Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A monumental day of contrasts: What are we learning?

As many daily (weekly, monthly, you've read it once) readers will attest, this is a religion blog with the occasional journey into my previous life as a sports writer/editor.

Yesterday, the two became mixed again.

I'm absolutely sure you heard the news of the day on Monday:
1) Jason Collins, a long-time NBA player, came out as a gay person. Collins says he is also Christian.
2) Tim Tebow, a short-time NFL player, was released from the New York Jets and has a questionable at best chance of hooking up with another team. Tebow is a very notable Christian athlete.

Let me begin all this by saying I support Jason Collins and his right to be anything or anyone he so chooses and to say anything about that. That's the nation I live in, was born in but still choose to live in. I also support Tim Tebow and his right to say anything about what he believes and his right to be anything or anyone he so chooses.

I'm not sure why that should come as a surprise to anyone who knows that I follow the King of Kings who says over and over we are to be about love, but darn if it doesn't continually surprise folks who seem today to equate Christianity with intolerance and in some cases out and out stupidity.

I would have left all that alone till I happened to read about this reaction to Collins: Chris Broussard, ESPN NBA writer on a show called Outside the Lines answered a question about Collins and his religious belief this way, "Personally, I don't believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you're openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that's a sin. If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian."

It is amusing to me that this created a headline on various Internet sites along the lines of "Chris Broussard says Collins is a sinner." Really. This is shocking?

Via Twitter, Broussard clarified his comments. "Today on OTL, as part of a larger, wide-ranging discussion on today's news, I offered my personal opinion as it relates to Christianity, a point of view that I have expressed publicly before," he tweeted. Saying that he respected those who disagree with him he added, "As has been the case in the past, my beliefs have not and will not impact my ability to report on the NBA. I believe Jason Collins displayed bravery with his announcement today and I have no objection to him or anyone else playing in the NBA."
Remember the key phrase words here: I offered...my personal opinion ... as it relates to Christianity.

Again, the man was asked a question about the fact that Collins is, according to his own words, gay and Christian. I find it fascinating that line of questioning even comes up on the day that the first athlete in the mainstream sports to come out as gay. It wasn't enough to simply ask about the struggles that must have taken place in Collins? Was the questioner actively looking for someone to bring out the "other" side?

 Broussard, who by the way I've watched quite a bit but never have heard him say a word about Jesus, the Bible or Christianity before, answered the question. And immediately he caught hell, as if what he said isn't believed by evangelicals -- and still some mainline denominations -- around the world.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which I admittedly pull out so seldom I had to go find a copy, says this (still, despite numerous almost yearly and certainly every four years attempts to change the language): "Homosexual persons no less that heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. ... Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all."

The UMC is as mainstrain and left-leaning as some, and yet it still, at this late date, says this. It is debated and will be I guess till the language is changed or Jesus comes again.

The question of the day is two-fold:
1) Can a gay person be Christian?
2) Is it still okay to believe the Bible teaches something differently?
3) Is it still okay to talk about your Christian beliefs in public?

Okay, that's three-fold. I cheated.

The answers are:
1) Collins in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” today said of Broussard’s comments: ”I am a Christian. I will state that very proudly…You can’t please everyone”
The answers lies in what you belief, for God does not make any of us believe anything -- which translates into problems for me most of the time. I only know this: I sin. I try not to. I do not try to say that the problems I still have in all areas of my life are not sin. I do not rewrite scripture but instead do everything I can to see what the Word says about this particular subject, and I acknowledge that even those things are very personal. I'm not allowed by what I read to make concrete judgments about anyone. Instead, I try to remember that I have indeed sinned, sometimes greatly, and yet I can't pick up the first stone. To me, what Collins is (religiously) is between him and Jesus. I believe with all my heart that the Bible teaches (Romans 10:8), If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death; you will be saved. For it is by our faith that we are put right with God." No where in there is sin discussed, and I believe the expectation of change comes with profession of faith. Still, there is room to discuss this.
2) It's becoming increasingly harder. Tebow was often raked over the coals on ESPN for being an openly Christian believer. Some, I think, blended dislike for his vocal support of Christ with dislike for his football talents. His story of working in orphanages and teaching and preaching was often a detriment.
3) It's becoming increasingly harder. If saying you believe the Bible at the very least appears to say that something is sin is enough to force apologies and statements, one must think that soon and very soon it will become almost impossible and the culture war over this subject will be done.

The problem is any of us who agree with Broussard, and I do, are often painted as cousins of those wackos in Kansas with their hate signs and harder hearts. That is far from true. One brush doesn't paint all Christians and it doesn't paint all non-believers either. Anyone who believes sinners aren't welcome in church clearly doesn't understand the whole dynamic. Not only are sinners welcome in any church I pastor, I don't know anyone who isn't one.

Collins says "I’m from a close-knit family. My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding. On family trips, my parents made a point to expose us to new things, religious and cultural. In Utah, we visited the Mormon Salt Lake Temple. In Atlanta, the house of Martin Luther King Jr. That early exposure to otherness made me the guy who accepts everyone unconditionally."

Being a Christian has nothing to do in essence with values, and if one studies the teachings of Jesus seriously one would see both tolerance and on occasion intolerance (I am the only way to the Father). Trips to religious and cultural places have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, though I'm sure they were pleasant trips.

If tolerance means accepting everyone for who they are, I'm all in. God allows -- get this once and for all -- all of us to be who we are. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I have had numerous struggles over the years in that area before I stopped 17 years ago. I hid what I was, who I was, did not go to church, had no relationship with Jesus except that I stayed awake many nights waiting, waiting for something to change. But that's who I am and who I will always be. God, I believe, loved and loves me anyway. He loves every one of his children, straight, gay, those living with someone without marriage and on and on. No where in that statement is something about condoning it. But He -- and I -- allow it.

It was a monumental day. We say hello to a journeyman basketball player many had never heard of and perhaps say goodbye to a very famous journeyman football player.

Just another Monday in (less than) paradise.

Monday, April 29, 2013

O come all ye shaky

O, come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant we sing. That's Christianity, isn't it? We should all pack up our goodies and walk to Bethlehem, right?

Often I see those who are shaky, doubtful, depressed and losing their fight. They come wearing their Sunday best, but they come beaten down by life, beaten up by decisions and beaten badly by the world.

Author Tony Campolo writes, "Years ago, a student of mine tried to explain that he had been too depressed to study and asked to be excused from a scheduled exam. I blew him off, telling him to get over it. Only hours afterward, he jumped to his death from a high-rise apartment building. The young man left behind a suicide note telling his parents that he just couldn’t endure the sadness that had been torturing his soul.

"Never again would I take depression lightly" he writes. "In religious circles, depression is often deemed to be a spiritual condition that can be cured with  prayer. In many situations, those who suffer from depression are criticized for a lack of faith and told that if only they would yield to an infilling of the Holy Spirit, they would know “the joy of the Lord."

I think the thing most of us take for granted is this joy of the Lord stuff. And when it goes sideways in lives, which I've found happens far too often, we who aren't feeling that way at the time tend to simply dismiss it. "Their faith isn't strong enough," I've heard.

Poppycock. I've come across strong-faithed Christians who were down in the dumps. It simply happens. Why? I'm not at all qualified.

But I will say this. God loves us just as we are, and that just as we are oftentimes means those of us who face depression. Joy comes in the morning, but sometimes the nights are tough. God understands. God moves in our hearts. God loves.

And this too shall pass.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The limping church

In doing research for today's piece (I do that on occasion; really, I do), I came across an article that compared a football player to the dying church.

Essentially, the piece looked at how Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was injured in last season's playoff NFL playoff game against Seattle. Griffin III, whose knee was the subject of discussion before the game was not 100 percent healthy. He tried, with every fiber of his being, but on a bad snap late in the game, he succumbed to the injury. Finally, the game was lost, and RG3 had to sit with the knee. Immediately, fingers started to point as to who was responsible for RG3's unhealthy play. It was the coach. It was RG3. It was the team doctor. The list went on. How could this happen?

The writer goes on to say this: A similar question is asked when churches begin to decline and die. Some see the signs: congregational misfires, church ego injury and a limping leadership. However, no one does anything to change course. Watching a church die is a painful process. A place of hope, resurrection, life and compassion begins to turn inward and cannot see the warning signs. Many churches do not accept that they are dying until they are injured and wounded and even too late I suspect.

How can churches change the direction of the game? Can those with small attendance figures, small budgets, small hope actually change, become productive, become alive again?

What is one to do?

I look to scripture for part of the help.  In Mark's Gospel (The Message), we read, "In the morning, walking along the road, they saw the fig tree, shriveled to a dry stick. Peter, remembering what had happened the previous day, said to him, “Rabbi, look—the fig tree you cursed is shriveled up!” Jesus was matter-of-fact: “Embrace this God-life. Really embrace it, and nothing will be too much for you. This mountain, for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—no shuffling or shilly-shallying—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large. Include everything as you embrace this God-life, and you’ll get God’s everything. And when you assume the posture of prayer, remember that it’s not all asking. If you have anything against someone, forgive—only then will your heavenly Father be inclined to also wipe your slate clean of sins.”

What can we do? Call a time out. Take out the wounded and care for them. A church must heal from past wounds of loss, despair and lament their downfall. Only then, can a church begin to imagine a new future that is bright, exciting, and hopeful. Processing the grief and loss of decline can help the wounded. Then, a church can stop looking inward and can begin to look outward by asking the question, "How is God calling us to play the field of ministry in light of our situation?"

What I feel we must do above all is stop looking at what we don't have and start looking at He who can help. And we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions, like, Does this church need to survive? Can its members help somewhere else in a more productive environment?  Even, Why is this churchs till in operation, for itself or for others?

when we decide what exactly a living church is, then we can fix the ones who want to live, I suspect.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The faith journey

"Sing to the Lord, all the world! Proclaim every day the good news that he has saved us. Proclaim his glory to the nations, his mighty deeds to all peoples."

Sometimes that's all we feel like doing. So do it this morning to the best of your ability. Shout it out what God has done for you.

Jeremiah the prophet was quite the manic-depressive in his day. Reading just a bit of Lamentations makes me well up, as well. Jeremiah must have bled the prophet's self-insurance dry, taking the HMO for all it was worth.

Sentences like, "I am one who has seen afflicted under the rod of God's wrath."
Sentences like, "He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation..."
Sentences like "though I call and cry out for help, he shuts out my prayer."
And especially like, "He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughing stock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long."

The writer here appears to be completely devastated by God's actions. But amazingly, as the writing continues, the writer remembers the faithfulness of the Lord and praise breaks out ..."But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

"The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

This pendulum swings back and forth, back and forth, higher and higher, lower and lower. The writer here sees God as being good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him and sitting "alone in silence" will bring a good result.

What are we to make of this?

"It is good for one to hear the yoke in silence. The Bible says, 'I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea, 'Do not close your ear to my cry for help, but give me relief. You came near when I called on you; you said, 'Do not fear."

First, the walk of faith has ups and downs. Oh that we could make the pathway straight. This morning as I meditated on what I would write, I saw John the Baptist kicking rocks out of the way of the Son of God as He walked the path of righteousness into Jerusalem. Mark says that the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is this: See, I am sending a messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one drying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John was a fore-runner of the Christ. He came to proclaim the one who would come after him. John did, exceedingly well.

Second, the walk of faith is a marathon, certainly not a sprint. In the Old Testament, the pouring out of God's Spirit is sometimes a sign or a means of God's salvation. Here in the initial stages of Mark's gospel, John calls the people of God to repentance -- not just a feeling of regret but a whole new way of living.

Third, the walk of faith is powered by God the Father, filled with the Holy Spirit and washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, the Son of God, this man named Jesus.

That's who we are and whose we are. It gets no better than this.

In a world where children are killed because they stood in the wrong place at the very wrong time, we must truly trust in God for with out his mighty acts, where would we be?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Age resistant

It's a good thing God didn't come to Abram living in Texas or we would have no chosen people in the first place because he wouldn't meet the age requirements

Maybe you didn't see the blog I posted yesterday from sources unknown. In a nutshell, The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church jas released a proposed “minimum standards for entering candidates for ministry” which outlines what are the bare minimum requirements for people to be considered for clergy work.

The bottom chart has comments about candidates over a certain age.
  • If they are over age 60-70, they should consider less rigorous forms of ministry (ie. less education and less opportunity for advancement, serving at the pleasure of the Bishop).
  • But for those over age 45 desiring to be a Deacon or an Elder, it says that they “should be encouraged to pursue other expressions of ministry” and in the case of over 45yos seeking Elder’s orders “to pursue licensed ministry, certified lay or other expressions of lay ministry.”
In other words, if you are over 45 when you receive your call to ministry (remember it is GOD that calls, NOT Boards of Ordained Ministries), then you will be encouraged to serve in capacities that:
  1. Don’t require a pension
  2. Don’t require health insurance if it isn’t full time
  3. Serve at the pleasure of the Bishop who can dismiss you when you reach 55 or so for whatever reason.
This is according to Rev. Jeremy Smith who does a super job with the item.

I think the first reaction is to notice this is a proposal. Then the second is to personalize it. If you came to ministry at age 45 or older, you think this is outrageous. If you are in your late 20s, no so much. In fact, you might agree with this.

In an aging denomination, one might even wonder if this is the right thing to do.

The problem is, the question is, who does the calling? Do we truly believe we are called BY GOD or is that just lip-service to wanting to find a career? The answer to those questions will help us find a way through the wilderness we talk so much about. They are legitimate questions I think.

I've seen plenty of lay people who it seemed to me should be in ordained ministry but have chosen not. I've seen several ministers who I thought should find some other way to serve. Age hasn't been the main criteria, but rather inspiration and clarity and even a dab of creativity. The willingness to change to meet the needs of a congregation probably isn't age-centric.

Does it make sense to "refer" someone to a type of ministry? Perhaps. I've said before one of the reasons I went into full-time local pastor or licensed ministry instead of becoming ordained was age. I didn't want to be the first to retire in the morning and then be ordained in the evening. But that was my choice and what I believed I was called to do and be.

I thought then and now that my "story" was more impactful if it simply wasn't part of a "career" decision. I don't now nor did I then think I picked this as a profession. Far from it. And were things different, I'm not sure I wouldn't be doing something different. Certainly this wasn't on the career goals list.

But I truly believe I was called into this. I truly believe God is using me, despite myself, in ways I still have trouble fathoming. If someone on some board of ordained ministry ever asks me, I'll tell them that.

By the way, as a journalist I wrote a book about God's Calling, and one can debate the quality of it and such, but the stories were solid and it didn't even prompt a discussion in this conference on what a calling is. I was asked to drive 4 hours to the conference center one day to speak for 10 minutes at a discerner's academy then drive back. I guess I didn't do the job well enough for I wasn't asked back, and I've never been asked to be on staff.

My point is this: There's always going to be some human criteria for these things. When we answer the questions of who truly is in charge of our call, our appointment, our lives, then perhaps we will have the correct criteria.

Peter and John wouldn't have had the right schooling, by the way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lifting the pall

I've been at the bottom of the emotional valley since the bombs went of on Patriots' Day in Boston. In order to remove the pall, I will do what I always do when down... I go to the pets for comfort (although I will say that the fact Tums has invented an indigestion/breath mint combo borders on the miraculous sadness-lifter).

This morning I watched their routines. They are individuals; never think differently.

Logan rose first, as soon as I had made joint creaking sounds by rising myself. I opened the bedroom door and she sprinted down the hall to the kitchen, flying through it though she's 13 years old, to get to the table that houses the cat food bowls. She didn't try to get on the table. That's not her plan. Never her plan. She went to the bottom of the table lest there might be a morsel or two of cat food lying there. She does this every morning. When she was much younger and we lived in Lacombe, La., she did this sort of thing with the back door and a squirrel who lived somewhere in some tree in the back yard. She waited for the door to open, then flew out onto the deck, down the stairs, hoping this was the one time when the squirrel wouldn't notice. I'm not absolutely certain what would have happened had the squirrel done this, but I'm certain Logan was convinced the day would come.

Breesie, one of the dachshunds, groggily left the bedroom, made his way outside, did whatever he thought was appropriate, then he waited at the bottom of the steps for his treat. He does this every time, though every other dog creeps back up those steps to the washroom. He stares holes in me till I pitch the treat out to him. He wants no interference from other dogs, I suppose.

Callie, probably the most adorable of the cats, waits by the kitchen sink each morning for me (or Mary) to turn on the faucet. There's bowls of water all over the house, but she prefers (will not do otherwise) to have running water.

Rocky, the youngest of the pets, sits by the washroom cat food bowls. Harry, the largest of the cats (5-room home vs. condos), sits by the food bowl on the kitchen table.

Each morning, they do this. I'm not sure who set their routine, them or us, but it is what it is.

Their discipline, at least when it comes to bathroom breaks, food distribution, and water management, is developed so much that if for some reason we were to take a night away from home for ourselves, I would love to have a camera on them to see the confusion, the bewilderment and ultimately the extreme disappointment.

I would love to say we've trained them, but it isn't true. They have trained us down to the type of treat enjoyed.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the world was much more like these guys. If life could be narrowed down to a few seconds of bliss, inside a routine, followed by routine that isn't maddening? In other words, why must we feel like failures if we don't have more going for us than what our lives are?

My pets love (in order), us, food, bathroom breaks, food, us. Their wants, needs, enjoyments are simple, and it is worth noting I think that God meets them all without a hint of works/righteousness found in the bunch (although there is that correlation between bathroom break and treat that we might need to talk about).

They're walking (running, sleeping, pooping) bundles of love.

Is there more, or should there be more, to life?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Praying for victims and their killers

We were at a Bible Study last night, discussing Matthew's Gospel when somehow the subject came roaring up like one of those trucks on the icy roads on that reality show I will never watch so I wonder why I've referenced it. Someone said something about praying for the "Boston Bomber," and immediately someone said they could never do that. When I said that doesn't seem much like what Jesus would want us to do, to feel, someone else said they would, but "it would take a while before they could."

Of course, that's like fresh meat before a tiger to me in terms of subjects to be discussed. I do find it interesting that some have used this incident, which we do not know at all what the reasons for it were, to spark more argument about gun control and even pro-life/choice debate. Every one of these incredibly terrible, difficult incidents is more fodder for disagreement. Maybe in the long run that is exactly what those causing these things want.

John Piper, a rather noted theologian, tweeted during the manhunt for the younger bomber, he was praying for the suspect to be caught but also to be saved. "My prayer for the running Boston bomber: Make his foot slip. Spare more victims. Save his soul." A proper Piper, I would say.

In a sterile ethical, moral and even theological lab, this is an easy one. God is love. God wants the world to be saved. God sent his son to die for all. Jesus died, completing the task at the cross, for all. Among his last words before death, as his saving blood dripped from his damaged body, were: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Slam dunk for the side of praying for, forgiving, even loving the person who by his or her actions have declared themselves to be an enemy. Isn't it? Doesn't that settle the discussion quickly? Apparently not.

Setting indiscriminate bombs in places that are sure to bring the ultimate in destruction, pain and death, even to children, seems to easily check the box next to enemy for most, but a surprisingly (to me) number of people think Jesus' suggestions about love and forgiveness don't include these bombers.

I read a forum reply to this issue that was significant to be because it wasn't alone in its pattern. An unnamed writer said, "The thing about Christ is, he was perfect and while human in part, he was divine in spirit and nature. I don't love my enemies. It insults the love I hold for those who deserve it and return it in kind to me, which is my blessing. If I love my enemies I hold contempt for my life that they would rather fall apart, see suffer, or utterly destroyed. As is the case with the two alleged terrorists in this case. To sit a backpack full of explosives before the feet of a family who's 8 year old boy was destroyed, who's daughter lost a limb, and their mother suffered massive head trauma, is not someone who deserves to be loved. If they knew what love was they wouldn't pre-plan ripping people apart with homemade bombs on a beautiful day in Boston. ... I'm human. I'll leave the love for that evil to the higher power that has a plan for it and as such that's why it happened. I don't know that plan, I won't try to figure it out. However, as an American I can not love our enemies! That's what they want, so that we forgive them while they dream of cutting our throats. Can you love that? Can you love that assailant that would put a blade to your neck and intend to take you away from this God given life? I don't. That murderer intends to play God. And there's only one of those. The Bible says God hates.  So too then can I."

On another location, I came across this opposing view:  "As a Christian I know that this man, this seemingly evil man, is loved by our savior. He is loved, just as my children are. He is loved just as I am. He is loved just as you are. That is the conspiracy of grace. It extends further than the most evil thing we can comprehend. It reaches further than the human mind can grasp. If it doesn’t, than how do I know it even extends far enough to save me from my wretched sins? I am no mass murderer. I have never killed a human. But, I have lied, I have caused physical and emotional hurt to others. By all accounts, my life is not worthy of being saved, according to what God thinks righteousness is. But, my life is covered by the mighty work that was done on the cross, and so is the life of this man who committed this unthinkable act of cruelty."

I think what this shows us more than anything, and this is a samples of of a views, is that religion used improperly is a weapon that ultimately kills. But can religion also be something that saves?


Religion saves no one. But Jesus can. The person who is bent on justice and revenge even as part of their religion will have a very difficult road to understanding, truly understanding, the grace of God as lived out in Jesus Christ. Some just can't. So they use their understanding of Christianity to pound morality into others. Of course, it's their morality, always.

Can those who don't understand they've been given grace instead of the justice they deserve ever possibly understand how to give that same grace? With Christ, we can do all things. But this is a tough knot to tie, a tough row to hoe, a tough nut to crack. (I can go on all day with these countrisms that point out this is hard).

But I will say this: anyone who thinks God hates and the Bible confirms this is simply, in the humblest of opinions, dangerous at worst, misreading at best. That's what gets the bombers involved in the first place. Like the schoolyard fight over whose daddy can beat up whose daddy, we fight over Abba and Allah and everything else one can imagine.

But that's not why we're here. We're here to see if we can indeed pray for these bombers or their ilk. Can we, as human as human gets, be like Jesus in his teaching we are to love our enemies? Can we even come to agreement on whom we call enemies in the first place? Do you feel these guys are different than the troubled shooter in Newtown or the one in Colorado or the ones in Oklahoma City or on and on and on? 

The first thing we need to do is separate the need for there to be consequences for the actions of the bombers from the idea of forgiveness for them. One does not mean saying no to the other. Bomber B should and will be punished by earthly laws. Bomber A has already received his consequences.

But can God, can we forgive or even pray for God to do so?

For the Christian heart, which beats, in theory, with the blood of the lamb flowing in veins created by a loving Father, what we must see is there is more to be done here than merely incarcerate or even put to death this 19-year-old heinous killer.

We must ask ourselves this: Would it make us angry if someone in prison shared the Good News with him and God showed him mercy or would we be happy? What if the bomber accepted Jesus as his savior while behind the walls of prison? Would we feel elated or cheated? Would that change our thinking? Should it?

Let me give my opinion, which is all this is. Should Christians feel anger at what the bombers did? Of course, without question. But should Christians still pray that he will find mercy and forgiveness from God so that on Judgment Day he can point to Jesus as the only reason why sins like his are atoned for? I believe most certainly they, we, should pray this. Keep several things in mind. Jesus bore the cross reserved for Barabbas, who was a political insurrectionist. And on either side of the cross were two others, criminals receiving earthly punishment for their deeds (Lk 23:40-41). One of them said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42), and that statement of faith changed everything. Were they killers of children? We don't know.

But I know one killer of Christians we seem to have no trouble giving a pass. The Apostle Paul lived another life as the killer Saul.

The questions we must ask ourselves include "do we really mean what we say we do, or is it just lip-service to religion, and are we committed to Jesus or committed to having the better religion? Are we ones who truly and literally turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, love them into submission, or do we simply love those who look like us, act like us, think like us, do religion like us?"

It's time to put up or pray up. Till the next time...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Take this suffering ...

In light of the horrific events in Boston this week, I thought I would write (still again) about the darkness that popped up again. Two (or three) bombers at the end of a great running of the Boston Marathon leaves us with dead and with suffering. The question over and over again is why? Why would these idiots do something like this?

Ever felt you were wandering in the dark? Peace is hard to find. We call out to the one source of light we can see, and our hands flail in the darkness looking for a hand up or a hand out.

Be thou my vision, the writer penned, and we concur.

In several places in the book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering by Eleonore Stump, looks at four Biblical narratives about suffering -- the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham and Isaac, and Mary of Bethany.
Stump asks the question of why does God cause or allow me to suffer in the world ? Stump's answer can be boiled down to the following four (increasingly large) explanatory steps. (1) God loves me and so desires to be united in love with me. (2) Such union is impossible even for God in my current psychically fragmented condition. To make union possible, I need to be internally integrated around the good and (3) to achieve such integration, I need to undergo a process of justification and sanctification. Unfortunately, (4) the best means available to God to promote that process is to cause or allow me to suffer. So ironically, God's love for me ultimately leads to God's desiring (in his consequent will) that I suffer.
Truthfully, as I watch video of the suffering that went on in Boston, I have difficulty with the notion of the one who loves me most being thrilled about my suffering. I believe that good comes from suffering, but I don't latch onto the idea that God revels in it.
What say you readers? Where does the idea of suffering being "good" for us come from, and where do we sit with it?
The writer of Job quotes him this way: “What did I do to deserve this? Did I ever hit anyone who was calling for help? Haven’t I wept for those who live a hard life, been heartsick over the lot of the poor? But where did it get me? I expected good but evil showed up. I looked for light but darkness fell. My stomach’s in a constant churning, never settles down. Each day confronts me with more  suffering."
In the Message rendering of Matthew's Gospel, we read, "Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?"
Don't run from suffering; embrace it.
The idea is powerful; it is defeating; it is perhaps the hardest of hard teaching by the Messiah.
I acknowledge, for example, that exercising and watching what I eat is the only way I'm going to lose weight. I acknowledge that I hate exercising.
The fact is, in our culture we strive to avoid pain, make work easier and pursue pleasure, and I'm down with all that. We have appliances and tools to make every job effortless, and that's what I want. We make boundaries to limit relationships that cause pain.  The problem comes when we don't recognize that, some difficulty or having to work at something, makes us better. Spiritual life is like exercise. You have to exercise a long time to see results. It's not always fun and it sometimes hurts, but we end up stronger.
Suffering is the broccoli of the world. Do I want it? Absolutely not. Can it help me to grow in the best meaning of the world? Absolutely so.
Follow Jesus and he'll show us how. I would love to write that there is an easier way, but I think of Jesus in the Garden praying for the Father to take the cup of suffering away, and the answer placed on the heart and mind of the Christ was, "Your will, not my own."
Can't take the cup? He'll help. Can't suffer a minute longer? He'll suffer with us. Can't hold on? He'll hold on for us. He's there at the beginning; he'll be there, scabs over the cuts, dried sacrifical blood over the thorn-marks and the nail-holes.
That's not just the best way; it's the only way. It's what God the Father came up before he came up with the idea of time. That time thing turned out to be a pretty good idea, so I guess this means of redemption will work out, too.
The storms can't hold a wavering candle to Jesus.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The mark they left

I tried to get my Aunt Elsie on the phone yesterday, and the number had been disconnected. I don't know what this means, but I reckon it means in some form or another we're moving on in that relationship.

Everywhere I turn, we're moving on. Growing older, more tired. Passing on, and away, till time will have little meaning for us.

I'm reminded of relationships. From the seventh grade to my senior year in high school, Ricky Roberson came home with me on the first week of October. Right as rain, and just as trustworthy was our relationship. Ricky, the long-limbed, lanky pitcher on our baseball team, Billy the stubby catcher.

He came home with me with a bag and some homework that might or might not have been done, and we went on Thursday night to the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair at the Fairgrounds in Meridian, Ms., just across the state line from York, Ala.

The fair was about a big a happening as ever there was a happening in Meridian. Interestingly enough, back then I was able to venture onto all the rides with no fear at all. Upside down, round and about, ripping through still humid air like I couldn't be harmed in any way. I remember change pouring out of our pockets every year, though every year we made a solemn vow to protect it better. Ricky, the center on our football team, and Billy, the middle guard, were both unconquerable and apparently unhurtable but also unlearning.

He rode the bus home to spend the night with us, and all, absolutely all that could possibly be wrong with the world was corrected in one special night each year. We rode rides into that good night, were picked up at the late hour of 9:30 p.m. for the 20-minute ride to my house in Lizelia, then played football the next.

Friends for life, and beyond, we were. Those scars on legs and arms and fingers and even a toe or two were ours. The pain of loss, even a few out-and-out losses was ours. Our time, our coming in and going out, was ours, and nothing has ever taken it away. Nothing. .

Of course, I haven't seen him in decades, but that's another story for another time.

Friendships are like thick marbeled ribeye steaks in that they get better with each and every bite, and they never, never disappoint no matter how the question "How do you like your ...?" is answered. Rare friendships? Fine. Well-done? Absolutely. Medium-well? After all these years, of course?
New friendships, and those old, seasoned ones grow on us like the meaty grain-fed farm animals pour protein into our lives.
In one of my favorite stories in scripture, there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah left home to live in the country of Moab; he and his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Kilionm who married Moabite women (doesn't that always happen?).The name of the first was Orpah (the correct spelling of the queen of our television), the second Ruth. They lived there in Moab for the next ten years. But then the two brothers died. Naomi was left without her sons or her husband.  One day she and her two daughters-in-law decided to leave Moab and set out for Judah (home). And so she started out from the place she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law with her, on the road back to Judah.
After a short while on the road, Naomi told her two daughters-in-law, “Go back. Go home and live with your mothers. And may God treat you as graciously as you treated your deceased husbands and me. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!” She kissed them and they cried openly. They said, “No, we’re going on with you to your people.” But Naomi was firm: “Go back, my dear daughters. Why would you come with me? Do you suppose I still have sons in my womb who can become your future husbands? Go back, dear daughters—on your way, please! I’m too old to get a husband. No, dear daughters; this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.”

Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye; but Ruth embraced her and held on. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is going back home to live with her own people and gods; go with her.” But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”

To me there is no greater sign of friendship or even something deeper than this notion that what we have between us will not change, no matter how our circumstances change. Nothing will take this from us. It's as certain as days must end in Y, and nights must offer stars for desert.

Christian Morgenstern once wrote, "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you." I guess that to be about right. That thought, for an itinerant preacher who serves at the discretion of the bishop of the conference, is special.

Fifty years have passed since Ricky and I grew into and out of the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair, since Kenny Joe and I became best buds, since Errol and I drove around in that radio-less car that forced us to sing at the tops of our lungs if we wanted any music in the pale yellow Mercury I named Mokey Bear, since Stanley and Randy and Sonny and the rest of us went unbeaten in summer baseball, since we beat Meridian in high school on a couple of home runs, a good pitching night and something called chemistry and the good times outweighed the bad by a ton or two. Since ... since we looked at ourselves and silently committed to go where each of us would go and live where each of us would live till we didn't. And when it did, and obviously that time came, it wasn't the end of those times but the beginning of those memories. They exist like the lake at the west end of Lizelia, like the bricks that went up on the walls of what would be Northeast Lauderdale elementary through high school in 1962 and never came down.

That white house of ours up on the hill off highway 39 still stands there in Lizelia, housing renters and my memories. Ricky had a bout with cancer a few years back, but I believe him to be okay now. He and his wife have three girls, and he coached them all. He's one of the top high school softball coaches in the state, with state championship belts on the wall, as they say, and all that baseball we learned together with coaches Pratt, Covington, and Moore was convertible to softball.

The Fair, as far as I know, still comes into town the first week of October, putting up tents and putting down stakes in that area that once housed The Royal Drive-Inn movie theater. TThe rides, I'm certain, have changed as much as my hairline and my waistline, but I'm willing to wager friendships made on that old asphalt and grime are still friendships of the highest order. Sure, time has worn on the area like friction on tired automobile brakes.

Me? I've seen kids come and grow, and I lose the scirmaches to age on the world's battle-field everyday, it seems.

Francois Mauriac once said, "No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever."

I first met Ricky Roberson in the third grade. He, and all the others, went our separate ways to different schools for different reasons as freshmen in college, and we never really came back together. Wives and lives and jobs and all ganged up on us.

I have very little to give them now. I'm not absolutely certain I would know them, him, if they walked in to my church this Sunday. I don't know their phone numbers, or their addresses. But till the moment I breathe my last, their people are my people, their God is my god; where they die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God.

I can truly say that he, and all those guys I grew up with, left a mark.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

By name, He calls us

Jesus walked to the man sitting behind the old table, on another of those long skin-drying days in the sun. He crawled deeply into the man's eyes, flicking away the longing there that wanted to run away with the oldest of the man's enemies, and with no special effort called the tax-collector by his name -- Matthew -- and thus slathered on healing for his heart like a Spring poultice in Gilead..

Gospel writer John says Jesus does business this way: "When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.  But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone."

He himself knew what was in everyone. He knew the inner workings, the outermost graces, the cries of the heart, the whispers of justice and loves of equality. Jesus knew, in the way no else one ever does, has ever done. Hey, we're the lost, the least, the last, but Jesus -- the big boss man, the guy in charge, the head-knocker, the most powerful in a world in which power counts -- knows us anyway.

We can dabble and babble about water being changed into wine at some rabble-rousing party, but the truth is the true sign of Jesus in this instance is changing uncaring hearts to loving ones. Tax-collector?

Jesus knows him by name, absorbs his being by heart. Matthew? Follow me and be loved. Don't worry about deductions, instead, function as a lover of all men and women and children and servant. Follow me and find. Follow me and fill in the gaps and mourn the poor in spirit and feed the 5,000 and walk a thousand steps to get to someone else's cross.

Follow me, he says. And Matthew, guest-host and moderator but no mistake, follows with a hope and a future that had never existed before.

A commentary of John 2:24 reads, "he knows the worst of them, the sin that dwells in them, their daily infirmities, their secret personal sins; their family sins, both of omission and commission; and their church sins, or which are committed in the house of God; and takes notice of them, so as to resent them, and chastise them for them; he knows the best of them, their graces, their faith, hope, love, patience, humility, self-denial, &c; he knows their good works, and all their weaknesses and their wants: and he knows all nominal professors, on what basis they take up their profession, and what trust they place in it; he can distinguish between grace and mere profession, and discern the secret lusts which such indulge ...:

Jesus knew. He knows. He has always known. Love unchangeable and unmeasurable and un-freaking believable.

The power of this knowledge is this: We come to him with secrets littered in our lives like kitty litter on a wood floor, scattered hither and yon and plain as April showers and May sun. The truth, which Jesus is, is we can't hide what we can't hide. Jesus knows, so kill the guilt with hunks of love and chunks of joy. He knows us, our name, our background, our foreground, our future, his plans.

Get over it and get er' done.

In 2 Chronicles God says that if his people, who he says are called by my name, will pray and practice humility He will bring healing to their land and forgive their sins.  The Lord says to Moses, "And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name."

There's great, great comfort in knowing that God knows my name, calls me by name, registers my name in the great book of life. When I was born, rejected by birth parents and given away right after birth, it affected me emotionally down the road. Still does, I guess.  Till I understand just who names me "for real."

Singer/songwriter Matthew West puts it this way in his latest single:
Hello, my name is regret
I'm pretty sure we have met
Every single day of your lifeI
'm the whisper inside
That won't let you forget
Hello, my name is defeat

I know you recognize me
Just when you think you can win
I'll drag you right back down again
'Til you've lost all belief
These are the voices, these are the lies

And I have believed them, for the very last time
Hello, my name is child of the one true King.

Knowing someone by name, not just knowing their name, gives us identity I think. Look, the Jews in concentration camps in World War II were giving numbers as names at least in part because it took away from who they were was a person.
Remember the strength in Moses asking and being told God's name in the book of Exodus?
But knowing who we are is greatly more important than knowing our name, as important and vital as name-dropping/calling is.
That's what Jesus brought to the tax-collector's table. He knows us, all of us. Run with that thought this morning and be free.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

They're killing our kids

He was eight years old, a good age to be. A proper age. He probably was counting the days till Iron Man 3 would come calling at his local theater.  Or maybe he was a miniature Trekkie, and maybe director J.J. Abrams has made him into an eight-year-old modern Star Trek fan, and he was holding out for the later arriving movie.

As they say, time was on his side. He was eight, the age that is just about as good as it gets, the age that wears well, when simmering body pain is still decades away. Worries? None to speak of. Responsibilities? None to worry about.

He was old enough for coach-pitch baseball, but not old enough to have to catch up to some kid pitching to him. Like those who remember a better, more innocent time when "organized" baseball simply meant throwing in your own backyard with a friend, it was hard to find Martin without a mitt and a ball on the weekends. Eight is such a proper age, a time when fun still exists and love isn't embarrassing, even love for a sister.

He was old enough to get some sweet memories out of visiting museums with classmates, but not too old as to have become bored by it all. He was young enough to storm the family automobile for enjoyable trips with the family, but old enough to slip away into alone-time on some of those trips. He was eight, and he was standing at the finish line waiting for his father on a cloudy Bostonian afternoon when life exploded and chaos trumped laughter. He was eight and a lifetime was waiting for him not to finish but to begin.

In the scriptures, constantly, consistently, Jesus says to all of us perpetual eight-year-olds, "Rome is burning. Drop your fiddle, and come to me." Those who are old enough can still come running, having been washed clean by water that is cool and living and never runs dry. Those who are already too old or too jaded to jimmy the locks that have trapped freedom and abundant living, dare not run at all. Even crawling has become a chore to those who are so fearful of terrorists on every corner who steal our joy at bomb-point.

He was eight, a right proper age, the age he will stay ... forever.

The Bible says there was a day like Monday morning, perhaps all cloudy and unseasonably chilly but filled with fine promise like a meal being cooked over a charcoal fire by some great lake, when the people brought children to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. Nothing on the side of the miraculous. Just a bit of loving touch, like God's walking with Adam and Eve on a perfect Garden kind of afternoon.

The disciples that day didn't understand. The Spirit had not come to them, enlightening them, teaching them, gooseing them gently. Since the Messiah was theirs and theirs alone, they did what all religious folks do, they shooed the kids away. But Jesus was irate and let the disciples know it: “Don’t push these children away," he said. "Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them."

Author Brennan Manning points out that Jesus could have done a mass blessing, taking care of the children in one swoop with no touch at all. Instead, he picked them up, one by one, carefully, meaningfully, talking to them by name, blessing each AND EVERY ONE. Some were probably eight. Some younger. Some older.

I suspect, with evidence sprouting like the harvest Jesus describes, that our Lord still picks up kids, one by one, one on one, carefully, meaningfully, lovingly as only the creator can. Even as debris flew Monday, those injured in an attack that turned the finish line area into something that  looked an awful lot like a war zone in the Middle East, helped those injured worst than themselves. Believers or not, that's Jesus in disguise.

Of the 150 plus persons harmed by flying debris and glass, 10 or more were children. CHILDREN. Someone chose to pick on children, unarmed, unprotected children. Children who were simply happy to have a moment out of school for Patriots Day, the third Monday in April, in Boston. Children who were watching older siblings or parents working their way round 26 miles of Boston streets. Children playing in the huge crowd that still existed up to three hours past when the initial winners of the marathon crossed the finish line.

Children. Loved by their Abba furiously, wonderfully, unconditionally. Children in harm's way.

And one of those died.

His name was Martin Richard. His family, from Dorchester, Mass. was fairly well known in the area. Loved to ride his bike, and like many Bostonians, he loved baseball -- playing and following those Red Sox, who had finished an early baseball game yesterday before hell ascended into the City on a Hill. His front-tooth-missing smile was a common site in his neighborhood as he often played with his younger sister or some of his many friends. He, his mom and sister were near the finish line when the first bomb exploded, injuring his mom and sister badly and killing Martin.

He was one of three who have died because some unimaginably idiotic and/or evil person or persons decided they would kill people at the end of the Boston Marathon. When the bombs blew, this little eight-year-old died, and another chunk of American innocence was destroyed.

Jesus loves the little children, the hymn tells us. One by one, He blesses them. One by one evil takes them from us. I didn't sleep a bit last night, thinking about this eight-year-old throughout the dark night. Jesus, lover of us all, stands at the edge of Martin's tomb, weeps mournfully, deeply, and this tomb isn't giving up its occupant. The sweet by and by gingerly awaits us, but today, well, today we're weeping with Him because they're killing our kids, and something, anything at all, must change.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Brennan and this Ragamuffin's Gospel

Brennan Manning, it seemed, was a friend of mine. Oh, we never met, but through his writing I sort of feel even closer than a kindred spirit. His face looked like weathered rock, with crevices that wouldn't hold a piton. He looked old when he was young and I think he got older quicker than most of us. His path was not a simple one, nor was it gentle and soft.

That he has passed is just another of the many signs of my aging, I'm afraid.

Donald Miller said of him: "Manning wrestled with God as much as he walked with God. He seemed like the kind of man who would constantly tug at God’s shirt tails and ask, for the thousandth time, is it true? only to run into the village and explain to the rest of us that it was. Then to return, tug on God’s shirt tail and ask again, is it true?

"Manning’s ability to stir the imagination of singers, songwriters, playwrights and poets was fierce. Many books, albums, bands and films exist because Brennan Manning convinced the artist of the safety of grace. He was a pivotal voice for me as I began to write. We got together more than a few times. He could be warm and open for one meeting, then cold and crotchety for the next. He taught me I could be the same, that I could be myself."

Upon learning that Manning's home base was New Orleans, I wrote to him once, enclosing my first book "One Man, One Cross." I'm not sure what I wanted from that, but I got this:

He sent a short critique of the book, plus one of his own, a soon-to-be published Ruthless Trust: A Ragamuffin's Path to the End." Inside, he wrote in a terrible but real hand:

 New Orleans
8 November 2000
I thoroughly enjoyed your book. Thank you
Grace and Peace
Brennan Manning
I learned of Manning, of course, through my listening to and reading about Rich Mullins, whose music kept me in the fold when I was in doubt after the Good Shepherd had found the lost one. Mullins, I read back, way back, named his band The Ragamuffins after some writer name Manning's book "The Ragamuffin Gospel."
I bought it. I read it, quick like there was little time left, like Jesus was coming and I needed to get this in. I read it again, going deeper in ways I didn't know I had deep and perhaps again. I loaned it to a fellow straggler on the narrow path. She never gave it back.
When I heard that Brennan had died on Friday, I bought another for my Nook. All my being fixed, all  my thinking way too much of my holiness was wiped away, like foggy breath on the inside of a car's windshield. I read, I looked backward, I learned all over again who I truly am. It is a lesson none of us needs to forget, like who is the savior and who is the saved.
I read this: "After reading the entire Gospel of Luke for the first time, a post-Valley girl said: 'Wow! Like Jesus has this totally intense thing for ragamuffins.' The young lady is onto something. Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people described in the Gospels as the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the down trodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, and the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
Baboom. When I read it the first time, I realized I was in there. Bigger than life. I had cleaned my filthy self up, but I was in there. I had reached by to my Holiness roots, felt myself to be a "church-goer" again, but what I was in actuality was a ragamuffin extremely lucky to have met the Lord of Life.
To paraphrase still another writer I used to read who isn't with us now:
Rich is gone. Brennan is gone. And I ain't feeling so great myself.

Friday, April 12, 2013

God's protection (or not)

I read in a friend's story in a Jackson, Miss., newspaper today of the tornado that hit Macon County yesterday.

He quotes a woman from Shuqualak, Miss., Cindy Moore, about the aftermath. Her sister and niece were in a "cinder block building, going through items for a yard sale, only a few hundred feet from her home on Mississippi 21. “When I looked out, there was nothing left of it but a pile of rubble,” Moore said. “I went running as fast as I could. A family that I guess had been passing by stopped and was frantically digging through the debris. All of a sudden I saw my niece’s head pop up. Then I saw my sister trying to crawl out of it. Nothing but the grace of God kept them alive. There is no other way they could have survived that.”

Let's explore that a minute. Did God protect them from the storm? Does He? What about the person who was killed in Kemper County by the same storm? Was this person not cared for by God? Was this person not as "good" of a Christian.

What about God's protection for everyone?

Isaiah's prophecy says, "The Lord says to his people, When the time comes to save you, I will show you favor and answer your cries for help. I will guard and protect you and through you make a covenant with all peoples."

Written, of course, for Israel, but we (being) all peoples can take great happy, happy, happy as well with these words.

He will guard and protect us means that all the stuff that happens with seemingly great regularity is just that, stuff.

But this notion is not uncommon. Just a few of the promises of being protected include:
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10: 17-19

He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail.  1 Samuel 2: 9

The God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my savior; thou saved me from violence. I will call on the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies. 2 Samuel 22: 3-4

I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makes me dwell in safety. Psalm 4: 8

All that sounds wonderful. The problem is, I think, when we look around and see all the stuff happening, and we decide (sometimes with pretty good reason), that we're not protected all that well. Did the protection stop when we stopped saying thou?

When we lose loved ones, when we lose jobs, when we lose retirements, when we lose... well, where exactly was that protection again?

There's a story about a man who was afraid of everything. He decided that, in order to be safe he would buy a suit of armor. When he put on the armor, he felt relieved. "Now I feel really protected,'' he thought. But then a mosquito came along and began to circle around his nose. Waving the mosquito away violently with his arm, he lost his balance and fell to the ground. He never got up again. He was trapped in his own defense system.

Now, there's the Bible account of almost 300 people lost at sea, drifting 14 days during a raging storm. The Apostle Paul prayed to God, and they were saved.

And there's the story about young David, who later became King of Israel. As you remember, David fought an enemy soldier named Goliath. Goliath had made fun of the soldiers every day, boasting that none of them would dare fight him. He had reason to boast: He was a giant, over nine feet tall, and impressively armed. Everyone was afraid of him. Only a young shepherd boy, David, accepted the challenge. The king put a suit of armor on David, but then the boy couldn't move because of the enormous weight of the metal. But David didn't need any armor to feel protected. He reasoned like this: "The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine" (I Sam. 17:37). He took off the useless armor and went to meet the giant.
So, there's no question that God did more than his share of protecting in the scriptures. The question, however, is does he protect us today? If we go to church, pray regularly, do all the right things as best we can, even tithe our fortunes away, will he protect us?
Can and will God protect me, you, your husband, your wife, your sons and daughters when they go out at night? Your work, your home, your health?
Here's my take. Add your own in the comment section.
God's protection doesn't mean that nothing will ever happen to us. If none of us who have prayed for others to be healed so as not to die actually were healed and never died, we would run out of food on this planet pretty quickly.
God's protection, I think, is better suited to Romans 8: 28: We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose."
We can argue and debate what that means, too. But I believe it means that even if the storm whacks us like a bad Mafia show would, God can take that and make something good out of it. If we lose _________, God can take that circumstance and make something good.
Is that protection in the manner we would like it to be? Probably not. But it is God's way. It doesn't mean we won't go through stuff. It means we will make it through. Sometimes that's all it takes for those who love him.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rejected again?

Do you ever feel rejected? Less than the crowd in the area you're working, serving, living?

Don't feel alone, or as you are the only one who ever felt that way. You are not. In fact, you're in incredibly wonderful company.

Try this scripture on for size (from John 10): "So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."

Jesus, rejected, alone. Alone in the Garden. Alone on the cross. Alone and rejected.

And that rejection was intentional, was accepted, was needed. Why? For us.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Jesus started to teach, then returned to Nazareth -- the town in which he grew up. On the sabbath, he went to a synagogue and began to teach. During that time, he claimed he was a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah. Well, to the folks who watched Jesus grow up, this was gas to a flame. They questioned, they criticised and they REJECTED him.

In the 11th chapter of John's Gospel, we read, "Even though he had performed all these miracles in their presence, they did not believe in him..."

Look, rejection is painful. Rejection is hard. No one wants to be rejected.

Author and priest Henry Nouwen said it this way: "Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Incarnation in daily living

Did you see this the other day?

Seven-year-old Jack Hoffman, who has been battling brain cancer like the little champ he is, exploded down the right side of the field during Nebraska's Spring Football Game to score on a 69-yard run.

Oh, it wasn't some new effort to get 7-year-olds to commit to a college. Instead, it was an effort by Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead to champion Team Jack.

It is what used to be know as a good deed, and it left many in the stands puzzled and some misty-eyed.

It was of God.

Thus, I'm afraid I come bearing bad news this morning. It has come to my attention that I've turned God into a series of dos and don'ts, most of which I either can't do or can't stop -- especially on my own.

I've crept through the forests of reality afraid the big, bad wolf is gonna jump out and get me, and in doing so, I've missed much of the greenery God has provided around me. I've not only not seen the forest for the trees, I've run smack dab into the trees while looking for the creator of them.

God whispers. I want, need shouts. God creates and the beauty is indescribably, but I want, need things. I wander far from the throne room in search of all the things I don't really need but want. And my experiences with God come down to did I do this or did I not stop this? Was I moral, not did I love?

I really, really feel what God wants from me is, well, me, not some to-do list that on the back of that same slip of paper has a to-don't list printed.

Tyler Blanski, in a book called When Donkeys Talk, writes, "I want Christians to truly know the love of Christ and to allow that love to completely transform their outlook on reality. I want the gospel to be incarnated in their daily lives."

Imagine a God awesome in power. A God who splits seas and allows his people to walk on dry land. A God who stops the sun in the sky on a whim. A God who dies, then picks his life back up.

Creator of signs that point to a Christ. Creator of miracles that change lives in ways that are inexplicable on our best days.

In the Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Apostle Paul this way: "Think straight. Awaken to the holiness of life. No more playing fast and loose with the resurrection facts. Ignorance of God is a luxury you can't afford in times like these."

It seems to me that one of the things we have the most tendency to do is separate the holy from the profane, the supernatural from the natural, our Sundays from our Tuesdays. But I do not see that in the scriptures.

I found it interesting that at the end of the mini-series, "The Bible," a book, a novel that conveys the spirit of the Bible, that summarized this mini-series was offered for sale. The Bible itself has been offered for centuries, we just don't pick it up and sample it nearly enough.

Among its most wonderful ideas is this: "As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out of my mouth."

God of the then, the now, and the everlasting life. God of the natural as well as the supernatural. God of the 7-year-old and the 77-year-old.

That's who I miss when I miss; not in some list of dos and don'ts. A God of love who still moves us is the God who exists.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Walking Dead

It has come to my attention that I am a card-carrying member of the Walking Dead at times. At the conclusion of one session of our three-day look at the Gospel of John, our instructor read some questions to us that struck me as completely appropriate.

One of them was, “Have you cried over something in the past year?”

Another spoke to whether I felt anything. Another spoke to my ability to show compassion.

Another asked if we had thought seriously about the fact that one day we are really going to die. Another asked “has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?”

Still another asked “Is there is somebody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would substitute ourselves for?”

At the end of the questions, she said, “if you have answered no to all these questions, there’s a good chance you are dead.”

I wouldn’t say no to all of them, which I guess means I’m just walking around, but not completely dead yet.

The point of all this is we should be feeling a sense of assignment, a sense of calling, a sense of doing, a sense of following, and there are plenty of times when I simply don’t.

I would love to proclaim that I always suffer for the poor. I always hurt for the lost. I always cry for the lonely, the least, the marginalized. But the pure truth is I don’t. You don’t. We don’t together.

I’m fairly certain that if we did, we would all up and do something about eradicating all of the above.

Jesus, on the last night he would have the body we call human, knelt and washed some feet. When he was concluded, he said, “I have given you an example. Go and do the same.”

Compassion in a basin of water and some sort of cloth to wash and another to dry is not getting rid of the poor or the homeless or the hungry, but it strikes me as one heck of a first step.

And even the walking dead take steps.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Do you want to be healed?

Jesus said to the paralytic, "do you want to be healed?"

Seems to me the question echoes down the corridor of time? Do we really want to have that (whatever that is?) removed from us? Do we really seek change? Or is whatever "that" is about the best we can come up with.

Sometimes I think our true answer would surprise us.

What then is the thing that keeps us from seeking Him, all of him?

I read this morning the story of the lost hiker who felt the presence of Jesus as he became disoriented.  Perhaps,what we need is something that keeps "us" out of the equation and lets Him in. Whatever that might be, that something, we must want it it seems to me. Seeking after his face then requires seeking, trying, effort. But until we understand it all comes down to him, even in the seeking, I question whether we will succeed.

As I write this, I "feel" his presence. It's early, the coffee hasn't kicked in, and I'm alone with my thoughts. But I recognize He is here.

And I suspect He is asking, "do you want to be healed?"

I pray my answer is yes, at all times, yes.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pray, and occasionally use words

How do we understand the mind of God? Why do we try? In seeking His will, we often seek His mind, His plans, His future. Then we recall what someone told us at some Bible camp sometime or another, "His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts."

And we give up.

But the Bible clearly says: He who forms the mountains, who creates the wind, and who reveals his thoughts to mankind, who turns dawn to darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord God Almighty is his name.

He who forms the mountains lets us know what He is thinking. Kinda excites me.

And how do those thoughts manifest themselves?

Let's says this:
1) Prayer
2) Scripture
3) Prayer
4) Listening
5) Other people
6) Prayer

Did I mention prayer?

I could add dreams and such, but never having had a dream that told me much more of quality than I could fly, I can't say too much about that kind of manifestation.

But prayer, the listening part of it, is important to gain the thoughts of God. Scripture certainly is a way to get closer to the thought and will of God, and other people and even other circumstances certainly talk and walk through the thoughts of God. Prayer is not, though too often for me it becomes such, a rendering of some list of things we want to know or we want to have done for us or others.

One of the desert monks once asked Abba Agathon "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" He answered "Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him. For they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. What ever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath."
Prayer is our means, our primary means possibly, for finding God's will for us. Why? Again, why do mortal creatures of limited power and scope try to hear the thoughts of a God who lives on a different plane than us?

Here's the deal:
Jesus wanted us to completely turn ourselves over to the Father for guidance and direction. When that happens, we seek with all our might and with all our hope and with all our being to see the Father.

Seeing the Father is a big deal, that might indeed not be in our possibilities. But seeking the Father is what we must do. Must.

When that happens, essentially we turn our thoughts over to His thoughts, our ways over to His ways, our plans over to His plans.

Clearing the decks, so to speak, leads us to the moment that Jesus described this way:

"So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:31-34) 

Seek, friends, seek. Turn as much over as you possibly can this day. Seek Him. Seek His thoughts. Seek his direction.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Our shelter and strength

What does this mean to us? Psalm 46 says that "God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not be afraid, even if the earth is shaken and mountains fall into the ocean depths; even if the seas roar and rage, and the hills are shaken by the violence."

One reads this and sees nothing but blue skies ahead. But those skies aren't always blue, and for some they are outright dark.

In numerous letters, which Mother Teresa  repeatedly begged her superiors to destroy, she describes her experiences of profound spiritual darkness that haunted her for fifty years. She admits that she didn't practice what she preached, and laments the stark contrast between her exterior demeanor and her interior desolation: "The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains. . . . my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery. . . . I deceive people with this weapon."

Mother Teresa describes the absence of God's presence in various ways—an emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. "There is so much contradiction in my soul, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . . I find no words to express the depths of the darkness. . . . My heart is so empty. . . . so full of darkness. . . . I don't pray any longer. The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal. . . . I have no faith, I don't believe."

With some of Jesus' last breaths, he screamed to the heavens,  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Reformer Martin Luther was famous for his inner struggles with his creator. "God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed."

But Luther found solace in this Psalm, particularly in its end: "The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."

It is those thoughts that we survive, even thrive, I think. It is the fact that though the world might be in turmoil around me, God is with me. Though I can't find Him sometimes, and I willingly admit I can't at times, He is there. Why? That's his nature. To be trustworthy at all times.

This Psalm, in fact, inspired one of Luther's greatest achievements, the hymn A Mighty Fortress. He wrote, "
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

As a friend said last night, it is still all about him and not about us. Can we get to the point that we not only recognisance that, but revel in it?