Thursday, October 30, 2008

Laptops and Souls

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20)

At the start of the school year my 5th grade son was issued a laptop computer, a Mac notebook, sleek and envied by his dad. Things have changed quite a bit since I was in fifth grade. These days when we all leave the house in the morning three of us sling laptop bags over our shoulders. Next year, when my daughter gets hers, it’ll be the entire family.

When this school year ends John will have to give his laptop back to the school. It’s not his to keep. For nine months he enjoys the benefits of having the computer, he learns how to use it and how to do power point and reports and whatever else he’s assigned to do. But in May, the laptop must be returned in good working order.

His laptop will be required of him.

The one we know as the rich fool was by no means stupid. He’s the picture of successful landowner. Good luck and shrewd management are joined in his story, the land yielding a good harvest and the landowner expanding his capacity to hold it all. He builds bigger barns, executes a smart business plan, and earns the leisure that comes with doing very well.

It is here that God speaks the sobering word: “You fool.” This man isn’t a fool because his land was productive. He is not a fool because he managed his resources well. He is a fool because after all that work with fields and barns it is his soul that will be required of him. While his business grew, his soul diminished.

Someday our soul will be required of us. That’s a provocative line in the parable Jesus told. Our bank balances and real estate holdings will not be required of us. Our club memberships and diplomas will not be required of us. Our wardrobes and vehicles will not be required of us.

God seems remarkably indifferent to all of those things in which we invest so much energy and time. Ultimately, what we offer back to God is our deepest self, our soul.

In his book The Jesus Way Eugene Peterson recalls moving from a small Montana town to Seattle when he was twelve years old. He was enthralled with the size of the bustling city. On Saturdays he would pay a quarter and ride an elevator to the top of the Smith building to overlook the city.

Peterson recalls that in Montana he had climbed mountains that were every bit as high as the Smith building. But the mountains made him feel small. The Smith building, towering above Seattle, made him feel big.

Our souls expand in accordance with the expanse of God in our lives. John the Baptizer spoke to this truth when he said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). A fool spends the best energies of life becoming big and getting bigger: bigger barns of stuff and a bigger name to go with it. The problem isn’t the bigger barn, but the small God.

To store up treasure in heaven does not mean giving to a charitable cause. We grow rich toward God as God becomes the defining reality of life. We tend to our soul as God becomes larger and larger. Someday our soul will be required of us. We would do well to ponder a question often posed by the Puritans: “How goes it with your soul?”

Lord Jesus, our world trains us to increase and applauds us whenever we do. Achievements, acquisitions, advancements – these are so often our treasure. Teach us to become rich toward you and to make you our treasure. Help us understand how to decrease while you increase. Make us ready for the day when our soul will be required of us, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Buy Things . . . or By Grace?

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” ( Luke 12:15).

Judith Levine’s book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping chronicles her year-long experiment in abstaining from the consumerism that had come to dominate her life. A closet crammed with coats and boots, drawers that could barely be shut because of the clothing that bulged from within them, a cupboard stocked with seven different kinds of rice, not to mention the credit card debt – all of these pushed Levine to the point of saying “enough.” For a full year she stopped shopping, buying only necessities. Of course, one of her first challenges came in defining “necessity.”

A review of the book in Publishers Weekly made the following statement: “As Levine trades in movies and restaurants for the public library system and dinner parties at home, she is forced to reflect on not only the personal indulgences she's become used to but also their place in defining her social space.”

What’s true of Levine is true of all of us to some extent. Somehow our things acquire the power to define our “social space.” Possessions begin to tell us who we are and where we belong. That’s exactly what Jesus is warning us about.

The story in Luke 12 known to us as the parable of the rich fool is used by Jesus as an illustration of a very simple point. Jesus is telling us “your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Don’t let what you have tell you who you are.”

The reason for this word of warning isn’t hard to understand. There may come a day when you no longer have that thing that gave you your sense of self. In another teaching Jesus reminded us that earthly treasures can be stolen and they can decay. They can break or burn or go bust.

When you no longer have what you once had, then who are you?

We’re hearing plenty these days about the economic crisis. But what the journalists won’t report on is the unseen crisis of identity that is tearing at the human soul. There are many who no longer know who they are or where they belong: lost job, lost house, lost dreams, lost friends. Who are they now? More than portfolios need to be salvaged. The entire self is being undone in all of this.

The tragedy of the parable Jesus told has little to do with wealth. The man in the story isn’t a fool because he’s rich. He’s a fool because that’s all he is.

We were made to know who we are in relation to our creator. Our “social space” is defined by one key relationship: our relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship informs all others. It tells us why we’re here and what we were put here to do. Those things can never be given to us by something we purchase. They come by grace from one who loves us.

Every day, O Lord, we need to be reminded of simple things. We need to hear again of your love freely given. We need to be convicted of the ways we let the world and the world’s things define us. We need to give you thanks for what we have, and then treasure you above your gifts. Help us today by reminding us of these things, we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Fear Factor

Elijah said, “Don’t be afraid . . . first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13).

I don’t trust myself with money.

It’s not a spending problem, digging a hole of indebtedness, buying things I really don’t need. I have to keep a careful eye on that kind of thing, but my limitations in that regard are pretty clear.

Beneath the spending issues there’s a monster lurking; the monster is called “rationalization.” What I do with money flows out of how I think about money. The problem is really in my head. I know I don’t always think rightly about my stuff. I can rationalize financial decisions with impenetrable logic. That’s my trouble with money or the lack of it.

Not long ago my friend Mark Borst re-introduced me to a powerful poem by a Stan Wiersma titled “Obedience.” The poem narrates Wiersma’s memory of a growing up on a farm and how one particular Sunday morning during harvest season brought with it a threatening hailstorm.

The young Wiersma wanted to get to work that morning and get the harvest in before the storm destroyed it. As he saw it, the right plan was a no-brainer. To lose the oats crop would mean feeding their cattle with town-bought oats. The expense of this would force them to sell the cattle at a loss. Tight logic. So skip worship, just this once, and save the harvest. He quoted Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for man.”

His parents didn’t flinch. They went to church. The sky unleashed wind and hail as they sat in the pews that morning. They lost most of the crop. What should have yielded 50 bushels an acre gave only 10. If they had only stayed home they could have saved most of that. Later that day his parents reflected on their decision. “I’m glad we went,” they said.

I’m troubled by the poem. I think I would have gone to work in the fields. And I would have had good reasons for doing so. I would have surely quoted Jesus while I pulled on my jeans.

When Elijah showed up in Zarephath drought had crippled the land. The prophet went to a widow who had just enough oil to make some bread for herself and her son – their last meal before dying. The prophet said, “Make some bread and bring it to me first.”

“Are you kidding?” would have been my answer. Somehow, the widow had the courage to do what the prophet said – and oil kept showing up day after day (1 Kings 17:16). What I notice is the words used by the prophet as he gave this instruction to the widow. He told her, “Don’t be afraid.”

That’s it. My thinking about possessions and money is more often than not shaped by my fears. These days, the fear factor is huge when it comes to money. In fact, we can’t really talk about greed unless we get honest about our fears. What are yours today? Coming up short, losing what you have, letting down the family, losing face in front of friends and associates? What’s the fear? And how does that shape you thinking about money?

These are anxious days, O God. Our fears sometimes drive us to clutch at what we have and grieve what we’ve lost or what we might not obtain. We pray as Jesus taught us and ask you to give us daily bread. And teach us to be thankful and content as we learn to trust you with all that we have. Amen.

Friday, October 24, 2008

That's How Long it Takes

Jesus went out to a mountainside . . . and spent the night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

North Carolinians know barbeque. When I went to Texas to go to seminary I became aware of a long standing feud surrounding this delicacy. In Texas and Oklahoma barbeque is beef, also known as brisket. North Carolinians scoff at such. In North Carolina barbeque is pork laced with just the right amount of vinegar.

The congregation I served in North Carolina didn’t simply know barbeque – they knew how to make barbeque. In fact, making barbeque was an annual congregational event that ranked right up there with Christmas and Easter. Always on an October Friday, we made enough to feed the town of Apex, North Carolina from lunch time to dinner time. Preparing the barbeque started on a Thursday afternoon and lasted all night until it was served the next day.

This entire endeavor was very new to me when I went to North Carolina. My immediate question was, “Why would anyone stay up all night long cooking barbeque?” I learned two simple answers to the question.

Answer 1: Because that’s how long it takes.

Answer 2: The pleasure of the company.

To say that Jesus prayed is to speak a half-truth. Jesus did not simply pray, he prayed long. We have biblical examples of the shorter prayers of Jesus: he prayed briefly before raising Lazarus from the dead, he spoke a blessing before feeding the five thousand, he uttered anguished sentence prayers from the cross, and the model prayer Jesus gave us is concise. Jesus cautioned us against babbling on and on, using too many words (Matt. 6:7).

But Jesus also prayed in a protracted way. Jesus began his ministry with forty days of solitude in the desert. We know he was tempted there, but he was no passive presence in the wilderness. His fasting was certainly coupled with long lingering prayer. Luke tells us that before selecting the twelve who would be his closest followers, Jesus spent the night in prayer. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed long enough for the disciples to get sleepy and nod off – and then he went on and kept praying.

Say “prayer time” and most of us think of the 15 minutes or half-hour we set aside for prayer before turning our attention to more urgent matters. We’re even proud if we manage that much time for prayer. “Prayer time” is sometimes a segment of a worship service, alongside singing time and teaching time. Prayer time might be the first few minutes of a meeting. What we commonly think of as “prayer time” is a tightly fenced piece of our day.

But all of us deal with things that cannot be prayed for in 15 minutes. In fact, the things that matter to us most will not be dealt with in our “prayer time.” Praying for healing, praying for a marriage, praying for a wayward child, praying for the right job or any job for that matter – these require long prayer: Prayer through the night; prayer over the months and years.

That’s just how long it takes. Good barbeque can’t be made in a microwave. Our lives can’t always be prayed in 15 minutes. And what keeps us at it? The pleasure of God’s company, the assurance of being heard, the confidence of God’s love and his will for our good.

What parts of your life need long prayer today?

Too often, O Lord, we pray on the run. We sit down to pray, all the while distracted. We offer shot-gun sentences and then wonder why prayer doesn’t seem to work. Teach us how to linger with you in prayer – for hours or months or years. Help us to live every day in ongoing fellowship with you, trusting that you are always at work for our good and the glory of your name. Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Own Worst Enemy

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit (Galatians 5:17)

Jesus . . . spent the night praying to God (Luke 6:12)

The commercials looked intriguing. The very title of the show was provocative because it said something true, something most of us feel. The new TV series is called “My Own Worst Enemy” and on Monday night, unwinding after our Session meeting, I indulged myself in what Marnie likes to call “brain candy.”

The premise of the show is absurd, so hang with me here: One man is actually two different people. An intelligence agency made him this way by planting a computer chip deep in his brain. As circumstances required, they could call forth one personality and put the other to sleep. When circumstances changed, the other would be awakened and the one made dormant. I know . . . it’s ridiculous.

But here’s the drama. The intelligence agency has lost the ability to control the functions of the computer chip. Now they never know who will emerge or when or under what circumstances.

Sometimes we see Henry, a benign family man, somewhat timid, ordinary to the point of boring.

Sometimes we see Edward, a trained operative, skilled in espionage, comfortable with killing.

And Henry and Edward are aware of each other and strive against each other. Edward mocks the milquetoast existence of Henry; Henry resents the intrusive chaos of Edward’s world. All of this wrapped up in the same guy. Thus, “my own worst enemy.”

Sure, the TV show stretches the limits of credulity, but this story line is as old as the Bible. You don’t have to look too hard to find people of faith who were also their own worst enemy.

Abraham trusted God but kept trying to manage his life with his own plans. The same was true of Jacob, stealing blessing from Isaac when God had already promised to bless him. David was man after God’s own heart who couldn’t tame the lust of his eyes. Peter was brash in his declarations of loyalty, and prone to curse and deny his connection with Jesus. Paul said it best: “the good I know to do, I don’t do. The evil I know to avoid, I do anyway” (Romans 7:19).

All of us could add our names to that list. The flesh wars against the Spirit. Part of us desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to our self-centeredness (Galatians 5:17).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of prayer. When it comes to prayer I am my own worst enemy. I want to get up and pray, but I want to sleep in too. I want to linger long with God in prayer, but I’ve got to check my emails and get started on writing a devotional (about prayer). I want to go the mountain, but it really looks like there’s far more good to be done down here in the fray of daily life.

If left to myself I won’t follow Jesus in this area of life. I will admire Jesus. I will respect Jesus. But I won’t pray like Jesus. For that I need something beyond myself and my good intentions. I need grace.

A prayer time can be had through discipline and careful scheduling. A life of prayer is a gift of grace. If we plan to do battle with our own worst enemy, grace is really the only weapon we have.

Merciful God, we are divided people: divided in our affections and our intentions, wanting one thing and then its opposite, aiming to do your will but walking our own way. We ask for you grace today that we might be whole, of one heart and mind. Grant us grace that causes us to seek you. Make us a people of prayer, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We Need A Mountain

About that same time he climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer before God (Luke 6:12 The Message).

Last week the nation met Joe the plumber. Joe’s name came up in the presidential debate on Wednesday night. Joe’s probably wishing now that the candidates had just left him out of it. Many of us are wishing the same thing. Too late.

Once “Joe the plumber” became a household moniker for working people everywhere Joe himself came under scrutiny. By Thursday we were hearing things about Joe. Reports began to circulate that Joe was not actually a licensed plumber. One story stated that a tax lien had been filed against Joe. Joe was under the microscope, a champion to some, scorned by others. Maybe that’s what happens when everyone knows who you are.

The very same dynamic is unfolding in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel. Here it’s all about Jesus the carpenter. Jesus’ reputation is spreading throughout Capernaum and Galilee. His name is getting around. Mark’s gospel says that public response to Jesus had made it difficult for him to openly enter the city limits. Jesus stayed out in remote places – but people still came from everywhere (Mark 1:45).

With the growing reputation and spreading popularity came scrutiny, especially from the clergy. Throughout Luke 5 we read about a series of clashes between Jesus the guild of religionists. They attack most often with questions: Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why don’t your disciples fast like John and his disciples? Why are you doing what us unlawful on the Sabbath?

Question after question, attack after attack, skirmish after skirmish. I heard it said recently that Jesus was constantly in conflict but never in an argument. True enough. But still, the hostilities were escalating, and Jesus surely knew this. By the middle of Luke 6 hostility has flowered into hatred. Plans are being made to do something about Jesus.

Here Luke tells us that it was about this time that Jesus went to a mountain to pray.

We all need a mountain. Not all of us live with widespread criticism; we don’t all deal with public curiosities about our lives. But life has a way of wearing on all of us in different ways. The mountain is a place where we can hear the voice of the One who tells us who we truly are. We need to hear this every day.

More than any gospel writer, Luke pulls the curtain back on the prayer life of Jesus. Jesus prayed all the time. It was his pattern to withdraw to lonely places, to mountains, and seek the Father. This seems to have been especially true at critical junctures of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus didn’t pray simply because he felt he ought to; he didn’t go to the mountain to set a good example for his followers. Jesus went to the mountain because he needed to. With all the voices that clamored about and tried to define who he was and how he should be, Jesus needed to hear the only voice that mattered.

And if Jesus needed a mountain, we do too. Where’s yours?

Lord Jesus, meet me here at the start of this new day and remind of who you’ve called me to be. Remind me of your love and fill me with your grace. Lead me over and over again to the mountain and teach me to listen for your voice. Amen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Distracted Deity

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked (Luke 8:45).

My very first assignment as a hospital chaplain was on the maternity floor of Baylor Hospital in Dallas, Texas. For the most part, this was fun work that involved a clearly defined task. It was my job to present a little New Testament to the mothers of newborns. Mine was a ministry of celebration.

However, there was one wing of the floor where the patients were moms who were not celebrating. Childbirth for them had been accompanied by complications. The complications sometimes spiraled into full blown grief.

Some rooms on the floor were places of thanksgiving and blessing and joy. Here families gathered to welcome the newest member. Other rooms were places of waiting and questioning and even weeping. Here parents wondered what went wrong and why.

And these rooms occupied different places on the floor, kept at distance from each other. There were certainly medical or nursing reasons for this. But it’s also difficult to mingle grief and joy. The blessed and the less-blessed can be awkward neighbors.

A woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years had furtively touched Jesus’ cloak. She was immediately healed. Jesus stopped, sensing that power had gone out from him, asking who it was that had touched him. The woman presented herself and told her story.

It is not hard for us to imagine what Jairus might have experienced as Jesus took time to talk with the woman healed of her bleeding. For a time it seemed that Jesus had forgotten the original destination of their journey, the fact that somewhere a little girl was dying. Jesus had gotten distracted, his attentions diverted. His power had healed this unclean woman, but that power wasn’t doing anything for Jairus’ daughter.

This happens often and we struggle to make sense of it. We live with urgent needs but sense that God’s blessings are being directed to other places and other people. We or someone we love is sick while others thrive or get well. Our own business struggles while someone else’s prospers. We can’t find love but we stand with our friends in their weddings. We’re stuck in the same job while friends we went to school with are climbing the ladder. The new baby is welcomed in one room. The stillbirth is grieved in the other. Why isn’t Jesus more attentive?

Today you may be wondering if you’re praying to a distracted deity – a well meaning God whose grace is being given to others. There are showers of blessing, but they are scattered showers and your life remains bone dry. But you are not forgotten. The journey that Jesus began with you, he will finish. The walk you are on is far from over. Stay around long enough to see it through.

Loving God, we give you thanks that you do not forget your children, that we are engraved on the palm of your hand (Isaiah 49:16). We confess that we are easily distracted by our fears and expectations. Teach us to patiently walk with you, knowing that what you began in us and with us will be carried to completion. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Open Pleading, Quiet Reaching

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years . . . She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak (Luke 8:43-44).

In the churches that nurtured my young faith there was only one way to come to Jesus: right out in the open. A public profession of faith. I understand that professing faith openly is important. I know now that this can be done in a number of ways. But in my childhood this involved a singular act of commitment: walking the aisle at the end of a worship service.

Walking the aisle was an act that coupled one of the most wonderful experiences of life (coming to faith in Jesus) with one of the most horrifying experiences of life (walking to speak to the preacher while everyone watched). When I came to Jesus and mustered the courage to walk the aisle, the preacher who welcomed me was my Dad. I cherish the memory now – but I was still horrified.

I would have much preferred to come to Jesus in a way that drew less attention. A less observable approach would have been nice, a quiet and unassuming path to the savior. Not unlike coming up from behind and reaching for the edge of his cloak.

Luke’s skill as a storyteller is especially evident in this episode that begins with one drama about a dying girl, interrupts it with another about a chronically sick woman, and then returns to the original drama. Both Jairus and an unnamed woman seek out Jesus. What they both need is his healing power. But they come to Jesus in very different ways.

Jairus is a man of position and status. As ruler of the synagogue he knows God’s law and is at home around holy things. This woman has no status to speak of. She too knows the law of God, but this Law tells her she is unclean because of her bleeding. She is not at home around the holy.

Jairus approaches Jesus boldly. He falls at Jesus’ feet and openly pleads for Jesus to come and heal his daughter. His request is direct and forthright. The bleeding woman comes indirectly. She has enough determination to push through the crowd, but her approach to Jesus is hidden, from behind. She speaks no request. She simply reaches for the edge of his cloak.

Two different people, two different approaches to Jesus. But Jesus responds to both. He agrees to go to the home of Jairus. And when the woman touches his cloak, he senses that power has gone out from him. Jesus responds to our open pleading. Jesus also responds to our quiet reaching.

There is more than one way to come to Jesus today. What matters more than anything is that you come, that you seek him out. Jesus’ invitation is broad: “come to me all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28).

The burdens you bring to Jesus may compel you to make bold and direct requests. The burdens you bring may strap you down with shame. You come to Jesus cautiously, even timidly. Either way – the good news is that both of those ways move the heart of the only one who can heal us and make us whole. However you come today, just come. You will not be ignored.

“I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame . . . Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:4-8).

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Walk Home

Then a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying (Luke 8:41).

Urgency will drive us to Jesus, but what keeps us there when the sense of urgent need no longer exists?

Some prayers are born of panic. Sudden illness, financial crises, fragile relationships, unexpected and unwanted news that leaves us disoriented, not having a clue what’s next – these things drive us to Jesus and put us on our knees before him. But sometimes these things resolve. Eventually the crisis passes. The disorientation leads us to what is often called a “new normal.” And then what? Do we remain humbly before Jesus? Or do we wander off and take care of our own stuff until the next crisis pushes us back to the ground where Jesus patiently stands?

A man named Jairus had a twelve year old daughter who was dying. Things don’t get more urgent than that. This urgency pushed him to seek out Jesus, a bold move for this synagogue ruler. As one who had oversight of the place of worship, he had surely heard things about Jesus. Perhaps he’s even been in on the conversations, the disparaging remarks, the questions, the theological critiques of what the young rabbi says and does. Jairus has been watching Jesus from a distance. And as he has watched and wondered about Jesus, his daughter has gotten worse.

So when a crowd gathers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to meet Jesus, Jairus is there. His words and actions reflect both boldness and desperation. He falls at Jesus’ feet. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her” (Mark 5:23).

And Jesus goes with him. What begins now is a long walk home. It is in this walk that the drama of the story unfolds. Will they make it back in time?

Walking with Jesus when we feel the press of some urgent need is not easy for us. We prefer a quicker response. There is a similar story in the gospels where Jesus is asked by a Roman centurion to heal one of his servants. Jesus, once again, is ready to make the journey in order to heal. This time the centurion stops him and acknowledges that Jesus has the authority to simply speak a healing word and it will be done. Jesus then does just that. He speaks healing from a distance and the servant is made well (Matthew 8:5-13).

But Jairus will have to walk with Jesus. There is no chariot to whisk Jesus to the bedside of this little girl. No galloping steed kicking up a cloud of dust as Jesus runs to the rescue. None of that – just a long walk home. And it’s hard to walk when everything inside of you is screaming to run.

Some of you woke up today with urgency knotted up in your stomach: the stock market, your marriage, your business, your health, your kids. Urgencies come to us in so many ways. You’ve been praying and you know Jesus is with you - but Jesus seems so slow. Keep walking. Don’t run off looking for a quicker solution. Don’t take to yourself the role of savior. Just offer the urgencies of your life to Jesus and walk with him through this day.

Lord Jesus, urgent needs push us to prayer almost daily – but having prayed, we find it so hard to walk with you. Teach us to follow you today. Help us to keep our place as you set the pace, knowing that you will our good. “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice . . . I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3). Amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Invitation

He replied, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).

In his book Things Unseen, Mark Buchanan recalls his days as a teaching assistant to Dr. Klaus Bockmuehl at Regent College. As a young theologian, Bockmuehl had known the renowned Karl Barth. On one occasion, Buchanan asked his mentor about his acquaintance with Barth. Bockmuehl shared this story.

There was an occasion when Bockmuehl was in Barth’s presence and found himself looking for something to say. He decided he would say something to honor this great theologian, so he thanked Barth for the contributions he had made to theological thought and to the life of the Church. He said to Barth, “When you are gone I pray that God will raise up another to do what you have done.”

Barth locked his gaze on the young Bockmuehl. “No,” he said. “Don’t pray that. You do it.” Barth’s words echo Jesus. “You give them something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat.” Those words must have baffled and stunned the twelve. There were five thousand men, as well as their family members, gathered in this remote place. Was Jesus serious? Did he really expect them to feed the crowd?

The answer is yes: he was serious. And the answer is no: they were not being asked to come up with a solution or figure out how to provide a meal. What Jesus is doing is extending an invitation. He is inviting them to a life of trust. He is offering them a chance to be involved in his divine mission. Only Jesus can satisfy the hunger of this crowd – but he will do it through his followers and the simple offering they bring to him.

Jesus was not asking his followers to do the miracle; he was including them in the holy mystery. He does the same with us.

We are surrounded every day by hungers and yearnings that ache to be filled. Only Jesus can do this. But he asks us to participate, to be a part of what he is doing. Just as the twelve instructed the masses to be seated in groups of fifty, just as they passed the baskets of food to the people, we too are the means by which Jesus meets the hungers of the world around us.

The danger lies in being preoccupied with our own hungers. It’s far too easy to listen to this story and fixate on how Jesus will feed us. Sure enough, Jesus does that – but then he invites you to be a part of something larger than yourself.

Those who have been fed will feed. Those who have been blessed will bless. Those who have been made whole will seek to extend healing. This is Jesus’ strategy for bringing heaven to earth. This is life in the Kingdom.

What kinds of hungers do you see every day? How does the yearning of soul express itself in your office, in your circle of friends, in your own home? In prayer we bring all of these to Jesus, and we ask him to include us in the holy mystery of his work. As you go through this day, hear the invitation: “You give them something to eat.”

Lord Jesus, we give you thanks for the way you meet our needs, for the way you satisfy the hungers we bring to you. Now we ask that you would use us as you do the same in the lives of others around us. We will not horde the grace given to us. Include us in your work and empower us to feed the hungry, to heal the hurting, to embrace the lonely – all in your name. Amen.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Grace Remembered

Take nothing for the journey . . . no bread, no money, no extra tunic (Luke 9:3).

Send the crowd away so they go to the surrounding villages . . . and find food and lodging (Luke 9:12).

Not long before taking his disciples to Bethsaida, Jesus had sent them out on their own to do what they had seen him do. There are no armchair disciples – not then, not now. Eventually those who follow are sent.

They had heard Jesus speak about the Kingdom of God and proclaim its present reality. Now it was their turn to raise their voices and announce the good news. They had seen Jesus heal, mend the broken, place his hands on the sick. Now it was their turn to do the same. Training camp was over. Time to get in the game.

Only one thing . . . this journey was luggage free. No need to pack a bag. Jesus told them to take nothing for the journey – no extra coat, no wallet, no ATM card, no sandwiches. Don’t worry about making reservations. Don’t call AAA for a trip-tick. Just go.

And so they went, and in doing so they learned that what Jesus had given them – his power and authority – was really all they needed. Life in the Kingdom isn’t about stockpiling resources and following a daily itinerary.

Funny how that experience seems to be fading by the time they get to Bethsaida. A crowd gathers in a remote place. Jesus is teaching and healing, and as long as he does this people are not inclined to leave. The sun begins to sit low in the sky. All these people will need a place to stay. They’ll need bread.

“Send them away.” Let them provide for themselves; let them find food and lodging. That’s the plan offered by the twelve – the same twelve who had been sent out with no bread, no extra tunic, no bag, no money. The same twelve who had been sustained by grace.

Many of us live with a low-grade amnesia when it comes to grace in our lives. The problem is not that we don’t believe, but that we don’t remember. What God did so clearly back then somehow fails to embolden us for now. Grace was there yesterday, but today we woke up with an agenda. We keep trying to orchestrate our lives rather than simply playing our part and letting Jesus conduct.

Train yourself every day to look for signs of God’s presence. Don’t simply look. Expect it. Maybe the best way to do this is by looking back – at last year, at last week, at yesterday. At some point in your life Jesus sent you out without bread . . . and yet you had bread when you needed it. Jesus was with you. Do you remember? The time you spent in the hospital, that season when you prayed for conception and planned for adoption, that long stretch of looking for work?

The grace that sustained you then will be there for you today. The Jesus that journeyed with the twelve and gathered the five thousand also walks with you. Don’t forget it.

Lord Jesus, help us to remember your faithfulness – and in remembering make us bold, and strengthen our faith today. We thank you that what you have done before, you will do again. Send us out today to serve in your name and in your power, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Leaning in A New Direction

Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging. . . (Luke 9:12).

The familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is the source of much comfort. It reminds us that Jesus can and will provide for our needs. It reminds us that even a small gift can be used by Jesus to do great things.

But I find encouragement in the story for an entirely different reason: I am encouraged to see that I am not alone in giving Jesus instructions. Like the twelve, I often think I know exactly how certain situations need to be handled. Prayer often becomes a time for me to lay out the plan.

The crowds had tracked Jesus and the twelve to Bethsaida. Jesus had welcomed them. He talked about the Kingdom and healed the sick among them. With five thousand in attendance it’s not hard to understand how the service ran a bit long. It was beginning to get late. Time for the twelve to interject their assessment of the situation.

“Send the crowd away so they can get food and find a place to sleep.” Fred Craddock observes that this advice was not an act of faithlessness. The apostles, genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people, are simply advising Jesus to do what common sense dictates. Wrap it up, give the benediction, and send the congregation back to town before everything closes.

But Kingdom living isn’t always friendly to common sense. There is a proverb that tells us to trust on the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5). Life in the Kingdom is about learning how to lean in a new direction.

In the early days of my son’s little league experience I became frustrated over my inability to help him catch the ball. He was playing it safe, sidestepping the ball. When the ball came to him, he would instinctively step slightly to the side, extend his hand with the fingers of his glove angled downward, and catch the ball in an underhanded position.

Looking back, it is clear to me why he did this. When a ball appears to be coming right at your face it is instinctive to get out of the way. I was asking him to change his standard and preferred practice, to train himself in a new behavior that felt very uncomfortable.

When scripture tells us not to lean on our own understanding, it does not mean that we will abandon common sense. What we will do is lean in a new direction, placing our weight on something other than what we can see and make sense of. This isn’t easy. It’s like standing still when the ball is coming right at your face. It's like inviting the crowd to sit down instead of sending them back to town.

Is there something coming at you today that seems to demand a certain kind of response? Do you find yourself giving Jesus instruction about what needs to happen in that situation? Maybe Jesus is inviting you to lean in a new direction, to trust him more than you trust your own limited understanding of what’s happening to you. Jesus is prepared to handle whatever it is. We follow his instructions – not the other way around.

Lord Jesus, we want to acknowledge you in all our ways, but it’s hard for us to ignore our own understanding. Give us wisdom today and help us know how to lean on you rather than our own ways of doing things. Teach us to trust you. Walk with us and make our paths straight, we pray. Amen.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Chairman of the Bored

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it (Luke 9:24).

Recently Marnie and I made some changes with regard to our insurance coverage. This involved a conversation with a representative of the insurance company in which we were asked a series of questions about our lifestyle. They wanted to know if I flew an airplane. They wanted to know how often I went skydiving. I assured the nice anonymous lady that I neither piloted an airplane, nor did I have any intention of jumping out of one.

I look back on that conversation with mild amusement, especially when I read the words of Jesus and think abut the upside down way of living to which Jesus calls us. The gist of my conversation with the insurance company was this: “I am a boring person. I don’t do risky foolish things. My life is ensconced in a large buffer of predictability and safety.” Insurance companies feel good about that kind of life.

But that’s not the kind of life Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to give ourselves away. Life is diminished when we play it safe, hedge our bets, avoid the unfamiliar people and the unexplored places. That’s no way to live.

Jesus speaks directly to this right on the heels of Peter’s bold confession. Jesus had asked what people were saying about him, gauging the word on the streets. And then he got to the real question. What did his own close followers say about him? Who did they think he was?

Peter speaks up. “You are the Christ of God.” The anointed. The Messiah. Peter got it right; he goes to the head of the class. But once that has been said, Jesus begins to explain what it means. He uses words like suffering and cross. He says that life is to be spent and given away, not saved and guarded.

The story is telling us that we will never embrace the upside down ways of the Kingdom of God unless we know who Jesus is. Jesus is Lord. He is teacher and master. Jesus is our savior. He never intended to be chairman of the bored and the boring.

As you look at this day, where is the risk? Have you worked carefully to eliminate it? Most of us wake up every day thinking about how we can save our lives. We strive to maximize comfort and minimize pain; we seek to protect our property and the people we love; we aim to impress those who can help us move up in the world. Planning to lose life is upside down – but that’s life in the Kingdom.

Today is another chance for you to take a sanctified risk. It might be a decision you’re struggling with. It might be a conversation you need to have but have been putting off. It might be as simple as loving your neighbor by introducing yourself. Chances to give life away are found all the time in all kinds of places. So go ahead and lose yourself in the Kingdom – and find the life God intends for you to have.

Lord Jesus, I have been well trained in saving my life, guarding what I have and gathering what I want. Teach me what it means to lose life, to give it away, to risk myself in your service. And make me bold in the knowledge that you are Lord. You are mighty to save. You are worthy of my trust. Amen.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Kingdom and Hardship

“Anyone signing up for the Kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times” (Acts 14:22, The Message).

Last summer I had the privilege of spending a week with a group of Christians from a predominantly Muslim country. The visible Kingdom in which they live is governed by both a constitution and Islamic law. My week with them allowed me to experience what citizenship in God’s Kingdom means, how it transcends the geographical borders of the United States and the country in which they live and worship.

Among this group was a 36 year old man, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a husband and father. About two months ago I began receiving emails asking for prayer for this brave man. He had been told to present himself to the police. He complied with this order and was subsequently placed under arrest. He remains imprisoned today though no formal charges have been filed against him. This kind of thing is not new to him. His own father, a pastor, was put to death by the government in 1990.

Living in God’s Kingdom is a hard and risky business for many around the world.

This will sound strange to us, but one of the ways heaven comes to earth is through our experience of affliction. Of course, it isn’t always this way. The Kingdom of God is made real in acts of service and compassion, when we work for justice and alleviate suffering.

But the New Testament is also clear that “we must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” What does that mean?

Maybe it simply means that we are never more fully aware of God’s ruling presence than when our own capacities for managing life are exhausted and spent. That’s what hardship does to us. It exposes our limitations. The crust is rinsed from our eyes and we see clearly that we’re not in charge of much. And once we see that, we’re more likely to see what we had previously missed: grace is all around us. God is at work governing our lives. The Spirit quietly brings about the purposes of God that were hidden from us. In short, we’re living in another Kingdom – the one where God rules.

We are often too quick to conclude that our hardships are evidence of God’s absence. “If God were truly in charge of things, this wouldn’t be happening” – or so we think. Be vigilant against this flawed reasoning. The hardships you are facing today stand before you as an open door, a way into the Kingdom of God. The pain you feel right now is an invitation to grace. Come on in.

Lord Jesus, you humbly learned obedience through what you suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Teach us to do the same. We are inclined to resent hardships. We work hard to fix them. We try hard to escape them. Help us instead to live through them and in them show us your grace. Strengthen our confidence in your ruling presence in this world, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Build Your Boat

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. (Hebrews 11:7).

There’s a well-worn phrase that describes some people as being “so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.” “Heavenly minded” means detached, out of touch with the realities of daily life, insulated by their religion so that they can’t feel the heat of city or hear the roar of the traffic.

The phrase is almost always invoked to convey a kind of disdain. I know because I’ve used those words that way. The intent is to say “I’m not that kind of Christian.”

The phrase is clever, but it’s wrong. It’s wrong because those who are of the most earthly good are precisely the heavenly minded. They bring unseen realities to bear on the world we see. You might say they bring heaven to earth – just like Jesus did.

Jesus’ rule over all things is an unseen reality. It is not apparent, and that makes it hard to believe for many people. To say that God’s Kingdom is in effect right now has implications for Wall Street and your street. That sounds good. We want to believe it – but we strain to catch the slightest glimpse of that reality.

Noah had his eye on things unseen; he knew something about the reality of things that no one else knew. It was this unseen reality that evoked in him a holy fear, a sense of God’s very presence in history and in his own life. It was the unseen that shaped his behavior. He started building a boat. Very practical. Very hands on. Very public. The seen shaped by the unseen.

Maybe the way to be of little or no earthly good is to see nothing but earthly things. Violence around the globe makes us cynical. Starvation and disease stoke our despair. Gridlock in Washington and nosedives in the economy fill us with fear. Some of us are so earthly minded we’re completely stumped, short-sighted, clueless as to what comes next. C. S. Lewis had it right when he observed that “if you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next.”[1]

From the way Jesus lived and taught about the Kingdom of God, this much seems clear: the Kingdom is never an escape hatch. We don’t retreat to God’s kingdom to find protection from sick and starving people; we don’t barricade ourselves in God’s Kingdom in order to weather tough times in the economy.

Instead, we see something that isn’t readily apparent in our world – the rule of Jesus in all things – and that shapes how we live. The Kingdom is always a base camp, never a hiding place.

What would it mean for you to begin building a boat today? Like Noah, how will you live this day in reverent fear and engage this world having glimpsed unseen things. Look carefully. The Lord reigns. Jesus is at work in the world. God is faithful. Get that firmly in your sights and enter this day heavenly minded. You will then do more earthly good than you imagined possible.

Gracious God, we want to make a difference in this world. Give us today sightings of unseen things: the reality of your presence around us and your power at work in the world. Let our living be a response to what we see. Make us heavenly minded that we might be of some earthly good, we pray. Amen.

[1] This is from Lewis’ Mere Christianity cited in Mark Buchanan’s Things Unseen, p. 23.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kingdom thoughts in the Gas Line

. . . Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it (Mark 10:15).

“Upside down” is the moniker we’re using to speak of God’s kingdom. By that we mean to say that God’s rule in the world turns things upside down; it’s a great reversal. William Willimon helps get at the meaning of “upside down” by explaining it this way:

Jesus took those whom we put at the fringe of society and put them right in the middle of the disciples . . . It is as if Jesus wanted to say, “You want to get into my kingdom? The only way to get into my kingdom is to be very small, very little, very needy. There will be no adults in my kingdom, no self-sufficient, liberated, autonomous, independent adults. There will only be children. Here is a kingdom that has a very small door.” (Willimon, Peculiar Speech, 68-69)

Lately I’ve had to admit that living upside down isn’t easy. Living under the rule of God is not instinctive, at least not for me. This truth is being clarified for me in the ongoing search for gas.

I don’t like to get up early on Saturday mornings, but this past Saturday I left the house at 6:30 to get Krispy Kremes (my kids really like them) and to look for gas. Finding the Krispy Kremes was no problem. The gas was a different matter entirely. On the way home I approached a QT with a tanker in the lot and fairly long line was already forming. I took my place in line, a good 10 or 15 cars from the pumps, and resisted the urge to snack on the Krispy Kremes.

The whole find-the-gas experience has made me think of Exodus 16 and the story of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. God told the people to take only what they needed for one day. They were not horde it and keep some tucked away for tomorrow. If they tried, the manna rotted. Take only what you need for this day and trust God to provide when you wake up in the morning.

If I were to take that seriously I would simply drive my car until the needle sat right on empty, knowing that God would lead me to a land flowing with premium and regular unleaded. But I don’t do that. Half begins to feel empty to me. Driving down to three-fourths makes me very antsy, like the guy who stuffs extra manna in his pockets so he won’t run out.

This kingdom teaches us to feel secure in a full tank of gas. God’s kingdom tells us that our needs will be met because God knows what we need. This kingdom conditions us to have more than enough. God’s kingdom conditions us to give away and to seek only what we need for this day. God’s kingdom feels strange, a tough place to live.

Is there something that makes it hard for you to live in God’s kingdom? What challenges your confidence in God’s rule over all things? Name what it is as this day begins and ask God to help you live the day upside down.

Lord Jesus, we are immersed in a Kingdom very different from yours. Our thinking and our desires are often defined by this world, and that makes your ways seem odd and even threatening. Teach us to trust you. Help us to see things as you see them. Make us fit for life in your kingdom we pray. Amen.