The Good Life

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There is a ritual we observe in our household at the end of many days.

One of us asks the other:  Did you have a good day?  What follows from one of our family members can be a brief or lengthy recount of what made the day good.

What makes a day “good” for you?

  • I did well on a test at school
  • My blood test came back “good”
  • I got a raise
  • I did not lose my job
  • There was food on the table
  • My child was not picked on today
  • I stayed in my pajamas and binge-watched “Grey’s Anatomy”
  • She/he said “yes”!

How about this — Are you living a good life?  This question asks us to look beyond a few events in the waking portion of a 24 hour period. This is a much broader, deeper question we ask ourselves and others.  And some of our answers can be kind of shallow.  Is yours a good life?

This important question has been raised as long as there have been people.  Ancient and modern philosophers keep coming back to it:  What makes for a good life?

Seneca, a contemporary of the Christian apostle Paul, resonated somewhat with Christian ethics.  He even was claimed as “our Seneca” by many early Church leaders.  Here is what Seneca said about life:

Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if life is all well invested.  But when it is wasted in heedless luxury, and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.  So it is:  We are not given a limited life, but we limit it, and we are not ill-supplied, but wasteful of it… Life is full if you know how to live it.

Good stuff — life is good when you know how to live it, when you are “well invested.”

By some accounts, Seneca’s contemporary, Paul, baptized Seneca.  In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans (did Seneca perhaps read this?), Paul says of baptism with Christ Jesus… just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

Paul rejoices in baptism and what it signifies.  The good life — glorifying and enjoying God forever — has begun in Jesus Christ.  Baptism means that we are new creations, empowered by God’s Spirit to live new lives.  The good life is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

In the holidays ahead, we will be flooded with images of “the good life,” many of them urging conspicuous and beyond-copious consumption.

Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate seconds on turkey and dressing as much as the next person.  However…

Jesus Christ gives himself fully for the world.  Our risen Lord makes possible the indwelling Spirit that fills us and overflows from us, blessing others.  The best life possible is made possible not by what we ingest or acquire but by the outpouring of our lives in love.

Simply put, following Jesus gives our lives purpose.  His purpose makes life good.

 

“Giving” Our Children

Our church, like many, hosts Trunk-n-Treat as All Hallows Eve (Halloween) draws near.  We share a meal and then hand out treats to church and neighborhood children.  In fun, my wife and I gave children a choice this year — candy or carrot sticks?

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(Yes, the halo and horns are store bought.)

What IS the best we can hand on to our children?  What do we want to give our children, grandchildren, the upcoming generation?

Soon comes Christmas and for more privileged families the question of what to give focuses on presents and shiny packages.  As Christmas approaches, many of us also will give thought to deprived children and their families.  We look for ways to “assure Christmas” for a child in need.  These efforts involve secret Santas and gift stockings and angel trees and extra offerings.

Do our children connect these gifts with God’s gift?

In every season, people of good will, acting on their faith and values look for ways to give the best to all the children entrusted to us.

As he teaches us about trusting God always, to pray constantly, Jesus asks, Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

Our faith community partners with orphanages in Haiti and the Urkraine, sending education and health supplies, builders, medical caregivers, recreation leaders, children’s Bible story books, our love and prayers.

We want to give our children near and far an abundance of joy and hope.  We pray that they can have what they need to live well.

To that end, the family of Christian disciples set sacred times when we dedicate, consecrate, present, baptize, confirm, teach and establish programs to “raise and nurture children in the admonition of the Lord Jesus.”

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(Our Christian font of “new birth”)

It is no small thing to “give” our children to God.  To entrust our lives and those of our children to the Way of Jesus Christ is to declare what we believe is best.

How may our children receive and relish the God-enriched life?  How will all children trust that God calls them blessed and beloved?  How can all children become themselves holy vessels for God’s treasure?

With God’s help and commitment to a community of trusting faith, we can help them to trust the One who entrusted them to us:

If you then, who are not righteous, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask? (Luke 11:13)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guarding the Good Treasure Entrusted to Us

Do you automatically break out in car Karaoke the minute you get behind the wheel?  Do you sing in the shower to start or end your day?

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What moves you to sing?  What so captures your heart and mind that you burst out in song?

Judging from country music, we are moved to song by trucks, heartbreak, beer, boots, men, women, children, and, of course, dogs.  There are just not any country songs about cats, however.  Bluegrass music, a personal favorite, adds trains and mountains to the mix of inspiration.

What is worth singing about?  Popular music today fixates on love or the lack thereof, dreams, and ideals, but also lust, money, partying, drinking, one’s looks, another’s body parts, men, women, and cars.

An anthem can stir pride in national values or spark protests of injustice.

Why do disciples of Jesus sing?  What moves us to burst out in song?

How about the a gift “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20)? How about treasure lavished on us extravagantly and graciously?  Now such treasure is worth singing, even if we are not in the shower.

In his second letter to young church servant Timothy, an apostle and mentor opens with a reminder and recitation of God’s gifts, the “good treasure entrusted” to Tim and his church family.  What God gives us through sheer grace and abundant love is worthy of songs, melodies, harmonies, praise, crooning, croaking, and all the joyful noise we can offer:

Testimony… the power of God… a holy calling… God’s own purpose and grace… grace given in Christ Jesus… the appearing of our Savior… life and immortality brought to light… sound teaching… guard the good treasure entrusted to us… (from II Timothy 1:8-14).

So how about this for a counter-intuitive Christian belief?    Our joyful noise and heartfelt praise protects, preserves, and implants true treasure in us and others “with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

This past Sunday, October 9, as our local church family sang God’s praises, Haitian communities coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew sang and sang with thanksgiving, too.  Christian brothers and sisters in the poorest nation in our hemisphere, devastated by storm, are guarding the good treasure entrusted to us.

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ONE WAY WE GUARD THE GOOD TREASURE ENTRUSTED TO US — THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS FOR EVERYONE — IS BY SINGING.

So, are you standing guard and raising your voice?

 

The Dining Hall Mural

Our newly built high school building opened into a commons area that served as cafeteria.  Shortly after the first day of that school’s very first year, art teachers and students proposed a grand plan — filling one entire wall of the large common space with a mural fitting for our new school.

Scaffolding in place, painting began and proceeded slowly — very slowly — until the grand plan for our school’s lunch room mural was abandoned for a much simpler artistic vision.

One very old dining hall features along one wall the most famous mural ever painted.  Stretching about 30 feet long and nearly 15 feet high, a portion of this painting was removed long ago to create a door to the kitchen.

This mural, painted 520 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci, graces a monastery dining hall in Milan, Italy.  This mural is an acclaimed masterpiece, revolutionary in technique, loaded with Trinitarian and Scriptural symbolism, and brilliant in artistic balance, visible and moving even in its faded and frequently restored state.

This mural is a masterpiece, depicting Jesus at table with his disciples just as he reveals that one of them will betray him.

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A masterpiece.  A shame that this mural’s familiar title is SO unfitting — “The Last Supper.”  Perhaps we can see why some might consider “The Last Supper” a fitting title.  After all, the crucifixion and death of Jesus occur merely hours after the scene Leonardo depicted.  This is a last significant moment before our world is changed forever by Jesus.

However, a few days after this meal, the risen Jesus breaks bread and stuns disciples along the road to Emmaus.  Shortly afterward, Jesus serves and shares breakfast with Peter and others on the beach.  His communion with his disciples goes on and on.

Actually, the meal Leonardo portrayed is when Jesus institutes a new communion with him, a meal the living Lord Jesus has hosted and shared with his disciples from that time until now.

You will not find any reference to a “last supper” in the New Testament. Jesus’ communion meal is not the last anything.  What Jesus serves and shares with us is the LASTING Supper.

Jesus provides the divine meal deal Isaiah prophesied long ago in a time of spiritual drought and famine:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and expend your efforts for that which does not fill or fulfill?  Instead of empty calories, eat what is truly nutritious… so that you may abide with me in everlasting covenant.  (paraphrase of Isaiah 55:1-9).

This is THE Psalm refrain:  The steadfast, sure love [hesed] of God is from everlasting to everlasting.

When we partake and draw in our living Lord’s gifts, we are united with him and one another in new and renewing ways.  In John 15:16, Jesus promises that when we abide in him, we will bear fruit that lasts. Jesus urges us to draw from his loving Spirit so that we will no longer hunger or thirst.

Julian of Norwich wrote:  “I witness no kind of vindictiveness in  God, not for a short time, nor for long. For, as I see it, if God were vengeful, even for a brief moment, we would never have life, place, or being. In God are endless friendship, space, life, and being.” [emphasis added]

With all appreciation for Leonardo’s artistic genius, for disciples of Jesus Christ, there is no last Supper but the endless giving of God for the people of God.  In Jesus Christ, God pours out everlasting love and thereby sustains for the long haul, strengthens us in hard time, and shows us the way to life everlasting.

Not last, but LASTING, thank God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Storms Close In (Charmaine Smith Miles guest blog)

(Written prior to yesterday’s shooting at Townville Elementary School in our county.)

News of riots ripping through city streets, of gunshots claiming yet another child of God, and another round of seemingly empty promises from politicians.  It all seems overwhelming. We — God’s people — are waiting.  We ask:  Why and what next?

We pray, Lord, have mercy.  Maybe some of us have given up on prayer.

Is God still at work?  Is God there? Is God even listening?

Yes. God is.

This is the promise that comes to us in the Word, in God made flesh.  God is at work, has been and always will be.  Even when our noise, our violence, our brokenness threatens to drown out the work of the Almighty.  God is there. In Psalm 23, we are not assured of a peaceful, easy life.  We are assured that even though we walk through the “darkest valley,” God is with us.  Over and over and over again, God tells us through the Word that God will not be without us.  The whole of Scripture testifies to this one truth.

Lutheran pastor and Nazi resistor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this in the wake of what he knew to be true about Adolf Hitler’s regime:  “I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil.  For that purpose, God needs men and women who make the best use of everything.  I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us resist in all times of distress.  But God never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.” [emphasis added]

God is indeed at work — in the world and in us.

The question is, can we see it?  Are we looking?  Are we listening?  Or are we letting the noise and the fear that comes with it overtake us.

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Discipleship’s “F progression”

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His invitation seems simple enough at first —

Jesus says, to an outcast of all people, FOLLOW me (Luke 5:27).  The resurrected Jesus says, to a deserter of all people, FOLLOW me (John 21:19).

This invitation to follow is the start of our new and renewed lives as his disciples. We are Christ-followers first.  As disciples follow along, we try to listen to Jesus’ words, learn what Jesus did, look at how Jesus worshipped and worked, and join others in trying to follow his way of living. Following Jesus will be anything but simple.

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Jesus says (to an assortment of poor, troubled souls), You are my FRIENDS if you keep my commands (John 15:14).

As followers, we receive the Spirit that Jesus sends, and this Holy Spirit draws us nearer to Jesus and to one another.  Disciples grow into friendship with the living Christ and with each other.  Time together transforms us, lifts us, spurs us on.

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As we grow closer to Jesus, followers find a deepening friendship with him and his body, the Church. But followers and friends of Jesus also become part of his family.

Jesus says (to friends and enemies alike), Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:34).  Jesus tells a story of judgment in which our response to others in need is watched and weighed.  In Jesus’ story, the judge says, Truly I tell you just as cared for one of the least of these who are members of my FAMILY, you cared for me.

Christian disciples are followers of, friends to, and family with Jesus.  His way, the way of discipleship, is seldom a smooth, linear, or easy progression.  In truth, following, befriending, and abiding with Jesus as brothers and sisters brings sacrifice, suffering, and hard-fought change.  Discipleship is anything but simple.

But our teacher, friend, and brother — Jesus the Christ, the Lord and Savior, also says to you and me, to us and them, I am with you always (Matthew 28:20).

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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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