Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Faith is

Have you ever felt trapped? Felt you're going nowhere, as they say, pretty fast? Felt there was no one to talk to about it? I read about someone today who felt that way, and he sank like a rock.

The Bible tells us, "26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

We have the tendency to trash Peter. We've all heard sermons about how he took his eye off Jesus and he sank. We've all heard the sermons that talk about Peter's lack of faith. I'm much more struck by this: Peter says, "Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water." Jesus says come (which takes faith to believe, apparently, that ghosts always tell the truth), and Peter climbs out.

That he fails, it seems to me, is inconsequential. That he tried is of great consequence.

I get criticized many times for trying something, seeing if it sticks to the wall, and going on if it doesn't. It seems to me that trying is what we have to do. Succeeding is more in the arena of the all-powerful God.

Faith is getting out of the boat with expectation. Faith is believing there is a plan and we are included in it. Faith is accepting that without Jesus we're all going to sink.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Authority then and now

Let's discuss authority today. It's a lost art, isn't it? The other day you saw the picture of the Arizona governor wagging a finger in the face of our president, and the pundits all went crazy about how that was disrespectful. My thought? It was disrespectful of the office. It was the man she was disagreeing with. See, we often think of authority as being the same as power, and there is no arguing that the office of the president is powerful. But the man must earn it, right?

Authority? Remember when the office and the man were highly thought of as if they were one? I remember when the president of the United States, for reasons I have no earthly idea, went riding by our school when I was way young. Waving to us. We all stood out there like little dummies waiting, then in five seconds or so the guy went by and we were waving fools. Then we were let loose to return to class.

Symbols and authority have existed for eons.

I read this today from John's Gospel: So Jesus answered them, "I tell you the truth; the Son can do nothing on his own; he does only what he sees his Father doing. What the Father does, the Son does also. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing." In other words, Jesus' authority has been established because He and the Father are one.

Jesus' authority is a big issue in scripture. In Mark he tells a man, "10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” He has authority to forgive sins. In Mark he tells others, "The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law." He has authority to teach as if he had been given the right to. In Matthew, we see this exchange:  Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things."

Authority was given Jesus by the Heavenly Father, we can figure. It means we can understand that the man and the office of the Son of God were one and completely worthy of his authority.

The authority of the man in the office of the presidency isn't quite the same, is it?  Just a thought.

Friday, January 27, 2012

That's some awe there

Someone, somewhere said, "It's not how you start, but how you finish." That's nevermore true than in your spiritual walk, your walk with the man named Jesus. We live in a world where small groups for beginners in the faith are all the rage. But small groups for people who have been in the church for more than a decade are lagging greatly. Why? Because the start for Christians is much more exciting than the long walk home. At some point we understand we're in a marathon, not a 100-yard dash and the excitement begins to wear off.

It's not how you start, but how you finish. When Christians start, the glory of the Lord shines like the sun on a clear, cloudless day. Shine, Jesus, Shine, we sing, arms raised toward the heavens, an unspeakable joy filling out hearts and our minds. Can't wait to get there. Can't wait to sing praises. Can't wait. Period.

But then, time passes inevitably, slowly, crawling like the ticker messages underneath ESPN's programing.

Listen and imagine the early church: "Many miracles and wonders were  being done through the apostles, and everyone will filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved."

Imagine, just imagine, completing what you do for a living and heading to the (church) for a group meeting on a daily basis, then breaking into smaller groups and eating meals together. This is your life. You do this without question, bringing your children into the midst of other believers. Aweeeeeesomeeeeeeeee.

Imagine, just imagine professions of faith on a daily basis. Imagine growth of the church, daily.Oh, how awesome it would, could be.

But of all those words in all those sentences the fraction of a phrase that intrigues me most is this one: "and everyone was filled with awe." That's the way, certainly, I felt at the beginning. Didn't you? Wasn't your early walk flat out awesome? I remember loving to simply worship, loving to forge a path through the unknown of scripture, loving the search for those joy moments with the Lord daily. I really mean that. Daily there was something new and exciting and, well, awesome.

God was, as Rich Mullins told us back then, an awesome God. Even Rich died, though, and those moments became much more mundane, didn't they?

Today, though, I ask myself this: Is my daily walk still filled with awesome?

In the judgment of Jesus on the seven churches in Revelation, perhaps the most severe is what he says about Ephesus, one of the early churches. Jesus said, "But this is what I have against you; you do not love me now as you did at first. Think how far you have fallen."

Jesus fed 5,000 men at one point, which probably means he fed closer to 8,000 counting women and children. They were filled with awe as well as fish and loaves.

When he screamed to the heavens, "it is finished," there were about five persons at the foot of the cross. Where did the awesome feeling go for the other 7,000 plus?  I can see the persons walking away from him that last week. "SHHhhhhhh," the parents said late in the week to the children who wanted to play with Jesus, after he rode that blamed donkey into the city at the beginning of the week.

Now, there's merit to growing in Christ, to get beyond the awe-filled days perhaps. I once had a person say to me that on a scale of 1-10, you want to live your days as fives. In other words, not too high or too low.  I get that. I also get that most early Christians want to keep that feeling of awesome going. The problem is it's not how you start, but how you finish. It's always going to be a walk, a ride, a journey. Eventually, if effort to keep feeling awesome supplants simply living God's awesomeness then what we're left with is work instead of awesome relationship. And we fail and fall.

When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the mountain top (an awesome experience if there ever was), Peter wanted to build tents (housing) for those he saw. He wanted to stay there. Peter, who had walked with Jesus, seen miracle after miracle, wanted to keep that awesome feeling forever.

That's how it starts. Some build their whole religious experience around that "awesome" feeling, that mountaintop experience. But it's how you finish, not start, that is vital. Are we finishing spiritually with a love of God through his Son Jesus as described by His Spirit that speaks clear tones of awesomeness? Are we still loving the way we were? Are we still allowing Him to love us in the same manner as we did at the beginning?

The truth is awesomeness of God on the mountaintop is fleeing. Sooner or later, you must leave the mountaintop and go into the valley. Still, when that mountaintop experience, that awesomeness feeling, begins to wane, we are giving an incredible opportunity to open our souls to allow Christ to come in and stay. That being said, I ask again, is your daily walk, up and down though it is, filled with awe? Are we awed by the suffering moments? Are we in awe of the blessings that come not nearly as regularly as those challenges? Are we awed that an all-powerful God would have anything to do with a sinful persons such as we are?

Did you start with an incredible, words-can't-describe-kind of worship, prayer-life, spiritual walk? Has that walk been filled with potholes lately? Are you, for lack of a better word, bored with your relationship with Jesus, with the church, with the body of Christ, with the volunteering efforts of your church, of your friends, or of your family? It's okay to talk about it here. It's almost a secret there are so few persons reading this and less than that responding. Besides, God already knows.

It the awe gone, leaving just the some?

What do we do?

Here's the magic rub on the side of the genie-filled bottle. What we do is surrender, relax, allow God to be God in our lives. Open your self to a new way of thinking, living, being.

The simple answer is that we find the glory of God all around us. Everywhere we turn, we can see the glory of God — if our eyes and our hearts are open to God’s presence. The thing is, as we live out the days of our lives, most of us are never going to see a shining figure, or hear a voice from the clouds. However, I also think that most of us, if not all of us, have, at one time or another, experienced something unusual. That something unusual, even after a years-long, long spiritual walk, is what we call awesome. Still, Just as awesome at the end as it was at the beginning. It's the consistency of the walk that is truly, truly awesome.
In the midst of your day-to-day grind, suddenly the future became clear, suddenly you could see God’s will for your life. During the middle of a busy workday, you suddenly felt a need for prayer, an overwhelming urge to commune with God. In the midst of one of life’s struggles, when times were hard and the future looked dark, the meaning of the Gospel and the nature of God came shining through, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.
Awesome. It's still awesome. It's a perfect fried egg after eating fried eggs for decades. It's a sunset as warm and inviting as a Hallmark Card. It's rainbows and it's rainstorms. It's the look you give your spouse after 25-plus years and it's the same look you gave him or her when you were first married. It's love, and it's awesome. Same with the look you give an unseen God when you reach something in the Gospels that seems to be new and previously unknown.
We need to be careful not to fall asleep on our way up the mountain. If we become satisfied with the way things are, falling asleep is very easy to do. I don’t know about you, but it’s after a big meal, when I’m really satisfied, that I’m most likely to fall asleep.
In our churches, sometimes we become too satisfied. Maybe we’ve got a good crowd coming; if we had any more, we might have to start thinking about adding on to our building, and Lord knows how expensive that would be. We feel good about our worship services, our prayer life is fine — everything’s going good. We’re satisfied, and that’s when we get into trouble.
Christ didn’t call us to be satisfied. If I remember correctly, something was said about taking up our cross, and following Christ. I once heard that  “God comforts us in our afflictions, and afflicts us in our comforts.” There is nothing more dangerous to the kingdom of God than a comfortable church or a comfortable Christian, reveling in the same ole, same ole, rejecting even the effort to find the awesomeness in life again. We have to be careful not to become satisfied with where we are. We have to continue to follow Christ, all the way up the mountain, back down the mountain, into the valley, out onto the plain, near the river, onto the lake.
All of the walk with Jesus should be seen as potentially an awesome moment. Then when awesome breaks out, we simply revel in it instead of being shocked.
That's awesome, isn't it?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The witness protection program

Peter stood up before thousands and preached (for the first time); "God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact."


Does that accurately describe your life? My life?

We are called to be witnesses to the death-raising. We are called to be witnesses to a change in our lives so that we can tell others about this fact. FACT.

So, let's examine what it means (briefly) to witness.

Christians are called to adhere to the following principles as they seek to fulfil Christ's commission in an appropriate manner, particularly within interreligious contexts.

1. Acting in God's love. Christians believe that God is the source of all love and, accordingly, in their witness they are called to live lives of love and to love their neighbour as themselves (cf. Matthew 22:34-40; John 14:15).

2. Imitating Jesus Christ. In all aspects of life, and especially in their witness, Christians are called to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, sharing his love, giving glory and honour to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:21-23).
3. Christian virtues. Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility, and to overcome all arrogance, condescension and disparagement (cf. Galatians 5:22).

4. Acts of service and justice. Christians are called to act justly and to love tenderly (cf. Micah 6:8). They are further called to serve others and in so doing to recognize Christ in the least of their sisters and brothers (cf. Matthew 25:45). Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief services and acts of justice and advocacy are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel. The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach.Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service.

Is that how you're living? Is that how you want to live? Act justly, love tenderly, serve others?

All I know is we're having a difficult time getting volunteers for Kairos prison ministry at RCC in Bogalusa. Seems we would have to turn people away.

Maybe our witness isn't strong enough.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's all so taxing

Let's talk something I understand little of this morning. Let's talk taxes. Here's what I know: I am taxed. I pay. Sometimes they pay me back. I know little else.

I know that this year, an election year, there will be much talk about tax rates. Both sides have staked a flag in the dirt of fair tax rates. Both sides will say that the fairness of tax rates is one of the most important of issues in this financial driven presidential race.

What is fair? Should we pay taxes to this government? Should their be equality in our system for the poor and the rich?

I do not know my tax rate, though I'm confident  my very educated readership knows theirs. I pay. Sometimes they pay me back. That's my tax knowledge taken from years and years of tax reform pondering (or simply from getting or not getting a refund).

Tuesday night our president talked quite a bit about the fairness and equality of our tax rates. "We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it," Obama insisted. "When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference."

Really. Is that what it means? I read a story yesterday about the huge numbers of CEOs in this country making more than $50 million. I suspect others read the same story, I equally suspect that the readers of that story thought first they wished they could earn that many. I suspect, also, that many didn't think first about the fairness of that person's tax rates. I just don't think that.

I pay. Sometimes they pay me back. I don't actually know what tax breaks I need or get. My tax lady, Toni, knows this stuff I assume, though I do not actually know this. So I don't know if I'm the one who has caused this deficit everyone seems to be talking about or not. It could be on me. I pay. Sometimes they pay me back.

In my constant seeking of knowledge, I did a word-search for "tax" in the Bible. In the NIV, there were 10 references. Ten. I'm going to let you look them up.

They are:
1 Samuel 17:25
Ezra 4:13
Ezra 4:20
Ezra 7:24 (Ezra was a popular tax consultant, apparently)
Matthew 17:25
Luke 20:20
Luke 20:22
Luke 23:2
Romans 13:6
Romans 13:7

That's it, compadre. The whole enchilada. The whole, uh, dish. The most famous, or course, is that time in Luke's Gospel where Jesus was asked about paying taxes and the answer, bottom line, was pay to Caesar what was Caesar's and pay to God what was God's. It's almost like the question of tithing: Do you tithe on the gross or the net?

But for our purposes this morning, I suspect the Ezra line is most important. Again it reads, "Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and eventually the royal revenues will suffer." In other words, if no taxes are taken up, the government's resources will suffer. Eventually, it goes without writing or saying, the government will not be able to help its own people.

Where's the fairness and equity in that? Again, I pay and I get paid. I know little more than that. Except, except this: I suspect that many of those (I suspect but don't know) gazillionares who are being taxed sometimes at lower rates than many of the middle-class because of what is know affectionately as tax-loopholes, aren't tithers, but the loopholes they're using are often those used for charities. If they aren't giving, who will?

In the end, Jesus was far more interested in us giving to God what is his I suspect than us giving to the Emperor what is his. He was far more interested in us being willing to give than in the giving itself in many ways. He was, I know, more interested in the heart and the interest in others than he was interested in the head and us doing something because it would help us with a loophole. Finally, I'm pretty darn sure he didn't make a big wage after he went into the ministry.

What is fair? I don't know. I pay. Sometimes I get paid.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The process of hoping

My youngest daughter returned to college yesterday. We're not talking about missing a semester. We're talking about missing whole years. Missing time while getting a job, having a child, getting married, fighting with husband's ex-wife over custody, finding time to pay for bills, feed the dogs, move from a house being bought to one being rented and on and on. You know, living life so hard you become tired from simply living life?


I pray that her desire to better herself and her family is stronger than her desire to rest, which can flat out eat up hope if given half a chance. Not the rest, the desire to.

You understand what I mean? Being tired can gnaw on your hope like a carnivore chewing on the bone of a carcass. Sitting in a big ol' chair in the evening, wondering why you do what you do, getting out that ol' life-scale, the one you use to measure if doing what you do out-weighs what you want to do in the future, you get a big chunk of quit building up in you.

The ones who become whatever it is we call a success are the ones who learn to rest in whatever moments we're given to rest and then getting up and doing it all over again. The ones who fail are the ones who pull out not the quit card and throw it on the counter like some sort of remedy for their situation.

That kind of tired that eats at you, causes you to argue with even yourself, causes you to hate when you never feel that way otherwise, causes you to wonder and whine. That's the tired that sometimes causes what God called sin. Can't handle the problem any other way? Then ________. You fill in the blank with the sin you didn't want to commit but did.

In the seventh chapter of the book of Romans, Paul writes about this kind of tired (I believe): "I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway."

That's the kind of tiredness, loneliness, helplessness that leads our built-in sin nature, the inheritance that our father Adam was kind enough to leave us with, that is forcefully hidden inside to come out in ways we wished would never have been seen.

The cure? A savior, but not just any kind of savior, but a savior who understood going into silent retreat and spending quality, restful time with his Father is a restful, hopeful occurrence. He called these moments "prayer." Our savior understood that recharging our spiritual battery is a beautiful thing, a restful thing.

I was reading about this notion of rest this morning (perhaps I'm tired because I arose early to read about rest), and I was taken by this scripture:“‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope,"

The interesting portion of the passage there to me is "my body will rest in hope."

Nowhere does it say that God will GIVE us anything as remedy to that cranky ol' tiredness. That's not the plan, Stan. No balm in Gilead. No salt in our sea. No healing. No exorcism. But think about what rest is. It is a remedy for tiredness, correct? It is a remedy for crankiness, remedy for problems, remedy for what my Mama used to say was "what ails you." It is short for restore or restoration, and God's plan from the beginning was to restore us to full communion with him once we fell in the Garden. Even God rested on the seventh day, you know.

Then, think about what is a good definition for peace. Some think that peace is the absence of conflict, but that's not true. Conflict will exist, in marriages, in professions, in even the things that give us the most joy. Conflict is what makes for good sporting games, good careers, good worship even. Without conflict, there is no victory. Therefore, peace -- the thing we long so desperately for I fear -- exists with conflict -- even perhaps because of conflict -- in the same way that we never knew what sin was till God gave us the Law. In the way the Law shines the light on the darkness of sin, conflict shines the spotlight on what peace is or what it can be. Conflict is to peace what the late Paul Harvey used to describe as "the rest of the story." The rest...get it?

In other words, peace is the result of the body resting -- in hope. Peace is a residue of the rest that is the remedy for tiredness, crankiness, problems, for what ails you.

When enemies surround you, the best we can do is let out bodies, our minds, our emotions, rest in hope. When illness comes, let our bodies rest in hope. When struggles, bills, oppression come, let  our spirits rest in hope. Does rest eliminate the problem? Nah, unfortunately the problem might still be waiting for you once you return from your rest. No, no, no. But a rested spirit, body, emotions mean our struggles with our struggles were dissipated for at least the moment, and we are much more able to deal with those struggles after resting than before. Hope is unseen victory but expected all the same.

Therefore, I believe, peace and rest are the same things ... stepping back from the issue and letting God step in and relieve us from the anxiety that grew around the spiritual joints like so much painful arthritis.

It reminds me greatly of one of my five top scriptures, from Paul's writings in a letter to Roman Christians:  "4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment." 

University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban (speaking of conflict in Louisiana), calls what he does with his teams "the process." Everything is about the process, from the first practice of the fall to the championship game of the winter. Do the process, focus on the process, do what your job is in the process and good to great things can happen.

This is the Christian process (or should be): Problems to endurance to character to hope. Seems like hope would be at the beginning to me, but that's not the way it is. All we can hope for is hope. Hope that is seen, Paul says, is not hope.

Rest in your hope, friends. May God's hope give you rest. Somewhere in there is peace. And it does not disappoint. Never does it disappoint.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Life on earth discovered

This morning on Yahoo news, I read that a Russian scientist says he has seen evidence of life on Venus. That is particularly surprising to me since I didn't think there were any more Russian scientists. Secondly, I wonder if the Ruskie scientists on Venus have seen evidence of life on Earth lately?

Headline writers get paid, as I well know, for their ability to capture the subject of the story in a few words. Such as, Joint committee investigates marijuana use. Or the headline, Blind woman gets kidney from father she hasn't seen in years. Or Astronaut takes blame for gas in spacecraft.

That there's some good writing, Pawpaw.

Let's explore (from this weekend, heck just this morning) actual headlines:

Evicted 101-year-old Detroit woman can't go home. She's 101. She's homeless. I reckon there isn't a headline that reflects more of this world today that this one. By the way, why does identifying her city matter is she's HOMELSSS? Does Detroit have an abundance of 101 homeless folks? Really.

Or how about Parents reveal child's gender (he's a he. His father actually said this, "I want to avoid all that stereotyping. Stereotype's seem fundamentally stupid." I have used enormous willpower in order not to do a joke about stupid right here, right now. Enormous willpower. Sasha, the five-year-old whose gender had been kept secret all these years, hasn't commented on the stupidity of his/her parents, however, so she/he apparently has the same willpower, thus rendering my silent vigil less important. I guess that the quality of that headline is just behind the If strike isn't settled quickly, it may last a while.  The may in the headline should be might if we're nit-picking gramatically. That's the only thing wrong with it, right? Parents reveal that if the child's gender isn't settled quickly, it might last a while would seem to be better, huh?

Or the headlines Six hurt in sweet 16 birthday party shooting. Were they shooting a party? Or the headline Ohio man allegedly ties up daughter, locks her in cage. See above notation about location being used in headline. Does being from Ohio have bearing on this father's incredible stupidity and tragic parenting skills? Are we saying Ohio folks are more likely to tied up daughters and lock them in cages? I've always felt that way, but I wasn't sure others did. If that's not the case, why isn't the fact that six are hurt in shooting in California important? Are we saying that if they had been tied up and locked away liked those dastardly kids in Ohio, there wouldn't be shooting? Just asking.

How about the actual entertainment driven sparkling headline, Heidi Klum 'to divorce' from Seal. Questions, questions. Why do we need to have Heidi's first name if Seal has no last name at all? Do we know Seal that much more than Heidi? Why is 'to divorce' in single quotations? I read the whole story (which I wouldn't have otherwise, by the way, so maybe that's the reason), and they really 'are divorcing.' They had been married. They are divorcing. So why do we need single quotations? I don't know even after investing ten long puzzled minutes exploring this. Ten minutes I won't be 'getting back' anytime soon. It then dawned on me. Would I care equally if Laurel, Miss. native Klum to divorce Hattiesburg's Maurice Seal  was written on the Internet Yahoo front page this morning?

'Single quotations,' by the way, are 'very forceful,' don't you 'think?'

Here's the thing. We live in a world dominated not by substance or depth (the story itself, well-written, well-researched) but by fluff (the headline), that light-weight, quick hitting, quickly read story. CNN, which pioneered the long-report for its 24-hour news, also pioneered Headline News.

Our spiffy little world today is about quick bits of information. We no longer have a news cycle. Instead, our 24-hour news is built around bits. Twitter is driven by letters, not depth. Facebook, though not as shiny and quick as its competition, is still bursts of information so tiny that we can't even spell out the whole words. You becomes u, for goodness sakes.

In newspapers or .com blogs  of substance, often the headline, the well-written headline, constructed by paid personnel who graduated from journalism school to learn the proper way to do this, makes all the difference in the world.

Some one's son, who made straight As at some such as Missouri School of Journalism, wrote this:  Divers recover Madonna intact from shipwreck chapel. I swear they did. It's so beautiful I can't even come up with a proper comment.

I've often wondered why Jesus came to the world in a time when there were no Psalmists, no Springsteens to comment in song, where the news cycle, well, was of no importance because there was no Jerusalem Post or even Roman Journal, and the Internet was so far from imagination even the Pharisees hadn't written a law against its use on Sundays.

Why wouldn't God have wanted Jesus to come when the news could have been easily obtained. Huge headline on the back page of the Palestine tabloid stating

                          Hymns celebrating
                       peace on earth available

                      when local shooting stops

King's 'men' kill six
children under two
for reasons unknown

or even

Gender of wise trio revealed
by camels 'closest to them'

Notice the use of the singe quote? It's importance can't be 'overstated.'

Friday, January 20, 2012

Work and worry can wait by the banks of river

It was evening in Babylon. One suspects it was the end of a good day for Daniel as the sun set over the River Tigris amidst splinters of purples and rose.

Daniel, and other captives from the land of Israel, didn't always have spectacular days no matter what they've taught you in Sunday School. That word captive gives you an idea why. They had sinned. Judgment had struck. They were stuck in Babylon, but they hung on through their own type of captivity as they prayers of Godly men made their way to heaven.

We are often held captive by our own sins. I think we can agree on that position.

But even in the midst of our personal kind of captivity, I suspect we have had some of those sort of hours, minutes even, when we awake to find the wind has spewed a bit of warmth from the south. Maybe we can feel, oh, just a few fabulous moments of suspended time. Maybe we remember a time when a Saints receiver got his foot down in bounds in time for a fabulous, unexpected win, or one of our kids made an A on the pop quiz or our spouse's eyes dared stare deeply into ours with commitment and a sudden, insane amount of love. Earthly surprise after surprise comes as God blesses us in unknown and shocking new ways.

Maybe we can remember a few ragged, absolutely astonishing minutes when a gust of God's wind filled our dying sails, or had us sort of pulling the fat ol' home-made blanket up to our neckline as you nestled there on a cold morning without end. Work and worry can always wait, but smiles in God's time should never be put aside. They're too valuable.

Maybe we grasped that time when everything wrong built up. We suddenly understood that God blesses the last ones, the least ones, and though we were often a solitary leaf looking for a complimentary pile, we also knew that in the worst of moments, God's mercy could be like a summer afternoon rainstorm, like a gallon of sweet tea poured over our laughing face. Mercy, His mercy, takes away those staggeringly bad days.

After those God-fiven rains, the steam rises from old country roads. Then God mocks evolutionary thoughts, laughs at our meager creativity, grins at emergency room antics, and with a bit of flourish, I think, like a painter drunk with gallons of Red Bulls and filled with tons of imagination, he shoots pictures of HIS sky with a yet-to-be numbered pixel camera. HD? Come on, man. It's God shooting, drawing, painting, rainbowing. Beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder, it's in the eye of GOD.

Hear the Word that comes from the experience (in Daniel's ninth chapter): "I (Daniel) went on praying, confessing my sins and the sins of my people Israel and pleading with the Lord my God to restore his holy Temple."

One sentence, but a bloated one. Daniel prays. Daniel confesses HIS sins. Daniel confesses HIS PEOPLE'S SINS. Daniel pleads, begs, gets on the horn, pulls out the cell, digs out the number, and seeks time with the LORD HIS GOD so that HIS HOLY TEMPLE might be rebuilt.

Once sentence, but one filled with good stuff, huh?

Then, while Daniel was praying, pleading, confessing, begging, Gabriel (the scriptures tell us and Daniel) came FLYING DOWN to where Daniel was.

This morning as I plunk on these keys, it is dark outside. Still. It is 6:42 a.m. this moment, right here, right now as  the song Here I Am To Worship plays, and there are only a couple of ribbons of light forcing their way into the darkness as if they were screwdrivers. Two years ago this day, I was seated outside the Garden Tomb just outside the walls of old Jerusalem in Israel. I could tell you about time and time change and all that but I never understood it while we were there, so I won't.

We had been taken inside the tomb to see what certainly appeared a spot that our dear Lord Jesus could have been placed after his crucifixion. In a sign of the times, my cell jingled like a cat chasing a bell. I knew immediately. I knew. A wonderful, wonderful trip was damaged instantly. My daughter, Carrie, was calling to let me know the status of my beloved dog Frankie. Dear Frankie was killed by something as simple as un-digested cat "litter" and something as terrible as cancer in the kidneys. He died on this day, or night as the case might have been, due to kidney complications.

Frankie was my bud, friend, brother. Jerome K. wrote of dogs, "They are superior to human beings as companions. They do not quarrel or argue with you. They never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation." They are love and they are pain. They are help and hurt. They are the most giving of beings.

Two years is such a short period of time, but it seems an eternity since Frankie was next to me running his long nose under my hand to make me raise it and pet him. For such an unselfish being, Frankie sure could be selfish.

In the Message, Job says: "Human life is a struggle, isn't it? It's a life sentence to hard labor. Like field hands longing for quiting time and working stiffs with nothing to hope for but payday. I go to bed and think, 'How long till I can get up? I toss and turn as the night drags on -- and I'm fed up.

"God, don't forget that I'm only a puff of air," Job cries to the sky. "And so I'm not keeping one bit of this quiet, I'm laying it all our on the table, my complaining to high heaven is bitter, but honest. Are you going to put a muzzle on me, the way you quiet the sea and still the storm?"

Honestly, to this minute I hurt most by the fact that I wasn't there when Frankie died. I wasn't there to hold him as he took his last breath. I'm fully wracked with guilt that since he was smarter than David Lettermen and funnier than Jay Leno, he might have wondered 'where is he? Where is my master.' I wasn't there. I wasn't. For all my talk to him about how much I loved him, I wasn't there when it counted most.

Since Frankie died, we've doubled our efforts to save animals. We've brought in dachshunds Breezy and Copper and cats Rocky and the two outside adoptees, Catty and Miss Kitty. We've made sure the squabbles among the saved animals are small ones. We've fed and watched over and done everything we can for all we can.

But none of them are Frankie. I know none will ever be.

But that's fine. It truly is. My complaints are few even as my ministries grow.

I've grown closer to God through suffering, I expect. But perhaps I'll never grow as close as my man Daniel. I love his prayer, "O Lord our God, hear my prayer and pleading. Restore your Temple, which has been destroyed; restore it so that everyone will know that you are God. Listen to us, O God; look at us and see the trouble we are in and the suffering of the city that bears your name. We are praying to you because you are merciful, not because we have done right. Lord hear us, Lord, forgive us. Lord, listen to us, and act! In order that everyone will know that you are God, do not delay. This city and these people are yours!"

As I finished typing this portion of Daniel's long prayer, Shout to the Lord begins to play and it carries through.

I've told a couple of times my favorite part of the Israel trip. We were on the Sea of Galilee, with gentle waves and a sky stacked with thick white clouds as if they were boxes in a storage shed. As our boat rode one wave after another, we talked and talked and looked at the far mountains and thought of Jesus.

Then the boat's captain hit a switch and music joined us. First, Awesome God, my favorite contemporary Christian song played then Shout To The Lord  fought through the mist-thickened air. Ear to heart, heart to soul.

We were on the water that Jesus walked on, on the water that Jesus rowed through and our praises like waves flooded the moment. Would Frankie be alive if we hadn't gone to Israel? Probably not. Would Frankie be whining right now, standing on skinny black legs, front one's scratching my bare legs, asking to be picked up and set down in my lap? Probably not.

That's not the point of any of this. The point is, "Daniel, I(Gabriel) have come to help you understand the prophecy. When you began to plead with God, he answered you. He loves you, and so I have come to tell you the answer."

All this, every step, every tear, every substance, is about Him, not us. Him. He loves us, and that simply has to be enough. Shout it. Pray it. He is awesome, well, he is beyond awesome. That in itself is awesome.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are you ready?

The Lord says, "When the Soverign Lord speaks, who can keep him from proclaiming his message?"

This morning I spent a little time (especially when the first version of this disappeared into the Internet galaxy never to be seen again), pondering the life of the prophets. Their lives weren't glamorous or especially joy-filled. Jesus said of them, "So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs..

So...not joy-filled, but necessary. They spoke, a few (very few) listened. Things haven't changed.

Years ago we went to a Christian concert at a fairly large church in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. The concert had plenty of groups, but the headliner was Crystal Lewis. Lewis, who has virtually disappeared as I write this, had the No. 1 Christian radio single, "People Get Ready" in 1996.

Lewis, as at most concerts I guess, was the last act to perform. Avalon, among others, went on before her. The crowd was lively and loud by the time she went into the Chancel area of the church. She did a variety of songs, but the one I actually went to the concert to hear, "People Get Ready," was not one of them.

There was a pause in the music after Lewis had sung "God's been good to me," and "Beauty for Ashes" and "Beauty of the Cross" (all songs we knew and had sung along with her), and someone asked the individuals in the crowd if they wanted to know Christ or know Him more. I (and just about everyone around me) raised our hands and shouted gleefully. We were then asked to come forward if that was the case. I, being the greatly intelligent person I am, plowed forward thinking that we were being invited to come into the Chancel area and be close to Lewis as she sang, the equivalent of being on stage at a non-Christian concert.

We went forward, then we were shuffled to our left, and OUT THE MAIN BUILDING. As we walked, I knew I had made some sort of incorrect decision, and lo and behold, the big thumping base lead in to "People Get Read" began. We were led into other rooms where "counselors" began to ask us about our eternal choices. I missed the final song of the night; the song I had come to hear. The "counselors" were greatly amused when I told them I was a United Methodist pastor. Apparently I had made the decision to follow Christ previously, they agreed. I was released just as the massive crowd left the sanctuary. Apparently I wasn't one of the people who were ready. My dear wife, Mary, was greatly amused.

Sometimes the message isn't, as they say, easily understood, perhaps. But the message for some of the Prophets of the Old Testament was straight-forward. There was no masking it. There was no hiding from it. There was no parable teaching. It was a plain, straight-forward grouping of words. Powerful, yet without mystery.

Amos, this prophet-farmer who walked out of a little town in Judah toward what was then called the Northern Kingdom, shouted, whispered, talked, preached, a message that God had told him needed to be heard.

The message?

Judgment, like invading armies down through the years, was coming. Get yourself ready. You've been sinning; now you've been caught, seen, brought forward. Get yourself ready.

Amos wrote, "Does disaster strike a city unless the Lord sends it The Sovereign Lord never does anything without revealing his plan to his servants, the prophets. Be ready."

Crystal Lewis wrote, "There's a day that comes when we will be divided right and left, for those who know him and those that do not know. Those who know him well, will meet with him in the air,
Hallelujah, God is with us...Those who do not know they will hear "depart i knew you not" For my friends to see there will be a day when we are counted so know him well; So people, get ready. Jesus is coming. Soon we'll be going home."

Prophecy says, be ready. Intelligence says, be ready. Every fiber of our being should be saying, be ready.

Just don't find yourself ready but in the wrong place. There might not be any coming back from that.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Come and see

A few years ago we bought a house in Lacombe, La. There was this strange little room, I guess you could call a closet, underneath the stairs to a loft. When one opened the door to that little, little closet, one could see where some of the previous owners of the house had measured their children's growth.

There were names, lines where the ruler had been placed on the heads of the children, and dates. I felt almost as if we were being intrusive, though we never knew this family. The growth lines were, I felt, something special for that family.

What are some of the ways you've measured your "spiritual" growth. Are there lines somewhere on a wall, a door, measuring when you took this step or that? Has there really been growth in your spiritual life? Do you realize that if there is no growth, the Bible says you're actually falling backward. In other words, there must be growth. There is no standing still.

There are many empowering questions to be found in the Gospels. I've always leaned toward that incredible moment when Jesus and Pilate are having a conversation (if one can call it a conversation when one is under arrest and knows that he or she will be beaten and then crucified within 24 hours) and Pilate asks that eternal question, "What is truth?"

But long before that, before Jesus' ministry has plowed the fields of Israel and left behind fruit of the Spirit, John the Baptist is standing near the narrow banks of the River Jordan with a couple of his followers, HIS disciples. As they stand there, perhaps looking at the long line of soon-to-be baptized, Jesus walks up. John says, "There is the Lamb of God." The two disciples (unnamed until a few verses later where they are revealed to be Andrew, Peter's brother, and Simon, son of John, or the more famous name Peter) began following Jesus. Jesus sees this, turns and asks the question: "What are you looking for?"

I'm going to a retreat in two or three weeks, prayerfully seeking a deeper understanding, a deeper relationship with the Creator. I'm trying. I'm looking
I'm reading the Gospel of John again each morning of the next few mornings, prayerfully seeking a deeper relationship with the Creator's Son. I'm struggling. I'm looking.
I'm reading a couple of new books, seeking to put a new line of spiritual growth on a door somewhere.

All of that is a prelude, a preparation for an attempt to answer the marvelously simple question: "What are you looking for?"

The second half of the first chapter of John's Gospel (which we'll be spending much time on in the next few weeks), is about the disciples -- or at least Andrew, Simon peter, Philip and Nathanael -- coming to Jesus.

That question Jesus asked, "What are you looking for?" seems to me to echo down the corridors of time. It's not just a question for a young Jewish man or men who had gone out to the wilderness to check out this new speaker/baptizer John. It's not just a question for two followers of this John. No, no, no. This question speaks to our own hearts, I believe.

What are YOU looking for?

Are you seeking a religious experience? There's none here with Jesus, I'm afraid.
Are you seeking to show your kids a better way to live? Jesus shows us a better way to die.
Are you seeking the truth or some watered-down version of it? Jesus doesn't talk about simple slogans or mantras. He says strange things like: "I am telling you the truth: you will see heaven open and God's angels going up and coming down on the Son of Man."

What are you looking for? A place to receive or a place to give? A place to be comforted or a place to leave and go comfort? A place to grieve or a place to give support to others?

I believe we're living in a time of seeking something better. We live in a country today in which the average person does not trust its own leaders. A record 84 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the way the  Congress is doing its job compared with just 13 percent who approve of how things are going, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published on Monday. Virtually no one trusts our own leadership.

The answer to that question might be the most important one of all to us.
John the Baptist, up to his knees in dark green water, said, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and stay on him (Jesus). I still did not know that he was the one, but God, who sent me to baptize with water, had said to me, 'You will see the Spirit come down and stay on a man; he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen it, and I tell you that he is the Son of God."
If you're looking for anything more, anything different than this Jesus, you're lost as a man with a GPS and no understanding of the language the GPS is using. There are signs, signs, everywhere signs, but no one understands what they say.
What are you looking for? Healing. Direction. Power. New meaning? A filling of that dang hole in your life?
The sequence continues with the disciples answering his question. They say, "Where do you live, Rabbi?" Problem is, of course, that is not an answer to the question. But maybe it is. Maybe the answer to the question of what we're looking for is to be found, well, whereever Jesus is. So Jesus gives the most wonderful of answers to their posed question. He doesn't say Nazareth. Doesn't point toward the Sea of Galilee. Doesn't mention Jerusalem. No hint about the River Jordan coursing through Palestine like a stint through clogged arteries.
He says, "Come and see."
It's a start to an adventure. Whatever you are really looking for, Jesus says pack up all your cares and woes, here we go. Come and see.
This morning, that's our quest. Come and see. Maybe we'll not only find answers, but maybe we'll even learn to pose the right questions.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The biggest three-letter word

Oh, the value of one little three-lettered word. In Greek, it is written: Pas. In Hebrew, it is written: Kol. In Spanish, todos. In French, tous. In Italian, tutti. In Russian, BCE.

In the Holy Scriptures, it is written, felt, believed, placed in all the right spots to make the biggest difference that can be found. All the best and brightest moments in scripture, I propose, come when all of Israel gathered to hear God's word read after walking back from foreign lands, when all of what would become Christendom gathered in an upper room, when all the saints went marching in.

In English, the word is ALL.

Let me point out what a difference that three-letter word can make in a sentence, in a scripture, in a lifetime of regret. All is the difference in Hebrew theology between the saved and the fallen. All is the difference in proper obedience to the Law and in fallen worshippers.

For example, in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy's 28th chapter and its beginning verse: If you obey the Lord your God and faithfully keep ALL his commands that I am giving you today, he will make you greater than any other nation on earth. Not the ones you like most. Not the ones you're most comfortable in doing. Not the best or the worst of the lot. All letter T's scrossed and I's dotted.

Then, in the Apostle Paul's letter to Rome's early Christians the theology of grace reads like this: The Savior will come from Zion and remove ALL wickedness from the descendants of Jacob ... and ...This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...

Gathered as wheat on a Thursday workday, bundled into being, mashed into meaning, the word ALL in scripture (I believe) is vital because 1) the Israelites were told that they must keep ALL of the law and 2) if they tried or if they didn't, the result was the same. They couldn't, didn't, wouldn't. That was significant.

Not some of them, but ALL of them. Not some of us, but ALL of us. I've got some friends that if they were Catholic might be in line for Sainthood. They're good folk, if you know what I mean. Good to their cores. Good stock. Good roux for the gumbo. Good teachers to their kids. Good and kind to strangers and as unconditionally loving to their friends as big-eyed pets would be. They've drunk a pitcher of living water; they've feasted on unlimited loves of the bread of life. They understand who Jesus is because they have a clear and valid relationship with him. They study scriptures, they pray mightily both publicly and in whatever their prayer closets might be. They feed the hungry, they read and absorb the latest spiritual books, and they have a noticeable, wonderful, enviable missional life. They are what I perceive Jesus might have looked like in terms of their actions. WWJD isn't a slogan to them; it's real as mustard seeds of faith as big as baseballs.

Oh, to a person they're also sinners, spiritual failures of a sort, because Paul tells us that ALL have fallen short. ALL. Everyone. Not a single, solitary, end of the world last person on earth kind of thing. ALL. They are all sinners. Oh, they clean up real nice, but they're sinners. Oh, they come across as well-meaning and terrifically splendid. Oh, I love them for who they are and what they accomplish for the poor, the oppressed, the least of these.

But they are run of the mill sinners. Pas of them. Kol of them. Mother Teresa and MLK and Calvin and Wesley and all the apostles and even my dear Paul. Sinners. All OF THEM.

For some that is stomach-clinching painful. Guilt eats them up like they were road kill to a hungry homeless man. They can't understand how that could be, so they try harder and harder and keep failing. Ultimately they simply deny their failure, their sin and they turn their focus on others and being to think, "Well, my sin isn't as great as they're sin." And homosexuality becomes a greater sin than egotism. Abortion becomes greater than lying. The next sin you don't have a problem with becomes greater than the one you do.

Therefore the fact that there is Good News for ALL is as surprising as it is wonderful. In Paul's letter, the second portion of the final sentence written above reads, ... and ALL are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Oh, heavenly day. 

ALL are justified freely by his grace. Justified is a big ol' theological word that means SAVED. Extracted from the dump. Pulled out of the fire. Taken from the terror. And it doesn't just work for church folk on Sunday morning. In fact, those church folk on Sunday morning need a humongous handful of that saving hard-to-grasp graces just as much as the ones who were on the street corner late Saturday night if not more.

For God so loved the world. All of it. Kol. Pas. ALL.

Where we ALL failed, He was there to pick ALL of us up, lifting us past the measuring stick, raising us above the barrier every bit as tall as the wall that separates Palestine today from Israel, that separates sinner and saint like a Mason-Dixon line painted in Jesus' blood.

Here's the bottom line: God said the Hebrews must do ALL the law for salvation. They (and ALL of mankind) could not. Tried. Tried so very hard. Fingernails on the edge of the cliff effort. Tried with tears and with suffering. Tried by most, though not all. Tried, dear brethren, in the day and the night. Tried when the cost was friends and family oftentimes. Tried but still failed. ALL.

Humanity needed something else. A new way. A new song of Zion that had yet to be sung. A new light of the world. Luckily, God had already planned for All  of the problem. John's Gospel said, "In he beginning, the Word already existed. ... Through him God made ALL things; not one thing in ALL  creation was made without him. What mankind needed was a baby born in a tiny wayside village in the hills of a tiny wayside area called Palestine. That something else humanity needed was, is and forever will be Jesus the Christ.

ALL I can say is thank you, Lord Jesus. In the 107th Psalm I read, "They must thank him with sacrifices and with songs of joy must tell ALL that he has done.

Get up and dance ALL of you; Plow a joyful field; wet some eyes with happiness.

"God saw ALL that he had made, and it was very good."

Monday, January 16, 2012

Be a truck

My son and I spent some quality time yesterday talking about what success is. To him, a singer-songwriter who has self-produced three albums and is on the road playing in places fairly late at night about five or six times a week, success is being paid to do what you enjoy doing. Size of the crowd isn't the issue. The process is. I honor that. I would struggle to be that.

I told him that I had a friend who had written a book and had it self-published and she was filling Facebook with stuff about it and was as proud as one could be. I, on the other hand, had self-published a book earlier this year and all and all was a bit ashamed that I had to do all that because all I felt was no one wanted to publish it so it couldn't have been very good.

It wasn't enough to enjoy the process, you see. It was about the outcome for me. The outcome was I spent folks money and sold very few books, and I wonder whether I made any difference at all. No, I know I didn't.

I wish I could clear the head and see success in the same way my son does, which is to see it on its merits. I, too often mind you, see success in the numbers that my church, the United Methodist Church, seems to have tilted so heavily toward: how is your church doing in confessions of faith, new members, youth numbers, children numbers? Mine, sadly, isn't doing so hot on those numbers. Therefore, before they do, there have been times I've declared my ministry to be a failure.

My son argued about that, saying this shouldn't be about me. What are you trying to accomplish, he asked? "Is it about bringing people to Jesus, or is it about you?" I argued back that I can see it no other way because leaders take people sometime even where they don't want to go. I, on the other hand, have not taken these two churches as far as they need to go. Therefore if my little bit of ministry is as stale and stagnant as it can be and no one new is coming to Christ, then it has to be about me. It is me.

Then my son argued that some of what I was feeling was ego. I, coughed, hesitated and finally agreed. It is. It hurts to have chosen to go full-time into the ministry and not be able to lead the churches into full-time ministry at the same time. I don't know how.

So, I return to the source:

In 1 Samuel, I read this idea of success: 13 So (Saul) sent David away from him and gave him command over a thousand men, and David led the troops in their campaigns. 14 In everything he did he had great success, because the LORD was with him.

In 1 Chronicles, that idea is increased: May the LORD give you discretion and understanding when he puts you in command over Israel, so that you may keep the law of the LORD your God. 13 Then you will have success if you are careful to observe the decrees and laws that the LORD gave Moses for Israel.

In the Psalms the writer screamed to the heavens, LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success!

Clearly, the success comes from God. But I would also imagine that whatever the success was, it was in the eye of the beholder. Again, success for some might not be what some others would call success.

It is interesting to me that the Old Testament has many uses of the word success, or the Hebrew word for success. There is no usage of the word in the New Testament. Perhaps giving one's life for a world that disowns you might not be most folks idea of success.

What can we take from this? What is success to you, the reader? Is it in the job you have? Is it in how well you do that job? Is it family life? How well the kids turn out? Is it how you feel about the life God has given you, or do you sit and look out your morning window, a cup of hot coffee in your hand wondering is there was more you could do, more you should have done, another life you could have, can now live?

I don't know the answer for most. I spent much of yesterday evening watching my hero, Rich Mullins, talk about the type of Christianity he espoused. Rich died 15 years ago this year, so I only knew of him while he was alive about two years since this will be my 17th year back in the church this coming August. But what I heard him say was Christianity was just being yourself. Being who God loves, not wanting to become someone God could love.

I had forgotten that. Or maybe I wanted to.

Success should be this, I imagine: God gives us a few wonderful gifts. What we do with them is what we do with them.

Using an altered Rich analogy through the prism of this discussion, If Henry Ford created you a truck, he didn't do it so that you could go add all sorts of features and get yourself ready to be bought by someone. He created you to go be a truck.

So be a truck. Some trucks are great in huge crowds at monster truck rallies. Some trucks just tug on through 200,000 miles with a taillight hanging on but still going strong for those who love them. Some trucks are shining and have great sound systems. Some trucks have a bunch of Red Bulls on the floor board, a stickshift on the floor and their best days were never all that good.

But they're all trucks. Not all of them are monsters. But at their base, they crank, they run, they shut down. Same process. Same result.

Go be a truck, I'm hearing. Go be a truck.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Found by grace

A woman whom I love to hear sing said to me last night as we discussed Sunday's sermon topic, "I've always had a trouble with grace."

I said, "who hasn't?" It's terribly difficult to understand that no matter how much we do, we cant' be good enough."

Friends, I know people who have given everything to the Lord, but are unhappy because they can't get there, still. There being the state of grace they desire. They're trying, trying, trying, and it just doesn't work.

What we need is a bit of love. Just a bit, to bring us over the edge, lift us over the high mark, bring us across the waters of chilly Jordan. That's bit is grace.

Paul wrote to some friends who were having difficulty understanding grace, "In the past you did not know God, and so you were slaves of beings who are not gods. But now that you know God -- or should I say, now that God knows you -- how is it that you want to turn back to those weak and pitiful ruling spirits." In another place, he writes, "Whoever does not always obey everything that is written in the book of the Law is under God's curse!"

In words we can grasp, why would you want to turn back to the law, turn back to effort, turn back to works, turn back to guilt, turn back to the pain of failure.

The joy of grace is found above all else in John Newton's masterpiece, of course. "amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, and now am found, was blind but now I see."

Live like that, friends, and you will find peace and redemption. Live to the law, whatever law you're living to, and you will fail and fall into guilt.

Simple, Elizabeth. Simple this thing called grace.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Grow closer

Today a group of people from my church (statewide) landed in Israel and I'm so, so envious. Our trip to Israel two years ago was the finest time of my life, with the exception of the conclusion and the phone call we got about our little Frankie.

It inspired, it informed, it led to desire to do it again that leaves me so envious.

Despite yesterday's poor numbers of readers, I venture out again, and this time I opend my Bible three times before noticing that each of the times I opened it (no kidding) the subject was the same: the restoration and love of God for his people).

I read to you from Hosea (after trying Isaiah and Ezekiel I believe it was): "The people of Israel will become like the sand of the sea, more than can be counted or measured. Now God says to them, "You are not my people," but the day is coming when he will say to them, "You are the children of the living God. The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited...."

Today is but the second week of a new year. There is so much ahead of each of us, faithful readers and maybe a few new ones.

But the quest to become closer to God should be our every aim, our most important aim, our most needed aim. What have you done to schedule, plan, a coming together of God, his people, his adopted people, you, me, you name it? What have you done to think about, pray about, read about, contemplate about, meditate about God in this coming year?

The Bible teaches that if we're doing nothing more, if we're not growing spiritually, if we're just going on going on, we're going backwards.

Don't get caught up in the everyday mess. Live in this moment. Live in this day. But plan tomorrow with God's sure help.

God loves us and wants to be closer. What do we want?

Man, I wish I was in Tiberius this morning.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Giving comfort for the troubled

I'm looking at things God can't do this week as part of a series and this week I'm referencing how God wants the best for you. That seems one of those no-brainers, but it's certainly not for some people.

You lose a child to cancer and there's a chance you might question that logic.
You have an automobile accident and lose a limb, there's a chance you might wonder what God's up to.

Only the strong in faith can survive the greatest of tests. But that's, frankly, what faith is for. Faith, that belief not in what we see, touch, know to be true but what we can't see, feel, believe to be true, is often what carries us through those moments.

It is clear to me that the Lord has carried me through difficult times, through unexpected deaths, through grief and difficulty physically. How? The circumstances remained the same. But my attitude changed because of my faith and those around me encouraging me. Faith doesn't end (necessarily) the problem, end the suffering, end the pain but it does walk us through it.

Jesus told us, "Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy."

Paul wrote: "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you."

Today things might look terrible for you. It might be the bills you've built up in a recession. It might be the loss of a job because of the recession. It might be a terrible illness or a loved one's illness or whatever those difficult circumstances might be.

Whatever the case, the Bible is clear that these troubles we're having are given to us, allowed to come to us, for a reason, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."

Believe that. Have faith in that. Give comfort as you have received comfort today.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tebow 3:16


Did you notice this: Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback thought unable to pass the football,  had 316 yards passing and averaged 31.6 yards per pass in the game on Sunday night. Tebow wore :john 3:16 on his eye black in the 2009 BCS Championship college football game and has since become identified with the famous Bible message. The coincidental stats caused millions of fans to perform Google searches on the Bible passage in the past 24 hours. Here's one more unbelievable stat: John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reports that the final quarter-hour television rating for the Broncos-Steelers game was, you guessed it, 31.6.

Some have questioned me about what I think about Tebow. I've written about him a couple times in these blogs. I've even become tired of him because no one is talking about the New Orleans Saints on ESPN because it's all Tebow all the time.

But this is what he can mean to the Christian community. This is the kind of discussion that is brought forth because of his belief system.

I saw one site that even quoted what John 3:16 says.

I can't see harm coming from that. I see only education. If Tebow can remain humble and can have success, a tall order for most humans, then perhaps he can continue to be that shining light we all look for. If he can continue to talk about his beliefs in ways that make people do Google searches for John 3:16, well, more than no harm will be the result. God will bless that. I really believe that.

As long as the Broncos don't play the Saints in the Super Bowl, I'm with him all the way.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The praise chain

This is the Message's look at the 100th Psalm:
-2 On your feet now—applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence.
3 Know this: God is God, and God, God.
He made us; we didn't make him.
We're his people, his well-tended sheep.
4 Enter with the password: "Thank you!"
Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
Thank him. Worship him.
5 For God is sheer beauty,
all-generous in love,
loyal always and ever.

I especially love the fifth verse.... For God is sher beauty, all-generous in love, loyal always and ever.

I was driving to the first church yesterday morning at 7:15, on a cloudy, foggy Sunday, when it occurred to me that I do way to little praising. I have so much when so many have so little, and yet I fail to praise him not nearly enough.

So I thought I would.

I praise Him for the clouds, the blue skies that lurk behind those clouds and for the rain that might be on the forefront of those deep grays.

I praise Him for my children and theirs, for the laughter and the tears and the heartbreak and the joy.

I praise Him for my wife, the years spent together, for fighting through bills and coming out the other side.

I praise Him for crippling times, for sicknesses that taught and addictions that built up and for moments of terror followed by hours and days of trust.

I praise Him for my best, and in my worst. I praise Him for the happiness that only He could make and the peace that only He could extend. I praise Him for who He is and for whose I am.

I praise Him this Monday morning for my limited understanding of who He is for to have a God that I could explain fully does not interest me. I praise Him for friends and for those enemies by whom I can test my faith and test my understanding of Jesus' words.

I praise Him.

Now, I await your praises. Give me one a person, please. Let's establish a praise chain, if you will. Just comment on the post.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The power of One

At a Kairos Prison Ministry council meeting last night, I came to the conclusion (as I have pondered for a while) that serving, volunteering, discipleship is becoming more difficult to see in action because more and more people are not serving, volunteering, disciplining. Just yesterday I wrote about the lack of persons studying the scriptures. Today I'm writing about those persons who don't volunteer to help the prisoners.

This could turn into a depressing trend, but I'm not going to let it, because one person was kind enough to point out that whatever happens to our next event (scheduled for March with but five volunteers currently scheduled including no (NO) clergy, God will make use of it and things will be fine.

I'm reminded of Paul's letter to the church in Corinth: "1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us."

On Christmas Eve, for reasons I can't be sure of, I had one of the churches take up an offering. I had never done that before. Then I got a call about a family whose home had burned to the ground, a military family with children. I thought about what we could do, asked the church leaders if we could do it and we gave close to $800 to that family.

The point of all this is that we must do what we can. We can't look at numbers and decide upon success or failure because the only number that matters is the number 1. One God in three persons. One. It's not a lonely number when talking about Jehovah. It's a number of power and strength.

I'm beginning a sermon series about what God can't do this Sunday, but the fact is that within God's will, he can do everything except violate his own standards, his own nature, his own plans. He wants the best for all of us and I believe he will make that happen, according to Paul's letter to the church in Rome.

We simply must wait, give the best effort we can and watch for the amazing (in whatever form they come) results.

Maybe a small Kairos event is what He wants. Maybe one person working hard is what He wants. Maybe, just maybe, He wants someone to become desperate enough to come to his Son by not having an event in March but instead waiting until the Fall. Maybe. Just maybe.

The power of One is enough to accomplish that.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Jesus of scriptures

We've just finished a Bible Study at one of our churches and a few things strike me:

1) I am still, after 14 years, stunned by how few persons want to have Bible Study or small group study together from churches. After all these years, I still get something new and different from each study we do.
2) I am still, after 14 years, convinced that most folks do not know the Bible enough to have a meaningful conversation about it because of answer one.

We took a look into the Journey, an Adam Hamilton book about the birth of our Savior, and among the many things that he says as fact (that are more legend than otherwise one might have claimed), is truths about the shepherds and the wise men and Joseph's family and so forth. But it is wise and meaningful to read this and have discussions about it because if we're going to have a relationship with someone we need to strive to know everything we can about him or her. It's no different with Jesus.

I was struck with this thought while pondering the above ones. In Acts, Saul is taking a trip to Damascus when a light form heaven encircles him. He hears a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?"

Saul answers in the only way one could, I suspect. "Who are you, Lord?"

The "light" answers, "I am Jesus, whom you are harassing."

I wonder sometimes if even "good Christians" would ask the same question if Jesus walked into the room. Would we be blinded into seeing who we think we should see or would we recognize him as he truly is? Would we have spent enough time with him in the scriptures to even begin to know what he is all about? Would we have a sense of who he truly is?

I hope the answers are good ones. I wonder sometimes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A grown child's love

Last night I received the best post-Christmas gift I've ever gotten. My daughter, already on the short-list of my favorite people in the world because, well, she's my daughter AND she's giving me a ticket to the Saints playoff game Sunday, called to say she was worried about me. She doesn't want me to park where we always park when Mary and I go because I would be walking in a "bad" area, because I'm sick (which I'm not, and because it will be cold (which forecasts say is not true). She suggests taking a cab from my other daughter's house on the West Bank of New Orleans.

For my readers who don't know what any of that means, it means my daughter cares about me. This doesn't come as a shock, but it comes as confirmation.

Ironically, there isn't much of this language in the Bible, much of his daughter or son caring for their fathers or mothers. Even Jesus at times signals having a greater need than spending time with parents or siblings.

But I thought of this scene from scripture. Jesus is near death (which I'm not), hanging from the cross (which I'm definitely not) and his mother has somehow been allowed to come near the cross. The son says to the mother, 25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[b] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home."

It was ample evidence that the child was most concerned with the parent. He had done all he came to do, and he understood how much his mother had suffered because of it. So he asked a dear friend to take care of his mother.

There comes a moment in every parent's life when they understand they're children are grown and have turned into caring, wonderful persons. Perhaps mine has come this past year in two hospital visits when I saw my "children" so lovingly worried about me. I do not want to be hospitalized or sick or perhaps beaten in a dark corner of Earhart Drive in New Orleans to have that love shown, but it is wonderfully comforting to see that love in action.

You, or I guess I should say I, always wonder how well you've done with raising your children. You wonder did your quirks, your problems, your mistakes erase the natural bond between parent and child. Seldom does that happen, but still you (or I guess I should say I) wonder. It is great to see that it hasn't. I love Shanna, Carrie and Jason deeply. I pray they love me back. I pray that I would be as Jesus and ask they would take care of our dear matriarch, my wife Mary, but I already know that to be true.

Maybe Shanna would even given Mary a ticket to some future game if I'm gone (but not beforehand).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Small blessings

I wonder how observant we really are.

I watch commercials, for example, about drugs' possible side effects. It's amusingly worrisome that the list of side effects are sometimes as long as the commercial itself. Makes you wonder how we live through it all, and it makes you wonder if the world is paying any attention.

I read this this morning on a tube of toothpaste: If more than used for brushing is accidently swallowed, get medical, help or contact a Poison Control Center right away. then do not swallow. To minimize swallowing use a pea-sized amount in children under 6. Yikes. I've done my share of swallowing over he years. I never knew it was a danger. Never.

I read this morning on the Internet: Pepsi Co., facing a lawsuit from a man who claims to have found a mouse in his Mountain Dew can, has an especially creative, if disgusting, defense. An Illinois man sued Pepsi in 2009 after he claimed he "spat out the soda to reveal a dead mouse," He claims he sent the mouse to Pepsi, which then "destroyed" the remains after he allowed them to test it, according to his complaint. Pepsi's lawyers found experts to testify, based on the state of the remains sent to them that, "the mouse would have dissolved in the soda had it been in the can from the time of its bottling until the day the plaintiff drank it," according to the Record. This seems like a winning-the-battle-while-surrendering-the-war kind of strategy that hinges on winning the argument that "our product is essentially a can of battery acid that will destroy pests of all kinds. Please feel free to use it on bugs and snakes and other assorted problems around the house."

Finally, I read this morning on a container of shaving cream: DIRECTIONS: Apply warm water to skin. Gentily rub over skin to lather and shave. Rinse off with cool water for the most comfortable shave. Shave immediately after showering or washing your face. Darn. I've been doing it wrong all these years. Who knew yhou were supposed to a) rinse off with cool water and b) shave immediately after showing or washing your face? I shave first. Does that mean I have to go back and start over in my late teens? And why is there no warning about swallowing? Oh, wait, there is a warning. It says Do not store at temperature above 120 degrees. No wonder those prospectors in southern Nevada wore those long beards.

The point of this, I believe I have one, is noticing what is around us is an imperative. Stop for a second if you live in the country and watch squirrels play. If you're in a city, stop for a moment and watch birds fly around wires. The key to both those sentences is STOP. Slow down. Take a second. Let the breeze take you away.

In words that I use as a benediction many times a year, the Bible says in the book of Numbers

25 the LORD make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”’

And give you peace. Now, the peace that God gives you might not save you from Mountain Dew or toothpaste swallowing, but it does surpass all understanding. It calms you. It restores you. It slows you. It allows you to rest from anxiety that stacks like sand in a pile.

Look around you not so that you can worry about the pea sized dab of toothpaste but so that you can notice what God has for you that you've never paid any attention to.

Starting now, look around at the beauty of Creation, and you will be made to feel peace. And so will the mice in the world.