Moved by Compassion

In the past weeks, our nation’s two primary (pun intended) presidential candidates have used one loaded word repeatedly, a word we can expect to hear again, ironically, during the campaign and hostilities ahead.

That loaded word is COMPASSION.

For Jesus and his disciples, true compassion is indeed loaded, packed with kinetic energy.

In his campaign to awaken the world to God’s coming kingdom, Jesus is followed by multitudes of desperate people everywhere he goes. Hearing of his teaching and healing power, the crowds will not leave Jesus alone. And though Jesus and his disciples sorely need some downtime (a quiet prayer retreat would be nice), when Jesus sees the crowds, he is moved by compassion, seeing that they were like sheep without a shepherd.

What moves you?  What stirs your heart?  We have seen veterans with injured legs or backs stand ramrod straight when they hear the national anthem.  A college fight song can bring thousands to their feet as one.  The plight of disaster victims can stimulate immediate and sacrificial generosity from total strangers hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Actors preparing for a role are prone to ask, “What’s my motivation?”  As a disciple of Jesus Christ, what stirs, stimulates, and motivates your heart?  What gets you out of bed and out the door to serve God and neighbor?  What’s your motivation, your passion?

What rouses you to stand up, to speak up, to step into the fray?  There are emotional forces deep within us that may compel and propel us into action.  Anger at injustice… fear of change… yearning to belong… vanity or insecurity… love of another… powerful forces that well up from deep within, even overriding our reason at times.

He was moved by compassion, for he saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd. 

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(Tissot’s The Good Shepherd)

The New Testament word for “compassion” packs kinetic energy. This description of our Lord’s motivation conveys movement that starts deep within us but cannot stay contained. Moved by compassion, literally “suffering with,” Jesus teaches, feeds, heals, shares the burdens of the multitudes. And he bears the cross.

Compassion, suffering alongside God’s hurting people as Jesus does, compels us beyond self-absorption or self-pity so that we reach out and focus on healing people in body, mind, and spirit.

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The Who and Why of Life

I heard a story recently that I want to pass on:

Years ago, a hitchhiker was trying to catch a ride one night in Los Angeles. A car pulled over to pick him up, and when the hitchhiker got into the car and turned to thank the driver, he recognized the driver immediately.  Stopping to pick him up was Academy Award winning actor and director Kirk Douglas! Dumbfounded, the hitchhiker blurted out, “Do you know who you are?”

Okay, this could be an apocryphal story, yet it rings of truth, especially the relevance of the startled passenger’s question.

So, do you?

Know who you are?

Christians give witness to the One who helps us answer the question of identity. In Jesus Christ, we grow to understand (and rejoice!) that we are chosen and beloved of God.

Who are we? Here’s the answer we are given:

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(I Peter 2:9-10, The Message)

By the grace of God, we have our eyes opened.  Jesus Christ helps us see ourselves as God sees us.

How about this question:  Do you know WHY you are?  Through Jesus Christ, we receive God’s mercy and are appointed for God’s mission, “to work and speak out for him.”

In Jesus Christ we are becoming new creations and we find new purpose:  we are chosen of God to help others see themselves and others in the light of Christ Jesus — to see that all of us are chosen and beloved by our Creator.

Again, we stake our lives on Jesus Christ, in whom our identity AND our purpose became clear and real.  The who and why of Jesus are that he is God who came to us as one of us for all of us.

Who are you? Chosen and beloved of a holy God.  Why are you? To serve others in selfless love, to be a sign of God’s gracious will for the world.

And though we may be wary of picking up hitchhikers, we still can look for ways to help others along the Way.

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More Than Ever

Earlier this week, lifelong humanitarian, one-term U.S. President, and Sunday School teacher of decades Jimmy Carter spoke on the “turning point” at which we find ourselves:

“What is needed now, more than ever, is leadership that steers us away from fear and fosters greater confidence in the inherent goodness and ingenuity of humanity.”

The pain we witness in the world — up close, from a distance — threatens to overwhelm us:  Multiple shooting victims in Orlando and elsewhere… refugees risking and losing all to escape violence and hardship in Syria and other failed or failing states… those who are targeted and traumatized by sexual predators… neighbors in our communities and country who feel disrespected and disenfranchised…

More than ever, God’s people are called to be a whatever people.  NOT “whatever” as cynical dismissal but the Whatever’s the apostle of Jesus Christ lists in Philippians 4:8-9:

Whatever is TRUE,

Whatever is HONORABLE,

Whatever is JUST,

Whatever is PURE,

Whatever is PLEASING,

Whatever is COMMENDABLE,

if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, focus your hearts and minds on these things… and the God of peace will be with you.

In times of profound suffering and profane surroundings, we are a holy God’s active response and counter measure.  More than ever, we can help one another to set our hearts and minds on the uplifting Whatever’s within us and all around us.

 

 

 

 

 

Swinging Higher

Did you ever swing on a swing set, pumping your legs to reach higher and higher?

Earlier this year, through an ongoing partnership with Matthew 28 Ministry, a mission team from our church built a playground for an orphanage in Haiti.

This was the first playground — swings, climbing features, etc. — that most of the children had ever seen, but they took to it immediately, especially the swings.

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Swinging on a swing set was a new sensation for these children, and in just a few weeks they wore out the swing hangers, the essential hardware combining hooks and hinges.

These hangers are what makes swings… swing, but without these special hinges, the swings stopped. So, our mission team located and installed HEAVY DUTY swing hangers and the joyful swinging has resumed.

Pardon a pastor for resorting to a simple analogy to highlight a most profound and powerful truth (truth is, we pastors do this all the time), but here it goes:

All of creation hangs upon one unmistakable and essential trait of God our Creator. Our lives hinge entirely on one heavy duty truth — the GRACE of God.

Apart from divine grace, everything comes to a stop. If we hang our hopes on anything other that the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, our hopes will wear out. Without God’s grace, we cease to live and move and reach higher.

This is our testimony — all that we experience and hope to experience hinges on God’s grace. And in Jesus Christ, God’s grace is given all God’s children to set our spirits soaring.

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Ages and Stages

In his book Shift: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church, Mark E. Tidsworth writes:

“As I endeavor to follow Jesus, I realize I am a disciple while also not yet a disciple… Becoming a disciple is a life-long journey of formation. Yes, it has beginnings, yet it is never complete, this side of heaven. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I shall be a disciple of Jesus Christ.” [emphasis added]

This life-long journey of formation is constantly on display in Christian communities.

This past week, for instance, our church family gathered and will gather to:

Baptize an infant of a few months, joining parents in covenant vows and promises;

Witness an 8th grade youth confirm her baptism by publically professing Jesus as Lord and Savior;

Anticipate and pray for an impending celebration of Christian marriage;

Extend home communion to a saint under hospice care;

Pray with faith in Jesus Christ and the life everlasting with those whose loved ones have left earthly life ;

Commission youth and adults for a cross-cultural mission experience;

Help preschoolers and those with early dementia join together to paint flower pots as gifts for caregivers and their families.

Sending servant leaders, including a father and son, to Haiti where our church partners to assist and aid an orphanage, feeding centers, and medical clinics.

At all ages and stages, we can share this lifelong journey of faith formation and growth with Jesus and one another:

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Unblogging

Easter Sunday draws near…

19 days away by my count…

In this season of Lent, the “lead up” to Easter, I have been unblogging. My unblogging is not so much a Lenten spiritual discipline as the result of my Lenten observances and the ongoing duties and privileges of pastoral ministry…

While unblogging, I have continued to preach, teach, and pray with God’s people in birth, death, and all (well, many) points in-between.

But I have been unblogging for a while now…

You folks may not have noticed, and, honestly, I have barely noticed myself. So I am thinking I just may unblog a bit longer.

Easter Sunday draws near…

Perhaps there are some aspects of your life you contemplate undoing. Go for it, but I do urge you to do this…

If you will, find and join a Maundy Thursday worship service (3/24) somewhere and ask yourself or others, “Where and how can we fulfill his ‘mandate’?”

If you will, find and join a Good Friday worship service (3/25) somewhere and ask yourself or others, “Where and how can we find the ‘good’ in his suffering death?”

If you will, find and join God’s people in an Easter Sunday celebration (3/27) somewhere and ask yourself or others, “Where and how is Jesus raising us with him now?”

I plan to do these things and unblog about them…

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Straining at Gnats

It was my first church board meeting as new pastor. I had arrived at mid-point of that church’s extensive building and renovation program. There were major decisions and fund raising ahead for church leaders and here I was, a brand new pastor moderating my first meeting with them.

And then the Great Paper Towel Conundrum arose: “What kind of paper towels should we use in the new bathrooms – the white paper towels or the beige ones?”

The ensuing discussion covered the various merits of both white and beige paper towels. And then the possibility of automated hand dryers was suggested. At first, I thought the elders were playing a practical joke on me as their new pastor, but the debate threatened to become heated. White or beige or automated?

Just as I was about to interrupt, one wise elder spoke – “I don’t care. How are we going to raise that other million dollars?” Things got quiet, and I realized that debating paper towels was easier than facing the bigger challenges — raising money, renovating facilities, and, most important, faithful mission and ministry.

Don’t get me wrong, someone needs to attends to life’s details – efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly hand drying methods, for instance. Sometimes, God IS in the details.

But often, we miss the mark on the most important matters.

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A parishioner from a conflicted family once shared her mother’s obsession with keeping a clean, spotless house. “For years, she rode us constantly about any little mess,” the woman remembered. “She could spot a small stain on the rug, but lost sight of us children. I wish she could have lived with a little mess and given her family more of her attention.”

With the Kingdom of God imminent, God’s servants and spiritual leaders need not major in the minors. Often, the weightier matters of justice, mercy, faithfulness CAN be neglected, receiving short shrift.

Jesus confronts those missing the mark: Woe to you hypocritical faith leaders! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Not the only time the Lord uses hyperbole to point out hypocrisy, as the Pharisees were scrupulous in minutiae and overlooked essential truths.

Any of us can focus on filtering out gnats and end up with a camel on our dinner plate. In truth, we see this in each other every day.

The refrain from a hymn comes to mind: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy Kingdom’s goal”

As we consider our service to God and one another, the Lord’s words remind us of our calling to take up the weightier matters, the righteous requirements. Our prayer remains: Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy Kingdom’s goal.

What are these “weightier matters?”

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Hold the camel.

 

 

Swaddled Glory

“You have got to see this! It’s awesome!”

So, finally, I give in, sit at my computer, and visit the site to see this awesome sight I’d been hearing about – a Bangladesh laborer stacking and balancing 22 large bricks on his head, then carrying them – in a tall stack on his head – off a barge, across a small plank, and off to a building project.

Wasn’t that awesome? Awesome is our description for a lot of neat, but earthly things – How about that awesome dunk on Sportscenter? Did you see that dog that barks “I love you? Wasn’t that AWESOME?

God’s Word and God’s people proclaim that the God we know in Jesus Christ is an awesome God, but we have another word, an ancient word for overwhelming holiness and majesty…

When we point to the One who balances the building blocks of creation, from sub-atomic particles to entire galaxies – when we sing praise to the Creator and Sustainer of balancing bricks and dunked basketballs and that best Christmas recipe and beautiful music and newborn babies – we shout GLORY or we sing in the old way, with the angels “GLORIA!

The angel appeared to those shepherds long ago, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and the angels exulted, “You have got to see this – God’s glory embodied in a newborn baby, swaddled, just like your mama wrapped you.”

In the tradition of the ancient church, it was Ireneas of Lyon who said gloria Dei, vivens homo: God’s glory is a living human being.

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

Christ was born and swaddled for this — to give us new life, awesome and beyond awesome.

 

The Call for a Grateful Generation

Soon, we will lay to rest the last of those termed the “Greatest Generation.” In our congregation these past several years, we have said good-bye to more than a few folks, most in their 90’s, who grew up and lived through much of a tumultuous 20th century — the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, the Cold War, complex global economies, unprecedented social change.

We rejoice in this generation who fought the good fight and kept the faith through any and all circumstances.

(John Weiss’ The Greatest Generation)

So, where and when and who are the next “greatest generation?” There is no question that God gives each generation gifts and challenges.

We, all of us, certainly have our challenges today. Are we grateful for our gifts? Certainly we have our gifts, too.

Perhaps we have a tendency to idealize these folks, but one trait I observed and admired many times in many of this Greatest Generation has been an ever-present gratitude. Having survived so much, these senior saints, at their best, have modeled a genuine, deep sense of satisfaction and appreciation for life’s simple, abundant pleasures.

So, as we consider the world’s challenges — accelerating and unsettling but often needed social change, polarizing talking heads, terrorism, fundamentalism, economic inequality, fanaticism, aging and age-ism, and on and on — what makes a generation “great” in confronting such seemingly overwhelming forces?

Jesus really, really stressed that whoever would be counted greatest of all must be the servant of all. And such self-giving goes right along with and grows out of thanksgiving.

In Christ Jesus, a God of great majesty and undying love calls for a grateful generation. Here’s a humble service which we are all capable of giving — thanks-giving.

Want to sound a note of calm amid all the chaos? Give some thought to how you thank others and make that extra call or write that extra note. Make that extra effort not to give in to hate. Thank God for so many chances — every day, everywhere we are – to help, to encourage, to make the world a little better — one more prayer petition, one dollar more of support, one more moment of attentive listening.

Want to strike a blow against terrorism? Thank a service man or woman or a first responder or a teacher or a civil servant. Do so quietly, privately, with no concern for a charitable deduction or a plaque.

Or, for that matter, reinforce the fabric of a just and fair society by tipping your waitress a little extra. Or buy a few extra items every trip to the grocery store and give those items to a food pantry. Do your part to right the world right where you are.

Want to prevent an attitude of entitlement in ourselves and others? Practice extravagant generosity and not extreme self-indulgence. Pray about the enjoyment you may give and receive if you volunteer with church or charity instead of frenetically seeking one more in an endless and repetitive stream of parties or cruises or leisure escapes. Substitute a porch swing and sunset for high-end and one-after-the-other vacations. (Frankly, you may enjoy leisure activities even more when you indulge in them a bit less.)

The Greatest Generation was mustered to fight hardship and tyranny. And so are we.

The world has more than enough messes, “hot” or otherwise. The Lord is calling for a grateful generation to clean things up.

The Gospel of Sufficiency

How much is enough?

On occasion, I teasingly describe a new restaurant coming to town. Diners will be able to heap huge portions on oversized plates from a record-length buffet loaded with all variety of meats, side dishes, and desserts. Then, as you prepare to take your food to your table, restaurant staff will carefully remove from your plate all but sufficient amounts of the healthiest foods.

That’s right. It’s the ALL YOU SHOULD EAT Buffet.

In truth, many of us are not the best judges and self-regulators of what constitutes an ample portion. Some of us have sampled seconds and thirds more than once.

This “portion distortion,” as it has been called, speaks to over indulgence and conspicuous consumption in any areas of life, not just meals.

The Bible is replete/full/stuffed/overflowing with stories and assurances that God graciously provide for our needs. In Exodus 16, after delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God responds to their anxieties in the EAT WHAT YOU CAN FIND Sinai wilderness –

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As recalled by the Psalmist:

Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven;

God rained down on them manna to eat… and sent them food in abundance.

… God rained flesh upon them… winged birds like the sands of the seas;

And they ate and were filled… (Psalm 78)

In sending them manna and quail, God commanded them only to gather “enough for that day.” This was a test of their trust in God to supply their daily needs.

So how much is enough? Our answer, whether we are considering food or clothes or leisure time or work or any commodity is affected when we factor in God’s promises. The Bible is replete/full/stuffed/overflowing with stories and assurances that God graciously provides for our needs.

Jesus preaches on the Mount: indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things… (Matthew 6:32). Truly, God’s promise in creation and through Christ is abundance. Abundant life is sustained by trusting God’s promise of sufficiency.

If we can trust this Gospel of Sufficiency, we may find we have more than enough for our needs, more than enough to share and meet the needs of someone else.

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