Friday, August 29, 2008

Lighten Up . . . Seriously

They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking” (Luke 5:33).

When I read the story of Levi I’m slightly unsettled by the scene in which Pharisees and teachers of the law complain about the party being thrown in Jesus’ honor. These days I am by vocation a teacher of God’s word, the Law. Would I have been reclining at the table, swapping stories, laughing at the jokes, reaching for more bread? Or would I have stood aside, watching, grumbling? I don’t know.

Back in my days as a seminarian chaplain I had a supervisor who basically told me I was too serious. He wanted me to have more fun, lighten up. This was not the kind of “clinical” feedback I was expecting. It troubled me. I guess I took it, well . . . seriously.

Some time later I shared this with my parents on a visit home. Surely Mom and Dad would rush in with just the right word of affirmation. Well, not quite. My mom replied, "you’ve been serious since you were three years old.” Great.

The Pharisees were very serious about God’s law. To be fair, what Jesus was doing at Levi’s house had troubling implications for their reading of scripture. After the party they confronted Jesus with the example of John and his disciples. “Those guys fast and pray – but you and your followers eat and drink.” In other words, get serious.

Throughout the history of our faith there have been, broadly speaking, two ways of living out the Jesus life. One path leaves the heavy traffic, withdraws, seeks solitude, listens for God’s voice and answers back in prayer. On this path the Jesus way is a rigorous way, marked by discipline.

There is another way that engages the world, that touches the leper and eats with tax-collectors and sinners. It isn’t offended by prostitutes or inconvenienced by the needy. On this path the Jesus way is marked by open arms and a ready embrace.

The Pharisees trouble me because they were serious about living in a covenant relationship with God, but not serious enough about bringing others into it. They would have done well to lighten up, seriously.

In his fine book “O2” Richard Dahlstrom maintains that living the Jesus way is like breathing. We inhale and exhale. To inhale is to take in the life giving oxygen of prayer and scripture and solitude. To exhale is breathe out in service and hospitality and generosity and compassion. We must do both. We can’t live without breathing, and we can’t follow Jesus with out breathing either.

Some of us on the Jesus way are always inhaling, seriously practicing the spiritual disciplines, and sucking the life right out of everything and everyone around us. We need to engage this world that Jesus loves. Maybe a raucous banquet with folks who drink a little too much would do us good.

And others of us never take deep breaths that draw life giving Spirit into our existence. We’re too busy changing the world . . . and turning blue in the process. Sit down. Stop talking. Breathe deep. Think, reflect, pray.

So what do you need to do today?

(You still have a couple of days left to respond to this week’s poll at the top of this page.)

Lord Jesus, you taught us that the greatest commandment was to love God and love neighbor. Teach us how to do that. Make us serious about those practices that feed our souls. Make us serious about engaging the world. And in all our serious obedience to your great command, make us a joyful people we pray. Amen.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Like Rain

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth (Luke 5:27).

It’s raining this morning. Steady but not torrential. This rain falls like mercy, not wrath. It is gentle, life-giving.

I can’t remember the last time it rained like this. Summer often brings afternoon showers that blow in violently but don’t hang around long enough to truly do any good. We’ve had our share of those, but this is the kind of rain we’ve needed for a long time.

Almost a year ago our Governor prayed for rain. I think what’s falling this morning is what he had in mind – but is this the answer to those prayers? Many would say no. As if prayers have a statute of limitations after which the desired reality can no longer be regarded as God’s answer to prayer.

Years ago I served a wonderful group of people in a community that had a long history as a farming community. It wasn’t uncommon, especially during the summer, for rain to be mentioned as a “prayer request.” On one occasion an older member of the congregation recounted to me how they used to gather for specially called prayer meetings to pray for rain. Folks who came to the prayer meeting often brought umbrellas with them. The prayer gathering spoke to their humility. The umbrellas spoke to their confident faith.

All of this makes me wonder about grace and how God works in our lives. Does it rain because we pray, or do we pray because God is the only one who can give rain? We can answer by saying both are true, and find plenty of biblical evidence to back us up.

We’ve been reflecting this week on the story of how Jesus called Levi. At its core, this is a story about grace – not because Levi was a lousy human being to whom Jesus showed kindness. That is one way to think of grace. But grace is most evident when Jesus shows up and steps into Levi’s life while Levi is minding his own business.

The opening verse of the story has Jesus doing all the action. Jesus is on the move, Jesus sees Levi, Jesus speaks the word of invitation. Levi is simply sitting at his cubicle, tending his work. Jesus found Levi. Nothing suggests that Levi was looking for Jesus.

But then Levi gets up and leaves everything. Grace always calls for a response.

Grace falls like rain. We know we need it, but we can’t create it. It comes to us without regard for our plans for a day of golfing or the desperate condition of a lake. But once it comes, it defines the world we live in and calls for response.

Levi got up and left everything, his life defined by a new reality. This new reality found him, and seemingly found him when he wasn’t looking or making plans for a major life change.

Has God’s grace surprised you lately? Who knows. Grace could invade your world today, falling like rain you’ve long been yearning for. How will you respond? As you step into this day, take your umbrella.

Let it rain, Lord Jesus. Not simply on our land, but on us. Pour out your grace in ways that we don’t expect, and make us ready to respond. With words from the old hymn, we ask for “showers of blessing.” Give to us this day whatever you see fit to give, and we will live by your grace, giving thanks in all things. Amen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What Matters

. . . Levi got up, left everything, and followed him (Luke 5:28)

A few days ago I was with my kids in Target, killing time while they looked around at stuff that I had no intention of buying them. Not a problem. Target has a decent book section, so I wandered over and ended up reading the opening pages of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. This is the true story of Christopher McCandless, who made his way into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992, scratching his existence from whatever he could hunt or find to eat. His body was found five months later, having apparently starved to death.

In preparation for his solitary foray into the Alaskan wild, McCandless jettisoned every earthly possession. The child of suburban affluence, he gave the $24,000 remainder of a college fund to charity. He even burned the cash he had in his pocket and gave away his watch. He walked into the Alaskan wilderness with little more than the clothes on his back, a ten pound bag of rice and a .22 rifle.

Over the years a cult-like interest has developed around McCandless’ story. Krakauer’s book is honest about the different ways people have assessed McCandless’ death. Some regard him as a spiritual visionary who had the courage to shed the trappings of modern life and the expectations laid upon promising college graduates. He dared to reach for something more and lost his life in the quest. Others regard McCandless as foolish and ill-prepared for what he was attempting, a young man who sacrificed his life on the altar of a poorly formed idealism.

With two simple words Jesus evoked a crisis moment in the life of Levi the tax-collector. “Follow me,” Jesus said. And the response was decisive, clean and unwavering. Levi got up and left everything and followed him. “Left everything.” It’s easy to let those words slip past the eyes when you read the story, but the phrase is significant. The same kind of action is seen in the call of Peter (Luke 5:11).

Levi’s response to Jesus had to have been the subject of much talk. What did people say? Was Levi a bold visionary man willing to risk everything in devotion to this Rabbi? Or was he a fool for stepping away from a comfortable career track? Whatever people thought or said this much is certain: Following Jesus will require something of us.

To say “yes” to Jesus always entails saying “no” to something else. Whether we’ll admit it or not, many of us have the idea that we can embrace the life Jesus offers us while remaining comfortably undisturbed in the life we’ve made for ourselves. Jesus was pretty clear that it doesn’t work that way (Luke 9:57-62).

To say “yes” to Jesus is to follow a person who re-defines what matters in your life. The story of Levi, and even the tragic story of Chris McCandless, raises a question for us all. What matters, and what difference does it make in my life?

Lord Jesus, we want to follow you. We want to respond to your invitation. And yet, we’re afraid of where you will take us and what your invitation will require of us. Come and re-define what matters most to us, so that our “yes” to you will be gladly given. Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Handoff

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them (Luke 5:29 ESV).

By the time you read this the 2008 Olympics will be over. Plenty of us will be grateful for a return to normal bedtime hours, but fewer will be more thankful for the conclusion of the Beijing games than the members of the USA 4x100 relay teams in track and field.

Marnie and I watched in disbelief last Thursday as the women runners failed to successfully pass the baton. The same affliction – whatever it was – had plagued the men’s team on Wednesday night. Like a nightmare that wouldn’t end, the repeated slow motion images wouldn’t allow any of us to wake and tell ourselves that it didn’t happen. It did happen. Reaching, straining, bobbling, looking back, looking down. And by that time the other runners are blowing right by. End of race.

More was going on in that moment than the loss of a medal. The real pain came from the glaring nature of the failure itself. Forget winning. If you can’t pass the baton to the next person, there’s no need to bother running at all. It’s all about making the connection, the execution of the transfer, the successful delivery.

When Jesus encountered a tax collector named Levi something surprising happened. At first glance it appears that the moment of high drama came with that initial call, Jesus extending the invitation to follow, Levi getting up and closing shop in response to the Rabbi’s call. Walking away from a lucrative business is a big deal.

But the truly exciting moment came just after that. Levi threw a party. He gathered other tax collector friends and people who weren’t very careful about observing the Torah. Luke doesn’t tell us much about who was there and what kind of conversations Jesus had with them. We don’t know whether any of them also made some radical life-changing decisions as a result of what Jesus said to them as they reclined at the table. But this much seems clear: whatever Levi had experienced with Jesus, he wanted to share it with his friends. He wanted Jesus to meet his friends and his friends to meet Jesus. It’s the moment of connection, of passing something along.

Grace is that way. It’s fairly common to speak of grace as something that we receive. As wonderful as that is, grace is also something that we pass on. The disturbing reality is that we have a tendency to bobble the hand-off. We drop the baton.

Wherever you may be today, you will have a chance to pass the grace of Jesus along to someone else. Honestly, you may reach out to someone who doesn’t receive it. But someone around you needs the presence of Jesus in their life, and you can bring it to them. The grace you have received was never meant to be stockpiled. The love of Jesus comes to you on its way to someone else. So run well. Run hard. And pay special attention to the handoff.

(Levi’s example raises some questions about our circle of friends. What would a party for Jesus look like at your house? Please take the poll at the top of this page.)

Lord Jesus, let my words and my actions and my demeanor convey your grace to others today. Don’t let me blow the handoff with careless and calloused ways with people around me. Help me to pass along what you’ve graciously given me, that others may be drawn to follow you. Amen.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Learning a Life

“. . . Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28).

Last week I played a video game with my son. I didn’t play long, and at first I didn’t play gladly. I’m not fond of video games and their power to captivate and dominate my child’s mental faculties. With the exception of the “Wii,” I typically regard video games as the enemy: the enemy of good reading and time spent outdoors and anything else that will contribute to the formation of a well-rounded college applicant.

I hate to admit it, but the game we played was impressive. (For any who might care, the game was “Lego Star Wars II” – great graphics!). While I warmed up quickly to the game, what has stayed with me since last week was the way my son coached me as we played. As we navigated the game’s various levels he gave me instruction and his language had a familiar ring to it.

“Dad, Follow me . . . . Do you want to learn how to use the force? . . . I’ll show you how.” At one point my Jedi figure was moving about aimlessly on the screen. John reached over, pushed the right buttons, put me back on track. I needed time to learn the game. By his instruction and example, my son showed me how. I guess for those few moments, sitting cross-legged on the basement floor, I was his disciple.

To be a disciple is to be a learner. And when it comes to the life of faith, what we are learning is the Jesus way. That will be the focus of these daily reflections in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll make our way through the gospel of Luke, watching how Jesus lived, learning the Jesus way. There are a couple of things that might help us as we get started.

First, the Jesus way doesn’t come naturally to any of us. The world we live in offers plenty of options to the Jesus way, and to be honest most of them look far more appealing. As we follow Jesus our steps will at times feel awkward and we’ll move about clumsily. This is part of it. The life of Jesus is formed in us, not downloaded.

Second, to learn the Jesus way we have to get in the game. We don’t adopt this way of life by having it explained to us, even if it is explained well. We don’t live this life by watching someone else live it, even if their example is stellar. Listening and watching are helpful. But the Jesus way was meant to be lived.

It’s interesting; church buildings are typically characterized by pews. But the Jesus way is never learned by taking a seat. To follow we get up, just like Levi. Where will this day take you? Jesus is already there. He invites you to join him. He’ll show you what comes next.

Lord Jesus, help us to be more like you. Not simply by our efforts at imitation, but by the gift of your grace and the working of your Spirit in us. Form your very life in the lives we will live this day. Amen.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

When Labor Day is Every Day: Praying Psalm 18

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help (Psalm 18:6).

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, the school my children attend doesn’t begin the year until well after everyone else around here. Yes, there are plenty of colleges that don’t begin the fall semester until sometime in mid-September, but if you’re not old enough to drive in the city of Atlanta you’re usually catching a bus or being dropped off at the carpool line before Labor Day. In many cases, long before Labor Day.

But not so for us. Class begins next week. All the summer activities that gave my kids something to do during the day are now a fading memory. No day camps, no VBS, no family trips. Here we are. Waiting. Marnie and I have both had to be in the office this week, so we’ve relied heavily on the good graces of Grandpam and Grandy, Mimi and Papa. Summer has indeed run its course. My kids are bored and ready to go back to school.

This is that time of the summer that finds me making jokes about desperately yearning for school to start, craving some structure and the freedom that comes with knowing my children are in a closely supervised environment from 8:00 to 3:00, occupied with something other than that demon-birthed cartoon network. I feign weariness in my remarks and laugh at the grind of a summer that won’t seem to end. Parents get it and commiserate with me, laughing at my lame jokes about it all.

It all seemed a little less funny this morning when I opened my email and found the monthly newsletter from World Vision. I opened the main page and saw a headline for one of the articles. The global food crisis means that children who should be going to school are instead going to work, often in dangerous conditions. Across the globe there are an estimated 218 million laborers between the ages of 5 and 17.

And I speak of back-to-school as if my own convenience is what really matters. I just assume that school is where kids will be once we’ve celebrated Labor by sleeping in and grilling burgers by the pool. It never occurs to me that there are children for whom labor day is every day. Western privilege makes rich man Divies of me and I don’t even know it.

I didn’t read the entire article right away. I have this nasty habit in the mornings of going to my email before going to my Bible. I closed the newsletter, the reality of children who work to eat sitting heavy in my brain, and tried to give my attention to Psalm 18, the assigned Psalm for this week.

I’ve struggled with Psalm 18. It’s long. That’s a pathetic thing to say, but I have to push myself through those 50 verses. At times the language is strange on my tongue, violent and vengeful and then suddenly speaking of "my righteousness" and how God deals with me according to "my blamelessness." Apart from Jesus, there’s no way anyone can really pray Psalm 18 with a straight face.

But after seeing the World Vision newsletter, the words of the Psalmist sounded different. They meant something different. I began to understand this morning that the prayer has nothing to do with me. I prayed Psalm 18 for children around the world who can’t afford enough food and who get up every day to work 11 hour shifts in mines and who will not go to school next week. The Psalm allowed me to say more than “God please bless those children and help them find food to eat.”

Psalm 18 gave language for crying out against enemies and oppressors. The Psalm verbalized the distress and the sense of being swallowed by death, and that would include the death of starvation. The Psalm affirmed that God hears and praised God who is our strength and help and confidence.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quoted as having said that “those who will not cry out for the Jews cannot sing Gregorian chant.” If we cannot stand up and stand with those who suffer, our words of praise whether spoken or sung are empty. We are only posturing as we pray.

So I am thankful for Psalm 18. I think that tomorrow it will not be so hard to make my way through those 50 verses. I will pray the Psalm for those afflicted by disease and hunger and corrupt governments and evil people. And next week, when I drop my kids off for that first day of School, I won’t simply be relieved. I will be truly thankful.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Vacation Reading

We’ve been at the beach for few days now. We arrived Saturday evening, unloaded and settled in, went out for seafood at a small local establishment where we were seated at a table on a screened porch and pulled our ‘napkins’ from a roll of paper towels.

This is an unlikely vacation spot for our family. We all burn easily. Marnie spreads the sunscreen on us the way I put peanut butter on bread. The sand is a sad necessity for enjoying the ocean. I say it every year. I love the ocean, but I could do without the beach. My kids feel differently. So the pattern is beach before lunch, an interlude of lunch and napping or whatever can be done inside where there’s AC, usually followed by late afternoon time at the pool nearby.

We love it here. And my favorite place at the beach is a fair distance from the ocean. It’s the front porch of this beautiful house. Those chairs are the best reading site to be found here, removed from the sounds of the TV, visited by occasional breezes that make it a delight in the morning and bearable at mid-day.

So here’s what has occupied my time and thoughts on the porch this week.

In the mornings I’ve been spending a few minutes with The Journals of Jim Elliot. To read Elliot’s journals is to get a tutorial in reading the Bible. Elliot came to his Bible every day expecting to hear God speak. The journal was simply a means of recording what the Spirit spoke to him through the text. When Elliot came to the Bible he was on a quest, expectant and eager – and disappointed on those days when nothing seemed to arrest his attention. I was somewhat gratified to read these words:

March 17, 1948: Meditation yesterday on the curtains and boards seemed fruitless. I fear I don’t have time in a single hour to both pray and study . . .

March 19, 1948: Somehow the study of the tabernacle seems fruitless. . .

Even Jim Elliot struggled to wrest meaning from Exodus 26 and 27. These barren moments with the scriptures only intensified his quest, moving him to pray for mercy, for insight into the “wonderful things” of God’s law.

In the afternoons I made my way through Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. The back of this book is sprinkled with snippets from various reviews and I can’t think of an adjective that hasn’t been used. This story managed to wriggle its way into some deep place within me. I can’t comprehend what it takes for an author to create and tell a story that has the capacity to lay claim to the reader and not relinquish that claim until well after the final page. I was sitting in the chairs when I finished it around 3:00 pm today. That favorite place here at the beach was the site of a sad moment – finishing The Kite Runner. Hosseini makes me wish I could write fiction.

Elliot – making me want to be a better student of scripture. Hosseini – making me want to write better, especially when it comes to stories. Vacation reading gives me something to aim for when I get back to my work.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Praying More than We Mean

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . . (Ephesians 3:20 ESV).

On-line streaming video is amazing. It’s almost 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I’m sitting around in shorts and a T-shirt, planning to be on the beach before lunch time. And yet, thanks to streaming video, I’m right there in worship with the folks at Peachtree.

I know. How pathetic is it that we’re at the beach and we’re still watching our service back home. Seems to defeat the whole idea of a vacation. But we can’t help ourselves. Sunday morning in shorts and a t-shirt just doesn’t seem right. So even though I’m barely paying attention, sitting here at my own computer with an occasional glance at the service unfolding on Marnie’s laptop, it feels good to be connected to our worshipping congregation back home.

While this beach trip may not find us gathering with a community of believers, it has not been void of worship. Last night we rode our bikes to the beach and walked out on the sand. John and Anna jumped small waves and this meant repeated reprimands and admonitions about not getting too wet or venturing into the water. But to stand beneath the black sky of the gulf coast with stars and constellations smattered overhead and the accompaniment of roaring ocean all around was worship indeed, parenting challenges aside.

And this morning on the front porch of the house, after reading the assigned scripture texts, I spent a few minutes reading The Journals of Jim Elliot. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, was killed with four colleagues by the Auca Indians on January 8, 1956. His story inspired a generation of missionaries, and continues to do so today. I’m reading journal entries that were written in 1948 when Elliot was a student at Wheaton. He is reading the Old Testament, a chapter a day it seems, and writing a paragraph or so of reflection and prayer on the text he reads.

A couple of days ago I was especially challenged by something he wrote on February 16, 1948 after reading Exodus 1. Elliot is observing how Israel flourished under persecution. How the people increased in Egypt, even as slaves. Elliot rightly observes that God’s kingdom advances through affliction. And then Elliot adds, “send persecution to me, Lord, that my life might bring forth much fruit.”

How God answered that prayer. Elliot himself could never have imagined what God intended to do with and through his life, how his violent death would bear much fruit.

Sometimes we may pray things we don’t mean. But perhaps, just as often, we pray more than we mean. Our hearts are in the right place, not distant, not at odds with the words we speak. But we speak things to God without realizing what our prayer might mean, or what it might mean if Gods truly answers us and does what we ask.

The gospel reading this morning was Matthew’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew leaves out the boy with loaves and fishes. As Matthew tells it the disciples somehow have the meager meal, no explanation offered as to where it came from. I like the version that involves the boy with his sack lunch. He allows the disciples to take what he has, but none of them have any idea what Jesus will do with the bread and the fish.

Maybe Jesus does the same with our prayers. We pray from the life we have today. We offer who we are right now. And maybe as we do so, we pray more than we mean because God takes what we offer and does more than we can ask or imagine.