Friday, December 12, 2014

Things Treasured

And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51)

Every heart treasures something.

What we treasure may truly be good and valuable and worthy of being treasured. Just as often we treasure things in our heart that we would do well to get rid of.

Closets and Wallets 
About a month ago my wife decided it was time to go through our closet and see what we needed to unload. We both knew that we had things hanging up in the closet that we hadn’t touched in years. Embarrassing, but true. I was stunned at what we gathered to be given away. How and why had we managed to hold on to these things for so long? Nothing about that chore was fun, but once we were finished it was very freeing.

But there other things we treasure that have real value, even if only to us. A certain credit card company ran an ad campaign not long ago with the tag-line “What’s in your wallet?” That’s a good question. What I treasure in my wallet may say something about my heart.

Of course, most wallets hold monetary treasures, but there are other more meaningful treasures too. In my wallet I have pictures of my family, my health insurance card, my driver’s license that serves as my official picture ID, a library card, a card from the Presbyterian Church that says I am a minister of word and sacrament in good standing (not useful in airports), my Skymiles # (which is useful in airports but which I’ve never memorized). I guess there are things that I keep or ‘treasure’ in my wallet go beyond purchasing power and say something about who I am.

Three Words 
In the opening chapters of his gospel account, Luke uses three different words to tell us how Mary gradually made her way to an understanding of who her son was. As we noted earlier this week, even after Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, she didn’t have Jesus all figured out. At his birth and as he grew, Mary would see things and hear things with which she had to grapple.

When the shepherds arrived just after Jesus’s birth they told what the Angels had said to them about the infant Jesus. Mary ‘treasured’ and ‘pondered’ these things in her heart. When the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem, found three days later by his parents, Mary treasured in her heart her son’s words about being in his Father’s house.

In these stories Luke uses three Greek words: Pondered, treasured, kept. The three words are very close in meaning, sharing a similar sense. Mary grappled with words and events by thinking, holding close, remembering and cherishing them.

Our Treasure
We do this too. We treasure things in our heart, pondering with the mind, remembering and cherishing and holding close. What we treasure in the heart may reveal who we are, or they may shape us into who we become. What we ponder and treasure may draw us closer to Jesus. What we ponder and treasure may be an obstacle to knowing who Jesus is and why he came.

A heart can treasure things that are not good and worthy. We can keep resentments and bitterness. We can hold on to painful memories and mistakes we’ve made. We can dwell on our regrets and hurts. None of these do us a bit of good, but we keep them nevertheless.

We can keep a different kind of treasure. Pondering and treasuring the gift of God’s grace to us has a way of shaping who we are, making us merciful and gracious. As we dwell on the words Jesus spoke and the life he lived, we begin to become like him. As we cherish and treasure his blessings to us, we become grateful people.

At Christmas we will sing “Let every heart prepare him room.” Maybe you can start preparing him room today.

What’s in your heart? What are you treasuring?

We ask, O God, that our hearts would treasure and dwell on those things that draw us closer to you. Where we have held on to things that are not worthy, cleanse our hearts by your Spirit. Make us ready for you and cause us to treasure who you are, we ask in the name of your Son. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 'BLT'

And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them (Luke 2:50)

When you order a ‘BLT’ sandwich you shouldn’t have to think too hard or work too hard to explain what goes on it.

That was my assumption a couple of months ago when I took a lunch-break and went up the road to a favorite and often frequented sandwich place. I stood in line and scanned the menu up on the wall. The drill is familiar. You order your sandwich and get the basic stuff on it – and then someone else takes that basic sandwich and dresses it up for you with whatever heathy veggie-type items you choose.

On this day I ordered a BLT. Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. That’s pretty simple.

But as my sandwich progressed to the next stage of the assembly line, the person serving me stood there looking at me, waiting. I stood there awkwardly looking back at her, silently wondering “What’s the problem?” After a moment it dawned on me that she was waiting for me to ask for lettuce and tomato on my BLT. I finally caught on and explained that, yes, I did indeed want lettuce and tomato on my BLT.

I guess what happened there was a good ole’-fashioned failure to communicate. I’ll take my share of the blame for that. But the whole transaction baffled me. I assumed that when you order a BLT, the L and the T come de facto with the B. That’s obvious. No explanations or clarifications required. No need to ask, “Sir, what would you like on your BLT?”

But between the two of us there was a lack of understanding. What seemed so obvious to me was not so obvious to her.

Did You Not Know? 
After three days, Mary and Joseph found their twelve year old son in the Temple. He was sitting among the teachers talking theology and offering commentary on scriptural texts. Mary was clearly perturbed. “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you” (Luke 2:48 The Message).

Jesus’s answer to his mother is the climactic moment of the story, confronting us with who this boy is. “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” This the first time Jesus speaks in the gospel of Luke, and he calls God his ‘Father.’

At this point Luke adds this very significant statement: “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.” Eugene Peterson renders the verse, “They had no idea what he was talking about.”

Every Christmas the story is told of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. We hear how she was told that she was ‘with child’ by the Holy Spirit, that she would bear a son who would be called holy – the Son of God. The Angel’s message to Mary could not have been clearer.

And yet, twelve years later, Mary does not seem to grasp who this boy is. Twenty years later, as Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel writers make it plan that his family still did not understand what he had come to do (See Mark 3:21).

Not So Obvious 
During Advent and Christmas we tend to speak of the infant Jesus as if it is obvious to everyone who he is. We use phrases like ‘God incarnate’ and ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’ But these things, while very familiar, are not obvious as to their meaning. They are not simple ideas that are easily grasped and casually accepted.

There are plenty of people who celebrate Christmas but still do not understand who Jesus is.

To say so is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that many people come to Jesus gradually, step by step, slowly coming to terms with what his birth means. You may be one of those people. If so you’re in good company. Mary, the mother of Jesus, did not fully understand her son – even after a message from an angel. Your slow journey to Jesus is hardly exceptional.

But don’t avoid the journey. Yes, Christmas celebrates an event in history – but the event has meaning, and the meaning is tied up with the identity of the child who is born.

It may take you a while to get there. Advent is the perfect time for getting started.

Grant, O God, that during this Advent season we would make a journey to your Son, moving beyond the fact of his birth, to what it meant, and who he truly was. We ask this in his name, Amen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Search

Behold, your Father and I have been searching for you in great distress (Luke 2:48).

Years ago I lost my son in East Cobb Park.

Who knows how these thing happen? But happen they do – and they seem to happen so quickly. I guess I could have been paying closer attention at the moment. My kids knew this park well, so it never occurred to me that finding an uninhabited park bench and reading a book was a bad idea.

Until I looked up from the book and couldn’t see my son.

Panic in the Park
Closing the book I started walking the play area where he had been. Seconds passed. No John. I moved a bit quicker, investigating play structures where he might be hidden from my sight. Still no luck and more seconds are passing. And with every passing second my anxiety is rising. My thoughts are racing to very dark places, imagining an abduction, news reporters and police reports.

My fruitless search soon had me running about, scanning the wide field adjacent to the play are. A few Mothers who are naturally dialed in to this type of crisis were kind enough to offer their help, asking me questions about what he was wearing and where I had last seen him.

After what seemed like an eternity someone casually mentioned that a couple of kids were down in Sewell Mill Creek. Deep in a ravine, the creek was not visible from the main part of the park. And there, standing in that ditch with mud caked shoes, was my son.

Outwardly I was all rebuke and reprimand. Inwardly I was sobbing with gratitude.

Losing Jesus
There was a time when parents allowed their kids to have free reign of the neighborhood, often not hearing from them for hours at a time. They may not have known precisely where their child was – but they knew the neighborhood and the neighbors. A child’s extended absence was no cause for alarm.

That kind of thing is probably what was happening in Luke 2:41-52. Mary and Joseph had taken their twelve year old son to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When it was all over they set out for the eighty mile trip back to Nazareth, assuming that Jesus was among their friends and relatives, never imagining that he had stayed behind in Jerusalem. They traveled a full day before they discovered that he was nowhere to be seen.

While Luke is telling us about “the boy Jesus,” the story is nevertheless significant for the season of Advent. Far too easily, we too lose Jesus. This is not to say we lose our faith or that we abandon our belief in Jesus. Not at all.

The problem is not renunciation. The problem is alienation.

Retracing our Steps 
The Advent season can be an especially painful time when we sense that Jesus is absent. We sing the joyful songs but we aren’t especially joyful. Somehow, somewhere, we lost Jesus. Maybe we left him behind while working long hours. Maybe we lost him in the dullness of familiar routines. Perhaps Jesus is lost in the midst of financial pressures or a family crisis or in a fight against illness. Very often we can lose Jesus at church, of all places. The Christ child is eclipsed by our busy celebrations of his birth.

Advent is an excellent opportunity to retrace our steps. This season is an invitation to go on a journey to Jesus. To go back and search for him and ponder who he is and what he came to do.

There’s still plenty of time. Maybe the journey can begin for you right now.

Lord Jesus, even those who love you can lose sight of you. In these days of Advent we would seek you in a fresh way. Guide us on this journey that we might discover afresh who you are and the power of your presence among us. Amen.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Praying

“Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)

Author and speaker Nancy Ortberg says she experienced a spiritual breakthrough in her life when she came to the realization that Jesus never kept a journal.

She’s exactly right. Jesus never journaled and no one gets to heaven by keeping a journal. But thankfully many followers of Jesus have labored to put their spiritual journey in writing. In doing so they have given us a great gift.

Several years ago I came across The Journals of Jim Elliott. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, was killed with four colleagues by the Auca Indians on January 8, 1956. His story inspired a generation of missionaries, and continues to do so today. The entries I read were written in 1948 when Elliot was a student at Wheaton College. At the time, he was reading through the Old Testament, a chapter a day it seems, and writing a paragraph or so of reflection and prayer on his daily scripture readings.

Praying More Than We Know
I was especially challenged by something Elliot wrote on February 16, 1948, a reflection on the opening chapter of Exodus. Elliot was observing how Israel flourished under persecution. How the people increased in Egypt, even as slaves. Elliot rightly observed that God’s kingdom advances through affliction. God’s people grow in their suffering.

And then Elliot wrote these words: “Send persecution to me, Lord, that my life might bring forth much fruit.”

Elliot prayed more than he knew. He could never have imagined how God would answer that prayer, what God intended to do with and through his life, and how his violent death would bear much fruit. Sometimes we may pray things we don’t mean. But perhaps, just as often, we pray more than we mean.

Our words to God say more than we know, and God hears more than we say. Paul spoke of the Spirit interceding on our behalf, praying from deep places that lie beyond our vocabulary, uttering things before God that we could never speak. There is a mystery to prayer, far more happening than we know or speak.

Answers Unseen
Prayer provides the context for the story of Zechariah and his encounter with the angel Gabriel. As Zechariah is performing his once-in-a-lifetime sacred duty, the people are standing outside praying (1:10). The ritual itself is built around prayer. As Zechariah burns incense at the altar, the prayers of the people are given texture. The sight and smell of incense capture the prayers of a nation.

And of course Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed. As devout and righteous people they have prayed the Psalms in worship. As husband and wife they have prayed for a child; they prayed about that for many years until it became clear to them that God’s answer was ‘no.’ They struggled to understand that answer, struggled to accept it but accept it they did.

And then Gabriel showed up and greeted Zechariah with “Your prayer has been heard.” Scholars debate exactly which prayer Gabriel is referring to – the prayers for the nation or the prayers for a child. As it turned out, one prayer was integral to the other.

As Zechariah prayed more was happening than he knew. His priestly prayer for the people was being answered in the gift of a child. His prayer for a child would be a part of God’s plan to redeem the nation.

What are you praying about today? Who are you praying for? Whatever it is, whoever it is, don’t stop praying. And don’t worry whether you’re doing it right. Just keep praying.

With every petition, you ask more than your words speak and God is doing more than you know.

Merciful God, hear my prayer. Hear the words I speak and the silent yearnings of my heart. Do more than I can imagine, and in all things – the people I love, the situations that concern me – make me confident that you do indeed hear the prayers of your people. I pray this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Weight of Your Expectations

Both of them were upright in the sight of God . . . but they had no children (Luke 1:6-7).

Christmas Eve just isn’t Christmas Eve without a candlelight service. Or so it seemed to me.

That’s why I was determined to create a new tradition in the church that I served years ago before coming back to Atlanta. They had never done a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Fortunately my congregation was patient with me. They seemed willing to give it a try.

The Icy Rain 
One need not be a genius to plan a candlelight service. The hymns for Christmas Eve are fairly obvious, so crafting the order of service was not hard. Candles were purchased. The bulletin was printed and folded. Everything was ready.

And then around mid-morning on that highly anticipated Christmas Eve an icy rain began to fall in our part of eastern North Carolina. The trees took on a glassy sheen, and that was pretty. But the same thing was happening to our roads, and that was dangerous. All over Raleigh churches were cancelling their Christmas Eve services. The list grew long and ran across the bottom of my TV screen.

I resisted doing the same, holding out for yet another miracle on that most sacred of nights. The miracle I wanted was not to be. That first Christmas Eve candlelight service was cancelled.

We stayed home that night. I sat in my house and stewed. To be perfectly honest, it took some work to get over my anger, my sullen indignation that the creator of the universe had the audacity to ignore my will. My expectations had not been met. And those shattered expectations had me ripped up inside.

Few things are more crushing than the weight of your expectations. The longer you carry them, the heavier they become, and those expectations can be especially burdensome during this season of the year.

Expectatrions v. Expectancy 
Pastor and Author Mark Buchanan has observed a helpful distinction between having expectations and being expectant. Expectations can subtly become demands. We have an idea of how things ought to go, how people ought to be, how plans should unfold. These expectations are expressions of desire, and when our desires are thwarted we feel robbed.

But being expectant is more like a posture toward your life. Expectancy is an eagerness and openness to whatever may be. It is not expressed as a specific desire, but rather as a sense of excitement and anticipation.

Advent is a season that thrives on expectancy. And it as just as easily ruined by the weight of our expectations.

The pain of disappointment is what we feel in the gap between life as we’d like it to be and life as we actually have it. And when that disappointment follows repeated prayers and pleading with God, God becomes the focus of our disappointment. We cease to be expectant. To quote the late theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier, “we still believe in God, we just don’t think God actually does anything.”

"Your Prayer Has Been Heard" 
We might wonder if that’s what had happened to Zechariah. He’s a faithful priest, obedient to God’s law. He carries out his religious duties. He is devout, but disappointed. And maybe in his disappointment he had stopped being expectant.

But God has a way of showing up in our disappointments. This is the good news of Advent.

Perhaps today your crisis of faith isn’t about disbelief in God, but disappointment with God. You have some expectations that have not been met – and possibly may never be. In this you’ve slowly lost any sense of expectancy. The angel’s word to Zechariah is our hope in this season. Our prayers are heard. God sees and knows. In fact the name Zechariah means “Yahweh remembers.”

What expectations might be sitting heavy on your soul today? What disappointments have dulled your sense of expectancy? Keep praying. And stay alert. God may be at work in those hard places, doing far more than you know.

By your grace, O God, grant that we would bring our desires honestly and boldly to you while holding our expectations loosely. And make us an expectant people, eager for what you are doing in us and around in these days of Advent, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Table

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. (Psalm 23:5)

Few things speak of love and grace and deep affection like a table prepared: prepared with you in mind without the slightest effort on your part. You simply show up, and there it is. It is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can receive. Just come, arrive at the stated time, and all will be ready.

“What can I bring?” we ask.

We feel like we really do need to contribute something. But invariably the answer is the same. “Nothing – just bring yourself.”

That’s the problem. We don’t believe that bringing our “self” is enough. We know that self too well. We know its flaws, its dark impulses, its pettiness. To bring nothing but my own unadorned self seems so inadequate. If I can show up with something in my hands I prove myself, even if only a little. I say with my contribution, “You see, I’m fairly capable in my own right; I can make something; I’m worthy of my seat at the table. After all, I prepared part of what’s in front of us.”

But the host means it. We’re not being consulted about the menu. These preparations leave no room for our input. Just show up. It will all be ready.

Just Dropping By 
Few things say home like a table prepared: prepared for you without the least little bit of warning. You didn’t need an invitation. You simply drop in, unannounced, and someone gets up and pulls things out of the refrigerator or the pantry. Nothing fancy or elaborate. But it’s there for you just because you’re there. No other reason is necessary.

Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?

When my family moved back to Atlanta from North Carolina nearly thirteen years ago we came home. Marnie was born and raised here. I had lived my high school years in the area. My in-laws were (and are) close by. My Mom and Dad are also living in one of Atlanta’s far north suburbs.

I regularly have a table prepared for me. Sometimes it’s planned. Other times not. Sometimes at my parents’ house I show up and there’s something there to be set out for me. At the very least I’m free to just help myself. I graze their abundance without apology. That’s what it’s like to be home.

Everything is Ready 
From time to time it is my privilege to serve early communion on Sunday mornings in our 8:20 a.m. service. Over the years I’ve heard and adopted some language at the communion table that I picked up from my friend and colleague Vicki Franch. After breaking the bread and pouring the cup there is a short line of invitation.

“Friends, these are God’s good gifts for you, the people of God, and everything is ready. Come to the table.”

“Everything is ready.” I love that line. Indeed, our shepherd God prepares a table before us. In the Psalm this may be a poetic image. Phillip Keller says that shepherds did in fact pasture their sheep on high flat lands known as “mesas” or table lands.

But the real table was prepared in Jesus. We bring nothing to this table. It’s all grace. Everything is ready.

Today is a day for giving thanks. And even now, as you read this, no matter what time it is, a table is being made ready for you. You will have all you need. You will have more than enough.

Just show up.

We give you thanks, O God, for the table you make ready for us each and every day – for your faithful provision and abundant grace. We come to this day empty handed, relying entirely on your grace. Thank you for making everything ready in the gift of your son, through whom we receive your abundance. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


“. . . The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (Exodus 16:4b).

The tests and exams don’t stop after school.

If you’re out of school you know this. Those still in school may know it, but aren’t ready to believe it. Even after we earn that final degree, life has a way of giving us the “third degree.” We’d like to think that someday the tests will end. But they don’t; professional certifications tests, annual reviews with a supervisor, blood tests and eye exams as we age. Every test bumps our anxiety up a notch. At every stage of life, in every setting, the same old question lingers. Did I pass?

Tested in Blessing
We associate testing with struggle, even pain. The exertion of sustained mental energy involved in study, the mixture of affirmation with blunt feedback about our work – tests are generally unpleasant. And when it’s God testing us, we assume this means suffering. God tested Job and we know what happened to him.

But God surprises us as we join the Israelites and make the wilderness journey out of Egypt. There in the desert God tested his people by “raining” blessing upon them. Literally. God told Moses “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” Part of the surprise, as we’ve already seen, is that God responds this way to a crowd of grumbling malcontents. But even more surprising is the fact that this shower of blessing is given not simply to ease their hunger; it is more than a cause of joy and relief and celebration. It’s a test.

Sometimes God tests us with blessing. Sometimes God tests us not by inflicting pain, but by providing for our comfort. Sometimes we are tested not by loss and deprivation, but by the abundance we receive. So it was in the desert. God rained down bread for his people. “In this way I will test them.”

The Real Question 
Every good gift that God gives us brings with it a test. With every blessing something is at stake. The test is basically this: will we treasure God more than we treasure God’s gifts? Sounds simple, but this test isn’t easy. In fact, most of us will fail it a time or two, maybe more. Our hearts have a hard time with this test, the same way our minds might have a hard time with organic chemistry.

This test isn’t asking us about our thoughts or our beliefs or our worldview – it’s asking about our hearts and what we truly love. Do we love God or do we love what God gives us? Will we honor God by being obedient to his word, or will we simply rush out and cram our tents full of food so we won’t get hungry again?

God tested his people with bread in the desert. When your stomach is growling, shriveled and empty, that’s a hard test to pass. Will the bread simply be a way for me to sate my hunger? Will the bread move me to love and worship God, the bread maker, the bread giver?

We give you thanks, Gracious God, for the abundance of blessing that you rain down on us. Your gifts speak to us of your goodness and the depths of your love. May our love for you grow with every blessing we receive. Guard our hearts from becoming attached to the comforts of this life – as if you owe us these things or as if we deserve them. Make us a people who treasure you and worship you above all earthly gifts, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What are You Withholding?

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

Years ago we purchased a bike rack for the car. A Yakima – the kind of bike rack you can leave on your car to tell others that you’re athletic and outdoorsy and spend time on the beltline. Mostly, our bike rack announces that we’re headed out on vacation. We typically mount it on the back of the car when we make our annual beach trip.

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 a few bungee cords and go through a final ritual of binding.

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 look in the rearview mirror and see something flying from the back of the car. The binding is an act of securing what’s mine, holding it tight.

The Binding
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 his long-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? 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.

Abraham’s disturbing story on Mount Moriah has much to tell us about what it means to trust God - but one simple lesson is this: Trust is not about what we believe in our heads. It’s about what we hold in our hands. Abraham on Moriah is our model of radical trust, binding Isaac, nothing held back.

When Binding is Letting Go 
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.

Our idols, the gods we truly cherish and trust, are discovered in those recesses of heart and mind where we say silently to God, “You cannot have this. You cannot have this relationship or my career. You cannot have my plans for the future or the people I cherish.”

We may not even be aware that we’re saying such a thing. There is no deliberate rejection of our faith, no defiant act of disobedience. But we are holding back, and the holding back is grounded in fear, not trust.

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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Do Over

And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you . . .” (Genesis 16:5).

What if you could travel in time?

What if you could revisit the moments that didn’t go so well, the careless word you spoke, the appointment you missed, the poor decision you made? Most of us don’t have to think too hard about the moments to which we would return or the events we would rewind if we could.

This was the premise of the 2013 film About Time. On one level this film is a love story between the two leading characters, Tim and Mary. At the age of 21, in a coming of age conversation with his father, Tim learns that he has the ability to travel in time. His father explains the basic rules and pitfalls of time travel as well as the physical act by which such a thing happens.

From that point on we see Tim using his extraordinary gift to fine tune certain critical moments in his life. When he meets the love of his life, Mary, he goes back in time repeatedly to get it just right. Each time he learns a little more about her and with each ‘new’ meeting he shows up in her life as the man of her dreams.

Early in the film the time travel gift seems like the remedy to all of life’s woes, the immediate corrective to every misstep. But as the story unfolds we see that going back in time for a do-over is really no gift at all. Rather, it is an enormous burden. What we see is a young man who carries the weight of trying to get his life just right. But fixing one thing over here has unexpected ramifications over there. Tim’s story shows us that trying again and again to get things right is not a burden we were meant to live with.

In place of time travel, what God actually gives us in real life is grace.

The Messes We Make
When Abraham and Sarah came up with a way to have the child God had promised through a scheme they had devised, they made a mistake. Their insistence on making something happen made them all miserable. Sarah resented the pregnant Hagar. Hagar was harassed by the embittered Sarah. Abraham was blamed for doing what his wife had urged him to do. What had seemed so smart was quickly shown to be a train wreck.

The real mistake, of course, was a failure of trust in God. Abraham and Sarah had not allowed God to truly be God in their lives. The consequences of this decision were real. Ishmael was a reality that would never be undone.

But that mistake did not ruin or negate God’s plan for Abraham. God did not write him off and move on to someone else. God did not come up with added demands so that Abraham and Sarah could make up for what they had done. And God certainly didn’t ask them to come up with a better plan. God remained faithful and kept his promise.

That’s what God does with all of us. We don’t get to time travel and try again – because God’s desire for us not that we keep trying until we get it right. God’s desire is that we live by faith, depend on his grace. Even if we’ve made a mess with our decisions. God redeems our messes.

Keep walking with God. Lean into his grace. Be done with regrets, bitterness, and shame. All of that has been covered and redeemed in Jesus – but we’re getting ahead of our story. More to come.

We give you thanks, O God, for your faithfulness and for the grace that covers what we would do over if we could. Teach us to walk with you today, trusting that you are guiding us and that what you have for us is good. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Key to Your Story

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

The car I drive has been in our family for quite a few years.

That means that the key that came with the car has also been in the family for a few years. The car has proven to be quite reliable. It shows no signs of quitting on us, and as long as that’s true we won’t quit on it. My key, however, has not done as well.

Several months ago the key that came with the car succumbed to wear and tear. It was one of those keys with remote control type buttons that unlock the doors and open the trunk. Along the way I had replaced the small battery a time or two. But after a while the entire plastic casing gave way.

I’m aware that such things can be replaced, but my easiest response to the problem was to simply use the valet key. True, the valet key has no remote functions, no buttons to open and lock doors or pop open the trunk. But that, as my wife would say, is a ‘first-world problem.’ The valet key starts the car and manually unlocks the door. What more does one need?

There is one minor inconvenience that caught me off guard. The valet key will not open the trunk. This quickly made sense to me once I reminded myself that the valet key is not really meant for regular use by the car’s owner. It is, obviously, for the valet.

My point in all of this has to do with design. What slight variation in design allows one key to do two functions while another key only does one? Clearly, a valet key is designed with a very specific purpose in mind. And I’ve been making use of it in a way that really isn’t in keeping with its purpose.

In God’s work of creation the human being was designed in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Simply put, you were made in the image of God. You were designed to live in fellowship with God.

The phrase ‘image of God’ encompasses much that is unique about us – our capacity for self-reflective thought and intimate relationships. We won’t linger long here with a definition. But what we must not miss is the design that is crafted deep within every human heart. We were made for God.

Psalm 16:4 says that ‘the sorrows of those who run after another god will multiply.’ Why is that? Because you were not designed to find satisfaction in any other god.

The deep peace and joy and rest that the human soul craves will not be found apart from the God who created us. And when we insist that it will be, when we run after those other sources of satisfaction in this life, our disappointments stack up. Our sorrows increase. Such a life may work for a while. It is functional – but it has its limitations. It is a way of life that isn’t consistent with the way were designed.

You were made for God. You are on this earth to reflect who God is and show God to the world around you.

This is who God made you to be. This is the key to your story. How will you live this out today?

Gracious God, you have made us to know you and to live our days walking closely with you so that others may see who you are. We confess that we chase our satisfaction in so many dead-end ways. Remind us today of who we are and help us to live in keeping with your design, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Let There Be Bacon"

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1)

Jon Ashton, Matt Heyman, and Dylan Doss are taking the story of creation all over America. And they’re doing it with a food truck.

In all likelihood their proclamation of how the world began is unintentional, the inadvertent echo of the Bible’s story captured in the name emblazoned on the side of their truck: “Let there be Bacon.” If you’re a fan of the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race, then you know all about “Let there be Bacon.”

The premise of the show is simple. Seven food truck teams begin a series of challenges that take them on the road from city to city. The winner is usually determined by highest earnings in each city. In the end, the last team left standing gets $50,000 and a new food truck. So far, “Bacon” is doing quite well.

Ashton, Heyman, and Doss probably want nothing more than to win the cash and the truck. But whether they mean to or not, they are telling a story with “Let there be Bacon.” The artwork on the side of the truck is a nod to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, the finger of God reaching out in creative power to touch strips of bacon.

Maybe these guys just love bacon. Maybe they’re just interested in making good food that happens to be made better by adding bacon. But with their food truck they are doing more than that. They are announcing the opening lines of the greatest story ever told.

They are doing this, first of all, by reminding all of us that there is a God who brought all things into being. This is where the story begins. “In the beginning, God . . .” If you ever find yourself in a discussion with someone about the existence of God, the Bible will not be very helpful to you in making an argument. The Bible never argues for the existence of God. God simply is.

Second, they are reminding us that this God is a speaking God. “Let there be” are the creating words of a personal God. The opening chapter of the book of Genesis is characterized by the repetition of the phrase “And God said.” That phrase is often followed by “let there be.”

New Testament scholar D. A. Carson says it this way: “The God of the Bible is not some abstract ‘unmoved mover.’ He has personality and dares to disclose himself in words that humans can understand.” Those words have power to give life and bring things into existence.

The story we want to tell in the weeks ahead begins here. God exists. And everything else that exists came into being by the power of God’s word.

We could easily make the mistake of rushing past this. Some dismiss it because they’re convinced that science makes it impossible to accept. Some believe it, but dismiss it because it’s so basic, so familiar.

But the implications of this for your life are staggering. For today, let’s leave it at this: If God exists and made all there is, then all that God made comes to us a gift. And the only fitting response from us is gratitude.

Enjoy the world you inhabit today. Savor all that’s around you. Sights and smells, sunlight or rain, the amazing uniqueness of a person’s voice and face, the taste of food and the aroma of coffee. And yes, you just might have a religious moment with the gift of bacon. Give thanks to God for all of his gifts.

And listen for his voice. The God who spoke still speaks.

For the gift of this day, O God, and all that it will bring we give you thanks. May every gift that surrounds us point us to you, our creator, the Giver of all good things. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Handle with Care . . . and Confidence

. . . you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God (Matt. 22:29).

“At least I can still play tennis.” That line came from pro golfer Greg Norman this past weekend following surgery that saved his left hand.

On Saturday Norman was at his home in Florida and had gone out to trim some tree branches with a chainsaw. In the course doing that task, he reached out to grab a limb he had cut. The chainsaw blade was slowing but still moving when the weight of the limb pulled Norman’s left wrist into the blade, barely missing tendon and artery. He was able to get to the emergency room where he was immediately taken to surgery.

A chainsaw is an amazingly useful power tool. I have two in the storage unit behind my house. One is very small and attaches to a pole that allows you to cut small branches that are hard to reach. The other is slightly larger. Norman’s story reminded me of how rarely I use them.

I am glad to know that I have a chainsaw. If needed, I know exactly where to find it. But I never intentionally look for chances to use it. Whenever I do happen to pull one of them out for something that needs to be done in the yard, I always have to relearn what to do. It feels awkward and strange and it takes a while to get a feel for how it works.

My relationship with my chainsaw is very similar to the way many people use their Bible. They are glad they own a Bible. They may in fact own more than one. But they rarely open it and read it. It sits undisturbed on a shelf or in a drawer. Beyond using it at church (if then) they don’t intentionally look for chances to use their Bible. And when they do use it, it feels somewhat awkward and alien to them. It takes time to get reacquainted with the contents of this beloved but neglected book.

The series we’re launching this week is about God’s story. But this story comes to us in a book. And before we jump into the story, we need to say a word about the book in which we find it. The Bible and a chainsaw share this in common: to use them well you need to handle them with care and with confidence.

Jesus rebuked some very religious people in his day because they knew neither the scriptures nor the power of God. His words were surprising because he spoke them to people who had memorized large portions of their Bible. But they misused what they read, and in this carelessness they missed out on God’s story. Both care and confidence are needed.

As for confidence: Along with these daily reflections, make use of your Bible. Find it and read it. You may want to load a Bible app on your phone or tablet. The more you rummage about in the pages of scripture the more confident you will become. You are perfectly capable of reading and understanding this book that tells us God’s story.

And as for care: come to the Bible willing to listen. Use other sources that will help you get familiar with the story it tells. Consider joining a group for eight weeks during this series. The Bible will reward careful, patient, humble study.

God wants you to know his story. He has revealed it to us in his book. Handle it with care – but also with confidence. You creator wants to speak with you.

We give you thanks, O God, for the gift of the Bible. Make us careful in our reading, attentive in our listening, and bold in daily opening the pages of your story. Help us to hear your voice behind the words we read, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Between the Lines

In the beginning . . . (Genesis 1:1)

This past Saturday morning my son had to be at school at 6:30 a.m. to catch a bus for a cross country meet at Wesleyan School.

This in itself is nothing new for us. He’s been running cross country for several seasons now. There have been earlier buses to catch. But in the past those early buses have also meant that Dad gets up, wakes up son, and makes the drive to school to deliver said son to the bus on time.

Things were different this past Saturday. My son got himself out of bed at 6:00 a.m. and drove himself to school to get on the bus – and he made it on time. There is indeed a God in heaven.

Cross country is really not designed to be a spectator sport. You can’t find a good seat and watch the game. Most cross country courses take the athletes out of sight for a while. There they exhibit their skills to no one in particular, the cheering voices fade, they suffer alone.

When I arrived at Wesleyan, dew still heavy on the ground, two key points of their cross country course were very clearly marked and easy to find: the starting line, and the finish lines. Hard-to-miss signs with large red letters marked the place where things would begin and end. As for the miles that lay between those two clearly marked points, that wasn’t so clear to me.

After a while, and with some help from others, I found a couple of places where I could stand and see the runners pass by a couple of times. But I never truly saw the terrain, the lay of the land, the inclines that caused pain or the turns that might have slowed them down.

Far too many people come to the Bible the way I come to a cross country meet. They know that Genesis is the start line (sadly, because of heated debates about creation). They also know that Revelation is the finish line (sadly, because of bad movies or bizarre end-of-world predictions).

Between the clearly marked start and finish there might be a couple of places where they find to stand – the Christmas story is usually one, and maybe the twenty-third Psalm that gets read at funerals. What they never really see is the terrain that lies between the finish and the start.

As with cross country, so with scripture. The real action happens between the lines.

For the next couple of months these daily reflections will be aimed at getting you familiar with the lay of the land, the terrain of scripture that lies between the lines. We will do this by discovering the singular story the Bible tells.

Plenty of people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling us how God expects us to behave. It is not. Others regard the Bible highly as great literature, and while it has literary features, it is not merely literature. The Bible tells a story – and knowing the Bible’s story allows us to make sense of our own story. Don’t be content to be a spectator with the Bible. The God who made you is inviting you to discover his story and find your place in it.

Ready. Set. Go.

Gracious God, we’ve spent too much time being confused spectators when it comes to your story. We’ve been satisfied with isolated scenes here and there, not knowing the terrain of your ways in this world. We invite you in these days to guide us into the fullness of your story, that we might better understand our own. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Tested in Blessing

For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry . . . (1 Kings 17:16)

Is this how God rewards obedience?

Elijah had hidden himself by the brook because that’s where God told him to go. It was neither a place nor plan of his own choosing. Hiding by the brook was an act of obedience. And now the brook was dry.

We would like to think that obedience leads to reward. What we see in Elijah is that obedience simply prepares us for the next act of obedience. God used the dry brook to send the prophet to Zarephath in the pagan region of Sidon – not a popular destination for a Hebrew prophet.

Whereas Elijah had been fed by ravens by the Kerith Ravine, a widow would feed him in Zarephath. As promised, Elijah met a widow at the gates of the town. When he asked her for a piece of bread she made it clear to Elijah that she had enough for one meal, and that meal would be for her and her son. After that they would likely die soon.

But God spoke through the prophet, inviting an act of trust on the part of this widow. She used her meager supply of flour and oil and fed Elijah first. Seeing a miracle sometimes means taking a risk. Having used what she had to feed Elijah this widow discovered a fresh supply of oil and flour every day.

It is striking that some of the best known stories in the Bible are bread stories

As Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness, God provided bread from heaven every morning. Jesus replicated God’s gift of wilderness manna when he fed a multitude with a few loaves of bread and some fish (John 6:11-12). Later Jesus would say that he himself was the bread of life, the bread that comes from heaven and gives life to all people (John 6:35).

And then there’s Elijah and the widow discovering the daily deposit of oil and flour.

The wilderness manna, the oil and flour, the multitudes fed with fishes and loaves: we naturally regard these things as gifts from God, great blessings that speak of God’s love and grace. But in Deuteronomy 8 we learn that often God uses blessings to test us. "Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." (Deut. 8:2-3).

God does not test us solely in trouble and affliction. Testing does not come strictly in the form of loss and grief, illness and death, physical pain and mental distress. Such things test us, to be sure – but just as often God tests us in blessing.

Blessings and gifts reveal the posture of our heart as much as suffering does.

When we wake up every morning and find fresh oil and flour, the test is this: will we love the oil and flour? Will we depend on bread? Or will we love the God who meets us daily with more grace and sustains us in wilderness places?

How have you been blessed today – and what does the blessing show you about the affections of your heart and the object of your hope?

“Break thou the bread of life, Dear Lord, to me; As thou didst break the loaves beside the sea; Beyond the sacred page I seek the Lord; My Spirit pants for thee, O Living Word” (Break Thou the Bread of Life, The Hymnbook, p. 219)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

When the Brook Dries Up

“As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV).

Running from a fight had never been his style.

Hiding was never his preferred strategy for dealing with trouble. Hesitation and reticence were alien to him. Once given a word to speak for God, Elijah itched to speak it like a thoroughbred being held back at the start-line of a race.

Thus his terse message to Ahab: “it will not rain until I say so.” The moment was confrontational. Elijah was going head to head with Israel’s faithless King and that King’s false god. Few Kings will tolerate that kind of thing; they will not lose face when treated with shameless disrespect.

So God told Elijah to hide in a ravine on the east side of the Jordan River. Elijah was to stay there, out of the way, removed from the action. He had said what needed to be said. God would take it from here until further notice. In the meantime, the prophet would survive by drinking water from the brook and being fed daily by ravens.

For a while the water in the Kerith ravine ran freely and wide. Elijah drank at will, quenching his thirst and washing down the food that came by ravens every morning and evening. But soon the flow of water narrowed. As God kept his word and confirmed Elijah’s message, the daily supply of water diminished to a trickle. One day, even that had stopped.

The brook dried up.

Many of us live with an unspoken rule, a silent expectation. We quietly carry the conviction that being in the center of God’s will is a “safe” place to be.

We assume that if we will be obedient to what God commands and seek to live life in a way that pleases God, we will somehow dodge the varied troubles that are visited upon the disobedient and the self-indulgent.

We claim exemptions: We will seek to know God’s will and live in it, and the cancer will not find us or those we love. The accident will miss us. The lay-offs will not impact us. We may not be exactly where we want to be. Life won’t be picture perfect. But, like Elijah, we will be fed daily and drink freely from the brook.

Sometimes, however, the brook dries up. Even for bold prophets and ordinary faithful people, the stream narrows to a sliver and then stops altogether.

The story of Elijah reminds us that God wills our good in the midst of circumstances we would choose to avoid. God is at purposefully at work as we wait by the diminishing brook. God used deprivation in one place to move the prophet to a new place where grace is discovered anew. God still works that way.

We will keep company with Elijah this week and discover that when the brook dries up God is still present. Faith does not mean that we live our days claiming exemptions. Rather, we wake up each day recognizing our need for grace.

Brooks and creeks diminish. God’s faithfulness doesn’t.

Too often, Lord God, our faith grows small as we see the brook running dry. We feel cheated or deceived. Teach us through the prophet Elijah to look to you rather than flowing streams, whether of water or money, good fortune or good health. In the coming days of this year accomplish your purposes for us, reminding us that you work for our good in all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


“Is there not still someone of the house of Saul, that I may show the kindness of God to him?”(2 Samuel 9:3).

If George Saunders is right, some of the deepest regrets we carry in life have to do with failures of kindness.

Such was the premise of Saunders’s commencement address to the class of 2013 at Syracuse University. The address has since been published in book form under the title Congratulations, by the way. Saunders told the class of 2013 that kindness was hard work, and he issued a call for intentionality and effort in being kind.

That kindness would be the focal issue of a commencement address reveals something about how most of us think of kindness. We tend to associate kindness with being nice. Kindness is an umbrella word that encompasses good manners and social graces, kind words and helpful deeds, a focus on others and a forgetfulness of self. We assume that kindness is something that anyone can practice if they’re properly taught and deliberately mindful of it.

This widely embraced understanding of kindness does much good in our world. It is, however, not a biblical understanding of kindness.

The New Testament tells us that kindness is a fruit of the Spirit. It’s the evidence of God’s indwelling life in those who are joined to Christ by faith. It is not the result of deliberate efforts or good training.

Nearly a year ago Rasmussen Reports conducted a survey of 1000 American adults asking whether we were becoming more kind and civilized as a people, or less so. Of those surveyed, 77% responded that we were becoming less kind, less civilized, ruder. This survey suggests that either we are not being taught very well, or we are not trying very hard.

This week we’re looking at a story from the life of David in which he actively seeks to extend kindness to someone who belonged to the family Saul, Israel’s former king. David’s quest is surprising in that kings in the ancient world regularly sought to eliminate all rival claims to the throne. David is doing the opposite of what was usually done, the opposite of what we expect.

However, when David speaks of showing ‘kindness’ to the house of Saul, he’s not talking about being nice. He uses a Hebrew word that we often render as ‘steadfast love.’ This is the ‘kindness of God’ (v. 3). Eugene Peterson defines this kindness as “love without regard to shifting circumstances, hormones, emotional states, and personal convenience.”

For most of us, kindness is something we extend to those who are kind to us. Kindness comes easier to us when things are going well, when a tide of benevolent emotion rises within us, when it seems expedient and promises to pay off in the future.

God’s kindness is not like that. So what would it mean for us to show the kindness of God? We’ll explore this later in the week.

For today, consider this: where and with whom do you find it hard to be kind? Where and with whom does kindness come easy?

Gracious God, we want to do more than simply be nice. We want to show your kindness to those around us – your unearned, unexpected, risk-taking kindness. We can only do this by your grace, so we ask you to grant it to us today by your Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tires and Trust

. . . then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life (1 Samuel 1:11).

How do you get people emotionally invested in tires?

You don’t do it by talking about the tires, even if the tires are very good. You don’t lead with mileage or warranties or the smooth ride that those tires provide to you as a driver or passenger. All of those things may be true, but they’re boring.

Some years ago one tire company discovered a brilliant way to connect their steel-belted ring of rubber with the human heart. They did it with a baby. They plopped a diapered little chunk of cuteness in the middle of their tire and slowly rotated the infant as he or she looked about with wonderment.

The message was quite effective. When the welfare of my little one is secured by riding on that tire, then that’s the tire I want.

I’m writing this on the day following my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. This morning she took a test and the State of Georgia issued her a permit to drive - the so-called “learner’s permit.” Maybe that’s why I’m remembering that tire commercial. I’m sensing a connection between my baby girl’s well-being and a set of tires.

I’m also aware that the tire company’s message, while effective, isn’t true. Ultimately a good set of tires can’t secure the well-being of anyone we love. Good tires are important, but they’re just tires. I’d like to think there’s something I could do or something I could buy or something I could say that would keep the people I love from any and all risk of harm. There’s not.

What I can do is pray and give those I love to God’s care. We find a model for this kind of praying in Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

For the longest time Hannah could not conceive a child. Then, as now, this was a source of great distress. Her prayers were mingled with bitter weeping. Hannah wasn’t shy about pleading with God. Storming heaven’s gates, she boldly promised that if God would grant her a son, “then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.” (1 Samuel 1:9-11).

This might strike us as a manipulative prayer – a mix of begging and bargaining. Not so with Hannah. What is truly remarkable about her prayer is that her promise wasn’t empty. She didn’t forget it once her son was born, claiming some kind of exemption because of her distressed state of mind.

What God gave to Hannah, Hannah gave back to God.

Eugene Peterson observes that when Hannah was happy when her son was born. And she was even happier when she took him back to the temple and gave him back to God in the service of the priest Eli. We can hardly imagine giving a child back to God. For us that kind of talk is a metaphor, a nice idea. For Hannah it was real. Samuel belonged to God, not to her.

We tend to sentimentalize babies, using the emotions they stir to sell tires and plenty of other things. How do we take the ones God has entrusted to us and give them back to God? How do we do this with other aspects of life – a career, a possession, a talent, a marriage?

Life comes to us by grace, all of it a gift. How will you give it back to God today?

All that this day brings to me, O God, I will offer back to you. Every plan, every relationship, every circumstance both expected and unexpected, I give back to you. And I place those I love in your care, knowing that you are good and what you do is good. Amen.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Learning and Thinking

You shall love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind (Matthew 22:37)

There is a difference between learning and thinking.

The two are certainly related. Each has some bearing on the other to a degree. You can’t really learn without thinking. When you think you will learn. But learning and thinking are not identical, especially when it comes to the life of faith.

I can honestly say that I’ve spent my entire life learning what it means to be a Christian. My faith formation and education began in the earliest months of my life in ways that I cannot remember. But years passed and the learning continued. There’s plenty that I do remember.

I learned to use my Bible by doing ‘sword drills’ on Sunday evenings at what we called ‘training union.’ Sword drills were basically a kind of race with Bibles, a skills exercise to see who was quickest at locating a scripture reference. I found sword drills to be somewhat humiliating because I never won. But I learned to handle my Bible nonetheless.

I learned hymns by hearing them and singing them week after week. I learned the content of scripture by hearing its stories told and preached. I learned to pray by hearing other people pray. I learned to listen to sermons by sitting in church next to my mother and being bored and drawing on the bulletin. I was learning to listen even when I wasn’t listening.

At the time I was not aware of learning anything at all. Now I look at all of that as a great gift.

But while I was blessed to learn the faith I don’t recall ever really thinking about the faith until I was in college. Somewhere in that season of my life I realized that I had learned to be a Christian without thinking about being a Christian. Like many, I started thinking about my faith when I was introduced to the works of C. S. Lewis. I remain deeply thankful for the teachers from whom I learned the faith, and the teachers who helped me think about the faith.

It is very common (and quite dangerous) to learn the faith without ever thinking about the faith. Perhaps less common (but equally dangerous) is careful and critical thinking about the faith that never leads to a personal knowledge of God.

Said another way, it is possible to learn the faith by custom and tradition and repetition. There is a learning that is passed from generation to generation, an affection for God that is almost acquired like an inheritance. But when such an inheritance is obtained without the rigor of thought it can be easily lost.

This week we’ll be thinking about what it means to love God with your mind. Jesus included the mind in his citation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Along with heart and strength, the mind is involved in truly and rightly loving God.

Two questions will get us started today: Who in your life most helped you learn what it means to be a Christian? And who in your life has helped you think about what it means to be a Christian?

Gracious God, we want to love you with all that we are – not just our affections and not just our actions, but with our minds as well. Be our teacher in these days by your Holy Spirit, we ask in the name of your Son. Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What are the 'Stations of the Cross'?

For the next four weeks at Peachtree Presbyterian Church we will gather at lunchtime on Thursdays to explore the 'Stations of the Cross.' You're encouraged to bring a lunch and a Bible.

The Details: 
Thursdays from 12:00 - 1:00 pm in room 2315
May 20, 27, April 3, 10

The Focus:
Many non-Catholic Christians are not familar wih the Stations of the Cross. This series will look at the background of the 14 stations, but the real focus will be on learning what it means to meditate or pray with the Biblical texts that tell the story of Christ's passion.

Questions: Call 404-842-3172   

Monday, March 17, 2014

Our Predicament

They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled . . . (John 18:28)

Everything was happening according to plan.

Jesus had been arrested in the dark of night, out of sight, away from the crowds with whom he was popular. After the arrest he had been taken to Annas and questioned. From there he had been marched to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest.

Plenty of scholars have carefully unpacked the trial of Jesus, following its sequence as narrated by the gospel writers and noting how it violated Jewish law. While all of that is interesting none of it changes the outcome. The Jerusalem religious establishment wanted Jesus dead and the only man with the authority to make that happen was Pilate. An appearance before him was the logical and necessary next step.

But there was a problem. To enter the headquarters of Pilate would render these Torah-observant accusers unclean. They would not be able to eat the Passover meal. In John’s gospel there is a remarkable moment in which those who are seeking to be rid of Jesus are suddenly very careful of being obedient to the law lest they be ceremonially unclean. In his excellent (and very thorough) commentary on John’s gospel, Dale Bruner notes the irony of staying pure for the Passover meal while handing over the true Passover lamb who would be slain for the sins of the world.

Perhaps this can’t be said often enough. Christianity is not the same thing as moral purity. Christianity is not the same thing as being attentive to religious practices. Being a Christian is about Jesus and the grace that is ours because of his death on the cross. None of us will stand before God with confidence because we carefully observed the practices of our religion. Our confidence is in Jesus, nothing else.

This week as we reflect on Jesus’s appearance before Pilate we will note how Pilate stood between the person of Jesus, the demands of some very religious people, the clamoring crowds in Jerusalem, and the power of Rome. He can’t find any fault or wrongdoing in Jesus, but he can’t please the crowds without giving him over.

We may look back on Pilate as a man who lack courage and conviction. But before we sit back and rest on some long-held conclusions, let’s face our own Pilate-like predicaments.

We too are often caught between the culture that surrounds us and the Christ that stands before us. We work hard to please people and meet the demands and expectations that come at us from all sides, while responding to what we know to be true in Jesus.

You may be standing in a Pilate-like predicament today. What voices in your life make it hard for you to deal seriously and honestly with who Jesus is?

We know how easy it is, O God, to work hard at being good rather than trusting in the grace that comes through the cross. And we know how hard it is to deal with Jesus in the midst of a clamoring culture. Help us to turn from empty religion and empty noise as we look to your son and him alone, the one in whose name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Plentiful Harvest

The harvest is plentiful . . . (Matthew 9:37)

Everything I know about crops and harvests I learned in the great state of North Carolina. Let me hasten to add, I know very little.

I learned mainly by watching and listening. As I recall, the most common crop in western Wake County at that time was tobacco, but the tobacco fields were beginning to disappear. Growers were having a harder time making money with that particular crop and developers were poised to buy the land.

On one occasion Marnie and I offered to help with the work of harvesting, or ‘priming’ tobacco. We lasted less than an hour. We were so slow and inept at the task that we were hindering the crew that actually knew what they were doing. It didn’t take long to learn that harvesting tobacco is not for the faint of heart or soft of hands.

Summers were not always kind to tobacco crops. When the skies were stingy with rain and the sun was brutal with its heat, the tobacco would wither and turn brown in the fields. An older member of my church told me that there was a time when the church held specially called prayer meetings to ask God for rain. She said they would come to those prayer meetings bringing their umbrellas – a bold act of faith. You didn’t need an agriculture degree from NC State to spot a bad crop, and there was something heartbreaking about the sight of an entire field of pale drooping plants.

Watching that annual rhythm of ‘setting out’ and ‘putting in’ tobacco comes to my mind when I read Jesus’s words about the harvest that God is bringing in.

Jesus used harvest language as he looked at crowds of people, crowds that were harassed and helpless, suffering with every disease and every affliction. But in the eyes of Jesus those afflicted masses of people were not expansive acres of a failed crop. Jesus looked upon them and saw a plentiful and healthy harvest.

So what do you see when you look at the world?

You don’t have to look too hard to be discouraged. Harassed and helpless masses along with every kind of affliction – economic, political, and social – are seen all over the globe. But Jesus tells us the fields are ‘white unto harvest.’ They are ripe and ready. I recently heard someone make the point that the harvest is just fine. God has long been at work in the world and the harvest is plentiful, ready to be gathered. What is needed are laborers.

But before the laborers are sent there are people praying. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38).

Bringing in the harvest requires people in the fields and people on their knees. Ideally, those who are in the fields are also on their knees and those who are on their knees get up and head to the fields. Either way, whether by praying or going, all of us are involved in bringing in this harvest.

God is at work in this world and the fields are ready. The harvest is healthy. Two questions remain: What do you see when you look at the world, and what will you do about what you see?

We ask you, O God, to send out laborers into the harvest. And help us to listen closely enough to know when you are sending us. Use us as you will, whether praying or going, and give us eyes to see a plentiful harvest in this world, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Exemplary in Affliction

. . . for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thess. 1:6-7).

While people will applaud your triumphs, they are far more likely to be helped by your troubles.

Our triumphs, however, get all the good press. We want people to know about the win. We’re quick to speak of the favorable circumstances, the success, the blessing that unexpectedly comes our way or the achievement that follows our hard work.

This is not to say that we’re prone to obnoxious boasting. That our triumphs are so easily shared is no surprise. We naturally delight in good news, and even if we’re selective in how we share it we want others to get in on the celebration. Our joy is heightened when others are around ‘in-joy’ it with us.

Not so with our troubles. As easily and as often as our triumphs are shared, our troubles are quietly tucked away, relegated to some remote corner of the soul.

There is a familiar proverb that says a companion can double your joys and halve your sorrows. Of course this assumes that that our sorrows are shared in the first place. That we too often keep them too ourselves is both a detriment to us and a loss to others. While people will look at our successes with admiration and sometimes envy, they are far more helped by seeing our afflictions and how we deal with them.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica he remarked on how they had become an exemplary church for the region. Their reputation had spread quickly not because of their power or wealth or great numbers. Rather, they were exemplary because of their troubles. They had borne up under pressure and endured affliction in a spirit of confident joy.

For this very reason the global church is exemplary for us today.

They are a model community for the affluent and technologized church in the western world. They model for us courage in the face of suffering. They evidence joy in the simple gift of community because they often do not possess the things in which we take joy. When we look around the world, especially today in places like Syria and Iran, we see Christians who know what it is to be afflicted. And we see Christians who are joyful nevertheless.

What was true of the Thessalonians, what is true today of the persecuted church, is true of your life. Your most powerful witness to the goodness and grace of God will not likely be seen in your wealth or your perfect family or your latest triathlon or your recent promotion. All of these things are wonderful and worthy of celebration. But people are most deeply impacted when they see affliction with joy.

Whatever affliction you’re carrying today, someone else is sharing that same struggle or one very much like it. You need not loudly flaunt your miseries – but don’t mask your troubles behind your triumphs.

Your affliction, mingled with the grace of confident hope and joy, is a powerful witness that others need to see. This is true in our world, and it is true where you live.

Grant us grace, O God, to bear affliction with a spirit of confident joy. Comfort us in trouble so that we can comfort others. And use our troubles as a powerful witness to your faithfulness and love, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2014


For we are God’s workmanship . . . (Ephesians 2:10)

What is it about kneeling that we do it so rarely?

A middle ground is hard to find. Some churches expect people to kneel often and provide a kneeler on every pew. Other churches pray every week without ever bending the knee.

Pastor and author Calvin Miller once quipped that God never looks bigger than when you’re on your knees. So in our church’s prayer room there is kneeling bench. On the bench there is a cushion. The bench is there because sometimes the weight that drives us to prayer can only be borne by kneeling.

For that reason a small group gathered a couple of months ago to ask God’s blessing on the prayer bench. The real focus of this gathering was the completion of the needlepoint cushion on which people would kneel.

The needlepoint work involved fourteen people and roughly nine-hundred hours of labor that spanned a year and a half. This doesn’t include the time required for an artist to create a sketch for the design that became a painted canvass that then became a stitch guide. The panels of the cushion were passed from one careful stitcher to the next. Each of them focused on a piece of the design until finally the stitching was completed, the panels of the cushion were assembled, and the cushion was mounted to the prayer bench.

On the day we gathered for our service of blessing and dedication several of the people who had worked on the cushion were present. Any one of them could have easily pointed to the section of the cushion they had helped bring to life with color. Without a doubt they remembered the meticulous labor, patiently pressing a thread into the design, pulling it through, practicing their art in precise repeated motions. One might safely say that an attention deficit disorder of any degree would make it nearly impossible to enjoy the craft of needlepoint.

What I noticed as I listened to this group of artisans admiring the finished cushion was that none of them spoke of the section they had done. They could have told if you’d asked – but nobody pointed at their own work. Instead, they all took pleasure in the whole.

Had a single thread stood out it probably would have been regarded as a flaw. No one boasted in a single thread. What they took delight in was the totality of thousands of threads, whether their own hands had pulled the needle or not.

God is a master craftsman. His work in the world is a great design and our lives become meaningful and beautiful when we belong to that design. Life is distorted and tiresome when we insist on calling attention to the one thread that is ‘me.’

For a couple of weeks we’ll be thinking about God’s mission in this world, his great design for all people, all nations. What does that design look like, and what would it mean for you to be a thread in God’s hand, woven into the work he is doing?

Maybe the best way to find out would be to ask; and as you ask, you might consider kneeling.

Gracious God, help us to see the larger picture, the great design of your work in this world. Bring us in on what you’re doing, pulling us into the fabric of your mission by the power of your Spirit, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Telling Time

. . . but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (Luke 12:56).

“I am the town clock-winder for Island Pond, Vermont.”

So wrote Garret Keizer in his fine memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. In his book Keizer reflects on his life as an Episcopal lay-pastor in a rural New England town. As the church’s solo pastor one of his duties was to climb into the steeple twice every week to wind the clock. This involved cranking two large spools of cable – one for the face of the clock and one for the bell that marked the hour.

Far from resenting such a mundane task, Keizer seems to delight in the insights he gleans from being the town’s clock-winder. One of his observations resonated with me as a very helpful picture of what we mean when we speak of a post-Christian world. He rescues the phrase from the academicians when he writes

The public keeping of time has passed from the church and possibly the municipal building to the branch bank. In most towns of any size that is the place to look for a digital display of the right time . . . It was logical for a church to tell people the time when one of the things they needed to know time for was when to pray, and when church feasts and holy days colored the calendar. Equally logical is it that a bank should tell the hours to a populace for whom time is not liturgical but financial, who inhabit a fiscal year broken into quarters and the maturation periods of certificates of deposit (p. 86).
Keizer seems to be saying that when the church steeple rang the hour it declared that time was sacred. The digital display in front of the bank declares that time is money.

Of greater significance than how we tell time is the shifting locus of authority in our world. Whether the hour is displayed at a bank or city hall or on a cell phone, the church has lost its voice in the ordering of the day, perhaps in the ordering of life.

I’ll go one step further with Keizer’s insight. Not only does the church no longer have voice in the ordering of time, the church’s organizational life now finds itself smothered in competition for the hours that belong to its own members. A persistent and insidious barrier to meaningful spiritual growth is the busy-ness of life, what John Ortberg has named ‘hurry sickness.’

Earlier today I heard the carillon bells in the steeple of the church where I serve ring the noon hour. I love hearing that sound from my office or from within our sanctuary. Sadly, the hundreds of cars blistering the asphalt on Roswell Road didn’t hear what I heard. The hearing requires some measure of stillness.

This is not to suggest that the only activities of the day that have spiritual significance are activities that happen inside a church building. Rather, what Keizer invites us to ponder is the way that faith is squeezed and choked in the post-Christian world’s use of time.

The question for all of us is not about how much time you spend at church – but how the church’s message shapes what you do with time.

How might you take your schedule for this day and make it holy offering unto the Lord?

Gracious God, “my times are in your hand” (Ps. 31:15). And not only my times but my time – the hours and minutes of this day that you’ve placed before me. Order my steps, making every minute yours, lived thankfully and for your glory through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A Spiritual 'Polar Vortex'

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering . . . (Hebrews 10:23).

I’ve added a new phrase to my vocabulary this week: ‘Polar Vortex’

I’m writing this on a day when I woke up to a temperature reading of 8 degrees. Some have said it was actually colder than that. The culprit: ‘Polar vortex’ – a system of strong counterclockwise winds that typically surround the northern pole. Somehow that mass of frigid air got lost and wandered down to Georgia.

Once things get this cold down here the actual temperature hardly matters. The simple truth is that we’re not equipped to deal with this kind of thing. As I write the skies are sunny and the roads, for the most part, are clear and dry – but area schools are closed. Our neighbors to the north mock this. But school administrators, not to mention parents, are not going to have kids waiting on busses in single digit temps. Said another way, few of us are dressed for the occasion.

But occasions like this are rare in these parts, and that’s the good news. This kind of weather is an anomaly. The polar vortex will soon make its way back where it belongs and the Sunbelt will get back to its comfortably ‘chilly’ winter.

I wish the same could be said for the spiritual climate in which we’re living these days.

A ‘religio-cultural’ polar vortex has moved into North America and Europe. Just as much of the country is in the grip on an arctic air mass, North America and Europe are in the grip of ‘Post-Christendom.’

There is however one significant difference. Post-Christendom is not going away. We will not soon be returning to a more familiar and Christianized culture in America and Europe. The climate has changed – and we had better learn how to dress for the occasion.

In his book Exiles, author and Professor Michael Frost says it like this:

There is barely a congregation or Christian organization that has not bemoaned the waning impact of the Christian story upon American or Western society. And although many Christian voices are calling us back to the days when the church occupied a position of power and influence over Western society, nobody with any real sense of history believes we can save Christendom . . . The Christendom era, like Rome, has fallen (pp. 6-7).
So what does this have to do with you? Given the climate we’re living in, there are two mistakes we need to avoid. One of those mistakes is to stay indoors. In the current climate there are Christians who dig in and hunker down. Their posture is protective and defensive. Their demeanor is anxious.

The second mistake is to try desperately to accommodate the climate. We humans can live with arctic air, but we can’t live in it – at least not for long. Well intentioned efforts to live in a post- Christian world can sometimes lead us to stop being truly Christian.

Following Jesus is an uncomfortable calling. It means living in tension – faithful to the gospel while loving our world. That’s what we want to be learning more about in the days to come.

So how are you doing in the current climate? Which of these two mistakes are you most likely to make?

We ask you, O God, to make us equal to the times in which we live. Keep us faithful to the gospel and fill us with compassion for this world. Remind us daily that you are alive and well in every climate, in every place. Sustain our hope, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.