Thursday, July 31, 2008

Prayers I Don't Mean

I know the plans I have for you . . . (Jer. 29:11)

Sometimes we say things we don’t mean. We’re not lying, deliberately stating something that isn’t true or trying to mislead. The intentions that give rise to these words are usually good but poorly formed.

Most often I do this with my kids.

“Dad, can we go to Bruster’s for ice cream?” A simple yes or no question. One stock response of mine goes like this: “Not now kids, it’s too close to dinner time. Maybe we’ll go tomorrow (or later this week, etc.).

I’m not sure what this is. Maybe it is a lie. Most likely it is a lame effort to be the good guy, the great dad who does fun things. To that end I devise ways to say “no” without just coming out and saying “no.” The fact is I have no idea when or if we’ll go to Bruster’s. I’ve said something I don’t mean.

Sometimes we say things we don’t mean when we speak in anger. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean because we speak in ignorance, without all the pertinent information. We do this with each other more often than we care to admit. And recently I’ve had to confess that I’ve done the same thing with God.

God gave me a sign, a real estate sign to be exact. A few days ago I left my driveway and noticed that the home just down the street had sold. The house was put on the market earlier this year. I’d have never given it a second thought except my own house was put on the market a year ago and we’ve not had one offer.

Our plans to move are being driven by lifestyle considerations. We’d like to be closer to where we work and where the kids go to school. We don’t have to sell, and that’s a nice position to be in these days. Still, it’s been a matter of trusting God and waiting patiently. All year long I’ve mouthed a prayer that sounds like what any devout person might pray in our situation. “Lord we want to be where you want us to be.”

When I saw the big SOLD sign in my neighbor’s yard it said to me loud and clear, “God wants you right where you are now.” And somehow that bothered me. Whatever it was I felt, it told me that I’d been praying something I didn’t mean. I’d been saying something to God that didn’t reflect what was in my heart.

It’s not uncommon that I teach beyond myself. I regularly speak or preach on things that I deeply believe and have thoroughly studied, but haven’t mastered. Last spring I wrote a series of daily reflections on the fruit of the Spirit. Here I am a year later still struggling with patience and gentleness and, well . . . with all of them.

I realize now that in the same way I sometimes pray beyond myself. I say things to God that reflect where I’d like to be and not where I truly am.

Of course, there are plenty of prayers that I do mean. When I pray for my children I mean every word. I know my failures quite well and when I confess I mean every word. When I ask for the Spirit’s help to do things that I can’t do in my own power, I mean every word.

But when it comes to where my life is headed and what the future might bring and the plans I’ve made for myself, I lapse into the error that Jesus saw in the Pharisees. I draw near with my lips while my heart is somewhere else, distant, wrapped up in myself (Mark 7:6). God spoke to his people through Jeremiah and assured them that he had a plan for them, plans to give them a future and a hope (Jer. 29:11). Problem is, I’ve got some ideas about that too. With my prayers I seek God’s plan. My heart, however, silently pursues the course I’ve charted, hoping that at some point the two paths will converge.

It seems that the life of faith and the life of prayer are lived in the gaps: gaps between what we know and what we do, gaps between what we aspire to and the realities of our lives, gaps between what we say to God and what we hold deep inside of ourselves.

So many look at those gaps and name them hypocrisy. Not so. Hypocrisy is an attempt to mask the distant heart. It knows the right words and draws near with the lips while denying the deeper truth of what forms and fills the heart. Following Jesus in those gaps means telling the truth about who we are while moving toward what God calls us to be.

Look closer at those gaps and you’ll find plenty of grace there. Grace is the only thing that makes it possible for us to keep walking in those places. Grace keeps us from settling for a distant heart. It keeps us from the despair of never measuring up. Grace is what we count on because we don’t always know how to pray as we should (Romans 8:26). But the Spirit intercedes for us, praying according to God’s will.

Thanks be to God. I mean that.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

God Misplaced: Setting "Before" and Setting "Aside"

I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken (Psalm 16:8).

“Hey, we’ve still got your drums in the basement. Do you want them?”

I’ve heard that more than once. My parents gave me that set of Ludwigs for Christmas when I was a sophomore in high school (think 1978 . . . ouch!). For years I used them often, kept them set up in our basement, “jammed” with a guitarist friend of mine, played at church and picked up other random gigs from time to time throughout my college years.

And then I stopped. I’ve barely touched my drums since the mid-80s. There was no room for them in my Fort Worth apartment once I started seminary. And over time, it seems there was just no room for them in my life. I pause to ponder that. It didn’t have to be that way. No one pointed a gun at me and said “step away from drums.” I just did.

I set them aside.

Back in the day I was always setting the drums before me. Literally. I loved to be behnd the kit, I loved to watch and listen to other drummers and bands, I browsed music stores pricing hardware and cymbals and all things percussive. I didn’t need a pair of sticks in my hands. Drumming was woven into my sense of identity, embedded somehow in whatever it is we speak of when we describe the “self.”

So the drums are in my parents’ basement, dormant and dusty in their cases. Do I want them? Yes, but not in my own house. My basement is crammed with various household items and all those toys my kids stopped paying attention to years ago. But I don’t want to sell the drums and I don’t want to give them away. They’re mine . . . just set aside.

Yesterday I read a line from Psalm 16 in which the Psalmist states “I have set the Lord always before me.” The Psalmist is using different words to describe the practice of the presence of God. To “set the Lord always before me” is to practice God’s presence.

What I seem more inclined to do is to set the Lord aside. This isn’t a rejection of beliefs or a renunciation of the faith. Maybe you could call it a rhythm of carelessness.

The day begins. I read the assigned scripture, thinking through the day, offering it up to the Lord of all time. And then I enter that day, but somewhere along the way God is set aside. Present, yes – but in an “over there” kind of way.

So what does it mean to “set the Lord continually before me?”

Whatever it means, it has to be something far deeper than doing the daily God things, good as those things are. If God is confined to the moments of morning prayer, we’ve got a problem because few of us can linger in those moments for very long. We have employers who expect us to show up and children who need to get to school or lacrosse camp. We have emails to answer and phone calls to return. Life confronts us with such varied and wonderful demands.

I like what I’ve heard somewhere from someone, probably many times. We don’t take God to those places. God is already there, right in the middle of all of it. Our task is to look, to think, to pay attention: To set the Lord always before us.

That’s not an easy thing to do, but if we’ll practice it and learn to do it, the benefits are amazing: joy, gladness, security, confidence (Ps. 16:9). Not a bad way to live.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Out of Practice

About three weeks ago I began gathering on Sunday mornings with anyone who cared to join me to work through The Practice of the Presence of God. This little book, authored or told by a Carmelite monk known to us as Brother Lawrence, has been around since the late 1600s. I ordered a particular edition for participants to purchase, but apparently I’m not introducing something new to these folks. Many of them have shown up with their own copies, varied editions and translations of the original French.

It’s a modest gathering. Maybe twenty people, hardly a crowd. But what we lack in size is more than made up for when it comes to the level of interest in what it means to live daily in God’s presence. To be honest, our interest is often matched by our confusion. We want to live in God’s presence, but we’re not sure how to do it, and we’re not sure a Carmelite monk can help us much given our hurried, overscheduled, urbanized way of life.

But maybe it’s that very way of living that accounts for our curiosity. Likewise, that desire to understand (dare I say hunger to know) God’s presence probably accounts for the staying power of this little book. The writing doesn’t strike me as particularly artful. The author lived an obscure existence; were it not for this one title none of us would have ever heard of Brother Lawrence.

But the book’s substance, the matter being addressed by this cloistered kitchen-hand, this is what seems to have engaged the hearts and minds of people for more than three centuries.

I offer that as part opinion, part theory, but mostly as confession. I’m drawn back to this little book because I’m not satisfied with my own experience of the presence of God.

The very title of the book exposes my lack. Practice suggests something undertaken with intent and with repeated regularity. That’s not me. There are plenty of aspects of the life of faith that I do practice. I practice the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer almost daily. I practice corporate worship . . . never mind that I get paid to do that. I practice certain virtues but not very well. There’s no lack of practice and discipline in my life with Jesus. I just never actually practice his presence. I don’t work at keeping company with Christ.

When it comes to the presence of God in my life I’ve largely been a passive recipient, perfectly ready for God to show up and be present whenever he chooses to do so. I can’t say strongly enough that I’ve never had a problem believing in God’s presence. God has promised to be present, and so I accept God’s presence as a basic tenet of faith.

But my convictions here are vague. I affirm God’s presence, God's with-ness, in general terms based on the promises God has made. “I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

That’s all well and good until something happens, something is reported in the news, something goes wrong and I realize that I really do fear evil. I can sense my anxiety plugging my throat, picking at my thoughts, chasing my pulse and forcing my heart to beat faster. I know this is happening and it seems as if I really don’t believe “thou art with me.” I affirm God's presence as a theological premise. I'm just not so sure God is here in this place and this moment.

So I want to learn how to practice what God has promised. I want to discover what I need to do, over and over, day by day, to enter into the reality of God’s presence with me. I want to get to a place where I can walk boldly through the valley of the shadow of death because of the Presence. From time to time I’ll be sharing stories about how it’s going. If you happen to stop by, I’d love to hear yours.

Friday, July 18, 2008

We Are Beggars

“ . . . Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The familiar phrase “kid in a candy store” comes to mind. That’s me when I have a gift certificate to our church bookstore. Earlier this week I went down to the bookstore with a gift certificate that had ten dollars and change remaining on the balance. Ten dollars can almost cover the entire cost of a paperback book, so I went browsing the shelves like a lion stalking prey.

Maybe because we had just finished the family sermon series with a focus on the church, or perhaps because the larger Presbyterian family is being severely strained, this title by Robert Benson caught my eye: The Body Broken: Answering God’s Call to Love One Another. Well, there went my ten dollar gift certificate.

I’m only one chapter into the book. So far, so good. What has lingered with me to this point has been a very brief excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer placed as a prescript to the first chapter. The words are a prayer for the church, asking that all who profess themselves Christians would “hold the faith in unity of Spirit and in the bonds of peace.”

The prayer then ends with these words: “And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”

When it comes to the wholeness of God’s family, we’re not just asking, we’re begging. The same should be said of our own individual families. Asking isn’t urgent enough. The stakes are too high. When it comes to our families, we are beggars.

Luther biographer Heiko A. Oberman writes that the last recorded words of the great reformer just before his death on February 18, 1546 were “we are beggars . . . this is true.” The words capture our dependence on the grace of God. Apart from God we have nothing. Jesus said as much. Reminding us that we are branches that must remain connected to the true vine if we are to bear fruit, Jesus said “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

And so, when it comes to our children and the task of parenting, we are beggars. We plead for grace to parent well and with wisdom. We beg God’s blessings on behalf of our children.

When it comes to our marriages, we are beggars. We petition God with urgency for the grace we need to love well and to live with each other in such a way that God’s original two-made-one design is a reality.

When it comes to honoring parents and loving our siblings we are beggars. We know that left to ourselves we lack the patience and understanding we need to do this – and so we knock on heaven’s door every day and ask for more grace.

And all of this begging is for Jesus’ sake. We don’t make these desperate requests of God simply so that our home life can be pleasant and everyone can find happiness. The name and reputation and character of Jesus are at stake in our homes and in our churches. The well being of our families, or the lack of it, says something about God.

So keep praying for your family and for your church, seeking God’s grace with persistent intense prayers. The stakes are high and, after all, we are beggars . . . this is true.

Gracious God, today we come to you as beggars, pleading for our marriages, our children, our churches, our homes, our friendships, our brothers and sisters. We beg for grace that makes our families a reflection of who you are. We pray for the mercies of patience and love and compassion. We give you thanks for our families and seek your richest blessings with urgency and boldness, for we are indeed beggars who can do nothing apart from you. All of this we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fighting For (not With) Your Family

Thanks to the automatic drip feature, the coffee was ready when I woke up. Wrapping my hands around the heat of the cup, I made my way back upstairs to the little room in the far corner of the house that serves as a study. Having turned on the lamp on my desk and situated myself in my chair, I looked at the assigned Bible reading for the day: Micah 7.

I was disappointed. That seems like a strange thing to say. How does one manage to feel disappointed over a Bible reading? It would sound much better to report to you that I came eagerly to God’s word. I hear other people talk like that, and I’d like to be that kind of person. It’s the least someone should expect from pastor. But that’s not how it was for me this morning. I wasn’t too jazzed about reading Micah 7.

What challenges me most about someone like Micah is the fact that prophets have a tendency to make lengthy use of poetic speech. Poetry is hard. I prefer stories, following the action and not just seeing the images. I grew up singing a hymn, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” I never sang anything that said “Read Me the Poems of Micah.”

At any rate, I began making my way through Micah 7, and there at verse 6 I came across these words.

For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.

The prophet is describing and lamenting a godless age, a period of time in which people are skilled in doing evil and governments are corrupt and bloodshed is common. Not unlike what you’ll see and hear on the news every night. In such an age, families are fractured and in trouble. Trust and intimacy are losing out to conflict and hostility. But then Micah adds these words:

But as for me I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my savior. My God will hear me (Micah 7:7).

After these weeks of reflecting on the family, I couldn’t escape the pairing of the description of family turmoil with the statement of patient and confident prayer. I pray for my family, but it hit me hard that I don’t pray for my family nearly enough. Prayer is a way of fighting for the well being of our home and our children and our churches. We combat the erosion of family life with prayer.

Not long ago I read a wonderful book by Patricia Rayborn, I Told the Mountain to Move. I could see that the book was about prayer, but as I read it, it became obvious that prayer was a means by which she fought for her family in the midst of her husband’s life threatening illness and her daughter’s decision to reject the Christian faith.

For families in trouble prayer is a weapon. There are other good weapons in counseling and conferences and books. But we’re not fighting against flesh and blood and the culture. There’s more involved. You can do nothing better today than to fight for the well being of your family by praying persistently and patiently. God will hear you.

We pray today, O God, for troubled families. Teach us to pray with confidence and patience, and make us diligent in our praying. We pray for our own families, knowing that apart from your grace we cannot love each other as you taught us to love; apart from grace we will not show that love to the world. Hear our prayers, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him (2 John 10).

I had to separate my children this afternoon. I’d gladly narrate some amusing story about what happened, but I honestly don’t know what happened. They were in the basement, I was upstairs. I know what they told me, and their stories are amazingly dissimilar.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. The plot is all too familiar: crying breaks out . . . accusations fly . . . reprimands are spoken (at elevated volume) . . . protests are made in response to the reprimands . . . the combatants are sent to different corners to cool off. I don’t think that I ever truly addressed the problem, nor did I effectively coach my children in dealing with it, whatever it was. I just got them away from each other and restored peace to the house.

That happened in the early evening. Interestingly, earlier in the day I had spent a few hours at Presbytery meeting. For any non-Presbyterian readers, the Presbytery meeting involves lots of Presbyterians from lots of different churches in an area (Greater Atlanta) getting together to accomplish the work of the Kingdom, or something like that.

After a few hours at Presbytery I need to be sent to my room. I seem to do better there. I hate to admit that. I want to serve the larger church, take my place in the family and be a good presbyter – but those meetings irritate me, and things are so much easier in my own corner of the ecclesiastical house. The real issues that disturb us as God’s family won’t be dealt with that way, but it’s the simplest formula for peace it seems. One party holed up over here, another over there.

I puzzle over the words I read in John’s short letters in the New Testament. No one spoke more about love and loving each other than John. And no one was quicker to point the finger at errant Christians and dismiss them from the family. Love each other, but don’t tolerate deviant teachings and the people who spread them (see 2 John).

Family life is full of tensions – and by that I do not mean strained relationships. I mean two worthy objectives or aims that make opposite demands of us.

Parents need to spend time with their children . . . and they need time with each other alone. But there’s only so much time to go around.

Kids need careful supervision . . . and they need to learn independence. Don’t smother, and don’t be cavalier.

Grown children must establish healthy boundaries with parents and in-laws . . . and yet they are to honor mother and father.

And in God’s family, we are to name the name of Jesus and love each other. And yet, those who name the name of Jesus often have very different ideas as to what the name means for us and what it means to be identified by that name.

Perhaps healthy family life is marked not by the absence of tension, but by a capacity for living in the tension. People who can’t tolerate the ambiguities and tensions won’t stick around to be faithful to their spouse and to raise their children. The trick is being in the tensions without becoming tense. Human anger will never bring about God’s righteousness (James 1:20).

So how are you doing with the tensions of family life today? Are you ready to come out of your room?

Gracious God, work in my life in such a way that I grow in my capacity to love all the members of your family. And at the same time make me bold for Truth. Make me humble to learn from others, and confident enough to challenge them as well. Help me to venture from the safety of my room to take my place in your family. Amen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Say "Shibboleth"

. . . They said, "All right, say 'Shibboleth.' “If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan (Judges 12:6).

“Are you one of us?”

We’re constantly asking that question, though not with those words. We know what to listen for. We quickly pick up on clues that reveal a stance or attitude or belief. We arrange the evidence in our minds and reach a conclusion. “Yes, one of us” or “No, not one of us.” The conclusion shapes the relationship.

There’s an odd story in the book of Judges about jealousies that crept up between two Israelite tribes. The tribe of Gilead had gone to war against a familiar nemesis, the Ammonites. Gilead – small and insignificant among the Israelite tribes – came away with an upset victory. This made the tribe of Ephraim jealous. “You should have included us in the fight,” they whined.

Gilead fires back, “We asked for your help, but you wouldn’t respond. We had to protect ourselves so we fought them alone. Get over it.” This answer was not well received. Things got ugly between Gilead and Ephraim. Very ugly. They ended up fighting each other. I’m sure that’s hard for us to imagine. The people of God fighting each other. Family members eaten up with jealousy, taking shots at each other. Unheard of? Not so much.

When Ephraim tried to retreat and escape Gilead, some of them were captured crossing the Jordan. As a way of clearly identifying their enemy, the Gilead tribe demanded that the captured Ephraimites pronounce the word “Shibboleth.”

Ephraimites couldn’t say that word. They tried but it came out “Sibboleth.” Too bad for them. If you can’t say the word, you don’t belong to us. Say it right or say goodnight.

My Dad was asked to say “Shibboleth” the other day. Not the exact word really. He had made a hospital visit but didn’t have his clergy card when he tried to leave the parking garage. The card is basically a pass for free parking. The attendant told him to simply write his name and the name of his church on the parking ticket. And then he added, “Once you do that, I have a test for you.” That got my Dad’s attention.

Dad signed the card and handed it to the attendant, who then questioned him. “You say you are a minister of the gospel . . . everyone knows John 3:16, but can you quote John 3:17?” In other words, say “Shibboleth.” My Dad gladly quoted John 3:17. The attendant praised his knowledge of the scripture and let him leave the parking garage. (So what if Dad had drawn a blank on that verse? I have no idea).

The story from Judges is peculiar, but timely. Within God’s family we keep asking each other to say “Shibboleth.” We keep looking for ways to determine who’s like me and who isn’t. Who’s one of us, and who’s one of them.

The New Testament offers different criteria for knowing the family. Name the name of Jesus and love one another. That sounds good – but it’s so hard. Can’t we find an easy test like “shibboleth?” Shibboleth is easier in some ways, but it’s a wedge that fragments the family. The world takes notice of our love, or lack of it.

Lord Jesus, it is hard to love the brothers and sisters we find in your family. We test each other, assess each other, including some as true family and regarding others as strangers. But you have prayed for our unity and given us a new command to love one another. With your command give us your grace, that we might truly be your children. Amen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is this (Really) What God Had in Mind?

“. . . the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise” (Isaiah 43:21).

The task was simple enough. Marnie had asked me to change out a light bulb in the fluorescent light fixture in our kitchen. She was making dinner at the time, and I had offered to help. Dinner was under control, but the lighting in the room was dim. Some bulbs needed changing. That’s where I came in.

As simple as the job sounded, things went south in a hurry. To get to the long florescent bulbs I had to remove a wood frame from the light fixture. No sooner had I removed one screw than the entire fixture dropped from the ceiling, showering flecks of drywall down on the kitchen floor, leaving me stranded like Moses with my arms raised supporting the fixture.

I tell you the story for this reason: The great gift of that moment was the fact that my wife was right there. A partner. Someone there to help me. As I held the fixture above my head with increasingly weary shoulders, Marnie managed to detach the wires that held the fixture in place and I lowered the wreck to the floor.

I will also admit this: The great challenge of that moment was the fact that my wife was right there. We immediately began a lively exchange of opinions as to what had happened and why it happened and how it might have been done differently or not. This was rather unpleasant.

Got any stories like that? Details may vary but the basic plot is all too familiar. The recurring motif is the peculiar nature of family life. It is at once a gift of grace and a source of trial and testing. Is this really what God had in mind?

A little more than a month ago we began thinking about God’s design for the family. The very first reflection of this series spoke of God’s basic intent for human-kind; we were “made to stick.” The family exists because we need to be connected to others. To be alone is not good.

At the same time we recognized that sticky is sometimes messy. Being connected to other people means having to deal with those same people in all of their humanness. It means being there for each other when light fixtures fall from the ceiling and someone has the flu or a nasty diaper needs changing.

Family is both a blessing and a burden. Family holds us up and pushes us to our limits. Family can sometime drive us nuts, and quite often drive us to our knees. Maybe this is exactly what God had in mind. The original design for family assumes God. Remove God from the equation and family life becomes difficult indeed.

Every family arrangement is given to us for one reason: it mirrors God. Marriage, parenting, brothers and sisters – all of it reflects God’s covenant bond with his people. And what’s true of families is certainly true of the church. God has always been about the business of forming a people for himself, a people who exist to proclaim God’s praises and goodness and excellence. It’s a risky plan. We don’t always do it well. The church as God’s family. That’s what we’ll be thinking of this week as we wrap up our reflections on God’s design for the family.

Gracious God, remind us yet again that there is more at stake in our families than happy children and a loving spouse and a well kept yard. You have called us to live in such a way that the world around us sees something of who you are. Help us to do this not only in our families, but in our churches as well. Let us be a people who declare your praise by reflecting your goodness and love, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friendship Strained

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him . . . they had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company (Acts 15:37, 39).

Ever had someone let you down?

Most of us, whether we’ve sung the words of the old hymn or not, know exactly what the hymn is saying when it asks “do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” Sometimes that’s what happens. It may not be intentional. It may not be malicious. Nevertheless, our friends can let us down. This is why friendship is risky and why many had just as soon not bother with it.

Jesus knew all about this kind of thing firsthand. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. Folks back in his hometown took offense at his first sermon and ran him out of town. On the night of his deepest agony, his closest three friends couldn’t stay awake to pray with him.

And the early church dynamic duo of Paul and Barnabas hit some rocky times as well in their friendship. They had tried to take Mark along on a missionary journey, but Mark got homesick and bailed on the endeavor. When it came time for the next journey Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance. Paul said, “no way.” This difference of opinion broke up the team. God blessed their labors and continued to work through both men, but it’s hard to imagine that this didn’t sting, and deeply.

The answer to the hymn’s question is obvious. “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” The answer is “Yes, they do.” And if this is so, what are we to do with those strained friendships?

Let’s begin by admitting that every human friendship and every human family is fallen. This fact alone shapes how we do family life and friendship. It reminds us that our relationships are still stained by the reality of sin. All of us are inclined toward selfishness. We don’t love as we should. We do things we later regret and say things without thinking.

But here’s the surprise in this: our fallen families and friendships are the means by which God is honored. Strained relationships are the arena in which grace is shown to be real and forgiveness possible. In our strained friendships we show the world what God is like.

But we’ll never do this apart from a friendship with Jesus. Apart from the presence of Christ in us, we can’t put God’s grace on display. When our friendships are strained we fall back on the only thing that can hold our friendships and families together: the power of God’s very life in us.

We keep coming back to this same answer: There’s nothing better that we can do than take our strained friendships to the Lord in prayer. By the help of the Holy Spirit we get direction for how to forgive, we get the courage to confront, we discern what it will take to reconcile, and we also may learn how to move forward in different directions like Paul and Barnabas did. When others let us down, the hymn promises that we will find solace in Jesus. Maybe we just need to ask.

Grant us the grace we need, O Lord, to befriend those who have suddenly become strangers to us. Help us to know how grace works and what it means for us to extend it to others. In our fallen and strained relationships, help us to be more like your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Needless Pain

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves (Ecc. 4:12).

The very words “needless pain” should make us pause for a moment. If those words happen to show up in a hymn, you are not likely to linger and think. For one thing, hymns don’t stop. There’s no time to think in the middle of a song. Second, the familiarity of the hymn itself works against sustained reflection. Once you’ve sung “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear” a few hundred times you stop hearing the words. Unfortunate but true.

But right now you’ve got a few moments to think. “Needless pain.” Unnecessary. Pain you don’t need. Pointless. We get that. But those words suggest that there might be such a thing as needful pain. That’s what we struggle to understand. Most of the messages we receive from the world around us tell us that all pain is to be avoided. All pain is bad, indicative of something gone wrong, cause for alarm.

Our scriptures tell us something different. There’s no shortage of biblical language about rejoicing in our sufferings. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. Psalm 119 repeatedly speaks of the good that comes from affliction. “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps. 119:71). C. S. Lewis had it right when he spoke of pain as “God’s megaphone.” God speaks to us in suffering. A pain free existence lulls us into spiritual slumber.

And yet, that God speaks to us in pain does not mean that God asks us to be gluttons for pain. It is one thing to bear pain well. It’s another thing entirely to invite more pain into your life than God intends to give you. That’s where friendship comes in. To refuse friendship is to bear needless pain.

Few have said it better than the wise author of Ecclesiastes. His basic premise was that two people together will have a better time of it than one who does life alone and without companionship (Ecc. 4:9-12).

To insist on working solo invites needless pain. You can’t accomplish as much. You can’t earn as much as you might with a team effort.

To walk alone invites needless pain. When you fall there’s no one to hear your cries for help, no shoulder to lean on as you limp. It’s hard to place all of your weight on your own wound.

To face alone all that life throws at you is to invite needless pain. We can’t make a decent defense by ourselves. Someone needs to stand with us and watch our back.

So God gives us friends. The old hymn resonates with truth when it reminds us that to refuse friendship, especially friendship with Jesus, is to forfeit our peace and to bear needless pain.

The practical response to this may be as simple as a conversation. If you’re bearing needless pain today the best thing you can do is talk to someone. Let someone else know what you’re dealing with, what you’re afraid of, what you’ve done. This is why God gives us friends. To keep solitary company with your pain means that there is very likely something you’re suffering needlessly. Be done with it. Take it to a friend in conversation. Take it to the Lord in prayer. And unload the weight of needless pain.

To often, Lord Jesus, I forfeit the peace you want to give me and take on needless pain by distancing myself from you and from others. Give me courage to reach out. Teach me to pray. And show me how to be there for someone else, that they might find relief from needless pain and receive grace through our friendship, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sorrows Borne, not Banished

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4 ESV)

There’s a reality-style game show on TV these days, very similar to a much older show called “Name that Tune.” The modern day spin on that older classic allows contestants to hear several bars of a song, and then they have to sing the missing lyrics after a certain point in the song.

So let’s play. “What a friend we have in Jesus, ________________________.”

Some of you may not have a clue. Plenty of you don’t even have to think about it.

The next line: “All our sins and griefs to bear.”

That says something significant about friendship. Of course we cannot do for others what Jesus did for us. Jesus took our sins, our failures, our brokenness upon himself. What’s more, he did it once and for all. It doesn’t have to be done again. Good thing!

But if Jesus our friend bears our sorrows, what does that mean for those who follow him? If Jesus defines friendship, in what sense do we bear another’s sorrows? This isn’t theological speculation. Many of you may have a friend who lives every day under the smothering weight of sorrow. You do what you can to express your concern and let them know you care. And you never feel it’s enough.

We might do well to remember that there is a difference between sorrows borne and sorrows banished. What you’d probably like to do is take away their sorrow. That’s the kind of truly meaningful help most of us want to give. We’d like to know what to do or what to say that will banish the sorrow. But that’s beyond both our capacity as a friend and the calling of friendship itself. To bear someone’s sorrow does not mean you banish it.

Not even Jesus does that. Jesus has removed the penalty of our sin but not the struggles of everyday life. Jesus does not spare us from heartache. In fact, those who trust Jesus still know all kinds of grief, the shame of bad choices, the hurt of lost hopes and dashed expectations. All of that is familiar territory to those claim friendship with Jesus. Jesus our friend bears our sorrows, but he will not always take them away. He stands with us.

But his standing with us is no passive presence. Jesus stands ready to hear us. That’s the part of the old hymn that gets sung over and over again. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” Jesus hears us when we pray. And then, as the hymn affirms, he shields us in his arms. Shields are not necessary when skies are clear and breezes fair. Shields are for those under attack. Again, our sorrows are borne, not banished.

One very simple way to bear another’s sorrows is to do exactly what the hymn says. Take it to the Lord in prayer. You may have a friend whose sorrow is so deep they can’t manage to pray for themselves; deep sorrow has a way of choking prayer. But a friend is someone who comes alongside and bears the sorrow, not by trying to take it away, but by offering it up to the one who can.

Surely, O God, you have borne our sorrows. Teach us to do the same for those close to us. Today we lift our prayers for all who live in the shadows of sorrow. By the help of your Spirit, let us bear their sorrow through our faithful prayers. Shield them with your grace we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What a Friend

I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).

Yesterday I attended a memorial service in which we were invited to sing some of the great old hymns of the faith. One of them I didn’t know so well. As for the others, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t known them. The familiar tunes echo deep into childhood where they soaked into me while I sat restless on a pew next to my mother just before Dad got up to preach. I might not have sung them then. I’m not sure I even liked them. But I learned them. And now I love them.

The focus of our reflections this week is friendship. That’s why I paid careful attention to the text of one of those old hymns we sang yesterday. “What a friend we have in Jesus.” The idea is biblically sound. Jesus himself told his followers that he didn’t call them servants, but friends (John 15:15). The friendliness that marked Jesus’ life was at the heart of the accusations leveled against him. Jesus was a friend to people like tax collectors and prostitutes. That bothered those who were serious about their religion.

Jesus is a friend. And every friendship we have in this life is derivative of that friendship. That is to say, our friends extend the grace of Jesus to us, and we to them. They are the people in our lives for whom we become the presence of Christ. And if our friends don’t have the slightest interest in Jesus, Jesus still defines how we relate to them.

Jesus defines friendship. Apart from him, we don’t fully grasp what friendship is. Apart from him, every friendship we have is fragile, hanging on the threads of common interests and mutually enjoyable activity and proper respect. Jesus bridges differences and teaches us about forgiveness. We need the presence of Christ because our friends are not always likeable people.

We’re going to spend some time this week thinking about friendship with Jesus. We may return to the words of that old hymn and place them next to words of scripture. But today, the story of the hymn itself gives some insight into friendship with Jesus.

The author of the hymn text, Joseph Scriven, did not publish the hymn during his lifetime. Shortly before Scriven’s death in 1886, a friend saw the manuscript and took an interest in it. When he asked if Scriven had written the text unaided, Scriven remarked that “the Lord and I did it between us.” After Scriven’s death, the hymn was coupled with the familiar tune many know today.

Jesus delights in partnering with us, taking what we regard as insignificant and using to make a difference in someone’s life, perhaps a difference in the world. Scriven had written a little poem for his mother as she was going through a tough time. Christians around the world know it today.

Today Jesus might take a note you write, a phone call you make, a conversation you have, an act of help or an act of giving, and use it in ways you never imagined possible. Who knows what Jesus might do through you and with you today? The possibilities are endless, and this can change the way you feel about the day that lies in front of you. Who knows what can happen today when you live it in friendship with Jesus.

Lord Jesus, teach us what it means to live in friendship with you. Take all that we will endeavor to do this day and fill it with the power and direction of your Spirit so that our deeds and words will make an impact far beyond what we see. Amen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Got Your Back

David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-benob . . . said he would kill David. But Abishai, son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue. He struck the Philistine down and killed him (2 Samuel 21:15-17).

The people had never forgotten what David did that day in the Valley of Elah. There David had made a name for himself as a giant-slayer.

Valiant David. Refusing the King’s armor, he faced Goliath with his sling and hand–picked stones from the brook. Having felled the Philistine, he put the sling away long enough to lift the giant’s own sword and then he held Goliath’s bloody mane up high for Israel to see.

The feat was celebrated in song. “Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” The song didn’t go over so well with Saul, but it said plenty about David’s rock-star status. David was a warrior among warriors. As both obscure shepherd and then later as Israel’s King, David was the Philistines’ worst nightmare.

Until one day David encountered a giant he could not kill.

A Philistine by the name of Ishbi-benob, armed with a new sword, toting a spear with a spearhead weighing three hundred shekels, intended to do what Goliath had not done. In the course of battle, we are simply told that David became exhausted. No details are given. We don’t know if David faltered in combat or if he gave ground to the advancing Philistine. All we are told is that in his state of exhaustion, David had a friend. Abishai came to David’s rescue and killed the Philistine.

This scene from 2 Samuel is often overlooked. In the sweep of the David stories, it is a scene of little consequence. But it gives us a picture that differs significantly from the one we see when the shepherd David faced Goliath.

In the Valley of Elah we see the underdog walking out to face the giant, a solitary figure dwarfed by the Philistine’s vulgar presence. This picture lends drama to the battle. This picture emboldened Israel’s army once David had slain the giant.

But years later, against Ishbi-benob, things are different. David is surrounded by his men. The fight has exhausted him and he cannot hold his own against the Philistine. Abishai comes to the rescue.

Many of us live life in the Valley of Elah. We live in a place where we bravely walk out each day and face our giants alone. We see ourselves facing challenges that no one can face for us; we walk every day into that valley trusting God and relying on our best weapons. We don’t want to drag anyone else into our depression or share our financial worries or admit how we think we’ve messed up at parenting.

But eventually we face a giant that we cannot kill. We get tired. We need help. We need someone like Abishai to come alongside and slay the giant.

So what are the giants you’re facing today – and how are you facing them? Are you walking into the day as a solitary figure facing significant threat and challenge? Is there someone who has your back, someone who knows your life and cares enough to step in and help you face whatever you’re facing? We all need someone like Abishai. Who is that for you?

We give you thanks, O God, for friends who stand with us as we face the different troubles and threats life brings our way. Teach us how to reach out to others, honestly admitting our need for friendship, and help us to be there for others who face giants they can’t handle alone. Amen.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Held Accountable

I’m not responsible for what outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers? God decides on the outsiders, but we need to decide when our brothers and sisters are out of line and, if necessary, clean house (1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Mssg.).

Sometimes loving confrontation looks like a fight. Sometimes what begins as loving confrontation becomes a brawl. It’s a very fine line, easily crossed. What we thought was brotherly love quickly morphs into contempt. What started out as well meaning suddenly becomes just plain mean.

Because this happens so easily, many well intentioned Christians would prefer to avoid conflict altogether. The world around us doesn’t know or care about the difference between loving confrontation and religious backstabbing. Thus, in any and all forms of confrontation the church loses. Let’s all make nice . . . for Jesus’ sake.

But to truly be brothers and sisters to each other means that we cannot afford this luxury. Our identity as brothers and sisters is surely compromised when we fight. But let’s also admit that our identity as brothers and sisters is equally damaged when we refuse to hold each other accountable. Sometimes love demands a tough word gently spoken.

The family of faith in Corinth had a problem. A moral problem. As Paul summarized it, “a man has his Father’s wife.” This kind of thing even stretched the sensibilities of local pagans. But for some reason, the church was not addressing it. They were proud. We might say “progressive.” That’s what really troubled Paul. The behavior was bad enough – but the real issue was the failure of the family of faith to speak to it, to hold their Christian brother accountable.

How quick we are to get this backwards. There are too many instances in which the church points its finger at the culture, people outside the family, while ignoring issues that need to be confronted within the family. Paul reminds us that God will deal with the outsiders. We have a responsibility as brothers and sisters to hold each other accountable.

Our world tells us that we respect another’s freedom by keeping our opinions to ourselves, minding our own business. But absolute self-determination is not freedom. It is form of slavery called isolation. The truly free are held accountable. Being free means belonging to a family of others who care enough and have courage enough to speak the truth, especially when the truth is hard to say and hard to hear.

Are you blessed with people in your life who tell you the truth, brothers and sisters who hold you accountable? Is there a brother or sister to whom you need to speak a word of truth? This is not easy – but it’s better than being chained by fear and superficiality. Honesty and truth and freedom all belong together.

Gracious God, in Jesus you have set us free. Help us to live in that freedom. Set us free to be all that you call us to be. In our freedom, keep us closely bound to each other as brothers and sisters who love each other enough to say the hard things. Give us the courage to live as people who are truly free in Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Welcome to the Family

Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:35 Mssg.).

I remember the morning my brother was born, certain details of it at least. I was 9 years old. It was a Sunday morning. My sister and I were awakened by the matter of fact voice and portly presence of Mrs. Alma Higgins, a member of our church. “You kids get ready for church. Your Mother’s gone to the hospital.” In the very early hours of morning my parents had called Mrs. Higgins to come over and be with us.

Later that day Michael was born. I had a brother. A younger brother, which made me the older brother – the oldest of three, and I thought that was fairly cool. I couldn’t wait for him to move in to the house and become a member of the family.

Something very much like that happened last night. For the past few days our family has been at the Christian Life Conference at Montreat. Marnie and I had teaching duties during the day. At the evening plenary sessions we heard great teaching from Pastor Scott Dudley. Typically during the evening sessions our kids were in a program for children. Last night my son decided he wanted to come with us. I had misgivings about that . . . but why not. We let him come.

The evening services ended with an opportunity for people to go to different parts of the auditorium and have someone pray with them. Signs were posted around the perimeter of the room indicating various kinds of prayer needs: family needs, health and healing needs, concerns for our nation, etc. Down front a sign said “Salvation: Receive Christ.”

“I want to go do that,” my son said.

There had been no heavy-handed evangelistic appeal. Just a good solid message about following Jesus with all that you are. I wasn’t even sure how well John was listening. I don’t know what it was that moved him or gave him courage to walk down to the front. I say I don’t know, but it’s the Spirit that does this kind of thing. Without consulting me, God was working in John’s life in ways that I didn’t perceive. We questioned him, making sure that he really wanted to do what he said he wanted to do. And then we walked with him and a pastor stooped low to talk with him and then prayed with him.

That moment alone would have been enough. God surprising us again. But there was more. After the pastor had prayed with John people began to come up and embrace him and welcome him into the family. Some of these people I didn’t even know – but it didn’t matter. They were welcoming a new family member. I was self-conscious about my tears, furtively wiping my face and trying to hold it together. Others were less guarded. They wept as they welcomed my son to the family.

And so I experienced last night what I’ve known in my head for a long time. Jesus makes us family. We are brothers and sisters not because we have much in common or because we sense a natural affinity for each other and really enjoy each other’s company. We are brothers and sisters because of what Jesus did to bring us into the family. When Jesus’ own mother and brothers sought him out, Jesus re-defined family. Hearing God’s word and doing God’s will defines the family.

I can’t help but wonder if someone reading this today has sensed the Spirit’s work bringing them into the family of faith. Perhaps, as with my son, the Spirit has been at work in you for a while. With a simple response of faith, a yes that comes from your deepest self, you can enter this family. Many brothers and sisters wait to receive you.

By the work of your Spirit, gracious God, you bring us into your family. Work in our hearts so that we might truly be brothers and sisters to each other, desiring only what you will, ever attentive to your word. Amen.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Me First

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us . . . he refuses to welcome the brothers (3 John 9-10).

I didn’t know how long it would take. My two children were reunited a few days ago following a two week separation while brother was away at camp. I had hopes that it would be days before either of them cried foul for whatever reason. While away, my son had written a letter to his sister. He said things in that letter that I’d never heard him say before. His words were genuinely kind and it sounded like he truly missed his sister. I was a little concerned. For a moment I wondered, “Who wrote this letter and what have they done with my son?”

So here we are with three full days of togetherness behind us . . . and we’ve already had our moments. For the most part they have been the best of friends. But it doesn’t take much to evoke conflict. Annoyances creep up from out of nowhere. They bicker. They compare and complain of perceived injustices. I’m not too bothered by this, at least not yet. This is what brothers and sisters do.

What happens in the family under my roof happens with troubling frequency in God’s family as well. The difference is that we almost expect this kind of thing between siblings who live in the same house. But when it comes to brothers and sisters who are joined by the Spirit of God and gathered in their common desire to worship and to love God, we expect better.

Explanations for our failure to obey Jesus and “love one another” are many. However, in the little New Testament letter of Third John we get a specific insight into what goes wrong and why we sometimes struggle to love our brothers and sisters.

The entire letter of Third John is only 13 verses long. Right near the middle John mentions someone in the church who seems to be causing trouble. Diotrephes won’t have anything to do with John and “he refuses to welcome the brothers.” John diagnoses the problem with a simple observation. Diotrephes loves to be first (3 John 9-10).

Me first. The words sound like something we might hear from children, especially brothers and sisters. And these words will almost always invite resistance. “Me first” is always answered by “No . . . me first.” And on it goes.

As we grow older we outgrow those petty words, but we find different ways to say the same thing: Me first. And when me first is resisted or denied, when that approach to life isn’t working for us, we find that hostility towards our brothers and sisters grows. James put it this way: “What causes fights ands quarrels among you? . . . You want something but don’t get it” (James 4:1-2).

The presence of brothers and sisters in our lives means that we do not have unhindered access to our own way. Sometimes we have to give way, let others go first, attend to the needs of someone else before our own. To truly love our brothers and sisters we’ll have to wage war against pride and against self.

We all love to be first. Having brothers and sisters means allowing someone else to occupy that place. How can you do that today?

Lord Jesus, we need your grace to follow the new command you gave us. We need your help to love one another. Forgive our insistence on being first, especially when it divides your family. Teach us to relinquish that place, not grasping and fighting for position, but receiving what you give to us. Amen.