people.

If they had held on to their nets, they would have missed it: the Kingdom.

If they had continued catching fish, they would have had food, but they would still have hungered for truth.

Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."  Don't miss this Kingdom of heaven which has come near. Do a "180." Throw down your nets and listen, notice, discover, and change.

The truth is waiting for you. Led by the Spirit, open your hearts and live today as Kingdom people.