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.