Friday, January 30, 2009

Where Did He Go?

After leaving them he went up on a mountainside to pray (Mark 6:45).

Our failure to find God in the everyday isn’t for lack of trying. Jesus told us to seek and we shall find, but there are days when it doesn’t work that way. The seeking doesn’t lead to finding, or perhaps the seeking and finding are separated by long waiting.

Belief is not the problem. We readily affirm that God is at work every day in the everyday. We acknowledge that God is present with us. We give our “amen” to Paul’s assertion that the God who made heaven and earth does not live in temples made by human hands (Acts 17). But in the contour of our everyday living there are barren stretches where God is not found. We conclude that God has left us.

We wouldn’t be the first to come to such a conclusion. Many centuries ago this same kind of experience led the Psalmist to ask “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). In his dying anguish Jesus picked up the line and prayed it from the cross.

This week we’ve been looking at Mark’s gospel and observing the different ways that Jesus shows up, making appearances here and there, revealing God in the everyday. There are however at least two instances when Jesus absents himself from the scene of what is happening. He isn’t showing up – he’s taking off.

In one instance, Jesus gets up early and leaves the house where he and the disciples are staying and goes away to a solitary place to pray. Mark uses the same verb twice in the sentence. He tells us that Jesus “went out” and “went away” (Mark 1:35).

The second instance followed the feeding of the five thousand when the disciples were getting in a boat to head to Bethsaida. Jesus didn’t join them. Mark tells us that “after leaving them he went up on a mountain to pray” (Mark 6:45).

Both instances result in anxiety and fear for Jesus’ followers. In the first instance they are searching for Jesus because so many people have needs and want his attention. In the second instance they are caught in a storm and fighting the elements of nature. And in both instances, while the disciples are in angst, Jesus is at prayer.

To the followers of Jesus it seemed that Jesus had left them to themselves; he isn’t where he’s supposed to be; he isn’t there when they need him. But in both times Jesus is exactly where is supposed to be. He is praying. He was praying then – and he prays even now.

When it’s hard to find God in the everyday these stories are God’s gift to encourage us. Jesus has not abandoned us, even when it seems that he has. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that even now Jesus prays for us. “He always lives to intercede for them.” That includes us and all who come to God through him. (Hebrews 7:25).

Our efforts to find God in the everyday sometimes leave us perplexed. “Where did he go?” He goes to God for you, intercedes for you. Jesus is praying for you right now – and that knowledge can change the everyday of any day.

Lord Jesus, we give you thanks that when we don’t know how to pray for ourselves you pray for us. You have promised never to leave us or forsake us, and we claim that promise today. When we struggle to find you in the midst of our days, strengthen us with the knowledge of your eternal intercession on our behalf. Amen.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Enter the Story

“These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).

“I only have 26 more pages until I’m at the half-way point in this book.”

My daughter’s comment punctured the quiet of our ride home. Usually the radio in the car is on. But my kids occasionally read in the car, and when they do I gladly ride along with them in silence. Actually, it’s a nice change.

Once my daughter had made her announcement to me she went right back to her reading. A comment like that will typically get a response from me about just enjoying the book or something to that effect. This time I let it go with a short affirmation like “You’re doing great.”

But her assessment of her progress stayed with me a while. I’m glad my daughter is making her way through the book, but to read is to do more than count the pages. To truly read a book is to enter the story, to lose yourself in the world the author has created, to become a participant in the drama. That’s the kind of reading I want my kids to do. I didn’t say all that to Anna, but had I offered my wisdom in response to her announcement that’s what I would have said. Don’t miss the story for counting the pages.


That’s the invitation Jesus was extending when he said “follow me.” To follow Jesus was to enter a story. A disciple is one who participates in what God is doing in the world. Followers of Jesus find God at work in the everyday, recognizing that God’s story is expansive and that everything is somehow included in the story.

While Jesus was inviting some to follow he was constantly confronted by those who preferred to simply count pages. These were the Pharisees. They measured their own progress in the story without fully entering it. They were always taking stock of how well they were doing. While they claimed to revere the author of the story, they had a hard time allowing themselves to take a role in the drama.

Case in point: hand washing. The Pharisees observed that the disciples of Jesus were not very careful about washing their hands before eating. They questioned Jesus about this, rebuking him for his failure to honor the tradition of the elders. Jesus replied by quoting Isaiah. “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). When our hearts are distant we start counting pages. We read the words, honoring with our lips, but never entering the story.


Once again today we are invited to enter the story of what God is doing in the world. God is on a mission, loving the world, blessing all people and all nations. The comprehensive word for what God is doing is “salvation.” It is a large and exciting story – and we are included.

To find God in the everyday means that we will be ever vigilant against two mistakes: One is simply counting the pages, measuring performance, going through the motions of the story without letting the story move into us. The other error is our inclination to assume the role of author and craft a plot more to our own liking.

God works every day in the everyday. The drama includes you. How will you participate in that story today?

Gracious God, make us more than observers of what you are doing. Help us to shift the focus from ourselves to you. Keep us from simply counting pages and draw us into your story as it takes shape in the most ordinary parts of this day we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Good News

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1 NRSV).

Looking back, it seems that we needed to hear and see a story like the one that unfolded in the Hudson River a couple of weeks ago. After losing two engines to a random collision with airborne geese, pilot Chesley Sullenberger ditched US Airways flight 1549 into the river, doing so in such a way that every person on the plane survived. Who can forget the sight of that massive aircraft, floating intact, passengers lined up on the wing, ferry boats suddenly deployed as rescue vessels.

The entire event has been hailed as a combination of miracle and highly skilled piloting. Whatever it was, it was good news. And our appetite for the story and the telling of it over and over by news anchors and passengers reflects our affinity for good news. Perhaps these days we don’t simply like good news. We desperately need good news.


As Mark tells the story of Jesus he wastes no time making it perfectly clear that this is good news. The Greek word for good news shows up quickly in chapter one. Good news is in the first line of the story, rendered as “gospel” in the NIV Bible. The same word shows up again in verse 14, this time as the “good news” that Jesus proclaims. For Mark the story about Jesus is good news, and the message that Jesus announces is good news. But like all news, good news about and from Jesus has a context, a backdrop that helps us understand exactly what kind of news we’re hearing.

Mark first tells us that the good news about Jesus is connected to the long tradition of the Hebrew prophets (Mark 1:2-3). Isaiah and Micah set the stage for this story, this gospel. This news has been in the making for centuries, long promised and long awaited.

And Mark also tells us that Jesus began announcing good news when John had been put in prison (Mark 1:14). John was eventually executed by Herod, and within a few years Jesus would be executed as well. The good news doesn’t mean the end of bad news. Jesus said God’s kingdom was at hand, that God was at work ruling all things. Herod’s execution of John would have made that hard to see and believe.


To say that it is possible to find God in the everyday is to announce good news. Finding God in the everyday is another way of saying exactly what Jesus told people who were hungry for good news; God is at work ruling everything; nothing is beyond God’s care or attention; nothing escapes God’s reach or exceeds God’s power.

But believing this good news – seeing God in the everyday – will require us to be patient. Sometimes good news is unfolding in ways we can’t see, happening over time. It also requires us to believe the good news while hearing plenty of bad news. Unlike the ditched aircraft, plenty of things are going down around us and leaving no small amount of wreckage and loss: ditched relationships, ditched corporations, ditched dreams.

Sometimes the wreckage makes it hard to believe the good news, the gospel. We miss the kingdom, the presence God in the everyday. Believe the good news. God’s kingdom is at hand. God is in the everyday and that includes everything about this day.

Gracious God, help me to hear your good news today – the announcement of your presence in all things. And help me to believe what I hear, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shadow Places

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John ion the Jordan . . . at once the Spirit sent him out into the desert (Mark 1:9, 12).

Without fanfare or publicity or the work of an advance team, Jesus showed up at the Jordan to be baptized by John. This wasn’t so strange really. The entire region of Judea and most of the population of Jerusalem were going out to see the charismatic figure who dressed and preached like Elijah (Mark 1:5-7). That Jesus would also make his way there fits perfectly with what was happening at the time.

Except for this: all who went to be baptized by John were confessing their sin. In that regard Jesus had no business there. Matthew tells us that when Jesus came to be baptized John tried to deter him. John put him off and didn’t want to do it. But Jesus would not be deterred. He was baptized in the Jordan, a place of confession and repentance.

And then Jesus appeared in the wilderness. As Mark tells the story, he was scarcely dry from the Jordan’s waters. The sand is stained wet where Jesus walked with intent and urgency to the desert. There Satan would have at him for forty days – tempting him to indulge his appetites, exalt himself, take shortcuts, lay claim to power and wealth.

Jesus shows up in a scene of confession of sin. And Jesus shows up in a place of temptation to sin. And between the place of confession (Jordan) and the site of temptation (desert) there is the Father’s voice speaking the word that confirms Jesus’ identity. Between confession and temptation there is the descent of the Spirit.


There is a well worn path between confession and temptation. The path is walked frequently and in both directions. We’re either confessing the sins we’ve done and regret, or we’re fighting temptations to sins we promised we’d never do. When we lose the desert struggle, we go back to the place of confession. And no sooner do we come from that place of confession and repentance than we find ourselves headed back to the place of temptation. Two-way traffic, all lanes open.

Sometimes finding God in the everyday means recognizing that Jesus stands with us in the shadow places of our living. He wades into the waters where confession is made and stands with us there, not out of his need but out of his grace. And Jesus walks with us to desert places where we fight the lure and power of sin. Jesus shows up at the river and in the desert.

The truly good news in all of this is that we are not defined by the things we’ve done and regret. And we are not defined by the things we try so hard to keep from doing. Between the river and the desert, between the confession and temptation, there is the voice of the one who loves us and claims us and gives us the gift of his very life.

Perhaps you’re on that path today. You’re in a shadow place: a place where you feel the weight of something that needs to be named and confessed, a place where you’re feeling the pull of something that you know you’ll need to confess later. Jesus stands with you there. Between confession and temptation, Jesus calls you the beloved. That is who you truly are.

We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, for the way you show up in the shadow places of our lives. Confession and temptation are not wedges that drive us from you, but windows to your presence with us. Remind us that you have claimed us, that we belong to you as your beloved children. Let that truth anchor us, removing regret over what has been done in the past and fear of what we might face in the future. Amen.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Showing Up

The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14 The Message).

On a scale of 1 to 10 Dr. James Dobson’s name recognition is easily over 5 and probably somewhere around 8. Not everyone embraces his vision of the Christian family or a Christian society with enthusiasm, but most people know who he is. Imagine my surprise several years ago while visiting my parents’ church in Sarasota, Florida when my Dad called on Dr. James Dobson to conclude the morning worship service with prayer.

James Dobson? Are you serious? Everyone was immediately looking around with stunned delight, trying to get a visual on this person to see if it really was the James Dobson. A celebrity was at church. And the excitement seemed to be heightened by the fact that he just showed up. He wasn’t invited. His presence wasn’t announced in advance or published in the church newsletter. He didn’t expect to speak or be given platform time. He was just there on one of the back pews, attending church on Sunday morning as if he were, well . . . normal.


God’s presence among us is often spoken of in such a way that the presence feels to us like a fog. It is misty and ethereal and it spreads all over the place and covers everything. But God’s blanketing presence is balanced by a manifest presence – a concrete instance of God’s appearing. We might say that in spite of our attentive seeking, sometimes God shows up in our day and catches us when we aren’t looking.

God’s presence in the everyday isn’t an abstraction. God shows up in the details of the day. The presence of the Holy is connected with crisp verbs and nouns, conversations with a named person, a phone call that evoked a strong emotion of relief or fear, a touch from someone that gave comfort at just the right moment.


That God shows up this way is clear from the ministry of Jesus. To read the gospels is to follow Jesus from here to there as he shows up and reveals God. Jesus did not simply set up shop in Nazareth and wait to be sought out. He did not extend his healing hand only to those who were fortunate enough to make their way to where he was. He did not take the same seat day after day and teach only those who had made pilgrimage to hear him. No, Jesus walked and went.

Jesus reveals to us a God who seeks us out, a God who has taken the first step toward us. In fact, Jesus’ very life as God incarnate was God’s coming to us, moving toward us. There is no place we can be, no experience we can live through that is beyond this seeking, moving God. God finds us in quiet sanctuaries and frenetic offices. He finds us in our seasons of great joy when all is well, and he comes to us in our darkest sufferings. Nothing is off-limits.

Get ready. Finding God in the everyday doesn’t simply mean that God is out there somewhere. It means that in whatever you face today, God may well show up in a way that you don’t expect. Our God loves verbs and nouns. How will God show up in your life today?

Gracious God, I invite you to show up today in ways that I might not expect. Remind me that the voices I hear might be speaking your word to me; that what I feel might be your promptings within me; that what I see happening might be a window to something you are doing. Help today with nouns and verbs, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Abundance of Caution

Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said “what does this babbler want to say?” (Acts 17:18).

Wednesday was President Obama’s first day at work. His first day at work in the White House, that is. Among the many items on the Presidential ‘to do’ list was one that we might have expected was checked-off on Tuesday. Chief Justice John Roberts came to the White House to re-administer the oath of office.

If you were watching on Tuesday you might have noted the somewhat awkward, bumbling exchange between Justice Roberts and our new President. Apparently, Justice Roberts attempted to administer the oath from memory. It didn’t go smoothly. Justice Roberts and President Obama had a “do-over” on Wednesday to be above reproach and to make sure that it was done flawlessly.

The White House explained that the oath was re-administered out of an “abundance of caution.” An interesting phrase.

An abundance of caution can be a good thing. If you pilot commercial aircraft or regularly perform brain surgery, an abundance of caution will serve you well. When you’re being sworn in as President of the United States, an abundance of caution is wise.

But sometimes an abundance of caution slips over the line and morphs into fear, the kind of fear that keeps us from taking risks, the kind of fear that keeps us from trusting God and living by faith. Caution is admirable in airline pilots and surgeons, but even pilots and surgeons need to take risks. Too much caution and the plane will never get off the ground. An abundance of caution could have been disastrous as US Airways flight 1549 was ditched in the Hudson River.

A life of faith doesn’t flourish well wrapped in an abundance of caution. The overly cautious have a hard time seeing God in the everyday. They’re too busy making sure nothing goes wrong, eliminating the need to trust something or someone beyond themselves.


Paul in Athens is exemplary in his willingness to throw caution to the wind while at the same time being careful in his dealings with the Athenians and the audience at the Areopagus.

Speaking of the resurrected Jesus in Athens was risky. Paul was thought to be a “babbler.” An overly cautious Paul would have not spoken so plainly about Jesus. Paul went at the Epicureans and Stoics head on. He was bold and direct, reasoning in both synagogue and marketplace, taking the fight to his would be detractors. An abundance of courage.

But once he is asked to address the very same issues before the Areopagus, Paul is careful. His words to the Athenians are strategically chosen and nuanced. He compliments them, cites their poet laureate, and finds points of contact with their world view.

Seeing God in the everyday might mean placing ourselves at risk everyday, engaging situations and relationship where all we can do is trust God. We do well to take care, exercise caution that Jesus is presented well and truthfully. But when it comes to what others think of us or how they respond to us, take a chance. Don’t be burdened with an abundance of caution.

As you enter this day, where do you need to be careful in your life of faith? And where do you need to be bold?

Gracious God, make me careful in presenting you well to my world; careful to honor you in my speech and behavior. And relieve me of an abundance of caution that holds the world at arm’s length. Create in me a heart that holds courage and care together, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

He is not Far from You

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands (Acts 17:24).

Church buildings have been a part of my life since day one. Even today I like churches that look like churches. The popular wisdom these days says that churchy architecture is off-putting and must be overcome in order to reach people who don’t know much about church or (most importantly) Jesus. I get that – but I’m not sure I buy it.

I like steeples and stained glass. I like the word “sanctuary.” There’s actually meaning in it, something rich and deep in the Latin root sanctus, “holy.” It is certainly true that windows and walls and furniture do not make a space sacred, but it feels right to me when our sacred spaces evoke a sense of quiet awe.

The challenge is keeping the awe of sacred spaces connected with a sense of joy. One of the first things I learned about church buildings when I was very young was that you don’t run in the church. Even now when my kids go full throttle down the runway length hall at Peachtree, I cringe. Some years ago, after singing with the children’s choir in Sunday morning worship, my son leaped from the chancel, vaulting over the stairs and landing with a thump on the sanctuary floor. I was laughing and horrified at the same time. You don’t run in church. You don’t jump in church. But that’s too bad. The sacred ought to move us to the kind of delight that runs and jumps, what Jesus might have had in mind when he urged us to become like children.


In the earliest pages of scripture God commanded his people to construct a place of worship. The earliest structure was the Tabernacle. It was portable, but sacred nonetheless. Much later on the Tabernacle was replaced with a more permanent structure, the Temple. In each of these sacred structures a particular place was regarded as especially holy. The high priest was the only person who had access to this holy place, a place known as the Holy of Holies. A place closed off from the people, separated by a large heavy curtain. ‘Do not enter’ signs clearly posted.

And on the day Jesus died on the cross, that heavy curtain was torn in two, ripped from top to bottom. The barrier was broken, the ‘do not enter’ signs came down, and holiness spilled out all over the place on everyone and everything.

In Athens Paul was surrounded by sacred structures – temples and shrines to this god or that. In his eloquent introduction of the resurrected Jesus, Paul was clear on this point: God does not dwell in temples built by human hands (Acts 17:24). Shelters and shrines and domes and walls cannot contain the God who created the universe.

We are far more likely to see God in the everyday when we truly understand that God does not dwell in a building. God doesn’t camp out under a steeple and wait for us to show up. God does not hide behind stained glass. God isn’t roped off, contained behind a barrier or railing or under a high arched ceiling.

God dwells in the places you will inhabit today: Offices and malls, bedrooms and backyards, cars and conference rooms, warehouses and theaters. Paul summed it up nicely. “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). Wherever you are today, God is there. It is for us to search, reach, and find.

We are thankful, O God, that you do not dwell in buildings and wait for us to show up. You have sought us out, coming to us in Jesus. Even now, your Spirit finds us wherever we may be. Teach us to be attentive to your presence, seeing signs of your work around us every day in the everyday. Amen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16).

Several years ago my next door neighbor came over and asked if I would keep an eye on his house while he and his family were away for a while. I told him I’d be glad to do that and asked how long they would be gone. “One month,” he said. They were going home to India. It had been a long time since they had visited family there and it was the time of year for the Hindu celebration of Diwali, also known as the festival of lights.

About a year later we pulled into our driveway and saw them lighting sparklers in their front yard. Somehow I remembered that it was the time of year for Diwali, but on Old Orchard Drive there was no one else to celebrate the festival with them.

The kids and I walked over, inviting ourselves to their small celebration. We were warmly received. John and Anna lighted sparklers with their son. We made small talk and I asked some questions about the festival and what it meant. They knew we were Christians – they called me and Marnie “priests.” So walking over to join in their celebration of Diwali was meant to be a way of reaching out. At the time it seemed like something Jesus might have done. It seems that way now.

But I look back on it and I’m not sure what it accomplished. I did not get as far as reasoning with them about their beliefs and talking to them about Jesus. I was not Paul on Mars Hill. Honestly, I didn’t intend to be. And that’s what I wonder about. Did I do enough? Did I say enough?


Yesterday we observed that Paul in Athens is not an angry man. That statement was not entirely true. We can say that Paul is not hostile to the Athenians – but we are told that as he looked around the city he was “greatly distressed” (Acts 17:16). This NIV rendering of the Greek word lacks intensity. The ESV bible does a better job by saying that Paul’s spirit was “provoked.” The Greek word suggests the idea of being grieved or angered over something. We might say that Paul was “fired up” by the idolatry he saw.

When I remember standing in my neighbor’s yard as they celebrated Diwali I am struck by my lack of distress. In a culture marked by religious diversity, to be provoked is not a good thing. In fact it is feared as radical. Had we been in Paul’s place the noble and enlightened response to Athenian idolatry would have been dialog but not debate. Let the Athenians be Athenians. Anything else betrays a lack of sophistication.

However, to be provoked does not mean to attack or demean someone else’s beliefs. It is not prelude to coercion. In Acts 17 it seems that Paul’s provoked spirit expressed itself in a tender but courageous kind of love. He loved the Athenians enough to tell them about Jesus and the resurrection.

If everyone finds God in their own way we gradually begin to believe that no one truly finds God at all. It’s a matter of taste and choice and background and upbringing. As you think about finding God in the everyday remember that others around you are looking for God as well. Their search may be very different from your own.

What does it take for your spirit to be provoked? What do you do in response?

Give me a burden for this world, O Lord. Let my spirit be provoked in a way that moves me to love others for your sake and in your name. Teach me how and when to speak a timely word of my own love for you, and then give me courage to speak it. Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jerusalem, Athens, Washington D.C.

“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22).

Today is inauguration day. A day of ceremony and celebration. Political parties will take a back seat to other kinds of parties – and plenty of them. And then comes Wednesday and the work of governing a nation and exercising leadership among the nations of the world. Wednesday can wait. Today we celebrate and pray. The formal celebrations will eventually come to an end. Our prayers must not.

Our new President is already being confronted with a complex world. But as complicated as the world has become, there has probably never been a time when leaders basked in simplicity. Not even a missionary like Paul. In the New Testament era there were two prevailing world views and each worldview had a capital city. The prevailing thought forms of the first century world were captured by Jerusalem and Athens. Cities separated by 780 miles, but worlds apart.

Jerusalem was defined by the worship of one God; Athens was defined by the worship of many gods. Jerusalem was permeated with an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Athens was permeated with a climate of debate and discussion. In Jerusalem life and thought were defined by the revealed word of God in Torah, wisdom from above. In Athens life and thought were defined by speculation and the questioning philosophies that sought wisdom from the ground up. Jerusalem was the Bible belt; Athens was the melting pot.


South Carolina of the late 1960s was my Jerusalem. My young faith was shaped by two voices. My mother’s soprano voice sang the faith into me and my father’s voice preached it from the pulpit. Everything about life in Camden reinforced what their voices sang and spoke. My second grade teacher allowed me class time to tell about the crucifixion – in a public school. Yes, South Carolina was a Baptist Jerusalem . . . and I am keenly aware that I no longer live in Jerusalem.

Paul was a Pharisee, shaped by rabbinical training, a scrupulous observer of Torah, zealous for the God of Israel. Paul was also a Roman citizen by birth. He was uniquely equipped for engaging a complex world. That’s what we see him doing in Acts 17.

What is truly remarkable about Paul in Athens is the absence of anger and defensiveness. He doesn’t rail against the Athenians. He doesn’t launch a campaign to make Athens like Jerusalem. Instead he takes a stand on a core conviction: God is alive and well in Athens, just as much as he is in Jerusalem.

President Obama will wake up on Wednesday and deal with a world that didn’t exist when he was born. Many of you will do the same thing. Some of you were born and raised in Jerusalem. Now you live and work and raise children in Athens.

Let’s learn from Paul. Those who are angry and defensive will have a hard time finding God in the everyday. Like Paul we must live with the certainty that God is alive and well in Athens. That God does here and now exactly what God did then and there. Our new President will probably speak today of facing the world and the future with hope. Can we who know Jesus do any less?

Gracious God, we want to be people who love the world in Jesus’ name. We ask for grace, that we might be hopeful rather than fearful, that we might engage our world rather than hide, that we might love what we see rather than mourn for what we remember. Bless President Obama and all world leaders. Keep us faithful in our prayers for them, confident of your faithfulness to us and to the world you created. Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2009


While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16).

Finding God in the everyday is a skill that we cultivate. We can practice it, learn it, grow in our ability to discern God’s presence and work around us. Finding God in the everyday is not a talent or gift that belongs to certain religiously inclined persons. All of us can do this. In fact we must do this. Failure to see God in the texture of our daily living means a flattened spirituality that gives Jesus a nod with occasional church attendance.

So if all of us can do this, then why don’t we? Answers are many, but a simple one might be this: We are a preoccupied people.

I don’t have a dictionary open in front of me right now – but let me take a shot a definition. By breaking down the syllables of the word, to be “preoccupied” means to be occupied in advance – something is already there; the space is already taken; energies and attention that might be directed in one way are already claimed and used by something else.

That definition is born of experience. I am frequently preoccupied. My wife is good at catching me when my preoccupations are clamoring around in my head and taking up too much space. I have to ask my kids to repeat what they said to me because I wasn’t listening the first time; I’m emotionally removed from what’s happening in the house; I’m distracted, somewhere else.

Preoccupations are intruders and thieves. They take what belongs to others. They steal time and conversation and attention from people you love, and they bend the inclinations of your heart away from God. Satan doesn’t need to lure you from God with lascivious temptations. He just needs you to be preoccupied. It’s actually his most effective strategy.

When Paul arrived in Athens, he had every reason to be preoccupied. In his missionary work he had just experienced hostile rejection. A mob had forced him to leave the city of Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Not content to get him out of their own town, they followed him to his next stop in Berea and made trouble for him there as well (Acts 17:10-15). Forced to leave yet again he went to Athens, leaving instructions for Silas and Timothy to come and meet him there.

Paul’s preoccupations should have dogged his every step in Athens. He had every reason to nurse his anger and hurt over the rejection he’d experienced. He had every reason to question his calling because he seemed like such a failure. He had every reason to anxiously wonder about the welfare of his team. He couldn’t have been blamed for losing sleep over how he would reconnect Silas and Timothy. He had plenty on his mind.

But Paul was not preoccupied. He was fully present in Athens. He was completely aware of his setting, the sights and places and people that filled the city. He engaged his context with energy and thoughtfulness and sensitivity. He made observations and used what he saw as the raw material for Athenian style discourse. Paul didn’t simply find God in Athens; he revealed God in Athens so that others could find him too.

What are your preoccupations today? What is it that floods the sacred spaces in your life and keeps you from living the great commandment to love God and love others? Finances, a job search, a regret, a hope not fulfilled, a hope crushed, an illness that raises nagging concerns. Begin the day by naming them, calling them by name from the shadows of your heart and mind. And then start paying attention. Who knows what you may see – and what God might show someone else through your life.

Lord Jesus, help me to be fully present to every place and every person I encounter today. In these moments of prayer I name my preoccupations before you. Grant a stillness that allows me to clear space that you alone occupy, thus seeing your presence in the everyday. Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Waking Up to the Cold

The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15).

What a rude awakening. It matters little how you slept last night. Maybe you managed to sleep soundly for seven hours, fantastic dreams, no alarm to jar you to consciousness. In Paul’s colorful language, you can “count it all dung” (Phil. 3:8). Thanks to an arctic air mass that has crept down from its rightful confines in the north, this morning’s wake up promises to be a rough one. It’s probably somewhere between 10-15 degrees this morning in Atlanta. The rest of the country isn’t doing much better. A rude awakening indeed.

A couple of nights ago I watched a local forecast, noting the energized demeanor of the weather reporter, a slight note of glee in his foreboding narrative of what would be taking place Thursday night. He showed a map that tracked the enemy’s approach (this is Georgia, so anything that keeps you from jogging outdoors in January is a nemesis). The ominous advance of cold was dipping down below Illinois and into Tennessee. It made a scooping line across the nation, taking aim at the Peach state.

Now it’s here. Laying siege to Atlanta much as General Sherman did and with about as much popularity. Sadly the weather reporter was right. No one is escaping this invasion. Even Floridians will feel the pain.

The weather map gave me a visual reference for a pervasive reality. Now if only there were some way of seeing how God’s activity and presence is advancing, invading the world with as much power as last night’s cold air. A colorful map or a graph with spiritual isobars would make it much easier to find God in the everyday.

Jesus gave language to God’s presence among us by announcing that the Kingdom was “at hand.” In Jesus, God’s rule over all things was made real. Along with the verbal proclamation, Jesus did things to show us that God was on the move: He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he commanded evil spirits and gave orders to the elements of nature. For the grand finale he died and then rose again. The Kingdom is moving in, covering everything. No one is left out; nothing is untouched by God’s presence in the world. And we are invited to respond.

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the Spirit of God moves like wind (John 3:8). Like the arctic air mass that has wandered far from its native habitat, the Kingdom of God moves in and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Some welcome it. Others have as little regard for the Kingdom as I do for the bitter cold. But it moves in without taking a public opinion poll. God is at work everywhere. The Kingdom is at hand.

The cold air this morning cannot be ignored. Its presence is obvious, forcing changes in what we wear and what we do (no outdoor jogging for most of us). If only God’s kingdom were as obvious. Too often we miss it; it covers everything and we barely notice. If only we could wake up to God among us like we woke up to the cold. The invitation still stands. In the words of Jesus, repent, believe, get ready.

Make me alive to your presence today, O Lord. Let your Spirit move like wind across every part of my life. Help me to notice, to see it. Make me ready to respond to what you are doing in this world as your Kingdom advances. Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you (Exodus 25:9).

One of the marks of success in our culture is a measure of freedom from details, those pesky niceties that plague our grand ideas. The most successful among us have demonstrated their capacity for big picture thinking. They major on majors – long range goals, vision, core values.

This seems to be built into the way God designed the universe. As much as we may hate to admit it, those who articulate the big picture are often remarkably inept at details. Those who relish every detail are often remarkably ineffective at pulling others into a synergistic movement toward a shared goal.

Some do details. Some don’t. This fits what we know about human nature. It fits what we know about the organizations we’re associated with. But our ways are not God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Enter God and his prolonged meeting with Moses on Sinai.

In Exodus 24 God basically said to Moses, “I’d like to see you in my office” (Exodus 24:12). Getting to this meeting required some effort and patience. Moses had to get to the top of Mount Sinai. Once there it became clear that this was executive level stuff. A cloud blanketed the mountain. To the Israelites below it looked like a consuming fire. And there Moses waited on God. God always seems to be teaching us to wait, no exception for Moses.

Moses waited for six days. On the seventh day God finally showed up. The agenda for this Sinai meeting focused largely on the tabernacle, the place of worship: what it should look like, what kind of furniture it would hold, how altars were to be built and what kinds of garments the priests would wear. You won’t read word about core values or vision. It’s all micro, not macro. Exodus 25-31 does not make for exciting reading. But once you’ve worked through these chapters you cannot escape this conclusion: Details matter to God.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t find God in the everyday is because we’re not convinced that the everyday really matters to God. Exodus 25-31 should remove all doubt. Every detail of your life is significant. Spiritual importance is attached to the most mundane parts of your life.

God doesn’t simply care about whether you attend public worship. God cares about how you conduct yourself as you look for a parking place before worship. God doesn’t simply want you to believe in Jesus. God wants you to act and speak like Jesus when you get a sales call at home in the evening or when you stand in line to renew the tags for your car. Everything matters to God. As we come to know this, everything begins to matter to us – and we find God in the everyday.

Lord Jesus, in these moments I bring the details of my life, my day, before you. Remind me throughout this day that every minute matters to you, that you care about the details of my life. Help me to pay as much attention to the details as you do – and help me to find you in all of them. Amen.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Twenty Minute Drive

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

The call came to me in the Kroger parking lot. I had been there to get some soup, feeling a slight sore throat and hoping to stave off a head cold. I’m not sure soup actually does that, but it feels good on cold days and sore throats.

One of our church members was dying. Over Christmas she had been told that her final days were imminent. On my last visit, when conversation was still possible, we had spoken of this. Answering my phone, throwing the soup in the back of the car, I learned that another pastoral visit would be welcomed. I left the Kroger parking lot and made my way to her room at a hospice facility near Lenox Mall.

The drive took twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes from Kroger: from pricing soup, rummaging the cart of marked down books, assessing check out lines and using the self-serve pay kiosk, scanning each can and placing it in the bag as instructed by the kind electronic voice.

Twenty minutes to Hospice: people speaking in low voices, solemn. The room quiet, the only light coming through the window. A family member sat by the bed, holding her sister-in-law’s hand, stroking her head from time to time and telling her that she loved her. Such moments and places are sacred, not morbid, not frightening. Holy ground.

Twenty minutes from the everyday trappings of Kroger to the sacred space at Hospice. In the Kroger, standing in the soup aisle, God’s presence doesn’t register. At the Hospice, standing at bedside, God’s presence is unmistakable.

What would it take to shorten those twenty minutes? How do we erase the distance that keeps the sacred confined to certain moments and places? Is it possible to know God’s presence in the Kroger with the same kind of certainty that we know God’s presence in the final hours of life?

When you’re close to the events of birth and death, the beginning and ending of life, everything else in between is momentarily transformed. Reverence spills on anything you touch. But as the distance from birth and death lengthens, the everyday is nothing more than that. Blessing is eclipsed by boredom. We are more aware of the hassles than we are of the holy.

The Psalmist asked, “Where can I go from your Spirit?” The answer is implied in the question: nowhere. There’s nowhere we can go to escape the presence of God. Highest height, deepest depth, far side of the sea. God’s hand holds us fast and we are hemmed in, behind and before (Psalm 139: 5, 8-9).

We change the question. We ask “Where can I go to find your presence?” We live our days punctuated here and there with God, spending most of our time in the plain settings of grocery stores and office buildings. Somehow we’ve gotten it in our minds that God is best found when we go to certain places: A trip to the mountains, a worship service, a conference or retreat. The journey may be minutes or hours, but it is still a journey, going someplace to find the sacred. All the while, the sacred is in the everyday.

The memorial service was held earlier this week. I left the chapel and walked back to the office for a meeting to review and proof Sunday’s bulletin. I’m still working to close the distance between the holy and ordinary moments, praying that someday they’ll be indistinguishable.

How far is that distance for you today?

“Lord, where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Amen (Psalm 139:8-10).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fig Trees

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree, before Philip called you.” (John 1:47-48)

When Nathanael is introduced to us he comes across as a skeptic and a snob. Both the skepticism and the snobbery are captured in a question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip had announced that Jesus of Nazareth was the one Moses wrote about in the Law. Nathanael wasn’t buying it, not for a minute.

But before long Nathanael’s question is replaced by a bold declaration: “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:49). The transition from the question to the declaration seems abrupt. Nathanael has changed his tune, and we can’t be blamed for wondering why. What happened?

It’s the fig tree. Between Nathanael’s mocking question and his astonished declaration there is the incident of the fig tree. Jesus has made an insightful assessment of Nathanael’s character – an Israelite in whom there is nothing false. No duplicity, a straight shooter. What you see is what you get.

“How do you know this?” Nathanael asks.

“I saw you when you were under the fig tree,” Jesus explains.

John’s telling of this story gives us no clue as to what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. It probably isn’t important. What we note is that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree – not in synagogue, not at the temple, not reading the torah, not doing an act of charity, not teaching or leading a committee meeting.

Under the fig tree: a place to nap, a place to fix a sandal strap, a place to relax with friends, a place to escape the heat. Who knows exactly what Jesus saw? You can’t get much more ordinary and everyday than a fig tree. And yet, the fig tree stands at the center of Nathanael’s conversion.


Every life is marked by a fig tree, several perhaps. The fig tree is a nondescript everyday place, the site of common and familiar practices. Jesus sees you stuck in traffic. Jesus takes note of you sorting through mail at your kitchen counter. Jesus sees you on the phone, surfing the internet, meeting a friend for coffee, getting an oil change.

Knowing that Jesus sees you under the fig tree can change where and how you see Jesus. Suddenly everything matters. The most laborious of errands becomes a sacred mission. The conversation you dreaded becomes an opportunity for witness in a word kindly spoken.

This can be unnerving. We’re hopeful that Jesus takes note of our worship attendance and our monthly turn feeding homeless people at the shelter. Yes, that’s where we want to be seen. But Jesus sees more than that. He knows where the fig trees are, those familiar plain places we traverse every day. Jesus sees us there. He sees us there when we don’t see him.

So where are you fig trees? Where will you be today, just as you were yesterday and will be again tomorrow? Jesus sees you in the everyday. How will that change how you see Jesus?

Remind us today, O Lord, that every place matters to you. Grant to us a sense of your presence in every fig tree that marks our hours and days. Make every place sacred, and help us to see you just as you see us – in the everyday. Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Look Again

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:13).

There is a place on the bookshelf to the left of the fireplace where we keep the checkbook. How we came to keep it there I do not recall. We don’t write many checks, given on-line bill pay and the near universal acceptance of the debit card. So if I need to find the checkbook I always know where to look – left of the fireplace, second shelf up.

That’s exactly what I did a couple of days ago when Marnie asked me to retrieve the checkbook. I went to that familiar place, left of the fireplace, second shelf up, fully expecting to find the checkbook and thus respond gladly to my wife’s request. It wasn’t there.

“Where’s the checkbook?” I asked with a puzzled tone.

“Right where we always keep it,” my wife replied, more frustrated than puzzled.

“Nope, not there.” My puzzlement now replaced with confidence.

And then a familiar scene unfolded. My wife walked over that very spot, the place where I myself had stood in an effort to locate the checkbook, left of the fireplace, second shelf up – and she found it. She observed wryly that it was right in front of me, partially hidden under some shelf detritus, but there nonetheless.

How is it that things that I can’t find simply materialize for my wife? I can only conclude that we have a different way of looking for things. I tend to “scan” the area, give it a good once over. My wife actually searches, seeks the thing out. She often finds. I often do not.


A long Babylonian siege had crippled the city of Jerusalem. Eventually the siege became conquest. The city was ravaged, worship at the Temple ceased, and many of the people were taken into exile. In Babylon the people of Judah had a hard time finding God. Everywhere they looked they saw a divine vacancy. They were a God forsaken people in a God forsaken place. That’s how it looked.

The prophet Jeremiah, having been left behind in Jerusalem, wrote a letter to the exiles. In the letter he encouraged them to give themselves fully to the everyday: Build houses, raise your children, plant crops, celebrate marriages and births (Jer. 29:4-6). In the midst of his exhortations he spoke a word of promise to them. God is not playing games with you. God is not hiding. God will be found when you seek him with all your heart (Jer. 29:13).


The prophet’s promise is for us to claim today as we begin to think about what it mans to find God in the everyday. There are days – plenty of them – when the ways and work of God are evident in the details of our living. But there are just as many days when we can’t find God. Perhaps, drowsy with the ordinary, we stop looking.

Time to look again. Finding God in the everyday may have much to do with how we seek God out. Simply scanning our lives may not be adequate. A weekly pause from our breakneck pace in which we glance over our shoulder to see if God is still around may fail to discover God’s ways among us. It’s not enough to simply look. We need to look again, search God out. The prophet reminds us to seek and to seek with all that we are.

The weeks ahead will be about this seeking, and the site to be explored will be the familiar everyday terrain of your own life. God is in the everyday, your everyday, and God wills to be found by you. The question is how hard are you willing to search?

Ever present God, we recognize that hurry and carelessness often keep us from seeking you. We look at the world, we look at people around us, and too often we see problems that defy solution. We go through our days and often we end each day bored and tired. We come to a New Year ready to look for you again. Help us to find you in the everyday and make us intent in our seeking, we pray. Amen.