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.”


Do You Need New Wipers?

Last week I was blessed to have my oldest son travel with me to Virginia.  His company was a bright spot in an otherwise sad journey to the funeral of an old friend.  Since the whole trip began and ended in less than thirty hours, his driving was also needed to finish the trip in such a short time.

We left after our evening worship service on Sunday, and by four o’clock on Monday we were headed back to Knoxville.  Driving through the town of Franklin, Virginia,  just as we were starting our return trip, Josh pointed to an auto parts store and told me to stop there.  I was alarmed.  My fear was that he had detected some problem with the truck that I had not noticed.

When I asked him what was wrong he told me that I needed new windshield wipers.  I could not disagree with him, though I had not reached that conclusion myself.  Granted, on the driver’s side there was a thin strip of rubber about three inches long flapping loosely from the wiper.  In my mind, the wiper was obviously not in the best of shape, but it was still wiping two-thirds to three-quarters of the windshield.  Without really thinking about it, I had adjusted to this slight deficiency by either scrunching down just a little in the seat or by leaning slightly toward the center of the truck.  I did not even notice the repetitious tapping sound that Joshua described as nerve-wracking.

Since he was going to be driving, and the weather seemed to indicate that something wet was going to be falling from the sky, I did not protest his insistence that we stop at the parts store.  The only argument I had was that since there was as yet no metal touching glass, the blades still had some life in them.  At any rate, he spoke so emphatically that I halfway thought that he intended to purchase the new wiper blades himself.

I should have known better when he immediately started singing the praises of the most expensive blades the store carried.  He insisted that they were worth the extra money.  I was skeptical, but I was struck by the conviction in his voice.  With new wiper blades installed, we continued our journey home.

A day or so later I found myself driving in the rain. I turned on the wipers and the impact of the new wiper blades was definitely noticeable.  I called Josh to thank him for his suggestion.

A few days later I was driving through some drizzle.  As I turned on the wipers, I was already starting to scrunch down a little in anticipation of that part of the windshield that I had grown accustomed to not being wiped clean.   I had forgotten that I had new wiper blades until they made the first swipe.  Imagine my astonishment when I found myself looking through a crystal clear windshield.

What struck me about that experience was how normal it had become for me to expect the driver’s side blade to not clean the whole window.  I had grown used to it to the point of adjusting my posture to compensate for its inadequacy.

I started to wonder about other aspects of life, particularly my spiritual life.  Are there pieces of my spiritual life that need attention that I do not notice because I have gotten used to them being the way they are?  Is there something I could do differently, in the way that I spend time with God, that could impact prayer life the same way that new wiper blades impacted the view through my truck’s windshield?

As we journey toward Good Friday and the cross, the Lenten season is the ideal time to look at our spiritual lives with an eye toward noticing what we might otherwise be overlooking.  Is there something there for you that you have just gotten used to?   Would a new spiritual practice impact the way you are seeing God?  Would a new prayer time or devotional guide enable you to experience God in a more intimate way?  Perhaps there is some routine in your day that could be adjusted that would result in a new perspective on life.

While there is a never-changing sameness to God, we should not confuse God’s unchanging nature with our own spiritual stagnation.  Nor should we assume that the only way we can ever expect to experience God is in a way similar to or identical to the ways that we have already experienced God.  Every day is new with God, yet we risk missing that newness if we have grown too accustomed with life as it is.

The spiritual journey is a bit more complicated than obstructed windshields and worn out wiper blades.  However, isn’t it exciting to think that some little something, that we could add or subtract from our living and relating to God, would give us a fresh picture of God at work in our lives?  It was not my idea to get new wiper blades, nor did I think they were really necessary.  Nonetheless, those new blades changed the way I see what is in front of me.

A Litany of Questions

O God, for every sin and short coming that we have confessed, you have forgiven us.

Are we more forgiving?

Day by day you wait. You wait for us to give ourselves to you. You wait for us to let you be God in our lives.

Are we more patient?

You hear our excuses. You listen to our reasons for wanting to control our own lives and choose our direction.

Are we more understanding?

You are with us every moment of everyday. We do not take a step without your notice or concern.

Are we more caring?

When our steps lead us in the wrong direction, you find us. When we fall you, you pick us up. When we hurt, you hold us close.

Are we more compassionate?

You came to us to show us your love for us. Living, teaching, healing, loving you died that we would know you and your love.

Are we more loving?

Teach us how to love each other

Lift us to your joy divine.

May we grow in love, live in love and give love to you and one another

Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Ash Wednesday, Lent and the Cross

From the side, it isn’t much of a cross sitting there on the communion table. A thin sliver of metal pointing toward the ceiling makes me wonder what all the fuss is about. With apologies to Monty Python it appears to be more a wafer thin mint than an instrument of death.

Now, the crown of thorns hanging on it looks rather menacing. Those thorns would hurt, but would they kill a man? Wound? Yes, to be certain and left untreated a nasty infection might follow, but death by thorns seems a stretch.

No, to kill Jesus with this cross we would have to take hold of it and beat him with it. One hit would likely not be enough. Death would come after repeated blows.  Then we would have bludgeoned him to death. Surely, none of us have the stomach for that.

Jesus is safe.

Safe that is, unless of course he persists in this notion of living in me. Then I have a thousand ways to put him to death, to make his living irrelevant, to make his teaching impractical and his dying mere nostalgia.

So then, maybe this cross is not the cross of Christ meant for his killing. Maybe it is my cross.  A cross meant to remind me each day that I am the one that needs to do the dying as impossible as that may be.

How is it possible? I never have to be reminded to think of myself, to serve myself, to protect myself, to do what is best for me. Only through indulgence, sloth and pride do I harm myself. Where would I find the will, the courage to die so that he might live in me?

Is it possible that God’s grace is that sufficient?

Spring Cleaning

The Gospel of John begins with soaring language about the Word of God taking on flesh and about true light coming into the world. The Word of God is living among us full of grace and truth giving us the power to become children of God. God is true light shining in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome.

Quickly, the story moves from the wonder and majesty of incarnation to the everyday lives of real people. There is wedding in Cana. When the wine runs out, Jesus saves the day by turning water into wine.

After the wedding, Jesus finds himself in the temple. There he sees much of the world’s wisdom on display and little of God’s. He is angry. The Cleansing begins. An interesting exchange takes place between some Jews and Jesus. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews wonder how Jesus can raise up something in three days that has been under construction for forty-six years. He was talking about himself as the temple.

The temple, a place to worship God and encounter God’s power and majesty, is a structure. Jesus says I am the temple. I am the place, the structure, the means whereby people will come into the presence of God. I am the connecting point. In Christ, is the fullness of God. Coming to Jesus, one encounters the wonder of God Holiness, the wideness of God’s grace and the depth of God’s of love. Jesus is the person and the place where God is met. Jesus is the temple.

So, what is going on in your temple? Is a party breaking out? Are blind eyes seeing, deaf ears hearing and captives being set free? Not so much, you say. Things are a little dry, you say. Why don’t you try to learn something new? Choose a gospel and read it all the way through. Keep a pen and paper handy so that you can jot down details that you were unaware of or had not noticed in previous study. You will be amazed at how many new things that you can learn reading an old, familiar book. If you don’t want to learn something, then do something. Set aside some time, 15 minutes, an hour or day it doesn’t matter. Just set aside some time and put that time in your temple, put it in Jesus. Use the time to do a Jesus kind of activity. Sit with a friend who is sick or alone. Call someone who needs some cheer or listening ear. Feed some hungry people. Fix something that is broken. You can do almost anything. Just give the time to Jesus. Offer it to him as offering and see what happens in your temple. See what happens in space where you meet God.

Which direction is your temple pointed? Is it pointed toward you or toward God? Don’t be embarrassed if your temple is pointed toward you. That would be our natural inclination. Certainly, the society in which we live would underscore the necessity of focusing our energy, attention and resources on ourselves. The temptation is great in each of us to make American idols of ourselves, turning our worship away from God and toward our own lives. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are quick to settle for just loving ourselves.

Lent is a time for asking these sorts of questions. We know Easter is coming. We know that Jesus will be crucified, buried and resurrected. The question is will it be enough? Will it be enough to cause us to give our lives to him? Can we trust him enough to move our lives into this temple? To be in Christ, so that Christ can do with us as he pleases? It seems like a risky proposition doesn’t it? The alternative seems safer, but it is not. In clinging to the notion that our lives belong to us, we cling to our own destruction.

We have a Leak!

“We have a leak!” Those are frightening words to hear if you live near or work in a facility that produces or stores hazardous material. Dreadful words, if it is your job to make sure that those materials do not leak. Troublesome words indeed, if it is your job to stop the leak and clean up the mess that has been made. Those words can be just as frightening, dreadful and troublesome when the leak is not hazardous and not in a nearby plant, but in your home.

“We have a leak! I can hear it.” The first response in any crisis situation comes from a well-prepared public relations department. I can do this in my sleep, which is good because I still am half asleep. “No, you must be mistaken.”

“No, we have a leak.”

“No, we don’t. Are you sure? Maybe, it just sounds like a leak.”

“It is a leak!”

“How can you be sure? Can you see it? If you can’t see it, you can’t be sure that it is a leak.”

“Get out of bed and see for yourself!”

“Well, if it is a leak and we don’t yet know that it is, maybe it is not a very bad leak.”

“Get in here!”

The time for public relations is done, which is just as well because I had very little expectation of being able to talk my way out of a leak, since she is almost always right about these things. Well, ok, she is always right about these things. At any rate, it is time to get some boots on the ground and do a little reconnaissance.

So there I am standing in the bathroom that I have spent the better part of my life remodeling, or so it seems, and I hear it in all of its frightening, dreadful, troublesome fury. It is not a leak, it is a deafening cascade. It is a torrent of water rushing from the confines of a copper pipe to the sweet liberty of the wall behind my new shower and ultimately to the ground beneath my house.

I need a chaplain. I am spiritually distressed. I hear water dripping, but how do I get to it? Not through any of the freshly painted walls in this room, I can promise you that! Through the bedroom, up the hall and into the other bathroom, I am looking at the wall that is shared with the bathroom that I just left. Looking down, I see wet wall board. We have found our entry point.

After removing a sink, a bathroom countertop and a two-foot by eight-foot section of wall board, I am looking at the water pipes that supply my shower. There is the leak. The good news is the leak is in the pipe and not in one of the joints where I put the pipe together while remodeling the bathroom. It is a small consolation, but at this point I need whatever I can get.

Finally it is time to go to the home improvement store. Getting the few items I need to fix the leak should be no problem. Talking to the man with the gentle voice in the plumbing aisle, I wonder out loud if I should buy a pipe cutter fearing that I might not be able to locate the one that I already have. He discourages me saying that a pipe cutter will add six or seven dollars to my bill. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I let his frugal urgings keep me from purchasing the pipe cutter. Even as I leave the store without it, I know that I am making a big mistake. I know that I will not be able to find it, but I drive all the way home to prove my point. Then I go back to the store to buy a pipe cutter. After that, the repair is easily accomplished.

I did not like having to buy a tool that I knew I already possessed. Having a tool and not knowing its location is frustrating. Having a tool and not knowing how to use it is also frustrating. That happened to me the first time that I used a pipe cutter and it made the job more difficult than it should have been.

As we journey toward Jerusalem during this Lenten season, we face a similar problem, though in a spiritual way. Calvary is not a tool, not something that we can hold in our hand and manipulate. It is a gift—a life changing gift. What God did in Christ makes it possible for us to be in the most profound of relationships. In Christ, God brings us into God’s family. We become sons and daughters of God, children of God, in a way that we were not before Christ, before Calvary, before Easter.

A lifetime is not enough time to experience the mystery and wonder of this gift. Yet, too often we go in the other direction. We are content to store this amazing gift in the garages and utility rooms of our lives. When emergencies arise we go looking for it. If we are fortunate, we find it in the last place we left it. An experience we had long ago at youth camp, a memorable moment in Vacation Bible School, a warm sensation when our first child was born, we remember that God has spoken to us through the years and has been near our lives. Looking back, we remember something exciting and fresh, an encounter with God. But having left it in the corners of our lives gathering dust, it does not seem to fit where we are now.

We know we have it, but we do not know quite what to make of it or do with it. We have often heard about God, God’s love, grace and mercy. Yet, in the midst of our failures and difficulties, we find ourselves unaware of how that love, grace and mercy might repair our lives and point us toward hope.

The relationship that God wants with each of us is not a one time event. It is an ongoing, everyday experience. Often times we hear people talking about what they are giving up for Lent. I wonder if we might not be better served if we took a different approach. What if we added something for Lent? What if each day for just a few minutes we took the time to ponder the wonders of this thing that God has done for us?

The Reality of Hope

Coming to terms with reality is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes the reality that is before us is such that we would rather avoid it than come to terms with it. Confronting it is uncomfortable and distressing. When we think about it, we are frightened and sad.

Coming to terms with reality sounds like a good thing to do. The very notion of doing so seems to imply maturity. When we come to terms with the situations that arise in our lives we demonstrate our maturity and our ability to cope. I suppose coming to terms with reality is a good thing.

However, I do have some reservations. The reality that I am confronting is my mother’s cancer. The doctor did call it that this week. Before, he had hinted at it, saying it without really saying. This week, he said it. He said that he is as sure as he can be that mom has cancer. I am sure that he is as sure as he can be.

Nonetheless, I still have reservations about confronting this reality. Confronting may not be the best word. I have some reservations about accepting this reality. Hope keeps me from too quickly giving in to this reality. In a way, hope is something of an occupational hazard for me. I am hopeful because I have seen people with cancer receive treatment and respond to it positively. I have seen people who were in bad shape rebound and recover. One day a man lying in the hospital bed barely appeared to be alive. The next day he is sitting up, getting up and talking. No one expected that to happen, but it did. Having seen that sort thing happen through the years on more than one occasion causes hope to take hold. Maybe there are medical reasons for such things happening, but I have seen doctors and nurses marvel at the mystery of an unexpected recovery.

Hope is the nobler reason for my unwillingness to accept this reality. My other reason is less rational. I am thinking this is too soon. There are other things, events and moments that she needs to experience. The image of my grandmother holding our boys in her arms is one that I treasure. That is an image I want for them to have with their grandmother. It is too soon for that to happen. There are still other images that I want for them to create with their grandmother and times that I want for them to have with her, more times that I want to have with my mom. It is too soon.

It is too soon, as if there is somewhere out there a point in time that would not be too soon. The time comes when it comes and we are never ready for it. No matter how prepared we may think we are we are not ready for it. We are not ready because we just cannot get ready to lose, to be without that which we have not lost nor been without in such a permanent way. We do not get ready for such a parting as much as we learn after the fact how the one we have lost remains with us still. Gone to be sure, but present with us as a result having spent a lifetime of giving herself to us, and pouring out her energy, effort and love on our behalf. Still, it is too soon.

It is too soon, because at least for today, the time has not yet come. Today, hope prevails. Reality, any reality, without hope is bleak indeed. We are blessed if we know the one who gives to us a hope that can penetrate any reality no matter how desperate that reality may be. Hoping with that kind of hope is not denying reality. This is true because that hope was brought into the world on the darkest of days under the bleakest of circumstances. That hope was brought to us on a cross and offered to us with the rolling away of a stone that revealed to us an empty tomb.

We are invited to embrace this hope, by denying ourselves, taking up our own instrument of death and following Christ, the one who is our hope. Being hopeful is not denying reality. Hope does not cause us to deny or even avoid the pain and suffering of this life. Hope does see us through such suffering and greets us on the other side.

Lent as Parent: Watching Over the State of our Union with God.

Did you watch President Obama’s address to Congress this week? In listening to the president address Congress and the nation, I heard a challenge that stood out from the rest of his speech. It struck me as a notion that, if implemented on a broad scale, would have more impact on our nation and our world than any other idea or program that President Obama put forth in his speech. The essence of the idea was simply for parents to parent. President Obama expressed it this way:

In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.

The idea that education begins at home is beyond dispute. What often gets lost in our world to day is that the responsibility for education begins at home as well. The President’s five suggestions to parents were remarkably simple. Parents should attend parent/teacher conferences, help with homework, turn off the TV, put away video games and read to their children. How radical is that?

There I was watching a political speech thinking I was going to hear about ideas and initiatives for how our government was going to move our country forward, but right in the middle of the speech I was taken to a different place. Instead of thinking about current issues and evaluating proposals for dealing with them, I was thinking about being a parent and my effectiveness at nurturing and encouraging my children. The responsibility shifted from Washington to Etheld Reda Drive, from the government to the Sunday-Winters family, from someone else to me.

Like a paragraph in a speech that shifts our focus from one perspective to another, the Christian Calendar moves us to look again at ourselves and our relationship with God. The season of Lent would parent us if we would allow it to do so. It tells us with urgency and resolve what we should be doing in some measure all along. It invites us and urges us to examine our spiritual condition.

As parents, when go to open house at our child’s schools, we a get a picture of what is happening that notes from the teacher and updates told by our children cannot give us. When we sit down for a conference with our child’s teachers, we are face to face with the one doing the teaching. Lent says to us that we need to be present for a different kind of parent teacher conference, one that involves ourselves and the triune God. Gathered in the loving presence of our heavenly Parent, our teacher, the Holy Spirit, describes the ways in which we have learned to live out the sacrifice of our savior, Jesus Christ. Such a conference also reveals for us the ways where we still need to learn and grow and the ways we neglect the lessons of our saviors sacrifice.

Lent tells us that there is homework to be done. The TV needs to be turned off and the video games put away. In short, whatever so fills up our days that we have no time left to be in the loving, teaching, listening presence of God needs to be turned off and put away. Turned off and put away so that we can hear ancient stories of Gods amazing love read to us again by the Holy Spirit who abides with us always.

The Christian Calendar is a gift given to us from the saints who have preceded us in the faith. They are our mothers and fathers in the faith and the calendar is in a sense their way of being spiritual parents to us. The calendar that has taken shape through all these years of church history, tells us it is time to sit down, be still and listen.

As believers in Christ and followers of Jesus, we are always inclined to help one another. Being available to each other is one the important ways that we live out the call of God in our lives. However, in this reflective season of Lent there is a question that each of us has to answer for our own selves. We listen to each other share the wisdom of our shared journey. We worship, study and learn together. But after we have been to church, when Sunday School class is over and our fellowship has finished up for the night, the question remains, how do things stand with you and God?

That is the question that no one else can answer for us. That is the question that the season of Lent asks us. How are things with you and God? Not, how are things with God and the world? Not, how are things with God and your country? Not even, how are things with God and your church? How are things with God and you?