God is Still Speaking

After a wonderful week of camp with some amazing middle schoolers and totally committed camp staffers. . .

After news of tragic violence in El Paso, Dayton and other places. . .

After sharing bread and cup with a faith family that seeks to love others as Christ has loved us. . .

After coming to the realization that while mass shootings still sadden me, they no longer shock or surprise me. . .

After waking up on another Monday wondering what in the world we have become. . .

I open my worship plan to see what biblical text I choose weeks ago to be the focus of our worship this coming Sunday —BAM! — there it is, God is still speaking!

For those who have ears to ear and eyes to see. . .

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

If you are in the neighborhood, join us Sunday as we listen for God.

 

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#PrayingforBoston

Did you find yourself praying for Boston this week? While you were praying for Boston, did you think of Newtown?  As you were thinking of Newtown, did you remember Virginia Tech?  When you were remembering Virginia Tech, did Aurora, Columbine or 9/11 come to mind?

If you found yourself praying, you were not alone. When the news comes that another death-filled event has occurred, instinctively we grieve and we pray for those who have been impacted by the tragic violence. When our prayers are finished and our tears have all been shed, the questions start. Why did this happen?  The explanations, many and varied as they are, are never enough to make what has happened make sense. Somehow someone became hateful enough, angry enough, or mentally deranged enough to think that violence was a good idea. Yes, we can all see that now, but why? As elusive as an answer to the why question is, the answer to the question of whether or not something like this will happen again is painfully obvious. Yes, it will happen.

Our question becomes more pressing once we acknowledge that it could happen again. Our question then becomes: “Could it happen to us? Could it happen to people we know and love?”  Of course, it can happen again and it can happen to us.

Can anything be done to prevent such violence? We would like to think so. We would like to think that law enforcement agencies could be more effective in their task. We would like to think that the people who work in the fields of security and intelligence could make us more secure and better identify potential threats. We would like to think that ordinary citizens would be more diligent in noticing out-of-place strangers doing the unexpected in places where they would not ordinarily be. We would like to think that our political leaders would make reasonable and good laws that would enhance our safety and security. We would like to think all these things and yet we know that a determined person meaning to do evil is not easy to stop.

In light of such sobering reality, what do we expect of people of faith? What do we expect of followers of Jesus Christ? What can we do in the face of evil? We can do what Christ has called us to do, we can love. When violence becomes more and more senseless, we love. When evil seems to surround us like the darkness of the darkest night, we love. When tragedy after tragedy pushes us toward despair, we love. We love because it is what Christ has called us to do.  We love not because it makes sense in a logical, pragmatic way. It does not. We love not because love works in a mechanical or formulaic way. It does not always consistently produce a desired outcome and at times it can seem to produce no results at all.

However, love does work. It works on us. When we love instead of hate we resist becoming the evil that so frightens us. When we forgive instead of letting retribution and revenge take root in our souls we resist becoming the despair and bitterness that nurtures so much of the violence we see in the world. When we show mercy instead of demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we resist becoming blind to the possibility of new day, a new heaven, and new earth.

We know that we are not living in the world God meant to create. The God who has saved us is the same God who is still reclaiming, reconciling, recreating and redeeming God’s creation. When we love, we join our lives with God who is making all things new.  The agony of the Jesus’ prayer in the garden the night before his crucifixion makes clear the difficulty of choosing to love. The empty tomb on Easter morning makes clear that love is our only hope.

What was Prevaiz Masih Thinking?

His name was Prevaiz Masih.  He was the janitor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan until October 20, 2oo9.  On that day two suicide bombers attacked, one on the women’s side and the other on the men’s side of the campus.

An attacker dressed as a woman shot the school security guard then approached the women’s cafeteria where Masih was working.   Masih intercepted him at the door and told him that he could not enter because there were women inside.  The two argued and the attacker detonated his bomb outside the cafeteria killing Masih.  Three women were also killed, but many more would have died had Masih not met the attacker at the door.

Prevaiz Masih was a Christian.  Standing in the cafeteria doorway, he was protecting the lives of between 300 and 400 young Muslim women.  “Despite being Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls,” said professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, rector of the university.  I cannot help but wonder if maybe it was because he was Christian that Masih acted to protect those women.  What if he did what he did not in spite of his Christian faith, but because of his Christian faith?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable:

As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.  So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.  He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’  But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us’’  When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.  The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’  He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave!  Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’  Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’  He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’  Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound.  I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’  He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!  You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?  Why then did you not put my money into the bank?  Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’  He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’  (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds’’)  ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

From time to time someone will say to me preacher, we need to run the church like a business.  I am inclined to agree with those folks, especially when I read this parable.  The slaves in the story are given money.  The nobleman who gave them the money expected them to do something with it.  The expectation was real.  The message was clear; take this money and do something with it.  I believe Jesus told this story, at least in part, to teach us that we have been given something and we are expected to do something with it. If I remember correctly, Clarence Jordan suggested that money is not the currency of the Kingdom of God.  Ideas, convictions and principles are.  Jesus says to us take this idea of grace out into the world and trade with it.  Take this notion of mercy out into the marketplace and do business with it.  Set up shop and stock the shelves with justice, compassion, love, understanding, acceptance, peace and forgiveness.  Do business with these ideas.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Prevaiz Masih had been given these same ideas.  He possessed the currency of the Kingdom.  I do not know if he was thinking about his faith when the attacker showed up. Was he asking himself the question, what would Jesus do?  I do not know.

He had just started the janitor’s job making barely $60.00 a month.  He lived with seven other family members in a crowded, one-room apartment.  By our standards, he did not have much. Yet, he had compassion.  With compassion for those who would be harmed, even killed, he acted to protect them.  Many are alive today who would have been dead if Masih had not done what he did.

Thankfully, we will rarely, if ever, have the need to practice our faith in such a dangerous environment.  But we should not let the relative safety and security that we enjoy keep us from offering what we have been given to those who have need of it.  We, who have been given grace and forgiveness, might seek out those who are hungry for it. We, who have experienced compassion and mercy, might seek to give that experience to others.  We, who have found acceptance and hope, might point the way for others who are still searching.

Not many people in Pakistan expected a Christian to act on behalf of the safety of a room full of Muslims. Masih’s action surprised a number of people in his country.  What unexpected act can you do that might cause someone to look at Jesus in a new light?

Salt and Peace

When I read Jesus’ words about stumbling, I cringe. For the person who causes a little one to stumble, he states emphatically that drowning would be a more pleasant consequence than whatever it is that will eventually befall such people. Then, with brutal bluntness, he declares that chopped off hands and feet and plucked-out eyes that have caused one to stumble are preferable to hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

His exaggerated language certainly grabs the attention even in a twenty-first century culture desensitized to violence and brutality. Why such graphic language to make his point? Maybe because it is an important point and he wants to make sure that we get it. So he says what he says, and we come away knowing that his overstated word choice is only a literary device to underscore the importance of his point. But still, there is a faint whisper somewhere in our head that wonders if maybe he really meant what he said just the way he said it.

Spiritually speaking, could we ever find ourselves in a situation similar to Aron Ralston? Ralston was the hiker who got his hand and forearm pinned beneath a boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon. After five days of being trapped, he cut off his arm in order to save his life. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, he just did it because he realized that he was going to die if he did not do it.

While I am confident that Jesus does not intend for us to mutilate ourselves, I am just as certain that he does desire for us to handle our spiritual lives with a sense of urgency — to follow Christ as if what we do or do not do matters — knowing that in following him, we are making decisions that are a matter of life and death. We make our way in a world that is fraught with pits and snares eager to take from us the life that Christ has called us to.

After his vivid admonishment to separate ourselves from whatever would cause us to stumble, Jesus speaks of salt, and of being at peace with one another. What does it mean to have the salt in us that Jesus speaks of, and to be at peace with those around us?

I learned this week of the death of Chris Leggett. Chris was murdered on June 23, of this year in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Two days after his death, al-Qaeda issued a statement claiming responsibility for his death. Chris lived and worked there with his wife and four children. His job was to create learning opportunities for the poor in Mauritania’s capital and throughout the country. His work took him to prisons as he helped former inmates re-enter society. The training center where he worked taught people skills that would help them get jobs. The small business loan program that he directed impacted the lives of numerous people.

Chris grew up down the road in Cleveland, Tennessee. He attended First Baptist Church there, and graduated from Cleveland High School. He continued his education at Cleveland State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Chris walked in and around many of the same snares and pits that we have, yet he did not let them keep him from living the life to which Christ had called him. He was full of the salt of which Jesus speaks. He lived and died seeking to be the peace of Christ for those with whom he was sharing his life. May we each so flavor the lives that we touch as well as those that touch ours.

Transforming Tragedy

September no longer arrives without bringing with it recollections of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Without effort or intent, the memories are just there when August ends. Images of buildings and planes, smoke and rubble find their way back to my mind. What a shocking and awful day that was for all of us.

September has had its share of tragedy and turmoil. In 1940, September marked the beginning of Germany’s blitz bombing campaign of Great Britain; similar in ways to our September 11th, only it lasted for nine months. In September of 1972, terrorists attacked the Israeli delegation at the Munich Olympic Games. Eleven Israelis, five terrorist and one police officer were killed. In 1957, when Arkansas students were heading back to school, then Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from enrolling in Little Rock Central High School. In 1901, the month saw U.S. president William McKinley assassinated in Buffalo, New York. In 1974, it was the month in which President Ford issued an unconditional pardon to former President Nixon, bringing to an end the Watergate affair.

Each of these events captured the attention of the world for days, weeks, and even longer. With the exception of President McKinley’s assassination, a movie has been made about each of these events. Interestingly, in the mid-90’s when the National Football League started a league in Europe, the nickname of the team in London was the Blitz. When a new scandal arises in Washington very often the suffix “gate” is attached to the end of whatever it is being called, thus recalling the government scandal to which all subsequent scandals would be compared. In some way they have each left their mark on our collective memory.

These moments in history, and others like them from other months, caused the world to stop in shock and disbelief. The fear, grief and disappointment that followed them changed the way people looked and thought about the world. In our lifetime, we have lived through some days that brought dreadful news to everyone everywhere. At the same time, we have lived through some days that brought their own dreadful news into our own lives. The rest of the world proceeded as usual while we lived through the pain of a broken marriage, the tragic death of a loved one, or the turmoil of losing a job. Our personal tragedies, no less than ones that we experience as a nation or a global community, also change the way we look and think about our lives and how we live them.

The challenge of the life and teachings of Jesus is to not let the events of history and our lives define who we are as people. Certainly we grieve when we experience loss, we are frightened when terror strikes, and we are sad when misfortune occurs. We experience what we experience and live through what we live through, yet the calling of Christ in our lives provides for us a lens through which to view those events, a filter through which to strain them that will not let us settle for being the sum of our life experiences. Instead, Jesus insists that our lives, our selves, are best defined by our relationship and our experience with him.

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Luke 6:20-23a

His words call us beyond our trials to transformation. From poverty, hunger, tears and hatred he proposes a kingdom, fullness, laughter and joy. The happenings of our lives could justifiably leave us bitter and cynical. Christ calls us to something more even as he lives with us through our trials and tragedies, never leaving us to face our perils alone. What has happen to us shapes who we are, but it is not who we are. We are children of God saved by his grace, transformed by his mercy and empowered by his spirit to join with him in letting fullness, laughter and joy reign in our lives and in our world.

Torture:When will the harvest come?

I am curious, what did you learn about torture growing up in the church? Thinking back, I recall that going to church involved a lot of sitting still and being quiet. I did not like to sit still nor did I like being quiet. I can not remember if I described the sitting still and being quiet as torture, but I might have. Going to church also meant wearing church clothes that often were not as comfortable as everyday clothes. Since church clothes were for Sundays, they were special and that meant that you could not play in them. All you could really do in them was sit and be quiet. Sitting and being quiet in church clothes might have been something that would have described as torture when I was a boy. When it was time to sing a hymn, you got to stand up, but you still could not move around. All you could do was sing the hymn. I am pretty sure that whoever was standing next to me while I was singing would have described that as torture.

Early in the history of the church, Saul, soon to be Paul, watches one the first deacons of the church, Stephen, be stoned to death. Until his conversion, Saul continues to torment followers of Jesus, dragging them out of their homes and imprisoning them. Then, on the road to Damascus, he encounters Jesus. Jesus asks Saul a question, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul answers the question with a question, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus says, “I am the one whom you are persecuting.”

Saul could have answered Jesus’ question in a different way. He could have given some explanation for why he was devoting himself to the persecution of Christians. Surely, he felt that his attitudes and actions towards those he was persecuting were right and justified. He did not attempt such an explanation. He was converted. He had encountered Jesus and he was changed. As Paul, he would be whipped, stoned and imprisoned because of conversion and his faithfulness in following Christ. In choosing Jesus, he stopped being the persecutor and became the persecuted. That is generally the picture in the New Testament. Torture happens, but its something that the bad guys do to the good guys. It is not something the good guys do to the bad guys.

Torture has become one of those issues about which people hold differing opinions. Last month the Pew Research Center released the findings of a survey that indicated that 49% of Americans think that torture can either often or sometimes be justified. At the same time the survey indicated that 47% of Americans think that torture can rarely or never be justified. That is a pretty even division of the country on the question of torture. The numbers change significantly when asked against the backdrop of religious preference. 62% white evangelical Protestants, which would be the broad category into which we Baptists would fall, think that torture can sometimes or often be justified. 54% of people who attend church at least weekly feel the same way.

We know that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those that persecute them. We know that he redefined the notion of neighbor in radically inclusive terms and identified loving neighbor as action essential to following him. We know that he urged his followers to treat other people the way they want other people to treat them. We know most everything that Jesus taught at least the teachings that were recorded in the New Testament. The question arises as to what difference it makes that we know what Jesus taught?

How is it that those who gather to worship him and energetically profess to believe in him and his teachings are more likely to approve of torture than someone who does not believe in him or profess to follow him? Evidently, the church has forgotten Jesus’ admonition to be in the world, but not of the world. Rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might discern what the will of God is, we are increasingly conformed to this world.

There are a host of questions that go with this debate. Is torture effective? How often does it achieve the desired results? How often has it saved the lives of innocent people? These questions are answered in a variety of ways by people who should be qualified to answer such questions. Yet, for every answer there always seems to be someone who will argue in the other direction.

An important question for those of us who desire to be faithful followers of Christ is what happens to those who administer the torture and to those who approve of it? How are we changed by accepting and endorsing an activity that seems so contrary to the Christ who himself was tortured so that we might be set free from the power of sin and death? Are we being more faithful to our fears than we are to Christ?

Paul, writing to the church at Galatia says, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” Torture seems to be a seed best left unplanted. Yet, having already sprouted and taken root it cannot bear but a bitter harvest. May God’s grace be sufficient for the coming harvest.

The Mechanic

This past week we have been visiting friends in North Africa and seeking ways to share love and compassion with the people of this region. We are blessed to have friends who live in this area and who dedicate their lives to sharing love and showing mercy to their neighbors.

As we began the week, my friend found himself in need of some car repairs. This would be a new experience for me as I had never before been with him when he needed to have work done on his vehicle.

We made our way to the street where the mechanics were located and found one that had time to check out the problem. The shop looked very little like a repair shop in our country, though there were some similarities. There were wrenches and there was a shelf loaded with salvaged parts that might one day be used to solve a problem in someone else’s car.

When the mechanic had identified the problem with my friend’s car, we followed his assistant up the street and around the corner to the shop that sold new parts. After comparing the old part with the options for replacing it, my friend chose the new part most likely to work and we returned to the mechanic’s shop. The mechanic took the new part and installed it in my friend’s vehicle. After few quick turns of he wrench, he pulled his head from under the hood and with a smile on his face he instructed my friend to start the vehicle. His smile grew even broader as the engine roared to life.

As I watched the mechanic smile and listen to the engine humming, I realized that I had just witnessed the revealing of a pleasant, if obvious, truth. Namely, mechanics are mechanics. Whether in North Africa or East Tennessee, there are some people who know how to fix machines. They have knack for figuring out how a device or an engine is supposed to run and they know how to make it do what it is supposed to do. They have different names. One might be Joe the plumber while the other is Hakeem the auto mechanic, but they are the same in that they both know how to do repairs and make things work the way that they are supposed to work.

On this Sunday before Easter, we would all do well to remember that we have each been loved by the one who sent his son to love us. All of us have been loved with this love. There are none of us more different from any of the rest of us than God is from all of us, yet God loves us.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. I John 4:7-12
In being loved by God, we are called to love others. We are called to love those who are like us and those who are different from us. However, being loved by God does not protect us from failing to love or from loving for our own purposes. Therefore, we ought always to offer the love that God has shown to us with humility so that even in our imperfections God’s love might prevail.