Sunday, April 05, 2015

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

I like the cleaver ways churches are getting the word about their ministries and inviting people to worship. Our Savior's had billboards and postcards with Easter peeps out in the community. One peep stood out among many with the caption: "We'll save you a seat." Cute. A church in Indianapolis was handing out cards in my brother's neighborhood inviting him to Easter services saying: "Surprise you mother. Go to church this Sunday."

How much does it take to surprise good ol' mom? I would image this Easter there will be a few moms out there surprised to see their kids all dressed up for morning services. Some surprised moms might even be a little speechless.

There are a whole lot of surprises to be found in the Easter story we find in Mark's Gospel. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint Jesus' body on the morning after the Sabbath. They were in for a surprise. The stone for the tomb had already been rolled back and Jesus' body was no longer there. A young man, dressed in white, sat in the tomb. By this time not only were the women surprised, they became alarmed. The young man tells them what has happened: Jesus "has been raised; he is not here (Mark 16:6)."

It's interesting how surprise can quickly grow into alarm. When we are surprised it is usually because something we didn't expect, happened. We might then ask: What else might happen that we didn't expect? What can I really be certain about any more? Many a person has moved from surprise to alarm to fear to despair. Surly though, that cannot be the case for the women at the tomb. It was a good surprise; like Wisconsin beating Kentucky in the Final Four.

But in Mark's Gospel surprise becomes alarm, which then becomes terror for the women. After all, the dead don't come back to life. It just does not happen. "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8)."

Easter is a surprising day. But moms surprised by their hipster sons being clean shaven for the holiday is nothing compared to the surprise experienced by the women at the tomb or by us hearing this message today. They said nothing to anyone... Well, somebody better tell someone about this resurrection. The dead have come alive again. Mortality is not the end for us.

The biggest surprise of Easter morning is that today is your liberation day. Jesus' new life is your fresh beginning as well. Surprise does not need to lead to fear and terror for you.  Instead you are free to live boldly. Be that peep who stands out. What do you really believe in: the lies that tell you that dead is dead my friend. the lies that convince you that you just don't have enough to be happy, the lies that convince you to fear the world around you?

Surprise. You can how live empowered and free because tomb is empty. Jesus is not here, he has been raised. Somebody has to embrace this free gift of life and love that comes to us at Easter. Surprise, surprise, surprise: why not you?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

This is the night...

This is the night when Wisconsin will try to take down the undefeated behemoth, Kentucky, in the Final Four of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

This is the night when the world awaits the beginning of a brand new season of Major League Baseball when the Cubs host the Cardinals Sunday night at Wrigley Field. (Wait... Cubs opening NIGHT?... Video boards?... Bleachers under construction?... This-is-the-year kool-aid on sale throughout Cubbie Nation?)

This is the night when followers of Christ remember the moment Jesus rose from being a dead body into new life and recall the moment when they were connected to this resurrected Christ in baptism.

The world moves on while Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord. It's always been that way and it will continue to always be that way until the Kingdom of God is fully revealed.

It doesn't surprise me at all that the worlds of sports and recreation press ahead with little notice at all of what is being recalled and celebrated. It's happened before. There just is not much money to be made by our culture lifting up and embracing Easter. Thanks be to God! But still... "This is the night!" And yet, so many will go to bed completely ignorant of what God is doing. Why should this be any different from other nights?

Actually, that's the way it was so many years ago as well: Let's estimate it as the year AD 30. No one witnessed the actual event of death becoming life again. No one was awake. No one even expected it, though they were told ahead of time.

Life moved on that night in Jerusalem. Jesus' disciples were in hiding. Jesus' Jewish brothers and sisters had just observed the Sabbath. Politics and war and business continued in the Roman world. There was intrigue and back stabbing and events at the amphitheaters to get ready for. This was the night for the centurion Bricius to fight Cypranus before thousands. Who's Caesar Tiberius going to give thumbs down to?

But while that was all going on... This was the night for Jesus to be resurrected. Emmanuel fully experienced humanity through suffering and death, but then defeats death forever by becoming the first born of the dead. God-With-Us gathers all of us unto himself so that we might be united with both a death and a resurrection like his. This is the night. Did anyone notice?

In this morning's Chicago Tribune there was an ever so brief mention of a rescue at sea. Headline:
"Man lost at sea found healthy"
- A man reported missing at sea two months ago was rescued on the overturned hull of his sailboat off the North Carolina coast, and he walked away from a hospital hours later in good condition, with no obvious sunburn, dehydration or other signs of distress. 
Louis Jordan, 37, said he survived by rationing his water and energy and praying for help.

There you go: news found on page 6 of a very thin Saturday edition of the paper. This is the very same paper with an in depth front page article about a group of students refusing to pay back their student loans because they got a lousy education from the for-profit college they attended and racked up debts of over $100,000... No comment.

The stuff of high drama... of Ernest Hemingway and Tom Hanks and Robert Redford and Gilligan...
gets barely a mention at all. For two months "he survived by rationing his water and energy and praying for help."

The Kingdom of God is at hand and THIS IS THE NIGHT for us to open our eyes and celebrate. Christ is risen! Alleluia! We are united with him through baptism and can live this night and every night with power and hope.

Friday, April 03, 2015

I Will Cling to the Old Rugged Cross

This week I encountered the classic hymn, The Old Rugged Cross, at just the place and time I needed its message.

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suff'ring and shame;
and I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best
for a world of lost sinners was slain. 

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it someday for a crown.

Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
a wondrous beauty I see,
for 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
to pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
it's shame and reproach gladly bear;
then he'll call me someday to my home far away,
where his glory forever I'll share.

The line that speaks to me this week comes from the refrain: "So I'll cherish the old rugged cross till my trophies as last I lay down." What a tight grip I have on my trophies. I love my things, my tastes and believes about the world. With all my might I hold on to that which I believe gives me joy and meaning... even as it drains the life from of me.

Lord, help me surrender. Move my heart and my hands to lay my trophies down upon the foot or your cross. Inspire me to answer your call to follow. As you aligned yourself to human suffering and death on the cross, guide me to align my vision and values, my priorities and passions, and my whole life to you. Help me cling to the old rugged cross.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Free Parking: Relax! Nothing Bad (or Good) Happens

Even though I have actually only finished about a half dozen games my whole life, I still have very fond memories of playing the game Monopoly. I loved setting things up at the start (everyone got six 20's) and laying out all those properties. I never quite understood the utilities, or how the mortgaging of properties works... but I sure knew perfectly well that $500 went in the "Free Parking Pot" and that any taxes that was paid during the game would go in the pot as well. It was a very lucky player who would land on "Free Parking" and get everything that had been collected there. A fresh $500 would then be put in the middle of the board to start the jackpot again.

When I would play Monopoly with friends they would sometimes interject some variation of the "Free Parking" rule. I remember quite clearly playing with my friend Jimmy once... and only once! His rule was that every Monopoly dollar spent throughout the game went into the "Free Parking" jackpot. If you spent $200 to buy Short Line Railroad: it went in the pot. If you bought two houses for your red monopoly of Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky Avenue, it went in the pot. This variation was so disturbing to me: "We need to play by the rules." His rules were like the marriage of Monopoly and Power Ball. My heart still races when I think about it.

Later in life, as an adult, I learned something even more shocking and disturbing than the Jimmy game I experienced as a child. The rules of Monopoly actually say this in the  "Where did you Land?" section, part 7: "Free Parking: Relax! Nothing bad (or good) happens."

What??? Nothing good (or bad) happens????? It's just a free space?

All this time I had been playing incorrectly.  All this time I have been playing with a phony, but exciting, "Free Parking" rule that pumped money into the game like some corrupt South American government.  It's no wonder we so rarely finished.

Now I admit. I'm a rule follower. Rules are rules for very good reasons. If you're going to play a game or live your life, you might as well proceed by following the rules. But, boy oh boy, it really becomes a slap in the face when you realize that the rules you thought were so important, were actually not as significant as you once believe... or even worse: you're sacred rules are wrong.

Jesus challenged a whole lot of folks in his life to look at religious rules in a fresh way. And let me tell you, I would have been right there with a majority of the folks who would not have appreciated being challenged. It shakes up your world to be challenged. Let the rules remain the rules. But Jesus would not let good enough alone. There was too much at stake with the Kingdom of God at hand.

At his Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples followed the rules of the Scriptures by celebrating the Passover: the great remembrance of God's deliverance of his people from slavery. There is a very clear order to how the meal is done and it continues to be a magnificent annual gathering for our Jewish brothers and sisters today.

Jesus did something different at his Last Passover Supper with his disciples, though. He shares with them that "this is my body" and "this is my blood." Jesus knew he would become the new "Passover lamb" on the cross. He commands his followers to now celebrate this meal in remembrance of him and his sacrifice on the cross.

After washing his disciples' feet he gives a rule that actually lifts up truth that has always been present in the Scriptures of God. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another (John 13:34)." It's all pretty clear.  We have it in black and white (or red and white if you have a red-letter edition of Bible). It's as clear as "Free Parking: Nothing good (or bad) happens." Love one another.

Many followers of Jesus have been playing the game of faith, and have been as off track at times as I have been off with Free Parking in Monopoly. Many followers of Jesus put their emphasis on the rules of church and religion. They will stack volumes of theology to the roof and live and breathe by the red rubrics of our liturgy. There are plenty of rules out there. But our challenge is to line up those rules against Jesus' rules and Jesus' life. For there is where we find forgiveness, power, life and hope.

Are you living in a Free Parking world were a fresh 500 Monopoly bucks are waiting for you just up the corner? Are your core values and principles a true reflection or yourself and of your Lord? When I learned that I had been ignorantly playing by the wrong rules in Monopoly all those years, it was such a kick in the stomach. I didn't know. And yet I always insisted that we played that way. Monopoly is one thing... forgiveness and life in the liberating freedom of the Kingdom of God is another.

The rules are clear. Love one another. Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to be transformed and have our lives aligned with the way of Jesus Christ? You are forgiven. You are loved. You are called to be a light of hope and love to the world.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Single Grain Upon Which Every Other Life Somehow Depends

Christ impacted all people and life. In John 12 he compares himself to a single grain: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24)." Since Jesus will "draw all people to myself (12:32)" his life and death and life again, everyone and everything is transformed. Christ empowers us to become single grains of meaning as well through his acts and life. Individuals make a difference as they live in community and obey the commandment to "love one another." Your life is transformed by Christ; you can serve through the generous acts of service you have been equipped to perform. You are the fruit produced through the cross. 

Recently I encountered a poem by Leonard Nathan that speaks to the is huge impact you will have on others, on all people, as one abiding in Christ. It was shared by Parker Palmer on his Facebook page and it lifts up several ideas... many touching nerves within me. 
  • How easy it is for us to think that what we contribute to life and others doesn't matter.
  • How our lives not only matter, but impact everyone... I mean EVERYONE. 
  • As with Christ, our experiences of suffering and compassion matter most.
The poem is called "So?" and I want to share it.


So you aren't Tolstoy or St. Francis
or even a well-known singer
of popular songs and will never read Greek
or speak French fluently,
will never see something no one else
has seen before through a lens
or with the naked eye.

You've been given just the one life
in this world that matters
and upon which every other life 
somehow depends as long as you live,
and also given the costly gifts of hunger,
choice, and pain with which to raise
a modest shrine to meaning.

- Leonard Nathan

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Did Nostradamus Predict the Packers' Fall and the Rise of the Bears?

Prophets have a tough job. Called by God to deliver messages that no one ever really wants to hear, its a job that no true prophet ever seeks. It is a job with very few rewards. It's also a calling that rarely is successful. In fact, I often say that of all the 48 prophets that you can find in the Bible, Jonah is the only one in all of Scripture who was successful... And that despite the fact that Jonah was probably the prophet who most desired to fail.

Of course Jonah's success can only be measured if we all agree about what the job of a prophet is in the first place. This is my definition: Biblical prophets were people called by God to deliver a message of warning to others. Almost always grounded in love, their messages warn people and communities that the path they currently on will only lead to their doom.

But there are many who define a prophet as being people who predict the future after divine revelation. They see prophets as people who can tell us what will happen 100 years, 1000 years, 10,000 years from now; like that 16th century French astrologer, Nostradamus. I don't know about you, but there is a whole generation of us out there who watched the old documentary about Nostradamus called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow; and we're still spooked by his visions.

Released in 1981, it is narrated by the great Orson Welles with flare and drama. He convinces us with his spooky voice that Nostradamus was able to predict the French Revolution, Napoleon, the rise of the Nazis and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the scariest stuff came at the end of the movie, when Orson Welles tells us what will happen next: earthquakes in California, wars in the Middle East, Sen, Ted Kennedy becomes president in 1984.

What was not covered in the movie was this very obscure section of Nostradamus' writings that no one could ever understand... but only now in 2015 is it beginning to make some sense.  Maybe he did predict the future... about football:

As the cold winds blow in the land of colby and cheddar;
a great cry can be heard across the eons;
a cry of woe... a cry of pain. 
The men of gold and green lie in tatters, 
consumed by the seahawk flock in the most horrific manner. 
But even as a river of northern tears flows into the mighty lake; 
along the sandy southern shores a light dawns. 
No longer comforted by their neighbor's disgrace, 
their hope of glory begins to take form. 
A fox dismounts from his mountain horse with vision and strength. 
A fox shall lead the grizzles out of hibernation upon a field of soldiers. 
A new era shall begin! 
Flat pigskins and pouting commanders shall never stop them. 

Na... Don't you believe it. Because God does not call on prophets to enter into a trance to tell us who will win the Super Bowl in 2019... instead God acts save his people... to save all people. Within God's core is a desire to liberate us from the painful paths of sin and falling for the lies of the Deceiver. God deeply longs for us to follow the path of truth... the path of joy... the path of abundant life.

So God sends Jonah to the people of Nineveh with a prophesy. Why? Because even though they are not Hebrew, God loves them.  Why? Because God is love and it is his desire that all his creation be reconciled with the truth.

Jonah seeks to run away from his calling. A foolish task. There's this whole deal about a whale which makes for some awfully cool and enduring images. But the core of what we learn from Jonah is that God is faithful and people can amaze you. The people of Nineveh actually listen to the prophet. They repent and put on the sack cloth. They even dress their animals in it. With complete sincerity they wanted to repent and repent they did. "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jonah 3:10)."

Wow. Usually the response to prophets is "why don't you take a long walk off a short pier." Yes, Jonah even did that, but he still was successful.

I wanna let you in on a little secret: God still is calling prophets. Yes he is. And no, it's not the folks who warned you about Y2K or 2012. God is still calling prophets to be engaged in the Word and seek the narrow path of Jesus Christ. God still is calling prophets to proclaim good news, while also pointing out the truth in love that the way we are living is killing us.

What are the prophets telling you? Forget about predicting the future. The Chicago Bears are fine. There will be another president someday. There will be war in the Middle East and earthquakes in California. Those are not the messages God is trying to deliver to us. Instead the prophets in your life are those who challenge you to take stock in your priorities. It's time to a line your lower story with God's upper story: the Kingdom of God breaking in.

How are you using your time?
What does your checkbook register say about you?
Which of the world's lies about happiness is draining the life right out of you?
When will you trade in empty pleasure for abundant joy?

God's prophets are out there because hope out there... If God can love the wicked people of Nineveh, you know God is loving you. If God can call a guy like Jonah and give him success, how much more success is produced when God sends Jesus Christ to me... to you... to all of us.

Put the sackcloth away... That's not what's needed. But do make a change and do it with the support of your friends right here. Pray. Worship. Meditate. Give, Serve, Celebrate. The path of Christ comes into focus when we open our eyes and plug into the spiritually reality that always surrounds us.

Let's get off this train of lies... of doom... of shallow selfishness... and hop on board the way of Jesus Christ. Listen to the Lord and to the prophets God has called to help you see that abundant life is your baptismal birthright just waiting for you to embrace.