Thursday, November 26, 2015

Touch Hands: A Thanksgiving Poem

Thanks to Dr. John Roark for sharing this poem. I can't verify authorship. A nearly identical poem is attributed to James Patrick Erdman. 

Touch Hands
As years go on and heads turn gray
how fast the guests do go.
Touch hands, touch hands with those who stay -
young hands to old, strong hands to weak -
around the Thanksgiving board touch hands.

The False forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go
and every fire burn low, and cabin empty stand.
Forgive, forget - for who may say Thanksgiving Day
will ever come again for friend or foe alike.
Touch hands!


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"How Can Something I'm So Bad At Be God's Will for My Life?"

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:16-18). 

Full disclosure: The words above that make up the title of this reflection are borrowed. Shamelessly ripped off.

They come from one of my favorite books on prayer, a volume by David Hansen titled Long Wandering Prayer: An Invitation to Walk with God. By far the most memorable words of the book – or at least the words that somehow lodged in my memory – are the words that that I borrowed and placed at the top of this page. This is title six of the book. “How can something I’m so bad at be God’s will for my life?”

Great question. I’ve never said it quite that way but I’ve wondered the same thing. Maybe you have too.

Are We There Yet?
Let’s get specific. Hansen is talking about prayer. The Bible instructs us to “pray without ceasing,” but that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. I don’t always feel competent or confident in my praying. Why then does God will that I do this? It seems like there would be a closer connection between God’s will and my skill.

Hang on - there’s more. The short verse that tells us to pray without ceasing is followed immediately by another short verse that tells us to give thanks. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Turns out I’m not any better at always giving thanks than I am at ceaseless praying.        

This week marks the more-or-less official launch of the Holiday season. On Thursday we will celebrate a day of ‘Thanksgiving.’ For some ‘Thanksgiving’ is little more than a synonym for ‘food and football.’ For others, the day is an occasion to genuinely express gratitude. And then there are those for whom the day poses a difficult challenge. 

The scripture says to give thanks in all circumstances – but maybe you’re just not there right now. At some level the next 48 hours loom hard and painful because your reservoir of gratitude is bone dry. You know that the Bible says to be thankful; you tell yourself you should be thankful. But for whatever reason, thankfulness seems elusive this year. So how can something you’re so bad at be God’s will for your life?

If you’re just not there yet, how can you get to gratitude?

Thinking Hard and Thanking Well
Some time ago I did a memorial service for a man whom I did not know, not an uncommon thing for pastors to do. When I asked his daughter to tell me about her Dad she handed to me a ten page type written document. Years before his death her Dad had written a brief history of the most significant moments of his life, beginning with his birth in the late 1930s.

The year by year synopsis contained not one word of religious language, but as I read it God’s grace and mercy kept showing up in his story, laced through the years. Did he see it or recognize it or know what to name it? Did he know where and who it came from? I believe so. But whether he ever named it grace or not – that’s exactly what it was.         

You don’t have to type a ten page document, but maybe we get to gratitude by thinking hard about our life and discerning the gifts that we cannot explain or take credit for (can we take credit for anything?). We make a mistake if we expect thanksgiving to well up within us naturally, a geyser of positive emotion and good will. You may feel like you’re bad at giving thanks. But we don’t give thanks because we’re good at it. We give thanks because God is good to us. 

Thanking well just might require thinking hard about your life, sighting and naming evidences of grace. Can you see them in your story this week?

Apart from your grace, O God, our hearts are not inclined to gratitude. To give thanks in all things, we need the help of your Spirit, opening our eyes to mercies that come to us with each new day. Help us to see them, and make us thankful, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Myth of a Safe Distance

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people . . . and I have come down to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8)

Last month during a two week pilgrimage in the Holy Land, our itinerary took us to a site referred to in the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi. Today the site is called ‘Banias.’

Traveling to Caesarea Philippi takes you into the mountainous region of extreme northern Israel called the Golan Heights. On this day our guide and driver navigated a narrow road that led to a scenic overlook, allowing us an expansive view into Syria. This place is designed for tourists, complete with a gift shop and refreshment vendors. Signs marking the Syrian border were only a few yards away from where we stood.  

What we saw from that mountain belied everything I had been hearing in the news about Syria. The day was bright and warm, the skies were clear, and the view that stretched out in front of us appeared calm, even inviting.

The view was beautiful. Until we heard the explosions.

Our Desire for Distance
Initially I wasn’t sure I had heard what I thought I had heard. But soon the sounds came again, and then again, and on the far horizon a plume of smoke was rising. This otherwise picturesque scene was marred by the sights and sounds of war. What had previously been only a brief news report was now very real to us. We were looking at a ravaged land. What Americans regard as a horrific anomaly happens every day in Syria.

I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of those explosions. And I’ll never forget my reaction to what I heard and saw. I wasn’t afraid. None of us were directly threatened by what was happening. Some of our group spoke with UN observers there who were watching with stoic and objectified interest.

More than fear I felt a sadness, quickly followed by a strong desire to leave. I just wanted to get away from that place. I wanted to get back to the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee, the comfort of my hotel room, and ultimately back home. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and Syria as I possibly could.

Of course, millions of Syrians are trying to do the very same thing.

The Enemy of Justice                      
Distance can take a variety of forms. The most obvious is literal physical distance. Damascus and Atlanta are separated by a large ocean and more than six thousand miles. I can hear about what’s happening there, feel concern and sympathy, while also feeling removed and grateful that it isn’t happening here. Distance can also be emotional. You can be right in the middle of something and yet be disconnected, aloof. You’re there, but you’re not present.

The Hebrew prophets admonished God’s people for failing to do justice. Distance doesn’t look like hostile disregard for others, but it allows us to be aware without being impacted. For this reason, distance is the enemy of justice.

The attacks in Paris over the weekend disturb us not only for the tragic loss of life involved, but for the loss of our imagined distance from the reach of threat and danger. There are awful things happening in this world, and we want all the distance from them that we can get.

But to truly do justice requires getting close, getting involved, getting in the mess of our unjust world. That’s not to say you need to go to Syria. There’s plenty of mess right where you live. Our God is not a distant God. God sees the plight of his people and hears their cries. God may not act as speedily as we wish – but neither will he remain aloof and removed from this world.

Distance is the enemy of justice. How will you walk with God through this day, drawing near to what is broken, bringing wholeness, doing justice?

Merciful and just God, you draw near to those in affliction and those who walk with you must do the same. We confess that we prefer a safe distance that lets us feel concern without getting involved. Grant us the courage we need to draw near to our broken world, bringing the wholeness and justice that comes through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.   

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Living with Expectancy

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?" Jesus said, “Have the people sit down” . . . (John 6:8-9)

Consider this question and respond on a scale of 1-10: As you begin this day (or continue to move through it, depending on when you read this), how would you rate your level of expectancy?

Read the question one more time. Slowly. Note that you are not being asked about your level of excitement about your day. Excitement and expectancy are not the same thing.

Excitement is a pleasure response to what the day holds for us. When we see good things ahead, we’re excited about the day. When the calendar has us engaging with people we really enjoy or doing things that bring us deep satisfaction, we sense within ourselves an eagerness to engage what’s in front of us. The pleasures we see and the energy we feel, we name excitement.

Some of you are looking at your day, and the last thing you feel right now is excitement. Boredom, possibly. Dread, hopefully not. But excitement? Hardly.

“Have the People Sit Down”
Expectancy is a cousin to excitement, but not an identical twin. They share a common sense of ‘looking forward’ to something, but being expectant doesn’t require being excited. Expectancy grows in mystery, in the unknown or unclear spaces of what you’re dealing with. Being expectant means you know that something is about to happen – you just don’t know exactly what it is.    

This week we’ve been thinking about how Jesus fed an enormous crowd of people with a boy’s sack lunch – five barley loaves and two fish to be precise. Jesus had presented his disciples with the problem of how these people would be fed, where they would get enough bread to go around. John allows us an insider take on the story. Jesus is asking a question, but he already knows what he will do (Jn. 6:6).

Once this meager meal has been placed in Jesus’ hands, he gives a word of instruction to his disciples. “Have the people sit down.”

This is the expectant moment. Philip and Andrew and the others have no idea what Jesus is about to do. The problem they face has not gone away. The crowd in front of them is still large. The only food they have on hand is still worthless to make a difference. But in all of this there is Jesus.

More than We Imagine
To live our days with expectancy means this: our problems don’t go away, but Jesus is with us. And while we don’t know exactly what Jesus will do, we know he will do something.

As the disciples urged people to sit down, spread a cloak or a blanket and get comfortable, Jesus offered a prayer of thanksgiving and began passing the bread. And he kept passing it. He kept on for a long while.

He kept passing bread until everyone was fed – not only fed but full. They didn’t get a quick snack. They received a meal and they had as much as they wanted (6:11-12). When Philip and Andrew were seating the multitude, they had no idea that Jesus would do what he did. To borrow words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Jesus did “more than they could ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

That’s what Jesus does. And that’s why you can live this day expectantly, whether you’re excited about your day or not. Place your life in his hands and watch for what he will do.

Just like the small lunch that was entrusted to your hands, Lord Jesus, I give to you all that this day holds and all that concerns me. You know what you will do, and that truth alone is enough for me. I will wait and watch expectantly, knowing that you are good and what you do is good. Amen.  

Monday, November 02, 2015

Claiming Exemptions

Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:9)

For years I claimed an exemption – and I’m not talking about my income taxes.

Claiming this exemption wasn’t something that required me to fill out a form. I was never asked to present proper documentation. I never had to report it to anyone in anyway. I simply claimed it. I claimed it every week when I sat in church and didn’t give. I claimed it every year when an opportunity came to make a commitment as to what I would give in the coming year and I chose not to participate.

It’s remarkably easy to claim spiritual exemptions. We do it all the time.

Just Getting By?
The scriptures tell us to praise God, to come into his presence with singing, to be careful lest we neglect the habit of gathering with other followers of Jesus. But we claim a worship exemption. We gladly gather with others to worship as long as our weekend plans allow it. But once the guests or the game or the get-away is planned we’re exempt, right?

Scripture tells us to pray without ceasing, to pray at all times in the Spirit, to give thanks in all things, to go into our closet and pray to our God. But when the meeting is scheduled for early morning and we haven’t had enough sleep or we need to get in our work-out because the afternoon and evening hours are booked, we claim a prayer exemption. We know prayer is important, but when life gets a little crazy we’re exempt, right?

And then there’s the giving exemption. I’ll speak for myself. I claimed this exemption for one very simple reason: I didn’t have any money. Throughout college and most of seminary, the jobs I had were part-time jobs. In seminary I worked part-time at a bookstore for a few years and then I had a weekend pastorate that paid my rent and bought food. It’s not like I was blowing a wad every week at the Mall. I was just getting by.

And when you’re just getting by, you’re exempt, right?

Cheating Ourselves
Not according to Paul. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was addressing a congregation that included slaves who really had no income at all. The NIV language that says “according to your income” isn’t very accurate. Better to say “as God has prospered you.” Paul includes everyone in his call for an offering. No exemptions.

The two most famous offerings given in the Bible came from marginalized people who didn’t have much. There’s the widow who gave two small coins, all she had to live on. And then there’s the boy who gave his bag lunch: five loaves and two fish.

The story of the boy’s lunch is familiar to many: Jesus is teaching, a crowd of thousands is gathered. In John’s version of the story, Jesus tests his closest followers by presenting them with a challenging circumstance: “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” The disciples scouted the crowd and came up with a boy and his lunch.

This boy gave what he had. It wasn’t much. Jesus took the gift and fed a multitude. Big miracles happen with small gifts.  Maybe we need to ponder this story before we claim a giving exemption. Jesus blesses people through the gifts of other people. Jesus didn’t magically produce food for the crowd. He took a gift of food – and a small gift at that – and used it feed many.
When we claim an exemption, God is not deprived of what we have. Rather we are deprived of the chance to be involved in the miracle of what God is doing in this world.

In the end, claiming a giving exemption saves us very little and costs us a great deal.             

I want to be a part of what you are doing in this world, O God. I want to be in on the miracle – and yet I hold myself back. I find ways to rationalize my fear. I quickly defend my lack of obedience. I want to stop claiming exemptions and making excuses. Make me bold to offer what I can. Use it as you will to the glory of your name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

When Life is 'All Rehearsal'

 . . . you have abandoned the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4)

“If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good.”
With those words Stephen King concluded a story about his son Owen, told in King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. When Owen was about seven years old he discovered Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and became particularly captivated by the saxophone skills of Clarence Clemons. Owen decided he wanted to play the sax – just like Clarence. Eager to encourage his interest in music and hopeful that their son harbored a talent for the saxophone, King and his wife secured an instrument and signed Owen up for lessons.

Less than a year later King and his wife agreed that it was time to discontinue the lessons. Owen agreed too. In fact, he seemed relieved to be done with that brief musical experiment.

King explains that he knew the gig was up “not because Owen stopped practicing, but because he only practiced during the periods that his teacher had for him.” As soon as the thirty-minute practice assignment ended, the sax went back in the case and stayed there until the next assigned period. King says he never saw his son simply get caught up in the saxophone, trying something new, lingering with the instrument for the sheer joy of it.

“There was never any real play-time. It was all rehearsal.” King adds, “That’s no good – if there’s no joy in it, it’s no good.” (pp. 149-150). 

A Heart Problem
There’s something about life that tends gradually and imperceptibly toward becoming “all rehearsal.” Which is to say, there are endeavors that we begin with zeal and enthusiasm only to one day discover we’re continuing with just enough energy to get by. We do what’s expected – and then the sax goes back in the case, if you will.

This kind of thing happens professionally, launching a career with dreams and vision only to later settle in to the demands of earning a paycheck. The tendency toward ‘rehearsal’ happens in marriages – and good marriages at that. Two people spend their best hours shoulder to shoulder, taking on the world, rarely pausing to linger face to face. They’re doing what needs to be done.

And the same thing happens often and easily to the life of faith. Exhibit ‘A’ in the New Testament is the church in Ephesus as described in Revelation 2:1-5.   

There was much to admire in the Ephesian church. They were hard working and courageous, persevering in a difficult context, doing good things in the city. They took doctrine seriously and didn’t have much patience for posers – teachers who claimed to be apostles but were fakes. Their minds were keen to detecting false teaching.

Their actions were good and worthy, their doctrine was sound. But something was missing. They had a heart problem – abandoning the love they had at first while working hard and guarding truth.

Stephen King is right. That’s no good. If there’s no joy (or love) in it, it’s just no good.

Don’t Settle
If this sounds like your faith life – doing what needs to be done, meeting expectations, giving your best efforts to good things and believing the right things, but all without love or joy at the center of it – if this is you, there are a couple of things you need to know.

First, you are in good company. What you are experiencing is as old the New Testament church. The slow and inexorable loss of joy in God has plagued God’s people for a very long time.

Second, you don’t have to resign yourself to living that way as if ‘all rehearsal’ is the norm and joy is a fleeting, short-lived anomaly.

So how do you reclaim the love you had at first? What does it take to wake up every day and walk with God joyfully? These are important questions because in the Bible love and joy are not merely encouraged, they are commanded.

You can reclaim that love you had at first. This week we’ll be thinking about how.      


Gracious God, we want our lives to be more than getting by, more than ‘all rehearsal.’ We want to live this day and every day with the love and joy we had at first. Show us how to reclaim it – and then live it in this city, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hard to Hide

He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exodus 2:11-15).

He thought he was safe there. 

In Midian Moses had found the kind of obscurity that allowed an outlaw to live a normal life.  There he had embarked on his career as a shepherd, married the daughter of the local priest, and started a family.  His son’s name might have reflected something about how Moses regarded life in Midian: Gershon means “I have become an alien in a foreign land.”

Every time the boy was introduced, people heard, “I don’t belong here.”  And that might have been exactly how Moses felt. 

The Illusion of Distance

Moses wasn’t sure where he belonged. For most of his life he had been cocooned in Egyptian royalty.  His aristocratic upbringing hadn’t prepared him well for life in Midian – but that unfortunate incident in which he murdered an Egyptian task-master changed everything.  Moses was a wanted man back in Egypt and Midian seemed as good a place as any to settle. 

What Midian offered Moses was distance: Distance from one of the biggest mistakes he had ever made; distance from his past; distance from his failure; distance from threat and shame.  In Midian Moses thought he was safe.

How strange then that in the far side of the desert, in a remote and hardscrabble place, God shattered Moses’ illusion of safety and obscurity.  Near Mt. Horeb – a word that means “desolate” – God shrunk the distance that Moses had tried to put between himself and Egypt, between the man he used to be and the man he had actually become. God found Moses in that barren, distant place. There God spoke words that would change Moses’s plans and redefine his identity and force him from hiding.

God Finds Us          

The story of Moses’s early life is full of failed attempts at hiding. Moses’s mother tried to hide him among the reeds in the river when he was a baby. That didn’t work. Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby. Later, as a young man. Moses killed and Egyptian and tried to hide him in the sand. That didn’t work either. The deed was known among the Hebrews. Forced to Midian as a fugitive, Moses tried to hide among the flocks in a backwater place. Again, nice try – but even in that place after forty years, Moses was found.    

Try as we might, it’s hard to hide from God. God did not put you on this earth to hide. And the work it takes to conceal and cover up is not worthy of your life. 

God has a way of finding us.  A colossal lapse of judgment may ruin your plans, but it doesn’t disqualify you from being a part of what God has planned for you.  In those moments when you’re no longer sure who you are, God knows you right down to your fingerprints.  When you’re busy getting distance from something that’s in your past, God is getting you ready for something yet to come. 

There’s no place you can be or go to that will put you beyond God’s reach.  When you’re not giving God a second thought, God finds you and speaks purpose and direction into your life.  The challenge of everyday is simply being ready to hear.

 “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up the heavens you are there.  If I make my bed in the depths you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Amen. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Break Up Your Fallow Ground

He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9).

I can’t remember the last time I used the word “fallow.”

Since the most natural context for the word is agricultural, and since I don’t work the land for a living, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word at all. Not that my daily activities preclude incorporating the word “fallow” here and there. It just sounds odd, out of place.

I attend a fair amount of meetings, most of which are spoken of with other adjectives. Meetings are said to be productive, informative, boring, long - the list goes on. Never have I left a meeting and said, “That was a fallow meeting.” No, fallow belongs most comfortably to the earth. It is a truly dirty word.

Fallow ground is ground that holds promise. The earth has been plowed but not seeded. The dirt is prepared but nothing has been planted. The potential for growth and life is present, but nothing has been sown there. And so it is with our heart.

A Nagging Question  

The parable of the sower, or the soils if you prefer, is the only parable that Jesus explains. For Jesus to follow his story with a small group seminar on what the story means is very helpful. Jesus unpacks the images, showing us how each soil reflects something about how people receive the proclamation of the Kingdom.

As helpful as Jesus’s explanation is, it leaves me unsettled. The story seems to suggest that some people will never understand. Mathematically speaking, only one-fourth of those who hear will bear fruit or manifest evidence that God’s word is actively making a difference in their life.

That Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 doesn’t make things any simpler. Some folks see but never truly see. They hear but never understand. And that’s that.

So will the other three-fourths of people who hear the gospel, the good news, just never get it? Can a resistant hard-packed heart become fertile ground for the word of God? This question nags at me.

The Work and Miracle of Hearing

If Paul was right in telling us that we were all once dead in our trespasses and sins, lifeless and unresponsive until God in mercy made us alive, then the answer to that nagging questions has to be ‘yes’ (Eph. 2:1-10). Every heart was once hard-packed, unyielding as concrete. That God’s word ever brought forth life in us is a miracle. A work of Grace. A valley of dry bones standing up in ranks like warriors (Ezek. 37).

Through the prophet Hosea God urged his people to “break up your fallow ground.” Prepare yourselves and sow what is good and right in order to reap a harvest that is good and right. How are we to do this? How do we get to work cultivating the soil of the heart?

Three Things to Do

First, get honest about the condition of your own heart as it is today. Are you resistant or hostile to God’s word? Are you open, but not deeply rooted, withering in the slightest adversity or affliction? Is your heart crowded with anxieties and desires for other things, drawn to world rather than the word?

Second, get serious about engaging God’s word. Open your Bible and read it. Engage the word in community through a small group or a class. Engage the word in worship as it is proclaimed week by week. Make a plan, set aside time, and get after it.

Finally, get started by asking God to do what only God can do. Begin with a simple prayer: “God, give me ears to hear whatever you want to say to me through your word.” 

Heed the prophet. “Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12). You can’t bring forth life by your own efforts. You cannot make it rain. But you can prepare the ground.

Grant to us, O God, the miracle of hearing. Bless your word and let it find good soil in our hearts and lives. And make us ready to do the work of preparing the ground, expectant and eager for you to speak life into us through Jesus our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Alabaster Jar

. . . she broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3-9)

As far as I know I’ve never seen an alabaster jar.

True, I probably wouldn’t know alabaster from aluminum, but I’m pretty sure my house is an alabaster free zone. As the gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’s anointing in Bethany, Mark provides a detail not found in John’s narrative: the alabaster jar.

Both stories mention the pure nard – an ointment made from a plant found primarily in India and thus quite expensive. John says there was a pound of it, roughly 12 ounces of perfume. Enough to fill a soft drink can. But only Mark mentions the alabaster jar. James Brooks, a New Testament scholar, describes the ‘jar’ as a flask with a long thin neck, no handles. This was no common or ordinary vessel. Both container and contents were quite valuable.

And this is what Mary broke. There’s no hint of a screw top or flip lid that allowed for a dainty squeeze of ointment like a dab in the hand. Mary broke this alabaster jar, and once broken the contents had to be used entirely. Poured out. Nothing stored away for future use. Nothing held back.

I can’t find any alabaster jars in my house. But my life is full of them. Unlike Mary, I am reluctant to shatter them and pour out what they hold or represent to me.

Our Treasures Exposed

The biblical text tells us nothing about the alabaster jar beyond the valuable perfume within it. Our imaginations provide details omitted by the gospel writers. Perhaps this jar was kept on a shelf, maybe in a drawer, maybe in a box hidden beneath the bed. Was it a family heirloom? Was it a gift with a fascinating backstory?

The Bible doesn’t tell us, and we should be cautious in speculating where the text is silent. We know nothing about the alabaster jar except this: once Mary broke it, it was empty. Once emptied, there was nothing left to keep. One treasure was sacrificed for a greater treasure. And this gave rise to the criticism from Judas.

Mary treasured Jesus. Judas treasured, well . . . treasures. Money. The value of a dollar.

Devotion to Jesus will redefine what we treasure in this life. And quite often it will expose what we truly treasure in this life. I think that’s what this story does to me. It reveals how my heart clutches at certain things, unwilling to let them go, to pour them out for the sake of a yet greater treasure. 

Jars Carefully Guarded

Perhaps in every human soul there’s a shelf or drawer that holds carefully protected alabaster jars. These are things that we regard as the source of our joy and security. We hold them tightly and tuck them away. Maybe we put them on display for others to see. In doing this we forget that these things came to us as a gift and we hold them back from the giver.

What does it mean to let Jesus have your career?

What would it mean to trust Jesus with the well-being of your family?

What would it mean to relinquish your dating life (or lack of the same)?

What would it mean to open your hands and release your claim on your plans for your future?

You can probably come up with plenty of Judas-like rebuttals and reasons for why the questions I just asked are stupid questions. But don’t reason yourself out of the point of the matter – knowing Jesus as the highest treasure of your life. Your deepest devotion. Your greatest good.

Name the thing you treasure and bring it before a greater treasure. And then pour it out. Like the fragrance that filled the room of that house in Bethany, the impact of your surrendered and devoted life can go far and do much.

Don’t leave that boxed up and hidden away

Gracious God, we are prone to clutch our lives tightly, even though all good things come from you. Teach us to live yielded and surrendered to you, bringing our treasures to you as our highest treasure. We pour this day out before you asking you to work in us and through us according to your will, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Before You Walk Away

But he did not answer her a word . . . (Matt. 15:23).

My crisis of faith, if you can call it that, was a quiet one. An inward and well-behaved rebellion.

I am the son of a Baptist preacher. Better said, I am the son of a Baptist preacher-evangelist. He began preaching early in his life, learning his craft in tent revivals. Even as a pastor in carpeted sanctuaries the evangelist was present. He preached to call people to decision, to bring people to Jesus.

I heard such sermons of his from the first weeks of my life. Early in my eighth year, the call to
decision came to me in a direct and compelling kind of way. Not long after, my Dad placed one strong hand on my back and gently held a handkerchief over my face as he lowered me into the waters of baptism. “Buried with him in his death . . . raised to walk in newness of life.”

My crisis of faith had to do with that newness of life part. About ten years or so after my baptism, that newness of life didn’t feel so new. I wasn’t sure if such a thing had ever been true of me at all.

A Nagging Suspicion

A nagging suspicion was growing in the shadowed corners of my heart and mind. I knew the story of Jesus like I knew the freckles on my arms. I knew the church world just as well. And as I grew a bit bored with all of these familiarities it occurred to me that the only reason any of it meant anything to me at all was simply an accident of birth.

My first birth, landing me in a Baptist parsonage, had shaped my life far more than the new birth and the newness of life that I stepped into when I walked out of the baptistery. That’s what I thought. I had real questions as to whether I was or ever had been a Christian at all. Such was the quiet crisis of faith.

There’s no space to tell about what came after that. That was more than 30 years ago. I’m still hanging around the church, teaching, writing stuff like this, being a pastor. I love it. Let’s just say that by the grace of God I muddled through.

But I’m convinced that there’s nothing special or unique about my story. I’m equally convinced that there are plenty of others who don’t muddle through.

Hold Your Ground

Plenty of people grow up in a church with devout parents. They go to Sunday school and VBS. They do the youth group thing complete with summer camps and spiritual mountain top moments. And then something happens.

Maybe they just go to college. Maybe they take a class in Bible from someone with a Ph.D in religion but little regard for faith. Or maybe it’s more serious than that. They get into the world. They lose a job or can’t find one to begin with. Their marriage ends badly. They get sick. Still worse, their child gets sick.                        

Whatever it is, the Sunday school faith of cute songs and crayons proves inadequate. The faith of their childhood looks childish. They may not despise it, but they drop it. They walk away.

A woman came to Jesus with a sick daughter. She came pleading for mercy, pleading for her child. And Jesus was silent. He didn’t answer. He didn’t act. He did nothing to encourage her. In fact, he made things difficult. And she stayed. She held her ground. She pressed her case.

The silence of Jesus is often an invitation, an invitation to discover more of who he is and what he is like, an invitation to more grace or possibly a miracle. Why not trade your childhood faith for a mature resolve to follow Jesus?

Stay put. Press your case. Hold your ground. Don’t walk away.


For the very first gift of your grace that drew us close to you, O God, we give you thanks. For those through whom it came to us, we praise you. Now grant us grace to persevere, to grow to maturity, to hold our ground in your silences trusting that you will our good. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Found and Known

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem (John 5:1).

When I was a child Easter meant something other than ‘new life.’ Easter meant ‘new clothes.’

For whatever reason, the week or days before Easter was a time for my mom to take us shopping for clothes, church clothes to be precise. The shopping expedition for school clothes came at the end of summer. Easter was the season for worship-wear, stiff and scratchy fabrics and sometimes hard-soled boring shoes.

I guess this was one way I knew that Easter was a big deal. “He is risen . . . and I have a new suit.”

What a Depressing Place

Easter Sunday may the closest thing we have to what John calls “a feast of the Jews.” On Easter Sunday the crowds swell, the parking lot is full, the music is big, there’s a special offering, and after the worship there is feasting with family.

So it was with feast days in Jerusalem. The population of the city exploded with pilgrims who had come for worship and celebration. Special offerings and sacrifices were made. And there was food. Food and family.

In John 5 we are told that Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. What is missing here is any mention of exactly which feast it was. Leviticus 23 designates the feasts which Israel was to observe, but John shows no interest in telling us which of these was being celebrated in Jerusalem when Jesus went to the pool of Bethesda. From the time of the Church Fathers opinions have ranged from Pentecost to Purim to Passover. Calvin explores the options in his commentary on John and then concludes “I will not dispute the matter.” I’ll go with Calvin on this one.

What John is very clear about is the pool: it is located near the sheep gate; in Aramaic it is called ‘Bethesda.’ John provides architectural detail in mentioning the five roofed colonnades. And he tells us about the people who gathered there. This was where ‘a multitude of invalids’ congregated – blind, lame, paralyzed. What a depressing and disgusting place.

And yet, in the midst of this city, pulsating with crowds and the sounds and rhythms of worship and celebration, this is where Jesus went.

Will We Do the Same?

In our church we have no special seating section for the broken among us. There’s no pew, no balcony, marked ‘invalids.’ But every week, in each and every gathering, they are among us.

Indeed, there really are no entirely whole and put-together people in any worship gathering. We all bring something that’s injured, something that isn’t working right, something that hurts.

But in our gatherings – at Easter and Christmas and any ordinary Sunday – we do a good job of concealing those wounds. We do it with clothes and smiles. We do it with quiet anonymity in a large crowd of worshipers.

What we conceal, Jesus sees. In the midst of the ‘feast,’ the throng of people and the sounds of worship and celebration, Jesus finds his way to the ones who aren’t celebrating.

The question is whether we will do the same. That might be hard, not unlike playing “Where’s Waldo,’ looking for someone who wants to be made well. And it also means that we ourselves have experienced the grace that Jesus gives.

Walking with Jesus will take us to the pool where broken multitudes spend their days. For those who have been found and known and made well, there’s just no getting around it.


In our worst moments, O God, you find us. You know who we are and you seek us out, offering us grace and wholeness. Grant that we would walk with you this day in the same way, seeking those whom you are seeking through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Will Make Us Well?

“Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up . . .” (John 5:7).

When my kids were small they couldn’t get enough of the pool.

We were there all the time. I would get home from work and the begging would begin and off we’d go. Weather was irrelevant. What felt to me like cloudy and cool in late spring was still good pool weather as far as my kids were concerned. They didn’t think twice about plunging in even if the frigid water made their teeth chatter.

No more. My kids enjoy the pool often enough these days, but now it’s a social thing. It’s all about who’s going to be there. No friends, no pool. And showing up with Dad is not cool. I spend far less time pool-side these days.

But like the man by the pool of Bethesda, I know what it is to sit by the pool waiting on something to happen that will make me well. 

The Not-Valid Ones

This week we’ll walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, to the pool of Bethesda. In John’s story the pool was a gathering place for all kinds of afflicted people. The ESV Bible says that the place was occupied by a “multitude of invalids.”

That particular English word suggests something more than ‘sick’ or ‘crippled.’ They were the not-valid ones – and this is a widespread illness, even now. Far too many people live with a sense of being ‘not valid,’ and they are waiting for something to validate them – something that will say they matter, they are worthy.    

John tells us that when the waters of the pool were stirred or agitated, the first person to get into the pool would be healed. There is a tradition that says an angel would come and stir the waters. Some scholars have suggested that underground springs caused the bubbling effect. Either way, people believed that healing was in the pool. The afflicted who gathered there waited and hoped, yearning for the wholeness that could come from those waters.

Nothing Else Needed

In this sense, we all know what it is to sit by the pool. Some of us have been there longer than others. The pool is whatever we’re waiting on that will validate us. The pool is whatever we are looking to for a sense of wholeness. The pool, we believe, will make everything OK.

That pool might be a new job or a new house. It might be a promotion or a deal that closes. Sometimes the pool is a husband or wife . . .  or perhaps a different husband or wife. For many the pool is a big break or a sought after breakthrough, a final payment or the last treatment.

In John’s story Jesus shows up and basically says, “Forget about the pool.” He ignores it – the bubbling water and the race to get there first – all of it. Wholeness is found in Jesus. He doesn’t come to help anyone get to the pool. He brings healing directly to us and he does it by speaking. The presence of Jesus is powerful and he grants healing by his word. Jesus doesn’t show to give us some help in getting to what will make us well. He is sufficient for our healing, nothing else needed.        

But first, a question: “Do you want to be well?” That question sits silently behind all of our reflections this week. Today let’s focus on this: Where is your ‘pool?’ And how long will you sit there?

We have spent far too much time, O God, sitting by ‘pools’ that we believed would make us well. Find us in those places, we pray, and make us whole by the power of your word and the gift of your presence in our lives. Call our attention away from what cannot heal. Turn our eyes toward your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Our Heavy Steps

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem . . . Jesus himself drew near and went with them (Luke 24:13-15).


No one knows for sure where Emmaus is.

You could catch a plane this afternoon and fly to Tel-Aviv, rent a car and make the short drive to Jerusalem, but that’s about as close as you’d get to Emmaus. Luke tells us that this village was about seven miles from Jerusalem, but he didn’t see fit to provide us with anything we could search for on a GPS. Scholars have offered some possibilities in their studied attempts to identify Emmaus. But guesses are the best we can do.

We don’t know where Emmaus is, and yet we’ve been there. Emmaus is the direction our lives take when we live our days disappointed and let down. Emmaus is where we go when hope is fragile or abandoned altogether.

The Emmaus road is marked by footprints pressed deep in the dirt. It is the way of the heavy step.


A Familiar and Forlorn Way

You may be walking the Emmaus road today. Obviously, that’s not meant as a geographical statement. The roads you’ll be on today may be the same roads that you’re on every day – getting to work or to the grocery store or to the carpool line. You’ve know those roads well.

But today you traverse those roads with a heavy step. You’re carrying with you the weight of disappointment. Hopes and expectations that just days ago were on the threshold of becoming reality have vanished, for whatever reason. In their place are confusion, questions, despondency. And so you travel familiar roads that now seem strange.

That’s what Luke describes for us when he tells about Cleopas and another unnamed follower of Jesus making their way back to Emmaus soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. They had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the story of God’s deliverance. They had gone their anticipating that a new deliverance was in the works and that Jesus would be the one to accomplish it.

None of that happened. The celebrations went south. Jesus was executed. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). Those hopes were now trashed. Time to go back to Emmaus. They walked a well-known road, this time with a heavy step and forlorn faces.

And then Jesus drew near and walked with them.         


What Might Have Been

Our disappointments have a way of clouding our vision. The more frequent they are, thickening like a cataract on the soul, the harder it is for us to see that Jesus is walking with us.

This seems especially so when our hopes are closely connected to what we believe about God and God’s ways with us. Maybe there’s something you’ve prayed about for a long time. Maybe there’s someone you’ve prayed for year after year. And maybe, for some reason, you’re hope is gone. Your prayers now seem wasted, even foolish.       

In Mark 5 a man named Jairus begged Jesus to come and heal his little girl. Jesus agreed to go with him – but on the way there two servants intercepted them and broke the news to Jairus. Your daughter is dead. And then they added this line: “Why bother the teacher any further?” (Mk. 5:35)

But Jesus invited Jairus to finish the walk. To stay with him. No doubt, Jairus walked with a heavy step – but at the end of that walk he saw a miracle. On the Emmaus road two disciples walked with heavy steps, not knowing who walked with them. At the end of that walk their eyes were opened.

And you - when your way is weighed-down, heavy with regrets or hurts over what might have been, you do not walk alone. Jesus draws near and walks with you.

Don’t let your disappointments define your journey today. 


Give your grace, O God, to all who walk in a fog of despondency today. Sustain them in the heaviness of their walk. And give them eyes to see again the reality of resurrection, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mind the Gap

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (James 1:22).


If you’ve ever been to London you know what this means: Mind the Gap.

The phrase strikes me as uniquely British, probably because that’s the only place I’ve ever seen or heard it. Our closest equivalent may be the far less interesting ‘watch your step.’ Brits may be just as bored or unfazed by ‘mind the gap.’ But there’s something about the way British people speak. It’s more than the accent; it’s the distinctive turn of phrase that to someone like me is perfectly intelligible yet entirely unfamiliar and strange.    

My family recently spent a few days in London. The underground rail system or ‘tube’ is where you are most likely to be told to mind the gap. A voice announces it over a public address system. The words are painted on the concrete platform. The ‘gap’ is the space between the train and the platform. To ‘mind’ it simply means to pay attention.

To ignore the gap can be dangerous. And what’s true of London’s underground is true of your life.


The Big Idea

The central message, or ‘big idea,’ of the book of James could perhaps be summarized with the words ‘mind the gap.’ James sees how easily a gaps emerge between things that are claimed and professed and things that are actually lived and done. James has a pastoral heart, but he isn’t shy about being direct and confrontational as he writes.

James tells us to mind the gap between the way we treat those who are wealthy and well dressed, and those who look shabby, smell bad, and own nothing (2:1-4).

James tells us to mind the gap between the way we can use words to pray and praise God on Sunday, and then curse in traffic on Monday (3:9-12).        

James tells us to mind the gap between the way we attend classes and listen to teachers without ever allowing what we hear to change our lives (1:22-25). 

James tells us to mind the gap between our grand plans for the future and the tentative reality of our lives. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow (4:13-15).


Find the Gap

Our lives are full of gaps. There are things that don’t line up, places where there’s a disconnect between who we are or who we want to be, and the way we actually live from day to day. Some of these things are obvious and glaring. Others are quite subtle. Before we can mind the gap we might need to take a good look at our lives and find the gap.

We know the Christian message is good news, but we rarely share it. We cherish our families but we’re too often angry and irritable when we’re at home. We know God can do more than we can ask or imagine, but we never pray. We believe everything we have is a gift, but we cling to it as if we deserved or earned it. We claim that God is in control, but still we lay awake at night with worry.

Gaps abound. But so does grace.

There’s a difference between minding the gap and mending the gap. Minding the gap is what you do. Mending the gap is what God does by the power of his Spirit graciously given to you. Maybe you mind the gap by finding the gap, and then asking God to help you with it.

What gaps do you need to mind today?

Only you, O God, can truly make us whole and mend the broken places in our life. Make us mindful of the ways in which our living and believing don’t line up. By your grace, help us to live with integrity, doing what we hear, acting on the truths we know. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where the Storm Leads You

“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). 

You won’t find the phrase ‘spiritual warfare’ in the book of Job. But you see it in every chapter, start to finish.


The accuser, Satan, unleashed a quiver full of flaming arrows at Job. With one crushing loss after another Satan reduced Job to heap of grief and anguish. In English you’ll likely notice three verbs of lament as Job absorbs the reality of what has happened to him and his family: He tore his robes, he shaved head, he fell on the ground (1:20). He looks to us like a defeated man.


And then in the lowest moment of his life Job worshiped God. He blessed the name of the Lord.


How Is This Possible?

To bless the Lord’s name means to praise, to honor, to hold up as worthy. It has been said that God’s ‘name’ is his ‘fame’ and when we bless the name we extol God’s reputation. We affirm that God is good. That’s what Job did in his storm, in his loss and grief and confusion. He blessed the name of the Lord.     


This is stunning. How is it possible for anyone to really do that? How is it possible for you to do that?


The clue is in Job’s conviction that all of life – absolutely everything – comes by grace. The Lord gives as he wills and he gives freely. He is right and just in taking the same way. Something in us resists this. We may even resent it. That’s why we find it hard to bless the name.


If we trade grace for a life built on what we earn or what we deserve we’ll rarely bless the name. Every good thing that comes our way will be because we worked hard or did right. We earned it or deserve it. Hard working well-behaved people rarely bless the name. Too much self gets in the way.


But when we live by grace, life is different. It’s all a gift. We bless the name when we receive (thanksgiving) and we can bless the name when we lose the same (trust). 


When it’s All Said and Done

Of course Job had other things to say. He had questions and he voiced them. He was hurting and he cursed the day of his birth. He had friends who said things to him that he couldn’t accept and he pushed back. He wrangled with God in the storm. You can do that and still bless the name.


But when it was all said and done, Job worshiped God. The book of Job ends in worship. After all Job’s questions God has a few questions for Job. Those questions leave Job repentant, silent before God and the mystery of God’s ways. There is a sense in which the book of Job ends where it began. Job worships God.


As you reflect on the struggles and storms you’ve lived through, maybe you can cling to this basic truth: Storms come to us to lead us to worship.


Such a journey may not happen quickly or follow a straight line. We may have to wait a long time to see the connection between whatever storm we’ve lived through and the goodness of God in it. But if we’ll deal with God – in doubts and questions and cries for help – eventually we’ll come to a place of worship. Eugene Peterson is right in saying that “all prayer pursued far enough, becomes praise.”


“The Lord gives.” How has this been true in your life? Give God thanks for his gifts.


“And the Lord takes away.” Trust him with your storm.


“Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Every anguished prayer eventually becomes praise; the storm can lead you to worship. How will you bless His name today?



“Blessed Be Your Name

In the land that is plentiful

Where Your streams of abundance flow

Blessed be Your name


Blessed Be Your name

When I'm found in the desert place

Though I walk through the wilderness

Blessed Be Your name


Every blessing You pour out

I'll turn back to praise

When the darkness closes in, Lord

Still I will say


Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Amen

(Matt Redman, “Blessed be the Name”)