Friday, May 27, 2016

There Are Days

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).        

There are days you’d do over again if you could; days when you didn’t get it quite right, when the distance between who you want to be and you are is as wide as a galaxy.

There are days when you slacked off and simply got it done because you were tired and wanted to go home; you told yourself that no one would know the difference and your best efforts could wait for another day, the next task.

There are days when you wake up having barely slept, regretting the night before.  The sun went down on your wrath and rises on your shame.

There are days when you thought you’d made progress only to discover that you haven’t; an old memory stokes a fresh grief that feels like it will never go away. You’re stuck. There are days you have to try hard not to cry and days when you couldn’t cry if you wanted to. 

There are days you swear you’ll quit, you’ll walk if it happens again and if something around that place doesn’t change; on that same day you remember you really can’t do that.  

There are days that seem to bring nothing but trouble and heartache. We want nothing more than to get through them, and then forget them if we can.

Red Letter Reassurance
On days like that we need some red letter reassurance – words of Jesus that give us a place to take a stand and hold our ground. We need a promise that’s bigger that our problems. Almost any of the red letter words can put steel in our souls, but few pack a punch equal to the words of Jesus found in John 16:33.

A little context: There’s a section of John’s gospel that is often spoken of as Jesus’s farewell discourse. This material begins in John 13 when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This act of humble service is followed by a fairly lengthy mix of dialogue and monologue in which Jesus is trying to prepare his closest friends for his impending suffering and death, hinting at the resurrection but trying not to overload them with more than they can handle.

Near the end of this farewell discourse Jesus summarizes by saying, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).         

Peace in Trouble
In these few brief sentences a couple of things are certain.

First, Jesus wills our peace and his words make that peace possible. He spoke to his disciples for the purpose of imparting peace to them. The red letter words are not meant to confuse us or fill our minds with information. The words of Jesus are meant to change us. They make it possible for us to live at peace.

At the same time Jesus is very clear – the peace we yearn for will not be found in this world. This world is broken and to live in it is to know trouble and affliction. Jesus doesn’t dance around this truth. It’s not a question of ‘if’ trouble will come, but ‘when’ and ‘how.’       

The red letter reassurance reminds us that while trouble may be certain, it will not triumph. Jesus has overcome the world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s declaration that suffering, in all its manifestations, will not have the last word on your life.

So yes, there are days you’d never want to live through again. Today may be such a day for you. Take your stand on the red letter reassurance that a different day is coming. Let that promise give you peace. Jesus wants you to have it.     

Gracious God, every one of our days comes to us as a gift.  We do not always receive them that way.  There are days we’d gladly forget, when troubles threaten us and weakness gets the best of us. In every such day you walk with us. Your words give us peace, even in our affliction. Great is your faithfulness and we give you thanks in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Telling Time

. . . but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (Luke 12:56).

“I am the town clock-winder for Island Pond, Vermont.”

So wrote Garret Keizer in his fine memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. In his book Keizer reflects on his life as an Episcopal lay-pastor in a rural New England town. As the church’s solo pastor one of his duties was to climb into the steeple twice every week to wind the clock. This involved cranking two large spools of cable – one for the face of the clock and one for the bell that marked the hour.

Far from resenting such a mundane task, Keizer seems to delight in the insights he gleans from being the town’s clock-winder. One of his observations resonated with me as a very helpful picture of what we mean when we speak of a post-Christian world. He rescues the phrase from the academicians when he writes

The public keeping of time has passed from the church and possibly the municipal building to the branch bank. In most towns of any size that is the place to look for a digital display of the right time . . . It was logical for a church to tell people the time when one of the things they needed to know time for was when to pray, and when church feasts and holy days colored the calendar. Equally logical is it that a bank should tell the hours to a populace for whom time is not liturgical but financial, who inhabit a fiscal year broken into quarters and the maturation periods of certificates of deposit (p. 86).

When Time Is Money
Keizer seems to be saying that when the church steeple rang the hour it declared that time was sacred. The digital display in front of the bank declares that time is money.

Of greater significance than how we tell time is the shifting locus of authority in our world. Whether the hour is displayed at a bank or city hall or on a cell phone, the church has lost its voice in the ordering of the day, perhaps in the ordering of life.

I’ll go one step further with Keizer’s insight. Not only does the church no longer have voice in the ordering of time, the church’s organizational life now finds itself smothered in competition for the hours that belong to its own members. A persistent and insidious barrier to meaningful spiritual growth is the busy-ness of life, what John Ortberg has named ‘hurry sickness.’

Hurried people risk being shallow people. Depth, and this includes spiritual depth, requires an investment of time, and time that’s invested is also carefully and deliberately managed. 

Earlier today I heard the carillon bells in the steeple of the church where I serve ring the noon hour. I love hearing that sound from my office or from within our sanctuary. I can’t help but wonder if the hundreds of cars blistering the asphalt on Roswell Road heard what I heard. I’m doubtful. The hearing requires some measure of stillness.

The Holy Offering of Time
This is not to suggest that the only activities of the day that have spiritual significance are activities that happen inside a church building. Rather, what Keizer invites us to ponder is the way that faith is squeezed and choked in the post-Christian world’s use of time.

The question for all of us is not about how much time you spend at church – but how the church’s message shapes what you do with time. Any and every moment of the day can be a way of pursuing a closer walk with Jesus. This is because Jesus cares about all of your time, not just an hour or two on Sunday.            

We’ll spend a couple of days this week thinking about intentional faith development, what is sometimes spoken of as spiritual formation. How do you go about creating habits and practices that cause you to become more like Jesus? One answer to the question simply has to do with how we steward the gift of time. 

So think through your plans for this day. How might you take your schedule and make it a holy offering unto the Lord?

Gracious God, “my times are in your hand” (Ps. 31:15). And not only my times but my time – the hours and minutes of this day that you’ve placed before me. Order my steps, making every minute yours, lived thankfully and for your glory through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Where Does Envy Come From?

So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast (Genesis 4:5).
Saint Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow at another’s good.”

We experience that sorrow in different ways. Someone else’s blessing may feel like your curse.  Their gain feels like you’ve been deprived.  Their gladness galls you and their celebrating sends you into a tailspin of self-pity.

At its root, that sorrow – the bitter gnawing we name envy – grows in the soil of comparison. We look at the life we have and we compare it to the life someone else has. Most often we’re comparing ourselves with the life we think they have. Either way, the flower of that kind of comparing is envy. Envy isn’t the original sin, but it makes its debut very early in the biblical story. We’ve been struggling with this for a long time. 

An Age-Old Struggle
Both Cain and Abel presented offerings to God, but “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering” (Gen. 4:5). Why him? Cain asked the same question. It ate at him, making him sad and angry at the same time. Cain’s sorrow at his brother’s good drove him to kill his brother.    

And then there’s the story of Joseph. Joseph’s eleven brothers felt sorrow over Joseph’s good. The story in Genesis 37 never uses the word ‘envy’ but it repeatedly uses the word ‘hate.’ That’s how their sorrow felt. They hated Joseph. They were jealous of him.

As we read the story we’re hardly surprised that this is so. For one thing, what we see in Joseph is less than flattering. He is introduced to us as a tattle-tale, a brat. On top of that, he insists on sharing his self-aggrandizing dreams with his family.

Furthermore, all of the things that typically evoke envy are present in the story. We often envy someone’s possessions and Joseph was the only brother with a tailor-made multi-colored robe. We often envy someone’s rank or position and Joseph clearly has a special place in Jacob’s affections. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his sons (Gen. 37:3). We may also envy someone’s talents or gifts. Obnoxious though he was, Joseph had a gift for dreams and what they meant. Joseph seems to have had all the good, so we’re not surprised at the brothers’ sorrow.

But here’s the problem. While envy may be sorrow directed at another’s good, that sorrow is not really caused by another’s good.      

“I Shouldn’t Feel This Way” (but I do)
Jesus made it perfectly clear that envy, along with a menu of other evils, has its origin in the human heart. To be more specific, my envy can never be blamed on someone else. My sorrow, be it anger or self-pity, is not created by someone else’s good. Rather, my envy comes from my own heart. Indeed, the human heart is the primary residence of all sin.

This means that pornography does not make a person lust. Food does not make a person a glutton. Money does not make a person greedy. And the windfall of blessing that comes to my neighbor does not make me envy.

The corrosive acid that is envy will not be abated by something external to you. The remedy for what ails us is not to be found in a different turn of events or new set of circumstances. And what’s more, you can tell yourself “I shouldn’t feel this way,” but you still will. Envy can’t be cured by earnest efforts at doing or being a better person.

What we need is a new heart. The Hebrew prophets anticipated a time when God would make a ‘new covenant’ with us, writing his law on our heart. That new covenant became a reality in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Envy is put to death at the cross of Jesus.

Do you feel sorrow at another’s good today? Stop looking at them and look to Jesus, the only one able to change what we cannot change.

Merciful God, change my heart. Forgive the sorrow I’ve carried because of someone else’s good. Grant me the grace that replaces sorrow with joy. I would leave my envy at the foot of the cross today, receiving the gift of new life through Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Touch Hands: A Thanksgiving Poem

Thanks to Dr. John Roark for sharing this poem. I can't verify authorship. A nearly identical poem is attributed to James Patrick Erdman. 

Touch Hands
As years go on and heads turn gray
how fast the guests do go.
Touch hands, touch hands with those who stay -
young hands to old, strong hands to weak -
around the Thanksgiving board touch hands.

The False forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go
and every fire burn low, and cabin empty stand.
Forgive, forget - for who may say Thanksgiving Day
will ever come again for friend or foe alike.
Touch hands!


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"How Can Something I'm So Bad At Be God's Will for My Life?"

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:16-18). 

Full disclosure: The words above that make up the title of this reflection are borrowed. Shamelessly ripped off.

They come from one of my favorite books on prayer, a volume by David Hansen titled Long Wandering Prayer: An Invitation to Walk with God. By far the most memorable words of the book – or at least the words that somehow lodged in my memory – are the words that that I borrowed and placed at the top of this page. This is title six of the book. “How can something I’m so bad at be God’s will for my life?”

Great question. I’ve never said it quite that way but I’ve wondered the same thing. Maybe you have too.

Are We There Yet?
Let’s get specific. Hansen is talking about prayer. The Bible instructs us to “pray without ceasing,” but that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. I don’t always feel competent or confident in my praying. Why then does God will that I do this? It seems like there would be a closer connection between God’s will and my skill.

Hang on - there’s more. The short verse that tells us to pray without ceasing is followed immediately by another short verse that tells us to give thanks. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Turns out I’m not any better at always giving thanks than I am at ceaseless praying.        

This week marks the more-or-less official launch of the Holiday season. On Thursday we will celebrate a day of ‘Thanksgiving.’ For some ‘Thanksgiving’ is little more than a synonym for ‘food and football.’ For others, the day is an occasion to genuinely express gratitude. And then there are those for whom the day poses a difficult challenge. 

The scripture says to give thanks in all circumstances – but maybe you’re just not there right now. At some level the next 48 hours loom hard and painful because your reservoir of gratitude is bone dry. You know that the Bible says to be thankful; you tell yourself you should be thankful. But for whatever reason, thankfulness seems elusive this year. So how can something you’re so bad at be God’s will for your life?

If you’re just not there yet, how can you get to gratitude?

Thinking Hard and Thanking Well
Some time ago I did a memorial service for a man whom I did not know, not an uncommon thing for pastors to do. When I asked his daughter to tell me about her Dad she handed to me a ten page type written document. Years before his death her Dad had written a brief history of the most significant moments of his life, beginning with his birth in the late 1930s.

The year by year synopsis contained not one word of religious language, but as I read it God’s grace and mercy kept showing up in his story, laced through the years. Did he see it or recognize it or know what to name it? Did he know where and who it came from? I believe so. But whether he ever named it grace or not – that’s exactly what it was.         

You don’t have to type a ten page document, but maybe we get to gratitude by thinking hard about our life and discerning the gifts that we cannot explain or take credit for (can we take credit for anything?). We make a mistake if we expect thanksgiving to well up within us naturally, a geyser of positive emotion and good will. You may feel like you’re bad at giving thanks. But we don’t give thanks because we’re good at it. We give thanks because God is good to us. 

Thanking well just might require thinking hard about your life, sighting and naming evidences of grace. Can you see them in your story this week?

Apart from your grace, O God, our hearts are not inclined to gratitude. To give thanks in all things, we need the help of your Spirit, opening our eyes to mercies that come to us with each new day. Help us to see them, and make us thankful, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Myth of a Safe Distance

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people . . . and I have come down to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8)

Last month during a two week pilgrimage in the Holy Land, our itinerary took us to a site referred to in the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. Today the site is called ‘Banias.’

Traveling to Caesarea Philippi takes you into the mountainous region of extreme northern Israel called the Golan Heights. On this day our guide and driver navigated a narrow road that led to a scenic overlook, allowing us an expansive view into Syria. This place is designed for tourists, complete with a gift shop and refreshment vendors. Signs marking the Syrian border were only a few yards away from where we stood.  

What we saw from that mountain belied everything I had been hearing in the news about Syria. The day was bright and warm, the skies were clear, and the view that stretched out in front of us appeared calm, even inviting.

The view was beautiful. Until we heard the explosions.

Our Desire for Distance
Initially I wasn’t sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. But soon the sounds came again, and then again, and on the far horizon a plume of smoke was rising. This otherwise picturesque scene was marred by the sights and sounds of war. What had previously been only a brief news report was now very real to us. We were looking at a ravaged land. What Americans regard as a horrific anomaly happens every day in Syria.

I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of those explosions. And I’ll never forget my reaction to what I heard and saw. I wasn’t afraid. None of us were directly threatened by what was happening. Some of our group spoke with UN observers there who were watching with stoic and objectified interest.

More than fear I felt a sadness, quickly followed by a strong desire to leave. I just wanted to get away from that place. I wanted to get back to the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee, the comfort of my hotel room, and ultimately back home. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and Syria as I possibly could.

Of course, millions of Syrians are trying to do the very same thing.

The Enemy of Justice                      
Distance can take a variety of forms. The most obvious is literal physical distance. Damascus and Atlanta are separated by a large ocean and more than six thousand miles. I can hear about what’s happening there, feel concern and sympathy, while also feeling removed and grateful that it isn’t happening here. Distance can also be emotional. You can be right in the middle of something and yet be disconnected, aloof. You’re there, but you’re not present.

The Hebrew prophets admonished God’s people for failing to do justice. Distance doesn’t look like hostile disregard for others, but it allows us to be aware without being impacted. For this reason, distance is the enemy of justice.

The attacks in Paris over the weekend disturb us not only for the tragic loss of life involved, but for the loss of our imagined distance from the reach of threat and danger. There are awful things happening in this world, and we want all the distance from them that we can get.

But to truly do justice requires getting close, getting involved, getting in the mess of our unjust world. That’s not to say you need to go to Syria. There’s plenty of mess right where you live. Our God is not a distant God. God sees the plight of his people and hears their cries. God may not act as speedily as we wish – but neither will he remain aloof and removed from this world.

Distance is the enemy of justice. How will you walk with God through this day, drawing near to what is broken, bringing wholeness, doing justice?

Merciful and just God, you draw near to those in affliction and those who walk with you must do the same. We confess that we prefer a safe distance that lets us feel concern without getting involved. Grant us the courage we need to draw near to our broken world, bringing the wholeness and justice that comes through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.   

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Living with Expectancy

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?" Jesus said, “Have the people sit down” . . . (John 6:8-9)

Consider this question and respond on a scale of 1-10: As you begin this day (or continue to move through it, depending on when you read this), how would you rate your level of expectancy?

Read the question one more time. Slowly. Note that you are not being asked about your level of excitement about your day. Excitement and expectancy are not the same thing.

Excitement is a pleasure response to what the day holds for us. When we see good things ahead, we’re excited about the day. When the calendar has us engaging with people we really enjoy or doing things that bring us deep satisfaction, we sense within ourselves an eagerness to engage what’s in front of us. The pleasures we see and the energy we feel, we name excitement.

Some of you are looking at your day, and the last thing you feel right now is excitement. Boredom, possibly. Dread, hopefully not. But excitement? Hardly.

“Have the People Sit Down”
Expectancy is a cousin to excitement, but not an identical twin. They share a common sense of ‘looking forward’ to something, but being expectant doesn’t require being excited. Expectancy grows in mystery, in the unknown or unclear spaces of what you’re dealing with. Being expectant means you know that something is about to happen – you just don’t know exactly what it is.    

This week we’ve been thinking about how Jesus fed an enormous crowd of people with a boy’s sack lunch – five barley loaves and two fish to be precise. Jesus had presented his disciples with the problem of how these people would be fed, where they would get enough bread to go around. John allows us an insider take on the story. Jesus is asking a question, but he already knows what he will do (Jn. 6:6).

Once this meager meal has been placed in Jesus’ hands, he gives a word of instruction to his disciples. “Have the people sit down.”

This is the expectant moment. Philip and Andrew and the others have no idea what Jesus is about to do. The problem they face has not gone away. The crowd in front of them is still large. The only food they have on hand is still worthless to make a difference. But in all of this there is Jesus.

More than We Imagine
To live our days with expectancy means this: our problems don’t go away, but Jesus is with us. And while we don’t know exactly what Jesus will do, we know he will do something.

As the disciples urged people to sit down, spread a cloak or a blanket and get comfortable, Jesus offered a prayer of thanksgiving and began passing the bread. And he kept passing it. He kept on for a long while.

He kept passing bread until everyone was fed – not only fed but full. They didn’t get a quick snack. They received a meal and they had as much as they wanted (6:11-12). When Philip and Andrew were seating the multitude, they had no idea that Jesus would do what he did. To borrow words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Jesus did “more than they could ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

That’s what Jesus does. And that’s why you can live this day expectantly, whether you’re excited about your day or not. Place your life in his hands and watch for what he will do.

Just like the small lunch that was entrusted to your hands, Lord Jesus, I give to you all that this day holds and all that concerns me. You know what you will do, and that truth alone is enough for me. I will wait and watch expectantly, knowing that you are good and what you do is good. Amen.