Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Prepare the way

Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6

As we continue into this season of advent we are reminded in our scripture through the words of John the Baptizer and his father Zachariah and even through the events of ordinary life that this is a time of preparation.   Preparing for a new baby, preparing for guests during the holidays, preparing or lives for Jesus.  It is a time of preparation but hat the same time, advent is also a time when we are called to focus on Peace. 

This seemed like an odd combination to me at first.  Peace is something you have, something to desire, something to accomplish.  How does preparing for Christmas and preparing for Jesus bring Peace?  For many of us all this preparation brings anxiety not peace. 

Shopping for Christmas presents brings many anxiety.  As we purchase gifts we compare how many gifts each of our children have.  Did we spend too much or not enough?  Will someone be upset if they don’t get a gift this year?  Will people actually like the gifts I got them?  Even white Elephant party gifts can cause stress!   Will mine be the one nobody wants?

Then there is the prep we do for company; cleaning corners and crevices that rarely see a dust rag.  The guest room can’t be used to hide all the stuff we don’t want to be seen because it is being used as a coat room or for company to sleep in.  Did you remember to put out that ugly Santa Clause figurine that someone gave you 10 years ago and always asks about?  You want everything to be perfect- an impossible task that we attempt to achieve year after year! 

This prep work takes lots of thought, preparation, reflection and examination.  You don’t just clean like you would any random Saturday.  You have to think about the baby crawling on the floor, finding all kinds of forgotten goodies under the couch and the person who goes in search of extra chairs in the basement.  You have to remember to run interference between the Hillary supporter and the Trump fan.  So many things to think about.  All in hopes of experiencing some sort of peace when it is all said and done. 

So, if we go through all this stress to get ready for one day or one party, how do we prepare our entire lives for Jesus?  How do we prepare for real and lasting peace? 

Zachariah’s life has been one of preparation.  He has dedicated his life as a priest to searching the scriptures, understanding the prophecies and praying for a messiah.  What he’s not prepared for is for God to speak to him directly, for God to call him to be a prophet and for his son, the one he thinks he is too old to have, to become the prophet who makes the ways for the messiah to come.  Zachariah is struck mute at the announcement of this coming child so that he can get prepared.  The silence helps him to get ready for what is about to happen. 

If you’ve ever done any type of silent retreat, you will know how important this is as a time of prayer and reflection.  Often we speak too much and listen too little, to others and to God, so silence creates a space for deep study, prayer and reflection.  Zachariah has at least 9 months of this silence to ponder the words of the angel, to dig deep into scripture, to pray, discern and prepare for what this will mean for his life, his family and the rest of the world. 

John the baptizer tells us too that in order for us to be ready to truly receive the Christ we have to prepare.  John offers this preparation through the baptism of repentance.  We can’t just go on living life as usual and expect God to fix everything.  We need to participate.  We need to get ready in our lives and in our hearts to receive the one who will bring ultimate peace. 

Zachariah says that the messiah will come to save us from our enemies and while he may have been talking about Rome or some other outside force, often times, our greatest enemy is ourselves.  This enemy is sneaky and persistent, it often goes unnoticed.  In order to see it and defeat it we must spend time in reflection and prayer, searching the scriptures and ourselves.  We have to be able to acknowledge that enemy inside of ourselves, ask for repentance and be willing to leave it behind in order to fully receive Christ and be saved from it. 

Repentance isn’t just saying we are sorry-  it is being willing to make the radical change necessary to see Jesus for who he truly is and be able to accept the open and welcoming arms of forgiveness.  As we continue to read the story of John the Baptizer we will see how angry he gets when people come seeking forgiveness but who refuse to see the venom in their own hearts.   We want peace, we want forgiveness of sins but we can’t receive this until we are able to reflect on the ways we contribute to the lack of peace in our lives. 

The world we live in is one of chaos and fear.  We cry out for peace.  We pray that God will intervene and save us from the enemies around us.  We watch the news, we see stories of bombs exploding, people with disabilities and those who support them being murdered for no reason, we see people of faith being shot down in bible study and people rioting in the streets and so we beg and pray for peace.  We want Jesus to bring peace so that we can go back to living our lives as normal. 

We as individuals, as Christians, as a nation, we as citizens of this world can take a lesson from the advice of John and Zachariah.  In order to receive peace we must to prepare for it.  We need to search the innermost parts of our lives and acknowledge those places where we have messed up? 

Where do we as a nation, as a people of faith need to repent?  And are we willing to make the changes necessary to turn from our self-centered, egotistical, blame everyone else for our problems ways in order to receive the peace that Jesus brings? 

Blaming others is always the easiest way to ease our conscious but it is not the way to live in true peace and freedom.  Are we willing to do the work it takes to prepare for the coming Messiah as individuals and as a collective human race? 

We should spend more time in prayer.  More time in reflection and more time in silent contemplation and less time speaking words of hate, fear and blame.   I remember as a child being told to think before I speak.  Think about what you are going to say before it actually comes out of your mouth.  Prepare your thoughts, prepare for the outcome.  We should all take this advice.  Think, pray, reflect, so that what we say will be an agent of peace and unity not destruction and division.   

During this time of unrest and violence we pray that Jesus, the Prince of Peace will come to save us and to bring the joy and peace we so desperately want.  We are reminded in this story of the birth of the prophet, the coming of the one who will prepare the way for the messiah that Jesus came at a particular time in history fulfilling the promised made by God to the prophets. 

The fear was real.  The hopes and dreams of the world were just as real then as they are now.  The fear of foreign occupation was real, the fear of being jailed, killed or abused because of nationality and race and government and religious oppression was just as real then as it is now. 

Jesus came to bring peace then and Jesus will come again to bring peace to all the world.  Each time, we speak words of love instead of hate,  each time we offer signs of unity instead of division, each time we offer forgiveness, we will catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Christ breaking through at this time and place in our lives and in our history.

 Are we willing to prepare the way of the Lord through our words and actions?  Are we willing to put as much time and energy in preparing our spiritual house for Jesus as we do preparing our physical house for guests?  Are we willing to spend as much time pondering and reflecting on how to make ourselves a perfect gift for Jesus as we are buying the perfect gift for those we love? 

Jesus Christ has come as a fulfillment of the prophecy of old, He is coming and has promised to come again.  Are we doing our part to prepare the way of the Lord?  Are we ready to receive him and the peace he offers? 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The language of love

Song of Songs 2: 8-17/ James 1:17-27

Close your eyes and take a moment to remember when you first fell in love.  Maybe it was the first glance across the room, your first date, or your first kiss.  Remember the flood of emotions that went along with it.  Your heart pounding in your chest, wishing the moment would last forever. It's exciting but also a little anxiety producing.  You wondered how they felt and whether or not they liked you as much as you liked them.  
Think about that moment when you first said “I love you” and they said it back- the smile that beamed across your face.  It is a roller coaster of very intense emotions all rolled up into one experience.  It is exciting and scary.  You are hopeful but afraid.  But when it works- it works and it is an overwhelmingly intense, maybe even a passionate experience!  
Our scripture lesion today from the Old Testament is all about this experience.  It is a book that many often wonder why it’s even in the Bible and many preachers are apprehensive to address.  It never mentions God or worship or anything connected with God.  It is a collection of love poems between a woman and a man who are madly in love and desperate for each other.  
Some want to sanitize this book and want to say it as a love poem between God and Israel or Jesus and the Church but all that is stretching it.   Maybe it is what it is- words of romance and passion shared between lovers.  
So the question still remains.  Why include it in the Bible?  Maybe it is to remind us that God gave us this gift of passion, romance and love for a reason.  Our scripture from James tells us that all good gifts come from God and well let’s be honest, this is one of God’s very good gifts!  Maybe it is a way for humans to understand how God feels towards humanity.  How intensely God loves us.  How desperate God is to be loved back.  
 We often say things like God loves you and we talk about how God desires us and wants to be in a relationship with us.  We read in scripture that God is a jealous God and wants us all to God’s self. God wants our devotion and our love for God only- not for the other gods or idols in this world.  And while we may say it or read it in a ho-hum way. God says it with passion!
We read in scripture about the lengths God goes to in order to provide for us, give us gifts, and that God loves us so much that he gave us Jesus as a flesh and blood, life and death expression of that love. If that isn't an extreme show of love… What is? 
In 1995, Gary Chapman published a book that described his theory that all humans feel and express love in 5 basic ways that he calls “love languages.” They are “words of affirmation,” “Quality time,” “Gifts,” “Touch,” and “Acts of Service.”  
Now think back for a moment to the experience you were remembering just a few minutes ago.  How did you express your love for the other person?  How did they show their love for you?
Did they bring you flowers or take you out to dinner?  Did you go for walks after school- making sure you took the longest route possible just to spend time together?  
Did they tell you how beautiful, smart or talented you are? Did they hold your hand or give you a warm embrace?  

Did they wash dishes for you or fix something that was broken or take care of you when you were sick?  There are a multitude of ways that people express their love for another person.  And as you respond and reciprocate those gestures of love you find your relationship growing.
God shows love for us in exactly the same ways!  
God does give you words of affirmation.  They are the love letters of the psalms, the stories of grace and how God loves us so much that we are always able to come back into God’s loving arms- even when we stray.  It is the words of a teacher, friend or stranger that tells you how much you are valued as a beloved child of God.   
God spends quality time with you- always available to talk whenever we need it, even when it is less than loving things we want to say.  It is those long walks, the flicker of a candle, and the silence just before dawn when you feel content, just to be in God’s presence.
God gives us gifts.  It is impossible to look around this beautiful place we live and not see a gift from God.  The majestic mountains, the beautiful flowers that made any bouquet your partner ever gave you, the green trees, the soft breeze- all gifts from God.  Not to mention the non-material gifts- the gift of compassion, patience, generosity, musical gifts, cooking, or art- whatever gift you have- you received it from God.  
The gift of touch- may be the hardest to identify but yes that too is a gift from God.  It is the child who cuddles up in your lap so you can read them a book.  It is the hug of a parent or a friend.  It is the hand that picks you up when you fall down.  It is the lick from the dog or the comfort of the purring cat.  But it is also the softness of a warm blanket or the coolness of a creek and the warmth of the sun on your face.  

And acts of service-  those are innumerable!  All those times you weren’t sure how you would make ends meet or put food on the table and someone shows up out of the blue with an invitation to dinner or fresh corn from their garden.  Or simply the fact that your garden produced food at all.  It is the kindness of a stranger that changes your flat on the side of the road.  It is the guidance and advice we receive from scripture and the experiences of life that teach us to be grateful.  
The list of how God shows us love goes on and on.  But, just like any relationship, it is important that we not take these gifts for granted and that we reciprocate that love.  
How do we show our love for God?  
We show our love for God by spending time with God in worship, prayer, study and giving thanks for all God has done.  But we also show God our love in how we treat others.  Our scripture from James today reminds us that we show love for God in this way.  We should be quick to listen, pay attention to what is going on around us and welcome the word of God.  We are to be slow to speak and slow to anger; checking our motives, our emotions and our justifications for anger and aggression.  
we are to be doers of the word, not just hearers.  We not only accept the love and guidance of God but we also respond with actions of our own.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, care for the sick, the oppressed, the poor, the orphaned and the widow.  
We are to welcome the stranger, visit with the lonely and use whatever gifts we have been given freely and generously to work on God’s behalf.  Jesus said in Matthew that whoever does to the least of these does unto him.
  As we act toward one another- that is how we act toward God.  When we say things that hurt others, we hurt God.  As we close the door in the face of a stranger, we shut the door on God.  
But in the same way, as we treat others with love and respect we are treating God with love and respect.  As we open the doors of our homes, our churches and our hearts to others, we are opening the door to the love of God.  
But love isn’t the only part of a relationship.  Love also calls for a commitment.  It is why when people declare their love for one another they do it through vows.  When we get married to another person we make promises to them.  We commit ourselves to stay faithful to that person and no matter what happens they will be a part of each other’s lives.  And this isn’t just a temporary promise with an expiration date.  It is until death do we part promise.  
This is a very similar promise we make to God in our baptisms.  We acknowledge the love of God in our lives and promise to love God through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  We vow that we will have no other god’s in our lives than the one true God.  We promise that we will work to rid the world of evil, injustice and oppression and act as Christ’s representative in this world.  
This like a marriage is a life altering and forever promise.  And we believe that as we make this promise to God, that even when we are unfaithful to God- God will never be unfaithful to us.  And, no matter what, God will never leave us or forsake us.  While human love has its faults and failures, a love affair with God does not.  

As we read the scriptures and remember the feelings of love in our life, we get a glimpse of the power of God’s love for us.  We sense in our own emotions the persistent desire God has to be in a relationship with us. 
From the moment of your birth, God has been wooing you into a love affair, and God continues to shower us with love and affection in the ways that are personal and meaningful.  Embrace that love, reciprocate that love through your own actions.  Breathe in the immensity of God’s love and renew your vows to God.  
It is indeed a passionate love affair full of all that we could ever dream.  Enjoy every moment that you receive God’s love and in every way that you respond to that love.  It is a love that will not only last a life time but will last for eternity.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

healthy diet

John 6: 56-69


A few years ago there was a nutri-grain bar commercial that started out by watching people eat breakfast on their way to work on the subway.  They were all eating horrible sugary “breakfast foods” like doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, sodas etc.  It isn’t until they stand up and try to leave the train that you realize that they have become what they were eating.  The woman now has cinnamon rolls for her rear end and a man has a huge chocolate covered doughnut around his waist and can’t fit through the turn style.  It is only the man eating the “healthy” nutri-grain bar that is tall, lean and of course handsome.  

This was a great commercial, very memorable and to some extent truth telling.  You are what you eat.  Now this is a problem for some of us.  Especially on days when we have church potlucks with dishes made with cream of mushroom soup, butter, cheese, sugar, bacon, and all those other things that make them such an exciting and fun event. 

Thankfully we don’t eat like this on a regular basis.  But we live in a world that doesn’t encourage us to do much better.  It is faster and easier to run through the drive through, throw a frozen pizza in the oven, or just have an entire bag of chips for dinner than it is to buy fresh vegetables, or spend time in the kitchen cooking something that not only tastes better but is better for you. 

Our lives are dictated by food.  When you give someone directions- you choose restaurants as land marks. We say things like- “it’s behind McDonalds” We want to spend time with friends… so we go out to lunch.  We have to eat. 

But what we put into our bodies matters.  Some of us have to watch our salt intake while others are watching their sugar and some are counting calories.  And those of us who pay close attention to what we eat know the difference in how we feel when we cheat. 

The same is true with our spiritual life as well.  What are we hungry for?  Are we hungry for spiritual junk?  Only wanting to hear messages that tell us that saying we believe is enough, and that if we listen to the right preacher, say the right prayer or give to the right cause that we will be guaranteed happiness and success?  All the while our ego and our waste grows larger.  Or are we willing to make the sacrifice following Jesus requires? Do we want to only listen to scriptures that we agree with, that is sweet to hear and makes us feel better about ourselves or are we willing to be challenged by what we hear and read?  Motivated to be better people. 

The people who were following Jesus at first, liked that being around him felt exciting and interesting.  He was always saying something that stuck it to “the man.”  They were getting some of the positive vibes and attention from all those seeking to be healed.  It was like being the best friend of a rock star- even if you didn’t have much to offer- just being near them makes you feel important and popular too.  There were benefits to hanging around Jesus………… and then it starts getting weird. 

Then he starts talking about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood!  What kind of quack job is he?  Has he lost his mind?  What had been fun and exciting, just got real.  This wasn’t something people would ignore.  This was offensive.  Not just because of the cannibalistic talk but because their way to eternal life was being questioned.  He isn’t just some guy performing miracles- he is God!  The source of life, and fulfillment.  He has switched from telling the people that he will give them the bread of life to being the bread of life. 

This is not an easy word to hear.  It goes against all they understood the scriptures to mean.  It went against who they thought God to be and it challenged their whole belief system and all they had thought was right and wrong.  It was offensive, it was harsh and difficult to agree with and even more difficult to follow because it meant that all the things that had been cut and dry, black and white, right and wrong were now shades of gray.

He would begin asking them to love people they didn’t think were loveable.  They would be called to touch people and offer healing and acts of mercy to those who were unclean and thought to be unworthy of God’s blessings.  They would be called to stand up against the injustices in this world- not just watch Jesus do it on their behalf.  They would be called to not only feed themselves, but feed others. 

What they thought would be a fun and easy path to changing the world around them now asked them to think differently, act differently and be different. 

When I was 25 or so, I began seeing ads on TV for the new prescription weight loss medications.  I was overweight and unhappy with how I looked and felt.  I went to the doctor hoping that he would tell me that this pill was the answer to my problems.  I wanted to blame my obesity on something other than myself.  I wanted him to tell me that it wasn’t my fault I was fat.  I wanted him to tell me there was an easy solution to my problem. 

What he told me offended me.  He told me my problem was that I ate too much and made unhealthy food choices.  I needed to eat right and exercise more.  In fact he said “you have fork to mouth syndrome… put the fork down!”  How dare he challenge the choices I had made and tell me my life priorities were out of order?  I like sodas.  I like chocolate.  I like fast food.  And I worked hard!  I was tired when I got home.  I didn’t have the energy to exercise.  I had every excuse in the book! 

It took me 5 years to acknowledge he was right.  At that point, I visited a nutritionist who challenged me to eat healthier, got a personal trainer who challenged me to work harder, and I begin to make the changes necessary to live a healthier life.  I am not perfect.  I still need to be challenged to drink water instead of soda and eat salsa instead of guacamole, veggies instead of chips, but it is getting easier and I am getting wiser about the choices I make, even if I don’t always make the right choice.

Many people come to church with the same expectations I had when I went to the doctor.  We want affirmation that we are doing everything right. We want to be told that we are good, moral, kind hearted and generous people who already have the correct political, social and religious opinions and that whatever is wrong in our lives and world is someone or something else’s fault.  All we need is a dose of Jesus every week and we will be perfect and we can go on living our delusions.

 But, if I am doing my job correctly, that is not what you hear.  If you are reading the scriptures, that is not what you hear either.   

Jesus offended a lot of people that day when he told them that he was the way, the truth and the source of life.  He offended people when he told them that the religious rules they had so strictly held sacred for so long were actually bad habits that were not strengthening their faith but damaging it. Many people walked away from Jesus that day.  They weren’t ready to hear what he had to say.

 Jesus, if listened to, continues to offend and challenge all of us.   

Sometimes, in the life of faith you will get pats on the back and kudos for striving to live a life that is honorable and good.  Sometimes you will read scripture that makes you feel good about yourself and the decisions you make.  But if we are honest with ourselves we will also be challenged.  We will be reminded that the junk food we occasionally or regularly like to eat is not good for our bodies nor is the spiritual junk food good for our souls.

We will be held accountable for our biases and assumptions.  We will be  reminded that there are always hungry that need to be fed, homeless that need to be housed, sick who need to be healed, lonely who need to be visited and people who have made mistakes who will need to be welcomed home.  We will be challenged to forgive even those who have and will betray us.  We will be challenged to share meals and conversations with those we don’t always agree with.  And we will be challenged to live and worship with people who are difficult to love. 

So what does a spiritually healthy diet look like?  It is worshiping together, studying together and fellowshipping together.  It is reading scripture and talking with God.  It is surrounding yourself with people who love you enough to tell you the truth, hold you accountable, challenge each other and learn from one another.  It is being with others who want to see you grow in your faith and love you in spite of your faults; who will encourage and support you.  People who will help you get back on the wagon when you fall off.

And the exercise?  Is service- it is using the gifts God gave you to make the community and the world a better place.  It is packing backpacks, it is offering communion to the homebound, it is chopping wood for the winter for others to stay warm, it is tutoring a child after school, it is offering a warm coat to someone who is cold.  Some days it is a run and other days it is a stroll- all that is necessary is that you keep moving.  Some days will be easier than others but in the end we will grow in our faith, in our knowledge that it is life with Jesus that is fulfilling and it is Jesus himself who is the source of that life.  There is no more need for junk when you have the real thing.   

True food, true drink, true life comes from the source of Life itself- Jesus Christ.  There are no short cuts or quick fixes.  But there is always today.  Each day we are given the chance to start a new.  The things of the past are just that- past they don’t have to dictate your future.  God offers you the love, forgiveness and clean slate to start over each day or each breath.  The commonly told joke is that the best day to start a diet is tomorrow.  But when it comes to your spiritual life…. Start living it today!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

wisdom and life

Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6: 51-58

We all want to live a long and happy life right?  We celebrate when people live well into their 90’s and we mourn when people die young or in the prime of their life.  But then we also parrot the saying “Its not the years of your life that matter but the life in your years.”  Ultimately we all want to have eternal life.  We want to be immortal. 

I see it all the time as I walk around museums, college campuses and even while I am driving.  Exhibits, buildings, streets all named after people in an attempt to honor people and have their legacy live on forever.  But yet, buildings fall, roads are renamed and museums are updated and rebranded.  So even those who wanted to live at least forever in our memories are sometimes forgotten. 

But what about the life we have been given now?  We all know people who lived a long time and were miserable, grouchy, always complaining and never seemed to be happy.  Then we also know others who always seem up beat and optimistic, finding the positive in any situation and giving their lives in devotion to things that matter. 

That is the life we want to live right?  We want to live a full and satisfied life.  Even Paul directs us in our second scripture lesson today that we are to “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time.”

We hear people say things like this all the time- live life to the fullest, make every day count, live every day as if it is your last.  All nice sentiments and good rules of thumb to live by but what does it mean and how do we do it with wisdom?  How do we know if we are living the life we are supposed to live and what are the rules, directions, lessons I need to learn and follow to have this wonderful life?

A quick search of reveals that there are at least 53,295 different self-help books, all telling you that they have the answer you are looking for.  With titles like: “7 steps for radical change”, “healing your emotional self”, self-esteem: discover the fool proof, fully actionable solutions”, “Start creating your dream life today”, “100 ways to be a better man”, “10 life transformation rules”, “100 paramount techniques to master any skill in one day”, and “change your life today with positive thinking and happiness”- you would think we could all find our path to happiness and fulfillment.  It is just that easy right? 

All we need to do is spend $20 and read the words of someone who says they have it all together and have the wisdom we need.  Now, I am not saying that these books don’t have some nugget of truth in them and I fully agree with one of the commentaries I read this week that “the mark of maturity is to acknowledge that there is always room for progress and improvement.” (Aitken)  Sure we could all live a better life- be more patient, more forgiving, more kindhearted, more generous etc.

The challenging part to finding and experiencing this wisdom is not simply reading these books; it is discerning what it really means to have a fulfilled life and who or what has the key to that guidance for each of us.  Sometimes we can read books like this and nod our head in agreement- finishing a book and thinking well, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.  Or you read 5 books each telling you how to be successful and happy and they each have different and often conflicting answers.  It takes wisdom and discernment to figure out who to listen to.

Wisdom and discernment are tricky things.  We may think someone is wise because their smiling face is on the cover of hundreds of books and they make more money than we can ever dream of having. 

We may pick a guide or suggestion because it seems that it will be the quickest or easiest way to get what we want.  Of course we want to Lose 50 lbs in 2 days!  But then, we realize that what we really gained is something that takes up room on a bookshelf and actually added on weight instead of taking it off.  Instead of success we once again feel rejection and failure.  If it is so easy than why doesn’t it work for me?

Other times, we experience what seems to be horrible situation in our life: family or financial tragedy, emotional breakdowns and the like and no matter how much we try to avoid it, like taking bad tasting medicine- in the end we realize that we are better off because we lived through a challenging or simply distasteful situation.   We are wiser, stronger, braver, more faithful because of what we’ve been through.

Often what the world teaches us is good, right and wise, is indeed bad for the soul. At the same time, it is often the pain, challenges and conflict that make us better and stronger. 

The gospel of John, is a little hard to swallow- both literally and figuratively.  So much so that it not only turned off his opponents but it made some of the people who had been following Jesus leave too.  It was contrary to popular belief.  It went against their understanding of literal dietary laws but also their understanding of who God is.  And, it raises the question of what it means to have eternal life and what it means to have life in general. 

We are also told by John that Jesus came so that we could have life and have it abundantly.  Jesus wants us to have that same fulfilled life that we seek but what Jesus knows is that achieving that life comes with no effort on our part.  The work has already been done in our creation and through the life and death of Jesus himself.  The desire to live a joy filled life is real and true and good but we often go about getting it the wrong way.

We often seek self-help books because we want a quick fix.  There is something we don’t like about ourselves and we want to change it but in the process of pointing out all the things that we don’t like about ourselves we are also trying to fit into the mold of what the world thinks will make us perfect, successful or fulfilled.  This is not what God and scripture tells us will make us whole and perfect.

We forget that we are already made in God’s image and that we are not perfected by what we do but what Jesus did for us.  Jesus wants us to strive after living our lives better and seeking fulfillment but he wants us to find it at the true source, him, not our own efforts.

It is hard to see the fulfillment and perfection of Christ in ourselves and in our world when we look around the time and place where we live.  We hear stories of a teacher murdered by her own son, terrorists using chemical warfare on innocent people, planes that fall out of the sky, riots in the streets where people wonder if black, brown, young, old, gay, straight or transgendered lives matter and we struggle to see where this perfect creation is. 

So, instead of looking to the source we, ask: what self-help guru, police chief or politician can lead us to fix this damaged and broken world?  And then maybe we ask the question- what does it matter if my life is perfect and fulfilled- if the world around me is falling apart?  How can I be happy when so many are suffering?

There is always a struggle to find this balance between learning and doing.  Being fulfilled and fulfilling our call to be in communion with others.  The African term Umbutu contains the concept that we can never be fully human by ourselves.  We are by nature interdependent and communal and it is only when we reach out and care for others that we can be fully who God created us to be.  (Feasting on the Word)

This life, this wisdom, this fulfillment, this love of Jesus is free and available to all who desire it.  But it is more than just learning about who Jesus is.  It is more than just accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  It is more than just reading scripture and believing.  And, it is more than just doing what is “right” by the world’s standards.  It is about reading scripture together, learning from both old and young, discussing and discerning God’s plan for us in this world at this time then deciding- Are we willing to apply what we are learning? 

This is where real wisdom and discernment arises.  We all like to think we are right but it is in being willing to listen to the opinions of others, discovering a new perspective and sharing what we know with others that we gain a deeper and wiser understanding of life.  It is in living, learning and serving together that we discover what it is like to be loved by God and to love as Jesus loves.

We can have every building in a town named after us but eventually they will be torn down to build new ones.  We can have millions in the bank or give millions to charity feeding every person in any given country and still feel lost.  It isn’t just about having purpose or even immortality in this world.  It is about discerning, praying and living the life that God has called us to live. 

Paul, tries to teach us this way of living.  Spend time in prayer, worshiping and sharing your joys with others.  Fill your life, not with things that mask pain or illicit a false sense of joy and security but fill your life with the Holy Spirit.  Be mindful of all the ways that your life has been blessed; for life, faith, family, and community. 

True wisdom, true fulfillment, true living only happens when we are willing to be changed by what we have learned.  When we are willing to look beyond the flashiness of quick fixes and how to guides to the true source of life and wisdom herself; Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BUSY another 4-letter word

2 Samuel 7:1-14a/   Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

How many of you have ever hear the cliché, “No good deed goes unpunished”?  How many of you have ever felt that it was a truth?  This feels true at times.  We want to be helpful, so we offer help to a friend or neighbor.  We fix something that is broken, we listen to them and give advice, and we may help them pay a bill or buy groceries in an emergency situation.  But, then it seems that they call at midnight needing advice or call you every time something needs to be fixed.
Maybe this has happened to you at work.  Your boss asks you to do a favor for them.  It is nice to be recognized and trusted as someone to take on a new responsibility so, without thinking, you say yes, and you are so good at it you become their right hand person.  And this snowballs in to a situation where you are now the go to person for everything and your doing so much extra stuff you can’t get your actual job done.  This can even happen at church right!  You were honored the first time you were nominated to be on the leadership team.  It was a privilege to serve and then your first 3 year term is up and they ask you to do a different job.  And then someone suggests that you can probably handle two positions.  Then, your known as the one with the keys or the one who knows how everything works so every time there is a question about the church… they come to you. 

Well, this is where our scripture begins.  The disciples have made their first attempt at going into the world as apostles, doing the will of God, teaching, healing and casting out demons in the name of Jesus and all they want to do is tell Jesus about their experiences.  They are so excited and energized by these newly found gifts and abilities but they are also exhausted.  They have been working so hard they haven’t even had a chance to eat.  So, Jesus pulls them aside to rest.  But, they were almost too good at serving in Jesus name.  Between what they have been doing in service to Jesus and what Jesus has been doing himself, his reputation has spread.  And people are coming from all over to see this Jesus.  Jesus and the disciples have probably had less than 2 hours in the boat when they reach the other side, the place they are supposed to rest and eat, when they are surrounded by people in need.  Everyone wants more and more and more of Jesus. 

It is an overwhelming feeling... even for Jesus.  But his heart goes out to them.  And this leads to another cliché we say a lot,   “There’s no rest for the weary” or my favorite “There will be plenty of time to sleep when I am dead.”  We say these things or something like it when it seems there is a lot on our plates to do.  We live in a culture of over functioners.  We pride ourselves in working 60+ hours in a week, volunteering and keeping an immaculate house.  We teach our kids from a young age to follow in our footsteps.  School 8-3, ball practice until 6, then running through the drive thru on the way home so that they can get homework and showers done before bed.  Every minute of our day is occupied by something. 

We busy ourselves at church too right.  We over commit to work at the church; cleaning or fixing the church building, serving on committees or working in the community only to feel like we can never do enough.  I admit that my default mode is this go, go, go mentality.  I like being active and feeling like I am getting stuff done.  But about a year ago I decided that busy was no longer an excuse.  Between church and school and relationships, “Busy” became a 4-letter word to me. 

When we get too busy to take care of ourselves our health will force us to stop in very unpleasant ways.  When we get too busy to spend quality time with loved ones our relationships suffer and before you know it they are gone or void of meaning.  Who cares how many hours you spend at the office or how much money you make, when the stress of work puts you in the hospital with an anxiety attack?  Who cares if your house is so clean someone could eat off your kitchen floor… I promise, no-one will.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus and the disciples didn’t feel this way from time to time.  As soon as they tried to rest, the phone was ringing again with another request.  More people were showing up on Jesus’ doorstep looking for aid.  “Heal me Jesus!  I heard what you did for my cousin in Jerusalem, help me too!”  “The doctor says there’s nothing else he can do… you are my only hope!”  “Please don’t let my loved one die!”   People are desperate for Jesus. 
What we missed in our reading of scripture today is that this actually encompasses 2 lake crossings.  In between is the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water.  Not once is their rest interrupted by people in need but twice.  Jesus was hungry and tired too but when he saw the needs of the people, he had compassion for them.  His heart broke and so he decided that rest could wait. 
But, if you are like me, most of the time our exhaustion is not because of too much compassion for other people.  Our exhaustion is not because we are spending every waking minute serving God.  Our exhaustion comes because we need to be needed and we need to be loved.  We secretly get affirmation from our cries of “woe is me.”  It means that people depend on us, we are getting things done, and when this happens we can begin to serve our own need to be needed as an idol instead of serving God and doing what God desires from us. 
A lady once told me after church that she fell into this.  She was always busy but never felt like she was doing enough.  This happens when our priorities get out of whack. When we strive after our own desires and priorities not God’s.  We get so busy and caught up in the obligations of our lives that we forget whom we should be serving and neglect to take time and rest.  When this happens we are tempted to just stop.  We get burned out so we just give up, throw in the towel and declare that it is someone else’s responsibility now.  But this is not what Jesus has in mind.  We may need to stop for a moment and reassess our priorities and regain our strength but there are still people in need.  Jesus had compassion on those who needed him.  Jesus didn’t just have pity from a distance but when he saw others in pain, he felt their pain, when he saw people who were hungry, his stomach growled too.  And Jesus expects us to have that same compassion for those who need him too.    
So when we get tired, we are not to stop completely and give up, but rest.  Jesus wants us to have compassion on others.  Jesus wants us to work to make the church a symbol of love and unity in a world full of hate and division.  Jesus wants us to heal broken hearts and broken spirits in His name.  Jesus wants us to be his hands and feet and serve the widow, the orphan and the hungry.  But in order to do this we must take time to rest. 
Rest energizes us for what is next but rest is more than just eating and sleeping.  Rest means spending time with Jesus.  Not just telling God what we need but asking what God wants our priorities to be.  It means being still, listening and receiving guidance.  Our lives get overwhelmed when our priorities for our lives over shadow God’s priorities for our lives.  Rest means spending time in the word, worshiping and learning, examining where our gifts will best meet the needs of the world instead of trying to be all things to all people.   
In the scripture, the followers of Jesus change titles from disciple to apostle, back to disciple.  As disciples they are sitting at the feet of Jesus, learning, growing and being guided.  As apostles, they are out doing what they have learned.  They are in the world, working on behalf of the Kingdom of God.  Then, they return to Jesus to explore what went right and what went wrong to continue to learn and grow so that they can return to the world with spiritual strength and nourishment. 
Matthew 11:28 Jesus says “come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.”    But Jesus also says in Matthew 28 “go and make disciples of all nations”.  There is a balance to be found between work and rest, service and prayer and it is found as we find our priorities aligned with Jesus priorities for our lives. 
Are you feeling overwhelmed?  Are you beating yourself up because you are too busy and yet never get anything done?  Are your priorities out of order?  When we say no to those things the world needs from us, it frees us up to say yes to what Jesus wants from us.  Aligning our priorities with God allows us to get off the hamster wheel of life and move forward in the direction Jesus wants us to go.
When we take this time to rest with Jesus we are emboldened, we are nourished and we are strengthened and we realize that what the world needs isn’t us but Jesus.  It is Jesus that heals, Jesus that feeds and Jesus that loves.   The world isn’t dependent on you or me.  What the world needs is a relationship with the Lord.  What the world really needs from you is for you to be a role model for how to live into a relationship with God and how to hear the whisper of God over the noise of this world.  And how to live a life dedicated to love of God over love of self.  A life of service will be a mix of rest and labor but with Jesus there will be balance. 
Spend time this week praying, listening, meditating, worshiping and simply finding rest with Jesus, away from the world.  Even if it is only a few hours or a few minutes in the car.  The crowds will wait and you will find yourself better equipped to do the work you have been called to do. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Family ties

Isaiah 6:1-8/ Romans 8:12-17

 Family takes many different forms these days.  There is no such thing as “normal.”  The time of two parent households is no longer assumed.  There are grandparents raising grandchildren, single parent homes, step families, single people who never intend to get married or have children and find family in a close group of friends, blended families, friends raising children together, and adoptive families.  But what all these types of families have in common is a sense of belonging.  No matter what your family looks like- it is still family.  A place you feel safe, loved, and appreciated.  People you can rely on to catch you when you fall and offer you a hand back up.  You are there for each other, stand up for each other, challenge each other and support each other even through difficult times.  This is family. 
When I was driving back and forth to Atlanta each week I started listening to audio books.  The last one I listened to was a book called 13 Moons.  It is a fictional story about the mountains of North Carolina, the fight to maintain Cherokee land and resist the relocation to Oklahoma.  But it is also about family.  Will, the main character finds himself a bound boy at only 13 years old.  He was placed as a store keep on the boundary of the frontier between land that had been settled by the whites and what was still considered Cherokee.   
After years as a store keep, he becomes close with one of the tribal chiefs and the chief adopts him into his family and Will becomes part of Bear’s clan.  With this adoption came all the rights and privileges associated with being a member of the Cherokee.  It came with all those things we associate with family.  Trust, acceptance, protection and belonging in the community but it also came with obligations. 
It means something to be wanted, to feel like we have a place we belong.  It matters when we know we aren’t perfect, we make mistakes, have character flaws and yet know we are loved anyway.  We aren’t worthy of this adoption.  Will didn’t do anything to deserve being accepted into Bear’s clan and we don’t do anything to deserve being adopted into the family of God.  Isaiah expresses this feeling of awe and unworthiness in the vision of his call story in our OT scripture.  God has given him the gift of acceptance.  God has allowed Isaiah to see God’s face- something that even the seraphim who served him were unable to do- they flew around covering their bodies and their eyes with their wings- but Isaiah was blessed to look on the face of God and not die.  He drops to his knees knowing that he was unworthy- He says I am a man of unclean lips that lives in an unclean world- in other words- I am a sinner, I mess up I don’t deserve for you to want me. 
We don’t take adoption lightly; into the heavenly family or into an earthly one.  In order for people to adopt a child they take on a huge responsibility.  It is financially and emotionally costly.  It takes determination and a long term commitment.  But it is also not something the adoptee takes lightly either.  We all want to be a part of something… but we can want it for the wrong reasons.  If we want to be adopted because we think our new family is rich or so that we will receive blessings we are in for disappointment.  The same goes for being adopted into the family of God.  If we want to be a part of the church or a part of God’s family to save our own skin, because we want to make sure we get to heaven and inherit the mansion in the sky, the golden streets or whatever we imagine heave to be like we are in it for the wrong reasons. 
I have no doubt that life with Christ is full of joy and hope, freedom in Christ, the sense of belonging and being loved and accepted that we all crave.  It is indeed an honor to call God- Abba, Daddy!  There are wonderful reasons to want to be a part of a church, to call yourself Christian and to be a child of God but this doesn’t mean that it comes without obligation and responsibility on our part.  Jesus paid the adoption fee but when we accept the family name Christian, we also accept the responsibility of being a part of the family of God. 
The heirs to an estate have the responsibility to maintain the kingdom, to care for it, nurture it, make decisions that will honor the family.  There is a reputation to uphold.  How would Dad want me to spend this money?  What would Mom want me to do with the family home?  If you are executor of a person’s will.  That is an honor but it also comes with the task of distributing information, inheritance, and possessions in a way that would honor the person who owned them.  How do I share what I have inherited with others?  How can I honor the one who loved me enough to include me in their family? 
And, when life gets tough, when there are problems or changes that need to me made, we don’t just abandon our family.  No, we stand together, work through the challenges, stand up for each other and make sacrifices for each other.  We have the obligation to speak up and say as Isaiah did “Here I am!  Send me!”
In 13 Moons, Will did just that.  When the government started encroaching, Will volunteered to help his new family.  He became the go-between with the US Government and the Cherokee.  He acted as their lawyer, lobbyist and realtor and purchased land in their name so that they would not all be forced to relocate to Oklahoma.  This was not an easy task.  He could have turned his back on his adopted clan when the going got tough but instead, stood shoulder to shoulder with the people who had loved him and welcomed them into their family.    
This is what we are signing on for when we enter the waters of baptism and when we join the church as part of the family of God.  Baptism is how we sign our adoption papers and accept our position as heirs and children of God.  It is in this process that we acknowledge that we are sinful and unworthy to be claimed by God.  It is when we realize that the sacrifice of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit are what make this possible that we also promise to do our best to live into that name, use the gifts we are given responsibly and to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with love honor and respect. 
This devotion to family came at a price for Will.  Although his trading with the Cherokee made him a wealthy man, he sacrificed it all to work on their behalf.  But this wasn’t what was important to Him.  In the end he knew that he’d tried to do the best he could for his people.  He’d stood up for justice and against the suppressive forces of the government.  His wealth came not from things he owned but from the relationships in his life and from living the best, most honorable and meaningful life possible for the people he loved. 
There is a constant pull in this world between our desire to accumulate wealth, property and possessions and our commitment to God and the family.  When we join the family of God we commit to refocus our lives on what really matters; leaving earthly sin and desires behind to focus on living the life God has given us to the fullest with God as the center, Christ as our model and the Holy Spirit as our guide. 
There are rewards for being part of the family of God; always knowing that you belong, no matter how much time has passed, no matter what you have done, family will take you in.  There is safety and security knowing that you are loved and wanted.  And while the human family of the church may struggle to live into this commitment to each other, the fact that we belong to the family of God is a bond that will never be broken.  We will always be wanted by God and when we face difficulties in life, it is Christ who will be by our side and the Holy Spirit who will always stand with us and give us the strength to see our way through. 
I hope and pray that you will continuously reflect on your adoption into the family of God and what it means for you to be able to call God your parent.  I pray that you will renew your promises that you took in your baptism and bind them on your heart, doing all you can to live in to the life that God has called you to.  It is with great joy that we sign our adoption papers and with great joy that we accept the name Christian.  Let us live in a way that honors our parent, honors our brothers and sisters in Christ and honors our family. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Life is Complicated

Acts 8:26-40

The bible is complicated. Don’t get me wrong.  It isn’t hard to read or understand but it is complicated.  The stories are interesting, exciting, emotional and funny.  The poetry is beautiful and speaks to the depths of our souls and it describes a God who loves us and wants us to live the best lives possible. 

Last week during confirmation, the girls and I were talking about how to read the bible.  One of the reasons it is so complicated is because we try to read it as one big book, written by the same author in an orderly and chronological manner, but it’s not.  It is composed of different books written over more than 3000 years, by different people, in different circumstances and these circumstances affected how that person and the community the book or poem was written for perceived God.  This can make scripture very confusing.

Because things are so confusing, we typically try to simplify the complexities of life, scripture and God to something that is easier to understand.  We break it down to a list of dos and don’ts.  Keep the 10 commandments, and stay away from as many of the behaviors Paul warns us about as possible while still doing all the good things Jesus tells us we should. 

We do this as we try to understand people too.  We look at the protests in Ferguson or Baltimore and because it is too difficult to try and understand the years of oppression and anger they feel it is easier to simply label them all as hoodlums and troublemakers.  We do this when we deal with children and teenagers. 


Kids that don’t do their homework or clean there room are labeled as stupid or lazy because it is easier than listening and trying to understand why they do or don’t do what is asked.  We need an interpreter. Someone who speaks both languages and lives in both worlds to understand.  We need a Philip.

When we do this with God or scripture. Instead of looking at the big picture or trying to understand why different scriptures say different things we look at scripture and ignore the parts we do that are labeled as wrong but then focus all our attention on what others do that we don’t like.  If we like it then God didn’t really mean it, if we don’t like it then it’s a sin. 

We can get away with doing this as long as we don’t think too hard about it and don’t look too closely. 

When you really start digging into scripture – that’s when it gets confusing.  At school we call this “losing our Jesus”  It is when all those things we thought we knew come unraveled at our feet as we dig into the scriptures and we start questioning why it says what it says and we begin to articulate and defend what we believe.  Our professors become our Philip.

This crossroads is where we find the Ethiopian eunuch in our story.  He is confused.  He is a God fearer- meaning he believed that our God, was the one true God but yet he was not a full participant in Jewish life.  He was dedicated to learning about God, he had traveled many miles to Jerusalem to worship and yet he wasn’t allowed in.   He could believe in God but because of either his nationality, his sexuality or both, he was not allowed to worship in the temple. 

The Temple was simply following the rules.  Deuteronomy tells us that men like this Ethiopian could not be a part of the assembly- whether he was born Jewish or not, because he wasn’t a whole man. 

Many Christians still do this.  We have simplified the Bible down to the list of dos and don’ts and if you fit into the list of don’ts you aren’t really welcome in our churches.  You can believe in Jesus, but don’t try to be part of us!  Church, school, employers, even parents do this.  We judge people by the way they look, dress, or act and we file them into a category of acceptable or unacceptable. 

You dress like that- you’re not going to date MY daughter!  You’ve been to prison- we’ll we will pray for you from a distance, you have tattoos- well you won’t work here!  You look or act different- well we don’t want you.  We are simply following the rules of society right?  We think are allowed to be mean, hurtful and exclude people we don’t like or people we don’t think fit into our mold.

But, then, we start reading scripture.  The Ethiopian eunuch has been told all his life that he isn’t wanted or welcomed even though he is smart, wealthy and dedicated.  But now, he is reading Isaiah, and he learns information that contradicts what he has always been told.  Isaiah 56 tells him that he of all people is actually exalted, not excluded.  Eunuchs who are faithful will receive a name better than sons and daughters! 

And here in the scripture that Philip overhears he reads of someone who has been rejected, humiliated and despised and yet blessed and in his pain others are made whole.  It is confusing!  Which is it?  Is he ostracized or exalted?  And, who is this person whom Isaiah talks about as taking on the pain of the world so that the world might find wholeness and healing? 

The Ethiopian needed someone to open his eyes and explain it and God placed Philip there for just that purpose.  Philip was sent by God to be the bridge for this man to understand scripture in fresh new ways and to see the scriptures through the lens of Jesus.  Scripture is complicated, life is complicated, people are complicated, but Love is simple.  God’s love is clear and pure- the Ethiopian just needed someone who knew Jesus to help him see God’s love and acceptance of him.

We need interpreters to help us to understand too.  God has given us study partners, pastors, friends and teachers to help us remember that God is bigger than words on a page and bigger than rules that include or exclude.  God has put us in the lives of others to help them see that the love of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ is available to everyone.   God is calling us to look past simple judgments and past the dusty covers of books to take time to get to know people who are different than we are and who we may not understand.  God is calling us to share the word of healing that Philip shared as he spoke with the Ethiopian man. 

When you feel excluded, unwanted and different, Jesus loves you and accepts you for who you are and who God created you to be.  When you feel broken, bullied or oppressed there is healing and wholeness in a relationship with Christ.  God calls the church to be that place and those people who love, honor and accept all those around us, especially those who have been excluded and cast out.   The love of Jesus is simple, it is available to everyone. 

Welcoming and loving people in the name Christ is not easy- like understanding scripture it takes practice, hard work and determination but the call is simple.  Allow yourself to lose your religion- the Jesus you will find is greater and more loving than you would ever expect.    

The Jesus you will find will love not only those you love but will allow you to love those parts of yourself that you feel are broken and missing and will bring you a whole new world of hope and healing and give you the courage to love those whom you never thought were loveable. 

Philip disappeared after sharing the good news with the Ethiopian man, never to cross paths again but the man was forever changed by this encounter.  You may never see the results of your actions but the love, welcome and acceptance we offer in Jesus name will always have an impact long after we are gone.  Take advantage of your teachers, share the good news with others – there is no telling what kind of difference your love will make in the lives of those you meet.