Saturday, April 30, 2005

A Prayer for the Overwhelmed

And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:17).

For me, any mention of “chariots of fire” immediately conjures up images from the movie of the same title: the familiar theme song, slow motion footage of young aristocratic Brits running on the beach, the sacred stone structures of Oxford. I liked the movie – but it places a distant second to this scene from 2 Kings 6.

The King of Aram is in a rage because the Israelites seem to know his every move. He’s convinced there’s a leak from within his own ranks. He gathers his officers for an inquisition – quick trial, speedy execution. “Don’t look at us,” they protest. “It’s the prophet Elisha. He tells the King of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.”

After determining that the prophet is in Dothan, the King of Aram sends an army – horses, chariots, the works – to seize the prophet. This fact alone is amusing and worth pondering. An army sent to take a prophet (I take further delight that he was a bald prophet according to 2 Kings 2:23). The Arameans go by night and surround the prophet and his servant.

Early the next morning the prophet’s servant steps outside. After a yawn and a good stretch it hits him that something isn’t right – and then he sees them. Horses, chariots, soldiers, all in battle formation. The NIV rendering of the servant’s reaction is one of the great understatements of the Hebrew Scriptures. “Oh my Lord, what shall we do?” I’m no Hebrew scholar, but I can imagine that a literal translation of his words would make for some very colorful English.

Luckily, this overwhelmed servant is in the company of a man who has a keen eye for the presence of God. The prophet Elisha speaks the confident, assuring word. “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

There are seasons when we all need someone like this in our lives. We wake up one morning and find ourselves facing something overwhelming. We have no idea how to handle it, what to do, what will happen next. The problem is not a matter of belief. I think Elisha’s servant knew and believed in Elisha’s God. Sometimes, what is thrown at us eclipses our vision. When you’ve just been told that the chemo treatments will last for twelve weeks, or when you suddenly realize in the final trimester that your baby isn’t moving, or when you make the drive home after leaving your child at a rehab hospital, or when you wake up the first morning after losing your job – in these moments the question of Elisha’s servant is asked but not answered. “What will we do?”

There are plenty of people around asking that question for any number of reasons. It doesn’t require a tragedy or crisis. Sometimes the relentless demands of work and traffic and expectations and unpaid bills and ambitious pursuits can overwhelm. We need someone to remind us: “A mighty power surrounds you. This power has been given to you. Those with you are greater than what you see right now.” We need a prophet – and that doesn’t necessarily mean “preacher.” A faithful, believing friend will do just fine.

The prophet’s assuring words are backed up by a prayer. “Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” You can pray this for a friend. You can pray it for yourself. Hopefully there’s someone in your life to pray it with you and for you. The implication of the prayer is that there is something happening that I can’t see. There’s more going on than meets the eye. When we’re overwhelmed, the simple truth is that we need help. We need help to see what is really happening. The words of this prayer are significant. Most often, when we’re drowning in our own circumstances or when we know someone else who is, we pray for changed circumstances. This is valid, but it’s not enough. What we need is a capacity to see what truly surrounds us. We need the strength that comes from the host of heaven arrayed our side.

God answered Elisha’s prayer. The eyes of the servant were opened. He saw the chariots of fire all around Elisha. Whatever faces you today, may your eyes be opened in the same way.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

More on Messy Mystics

“You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name” (Psalm 61:5b TNIV)

A word of clarification about these messy mystics: I’m playing with words here. I’m not restricting myself to a tight and scholarly definition of “mystic.” And I’m identifying the stuff of ordinary life as “messy.” That doesn’t mean it’s bad or undesirable or to be avoided. It’s just there, and anyone who lives an ordinary life has to deal with all the details of that life. As a pithy southern colloquialism has it, “the fleas come with the dog.”

Here are some followers of Jesus who knew (or know) well what that southernism means.

Gregory of Nazianzus learned it the hard way. Born in 330 A.D. in a region we know as central Turkey, he was the son of a Bishop and a child of privilege. He was devout even as a child, and as he grew so did his yearning for the contemplative life. Elijah and John the Baptist were biblical role models. Poor Gregory was ordained against his will. As a Baptist-turned-Presbyterian I’m not exactly sure how that happened in the fourth century. His pastor father needed some help and that fact was certainly in the mix. But Gregory wanted something other than the headaches of dealing with the church and church people. He responded to his ordination by running away and hiding out for a while, no doubt praying fervently and attempting to convince God that a major celestial error had been made. God ignored Gregory. Gregory went back home – only to do the very same thing again about ten years later (this was his answer to being given a promotion in the church). Eventually Gregory embraced the pastoral life and had a fruitful ministry. He served the church in a turbulent time, endured threats of assassination, a produced some weighty stuff like a sermon series called “Five Orations on the Divinity of the Logos.” You don’t come up with stuff like that without being something of a mystic – but he did it in a messy time, in the heat of conflict.

Fast forward about 1300 years to a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France. There a monk known to us as Brother Lawrence lived for 42 years. Sounds escapist on the surface, but within the life of the community Brother Lawrence learned what it meant to live seamlessly between times of solitude and worship and times of labor. Brother Lawrence worked in the Kitchen – cleaning pots and pans and dishes until his fingers were shriveled and raisin like. For Lawrence, the Kitchen and the Chapel were both places of prayer. We don’t see him standing at the sink, pining away for the quiet of his cell. He prayed during designated times of worship. He prayed in the kitchen. That’s a tough one for me since I usually find our kitchen and the messes we make there to be a source of endless frustration and repeated labor (didn’t I just empty the dishwasher? My turn again?) I’ve got plenty to learn from Brother Lawrence.

I had the chance to hear Henri Nouwen in the spring of 1994 at the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth, Texas. Like many, I had long admired the man through his writings. The final season of Nouwen’s life intrigues me. In his little volume, In the Name of Jesus, Nowen describes the spiritual lethargy that had settled upon him as he climbed the ladder in academia. Notre Dame and Harvard looked good on the resume, but those names did little for the soul of this teacher-priest. In this state of barrenness he prayed for direction and eventually discerned this response: “go and live among the poor in spirit and they will heal you.” So this widely published and sought after teacher left the halls of the Ivy League and went to live among a community of mentally handicapped people- many of whom had not gone to school and couldn’t read (quite a career move). There among the broken and simple, pastoring by helping people to get ready for bed and go to the bathroom, Nouwen reflects on the nature of Christian Leadership and calls leaders to be people who are given to contemplative prayer. I don’t sense that many of us pastors are rushing to sign up for that kind of thing. That’s just a little too messy.

Among the living my regard for pastor-professor Eugene H. Peterson cannot be overstated. Again, as with Nowen, I know him only through his books. I did receive a personal letter from him years ago. This in itself is unusual. That a nobody seminary student could write to him to express gratitude or ask a question, and that he would actually write back seems extraordinary to me now (and it did then). A line from his letter of June 25, 1992 says it well. “Maybe that’s why you find my writings helpful, because they were all written in the middle of the traffic, trying to learn how to practice the contemplative life in the particular setting of the pastoral vocation.”

At this point I feel like the writer of Hebrews. After rehearsing the roll call of faith in chapter 11 the writer seems to lament that there are so many other faithful ones to be spoken of, other stories to be told. Same here. I haven’t said anything about Dallas Willard or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Jonathan Edwards. Maybe another time. For now, I keep searching for role models among the living and the dead. I urge you to do the same.

The Psalmist says it well (yet again!). “You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

You Can't Be A Mystic Apart From the Mess

So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day (Psalm 61:8 ESV).

While “routine” isn’t a word I would choose to describe my life, my life is made up of a collection of routines. Patterns emerge that are repeated, sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. I’m always the first one up in the morning. I go downstairs and make the coffee. After some time in my study, it’s time to wake the kids, get dressed, help my wife get the kids dressed, then down for breakfast. Most mornings I do car-pool duty on my way to the church. The rhythm of the week is marked by Wednesday nights at church, and Sunday mornings at church. At church on Wednesdays there is choir for the kids followed by dinner in the fellowship hall, followed by one of my weekly teaching commitments. My days are shaped by meetings that happen with familiar repetition: A set of meetings for Monday, a set for Tuesday, a set for Wednesday.

Routines. I don’t know who said it – but I’ve heard that the hardest thing about life is that it’s just so daily. This is true. Routines can be deadening. Boredom sets in. All the real living gets bleached out of life.

And when it comes to our walk with God and our understanding of what it means to live a spiritual life, routines are like Novocain to the soul. We know our souls are there, we just can’t feel them. This leads us to the following conclusion: if we could ditch the routines, we could really know God. We could truly live with a sense of God’s presence. We could get close to God. But for these dishes in the sink, and practices to run to, and clothes to be folded, and grass to be mowed, and baths to be overseen, and family members to be called – were it not for all this daily-ness, we could live a spiritual life.

But this conclusion is wrong. We don’t find God by losing routines and patterns and obligations. We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less predictable. We don’t get deep by getting free. If anything, the opposite is true. God is found and grace is received in the midst of ordinariness. We demonstrate a likeness to God in our own faithfulness and steadfast commitments.

The Psalmist seems to have experienced the right mingling of exuberant praise and daily faithfulness. The words of Psalm 61:8 clearly come from one who has discovered what it means to worship in the midst of the daily performance of vows. Praise and daily-ness belong together. We learn to worship as we embrace the familiar every day stuff that constitutes our lives.

Mysticism and escapism are not the same thing. Not even close.

In fact, mysticism seems to thrive on the mundane. You can’t be a mystic apart from the mess.

One of my own ways of kindling a sense of fervor for the life of faith is to find people who know God intimately and embrace life, ordinary life, fully. Many of these exemplary followers of Jesus are long dead, but not all of them. In a coming post I’ll tell about some of my favorites.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Listening Trumps Liturgy

Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear (Psalm 40:6a ESV).

Listening is hard work. I’ve decided that after years in the ministry, those of us who are supposed to have a capacity for listening often master techniques that give the impression of listening – the well timed nod or “humph” of affirmation. All the while we’re sleepy or preoccupied or just somewhere else.

In my pastorate a few years ago in North Carolina, Miss Cloyce was the oldest member of our congregation. She was 98 when I did her funeral in December of 2001. She was also my next door neighbor. Long stretches between pastoral visits didn’t go unnoticed. I liked Cloyce and enjoyed talking with her, but she kept her house very warm. Perhaps I’m just remembering visits made during the winter months. Still, regardless of the season, my memories of visiting Cloyce are marked by the warmth of the house and the comfort of the chair she would have me seated in. It was always the same chair - one of those rocking chairs that actually slides, the sliding somehow simulating the smooth motion of rocking.

After a few minutes in that smooth sliding chair, as the warmth of the house soaked into me, giving attentive pastoral care became nearly impossible. If I happened to visit her after lunch time, well . . . forget it. It was all I could do to hold my head up. And the weird part of this is that I had some conscious awareness that I was struggling to listen (struggling to stay awake) but the awareness did little to help me focus and engage. To my knowledge I never lapsed into a full blown head-dropping- zone-out moment while visiting Cloyce. I can only hope that my zombie like presence wasn’t too obvious to her. Listening is hard work.

And as important as it is to listen well to others, this pales against the importance of listening well to God. There’s no shortage of counsel on how to listen to God. I won’t venture to add anything to that. But what strikes me about Psalm 40:6 is the priority of listening. The Psalmist says that the religious activities of sacrifice and offering rank below listening. Listening trumps liturgy. There’s a footnote in my bible that says that the Hebrew of 40:6a literally reads “ears you have dug for me.” That’s an amazing picture. It suggests that listening isn’t simply something I do, but something that God allows me to do and helps me to do.

Activity – even good worship activity like sacrifice and offering – is always easier than listening. Listening requires outward stillness coupled with inner rigor and focus. It’s exhausting. But if listening is neglected, the liturgy quickly becomes rote.

I want to listen more and better. Clutter makes it difficult. If not clutter, a life that’s comfortable and warm lulls me to inattention. I need help like everyone else. I need God to come and open my ears and give me the capacity to listen.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

"Just Show Me Where the People Are."

Recently Steve Haas came to our church as guest preacher. Steve is the Vice President for Church Relations for World Vision. On the day of his arrival in Atlanta it was my privilege to help show him around our church facility – get him oriented to our sanctuary and the setting in which he would soon preach.

As we were walking around the building Steve shared a recent experience of his in which he had hosted a contemporary Christian musician who was visiting the headquarters of World Vision. After touring the offices for a while, Steve asked this Christian rocker if there was anything else in particular he would like to see. The response was surprising but wonderfully honest. The musician said, “Just show me where the people are.”

There may be something generational about this. I don’t know – but it seems that many like myself came of spiritual “age” in an era of Christendom that values institutions and programs and buildings. We know we’re making an impact when these things are large and thus deemed successful. But now, something else is happening and it isn’t about programs and institutions and buildings. It’s relational, connectional. It’s all about the people. The terse request of the musician says it well. “Just show me where the people are.” The offices and rooms and equipment aren’t really that interesting anymore.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 Paul writes to his new converts and asks “for what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy (ESV).” Paul seems to be making his point by asking questions. The point is simple. His glory and joy, that in which he boasts, are the people in Thessalonica who have heard the good news about Jesus and turned from serving idols to serving the living and true God (1:9). They are people whose lives have been changed by the message of what God has done in Jesus. The first thing Paul wants to show us about his ministry is people. He points and says “look at them!”

Of course, this doesn’t negate the need and importance of buildings and equipment. Congregations seem more apt to gather when there are four sound walls and a good roof overhead, when someone has planned a purpose or agenda for the gathering, when it’s generally understood what will happen and when resources are managed in such a way that the intent of the gathering can actually be realized. The institutional life of the church simply will not and cannot go away.

But ultimately the question that demands to be answered is about people. What’s happening to the lives of people as the institution does its thing? Honestly, I’m more likely to seek my glory and joy and boasting in some inanimate achievement like a well attended program or a bible study where people laugh at all my witticisms (and then tell me how good it was).

But is anyone being changed? Is anyone even being helped . . . just a little?

I like what happens when we take Paul’s questions and let the Christian rocker give the answer. “For what is our glory and joy and crown of boasting?”

“Just show me where the people are.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Blessed or Bitter?

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. (Psalm 63:3 ESV)

When I was a hospital chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas our department director was a man by the name of Joe Gross. Joe had the appearance of a large and burly man, not what you picture when you think of a pastoral caregiver. He looked more like a Marine. But Joe had a perceptive mind, a caring heart and some deep wisdom.

I’ll never forget one of his teaching sessions with us. He remarked about a well known saying, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” That phrase gets thrown around easily in a hospital setting. It’s a way of finding something positive in the midst of difficulty or suffering. But Joe didn’t buy it. He told us that the phrase was not true – at least not always. Sometimes, he said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you bitter.”

Often, since that time, I’ve wondered what makes the difference. What makes the difference between a person who emerges from something difficult as a blessed person and one who simply becomes bitter? Part of the answer is in this verse from Psalm 63. “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.”

When I was pondering this statement a while back, I was struck by the boldness of this prayer. The Psalmist is almost defiant in exalting the glory of God and the worth of God’s love above any earthly attachments. I liked the words, and I felt like this was something I wanted to be able to say – but I had an objection. The verse seemed to create a dualism between God’s love and the experiences of life.

Don’t we know the love of God in the stuff of life? Don’t we know God’s love in the voices of our children, the sounds and sights of early morning, the smell of food, the way we feel when we laugh hard, the smell of cut grass, the delight of human touch – holding hands and a good long back rub? Our spirituality is not disembodied. We know God’s love in the earthiness of our lives, in detail. As Eugene Peterson says, “abstraction is the devil’s work.”

All of this is true. We do know God’s love that way – but here’s the problem.

There are many people who can’t have children or who have lost children. There are many people who never feel another human touch, or the touch they feel is violent. There are many who no longer recognize their own family members, who cannot see a sunrise, who do not have enough food to eat, who will never own a home with a yard where they cut the grass.

So if we know the love of God in the stuff of life, then God’s love is “hit and miss.” Not everyone gets in on it.

The best way to understand the Psalmist’s prayer is to understand that while we may experience God’s love in the details of life, God’s love is something other than God’s gifts. If we confuse God’s gifts with God’s love we will be more likely to become bitter people. Bitterness takes root when we place the weight of our sense of rightness and well being on our family, our health, our income or career, our retirement plans and bank accounts. We may know these in abundance – but maybe not. And then what?

When these gifts are no longer ours, there is still the love of God. And we can come at it from the other direction. To have these gifts apart from the love of God is to soon discover how empty they can be. They really can’t bear the entire weight of our happiness.

So I want to do what they Psalmist says. I want my lips to praise God for every gift of grace I know in this life. And should the gift be taken away, I want to be found still praising. I want to live as one blessed, not bitter. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.

Monday, April 18, 2005

"Dear Lord" - O Forget It!

I don’t know many people for whom prayer comes easy.

A few weeks back during the Lenten season I read again the story of Jesus’ disciples nodding off in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus said to them some familiar words – words known by even marginally religious people – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Those words are used with reference to diets and other habits or urges for which we wish to deflect responsibility. But Jesus spoke the words into a context of prayer. Jesus had asked them to pray, to keep watch, and they couldn’t do it.

I remember one of the churches my dad served as pastor when I was a kid. They had an annual practice called “youth week.” This is where the youth of the church assumed the positions of the staff for a week. Practically speaking, this meant they helped with certain roles in a Sunday worship service. I remember one such service in which a young woman (she seemed like a woman to me at the time) was asked to say the offertory prayer in the worship service. She came to the pulpit and began. “Dear Lord” - and then she froze. There was the longest awkward silence. This was no reverent pause. This was a full-scale meltdown. Finally she blurted out “O Forget it!” and she walked off the platform.

Somehow my dad salvaged the moment and the service went on. The botched prayer left me trying to stifle my laughter. I’m far more sympathetic now. I don’t laugh at that anymore because I’ve done the same thing - never from the pulpit or in the context of worship, but far too often in my own weak efforts to pray. I’ve felt that way about prayer. I try to pray. I get things going – and then just lock up. O Forget it!

That’s why I’m thankful for the story of what happened in Gethsemane. I'm thankful that we’re told that Jesus’ closest followers struggled to pray, struggled with their willing spirits and weak flesh. I’m thankful that when they should have been praying they felt more like sleeping and that sleep won the contest, at least momentarily. I’m thankful that Jesus was direct enough to rebuke them, but that he didn’t do it with accusation. Rather he asked them a question, and the question comes fresh to followers of Christ again and again. Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? And I’m thankful for Luke 11:1. Here the disciples ask “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Of course, in response to this request, Jesus gave his disciples a prayer which has come to be known to us as “the Lord’s Prayer.” The content of those words has been the subject of thorough study and reflection. What I observe with gratitude is the simple fact that Jesus responded to their request at all. His model prayer is an implicit acknowledgement that prayer can be taught, that the use of a form is a good thing. An outline isn’t cheating.

So much of my understanding of prayer has been shaped by the extemporaneous expression of “the heart.” This usually means an outpouring of emotion, prayer laced with intense feeling. When I’m trying too hard to pray that way I lock up.

But Jesus gave us a prayer. I think he meant for us to use it. His words are help in those moments when my spirit is willing but my flesh is weak.

Yes Lord, teach us to pray . . . and keep on teaching us.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

A Hymn in Springtime

The word revival has not entirely disappeared from today’s religious vocabulary. Most often when I hear the word these days I hear of something the church desperately needs. Revival is a work of the Holy Spirit among God’s people, a work for which we are to pray without ceasing. I believe this true. While my own prayers are fitful and forgetful in this matter, I know the church needs revival and I know that only God can bring it about. But in the churches in which I grew up revival meant something more. Revival was an annual event. It was scheduled and planned. Usually a guest preacher was invited to come to the church. There would be revival services each night of the week. (As I grew older the week-long event shrunk to a three night event. Some churches now have abandoned the practice altogether).

At some point during the week there would be a gathering of the people that involved no small amount of food. The preaching was intense, the singing was robust. Typically held in the springtime of the year, these revival meetings were the congregation’s rousing from the slumber of winter: A yearly shot-in-the-arm for the faithful, a frequent Damascus road for those who had never made a commitment to Jesus Christ. This is what was happening at the North Trenholm Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina in the spring of 1970. I had just turned eight years old. My uncle Earl was the pastor of that church, and the guest preacher for the week was my Dad.

I wish I could remember more of the details of that particular April evening – the look of the church, what I had done that day, the very spot in the sanctuary where I was seated, the words of the sermon my father preached. I honestly can’t recall much of that evening (I think it was a Thursday). But there are a few things that have remained with me over the past thirty-four years. As with almost every worship service in a Baptist church, this one ended with an “invitation” to respond to God’s work, and especially God’s promptings through the preached word. The most urgent invitation, especially in revival services, was often a call to make a decision for Christ. This response or “decision” usually meant walking down the aisle to speak with the pastor who stood at the front of the church as a hymn was being sung. This coming forward was an open declaration, the act that constituted a public profession of faith. My father, having finished the sermon I don’t remember, extended the invitation.

I remember the mingling of longing and dread, knowing that I needed to go forward, and yet not wanting to move. Still, for whatever reason, this was the moment when I knew in my eight year old spirit that the time had come to respond. I remember moving to my left to exit the pew. And above all else I remember the hymn that was being sung at that moment: I Surrender All. In the years since my eight-year-old-center-aisle journey, I have sung that hymn time and time again in a variety of worship settings. However, it has been only recently that I’ve begun to feel the weight of what the hymn says. The act of yielding one’s life, handing it over, letting it go, lies at the heart of the Christian life.

The night I went to the front of the church to speak to my father about trusting in Jesus, I Surrender All was background music. Now, thirty-four years later, “I surrender all” is becoming a theme song. In a sesne, it defines what I’m seeking to do every day as a follower of Jesus Christ. Honestly, those words are much easier sung than lived. Those words name the struggle, the fight. Why do we find it so hard?

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Rock Wall

On the day my son turned seven we were in a large sporting goods store getting gear for his soon to start baseball season. At the back of this particular store is a large rock-climbing wall, a wall that spans the entire two-story height of the building. Since each floor has very high warehouse ceilings, this is a tall wall. John wanted to climb it. He’s never climbed this particular wall before, but he’s been to plenty of birthday parties at “Atlanta Rocks.” He loves climbing these knobby contoured walls. So there in the store I paid for the climb and one of the store staffers helped John into his “harness.”

My son started making his way up the wall, and the higher he went the more I felt a kind of pride and delight welling up within myself. By the time he cleared the halfway point I was into it. From time to time he would pause and search for the next hand-hold, a place to put a foot, anything to hold on to. I would try to coach him. “Look to your left John” etc. Mostly I just encouraged him to keep climbing. I wanted him to make it to the top. And he did.

That picture of my son scaling the rock wall, making slow-but-sure progress, stopping to look for the next step – it’s stayed with me as a picture of what ministry is about. The words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 capture the rock climbing nature of being a pastor. “For you know that we dealt with you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” Much of what I saw in John’s climb reflects life experience that most of us eventually encounter. Progress is slow. From time to time we need to stop and consider what’s next – look at options, assess where each option might take us. At times we’ve got a firm grip, at other moments we’re barely hanging on.

The good news is we don’t climb alone. We need people to help us, to offer some guidance and counsel, to tell us we’re not finished and that we can keep moving. Pastors get to do that. Parents and friends are also on the frontlines of this kind of work.

The rock wall experience took on an added dimension when John was finished with his climb and had been lowered back to the floor. Now it was my daughters turn. She’s five. She did fairly well, but after climbing the bottom third of the wall she decided she’d had enough. “I want to come down now” she said in a matter of fact tone. I kept coaching, urging her to reach for this or that knob, giving her the benefit of my superior vantage point on the floor. Anna responded to my exhortations by letting go of the wall. And there she dangled, swinging slightly back and forth. She was finished – but held firmly in place next to the wall by the belay.

Climbing the rock wall isn’t just about effort and progress. It’s also about grace. We all hit places on this climb where we decide we’ve had enough. We decide to stop. Sometimes, we slip. What we thought we could reach turns out to be beyond us. We can’t hold on. And at those moments God holds us firmly in place. We are anchored, even when we’re dangling.

I’d like to tell you that my daughter eventually reached the top of the wall. Not this time. But someday she will – and until then, and with every step, there’s always grace.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

No God-Forsaken Places (wrap up)

So . . . there are no God-forsaken places.

I've got solid biblical grounds for saying so - but I'm not in the hospital now, I'm not stationed in Iraq now, I like where I live and what I do. Easy for me to say.

Still, my hunch is that what we call "God-forsaken" has little to do with what we really believe about the presence or absence of God. The pain we feel as "forsaken-ness" comes from the absence of ourselves. By that I mean to say that what we call God-forsaken is in actuality any place or circumstance beyond my control and the exercise of my will to change it and shape it. It's a place or situation void of me. God may be very much involved.

Back to Elijah at the Kerith Ravine. The story is found in 1 Kings 17. Honestly, the details are sparse. We don't know where the place is or what it was like. What we do know about this season in the prohet's life makes two things clear. First, Elijah isn't doing much. Second, God is doing plenty. And maybe that's the point of all so-called God-forsaken places.

The only thing we really see happening at the Kerith Ravine is not of the prophet's doing, but of God's. God tells Elijah that in this place of hiding ravens will arrive daily with bread and meat. Every morning, the ravens bring breakfast. Every evening, the ravens bring dinner. Elijah does not grow his own food, and he does not work to earn it. He waits by the brook. He hides. He sits in quiet obscurity and lives by grace.

In our God-forsaken places we too learn to what it means to depend entirely on God. We may not like where we are. We may find it hostile or boring. We may resent it because we never wanted or expected to be where we are and with every passing day we're convinced that our lives are being wasted. But God has a purpose in those places. He renders us still and then he provides - day after day, morning and evening, showing himself faithful.

God seems intent on teaching us to rely on him and him alone for our well being. Even when we embrace the difficult place we usually do so while formulating our plan for escape. Yes, this is not where we want to be, not where we planned to be - but it can't last forever. Soon we'll find another place that suits us. But the next place doesn't always hold up under the weight of our hopes.

Elijah eventually moves. His relocation is brought about by two factors that often work closely together. For one thing, practical circumstances dictated that it was time to move on. The brook where Elijah had been hiding and from which he had drawn water began to dry up. God was keeping his word. There was no rain in the land and not even Elijah was immmune from the impact of drought. Elijah had to go. But in addition to the dictates of circumstance, the move was directed by God's word and God's will. "Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there" (1 Kings 17:9).

Zarephath is hardly a move "up the ladder." The water of the brook and food supplied by ravens is replaced by a widow's meager provisions. She has a handful of flour and a little oil in a jug. No health care plan for the prophet here. Barely enough for the woman and her son. But again, Elijah in Zarephath continues to know what it means to live by grace - the lesson of the Kerith Ravine is being taught all over again.

Maybe the place we dream of is a place where we can be just fine without God. That's precisely where God will not take us. It's our sin that makes us yearn for such a place - the old garden of Eden lie. And from time to time we find ourselves in the difficult place, the unexpected place. We join the prophet Elijah in learning (again) to live by grace. And grace is there. We need help in seeing it. Then we can say with Jacob "surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it" (Genesis 28:16).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

No God-Forsaken Places

I'm working my way slowly through George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards. What I've come to know of his ministry intrigues me. After a long pastorate (more than 20 years) in Northampton, Mass., his congregation dismissed him. These days the pastoral literature calls it "forced termination." Bottom line: he got fired. Strangely, since the congregation couldn't quickly locate another minster, Edwards and his family remained in the parsonage and he continued to serve as their "interim" for nearly one year after his dismissal. That's a hard one for me to get my head around given what I've witnessed in similar situations today - but it seemed agreeable to Edwards and the congregation at Northampton.

Eventually Edwards had to move on - but where? Lots of pastors today ask the same question. The answer for Edwards was a mission outpost in western Massachusets. A place called Stockbridge. The demographic of the area was hardly the stuff of a church planter's dreams. Native Americans were the primary evangelism "target." So here's one of the most brilliant theological minds of the time (or any time for that matter) ministering the Word and caring for a little gathering of Indians who are learning what it means to believe and follow Jesus.

The questions come quickly to mind: How did a guy like him get to a place like that? Was he ever angry about it? Were there days when he despised Indians? Did he snap at his children and wife when the pain of resentment and disappointment leaked out of his lacerated soul?

From all I can tell, the answer is simply "no."

As I understand that period of Edwards' life, it was particularly fruitful with regard to his thinking and writing. He just kept doing what God had called him to do.

Most of us don't do too well with the God-forsaken places in our lives. And the way we define that place includes more than our latitude and longitude on a map. We understand place in terms of "position" - our ranking among our peers or our status in the corporate structure. We understand place in terms of our circumstances and our inner life. We say things like "he's ina bad place right now." That has nothing to do with location and everything to do with what's happening to us or around us or within us.

And, of course, location matters. How many people have been transferred to cities they don't want to live in? How many pastors are wondering about the next call? How many of us secretly believe that the next move will get us to the place we've always wanted to be and then we can settle down?

Long before Jonathan Edwards, a prophet by the name of Elijah found himself in what seemed to be a God-forsaken place. In true prophetic form he had spoken the word of God to Ahab, King of Israel. It was fiery and confrontational. He spoke with the authority proper to a prophet of Yahweh. "No rain until I say so." That was a way of talking smack about the god that Ahab had allowed the people of Israel to worship - a god who supposedly controlled fertility and growth, even rainfall.

But after this explosive debut in Israel - Elijah's first sermon a far as we know - God does a strange thing. Elijah is instructed to go to the Kerith Ravine and hide. This is not an exciting call for a prophet. When a message burns like fire in the bones, the prophet needs to speak. But at the Kerith Ravine, there's no one to speak to. No one seems to be sure where the Kerith Ravine is - a large ditch somewhere east of the Jordan. But wherever it is, it not a place where a prophet can have a successful career. It's a God-forsaken place, or so it seems.

The stories of Elijah the prophet and Edwards the pastor suggest that there really is no such thing as a God-forsaken place. There are certainly hard places. Without doubt there are places that we would gladly forsake if given half a chance. But those places are not void of God. The hard part is being able, or even willing, to discern what God is doing in the places where God has us right now: the places we live, the jobs we have, the circumstances we're dealing with. There are no God-forsaken places. Elijah and Edwards both came to know that God has something to do with us, and something for us to do, in places like Stockbridge and the Kerith Ravine.

More on that later.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Early Mondays with Coffee and Hosea

The southbound lanes of I-75 into Atlanta were moving well at 6:30 this morning. Good thing. It made the early trek to the church a little more bearable. What happens here from 7:00 - 8:00 a.m. is rather amazing when I think about it. There are seven other men who make the effort to get to the church, one of them gracious enough to regularly take charge of the cofee making duties, all for the purpose of reading . . . Hosea. We started Hosea about a month ago. Before that it was a full year through Romans.

Honestly, on Sunday nights I don't feel too eager about the early start on Monday. I don't relish the thought of Hosea at 7:00 a.m. Sundays are intense for pastors. I don't have regular pulpit duties, but of our four worship services I'm usually involved in two of them in addition to a teaching hour. I love all of it - and I love getting home when it's all done. Monday morning at 7:00 comes quickly. When it comes, I'm often wishing I didn't have to go.

Truth be told, I don't have to go. I'm not the teacher. We share the facilitating responsibilities, so I take my turn once every couple of months. This doesn't require extensive preparation. We simply show up and one of us gets things started as we read and talk through the text.

I don't have to go. Getting going is a challenge. But once I'm on 75 and the traffic is moving easily before standard Atlanta gridlock, and once I'm at the church with friends and coffee, I love being there. I love the company around the table, the laughter, the catching up. I love the fact that these men get up early too simply to gather around the word of God.

And I love Hosea. Well . . . I'm learning to love Hosea. Doug got us started this morning with a blunt confession: "I don't like Hosea." I think all of us were feeling a creeping sense of regret that we had chosen to spend time reading the minor prophets. But by the end of the hour, we knew that the voice behind this text was speaking to all of us - forcing us to look at the idolatries in our lives, the little gods of our own making, the salvation we're seeking through various alliances and attachments with employers and paychecks and achievement and stuff we can buy and people we know or groups we belong to. What will save us? What tells me I'm o.k.? Today we read 8:14 - "For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces." That's the drift against which we must be constantly vigilant. We turn away from the one who made us. We turn toward what we can make. Timely words for the start of a work week.

So early Mondays with coffee and Hosea sounds like drudgery on Sunday night. But it isn't. Hosea also warned that God's people are being destroyed for lack of knowledge. They didn't know the law, didn't know their scriptures, didn't know God. So, once we've poured the coffee and turned our attention to the prophet, we wage war against that lack of knowledge. God speaks a living word, and breathes life into us.

We need that desperately, especially on Mondays.