Sunday, December 26, 2010

Know the Story

. . . and they will call him Immanuel – which means, “God with us.” (Matt. 1:23).

Pat Conroy’s latest release, My Reading Life, is an engaging blend of biography and bibliography. In it Conroy narrates how books have shaped his life. Words had worked their way deep into his soul long before they started emerging again in his work as a writer.

One of the most poignantly amusing chapters is about his first days as a new student at Beaufort High School. He didn’t know anyone and not a single person bothered to say as much as “hello” on his first day there. He had no idea what to do with himself during the lunch period until he stumbled across the school library – totally empty at that time of day. The books were a refuge for him. He found a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and started reading.

The focal character of this chapter is the school librarian – Miss Hunter. She was mean, dour, inhospitable, and feared by both students and faculty at Beaufort High. When she discovered Conroy in the library during the lunch period she scolded him and accused him of looking for books that had “dirty parts.” When she saw that he was reading Les Miserables she spoke disparagingly of “French authors.” And then she suggested an alternative book by Hugo.

She said to Conroy, “Do you like football?”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered.

At this Miss Hunter went to a shelf and pulled down another volume. She handed Conroy Victor Hugo’s ‘football book’ – The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Here was a woman who worked in a library. She knew where to find the book. And yet she didn’t have a clue as to what the story was really about.


During Advent and Christmas it is possible to sit in a sanctuary and hear a familiar story. We can show up at church and sing songs about that story and listen to sermons on the story. We may even pick up the book and read the story for ourselves.

We can do all of those things and yet miss the real meaning of the story, never clue-in as to what this story is really all about.

Christmas is not about our benevolent disposition to our fellow human beings, as important as that is. It is not about “the children,” as delightful as they may be. It is not about high ideals like peace and joy and giving, although they figure prominently in the drama.

Christmas is about God. This is God’s story. God is the author and God’s glory is the point of what is happening. Christmas is about God entering history – both then and now. At Christmas we affirm the truth of the name Immanuel. God is with us.

When we sing the familiar hymn that invites Christ to “be born in us today,” we’re not singing a mere metaphor. We are declaring what’s real. Jesus lives and is made manifest in this world through his people. God comes near by the power of the Spirit dwelling in us. This means God works through you. It also means that God comes to you.

This Christmas don’t miss the story. In the words “God with us” you find both your calling and your comfort. And the glory goes to God – just as the angels sang.

All glory to you, Almighty God. You are present with us to sustain and comfort; you are working through us to bring good news to all people. May your name be honored and held high today as we worship and gather and celebrate your presence among us – the gift of Immanuel, Jesus our Lord through whom we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Who Needs a Savior?

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

The good news was that the Atlanta Police car made the left turn from Habersham onto Valley Rd. within minutes after my call.

The bad news was that the Atlanta Police car made the left turn from Habersham onto Valley Rd. within minutes after my call.

I would have preferred not to call at all. A fender-bender collision at Habersham and Valley made it necessary. As it turned out the damage was so slight that there was really nothing for the APD to do. Still, I’m thankful for the timely response. And I’m also aware that what comes to us as good news often points to something gone wrong.

A tumor is benign . . . but it still needs to come out. You are told you will not be laid off . . . but the company is in trouble and others still have to be let go. To us a savior is born . . . which means we need saving. We are not well. And what isn’t well is beyond our own capacity to make right.

The angel’s message to Joseph was very clear about two things: where Mary’s baby had come from and what that baby was to be named. As to origin, the angel made it perfectly clear that “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And as to the child’s name, he was to be named Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21).

Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “the Lord saves.” At Christmas time we hear this as a “glad tiding.” The angel’s announcement is good news; it reason for great joy and thanksgiving and glory to God for his favor to us.

But these glad tidings carry with them a quiet implication – a verdict on the condition of the human race. The announcement of a savior being born is only good news to those who need saving.

If I’m sitting in my house watching TV and eating Oreos and an ambulance pulls into my driveway I will not be relieved. I might be confused or annoyed – but not relieved and thankful. But after too many years of watching TV and eating Oreos a day may come when I am not well. Something goes wrong. Maybe, by God’s grace, someone can call 911 and the ambulance will come. And when it does there will be relief and gratitude and hope placed in the paramedics.

At Christmas, spiritually speaking, there are plenty of us eating Oreos and watching TV, feeding on the goodies and taking in the sights of the season. Many have no idea that something is wrong. They might hear about the birth of a savior but it has nothing to do with them, or so they think.

Christmas is not truly good news unless we are convinced that there’s bad news. That message doesn’t get too much press in December. Too negative perhaps. But it’s definitely there, plain as day, in the words of the angel. Jesus came to save us from our sins. We couldn’t save ourselves, so God did it for us in sending his son.

So the real question is this: An ambulance has pulled up into your driveway in the form of God’s infant son. What is your response?

Before the season ends, O God, we would get honest and make our confession to you. This world is not well. We are not well. We need a savior. Thank you for sending your son. Thank you for loving the world so much that you sent Jesus to save us – to do what we could not do by our own efforts. May this Christmas bring us news that is truly good, because we have faced the truth about ourselves and turned to your grace through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Big Deal

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46 ESV)

According to my children I tend to make a big deal over things that really aren’t a big deal.
I disagree.

What time they go to bed and how much sleep they get on a school night is a big deal. How much screen time they get – video games, G-chat, TV – that is a big deal. Whether or not they put off a homework assignment until the last minute is big deal. Words they use, clothes they wear, all of that is a big deal.

At the same time I know they are not entirely wrong. I’ve been guilty of making too much over small things. Usually this happens when something isn’t right with me: I’m tired or preoccupied. They may be laughing and raucous as kids sometimes are and I’ll put an end to it because it bothers me. They might drop something or spill something and I’ll launch into some parental lecture. Maybe they just need my attention and I take what should be theirs and give it to something else that seems more urgent, more pressing. I make a big deal of the wrong things.

Cars are fitted with side-view mirrors that make things look distant and smaller. God designed the human soul to do the exact opposite. The soul was made to resonate with things in such a way that those things are made to look large and significant. This resonance of the soul has a way of giving weight and honor to what we truly cherish.

The biblical word for this capacity of the soul is “glorify” or “magnify.” To borrow language from my kids, the inclinations and resonances of the soul are how we make a big deal over something. Whether we know it or not, and often we do not, our souls are continually magnifying something. The question is “what?”

Sometime after the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the one who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” Mary gathered up all that she was thinking and feeling in a prayer. This prayer comes to us through Luke’s pen in the form of a poem or song known to us as “The Magnificat.”

The opening line of Mary’s song / prayer will occupy our attention for the remainder of the week. “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’.” (Luke 1:46).

What does this mean? More importantly, how do we do it? If our souls are designed in such a way to magnify something, what do we magnify or make a big deal over in the course of a typical week? And if we want to say with Mary that our souls magnify the Lord, what will that look like?

The question is worth pondering because in scripture glorifying or magnifying God is given to us as a command. Consider Psalm 34:3. “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Magnifying the Lord isn’t a feeling or a passive experience; glorify and magnify are verbs that we are commanded to do.

For today, begin with the big deal that dominates the landscape of your mind and heart right now. What occupies your thoughts? What stirs your excitement? What’s the big deal? Maybe as we magnify the Lord what seems so big won’t stay that way.

Grant us grace, O God, to magnify your name: to see you as great and mighty, and to see the rest our life in the light of your glory and strength. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Questions and Prayers

And Mary said, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

As Luke introduces us to Mary he tells us a story in which Mary has very little to say.

Most of the talking is done by Gabriel. Gabriel has figured prominently in Luke’s gospel, having already appeared to Elizabeth in much the same way as he appears to Mary. Mary only speaks twice. She asks a question (“How can this be?”) and she speaks a prayer (“Let it be to me according to your word”).

Our questions and prayers belong together. Somehow we forget this. We assume that people who have questions about God’s will and God’s ways don’t pray, or that those who pray don’t have questions about God’s will and God’s ways. We are wrong to think this way. Good questions make the stuff of good honest prayers.

“How can it be” and “let it be done” make good neighbors.

Roughly thirty-three years after her son was born Mary attended a wedding at Cana of Galilee. Jesus was there too. An awkward social circumstance arose with regard to party provisions. The host (for reasons we do not know) had run out of wine.

Mary took the matter to her son. “They have no wine,” she said. Jesus’ answer sounds curt, especially since he is addressing his mother. “Woman, why do you involve me?”

Scholars work hard to explain Jesus’ words to Mary. What we do well to notice is that Mary doesn’t answer her son directly. No rebuke to his remark, no justification of her request. Having shared the problem with her son, she turns to the servants with a brief word of instruction. “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:1-11)

Mary is for us a model of prayerfulness. In Nazareth, told of the birth of her son, she prayed a prayer of trust. In Cana with her grown son, she takes a problem to him and leaves it for him to do as he will.

In both instances we see the essence of prayer. We bring our lives before God and know that he will act. God will do his will. His purposes will be accomplished. Mary did not fully understand all that Gabriel told her. She had no promises from her grown son as to what would be done about the lack of wine. But what joins these two stories is the letting go, letting go of the need for explanations and answers. Questions and prayers make good neighbors.

And so Mary teaches us to pray. She teaches us what Jesus would later teach his disciples. When we pray we are to say “Thy will be done.” Not “Thy will be known” or “Thy will be explained.”

We may not know exactly what God’s will is. We do not always receive assurances as to what will happen and explanations as to how. We lay the matter before Jesus and we leave it there, knowing that he will do what is good, even if we don’t understand it.

Now it’s your turn. What matter do you bring before Jesus today? What will you leave with him trusting that whatever he does will be good? What are you facing that eludes figuring out, refusing a clear answer or resolution. Listen carefully to Mary and borrow her prayer, confident that God will do what is good.

Do what you will to do, Lord God. In the midst of what we cannot understand or figure out, teach us to trust you, knowing that “You are good and what you do is good” (Psalm 119:68). Amen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spirit, Power, Life

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you .” (Luke 1:35).

By the time you read this your day will likely be well under way. If you’re like me you woke up this morning knowing what that would look like. I’m looking at a morning office appointment, a lunch appointment, an afternoon office appointment, and family plans for the evening. In between those things I’ve got some tasks to complete and some writing to do, along with some teaching material to prepare for Sunday morning. Not a bad day.

Occasionally surprises crop up here and there, but for now this day is looking fairly “typical.” I’ve done these things before. Some of them, in fact all of them, are things I do regularly. Pastoral visits, writing, studying – this is standard fare in my line of work. I can do these things without trying too hard.

And that’s the problem.

Far too often and far too easily we develop the skills we need to get through the day or the week. But getting through the day is not the same thing as living the day. An inner crisis often develops when we realize that somewhere along the way getting through became our objective. Without realizing it we stopped living.

Of course, getting through the day is not an unworthy goal. There are seasons and circumstances in which getting through a day is all we hope for. Maybe today you’re facing something so daunting that just getting through it would be a blessing. God hears and answers prayers for getting through.

But Jesus told us that he wanted us to have life – and in abundance (John 10:10). The question is where does life come from and what does it mean for us to live our days and not merely get through them?

The story of Mary is the story of a literal conception. Cells divided. An embryo took shape in her womb and a heart began to beat. Fingers and toes, chin and nose, the body of a boy. This was Jesus. This was the body of the one whose mouth would speak God’s thoughts and whose touch would heal. This was the body that would one day be crucified.

We ask Mary’s question: “How can this be?” The answer we receive in scripture ignores cellular biology. This happens by the Spirit and Power of God. It’s sad that this event has morphed into a topic of theological debate and speculation. For what’s worth, I assume the truth of the virgin birth. I affirm the reality of the incarnation – God “in-fleshed” among us.

But the gift of life by the power of the Spirit isn’t something for us to merely think about. It is something we can experience. God still comes to us by the Spirit and infuses our days with power. Jesus promised that God would give the Spirit when we ask (Luke 11:13). Jesus told us that we could live our days with power (Luke 24:49).

God still does this. He has from the beginning. At the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over chaos and brought forth life. In Mary’s womb the Spirit came with power and created life. After the resurrection the Spirit came on a small group of Jesus’ followers and the church was born. This is God’s way: the Spirit gives life.

The Spirit and Power are yours today. This will not necessarily change what you’ve got on your calendar: Same appointments, same job, same chores and errands – but truly lived and not simply accomplished or endured. There is more for you today than getting through.

We listen to the word, we trust God’s promises, we ask for the Spirit, and by God’s grace we truly live what we are doing. It’s not too late today to start.

Come Holy Spirit and grant life to us as we go through this day. Save us from empty motions and habitual patterns. Work within us to bring forth life that we might do ordinary and familiar things as people called, blessed, and sent into this world in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Favored One

The angel went to her and said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! . . . Mary was troubled at his words (Luke 1:28-29).

Before Gabriel spoke Mary’s name he called her “favored.” Her name is spoken later as the angel tries to reassure Mary and give some definition to the word “favored.” What’s notable is that Mary’s proper name is only spoken once. The designation “favored” is spoken twice.

It’s true of all of us: grace defines life far more than a name or title.

Mary is favored by God. That sounds good doesn’t it? What could be better than being told – by an angel no less – that you are favored by God, that God is inclined toward you, takes notice of you and directs his blessing toward you? God’s favor sounds like a very good thing indeed.

I’d be perfectly willing to be numbered among the favored ones because in my mind God’s favor would look like this: First of all, the people that matter most to me would matter greatly to God. My children would be healthy and regularly make honor roll. God’s favor means charting a consistently upward course professionally; it means a marriage that grows deeper over time; it means approaching fifty in better shape that I was at thirty. God’s favor means a good life as I’ve defined it.

To be perfectly honest, I have received much favor from the Lord in my family and work. I am blessed. I know it’s true.

But what strikes me about Mary’s story is her response to God’s favor. Mary the favored one is troubled at Gabriel’s greeting. After Gabriel’s first attempt at an explanation, Mary still has questions. God’s favor comes to Mary as something disturbing, perplexing, confusing.

God’s favor doesn’t mean getting the life we want. God’s favor means being summoned to a life we never imagined. God’s favor and our ease have very little to do with each other; they are not the same thing.

I take encouragement from Mary’s response to God’s favor: troubled, perplexed. And I wonder if maybe we can work in the other direction. Is it possible that today you can begin with what troubles you and somehow find grace in it? Is it possible that you can look deeply into that thing that has you stumped and perplexed, afraid and anxious, and find the favor of God? God’s favor may rest on you right now but you don’t know it. If we define God’s “favor” strictly on our terms it’s probably easy to miss.

Take heart all you who are troubled. There’s favor to be found in what you can’t seem to sort through or figure out. Like Mary, the skills we need are in listening and trusting. Take time to practice those today.

God, we thank you for your grace and favor. We give you thanks for the many different ways your favor comes to us. Teach us to look for your favor in what troubles us and not simply in what we believe would make for our own happiness. We would be a listening and trusting people today, in reliance upon your Spirit. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Binding

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9).

Late last spring we purchased a bike rack for the car. A Yakima – very boheme, the kind of bike rack that requires a trailer hitch bracket under your car. You can ride around Atlanta with this bike rack on your car, sans bike, just to look cool. Other drivers will see you and your Yakima and think that you’re athletic and outdoorsy.

Little do they know that our Yakima is for the kids’ bikes. We tend to mount it on the back of the car when we make our annual beach trip.

Each year we go through a ritual of packing and loading the car for the beach. The liturgy usually calls for miscellaneous beach stuff to go in first, then the luggage followed by bags of groceries and a large cooler. Once the back of the car is loaded, barely leaving oxygen for us to breathe on the trip, I close the back hatch and attach the cool bike rack.

As sturdy as our bike rack is, I don’t quite trust it when it comes to long trips on the highways. So once I’ve actually maneuvered the bikes into place and secured them with the rubber straps that came with the rack, I pull out my bungee cords and go through a final ritual of binding. I weave the stretchy cords through the bike frames, binding bike to bike. I do it again and search for clever ways to bind bikes to rack.

At some level, this binding is born of fear. I’m doing all I can to keep what I’ve got. I don’t want anything to get away or slip off. The binding is an act of securing what’s mine, holding it tight.

The Hebrew word for binding is Akedah. It’s the word that rabbis use to designate the story of Abraham’s binding his son Isaac to the altar, obediently preparing to give the promised child back to God.

We don’t like this story. At the very least, it baffles us. As people who love God, the story sometimes embarrasses us, raising more questions about God than it answers. At worst, the story simply offends us. Why would God ask this? What’s God doing? What’s going on?

I’m not even going to attempt answer to those questions. I’m limited by space and by a very finite mind. I will, however, lift up a single verse from the Genesis 22 story that gives some insight into what is happening with Abraham while shedding some light on our own tendency to make and cherish idols in our heart. The key to the story seems to be at verse 12.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” [God] said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

The word that catches my attention is “withheld.” The habit of holding something back, tucking it aside, putting it away for private use or enjoyment. I’m given to withholding Oreos, guarding some of them from my voracious son.

Abraham’s disturbing story on Mount Moriah has much to tell us about our idols – but one simple lesson is this: Idolatry is not about what we believe in our heads. It’s about what we hold in our hands. Strangely, plenty of idolaters in the Bible believe in God. Israel is exhibit ‘A’ for the sin of idolatry, and they never rejected their belief in God. They simply refused to trust the God they claimed to believe in, refused to live according to his word and carry out his will.

Abraham on Moriah is our model of radical trust, binding Isaac, nothing held back. He had spent years learning such “habits of relinquishment.”

There is a kind of “binding” that tries very hard to keep something in place – like bikes on the back of the car. But there is a different kind of binding, like the Akedah on Mount Moriah, where we give something up, let it go. Idols are discovered in those recesses of heart and mind where we say silently to God, “You cannot have this.” Often, we may not even be aware that we’re saying such a thing. But we are holding back, and the holding back is grounded in fear.

The question today: What are you withholding? What would it look like to bind it to an altar and offer it to God?

Show me, O God, what I’m withholding – keeping from you, fearfully binding it so I won’t lose it. Give me the grace I need to bind it to an altar where all I am and I have is yours. I ask this in the name of Jesus, your only son, freely given for the world. Amen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beyond Naming

“Bring out your son. He must die because he has broken down Baal’s altar . . .” (Judges 6:30).

Religiously minded people are good at naming idols.

Sometimes their idol-naming skills are the fruit of an authentic encounter with the true and living God. At some point, in some way, they encountered the Holy and found themselves undone. Like Isaiah in the temple, they got a taste of the real thing and knew in that moment who they were before God. Having encountered God, they can spot a fake.

Sometimes idol naming is picked up second-hand. Hang around a church long enough and you’ll catch the verbiage that comes so easily to practiced Christians. It’s not too hard to become adept at “church,” the programs and vocabulary. Some people are good at naming idols because they know what they’re supposed to say: “money, houses, diplomas, compliments.” It’s not a hard list to master, and you can add items freely to impress others with your piety.

But either way – whether by genuine encounter with God or second-hand mimicry of the same – naming idols isn’t enough. Our idols must be dismantled and dethroned. Not simply recognized, but removed. And this is hard, no matter how you learned to name your idols.

Those who know the true God find they still nurse a secret affection for the lesser god. We saw that yesterday in Gideon’s idolatrous relapse. Those who act like they know God find the acting works pretty well. They coddle their idols and no one at church suspects a thing.

There’s has to be something beyond naming, something bold and almost violent. The idol must be brought down.


Back to Gideon. The heart of Gideon’s story is a great battle in which God used a mere 300 men to route the Midianites. Gideon commanded the special ops forces through whom God displayed his power and glory. Gideon: Called, chosen, used by God for a great purpose.

But before any of that could happen Gideon had to deal with some idols in the land and in his own family. Not just some anonymous inanimate thing. These idols belonged to his Father, a priest of the Midianite god Baal. Gideon was told to “tear down your Father’s altar” (Judges 6:25).

Gideon obeyed. He tore the thing down, dismantling the altar and cutting down the Asherah pole. But because he was afraid of his family he did it at night. He took down the idol, but under the cover of darkness. It didn’t matter. When everyone awoke they saw the rubble of their altar and the charred wood of the Asherah pole. “Who did this?” they asked. When they learned it was Gideon, they wanted to kill him.

In the weeks ahead you will be asked to do something more than name your idols. You will be asked – challenged, pushed even – to bring them down. That will call for more than a few private moments in front of your computer with these words. What is being asked of you is more akin to violence, an act of spiritual vandalism aimed at the false gods in your life.

If you’ll do this you’ll discover what Gideon came to know: You cannot deconstruct your idol and keep your life intact. Get serious about bringing down an idol, and something will change. For Gideon, it meant alienating his family, taking a stand against his Father. The price tag will vary for each life, each situation. But there is a price.

Let’s not be content to simply name our idols, sitting comfortably with a daily “devotional,” scanning a few lines before hitting ‘delete.’ Let’s not skulk around these matters under cover darkness, like the timid Gideon. Step into broad daylight and bring down whatever seeks a place in your life that belongs only to God.

What kind of price-tag will idol smashing carry in your life?

Make me bold, Lord God, to do more than name the idols that occupy my heart. Help me to uproot them, tearing up and bringing down that which has taken your place in my life. Come to those once occupied places and establish your rule in me by your Spirit. Amen.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Snare

And it became a snare to Gideon and his family (Judges 8:27).

I have long loved the story of Gideon. Maybe because I see elements of the story that mean there just might be hope for me. God uses Gideon in a powerful way – but as for Gideon himself, he’s a stew of reluctance and doubt simmering over flames of caution and fear.

You can almost see Gideon looking around for someone else when God’s angel appears and says “The Lord is with you mighty warrior.” He doesn’t recognize himself in that greeting. Mighty warrior? Even we as readers are amused at this. Gideon is found by the angel threshing grain in the confines of a winepress. He’s cowering, guarding what he has from Israel’s enemy, the Midianites. Bent over in the winepress, Gideon hardly seems mighty, more wimp than warrior.

And once Gideon realizes that there’s no one else around to take up the mighty warrior mantle, he doesn’t fall to the ground in awe-struck humility. No, he’s got some questions. Times have been hard for the Israelites, and as far as Gideon is concerned God’s got some explaining to do. He gets right to the point with the angel. “If Gods is with us, why have all these things happened to us?”

Plenty of you woke up today asking the same question. You’d like to have faith and believe; you’ve tried to pray – but if God is really at work in this world why is the world such a mess? And if God cars the slightest bit about you and your life why have these things – whatever they might be – happened to you. I like that Gideon asked such a question, wanting to follow in obedience but needing assurances and then reassurances on top of that.

God bears patiently with Gideon. Giving signs: dry fleece and wet ground, wet ground and dry fleece. And then there’s the battle we’ve anticipated since the story started. God reduces Gideon’s force of 3000 to a mere 300. And then gives victory.

I love that. I need regular reminding that God works in just that way, stepping in with power when we’ve come to the end of our own strength and smarts and connections. This is how God gains glory – and glory is the one thing God refuses to share with other being.

Which brings us to the matter of idols and idolatry, our focus these days.

I had never seen until very recently that the story of Gideon begins and ends in idolatry. The discovery was a let-down for me, a tainting of Gideon’s otherwise ordinary image. But once again, this may be a part of Gideon’s story that tells us something that’s painfully true about all of us.

At the story’s beginning Israel’s neck is under the oppressive boot of Midian. Midian raids Israel at just the right time, waiting until harvest is ready then burning fields and storehouses. But all the while, ironically, Israel is worshipping Midian’s god Baal. And on top of that, Gideon’s father is the local Baal priest. The first thing Gideon has to do is destroy the altar his father has made to a foreign god. Destroy the altar, take the shards of ruined wood and stone and build another altar to Israel’s true God.

Having destroyed his Dad’s Ball altar, Gideon goes on to defeat the Midianites. All seems well. But at the end of the story, when Gideon is on top of his game and the people are ready to follow his leadership, he collects their jewelry and builds – of all things – another idol.

Gideon made the gold into an ephod . . . all Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there and it became a snare to Gideon and his family (Judges 8:27). As I said – that bothered me. Maybe it bothers you too. Why would he do that, especially after God had blessed him with a stunning military victory?

He did that for the same reason we do it. Our idols possess a powerful pull on our souls. As we start this journey together we ought to be honest enough to admit that this won’t be easy. Idolatry keeps dogging our heels. We don’t destroy our idols once and forget it. As with Gideon – they come back, even as we seek to live our faith. The idol becomes a snare, trapping us, tripping us.

What idol keeps rearing its head in your life? What has become a snare to you, refusing to leave you alone?

God, help me to do more than simply name my idols; give me the fortitude I need to dismantle them – over and over again. Keep me alert to the persistent lure of idolatry in all its forms. Guard me from that which could so easily become a snare in my life. I ask this in the name of your son Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Missing What Matters

He makes me lies down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:2-3)

Ever had to make a U-turn?

It happens all the time. Maybe a median prevented you from turning left directly into the driveway or parking lot of your destination. Maybe you were looking for someplace you’d never been before and while you were focused on your directions you missed the street you needed. No big deal. A U-turn may be inconvenient, but it’s not uncommon - unless you’re at 34,000 feet.

In October of 2009 Northwest Airlines flight 188 was making a routine flight from San Diego to the Minneapolis/ St. Paul International Airport. Somehow the pilots of the aircraft missed the airport by about 150 miles. With the help of air traffic controllers NWA 188 executed a U-turn and made it back to Minneapolis, landing safely. But unlike the ordinary u-turns that you and I make all the time, this was a very big deal. The aircraft was greeted at the gate by the police and the FBI. Investigations were launched. Pilots were suspended. The question, of course, is “what happened?”

One theory – which as far as I know has yet to be confirmed – is that the pilots missed the airport because they had been napping during the flight. The pilots have denied this, claiming rather that they were involved in a “heated discussion” over certain airline policies. Again, I’m not sure what conclusions were reached in this matter, but this much is clear: experts were willing to connect pilot fatigue with missing the airport by 150 miles.

In our weariness we can miss important things. And sometimes what we miss cannot be reclaimed by a simple U-turn. A moment is lost, an opportunity missed. We missed it. And we missed it because we were tired.

In his book, The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan writes
One measure for whether or not you’re rested enough – besides falling asleep in board meetings – is to ask yourself this: How much do I care about the things I care about? When we lose concern for people . . . for friendship, for truth and beauty and goodness; when we cease to laugh when our children laugh (and instead yell at them to quiet down) or weep when our spouses weep (and instead wish they didn’t get so emotional); when we hear of trouble among our neighbors and our first thought is that we hope it isn’t going to involve us – when we stop caring about the things we care about - that’s a signal we’re too busy (The Rest of God, p. 48).

Psalm 23 tells us that a life lived under the shepherding care of God is a life lived at rest. God our shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. God restores our soul. Beautiful imagery – but what does rest look like? We’re probably not talking about laziness, stretching out on the sofa with a bag of Oreos (although there’s certainly a time for both stretching out and for Oreos). The rest to which God calls us, the rest which God offers us goes to the deep places of our life. The soul is restored.

As you read this, the day may still be young. How are you doing? Are you rested? It’s an important question because God never intended that we live our days worn out. Relentless weariness is costly. It can make pilots miss airports – and it makes us miss other things that matter.

Important things are happening all around you today: a comment from a co-worker that opens a window to their life, a question from your child, a sigh from your spouse in an unguarded moment. When we’re tired, we cannot engage these things. We miss what matters. But the good news is this: our shepherd God wills that we live at rest. God invites us to that kind of life and even makes it possible. This week we’ll spend some time finding the rest to which we’ve been called.

Too many times, O God, we have missed what matters in life. Weariness has bred inattention and inattention has meant neglect. We neglect the people close to us, and we neglect our life with you. The soul grows dull to the nudging of your Spirit. Grant us rest, that our souls might be restored and our hearts might be moved by the things which move your heart, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Stark Satisfaction

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

To say or to pray the first line of Psalm 23 is fairly easy for those whose basic needs are met. While true poverty does exist in this country, “I shall not want” isn’t a stretch for most of us.

Our closets hold more clothes and shoes than we can wear; our kitchens are stocked with everything from prime rib to peanut butter; our homes are comfortable and some of us even manage to secure a second home for the weekends that’s every bit as comfortable as one we live during the week.

To be sure, we have our fantasies. Some call them dreams. I may enjoy thinking about a mountain house but I don’t “want” for one. You may see a car or a miter saw that you’d like to have, but you don’t feel deprivation in not having it. Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we shall not want. When we turn the lights out at night we do so knowing that we have what we need.

So here’s the question that leaves me uneasy: what if all of that were gone? Not merely reduced or downsized. Gone. Would we still pray the 23rd Psalm? Could we take the words “I shall not want” to our lips and speak them from the heart. The question confronts me when I eavesdrop on the prayer of another obscure prophet by the name of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk – little known and not often read. The book in our Bibles that bears his name is made up of three chapters. You can read it easily in one sitting (go ahead and do it now and find out for yourself). His name is thought to mean something like “house plant.” Not too impressive – but what a powerful messenger of God this man was.

Again, some background and context.

Habakkuk spoke for God at a time that preceded the drama we read about yesterday. His words were spoken to the people of Judah before the Babylonians showed up and made a mess of the nation and the temple in Jerusalem.

What seems to have been difficult for this prophet and for the people to whom he spoke was the fact that he saw what was coming. God gave Habakkuk a preview of where history was headed. Habakkuk lived in a time when the people of God were totally disinterested in God and defiant of God’s laws – his way for life. Habakkuk complained to God and questioned how long this miserable state of affairs would last. God’s answer was not encouraging. Things would get much worse before they got better.

To the prophet’s astonishment God was actively raising up the Babylonians. The exile of 587 B.C. was not history gone awry. It was the redemptive and purposeful work of God. A bitter pill, but good medicine. Once God lets Habakkuk in on how the story will unfold, the prophet prays – and he ends his prayer with these amazing words:

Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vine,
Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my savior (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Essentially Habakkuk is saying “I shall not want.” And his prayer is all the more noteworthy because he prays those words from stark barrenness. When a person who has things prays “I shall not want” the words sound nice. But when a person who is truly destitute prays “I shall not want” it is staggering. Is such a prayer really possible?

Such a prayer, as strange as it sounds, is possible for us. It is possible because it is grounded in God. The opening phrases of Psalm 23 are integrally connected. We shall not want because God is our shepherd. The not wanting is not the result of already having. Not wanting is the consequence of God’s shepherding love.

And an element of not wanting, of a satisfied and contented life, is joy. Like Habakkuk, we will be joyful in God – when the market is down, when unemployment figures rise, when bills begin to overwhelm, when no one seems to be able to stop the oil gushing from the floor of the gulf, even then.

We have a good shepherd. We shall not want. Thanks be to God.

This is the day that you have made, O Lord. We will rejoice and be glad in it. In all that it brings, in all that we experience, grant that we might be a joyful people. We would look to you as our joy and satisfaction – not the food in the kitchen or the clothes in the closet. With the prophet we pray the words "even though . . .” By your grace, we shall not want. Amen.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Satisfaction: Simple and Clear

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

There are days when I’ll write something only to read it the next morning when it comes back to my email box and say, “I wish I hadn’t written that.” That’s one of the occupational hazards of sending out daily meditations via email (or posting them on this blog). Luckily, there’s always a tomorrow that allows for clarifications, even retractions.

That’s what I’m doing today: clarifying. And the clarification has to do with this brief sentence from a previous post. “As for this day, don’t hesitate for one moment to pursue satisfaction.”

Now, I know what I meant by that statement. I stand by my original intent in writing the sentence. Satisfaction doesn’t mean a passive complacent way of doing life. It is good to be satisfied with God’s shepherding love, to say “I shall not want.” You get the idea.

My problem today is that I’ve revisited the opening chapter of the little book of Haggai. If you look for this book in your Bible you may need some help from the table of contents. The book is short, only two chapters. And it’s also fairly obscure. The prophet Haggai lacks the name recognition of some other Bible figures, say like Jonah or Paul.

Haggai’s voice has been a corrective to my own, and since his words were inspired in a way mine are not, he needs to be listened to carefully. What we hear from him is that the pursuit of satisfaction doesn’t yield satisfaction. Chasing contentment often stirs deeper discontentment.

Maybe a little background would be helpful at this point.

The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. When the nation of Judah caved to Babylon two significant things were lost. First, the Davidic line of Kings came to an end. Second, the temple was destroyed.

The Babylonians carried many Jews into exile and this period of being a displaced people lasted for decades. Eventually the Persian Empire came along and defeated Babylon. King Cyrus of Persia had a different foreign policy with regard to the Jews. He allowed them to return home to Judah. He gave them permission to begin rebuilding what the Babylonians had ruined. That included the Temple.

Rebuilding was going to be hard work but the people took up the challenge with initial enthusiasm. But, as we might expect, over time they grew discouraged. Discouraged and distracted. Faced with the challenge of scratching out a living they stopped work on the temple. For about 17 years they didn’t lift a finger to rebuild God’s house. They took care of their own houses, but the temple was left to sit there is shambles. That’s when Haggai came along and basically got in their faces. Part of what he confronted them with was the frustration of their daily living. He told them:

You have planted much but have harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but are not warm. You earn wages only to put them in a purse with holes in it. (Haggai 1:6)

The people were working themselves into the ground, trying to make a life in difficult times – and it was fruitless. They never had their fill. They never had enough. They were constantly wanting.

And the reason? Confused and disordered living. They had taken care of their own houses while God’s house remained a heap of rubble (1:3-4). Messed up priorities, no satisfaction.

While probably far better off than Haggai’s Jerusalem, our own economy has placed some heavy burdens on people. These are hard days, demanding more of us and seeming to reward us with less. Plenty of people understand this old prophet’s words. They plant much but harvest little. They’re never warm, never quite full, never satisfied. Their bank account has a leak somewhere.
The answer is not an intensified pursuit of satisfaction. The answer is to restore God to the center of life. Give attention to what matters most. Direct your energies to the spiritual core of your existence. That’s what the people of Judah had stopped doing. In the pressure of a weakened economy, we stop doing the same thing. And then we sense the nagging lack. We want.

We don’t find satisfaction by pursuing our own satisfaction. We find satisfaction by honoring God. It’s a matter of what we truly treasure and love. It’s simple. And now I hope it’s also clear.

Gracious God, we invite you back to the center of our lives today. As we go about the tasks of making a living and building a life, be at the center of all we do. And in all these things grant to us the contentment that comes with a life rightly ordered. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Just What We Need

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

In the Valley of Elah a forty day stalemate remained unbroken. On one hill the army of Israel had taken position and lined up for battle. On the opposite hill the army of the Philistines was in battle formation. Between them lay the valley floor, a wide empty space (1 Sam. 17:1-3).

It is often the distant threats that disturb us most. The threat that ambushes us and confronts us with imminent harm calls for immediate action. We must either fight or flee, but inaction is not an option. But the enemy we see from afar, the danger that awaits us, the confrontation that loiters in our future – that’s what keeps us up at night. Those wide open spaces are gaps to which our fears run. Such was the Valley of Elah for the army of Israel.

The fears of Israel were stoked morning and evening by the presence of a Philistine giant. Goliath came out every day and went through the same routine. With the rising sun, Goliath’s taunts filled the valley space. And as the sun sank low and threw shadows across the valley floor, he repeated his vulgar mocking of Israel and Israel’s God. “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (1 Sam. 17:11).

One day Jesse sent David to the battle lines to deliver bread and cheese to his enlisted brothers. As he fulfilled the errand his father had assigned him, David heard Goliath’s taunts and the challenge he proposed: “Choose a man and have him come down to me.” To David’s amazement, no one moved. No one stepped up. The God of Israel was being mocked and the army of Israel dismissed, and nothing was being done about it. So David raised his hand before King Saul. “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him” (1 Sam. 17:32).

Saul objected. David persisted. David won. And in an effort to help David, Saul gave him his armor and sword and placed his helmet upon David’s head. It was a kind gesture, a nice thought, but totally useless as far as David was concerned. David could barely walk around under the weight of the armor. Thanks but no thanks. David returned the armor and the helmet and the sword. He took instead his shepherd’s staff and his slingshot. At a nearby stream he found five smooth stones. And then he made his way toward Goliath (1 Sam. 17:38-40).

David went to the fight knowing that he had just what he needed. He did not want. He did not anxiously try to stockpile another weapon or shield himself with someone else’s armor. David had exactly what he needed. He knew exactly who he was. And more importantly he knew who God was – and that was enough.

The words “I shall not want” will not be spoken truthfully by the anxious and fearful. They are words of deep confidence and they reflect a profound courage. In our fears we are constantly wanting, never sure that we have what we need, never at peace with the sufficiency of grace.

“I shall not want” is first of all an expression of confidence in God. That was truly at the core of David’s life and it shaped his approach to the defining battle of his early career. David knew that God was able to deliver him. He had learned it in other smaller battles: battles with enemies that threatened his flock. David the shepherd had fought for his sheep. He knew that God would do the same for him and his people Israel.

From this confidence in God flows our sense of satisfaction with this day. It is a satisfaction born of God’s abundance. Because God is sufficient, we know that we have what we need for whatever we face at any given time. Just as the stones and the sling were adequate for David, you too have what you need to walk boldly to the fight.

The kind of satisfaction that does not “want” shows itself in a deeply grounded and confident life. You can live that way today. Stop trying to walk around in borrowed armor, securing your own life with someone else’s plans for you. You have what you need by God’s grace, and God is sufficient for the day.

You, O Lord, are our shepherd, and we have just what we need. We give you thanks for your faithfulness and for your sufficiency in all things. Grant us grace to live confidently today, firmly grounded in your power to deliver us and sustain us in whatever this day may bring. W will be satisfied, knowing that you are able, knowing that you are good. Amen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Satisfied, not Settling

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

A segment on Monday morning’s Today Show featured an interview with Robert Pattinson, one of the stars of the insanely popular Twilight movie series based on Stephanie Meyers’ equally popular novels. The interviewer asked Pattinson if he ever thought about settling down and getting married – a question that undoubtedly burdens the mind of the American public.

Pattinson’s response was interesting. He answered by saying that he hoped that getting married wouldn’t necessarily mean settling down. Fortunately, he was able to acknowledge that marriage and monogamy inevitably involve a kind of “settling” – but the general drift of his answer suggested that “settling down” was somehow negative, something to be avoided, a kind of lifelessness.

As one for whom “settling down” has been a great way to do life, I was initially bothered by his answer – but not surprised. It reflects a certain kind of mindset that equates settling down with settling, and it’s the settling that frightens those who are drawn to zeal and the pursuit of excellence.

We hear the same kind of thing in business, particularly with a phrase like “good to great.” Good is the enemy of great. Good lulls us to sleep, allows us to settle. Why be good when you can be great? Americans love this kind of relentless quest for the next level. We admire it because it is in fact admirable. No one consciously aspires to “settle.”

But when we try to describe a life that rests in the shepherding love of God, we end up fumbling around for a positive description of what that life looks like. When we say “I shall not want,” what does that mean? Words like “satisfied” or “contentment” don’t stir our ambitions.

Various bible translations and paraphrases have attempted to bring out the meaning of the phrase: Eugene Peterson’s The Message says “Yahweh, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” The Jerusalem Bible says “I lack nothing.” The Living Bible says “I have everything I need.”

Translations help with the meaning of the phrase – but the question remains: What does a satisfied life look like and why should we regard such a life as a good life, and even a great life? Can we be satisfied without settling?

For the rest of this week we’ll look at three Old Testament texts, one from the life of David and two from the prophets, to explore some answers to that question. What we’ll discover is that a life that sis satisfied with God’s shepherding love is (a) firmly grounded (b) rightly ordered and (c) relentlessly hopeful. Such a life can hardly be described as “settled for.”

As for this day, don’t hesitate for one moment to pursue satisfaction. You’re not settling. You won’t miss a thing. The Psalmist prayed “satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). To be satisfied with God means to live with joy and gladness, not regret and sadness.

Maybe you’re reading this in the morning. Let Psalm 90:14 be your prayer today. Ask God to satisfy you with his love. Go into this day knowing that God’s unfailing love is sufficient for all you will face, for every demand that will claim your time and energy. Don’t move from your chair dreading what awaits you. Don’t lug around the baggage from yesterday. Be satisfied in this moment with God’s shepherding love – and enter the day gladly.

Satisfied isn’t settling.

Satisfy us in the morning, O God, with your unfailing love. Give us what we need right now to live every moment of his day with joy and gladness. We will not live in want, constantly looking over our shoulders for what we’ve missed. Grant the grace of contentment that shows itself in joy – just the way Jesus lived. We ask this in his name. Amen.

Monday, June 14, 2010

That Nagging Lack

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1).

At some point, as a young child, my mind messed up the syntax and meaning of the phrase that will hold our attention this week: “I shall not want.” Somehow I connected the idea of “not wanting” with the “the Lord” so that what the Psalm really said was “I shall not want the Lord to be my shepherd.” That didn’t make sense.

The main action word of the sentence, the act of wanting, seems to hang there at the end of the sentence with no point of reference. It is an aimless and vague wanting. Now, a good bit older, I think I get it. Not just the way the words work in the sentence and what the sentence means – but the way our wants can dictate so much about how we live. Wants have a way of hanging there aimlessly, vague in their direction and focus. We want but we don’t know what we want.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And yet we do. We seem to want all the time, even when we don’t know what.

As we step deeper into Psalm 23 this week we will want to tread carefully. We’re walking the terrain of our desires and the ground is treacherous – not because our desires are bad, but because desire can be a very good thing, a positive motivator of our actions and decisions.

Some of our wants are born on the broad daylight of hope. Desire takes the form of a dream in the mind and soul.

This is the kind of wanting that moves a person to seek counseling because there’s a desire for wholeness and healing in some area of life. This kind of wanting empowers a person to change careers because they deeply desire to do something with their life that makes a difference in someone else’s life. This is the kind of wanting that makes young people decide to get married and gets a young father to work every morning because he’s determined to get to of debt.

Almost everything of worth that we pursue in this life is born of desire. The desire shapes a dream. We see ourselves and our world differently than it is right now and we want what we see. These desires answer God’s beckoning, an invitation to become who God created us to be. This is desire bent heaven-ward, and it is good.

But some of our wants are born in the darkness of fear. This wanting does not live within us as a dream. Rather, we carry it as a kind weight. It is a nagging sense of lack. This kind of want is the discomfort of an empty place and we are certain we can fill it ourselves. This is the “want” of Psalm 23. It is a craving that pulls us away from the shepherd in an attempt to secure our own well being.

I don’t need to rehearse the ways this wanting shows itself in our living. We’re all acquainted with it. Whether it’s the acquisition of things or money or the attainment of a new position in the company or a word of praise and affirmation for something you did. Psalm 23 is telling us that we need not live our days driven by that nagging lack. We don’t have to keep looking for the next thing that will fix us or make things right.

The Rolling Stones sang with an almost angry passion, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Not a bad song, except for one thing. It’s not true. For those who have a shepherd in Jesus, there is satisfaction. Not a lazy and complacent kind of satisfaction, but a deep trust in the God who shepherds us.

So what do you want today? Think about it. What’s ahead of you, pulling you into the day? What’s behind you, pushing toward your life? Are your wants heaven-bent dreams, or is there a nagging lack – and can you tell the difference?

Plant within us, O God, desires that become dreams and move us toward your will for us. And in those places of fear, the nagging lack where we try to secure our own well being, teach us to trust you as our shepherd. Grant to us today the satisfaction of being loved by one who wills our good and is sufficient for all that we need. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Say So . . . With Assurance

The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1)

There are 150 poem-songs in the book of Psalms. The Hebrew title of the book is literally “Praises.” Somehow the Hebrew morphs to Latin and finally to the English “Psalms.”

That these songs are called “praises” is interesting since many of the Psalms hardly sound praise-like. The Psalmists argue with God, question God and sometimes come quite close to accusing God. But somehow even these anguished utterances are praise when the one who speaks is determined to move toward God in all things. God is praised in shouts of hallelujah as well as in cries of lament.

Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, 73 of them are designated with a prescript that connects the Psalm with the life of David. The prescripts were added as the Psalms found their place in the worship of Israel. Liturgical notes are characteristic of the Psalms, indicative of the fact that we’re reading a hymn book.

The prescripts that connect 73 Psalms with David sometimes provide a very detailed context for the words of the Psalm: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech” (Ps. 34). At other times we get a very simple line: “A Psalm of David.” Such is the case with Psalm 23. The meaning of this isn’t entirely clear. It might mean a Psalm by David. It might mean the Psalm is about David or was composed for or to David.

Of the 73 Psalms connected with David we can most easily believe that the much loved 23rd Psalm came from David’s own hand. In the mid 1850s the London preacher Charles Spurgeon said that the opening line had a sense of melody in it because it came from David’s heart. “David spake of what he had verified all his life long.” Spurgeon was probably right – but one has to wonder exactly how David came to know this.

And more to the point, how do we come to know the same thing? How do we come to affirm with conviction that “The Lord is my shepherd?”

The most commonly proposed answer to that question is that David himself was a shepherd. He knew what it meant to tend a flock and lead them to water and guide them with rod and staff. No doubt, the days of tending flocks shaped David as both a leader and a poet. But perhaps there’s something more, something deeper that speaks to our own lives and allows us to say exactly what David said with the same deep assurance.

Many years after his days in the fields, not long after he had been anointed as Israel’s king by Samuel, David secured the throne and consolidated power over the unruly twelve tribes. Saul, his benefactor turned nemesis, was dead. David was settled in his palace and at peace from all his enemies. Savoring the sweetness of success and power, David planned to construct a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet Nathan blessed the plan. “Do whatever seems right to you. The Lord is with you.”

But no sooner had the plan been announced than God spoke to the prophet and told him that David needed to scrub those plans. God wanted to make it clear that he had never needed or asked for a house. Rather than David undertaking to provide for God, God wanted David to understand that God was the one who provided for David. David’s entire life was a story of God’s provision, a story of sovereign grace. From days in the fields to the position of power in the palace – all of it was God’s doing (2 Samuel 7:1-12).

And thus we all know that “the Lord is my shepherd.” The life of each and every one of us has never been a story of our own accomplishment. We are not self-made. We take no credit for the successes and we do not shoulder the failures alone. God is actively guiding, providing, comforting in all of it. The Lord is indeed our shepherd.

After the prophet spoke this message to David, David prayed. “Who am I, O sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (2 Sam. 7:18). Good question. How far has God’s sovereign grace brought you? And do you truly know that the Lord is your shepherd?

Gracious God, we would say with confidence that you are our shepherd. We don’t want to simply repeat familiar words. Give us eyes to see your sovereign grace in our lives, your providential care that has guided our steps when we least sensed your presence. You have brought us this far, and we give you thanks in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Needed: A Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1).

First, I’m defensive and a little bit angry. Then I feel foolish, as if I should have seen what someone else has so deftly pointed out. And then finally I step back and take an honest look at my own opinion and make an effort to evaluate the contrasting opinion based on its merits.

That’s what I hope I’m doing now – honestly evaluating, thinking things through. Since reading a nationally known pastor’s outright dismissal of the “shepherd” as a model for what pastors do, I’ve had to negotiate the angry, foolish, thoughtful cycle of idea grief. I’m still not sure I’m where I need to be with the whole thing.

The words that troubled me are in print, so I’m able to review them and listen to them over and over again, trying to make sure I’m hearing what was really said. This highly regarded teacher is someone who I greatly respect. I listen to his podcast. So when he said in an interview that the word “shepherd” was irrelevant, he got my attention. Here’s the quote, admittedly removed from context:

“That word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to . . . I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” (Leadership Journal, May 28, 2007).

I get that. I claim little to no experience with shepherds or flocks of livestock of any kind. In my first church in Oklahoma I knew that several of my members owned cows, but I never actually had interaction with their cattle. On my recent trip to the Holy Land – an ideal place for getting first-hand knowledge of biblical images and metaphors – the shepherds I saw were off at a distance. I do have a good picture from one of my fellow pilgrims of a shepherd with whom we had some up-close contact, but the picture is all I have of that experience.

Shepherds are not easily found in metro-Atlanta. But while I acknowledge the truth of what this fellow-pastor says, I just can’t reach his conclusion.

For one thing, his position elevates personal experience to an unworthy height while it sells people short. Meaningful knowledge cannot be tethered to what I myself have seen and done. It is entirely possible affirm as “true” something that is alien to my own life experience. My own story can never be an adequate measure of what is worthy and helpful. And it is also possible that intelligent people are capable of comprehending the meaning of a metaphor that is foreign to their own time and culture.

Jesus didn’t use the word “shepherd” because there was one in a field that he could see and point to. Jesus used “shepherd” because he had read Isaiah and the Psalms. The concept came to him from Israel’s history, not a Judean hillside.

But beyond that there is this practical matter. If you jettison the biblical image of a “shepherd” what will you replace it with? Is there anything that we can see and identify that offers a suitable and adequate substitute the Biblical image? What speaks most powerfully to the deepest needs of our life?

The Lord is . . . my adviser? We need far more than advice. The Lord is . . . my boss? That hardly stirs our affections. The Lord is . . . my CEO? These days that stirs nothing but disdain and distrust. The Lord is my . . . coach? That might get at what we need. Personal coaching is big these days. The Lord is my . . . counselor? Maybe – but good counselors pay close attention to boundaries. The shepherd risks his life for the sheep. Counselor is close, but not quite there.

Maybe what we need is exactly what Psalm 23 says. We need a shepherd.

How do you see it? Why does it matter that Jesus is a “good shepherd?” Could he meet you in the details of your life as something else?

Lord Jesus, you called yourself a good shepherd. While the image is strange to us, we know you in what you do with us – the way you guide us and seek us out when lost and lead us to what will sustain us and give us life. We will not fight over words. We only seek to follow you as you do your work among us by your Holy Spirit. Do that work today, we pray. Amen.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Learning to Mean What We Pray

“The Lord is my shepherd . . .” (Psalm 23:1).

I had no idea what I was in for. I can’t recall now if I had purchased popcorn and a big Coke. If I had it seems to me I wasted my money. You can’t watch the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan and snack on popcorn. There’s just something wrong, almost irreverent about it.

Yesterday, June 6th, 2010, was the 66th anniversary of the allied forces invasion of the beaches of Normandy, known since that time as D-Day. I’ve never been to Normandy, but I’d like to go someday. For now, as lame as it sounds, my knowledge of D-Day has come entirely from books and documentaries. The most intense experience came from a movie. I sat in a cushioned chair and watched a recreation of the event on a screen.

Maybe that’s what D-Day made possible. A kid born in 1962 would sit a comfy dark theater in 1998 watching a movie about the hell some other kids walked into in 1944. And were it not for the bravery and the sacrifice and horror of what happened in 1944, the 1998 popcorn and movie experience might not have ever happened.

I only saw the movie once, and it’s been awhile. Snapshots of the gruesome opening scene have stayed with me: Crowded amphibious assault vessels approaching Omaha Beach, ocean spray raining down on solemn faces, the absence of frivolity, the presence of courage and fear. Just enough courage to do what the day demanded. Just enough fear to appreciate the gravity of what was being done.

I haven’t researched this and I can’t prove it, but I have to believe that on those boats there was someone, perhaps many, maybe hundreds, who knew and prayed the 23rd Psalm. As the fog parted to reveal a distant shore, as the beaches came closer, as doors dropped and bullets ripped the damp air, surely someone had repeated again and again, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

On June 6, 1944 the valley of the shadow of death took more substance than a mere shadow. Many of the men who walked into that valley didn’t walk out of it. And this begs the question: what does it mean to say “the Lord is my shepherd?” If even one person prayed those words and believed them only to die moments later on the beach, how are we to understand the shepherding presence of God in our lives? What does it look like? What does it mean for us to say “the Lord is my shepherd?” How do we say it and mean it?

In the weeks ahead we’ll be taking a leisurely look at the shepherding work of God by walking through each line of the 23rd Psalm. In his commentary on the Psalms, Old Testament scholar James L. Mays maintains that the entire 23rd Psalm is an exposition of the very first line – “the Lord is my shepherd.” Our reflections in the weeks ahead will seek to give shape and texture to how God shepherds your life.

Most of us who undertake to pray the words of the 23rd Psalm will never face anything like the horror of D-Day. Rather, we seek to affirm the shepherding presence of God in far more ordinary circumstances of life. We claim God as our shepherd as we make career decisions and navigate morning traffic. We claim God as our shepherd as we exercise parental wisdom and prepare a budget. We claim God as our shepherd when we plan vacations and then travel to enjoy what we’ve planned.

In every aspect of life, God is indeed a shepherd to us. The death on Normandy’s beaches did not negate the shepherding love of God for us. The loss of a job and the bad results of a biopsy do not render the shepherding presence of God null and void. The tensions in your marriage and the fluctuations of the market do not make the familiar words meaningless.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

In the coming weeks we will seek to pray these words and learn what they mean. And along the way, by God’s grace, we may also learn to mean what we pray.

We give you thanks, O God, for your shepherding presence in our lives. Throughout this day meet us in ordinary events and routines and teach us what it means to live in the confidence of your shepherding love. We claim it boldly now in the name of Jesus, the good shepherd. Amen.

Friday, May 14, 2010

For Anna on Her 11th Birthday

She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:37).

I’m writing this on my daughter’s eleventh birthday. You’ll be reading a day or so after.

Technically, of course, her birthday is over. May 12th has come and gone. That’s the way I remember birthdays as a kid. You had a birth day. But now it seems that kids get something akin to a birth week – a string of celebrations and observances that span an indefinite period of days. So as you open this email the birthday “season” is in full swing.

I launched the season by taking Anna to breakfast before school. I won’t be at home to enjoy the birthday dinner that Marnie has planned, so I decided to treat my daughter to breakfast. That was a birthday first for us, but I liked it and I think she did as well. Maybe we’ve discovered a new tradition.

It’s probably time for a new tradition. I have one that my “little girl” has outgrown, although she still tolerates my foolishness, allowing me to repeat this birthday liturgy year after year. It started several years back when she truly was little and it goes like this. I’ll ask her how old she’s going to be. When she tells me I ponder it for a moment and act shocked. After a brief stunned silence I feign a distraught plea, begging her “No . . . No . . . don’t do it . . . please don’t do it.” The idea is that I don’t want her to get older.

And truth be told – part of me really doesn’t want her to get older. She used to laugh at this. Now she rolls her eyes or humors me with a polite chuckle.

In February Anna stopped breathing.

We knew something wasn’t right. We’d already had her in the emergency room earlier in the day. We’d had her looked at and we planned to doctor her through it. But the ongoing breathing complaints had us stumped. Once it was clear to us that she wasn’t going to sleep that night we all piled in the car and headed back to the hospital.

And then she stopped breathing. I didn’t see that coming. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. We were in the car when it happened. Words fail me here. Some feelings and images come back with clarity: Driving fast and scared, struggling to get her limp body into the ER, seeing her on a ventilator, the cold room, her skin a mottled pink and pale.

And then a week later it was over. She was barely able to stand being held in the hospital that last day, waiting to be discharged. She was angry that we weren’t planning to let her go to church the very next day. Now it’s as if nothing ever happened.

But it did happen. And on her birthday my “Don’t do it” act is just that. A big act. I want her to do it. I want her to age and grow. I love seeing her get a year older, knowing that she’s on her way to becoming who God made her to be. I love the anticipation of watching her days unfold, year after year.

Our Anna was named for the prophetess Anna in Luke 2. Luke tells us very little about this Anna. She never shows up again in the pages of scripture. She makes a very brief appearance, playing a supporting role to the aged Simeon on the day that Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus to the Lord at the temple, following the commands of the Torah.

On that day there were two people who recognized the Holy family: Simeon and Anna. Anna had been married for seven years but then lived as a widow until the age of eighty-four. Her life was spent worshiping and waiting for God’s saving work on behalf of his people. When Mary and Joseph arrived with their son Anna recognized the child, gave thanks and praise to God, and spoke to others about who this child was.

I pray that my Anna will enjoy a long marriage with children and grandchildren of her own. But above all of that, and of far greater significance, I pray that with every passing year she will grow to imitate the aged Anna of the temple. May every passing year find her learning to worship. May the years sharpen her capacity for seeing God’s work in the world. May her heart be filled with thanksgiving and her mouth be bold to speak of Jesus.

And with every passing year may she know the presence of God’s Spirit and the working of God’s power in her life. The kind of blessing that says, “You go right ahead and do it. For this you were made.” And may you know the same.

By the power of your Spirit, O God, may we live our days and every passing year telling your story, giving you praise, delighting in your saving works through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Tree and the Temple

Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:21)

On Sunday he wept.

That seems like a strange response to celebration and acclamation. You won’t see that at a Macy’s parade, the person perched atop the float shedding tears. It’s out of place. Nevertheless, at some point on his journey toward Jerusalem, from his seat on the colt, Jesus wept over the city.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus wept because this city and its inhabitants did not know what would bring them peace. Not much has changed in Jerusalem. For that matter, there are plenty of people in Atlanta and Seattle and Des Moines who share the same ignorance. We want peace, but don’t know how to get it. Maybe we refuse what we know. Peace – the kind that “passes understanding” – is found in Jesus. As Jesus approached Jerusalem he knew that this truth was hidden from their eyes (Luke 19:41-42). They would not look to him for peace. In an effort to restore peace and keep the peace, they would kill him. So Jesus wept for Jerusalem.

But the weeping didn’t last long. On the day after that triumphal entry, according to Mark’s rendering of events, Jesus cursed.

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the Temple when Jesus spotted a fig tree and went to see if had fruit, possibly hoping for a snack since he was hungry. There was no fruit to be found. It was a bit early in the season for figs and the tree had only leaves on its branches. This provoked the curse – not profanity or foul language, but a pronouncement of permanent barrenness. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14).

Jesus then made his way from the tree to the temple. At the temple he again lets his indignation loose on the money changers and vendors who have distorted what temple worship was all about. He drove them out, turned their tables over, scattered their profits all over the temple floor.

Sunday’s weeping is replaced with Monday’s cursing, the tears prelude to a tirade.


I’ve never liked the fig story. While pastors are hesitant to admit this, I’ve never really understood it. The story doesn’t reflect well on our Lord. His “cursing” of tree that has no fruit sounds a bit like a tantrum. Jesus didn’t get his snack and he’s irritable. I don’t put up with this kind of thing from my own children and I sure don’t want to see it in Jesus.

But the tree makes a little more sense when placed in the context of the temple story. Both the tree and the temple are barren and that’s what Jesus sees. He isn’t being petty or throwing a fit in the temple, and he isn’t having a tantrum at the tree. The temple worship that had deteriorated into a commercial enterprise is barren, failing to bear the fruit of true worship. The tree that bears no fruit anticipates what Jesus will find at the temple. The tree is the temple and the temple is the tree.

But in the larger context of Holy Week Jesus’ weeping and cursing, the tears and the righteous indignation say something about how God sees us and the fruitless, barren places in our own lives. On one level, sin is our failure to be all that God made us to be. Sin renders our lives barren and fruitless, a shallow existence that goes through the motions of living but never truly lives.

Jesus sees this and weeps. Jesus sees this and goes to work cleaning house, restoring a heart that truly loves God and bears fruit in the world. What Jesus said to the tree was a word of judgment. What Jesus did in the temple was likewise an act of judgment. And what Jesus did on the cross was judgment as well – but not condemnation.

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). How is the fruitfulness of your life today? Are you going through motions or growing in grace?

Fill me with your Spirit today, O God, that my life might bear fruit in this world. Apart from your help I will not be the person you have made me to be. My own efforts at fruitfulness are bound to fail without your grace. Thank you for the cross and the judgment Jesus bore for my empty, barren ways. Bring me into resurrection life, I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Broken and Beautiful Thing

She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3).

By Tuesday Jesus needed a break. He found what he needed in the little village of Bethany.

A traditional chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life tells us that the days played out as follows: Sunday was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, praises shouted, branches waved, cloaks spread out like a rug, expectations running high. That parade was soon forgotten. On Monday Jesus cleared the temple of money changers and animal vendors, quoting the prophet Jeremiah and chastising those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. Things were getting tense. By Tuesday Jesus needed a break from the noise and clamor of Jerusalem at Passover.

The respite Jesus needed was found at the home of a man known as Simon the Leper. We have no idea who this man was. His name never appears again in the pages of scripture. The simplest explanation was that Simon was a man who had suffered from leprosy until Jesus healed him. Now, well and whole and restored to his home in Bethany, he hosts a meal for Jesus.

While Jesus was reclining at the table “a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” (14:3) Sound and scent were almost simultaneous, the shattered vessel releasing an aroma that quickly filled the room. And almost as quickly, the murmuring started.

The presenting issue was the waste of such a valuable and precious commodity. That’s what some of those present complained about. It isn’t clear if they were sharing the meal, involved in the intimacies of table fellowship with Jesus and others, or if they were religiously curious spectators. Gossip mongers making nice until they could find something to talk about.

The unspoken issue, the deeper issue, might have been the woman herself. A female had made her way to the place where Jesus reclined – highly unusual in that cultural setting. As Luke tells the story, the woman had a reputation that should have caused a truly righteous man to recoil. That Jesus didn’t flinch caused tongues to wag.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said as they unleashed their harsh rebukes at her. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (14:6). Beautiful indeed.

All of the beauty in this Holy Week drama is seen in broken things and broken people. The meal is hosted by a man who still lives with the moniker of his former life: Simon the Leper. While possibly used affectionately by neighbors who marveled at his healing, the nickname evoked his broken self. A man once diseased and feared and rejected now made well, hosting a meal for the one who touched his shredded flesh and made him whole again.

There is beauty in the broken jar, a delicate rounded vessel with a long neck, holding expensive perfume. Once a vessel like that was broken, everything in it would flow out, completely emptied, nothing held back. And that act of devotion came from a woman who very likely knew her own brokenness.

The people who missed entirely the beautiful that happened in that room in Bethany were the competent people, the smart people who knew the value of a dollar. They were superficially devout people who spoke loudly abut the poor but were strangers to mercy. They might not have been hostile to Jesus, but they didn’t quite get him. Those words about anointing and burial sailed right by them (14:8). They missed the beautiful thing.

Holy Week won’t mean much to those who avoid their own brokenness and despise it in others. That’s true for the simple reason that Holy Week is taking us to a very broken place – the place of crucifixion and death. Apart from that Resurrection is thin and Easter becomes little more than “cute.” Settle for cute Easter, and you’ve missed the truly beautiful thing.

But seeing the beauty means getting close to the broken things and broken ones: a leper, a questionable woman, a shattered jar – all broken. And then there’s Jesus taking the image to himself. “This is my body . . . broken.”

He has done a beautiful thing for us. Beautiful indeed.

We work hard, O God, at concealing the broken pieces of our lives. We mask them with our charisma and the trappings of a successful life. Teach us to see the beauty in those broken places of our own lives – and also in the brokenness of our neighbor. Save us from the kind of competence that distances us from you and the beautiful thing you want to do in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen. .

Monday, March 29, 2010


. . . the whole crowd of disciples began to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen (Luke 19:37).

Few places are harder to live than in the gap between what we expect and what we get, that barren stretch that separates what we think we deserve and what our lives have actually delivered to us. We can barely tolerate being there and we’ll do anything to find a way out.

Sometimes that means we adjust our expectations. The pain of disappointment is alleviated by lowering our sights. But with every downward adjustment hope is diminished, and eventually we find we’ve stopped dreaming altogether.

Another strategy moves in the opposite direction. Sometimes the tension between what we expect and what we get pushes us to do whatever we need to do to secure our own happiness. We lash out at whoever or whatever gets in the way of what should have been.

Of course, we often ricochet back and forth between both of those responses: resignation or anger, passive acceptance or violent force. What we find most difficult is what the Psalmist urged. “Wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Holy Week is bracketed by shouting crowds. On the front end of Holy Week we remember the day Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. Luke tells us that the crowd that welcomed him that day “praised God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (19:37). Their shouts were grounded in past events, but those past events had shaped their expectations of what would soon be.

The miracle-working Jesus was their King. The very manner of his approach to Jerusalem, mounted on a colt, spoke to his identity as the one of whom Zechariah had prophesied (Zech. 9:9). These shouts carried the weight of expectations shaped by the hope of what a warrior king would do.

By the time we get to the end of the week those expectations are thoroughly shattered. This celebrated King has failed to deliver and now the crowds are shouting something different. “Hosanna” has morphed to “Crucify.” Holy Week is the story of what it means to walk with Jesus in the midst of unmet expectations.

We find ourselves in good company. This kind of disappointment isn’t unique to the godless or the wicked. Even Jesus’ closest followers struggled during those final days of his life. And they failed. Some of them failed big: Judas’ disappointment with Jesus, and then with himself, was so deep that he took his own life. Peter caved to his fear and denied Jesus. Eventually, by Friday afternoon, all of the disciples have scattered.

And as for us – plenty of us live every day with unmet expectations. Some of them are minor: a driver in front of you failed to use his turn signal; you assumed your spouse had made the bank deposit when you wrote the check, or the kitchen completely messed up your order when you happened to be on a tight schedule.

Of course, some of our expectations go to the core of who we are. A single adult approaches another birthday marking yet another decade without the dreamed of mate and the dreamed of children. The long-awaited retirement brings a deadening boredom and feelings of uselessness. The new purchase becomes a draining burden rather than the status symbol it was supposed to be. The promotion proves to be a wrong fit for your best skills. In short, things are not working out like you had hoped they would.

That gap between what we expected and what we actually experience is the place where faith wanes. During this week – or for that matter during any week – when the tension between what you hoped for and what you’ve received feel unbearable, hear the invitation of Jesus. Stay with him. Listen to his words. Watch what he’s doing. Don’t get swept up the noisy demands and expectations of the culture. God is at work. Such hardly seems to be the case, and you may not see it now. But God is at work.

To all who feel the ache of something that hasn’t worked out according to plan, welcome to Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus, keep us close to you in the final days of this Lenten journey. Our expectations so easily become demands. We stop praying and start giving direction. Keep us attentive to what you are doing, especially when life unfolds in ways we didn’t expect or ask for. Teach us trust, even in the shadow of the cross. Amen.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Finding Your Way Back

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came . . . and anoint Elisha. . . ” (1 Kings 19:15).

My daughter lost her jacket at church last Wednesday night. It just disappeared, grew legs and walked off. We searched for while, but it had been a long day, we were both tired and it was time to go home. Part of me wanted to be hard-nosed about it, dig in and let her know we weren’t going anywhere until she found that jacket. Another part of me – the part that won – just wanted to go home.

“Maybe it’ll turn up, Anna.” That’s what I said out loud to her. Inside my head I was thinking, “We’ll never see that jacket again.” I knew I’d be back the next day and I’d look again.

Thursday morning: A little more time, much less tired. I did what you always do when you’ve lost something. I tried to retrace her steps. Her first stop on Wednesday afternoon was Marnie’s office. That had been thoroughly searched and we knew it wasn’t there. The second stop was bell choir. We hadn’t thought of that on Wednesday night. The story has a simple but happy ending. I walked up the room where she has hand bells and there it was. It hadn’t been hard to find. It was simply a matter of going back to where she had been.

“Go back the way you came.” This was God’s word to Elijah. Sometimes God says the same thing to us.

Last week we spent several days with Elijah on Mount Horeb, the mountain Elijah had fled to in his fear and despair. A cave makes a great hiding place, but it makes a lousy home. The good news is that the story of Elijah does not end on Mount Horeb.

“Go back the way you came.”

There was still more for Elijah to do. God hadn’t finished with him, but God’s purposes for Elijah couldn’t be fulfilled in a cave. Elijah would have to crawl out of the hole he had found in which to stoke his anxieties and self-pity. He would have to retrace his steps and find his calling once again.

“Go back the way you came.”

That sounds simple but for many nothing could be harder. For one thing the steps that took you to where you are today might have been very painful. The cave of self-pity or self-doubt was never a place you thought you’d be, and you’re not entirely sure how you got there. Going back and revisiting those steps may be the last thing you want to do. You’d just as soon not walk through that desert again.

But as hard as it might be, the promise that gives strength for the journey is that you can find your way back. The cave is not the end of your story. You can find your way back to a place of usefulness and purpose. You can find your way back to a clear direction. You can find your way back to being someone who has something to offer that shapes another person’s life.

Elijah made his way back through to the place where he found Elisha, the one who would carry on what Elijah had started. That’s the story we’ll spend time with this week. But for today, what would it mean for you to “Go back the way you came?” What steps do you need to retrace and what might you find once you do that?

Gracious God, let every step we take today be taken with you. If there are steps that need to be retraced, make us bold to walk that way that we might once again discover who you’ve called us to be and what you’ve called us to do in this world. In all that we do, we pray that you would make our steps firm and keep faithful as we seek to walk as Jesus walked. We pray this n his name. Amen.

Friday, March 05, 2010

He Hid His Face

And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it he pulled his cloak over his face . . . (1 Kings 19:13).

Time for a reality check. That voice that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb – we’ve got it all wrong.

Our Bible translations don’t help us much here. We are told that on Mount Horeb Elijah heard a “still small voice.” That’s the King James Version, the familiar and time tested phrase that captures the nature of the divine utterance. The “still” and the “small” is described in stark contrast to the bluster of wind and fire and earthquake, all of which were void of God’s voice and presence.

Other translations take the “still small voice” and make it a “gentle whisper” (NIV). One translation says that it was “the sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). The New English Bible says that Elijah heard a “low murmuring sound” while the Jerusalem Bible calls it “the sound of a gentle breeze.”

A still small voice. That sounds nice doesn’t it? Soothing. God’s voice caressing us, lulling us into a peaceful state of mind.

But whatever this voice was – breeze, whisper, sheer silence – it caused Elijah to hide his face. That’s not the behavior of one soothed and lulled. That’s the action of one awed, convicted, fearful.

I recall being outdoors on a work in site in the middle of an Oklahoma August. From time to time a gentle breeze would disturb the shade-less heat. Your response is to lift your face, to catch as much of it as you can for as long as it lasts. That’s not what Elijah did. He covered his face when God spoke. The voice may have indeed been a whispering voice, breeze-like in tone and volume, but it evoked something deep in Elijah. It made him hide his face.

Mark Buchanan rightly states that

There is a dreadfulness about God. This is seldom said. We often cherish a pious delusion about ourselves: that we truly desire God and that all that’s lacking to pursue deepest intimacy with Him is adequate skill, sufficient knowledge, proper motivation. But is this so? Down in our bones, mingled with our blood, silent and potent as instinct, is a dread of God. This is primal fear. The voice of God, the presence of God, holds not comfort but terror. (Your God is Too Safe, 22-23).

Long before whispering to Elijah, God held another mountain top conversation with Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain the Israelites kept their distance from him. They told him, “speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19). The voice of God would be too much.

So back to the “still small voice.” Two things are required of us: Be careful and be courageous.

Be careful in your listening: This voice is not easily heard and it will not be found in the loud and obvious blustering of our culture or even of our churches. Loud and showy religion is one of Satan’s closest allies in keeping people deaf to God. Be careful in your listening.

And be courageous: When God speaks you may be undone. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). The voice of God could change your life. It could change your plans. If you’re trying to hear God speak be sure you’re ready for what that might mean for your life. God’s words are never given to us as a mere lullaby.

What is truly amazing is the God wills to speak to us. The real question, as always, is whether we are willing to listen.

We will not take your voice lightly, O God. Help us to listen carefully, discerning your words and your will in the middle of our busy and noisy lives. And make us bold as we listen for what the Spirit says, ready to be changed and ready to respond in obedience. Amen.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lightweight Deity

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done . . . Elijah was afraid and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1-5).

We’re waiting on a growth spurt. Could be any time now. I’ve made use of biblical language in assuring my son that he’ll shoot up any day – “like a thief I the night . . . you do not know the day or the hour.” But it will come.

In the meantime we let him eat just about anything he wants. I’m not sure that’s such a great idea. It sure won’t hasten the “thief in the night” thing, but maybe it’ll get more meat on the bones. Imagine my surprise when my son announced that he needed to abstain from a meal before a wrestling meet. He explained that he was only a half-pound shy of having to move up to the next weight class and he didn’t want to do that.

Weight classes make sense in wrestling. They keep things fair and they keep things safe. That’s obvious I guess, but I’m new to the whole wrestling subculture. Whereas I’m typically encouraging him to bulk up, I wasn’t sure I wanted him in the next weight class. It means bigger opponents. In theory he’s bigger too – but it didn’t look that way to me.

Strength and size are important in wrestling. And they also matter in our walk with God.

On Mount Carmel it was clear that Elijah served a heavyweight God. The prophet had called for a contest between himself and the prophets of the fertility god Baal. Elijah had gone to the mat on this one, challenging the people. “How long will you waver between two opinions. If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

Short version of the story: Baal was pinned in seconds by Elijah’s God. Baal had nothing to offer in response to the loud and frantic prayers of his prophets, more than four hundred of them pleading hour after hour for a show of strength. Their prayers met with Elijah’s taunts and silent skies.

Then Elijah prayed. A short request, simple and clear in it purpose: send fire so that all may know that you, O Lord, are God (1 Kings 18:37-38). And fire fell from heaven.

The shocking thing about this story is its aftermath. Having defeated Baal’s prophets, Elijah is a wanted man, hunted by Queen Jezebel. In the face of her threats, God suddenly became small, a lightweight deity. The pagan Queen became large, a heavyweight ruler. Fear gripped Elijah’s heart and he ran for his life.

How is it that God so easily and often becomes small in our eyes?

Elijah’s name means “The Lord is God.” We say we believe it. But the slightest opposition from some pretender to power in our lives can send us into a tailspin of anxiety. Our God is suddenly shrunken and weak – and something else stands large and powerful in our minds and claims lordship over our hearts.

The person making hiring decisions becomes strong and powerful against our lightweight deity. The stock market and drama of Wall Street looms large as God pales in the background, swallowed up in the noise of trading. A supervisor becomes the heavyweight, far too much for our scrawny God. God gets small, even when we know better, even when we’ve lived through something where we’ve seen fire fall from heaven.

In 1961 J. B. Phillps wrote a book titled “Your God is too Small.” If such a thing could be written in 1961, how much more so in 2010? As this year begins, what weight class have you placed God in? And what would it take for God to once again become a heavyweight deity – Powerful, Sovereign, Creator God.

Forgive us for seeing you as small, O God, while other things stand large and formidable in our minds and in our hearts. We would recover our sense of your power today, living with the strength that comes from serving a great and mighty God who is at the same time faithful in caring for us. Grant us courage for all that we face and a vision of your presence with us. Amen.