Monday, August 31, 2009

So, Who's Really Crazy?

. . . from now on I will go to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6).

Was he confident or crazy? My first guess: crazy. He’d have to be. He was standing on the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont, clutching a big Bible to his chest and shouting a message from God at people who sat at the red light with their windows rolled up, not even looking in his direction.

My curiosity got the best of me. I rolled my window down just enough to allow me to hear his sermon, not enough to encourage him to walk over and get in the passenger seat. After all, he’s nuts – right?

I didn’t hear much of the sermon before the light turned green and I made my way down Piedmont with the rest of his congregation.

Confident or crazy? He might be crazy, a poor soul who should have never been released from whatever facility it was that could no longer keep him. That might be it.

But he looked confident. That corner was his pulpit and he stood there like a man called, a prophet who, like Jeremiah, had a “fire shut up in his bones.” And part of me admired his reckless preaching.

From time to time I too have the chance to preach in the Buckhead community. But I know better than to take my stand at the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont. No, I wait until Sunday morning. I don the appropriate garment for one rightly ordained to speak God’s words. I stand on a wooden box in a beautiful room and speak to those who willingly made the decision to come and sit in that room for an hour or so.

If the point of preaching is to spread the message about Jesus, it’s worth asking: who’s really crazy? The bizarre character on the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont, or the guy in a robe waiting for an audience on a weekend morning?

I love the way the story of Jesus is told when God’s people gather for worship each week. I’ll never abandon that practice. I also know that I’ll probably never take my post on a street corner. But if the message of Jesus won’t be widely shared by a man on a street corner or a man in a pulpit, what does that leave us?

The answer to that is simple. It leaves us you.

The most effective way for the story of Jesus to penetrate the city of Atlanta, or any city for that matter, is for people to take that story to the ordinary places where they live life every day.

When Paul went to Corinth he had more than a message. He had a strategy. His intent was to make a major impact on a major city. Corinth was a difficult place and getting a hearing for the story of Jesus was no easy task. But Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth, and after that time he left something there that had not existed when he arrived: a Christian community.

This week we’re going to be thinking about what it takes to live the Jesus life in a difficult place. Some of you spend every day in an environment where a Christian presence is not warmly received or highly regarded. How will you make a difference in your place? We need a strategy that doesn’t ask you to stand on your desk and read the Bible aloud. We also need a strategy that understands that gathering you in a big room with other Christians every week will have a limited impact on the city.

Wherever that place may be, you are a key piece of the strategy. “Do not be afraid. Do not be silent” (Acts 18: 9).

What’s your strategy for making an impact on your place today?

Lord Jesus, you gave us a great command when you told to love people and love God. You also gave us a great commission when you invited us to do those things in a world that is indifferent to God and difficult to love. As we try to be obedient today, give us the wisdom we need to know how make an impact on our place, our homes, our cities, our schools. Amen.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blame Less

He will also strengthen you to the end so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8 NRSV).

When things go wrong it is often said that there’s plenty of blame to go around. True enough. And most of us are pretty good at knowing exactly where it should go, who gets it and how much.

Two questions might be worth pondering and praying over today.

First, what is it in your life that isn’t working according to plan?

Second, who do you blame for that?

Sometimes we take the high road by answering that we blame no one but ourselves. But blame is still blame, even when you aim it at yourself. Blaming the self is no less violent than blaming another.

Blame is a form of self-defense, a way of distancing oneself from a problem. Blame avoids personal responsibility, shifting the focus to someone or something else. Blame often masks pride, an inflated regard for “me” and a disregard for “you.”

Placing blame on the Corinthians would have been so easy for Paul to do. They were in a mess and all of that had come about in Paul’s absence. Time for heads to roll. But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead, he sounds like a man in denial, as if he just can‘t bring himself to get real about what has happened in Corinth.

Paul calls the Corinthians “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” He insists that they “lack no spiritual gift.” He maintains that they have been “enriched in every way.” He sees a time when they will stand before God “blameless.” The ESV translation uses the word “guiltless.”

Why does Paul talk this way?

Before getting all worked up over what the Corinthians have done, Paul seems most aware of what Jesus has done among the Corinthians. In Jesus Christ the Corinthians (and all believers) are indeed relieved of guilt. In Jesus the Corinthians are blessed, not blamed – and Paul will not presume to do what Jesus has not done. Paul is not in denial. Paul knows that there are problems in Corinth, and he’ll confront them head-on soon enough. But what matters most is what God has done in Jesus Christ. Because of this, and only because of this, Paul withholds accusation and blame.

The moment you begin to see others as blameless is the moment you become a person who blames less.

Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn (John 3:17). God didn’t send his son to assign blame for the wrecked condition of the world. Why are we so quick to do what Jesus never did and never meant for us to do, even if we do it in his name?

For today, make it your aim to blame less. Sure, there will be a judgment, but that’s not something you’ve been invited to help out with. God will handle that when it’s time. What we need to know is that the people who make you miserable, who did you wrong and might have done you in, are people who may one day stand with you before Jesus blameless. See them blameless, maybe you’ll blame less.

When was the last time you blamed or received blame for something? Is there someone in your life whom you need to stop blaming?

We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, that your work among us was not a mission of assigning blame. We give you thanks for the grace that exposes our sin and then cleanses us from it. We thank you for the way you make us a new creation. Knowing that we are blameless in you, we ask for the grace to blame less and to love more, just as you called and commanded us to do. Amen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

All You Need

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed (1 Cor. 1:7).

As of last night every member of my family has a laptop computer. Most parents fear that as their children approach adolescence meaningful conversation will cease. A fifth grader with a laptop virtually guarantees it.

Last year my son was issued a computer on the first day of school, and last night it was my daughter’s turn. Having lived her entire life watching her older brother do everything first, she’d been waiting for last night for the past twelve months.

Getting the laptop is a big deal that requires a parents meeting and a brief orientation session with the resident computer guru at the school. For the fifth graders it’s a social event in which the party favor as you leave is a 13 inch Mac Powerbook.

“Daddy, we’re going to be late.”

I reminded my daughter that I had done this last year and that I knew from experience that we wouldn’t miss anything that really mattered. My assurances fell on deaf ears. Maybe fifth grade is when a daughter begins suspecting that her Father is intent on ruining her life.

We sat through the orientation meeting, my daughter squirming beside me because we ran just late enough to make her miss the chance to sit with her friends. My son was slumped in his seat, trying to look cool because now he’s in middle-school and he’s a pro at having a laptop. And me, I slipped off into a private nostalgic reverie for just a few moments.

I tried to remember fifth grade. It’s really not that hard. My teacher at Highland Springs Elementary School was Mrs. Treadway. I was on the safety patrol. And there were no laptop computers.

I’m amazed at the resources my children have for their education. I’m blown away by what they can do and what they have access to. They have everything they need in order to learn. But the learning is not guaranteed. Having resources and getting an education are two different things.

In the opening lines of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them that they “do not lack any spiritual gift.” Again, as with his reminder of their call to holiness, Paul is seeing something that would not have been readily to evident to you and me had we been in Corinth. The Corinthian church looked spiritually bankrupt. But Paul saw abundance. They had everything they needed to be the people God had called them to be.
Knowing that, Paul was able to day “I always thank God for you.”

Genuine gratitude is rooted in what God does. Paul was convinced that grace was at work among the Corinthians. At the moment, however, they were not living out what grace had worked into them. It’s like having a laptop and getting an education. The mere possession of a machine won’t make learning happen.

Today you have exactly what you need to live the life God calls you to live. You’ve been given the gift of the Spirit and the Spirit empowers you to be the person God calls you to be. You lack nothing. You have all you need. But grace will never exempt you from growth and learning. That’s why we undertake daily practices like prayer and reading God’s word and pondering what God has said to us. Grace is there everyday, always adequate for the needs and demands of your life. And for that you can give thanks.

Is there some aspect of your life where you are most aware of needing grace today?

With every new day, O God, teach us to live by your grace. Grant to us an awareness and deep assurance that your Spirit lives within us and we are not left to make it through the day as best we can mange. You have given us all we need to live the life you call us to live, and we give you thanks through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The True You

. . . to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy (1 Cor. 1:2)

There was a moment when the parchment was blank.

There was a window of time, a long pause before taking up the pen, in which Paul had to determine where and how he would begin. A moment spent pacing the room. A moment spent rubbing the skin above his eyebrows trying to ignore the headache.

There were problems in Corinth. Paul had been thoroughly briefed on what was happening there. The news made him angry one moment and then broke his heart the next. Now it was time to respond. They had questions that needed answering. They were confused and needed counsel. Some of them were downright defiant and needed a firm rebuke.

New Testament scholars are not entirely clear as to whether Paul wrote the letter or spoke his thoughts as Sosthenes wrote them down. It really doesn’t matter how the letter was composed. At some point the parchment was blank, waiting for words, waiting to become the conduit of Paul’s heart and voice. The issues in Corinth formed a pile of debris in his mind. How would he sort through it all? Where would he begin?

We might expect Paul’s opening words to be a direct assault on their failures. That’s not what we get. Instead we read this surprising line, a tender address to a wayward but loved people: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.”

That’s how Paul saw them. That’s who they were. A people set apart and called to holiness. Their calling defined them more than their conduct did.

The morally confused and sexually promiscuous Corinthians were sanctified people called to holiness. The bickering factions of people who claimed to be followers of Jesus were sanctified people called to live holy lives. The socially elite and intellectually enlightened who acted arrogantly towards others in the church were sanctified and called to holiness. The teachers who confused error and truth were likewise called to holiness.

Paul began by speaking to the Corinthians based on who they were in Christ, not on how they were acting.

Every day we get to make decisions about how we will respond and relate to those around us. The golden rule tells us to treat others as we wish to be treated. That sounds nice - but after a while it becomes evident that no matter what we do people aren’t going to treat us as we wish to be treated. We begin to relate to them based on their behaviors and actions.

Their rudeness evokes our own rudeness. Their failures prompt our disdain. Their disregard for us makes us angry. We label them in our minds. The question we have to answer every day is this: will I relate to this person based on how they act or based on who they truly are – a person created and loved by God.

Paul managed to see the Corinthians in light of what Jesus had done for them. He did not speak to them based on their success in being like Jesus. He began his letter by reminding them of their true identity. Maybe he was also reminding himself. To truly believe that the most difficult people in my life are people made in God’s image will change how I deal with them. A difficult boss, a difficult child, a difficult client, all of them are something other than what they do. They are more than how they act.

And so are you. “Called to holiness” is the true you. That’s how God sees you.

How do you see those whom you deal with every day? How do you see yourself?

Merciful God, help me today to see others as you see them. Guard from quick judgments and knee-jerk responses based on how they act or how they behave. Forgive me when I dismiss those whom you died to save. Remind me that I too stand constantly in need of grace, and grant me the grace I need through Christ our Lord. Amen

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


To the church of God in Corinth . . . sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy (1 Cor. 1:2).

Today we begin a series of reflections from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.

Day one of 1 Corinthians causes me to imagine what’s it’s like to be in base camp the night before your begin to climb Everest. After a restless night, I’m waking up this morning, pulling my pack on while I look at this imposing mountain of a book, wishing I could just curl up in my own familiar bed and climb nothing more demanding than the stairs in my house.

As with any climb or any journey there’s a first step to be taken. Once taken, the next step is right there. Steps accumulate and after a while you’re amazed at the ground you’ve covered. That’s what I’m praying for as we ascend the heights of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Today is step one.

Oddly enough we begin with a principle from physics. That’s a little surprising to me since I never actually took physics. Somehow 1 Corinthians keeps bringing this word to mind. The word is “entropy.” My Webster’s dictionary tells me that “entropy” is the “measure of the degree of disorder in a substance or system: entropy always increases and the amount of available energy diminishes in a closed system.”

I have no idea how that works in the world of physics, but I know how it works in my house. Occasionally, usually on a Saturday, we will literally get our house in order. Hosting a party is always a great motivator for this kind of work. When we’re done the house smells fresh and the floors shine, the countertops are cleared and the sink is empty and fresh sheets are on the bed. On a good week that fresh just-been-cleaned look lasts for about twenty-four hours.

What happens? Entropy. Disorder inevitably creeps back into the system called “house.” A dish or two is left in the sink, a bath towel doesn’t get placed back on the towel rack, clothes are thrown toward the hamper but not in it. The system gravitates toward disorder. Apart from intervention it soon becomes a full blown wreck.

Entropy is also at work in the life of faith. If you want to get a picture of how that works, read 1 Corinthians. Paul had spent about eighteen months in Corinth sharing the story of Jesus, bringing people to faith. Living the Christian faith in Corinth was a form of urban warfare. But Paul managed to pull together a church, helped them get on their feet and then he moved on, as missionary church planters are prone to do.

Some time after he had left, he received a letter and a visit from some friends from Corinth. The house was in disarray. They were bickering with each other, they were confused about moral issues, they were buying into some whacky doctrine, they were suing each other and going to court instead of working out their own problems. The Christian community there was falling apart like a wet tortilla. Entropy.

It was time for Paul to intervene and he did so with a written masterpiece of encouragement and correction we know as 1 Corinthians.

In the weeks ahead we’re going to think about the life of faith and how our spiritual well being is not perpetually self-sustaining. Entropy is at work. It is often slow, so slow that we barely notice it. But apart form careful attention and a measure of discipline our walk with Jesus will go off the rails. We’ll be watching how it happened in Corinth – and hopefully we start noticing how it happens to us.

When and how have you experienced spiritual entropy?

Gracious God, I don’t want my life to be a closed system. Disorder gradually seeps into my soul, even as I’m trying to follow you faithfully. Use these coming weeks to help me detect those places where my spiritual energy has diminished. Let Paul’s words to the people of Corinth be your word to me. Amen.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Seafood Tonight, Drive Home Tomorrow

This is Marnie and John across the table, waiting on seafood. It's been a good week. We'll make the drive home tomorrow. Time to pull the curtain on summer '09. Back in the office on Monday and then school starts on the 25th.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Back on the Porch at Watercolor

A good and generous friend has allowed us to use his beach house in Watercolor, Fla. We've enjoyed coming here for the past four years or so. This is my favorite part of the house. Once the sun has been up a while the porch is unbearably hot. But mornings are pleasant and coffee is especially good in one of those chairs.

This year on the porch I'm reading Robert Benson's The Echo Within: Finding Your True Calling.

Benson's basic premise is that when God created, God did so by speaking. What was true of sun and sky, land and sea, is also true of each of us. God spoke us into being. Vocation is discovered by listening for echos of that voice.

Of that voice, Benson writes:
We worry that we are just talking to ourselves. If it sounds like me, it cannot be God, we think. And so we are afraid to trust what we hear, afraid to trust that voice that has been within us all along. The fact that the voice that calls to us often sounds like our own is not something to be mistrusted or feared. It is a sign of how close God is to us (p. 17).