Friday, May 27, 2016

There Are Days

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).        

There are days you’d do over again if you could; days when you didn’t get it quite right, when the distance between who you want to be and you are is as wide as a galaxy.

There are days when you slacked off and simply got it done because you were tired and wanted to go home; you told yourself that no one would know the difference and your best efforts could wait for another day, the next task.

There are days when you wake up having barely slept, regretting the night before.  The sun went down on your wrath and rises on your shame.

There are days when you thought you’d made progress only to discover that you haven’t; an old memory stokes a fresh grief that feels like it will never go away. You’re stuck. There are days you have to try hard not to cry and days when you couldn’t cry if you wanted to. 

There are days you swear you’ll quit, you’ll walk if it happens again and if something around that place doesn’t change; on that same day you remember you really can’t do that.  

There are days that seem to bring nothing but trouble and heartache. We want nothing more than to get through them, and then forget them if we can.

Red Letter Reassurance
On days like that we need some red letter reassurance – words of Jesus that give us a place to take a stand and hold our ground. We need a promise that’s bigger that our problems. Almost any of the red letter words can put steel in our souls, but few pack a punch equal to the words of Jesus found in John 16:33.

A little context: There’s a section of John’s gospel that is often spoken of as Jesus’s farewell discourse. This material begins in John 13 when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This act of humble service is followed by a fairly lengthy mix of dialogue and monologue in which Jesus is trying to prepare his closest friends for his impending suffering and death, hinting at the resurrection but trying not to overload them with more than they can handle.

Near the end of this farewell discourse Jesus summarizes by saying, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).         

Peace in Trouble
In these few brief sentences a couple of things are certain.

First, Jesus wills our peace and his words make that peace possible. He spoke to his disciples for the purpose of imparting peace to them. The red letter words are not meant to confuse us or fill our minds with information. The words of Jesus are meant to change us. They make it possible for us to live at peace.

At the same time Jesus is very clear – the peace we yearn for will not be found in this world. This world is broken and to live in it is to know trouble and affliction. Jesus doesn’t dance around this truth. It’s not a question of ‘if’ trouble will come, but ‘when’ and ‘how.’       

The red letter reassurance reminds us that while trouble may be certain, it will not triumph. Jesus has overcome the world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s declaration that suffering, in all its manifestations, will not have the last word on your life.

So yes, there are days you’d never want to live through again. Today may be such a day for you. Take your stand on the red letter reassurance that a different day is coming. Let that promise give you peace. Jesus wants you to have it.     

Gracious God, every one of our days comes to us as a gift.  We do not always receive them that way.  There are days we’d gladly forget, when troubles threaten us and weakness gets the best of us. In every such day you walk with us. Your words give us peace, even in our affliction. Great is your faithfulness and we give you thanks in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

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).

When Time Is Money
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.’

Hurried people risk being shallow people. Depth, and this includes spiritual depth, requires an investment of time, and time that’s invested is also carefully and deliberately managed. 

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. I can’t help but wonder if the hundreds of cars blistering the asphalt on Roswell Road heard what I heard. I’m doubtful. The hearing requires some measure of stillness.

The Holy Offering of Time
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. Any and every moment of the day can be a way of pursuing a closer walk with Jesus. This is because Jesus cares about all of your time, not just an hour or two on Sunday.            

We’ll spend a couple of days this week thinking about intentional faith development, what is sometimes spoken of as spiritual formation. How do you go about creating habits and practices that cause you to become more like Jesus? One answer to the question simply has to do with how we steward the gift of time. 

So think through your plans for this day. How might you take your schedule and make it a 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.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Where Does Envy Come From?

So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast (Genesis 4:5).
Saint Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow at another’s good.”

We experience that sorrow in different ways. Someone else’s blessing may feel like your curse.  Their gain feels like you’ve been deprived.  Their gladness galls you and their celebrating sends you into a tailspin of self-pity.

At its root, that sorrow – the bitter gnawing we name envy – grows in the soil of comparison. We look at the life we have and we compare it to the life someone else has. Most often we’re comparing ourselves with the life we think they have. Either way, the flower of that kind of comparing is envy. Envy isn’t the original sin, but it makes its debut very early in the biblical story. We’ve been struggling with this for a long time. 

An Age-Old Struggle
Both Cain and Abel presented offerings to God, but “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering” (Gen. 4:5). Why him? Cain asked the same question. It ate at him, making him sad and angry at the same time. Cain’s sorrow at his brother’s good drove him to kill his brother.    

And then there’s the story of Joseph. Joseph’s eleven brothers felt sorrow over Joseph’s good. The story in Genesis 37 never uses the word ‘envy’ but it repeatedly uses the word ‘hate.’ That’s how their sorrow felt. They hated Joseph. They were jealous of him.

As we read the story we’re hardly surprised that this is so. For one thing, what we see in Joseph is less than flattering. He is introduced to us as a tattle-tale, a brat. On top of that, he insists on sharing his self-aggrandizing dreams with his family.

Furthermore, all of the things that typically evoke envy are present in the story. We often envy someone’s possessions and Joseph was the only brother with a tailor-made multi-colored robe. We often envy someone’s rank or position and Joseph clearly has a special place in Jacob’s affections. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his sons (Gen. 37:3). We may also envy someone’s talents or gifts. Obnoxious though he was, Joseph had a gift for dreams and what they meant. Joseph seems to have had all the good, so we’re not surprised at the brothers’ sorrow.

But here’s the problem. While envy may be sorrow directed at another’s good, that sorrow is not really caused by another’s good.      

“I Shouldn’t Feel This Way” (but I do)
Jesus made it perfectly clear that envy, along with a menu of other evils, has its origin in the human heart. To be more specific, my envy can never be blamed on someone else. My sorrow, be it anger or self-pity, is not created by someone else’s good. Rather, my envy comes from my own heart. Indeed, the human heart is the primary residence of all sin.

This means that pornography does not make a person lust. Food does not make a person a glutton. Money does not make a person greedy. And the windfall of blessing that comes to my neighbor does not make me envy.

The corrosive acid that is envy will not be abated by something external to you. The remedy for what ails us is not to be found in a different turn of events or new set of circumstances. And what’s more, you can tell yourself “I shouldn’t feel this way,” but you still will. Envy can’t be cured by earnest efforts at doing or being a better person.

What we need is a new heart. The Hebrew prophets anticipated a time when God would make a ‘new covenant’ with us, writing his law on our heart. That new covenant became a reality in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Envy is put to death at the cross of Jesus.

Do you feel sorrow at another’s good today? Stop looking at them and look to Jesus, the only one able to change what we cannot change.

Merciful God, change my heart. Forgive the sorrow I’ve carried because of someone else’s good. Grant me the grace that replaces sorrow with joy. I would leave my envy at the foot of the cross today, receiving the gift of new life through Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.