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.

Looking on the Heart

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I Samuel 16:7

The Lord had sent Samuel to meet the new king that the Lord had already chosen. The going wisdom would have suggested that the new king would be someone that looked like Saul — big and strong of stature. Yet, that was not the case. Samuel, like all of us mortals, was impressed with the outward appearance while the Lord was looking deeper.

I was in a restaurant recently that had menus with pictures in them. As I was glancing through the menu a sandwich caught my eye.  It was different. Different enough that I decided to order it. When my order arrived and I tasted the sandwich that had looked so appetizing in the menu, my first thought was, “What was I thinking.” It looked good in the menu, but on the plate, it was not what I thought it was going to be.

Aesop’s ancient story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing still illustrates well the length to which appearances can deceive as well as the tragic consequences of such deception.

A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs.  But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep.  The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep’s clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.

When I heard the news that our nation was involved in another military action in still another nation, I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “The Bible says that there will be wars and rumors of wars.”  If the Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars, who are we to think, act or speak otherwise?  I have heard people cite scripture in that way all my life as if citing a word or phrase from scripture removes the need to read the rest of what Jesus said about war, violence and human interaction.  Like the wolf in Aesop’s story, a word of scripture is slipped over a situation and deception follows.  Never mind what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and acting with love and compassion toward others.  To be certain, there will be wars and rumors of wars so long as human beings fail to love as Christ taught us to love.  Jesus acknowledges this reality, he does not endorse it.

Hearing Jesus statement, “For you always have the poor with you,” cited in response to the plight of the less fortunate is not unusual. But in that statement Jesus is not predicting the future or dictating it, he is acknowledging the logical outcome of a society that values self interest over common good.  The words of Jesus, inappropriately cloaked over the day-to-day challenges of living in poverty, deceive us, as surely as the sheepskin covering the wolf, into thinking that men and women living in poverty somehow is part of  God’s design for creation. What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words?  I do not know, but perhaps he spoke of them in a resigned way while thinking, “You will always have the poor with you as long you extend tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations among you and then seek to balance your budget and reduce your deficit by cutting the programs and services that provide safety nets and opportunity to the neediest among you.”

Appearances can be, and often are, deceiving. While some might say there is lack of money to help the poor and the needy, others would say that the poor and needy are just not high enough on the list of priorities.  After all, we find the money to bail out banks and automotive companies, to fight wars and to offer tax advantages to those who don’t really need them, yet for the hungry, the homeless, the elderly and the working poor what few dollars we allocate to assist them must be cut in order to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Seeing God in our Weakness

In spite of what you may have heard this week, we have not started an ark-building ministry at Ball Camp Baptist Church, though there were times on Monday when I wondered if some sort of watercraft might be necessary to get around, considering how much water was falling from the sky.  Who knew that so much rain could fall in such a short amount of time?  Fortunately, our facility stayed dry on the inside.  This is no small gift when we remember some of the problems we have dealt with in recent years.

Some of our neighbors were without electricity during Monday’s storm.  I had one friend in Chattanooga who was without power for 19 hours.  She was excited to have power again after going without it.  “We don’t realize what we take for granted!”  Electricity is one of the many aspects of 21st Century living that we have grown accustomed to experiencing without thinking about it.  We take for granted conveniences that caused eyes to pop and minds to swirl when they where first introduced.  Those conveniences have given us more control over lives, more time to do what we want to do, as well as what we need to, and in some cases to do those things better.  When they are taken away from us we are limited and vulnerable, no longer able to do and control the aspects of our living that we could with them.

Those moments that startle us and reveal to us our vulnerabilities do not come to us only when the electricity is not working.  We get reminders of the ways that life is beyond our control all the time.  As our children cross developmental milestones, we learn new ways where we are not in control.  When the company we work for closes its doors for the last time, we get reminded of our vulnerability.  Unexpected news from the doctor does the same thing to us.  We don’t like being vulnerable or out of control.  We seem programmed to respond to such situations by trying to minimize the ways that we are vulnerable.  We work to get some kind of control over whatever it is — our children, our career, or our health — that has disturbed our sense of being in charge of our lives.  We do our best to quickly move on and move beyond the situation and the uncomfortable feelings that came with it.

If we pause in the midst of our crisis, or take some time after it passes to reflect upon it, we might be surprised at what we see mingled in the reflection of our own vulnerability and weakness.  Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby?   Who needs more help than a little baby needing to be bathed, fed and loved?  Yet, because of God’s great need to be in loving relationship with us, God became not just human, but the most vulnerable of humans needing to be fed, bathed and loved.   Henri Nouwen describes God coming to us this way:  “Who can be afraid of a little child that needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided?  We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely.  But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us.  How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be ‘God-with-us’ and needs us to become ‘Us-with-God’?”

The mystery and wonder of God is that God wants to be loved by us as much as God loves us.  On the good days, we may take for granted the goodness of God’s provision in our lives.  On the days when we feel like we are not in control of our lives, we can recall that God has taken away the distance that once separated us from God, not with God’s great strength, but with God’s willingness to become a child laying in a manger.

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.

What Was Jesus Thinking?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? For a long time, these words from Micah 6:8 have been a summary for me of what it means to be in relationship with God.  The Bible is a big book.  Understanding it requires time and study.  People have been reading it for many years so there is a vast history of interpretation to take into consideration, as well as the beliefs and practices that it has inspired in various groups of believers through the centuries.  While I have in no way exhausted the sources of information that would shed light on ways of relating to God,  I have grown increasingly comfortable with Micah’s words as a summation of the teachings of scripture.  Even though these same words often make me uncomfortable when I fail to act justly, love kindness, and my walk with the Lord is less than humble, they nonetheless point towards the life to which God invites us.

To read these words as prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to be reminded that his life and ministry was nurtured and fed by the Hebrew prophets.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:10-11)

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

When he worshipped he would have found himself, with every other child of Abraham, singing from the Psalms.  I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

Thus was his heart filled and his thought shaped when he went up the mountain that day and having sat down he began to speak, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .

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.