Thursday, July 27, 2006

God's Secular Plans

One of the biggest of Satan’s lies, parroted these days mainly by well meaning preachers, is that there is a difference between “sacred” and “secular” when it comes to living as a disciple of Jesus. This leads to the damaging idea that there are “professional” and “ordinary” Christians; that ministry and mission are only the realm of the religious professionals and that “ordinary” Christians merely go to work.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will reveal clearly that your work matters to God. In fact, it is one of the places that Jesus expects you to work out your discipleship lifestyle. Some Christians, recognizing that the workplace is a waiting mission field, view their mission as a sort of “search and destroy” raid on the enemy camp, or a “scorch and burn” policy toward pagans. This is not at all what Jesus has in mind for you or your fellow workers.
Jesus wants you to be a living witness to the beauty of the gospel. You have the opportunity to love and serve the same people multiple times a week. You can show them that good triumphs over evil and that mercy triumphs over judgment. You can demonstrate the peace that passes understanding and the love that draws people to Jesus. And none of this has to be calculated or programmed by you or the church. It can, and should, be the result of taking your apprenticeship to Jesus seriously. When you gave your heart to Jesus and decided to follow him, he began teaching you what it means to walk with God. While we never follow perfectly, we do follow and make tremendous progress. We are “washed, justified, and set apart for God’s glory.” Our changed lives are evident and people who do not know God will wonder why we live as we do.
Don’t fall for the lie that God is only interested in you for a few hours a week! God has plans for all of your life – therefore, there is no “secular” portion of your life – all of your life is “sacred” – set apart for God’s holy purposes.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Come to the Table

"Pete and Repeat were sitting on the fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?" "Repeat!" "Pete and Repeat were sitting on the fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?" "Repeat!" "Pete and Repeat were sitting on the fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?" "Repeat!"

I'm not sure why eight year olds think this is funny, but they do. It takes patience to listen to this annoying joke. Imagine, however, how much patience it takes to be Pete. It must be extremely frustrating to keep falling off the fence. Again and again. Consider how frustrating it must be to be Pete's God.

And yet, God displays great patience with Pete and all the rest of us who keep falling down. We often get more frustrated with others or with ourselves than God gets with us. God knows we are weak and frail and while he wants us to grow and mature into the image of Jesus Christ, he does not expect us to be perfect (that is a burden we place on ourselves). God calls us to communion - to meet at the Lord's table and share in his feast.

Have you ever noticed how many theological words begin with "re"? REpent. REdeem. REconcile. REnew. REbirth. RElease. God knows that a one time fix will not work with us, for we will break it again and again and again.

Telling us to stop falling off the fence will not create change. Giving ultimatums will not create maturity. So Jesus tells us "I love you" and he gives his very life. And as we take his life into our bodies each week through the Lord's supper we experience his amazing grace that encourages us to faithful as he is faithful.

Are you like Pete, fallen off the fence again. There is a word from the Lord: "Come feast with me."

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Dawning of the Resurrection

There is a difference between knowing an event occurred and knowing the meaning of the event. This was never more true than for the disciples trying to make sense of the resurrection of Jesus. There is an obvious progression - a sort of “dawning” of the resurrection - given by each gospel writer.
The immediate response to the resurrection was fear. This is not surprising since Jesus constantly created fearful situations for the disciples. According to John’s account the fear almost turned into paranoia - they always kept the doors locked! The disciples were afraid of being without Jesus, were afraid they wasted their time, and were afraid of the Jewish leaders. The constant word from God? “Do not be afraid!”
Fear gave way to a growing sense of disbelief among the disciples. They all were “slow to believe” and some became icons of disbelief - like “doubting” Thomas. Perhaps the saddest statement in Luke’s gospel is spoken by the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “but we had hoped…” Once your hope is gone there is nothing left to build a life of faith upon. Even with stories of resurrection being circulated among the disciples, none of them believed easily in the resurrection - their belief came as the mounting proof became overwhelming.
As disbelief melted away, a growing sense of hope returned to nurture their new found belief. They were still a long way from understanding it all, but they knew enough to celebrate!
As Jesus worked with them, explaining the Scriptures, they began to understand the power of the resurrection. The presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost intensified this understanding. They emerged as witnesses (Greek - martyrs) of the resurrection. Their lives caught fire from the Spirit and God used them to change the world.
Disciples today have the same resurrection power, the same fire from the Spirit, and the same mission that the early disciples had. Having experienced the resurrection of Jesus, we are witnesses, too! Arise and shine…

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Suspicious of Grace

This morning I was reading a wonderful passage and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy...

No matter how much we are hurt, God knows about it, cares about it, and so, through love, we are sometimes enabled to let go our hurts.
But it is not only our hurts which we are required to give over, but our wholeness, too. It must all be his.
To trust, to be truly whole, is also to let go whatever we may consider our qualifications. There's a paradox here, and a trap for the lazy. I do not need to be "qualified" to play a Bach fugue on the piano (and playing a Bach fugue is for me an exercise in wholeness). But I cannot play that Bach fugue as all if I do not play the piano daily, if I do not practice my finger exercises. There are equivalents of finger exercises in the writing of books, the painting of portraits, the composing of a song. We do not need to be qualified; the gift is free; and yet we have to pay for it.
Isaiah knew himself to be mortal and flawed, but he had the child's courage to say to the Lord, "Here I am. Send me." And he understood the freedom which the Spirit can give us from ordinary restrictions when he wrote, "When you pass through deep waters I am with you; when you pass through rivers, they will not sweep you away; walk through fire and you will not be scorched, through flames and they will not burn you." He may not have had this understanding is a gift which comes when we let go and listen. I think I looked up this passage because I dreamed that a friend reached into the fireplace and drew out a living coal and held it in his hand, looking at its radiance, and I wondered at him because he was not burned.
It may be that we have lost our ability to hold a blazing coal, to move unfettered through time, to walk on water, because we have been taught that such things have to be earned; we should deserve them; we must be qualified. We are suspicious of grace. We are afraid of the very lavishness of the gift.
But a child rejoices in presents!

(From Madeleine L'Engle - "Walking on Water")

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Are you listening? Really listening?

My ears sometimes get tired. Do yours? Our world is so full of sounds that sometimes I think I don’t really hear anything clearly. When there is true silence, it almost scares me. No music, no background noises, no machines humming and ticking and beeping. I love to walk along the bay either early in the morning or late in the evening and just listen to the sounds of nature – minus all our distracting noises. Our ears are mostly over-stimulated. And, of course, we defend ourselves against all the noise.
Into a storm of conflicting voices, Jesus speaks truth. Jesus does not scream; he is not deafening. In fact, Jesus often whispers in tones so low that we do not pay any attention to him because of all the other voices vying for our attention. Yet Jesus continues to speak. The problem is that while Jesus is speaking few seem to be listening. Jesus’ first parable was about our need to listen. Give attention to the following exposition of that parable by Eugene Peterson.

Ears to Hear

St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke agree in placing Jesus’ parable about hearing, with its staccato conclusion, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” as the first of the parables. If the divine word is primary, then human hearing is essential: that we hear is required; the way we hear is significant. The parable, with its metaphor of soil for ears, provides an ingenious tool for a self-administered hearing test: What is the quality of my hearing? Are my ears thick with callouses, impenetrable like a heavily trafficked path? Are my ears only superficially attentive like rocky ground in which everything germinates but nothing takes root? Are my ears like an indiscriminate weed patch in which the noisy and repetitive take up all the space without regard for truth, quality, beauty, or fruitfulness? Or are my ears good soil which readily receives God’s word, well-tilled to welcome deep roots, to discriminately choose God’s word and reject the lies of the world, to accept high responsibility for protecting and practicing the gift of hearing in silence, reverence, and attentiveness so that God’s word will be heard, understood, and believed?

“Are you listening to this?
Really listening?” - Mark 4:9

In our world the cacophony of voices is unlikely to subside. Each day we will be overwhelmed with voices demanding our attention. And into each of our lives Jesus will gently speak truth – words of grace and peace. The only question is, will we be listening for them or will they simply be lost in the noise?
The quality of our lives is determined by the voices we allow to enter our ears…

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Of Lions and Lambs

Isaiah tells of a wonderful time when our world will be changed dramatically from what it is now. Some think that the only way possible for this to happen is for our physical bodies to be discarded and we are "pure" spirits, as if spirits have it any easier living a godly existence! Isaiah pictures everything as it was, but with a crucial difference - we are all able to get along and be safe and even comfortable in each other's presence. We are no longer fighting for resources or trying to perform the wide varieties of "cleansings" that have dogged our steps for so many centuries. Listen to his words...
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1-9)
What a powerful and compelling vision of what creation was designed to be, and what it can yet become. I think this is what Jesus referred to as "the renewal of all things." Not God wiping the original creation out and starting from scratch, but God redeeming and sanctifying the creation he already claimed was "very good."
Jesus calls us to live out our faith in the world as it is today with the constant knowledge that we are heading towards the renewal of all things. Martin Luther noted that "When the lion lies down with the lamb, the lamb must be replaced frequently." The willingness of disciples to be the lamb in the presence of the lions and wolves is the best evidence that the renewal of all things will in fact become the dominant reality.
Are you willing to be the lamb, or would you rather be the lion?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Transformation: Gradual Outpouring

Almost all of life is about emptying and filling. Hundreds of times each day we fill our lungs with air, then exhale the oxygen depleted breath. We fill our gas tanks only to deplete them and refill them another day. The washing machine runs constantly. And who doesn’t have more month than income?
This principle of emptying and filling is also true of our spiritual walk. God is seeking to fill us with his Spirit, but until we are empty we cannot receive the Spirit as a gift. So one of our tasks as disciples is to create empty spaces in our lives for the Holy Spirit to fill up and live in. The more effective we are at creating these empty spaces, the greater the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
I have noticed in scripture, as well as in life, that this emptying process happens in one of two ways – either gradually or suddenly. (We will talk about suddenly next week.) Emptying through “gradual outpouring” is the normal experience for many Christian people. It is a slow but steady process of spiritual maturity that over time produces remarkable results.
Two biblical examples will suffice. The first is Peter. Actually his name is Simon, but Jesus called him a “rock” (Peter means Rock in Greek). Can you hear the other disciples laughing in their minds when Jesus said this? They knew Peter well and he was certainly anything but a rock! And yet the spiritual interest that Jesus created in Peter continued to grow – ever so slowly, but at the end of his life Peter was exactly the rock that Jesus saw so many years earlier. His growth was measured in small doses with almost a “three steps forward, two steps back approach.” But he did manage to keep moving forward in faith and the Spirit found a good home in his life.
A second example is John. Although John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” he was not always very loving – or patient, for that matter. Remember the incident when Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria and they wanted to stay the night in a town. The locals refused to let them stay for they knew they were headed for Jerusalem. When James and John returned they told Jesus of the refusal and suggested a plan of action. Do you remember it? “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” (Luke 9:54) They were feeling a lot like Elijah, but not much like Jesus! And yet, years later John wrote some letters that earned him the nickname “the apostle of love.” Some of the most eloquent words in scripture about love come from the pen of John. His gradual outpouring produced amazing changes.
If your growth is “nothing remarkable” and you wonder if you are actually making any progress in discipleship, remember that gradual outpouring takes a long time, but it does produce startling results.

Transformation: Catastrophic Drainage

Catastrophic drainage stands in direct contrast to gradual outpouring. While gradual outpouring is a slow almost imperceptible process best observed by looking over your shoulder, catastrophic drainage is like a train wreck! It creates serious issues and burning questions in your life. You are confronted with the terrible knowledge that you are wrong—sinful! It is a very painful time and most people avoid it at all costs.
And yet, it is a great opportunity for spiritual breakthrough. Notice the life of Saul, persecutor of the early church. His self-identity was built upon his embrace of the Pharisee’s version of Jewish faith. He was full of great zeal, and yet his zeal lacked knowledge. When Jesus confronted Saul it shook his identity to the core. If Jesus was not a blasphemer, but Lord, then everything in Saul’s life had to be reconsidered. Jesus leaves Saul blind for three days to do this painful work of reconsideration. Saul knew what he had done to Christians in God’s name. Did Saul also know at that point that “You reap what you sow?” If so, then he must have been preparing for the worst!
But when Ananias came, he came not with judgment but with an amazing offer of grace. “You will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And he was. This began the transformation of Saul the Persecutor into Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. This time of catastrophic drainage was followed, of course, by years of gradual outpouring, leading to the mature Paul who could write such amazing letters. The grace of God always produces great fruit in lives where it is accepted.
The result of catastrophic drainage in Paul’s life was to orient him from keeping rules to valuing relationships. His understanding of faith shifted from “his performance” to “God’s empowerment.” He valued people more than anything. No longer were people to be beaten into submission, rather they were to be loved and served into discipleship!
Saul died because of catastrophic drainage, but Paul was resurrected from the grave. And Paul “got it.” He knew that salvation is by grace through faith. He knew that love is greater even than hope and faith. He knew that without Jesus no one has a chance. He knew that by allowing Jesus free reign in your life, you will be more than you ever thought possible—your potential will be reached by becoming everything God dreamed you would be on the day you were created.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Transformation: Believing in Alternate Realities

“Transformation is the slow, steady process of inviting each other into a counterstory about God, world, neighbor, and self.” – Walter Brueggemann

Jesus speaks so convincingly of a world where…
· there is no need to worry, because God provides all our needs.
· turning the other cheek actually serves to advance the kingdom of God, rather than simply resulting in a second bruised cheek.
· forgiving leads to restored health and relationships, not just the nagging sense that we are going to be seriously hurt, again.
· we are given everything we need simply by asking, seeking and knocking, as opposed to struggling, clutching and fighting for everything.
· we can build our lives on a foundation that will actually withstand the storms of life, instead of crumbling at our feet in the middle of the storm.

This world is convincing in the mouth of Jesus, so Christians gather and read his words of vision and possibility. We long for that world. Then we exit and before we are out of the parking lot reality sets in, we do not live in THAT world.

Christians live in the tension between the world that is and the world that can be. With our hearts we long for the promised land of Jesus, but in our minds we know that we must “face up to reality.” And yet, in our hearts and minds, we catch glimpses that the “world of reality” is also a world created by a vision, just an evil vision. In those moments we are free to imagine a better world – a world created with the righteous vision of Jesus. This world is an alternate reality that is ours for the taking – by faith. If we just live like it is real, then of course, it will be a “new reality.” Jesus called it a “new birth.” Paul called it the “new person,” because the old one has been crucified. We are calling it “transformation” – the embracing of a better story.

The problem, of course, is that you cannot live in both worlds. You cannot walk by both faith and sight. You have to make a choice. Disciples do not practice the teachings of Jesus “because they work” but because in the world of discipleship they are the only way to live. The more we embrace the vision of Jesus of the alternate reality, the more substance it has in our lives. Eventually it will even break through to the “real” world. When transformation is pervasive we will experience the “renewal of all things.” Until then we live in an alternate reality – in the world, but not of the world!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Rachel Weeping…

The first Christmas was not a time of holiday celebration. Although there was certainly joy concerning the birth of Jesus, it was also a time of frustration, fear, and danger. First there was the journey to Bethlehem, a long and dangerous trip. Then there was the lack of rooms at the inn. The presentation at the temple was both encouraging, with the confirmation from Simeon, and scary, with Simeon’s warning about a sword piercing Mary’s heart. Finally there was the danger posed by Herod’s homicidal jealousy.

It was at this point that the private story of a woman and her child becomes a very public story.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)

Herod was a ruler who was supposed to be protecting and assisting his people. Yet as often happens he chose to use his power to perpetuate himself rather than provide for his people. It was an old and familiar story. And so when Herod decided to slaughter innocent children to protect his power the faithful knew Herod’s true identity. Herod became both Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh. And God provided an “exodus.”

Matthew appropriates the passage from Jeremiah chapter 31 to provide commentary on this event.
"This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

In Jeremiah’s time he used the reference to Rachel weeping to express the sorrow and sense of helplessness associated with the Babylonian exile in 587. For Israel, this seemed like the end of their world – Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was in shambles and the best and brightest of the people endured forced migration to Babylon. It seemed that the covenant was broken. Many people questioned God’s faithfulness…

In Jeremiah’s time Rachel’s children were not slaughtered, rather they were “missing.” They were carried away from their land and their culture and imprisoned in a country that threatened to destroy their heritage and replace it with a radically different story. There are some fates worse than death.

The reference to Rachel weeping is actually quite interesting… for Rachel died shortly after giving birth to Benjamin, her second child.

Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.” As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. (Genesis 35:16-20)

Rachel desperately wanted children. Sadly it was in giving life to her second child that she lost her own life. She reflects this sorrow by naming her child “Ben-Oni” or “son of my trouble.” Jacob, of course, changes the name to “Benjamin” which means “son of my right hand.” The grieving in this event was not for the children, but for Rachel, the mother.

The event of sorrow that Jeremiah seems to be referring to is the mourning of Jacob concerning the apparent death of Joseph. Notice this passage from Genesis.

Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. (Genesis 37:31-35)

Jacob had lived a life of deception, and now he was on the receiving end of a great deception. His son was alive, just missing. But the grief was real. Jacob was a broken man.

Everyone who has experienced grief, especially the grief that comes from losing children knows what Jacob was going through. Yet it is interesting that when Jeremiah makes use of this old story he does not have Jacob weeping, but Rachel. Is the grief of a mother more powerful than the grief of a father? The image of “Rachel weeping for her children” is extremely powerful and is easily appropriate for new settings with new tragedies.

So the story of Moses is incorporated to become part of the larger “Rachel weeping…” story. The story of the exile gets included. And finally, at least in the biblical record, the Jesus story becomes part of the Rachel weeping story.

Weeping and grief are inevitable responses to violence and cruelty that seem to constantly plague our lives. Whether the story is personal, local, national or international, the loss of children brings comfortless grief. So we are encouraged to weep with those who weep. But our responsibility does not end with weeping.

We are also pushed to get involved with helping… for there must be an end to weeping. Listen to the further words of Jeremiah.

This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.” (Jeremiah 31:16-17)

God promised that Rachel’s missing children would return home! Imagine the joy.
“Your work will be rewarded.” What an interesting phrase. The people were grieving, and that is seldom recognized as work. But they were surely also praying, which itself is a powerful work. I suspect that they were also treating their remaining children with more love and care, which is one of our most important works. They may even have reached out and claimed some children who were missing their parents, for the fortunes of war do not just impact children.

This Christmas you will no doubt treasure and pamper your children. This is as it should be. But please remember that there are too many of “Rachel’s missing children” in the world who also need to be loved and pampered. Jeremiah reminds us of God’s promise, “your work will be rewarded.” So weep and work for those children.