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.

swinging

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.

swinghaiti

 

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:

grow

 

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…

blog

 

 

 

 

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.

Image result for priorities

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?”

Image result for micah 6 8

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 –

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Image result for my grace is sufficient for you

Looking for Theophilus

Some of us “wear our hearts on our sleeves.” Our affection and feelings are obvious to others.

Some of us also wear our hearts on our car bumpers. Your car may sport one of those “I heart” stickers. You know the ones – I heart Siamese cats… I heart Jack Russell Terriers… I heart tractor pulls… I heart my Nana…

heart

Developmental psychologists tell us that human beings need to be loved from the first breath. We need 4 essentials for a healthy life – 4 A’s: Attachments; Appreciation; Affirmation; Affection. To be created in the image of God means giving and receiving love, putting our hearts out there.

God’s love FOR us is the bedrock of faith, and our love FOR God is the core of our life’s calling. And that love should show. The Israelites were exhorted to post that command — Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might — on more than the rear bumpers of their chariots – on the entrance to their homes, on their arms and foreheads, and, most importantly, on the hearts and minds of their children.

So, are our lives a love offering to God?

Luke’s ambitious account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his account of the Acts of the Apostles are addressed to someone particular: most excellent Theophilus.

For some time, there’s been quite a debate about the identity of this Theophilus – some contend Theophilus is the name of a Roman dignitary, your EXCELLENCY Theophilus.

The name itself means “one who loves God.” And so, many believe Luke is writing the Good News for ANYONE who seeks to know and love God more fully.

Could YOU be Theophilus? (Perhaps you’re thinking, “I cannot even pronounce ‘Theophilus.’”)

But Jesus himself sums up all 613 commandments of the Jewish law in the practical demonstration of love for God and neighbor. OUR Greatest Commandment is to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, Jesus says.

Most excellent Theophilus, writes Luke, I resolved to share with you God’s great gift of undying love in Jesus Christ. Is Luke addressing us? Well, if we claim our true names, our true identity, if we respond with our whole lives to God, than “Theophilus” IS us.Image result for looking in a mirror clipart

If looking for Theophilus, will you look in the mirror?

 

 

 

Sleeper, awake!

beanzonked

When she nodded off — and fell over in the pew — it made quite a ruckus in that small, country church. Her sister and sister-in-law made more noise, however, laughing at her from the pew behind.

And me only halfway through the sermon.

In my defense, I approached that pulpit every Sunday that summer as a ministry intern with only one semester of preaching class and limited experience under my (Bible) belt. I was still learning how to preach, and my sermons tended to be a bit dryer… and longer.

After 30 years, I am still learning, and though more experienced and possessing a few homiletic tricks, folks in the pews still nod off on occasion.

It happens to the most impassioned of us. In the 20th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Paul is speaking late into the night with a house church in Troas. And then it happens:

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. (Acts 20:9-12)

eutychus

Much to everyone’s relief, Paul goes down, takes Eutychus into his arms, and pronounces him still living. Then, Paul continues speaking with those Christians till dawn.

Sometimes, when worshippers admit struggling to stay awake in church, we preachers assure them that there are worse times and places to fall asleep. But perhaps, as they confess, they also suspect they could be missing out on a crucial word from God.

Such is the practice of preaching in a sleep-deprived society. At least, that’s what health professionals tell us is lacking from too many lives – deep and sufficient sleep. We come to worship unrested after a late night watching movies or sports highlights. But we all know that there is also Gospel, good news, that is lacking in too many lives.

And yet, and this is no small miracle, worshippers gather all the time to listen to preachers of the Gospel both scintillating and somniferous (snore-inducing). We focus intently and are moved by a timeless and timely truth from Scripture.

However skilled the preacher or teacher, these regularly occurring miracles are always the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mindful of Eutychus and his fall, gripped by the necessity of the message of Jesus Christ, we appointed and anointed preachers keep at it, praying and trusting the Spirit of God will use “the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts,” to rouse and disturb and even let the saints rest for a few moments.

In our sleep-deprived society, we are dependent, as ever, on the enlivening and eye-opening work of that Spirit that Jesus himself sends at the right moment.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Romans 13:11

beanawake