Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

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Friday Night Lights

You meet interesting people at high school football games. When the game is delayed for two hours because of thunder and lightening you can really get to know them.  At least, that was my experience last Friday night at South-Doyle High School.

The rain had stopped, but the lightening would not go away. The game could not resume until thirty minutes after the last lightening strike. He was standing just outside the door to the home team’s locker room when I noticed him. Since lightening was still in the area, what better way to pass the time than talking football? So, the conversation began.

We talked about games that we had played in ourselves that involved bad weather. I recalled a game that I had played in rain that was just a degree or two away from turning to sleet. He told me about the time that he played in a game that started in the rain and finished in the snow. Between the rain and the snow, there was sleet, and frozen jerseys.  In Michigan, where he played high school football, such weather was evidently not that uncommon.

Having spent my high school years in the temperate climate of East Tennessee, I did not have a weather story to top that one.  Therefore, the conversation progressed to family and work, as conversations do.  When he learned that I was a pastor he began to give me the religious history of his life. It was fascinating, and he was very religious. However, since we were the same age, it could only last for so long (since I am not that old).

Finally, the announcer’s voice came over the public address system saying that the game was going to resume. We began putting some closure to our time together. We were both glad that we had met and talked. It had been a pleasant way to pass the time.

I thought we were done, but then something changed in his eyes. Later, I would realize that at this moment we were just getting started. We had crossed the threshold into that place were he felt comfortable asking me the one question that he carried with him every moment of every day.

Earlier he had told me that he had seven daughters. Now he told me about his one son that he did not mention when we were talking about family.  He had not talked to his son in three years.  It was three years ago that he learned that his son was gay.

Now his son is forbidden to contact anyone in the family. He is so repulsed by who his son is that he does not want to speak to him. He cannot stand to look at him. In his mind, there was no way he could do anything less, given what the Bible says and what the church teaches about homosexuality.

His question for me was whether or not he was right in cutting off all contact with his son. We talked for a while, but in the end I told him that he was the only father that his son had, and that his son needed him now more than ever.  I could not tell if this man wanted a relationship with his son or not. Was he looking for permission to love his son, or justification for hating him?

There was a game to watch and so our conversation really did conclude this time. As I drifted back toward the field, I felt a deep sense of grief for this man and his lack of a relationship with his son. Something he thought would always be there was not.  Would this man’s relationship with his son be different if he had responded to him with love instead of hate, compassion instead repulsion, mercy instead of banishment?

On another level, I grieved for him because of the years he had spent in church.  What did he learn there? Did he learn that it is O.K. to talk about love, sing about love, receive the love of Christ, and then withhold it from people that do not conform to his standard of what is loveable?  Why didn’t someone tell him that sharing the love of Christ is just that — sharing the love of Christ? There are no disclaimers, no qualifiers and no escape clauses, just love. No, it is not always easy; but it is what Jesus calls us to do, because it is what he has done for us. While we were that which we would not love, he loved us and died for us. Without love, Christianity is something other than God intended for it to be.

An Evening Prayer

Almighty God, you who are eager to find and to hold each one us,

we call out to you as the darkness of night begins to surround us.

May the light you so freely give remain within us and before us

even in the deepest depths of the coming night.

 

You who reach for us and bend toward us as we grope around

the dim edges of life sustain us and keep us.

Hold us this night and every night ‘til the morning comes

and we find ourselves bathed in your glorious light forevermore.

Invited to Life

I am having a real love/hate relationship with all of the snow we have been getting this winter.  I hate that it has caused us to miss a Sunday morning of worship, and that it has interfered with our scheduled activities on two Wednesday evenings.  On the love side, even though I want all of the children to get all of the education that they can, I do not begrudge them their days out of school due to snow.  Is there anything better than a snow day?  Yet, even lovelier than a day off from school, is the way that snow covers the landscape. Blanketing the ground, clinging to the limbs of trees, and balancing on wires, it creates art in such a way that no matter where you are, you are standing in the middle of a picture.

The beauty of snow-covered landscapes almost always reminds me of God’s creative activity in the world.  Standing outside in the night, as the snow is falling and covering everything that it touches, is an awe-inducing experience.  The glory of God’s creation cannot be contained as it beautifies the darkness.

At the same time, I am mindful that what I am experiencing as beautiful is creating an altogether different experience for some. They are cold without warm shelter to shield them from the night.  The snow does not prompt them to think of God’s presence.  Left alone in the cold, at best they ponder the absence of God — at worst, they rail against a cruel deity that would allow it to snow on people who have no protection from the harsh night.

It is easy to get stuck in the snow, especially for those of us who do not get much practice driving in such conditions.  As believers, it is also easy for us to get stuck in the creation, or least in the questions of creation.  How did we get here?  Does the Genesis account of creation say all that there is to say about the origin of life?  Can Christians be faithful in their relationships to God without ignoring what science would teach us about the human experience?  These questions would be much more important than they are if creating us was the last thing that God did for us.

However, God did not just create us and leave us.  God created us and came to us.  In coming to us in Christ, God invites us to live the life God intended for us.  In Christ, we see that life modeled.  The early church recognized Jesus in the words of Isaiah, “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”   In a time and place marked by its share of suffering and wrongdoing, Jesus lived with a gentleness that would not break an already bruised reed nor extinguish a weakly burning flame; yet with his life, he brought light to the nations, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.  He invites us to such a life. God did not create us just so that we could wile away our days admiring the artistry of God’s handiwork. God made us, redeemed us, and invited us to live lives that shine light, open eyes, and do justice.  God invites us to live in such a way that those who find themselves without shelter on a cold winter’s night will know that they are not alone and that they have not been created only to be abandoned by God.  They will know because they will see the love of God being shared by the people of God.

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.

Uncircumcision

Ephesians 2

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

“Uncircumcision”

You might as well have said. . .

. . .unchristian,

. . .unamerican,

. . .unwhite,

. . .unheterosexual,

. . .unmale,

. . .uninvited,

. . .unneeded,

. . .unwanted,

. . .unloved,

. . .unaccepted.

 

But now in Christ Jesus—

But now, nothing!

There is no peace

Old walls have been rebuilt

and new ones constructed.

The stone is rolled away

hostility has been resurrected.

One war, two wars

can we start a third?

One in place of two?

Try each one looking out for number one.

No longer Strangers and Aliens?

Of course not, we who were once pilgrims

have made aliens illegal and strangers unwelcome.

 

Don’t forget,

by nature we are children of wrath.

Heaven help you if you are not like everyone else.

Following the desires of our flesh,

we can twist a God rich in mercy into little more than a tribal totem capable of immeasurable pain and suffering.

To be certain, this is our own doing.

Have we ever been this far off?

Yet, we boast unaware of the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.

 

Oh God,

be our peace,

bring us near,

build us together,

dwell in us.

Justice is a Christian Value

Do you remember anything that your grandmother told you?  What about your grandfather?  The wisdom that gets passed on to us from those who have gone before us shapes our understanding of the world and our place in it.  The words spoken, the deeds done, and the times spent together provide for us a lens through which we view the happenings of life and find meaning in it.

Our living takes on a deeper significance when we are able to see ourselves putting the teachings of Jesus into practice.  In this way, our lives become a part of the reign of God as we announce the Good News with our words and with our deeds.   Our efforts to follow Jesus are only possible because of God’s grace.  Grace marks the forgiveness that comes to us when we first encounter God and turn our lives in God’s direction.  Grace also shadows our daily living.  Our attempts to be the presence of Christ in the World are imperfect at best.   By the grace of God, those attempts sometimes become a gift to someone who needs to know that God cares about him or her.

Speaking, doing, and praying are three ways that we can follow Jesus each day.  In prayer, we deepen our relationship with God.  We give ourselves to God in the time that we are praying.   We listen for God to speak into our lives and we share with God the burdens of our hearts.  God listens.  God listens to everything we need to say, and God loves us. God loves to listen to us.  In prayer, we sink the roots of our lives deeper into the soil of God’s kingdom.  We plant ourselves in God.  Prayer helps us to see ourselves belonging to God and partnering with God as God works in the world.

In speaking to others about what God has done in our lives and about what God means to us, we are able to share with others the source of meaning and joy in our lives.  With words, we can share encouragement and hope.  The sound of our voices can be a comforting reminder to someone that she is not alone.   Our words can be used to explain to a troubled soul how he can find mercy, grace, and forgiveness by accepting Christ as his Lord and Savior.   Telling the story of the difference that God has made in our lives reminds us that God has made us a part of a larger story, a story that does not end.

In doing, we put that story into action empowered by the strength and confidence that emerges from our times of prayer.  Following Christ is not just a phrase from the Bible.  It is an everyday opportunity to live as Christ would have us to live.  Living like Jesus means we do the kinds of things that Jesus would do.  We let our lives, our actions, echo his words and deeds.  We seek justice for the poor because that is what Jesus would do.  We give food to the hungry because that is what Jesus would do.  But if we stop there, then we have stopped short.  Jesus did not come into the world to put a band-aid on the world’s problems.  Jesus came to change the world, to announce the reign of God and God’s kingdom.  So we don’t stop at feeding hungry people.  In the name of God, we ask why people are hungry.   In a world that is capable of producing amazing quantities of food, how is it possible for someone to die of hunger or a hunger-related disease every three seconds?  Is it a distribution problem?  Is it a marketing problem?  No, it is a spiritual problem.  Not enough of us understand that following Christ means living lives that call us to confront the world when the world is wrong.

Christ came into the world to make things right.  He came to make things right between us and God, and He came to make things right between us and our neighbors.  One of His most memorable examples of neighborliness is a stranger, who happens to be an ethnic outcast, who shows excessive concern and extravagant commitment to the healthcare of a wounded man.  Jesus tells the story that we call the “Good Samaritan,” not so we could sentimentalize it in sermons and Sunday school lessons, but so that we could have a clear idea of the kind of justice we are to seek on behalf of others if we are going to be faithful followers.

May our prayers deepen our love for God.  May our words tell others of that love.  May our actions give testimony to the truth of our words.