In the presence of Christ

He came into the office talking, and stopped only to take a quick breath, after which he continued sharing the details of his plight.  All was punctuated by pulling up the front of his shirt and revealing the most painful looking herniated intestine that I have ever seen.

Several attempts to direct the conversation and get some sense of what might help stabilize his financial situation only resulted in more details about his circumstances, and more views of the cantaloupe size knot on his stomach.  I wanted to get some idea of what could be done to help him until his disability check started.  He wanted whatever I was going to do to be done right then.

He may have wanted more, but what he got was $25.00 worth of gas.  Back in the day, we used to give folks like him a fill-up.  That policy changed the last time gas prices rose to over four dollars a gallon.  The new policy works well.  I spend almost no time worrying about whether or not someone requesting help deserves it or really needs it.  I would much rather give some who did not deserve it $25.00, than fail to help someone who really needed it because I perceived them to be unworthy of help.

He seemed happy with $25.00 worth of, not gas, but diesel.  I bought him diesel because that is the kind of fuel that one puts in a Mercedes.  Granted it was an old and beat up Mercedes, but a Mercedes nonetheless.  Truly, there is so much story to tell and just not enough time or paper for all the details.

After a quick trip up the street for fuel, I am back in the office reflecting on what just happened.  Without thinking, I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of Matthew 25.  You recall the passage, don’t you?  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and purchase for you $25.00 worth of gas?”  The King replied, “When you bought fuel for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you bought it for me.”  I felt good because I had just done something for the least of these.  I would not have wanted the goat question stuck in my head.  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and not purchase it for you?”  The King replied, “When you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, is when you did not do it for me.”

So I felt as good as you can feel when you buy $25.00 worth of fuel for someone who needs a lot more than $25.00 worth of fuel.  What I did not feel so good about and, if fact, what was a little disturbing to me, was how desperate this man had been.  The man who had reminded me that to help was to help Christ, had been almost frantic for help, and almost overjoyed with $25.00.  He was desperate and frail, and his desperation and frailty quickly reminded me of Christ in the garden praying for the cup to pass; and Christ on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

We like for our heroes to be big, strong and larger than life. We expect them to be able to face down any challenge and overcome any obstacle. Yet our salvation comes not from Christ’s willingness to be a larger-than-life human being, but from his willingness to be a real life human being.  By his wounds, we are healed.  In his brokenness, we are made whole.  It is not his strength that saves us, but with his frail vulnerability that he invites us into the Kingdom of God.  Whether at the manger in Bethlehem, the cross at Calvary, or the fuel pump at Weigel’s, he invites us to embrace him, to touch him, and meet his needs as we experience the power and the presence of the risen Lord.

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Immanuel

Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time?  I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season.  The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings —  might even come as a surprise to some people.  Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance.  In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own.  Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.

But what if what you need is God?  The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming.  We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another.  But what if what you really need is God?  What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction?  We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway.   “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign.  A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do.  She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.”  Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3).  The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will.  She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.

For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God.  In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.  We see God coming to us and saving us.  Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations.  To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless.  Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas.  When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.

Yet, we miss it.  Perhaps our situation is not dire enough.  Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side.  Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord.  We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking.  The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves.   Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble.  Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God?  Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.

Going Global with the Presence of Christ

Do you remember when you were lost, alone and separated from God? Do you remember when the guilt and shame of sin kept even a ray of hope from shining on your life? Do you remember when you were saved, forgiven? Do you remember the joy and the peace, the relief and the release that came from knowing how much God loved you? Do you remember discovering for the first time in your own life that God made a way for you to be accepted and whole, liberated and redeemed?

This week, at the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 16 people were commissioned to go to some remote places on this earth for the sole purpose of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that they who have never heard might experience the same joy and the same grace that you experienced when you first learned of God’s great love for you. These 16 will go to China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Spain, Eastern North Carolina, Chile, Georgia, Haiti and South Africa. They will join with others who have already gone. They go to plant churches, practice medicine, do poverty relief, train local church leaders, teach in universities and seminaries, minister to women and children, and facilitate the transformation of communities. All in all, they go to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, to be the presence of Jesus Christ, and to announce the Kingdom of God.

These people, along with those who have been sent before them, go where they are going on your behalf.  They go to more places to encounter more people than any of us ever could on our own. They go to tell and to live the story of God’s amazing grace for us.

They do a great service for us and for God’s Kingdom.  We ought to be eager to pray for them and to remember them when we are in the presence of the Lord. There names are:

Anna Anderson

Anjani and James Cole

Rachel Brunclikova

Lindsay, Cindy, and Ryan Clark

Mickael Eyraud

Kamille Krahwinkel

Blake and Rebecca Hart

Carole Jean and Jack Wehmiller

Jennifer Jenkins

Mark and Sarah Williams

Our prayers are vital for all those who serve and who are sent; but our prayers are not the only way that we need to support and stand behind them. We also need to share our resources.

At the conclusion of worship services next Sunday morning, we will be receiving an offering. That is our custom on Sundays when we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Normally our offering on Lord’s Supper Sundays is used to meet benevolent needs in our community. Right now, our benevolence fund is adequate for the needs we anticipate until we gather again at the Lord’s Table. Therefore, since the CBF Offering for Global Missions is running about 30% behind where it should be for this time of year, we are going to send our July offering for benevolence to the uttermost parts of the world.

We are accustomed to promoting the Offering for Global Missions and giving to it at Christmas and Easter. Giving to it on the Fourth of July may seem a little odd. Yet, it is altogether appropriate in one sense, because in giving to it, we are extending to those who are still held captive by the power of sin and death the opportunity to be set free. What better way to celebrate the earthly freedom, that has been bought for us by the sacrifice of so many, than to give the gift of eternal freedom paid for by the sacrifice of the One who said, “. . . you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Merry Incarnation!

The whole idea that God took on flesh, came to us and lived among us, has challenged the human ability to understand and comprehend since that first Christmas.  There are all kinds of questions and few, if any, answers.  Answers that give us a thorough explanation of the details of how the creator of human beings becomes a human are not forthcoming. Mystery is the word that the church has often used through the centuries to explain that which is beyond explanation.  That is what we say when we don’t know anything else to say.  Granted, it is no small thing to be able to look into the pages of scripture, the annals of history, or the faces of the living, and utter a single word in response to the unbelievable, the incredible or even, the unthinkable.

Faith is the gift that enables us to believe what we would not otherwise believe or consider.  It gently nudges us beyond the questions of how to look at why God did what God did.  John’s gospel tells us that it is love that moved God to come into our world with flesh and bone.  God loves us enough to come to where we live and experience life as we experience it.  Faith gives us the ability to know that we are loved and accepted by God.

What we should not allow faith to do is to distort the reality in which we still live.  God takes on flesh and comes to us at Christmas time.  God does not come and get us to remove us from where we are now — not yet anyway.   Faith is not an escape hatch from the world in which we live.  It is, however, refusing to believe that the world in which we live is the sum of our living.

Because Christ has been born, when we hear of a tragic death of a neighbor, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Bethlehem has happened, when we see that someone has had to spend the night in a car in our parking lot we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the one who would be our Savior was wrapped in swaddling clothes when we continue to see the poor and needy at our door, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the Prince of Peace slept in a manger when distant wars are brought near by the deployment of a friend or family member, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Mary and Joseph did not turn away from God’s call, when we experience the stress, the strain and sometimes the brokenness of human relationships, we can say even still, Christ is coming.

We can and do say it, not as sugar coating or denial, but as a truth born from the gift of faith. Christ comes to the place of pain and suffering, misery and malaise, and of betrayal and disappointment.  He comes to us.  In coming, he calls us to himself.   The call is such that somehow we become a part of the mystery of his incarnation.  We become his hands, his feet, his body.  Led by his Spirit, we find our greatest joy in following his path to the places where there is hurting and want, injustice and wrong.  Far from taking us away from the trial of earth-bound living, his coming to us points our lives in the direction of those who are broken by sin and sinned against, those who are left out, and left alone.

Christ is coming!

Happy Advent

Bill Nieporte is a friend from my seminary days, and currently the pastor of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This week, he is toying with the idea of creating a “John the Baptist” line of Christmas cards.  So far, here is what he has produced:

Outside card: “From Our House To Yours This Holiday Season…”

Inside: “Merry Christmas you brood of vipers.”

Outside card: “Let’s all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log…”

Inside: …which burns like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity…With Love, John”

Outside card: “Season’s greeting to you from across the miles…”

Inside: “Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This is, of course, straight out of scripture, but not so very Christmas sounding.  John’s words change our focus.  If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.   If Christmas is about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming to us.  If Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and open to the weak and vulnerable among us, is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.  If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, John reminds us that our joining the cosmic and timeless celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses, and seeking healing for our wounds.

Christmas can be a confusing time for many folks for a variety of reasons.  In the midst of difficult economic times, money for presents will be limited for many.  If the focus of Christmas is buying, then, no doubt, there will be some who are feeling like they have not had much of a Christmas. If Christmas is about family, and a family member is ill, away from home, deployed overseas, or has passed away, Christmas will be different at best and impossible at worst.

What John does for us during this advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is on our list of things to do in order to get ready for Christmas.  With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationships with God and the ways those relationships impact how we live our lives.  For, you see, if Christmas is to happen, this time it will not happen in a far-away, long-ago stable.  No, if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of women and men, boys and girls who are ready to invite and embrace the birth of a new experience of the reality of God in their lives.  December 25th will appear on the calendar in just a few more days.  Christmas will come. What John wants to know is whether or not Christmas will happen in you?  Are you getting ready?

Riding in the Rain

It is Tuesday and I am driving in the rain. Driving in the rain is not one of my favorite things to do. In fact, it is one of my least favorite, especially when I have a good distance to drive. Three and half hours to go and I am already tired and sick and medicated. Sounds like a perfect storm, in a not-so-good way.  Rain drops and the rhythmic slap of the windshield wipers play a lullaby that I can hardly resist. Listening to Faulkner’s Hamlet is not doing anything to keep me awake.

 

Just south of Chattanooga, I pull off at the Lookout Valley exit and find a place to park the truck. I am having to work way too hard to keep my eyes open. The rain keeps falling as I relinquish the need to keep my eyes open.

 

There are worse things to do than sit in a dry, warm truck on a wet and cold autumn day. Not that it is that cold, but I imagine if you were out in the weather and getting wet you would soon be miserable.  After ten or so minutes, with my eyes closed, I fill up the truck, purchase a cold drink and I am on the road again. Shelter in a storm is a good thing.

 

You have been that shelter this week for the families who are our guests while we hosted the Family Promise Interfaith Hospitality Network. Each of those families have their own unique story.  Yet, they share one thing in common — they each reached a point where they could no longer keep their eyes open. Life had gotten to the point where they could not manage all that needed to be managed. The disappointments and the defeats were piling up, and the successes and the victories were scarce.

 

Sitting in my truck, I thought of those families. I wondered where they would be if there were no churches networked together to provide shelter for them.  Perhaps they would have found some other place to stay, some other way to get back on their feet. But I don’t know that for sure. Perhaps they would have been alone with their children in this autumn rain, wet to the bone and worried about supper.

 

How many times have you read Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble?” How many times has this verse come to your mind when you were dealing with a difficult situation in your life or in the lives of those you love?

 

This week you lifted these words out of scripture and brought them to life. With the love of God in your heart and the call of Christ on your lives, you put flesh and bones to these holy words. Just as God has been refuge and strength for you in times of trouble, you were used by God this week to be refuge and strength to these families in their time of trouble.  Scripture is never more real, more alive, or more true than when it is seen and demonstrated, rather than merely heard or read.

 

I have heard many teachers and preachers through the years say that our lives are the only Bible that some people will ever read. Those words are still true.  You were a great read this week. Yet, every week, even every day, we have opportunities to let ourselves be read by those who otherwise would not open a Bible. We even have occasions to let ourselves be read by those who do read the Bible. When we realize what God is asking us to do, to so live our lives that others will see Christ in them, it can be rather frightening. What an awesome task. At the same time, realizing that God has invited us to be partners in touching others with the love of Christ can also be rather exhilarating. Together, we are a part of the greatest story ever written; and the greatest story ever written is still being written. It gets written and read all over again when we make room in our lives for the ancient words of scripture to take on flesh and bones and come to life in our daily living.

 

You may not pay much attention to who is reading you, but someone is. May they read hope, justice and mercy when they read your life.