RESET

This is not how I expected to spend the day after Thanksgiving. No, I am not in line at Walmart or Lowe’s waiting for a door-buster. I am sitting at a Starbucks waiting for word on the state of our car, the one we just purchased. It has a hitch in the transmission and we are hoping it is not terribly bad. The service center where my car is being diagnosed is quite a distance from my home, so I am waiting.

That seems appropriate for Advent – waiting for news – good news, I hope. And while I wait, I have time to think about the coming year and the things I hope to see come about (sounds suspiciously like goal setting). In a way, this time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s becomes the chance to hit a reset button. What have I wanted to do in 2017 and what would I like to see happen in 2018?

I wait and consider reading a book while I wait. Maybe I will be inspired or challenged and reconsider the size and scope of one of my goals. Or maybe it will shape what I will preach this Sunday, or change the direction of the Christian Growth class we are leading.

Today could also be one great reset button. It is a day just to breathe, a gift from my car to me for its ills. It becomes a day retreat, a chance to stop amidst the busyness of life and enjoy some down time. Cheryl often asks if I actually take a break on Fridays, which is my typical day off. Now I really have to be off.

Today, I stop and hit the reset button. It will not reset life or direction. It just resets me. I have this moment in life to “power down” from the constant push forward. I can blog, journal, think, or do none of these. Okay, I blogged. And it will be okay if I accomplish little else. I am sitting in a Starbucks and resetting.

Genesis 2:2-3 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

It would seem if it were good enough for God, it is good enough for me as well.

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EXPECTING THE BEST

keep-calm-and-expect-the-best

Dreaming is fun. When a group of friends dream together, the air crackles with the energy of the possibilities being generated in the room. That is, until someone like me begins to ground the ideas in the reality of pitfalls and problems. After one such dream session again deadened by my lack of optimism, one of my friends finally asked me, “Don’t you ever expect the best?”

That question hit me square in the heart. By nature, I am a problem solver.  And where there is no problem, sometimes I look for something to fix any way. When looking at ideas or reviewing something we have accomplished, I easily see the pitfalls that need to be fixed.  That starts with recognizing there are pitfalls.

The “gift” itself has a pitfall, at least in my practice of it. That pitfall is not recognizing the good that is in front of me.  I have to consciously and intentionally look for what is good, what will work, or what has worked.  Maybe it is better said that I need to put the search for problems on the back burner and let the good come to a boil first. Then we can return to the issues that might hamper the good stuff.

Over time, my processing has changed.  I look for what is good and name it before trying to make adjustments. I actually make it a point to speak some of positive I see before going into problem-finding mode.

Beyond a personal confession, what does this have to do with anything?

Given the widespread uncertainty and tension around us, a common question that circles around us is, “What bad thing is coming next?”   We wonder what else could happen that will rock the world and not in a good way.  Is it even possible to expect anything good?

There are people in my church congregation that are experiencing hard times in their bodies, jobs, and even relationships. It has gone on for so long or come on so strongly and suddenly that they ask, “Is there any good to expect?”

Enter the Psalmist who wonders with us:

“Many people say, ‘Who will show us better times?’” (Psalm 4:6a)

Is there any good we can expect? Can we dream of the best and not have it thwarted by some form of evil or hardship?

The psalmist lamented that the times were hard and the only thing we could do is pray, keep our hearts right, and not scream into our pillows. How does one expect the best when the best cannot be found?

While the Psalmist speaks hard truth, he also has this center of hope and makes his plea to Yahweh:

Let your face smile on us, Lord.
You have given me greater joy
than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine.
In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe. (Psalm 4:6b-8)

The best good things come from the Lord – our joy, our provision, our rest. Who can show us any good? If we rely on friends, they may fail us. If we rely on government, it will not come through. If we rely on ourselves, we will not fulfill our own good because we cannot do and be all things, no matter how competent or charismatic. The best comes from the Lord. When he smiles on us and turns his face towards us, we will know the best. we can expect the best.

Okay, I hear it in my head – I asked the Lord for the best and nothing changed. I have known this as well. I have asked for relief or change. It did not matter in the moment. Nothing happened. So why should I have hope? How can I still expect the best? Because the Lord himself keeps his word and gives his word at the right time. His own character says he will show us good and be with us in hard times. This does not translate into God doing what we expect or want. It means he will gives us what is best for us. In receiving his best in his time, we can have great joy and sleep in peace.

I usually do not want to hear this in the middle of pain and doubt. This is perspective I have come to only after going through some deep waters in the past. I may yet have deep waters ahead. And the Lord will be the same in those times. He will be faithful and he will bring me through to a place of rest and joy. It is His best that I can expect.

ALWAYS AT THE BEGINNING

quotefancy-2818654-3840x2160.jpgThe fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
    To him belongs eternal praise.

Psalm 111:10

I was reading the above passage together with Ezekiel 15 and 16.  In those verses, the elders of Ezekiel’s time went to the Lord for a word.  But the Lord told them they came to him as they would a fortune teller.  He was just one among many “gods” of whom they would inquire.  And the Lord refused to indulge them.  If they wanted a word so much, they should go consult one of their oracles – or return to him alone.

Those who fear the Lord will hear him, be known by him and be marked as His.  Those who follow his precepts have a good understanding.  The Lord invites them to come to him for wisdom and knowledge.  He invites us to know him.

If we truly want to know God in all his facets, we face an eternal task, an impossible feat.  In reality, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the depth of that wisdom cannot be found.  One lives “at the beginning” of that search always.

Though this is true,  we must not give up the quest.  We must be willing to see the quest in all its facets – it is wanting to know the Lord is all his being, even if we can only grasp the smallest fraction of that knowing.  It is living righteously in personal life as well as in dealing with neighbors.  It is keeping our personal and professional affairs pure and being concerned about all God has made – human and the rest of creation.  It is not hedging our bet by keeping a god or two on the side to consult when we question the word of the Lord.

I am only at the beginning of an eternal search, a quest that leads to knowing, grasping and beating with the heart of God.  While I may only be at the beginning, I can rest assured that this journey is worth every step for there is more than enough wisdom for humanity in this quest than in all the other quests one can undertake.

COURAGE FOR TODAY

I continue to be a part of a group of people seeking to have courageous conversations with one another.  What makes them courageous is we all come from different points of view that have been used by some to create division.  We want to talk to one another about how we came toImage result for courage understand life as we do and how that affects our decisions.  No one is being asked to change their views, but be open to hearing how others view life.  It does not seem like too much to ask.

However, we all realize that this process sparks fear.  The concern is what happens if I am exposed to ideas that might shape or affect my deeply held beliefs.  What if I am changed by the process?  What if I look at my beliefs and suppositions differently?  That certainly is fearful.  It takes courage to face the possibility of change.

It also seems to take a lot of courage to live in our world today.  The headlines scream fear.  We fear the effects of two hurricanes (with more to come?), the actions of the current US administration (repeal of DACA and mangling the health care system), the push and pull over monuments to past actions (some see sin, others see pride), and the actions of a world leader who seems so far away, but whose impetuous style leads him to believe he can strike our homeland with a nuclear missile.  This is not the sum total of our world’s issues.  But these alone cause fear and one’s opinion of them causes fear in others.

The world is unstable and it seems there is much to fear.

I believe that this level of instability is unprecedented.  Certainly, we are more aware of what is transpiring in the world than past generations.  Also, we know of events and decisions almost as they happen.  The news comes at us so quickly that we cannot form a response fast enough to cope with it all.  It is easier to take sides, put a stake in the ground, and declare a point of view, right or wrong, and not consider whether there are other options or points of view to weigh.  It is easier to give in to fear.

Today, we need courage, not fear.

Courage today would be to resist the urge to jump to conclusions or take a side without knowing what another person thinks or how someone is affected by today’s events. Courage would be sitting at the table and asking for dialogue and not debate.  Courage would be noting the fair and valuable points in another’s point of view.  Courage would be seeing that, sometimes, people on opposite sides of an issue want the same thing.

Our courageous conversation group is still feeling its way forward and hoping to see more people come to the table.  We have our own issues in our little borough that are dividing neighbors – should we build a new middle school or not and how should policing happen here in this area.  We would hope to learn to speak candidly and kindly, sharing points of view but calming the rancor of the current debates.  As we invite more people to the table, we will do so with courage. After all, someone might have a good idea that needs to be heard and needs the courage of others to help say it.

SHAM-LESS

Last week, I preached a sermon on Shameless Prayer at my home church. The point was that we can come to God boldly (Luke 11 suggests with audacity) when we come to him in prayer. We do not have to worry that God sees us coming or that we have nothing worthy about to which to speak with him. SPEAK!! Pray.

Only, I found out later that a couple of my slides were misspelled. The first “e” in shameless was left out. A good friend, Paula, pointed this out. I had been promoting SHAM–less prayer. But she also pointed out that it would make a great blog as well because when we come to God, we should not come with pretense or masks. Pray should not be a sham.

I could not agree more. We may come boldly, but we should not think to come with prayers dressed in pretty words or with good-sounding intentions. God is able to see through these to the heart of the matter. Rather, when we come with audacity, come and say what we mean to say and pray what we intend to ask for. It is the proverbial “lip-stick on the pig” when we pray with coats of presumed holiness or self-less desire.

What parent has not had a child come to them and ask with a measure of sincerity for something he or she really wants, but also hears the child make the request sound noble or more needful than it really is. Do you really need a new smart phone? Is that money really necessary? Why do you need that shirt right this minute?

The parent has heard this before and probably knows when the true intent is shammed inside the slip of a better sounding reason. (There is a reason we call that extra pillow on the bed a “sham.”). I believe God is an even better judge of our intentions and motives, so he knows when we approach him truthfully or with a hidden agenda.

What is the prayer that God honors? God honors the prayers that come with boldness to be sure. But he also honors prayers prayed honestly, truthfully, and with full disclosure. He honors those prayers because He is not being snowed by the prayer (as if that could be done).

Let’s pray shamelessly – with hope and audacity. Let’s pray sham-lessly, with truth and unmasked. That is where we can learn how God deals best with our prayers and where we can align our hearts’ desires more with our good God.

SERVING EACH OTHER’S FEET

Feet…we have a love-hate relationship with them.  We need them for standing in the occasional line or for rising upon when moved to stand.  We walk on them, run on them, and use them for pushing gas pedals, brake pedals, and bicycle pedals.  We need them, but I have found very few people who like their feet.

gross-feet

While women (and maybe some men) doll up their toes with polish or people go for the occasional pedicure, about the only person allowed to touch our feet is a professional.  Great love has no one than he lay down his life for his friend, but this somehow does not extend to touching feet.

From the time I heard Michael Card’s The Basin and the TowelI have been enthralled with the story of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet.  The Scripture does not record the reaction in the room, except for Peter.  But there surely was surprise, embarrassment, and shock that the Master of this band was stooping to do a job no one else was required to do, not even a Jewish slave.

But one thing would be true.  They were used to the washing of feet.  They had to do it often as their feet were constantly picking up the dust and refuse found on the paths and roads of their land.  For us in the U.S., we often conceal our feet in shoes and socks, occasionally placing them in sandals for relaxation or style.

Whether under paint or clothing, we hide our feet.

Michael Card points out that Jesus understood three things before he washed his disciples’ feet.  His Father had given him full control of the situation, Jesus had come from the Father, and he was returning to the Father.  What he does with his control is so … well …not like us but so like him.  He served his disciples, showing them the full extent of his love in this act of service.  Then he tells these disciples to love one another as he loved them.

 

But somehow we stop at the feet.  No one touches the feet.  We protest with Peter that Jesus cannot touch these feet.  But unlike Peter, we do it from vanity.  We will not let people touch our feet because they are awkward and even ugly.  They smell and carry the odors of a messy world.

feetwashing

In some ways, our feet are the perfect symbol of true life and true service in this world.  Our feet get messy and even smell and might be gross to touch.  But they need to be cleaned.  When someone is willing to bow and wash another’s feet, it is a sign of true humility and grace.  When I will bow to wash your feet, I show I am willing to enter your mess to help free you from that mess.

 

So if you allow your feet to be washed, it is equally an act of humility.  You have the opportunity to admit your mess and allow someone else to enter it and help clean it up.  It is an act of service to allow someone to serve you.  You bless the giver, not robbing them of the blessing of service by letting them be with you in the dust and smell that had clung to your life.  When you will yield to let your feet be washed, you show that you are willing to let someone into your mess to help free you from that mess.

To use Michael’s phrase,

 

a “fragile bridge” is built between two people, one who kneels and one who yields.  This bridge brings the two into a relationship, one that invokes the image of the upper room and the actions of Jesus towards his disciples.

I would say that I would advocate for bringing back foot-washing as a practice so that we can learn again to serve and be served.  I know some treat this act as symbolic.  So is baptism and communion, but we don’t treat those as options for the Lord’s people.  If we are blessed to do what the King himself did for his followers, we can do no less.

Recently, a woman in our church stopped an older gentleman to tell him his shoe was untied.  Then she knelt and tied his shoes.  She got as close as anyone in my recent memory to washing a person’s feet.  I believe we need more of this, in actual practice and in acts that symbolize the spirit of foot-washing, where we enter the hard parts of people’s lives and help them by washing away the dirt to reveal the beautiful creation that their feet represent.

We serve the living God of the Universe who manifested himself in the flesh through Jesus.  Now everything in heaven and earth is under Jesus’ feet (read has all authority in all matters of existence).  Since he has shown us what a king in full control of all things will do by washing his follower’s feet, we can do no less.  And if we will wash feet and let our feet be washed, we will serve and we will be blessed.

ALL TOO HUMAN JESUS

I scrolled through the headlines of the subscription email when one particular headline caught my eye. It referred to the one word that they felt summed up Jesus the best. Of course, I would have to click on the link to read what that one word was. As the article came up, the word was not in the headline or in the first paragraph. It showed up a couple paragraphs down. The author claimed that the one word that summed up Jesus the best was…human.

This is an attractive word for us. God came to us with skin on bone. He experienced the human condition, lived with joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, exuberance and grief. He even knew what tempts us, experiencing for himself the forces that seek to reinforce our brokenness and separate us from God. Jesus knew what it means to be human by living it fully.

It is comforting to me to know that Emanuel was not just a good theological idea or a story made to sound like it should have happened. God did something that only God could do. In love, he went beyond the expectations of our limited minds and came among us, even allowing us to cause him great physical pain in order to give the Deity a tangible form to communicate his love and design to humanity.

But I fear we are becoming so comfortable wth that humanity that we are forgetting his deity, making him more human than God.

The confession of the church over the years has been that Jesus was the ultimate conundrum of existence, fully God and fully human in the same space at the same time. He came to us not as one or the other, but wholly both. He came as the transcendent God who spoke at creation, on Sinai, and at Jerusalem. He came to the people he chose out of al the families of the earth. He came FOR all the families of the earth and continues to speak through his Holy Spirit and the written word we received from times past.

He was fully human in all he experienced…but he was without sin. He did not give in to the brokenness. He pushed back on the darkness and was not overcome. After all, darkness cannot overcome light. He was light and his light was the life we all have.

So when we enjoy or elevate the humanity of Jesus (and to be fair, this author acknowledged the Lord's divinity), we do so at the risk of diminishing his divinity. To emphasize that Jesus' humanity is a good summation of his being is to leave his God-nature on shaky ground or slipping away altogether .

I fear this has already happened in some ways. In my particular tribe, We say we follow Jesus. What I understand this to mean is that we follow Jesus as he appears in the gospel. This Jesus is separated from any other mention of God in the Old or New Testament unless that reference is linked directly to the Gospel accounts. Anything we can learn from Jesus only comes from the Gospels.

Certainly the appearance of Jesus is a unique communication from God, different from the prophets and other communicators before him. While being unique, Jesus is not somehow blasting into time from eternity and saying things that were not consistent with other communications. Jesus spoke before the Gospels and spoke after the gospels. To me this means if we are going to follow Jesus, we seek to understand all his words, even those he did not speak in the flesh.

There are other finer points that certainly need untangling and I just know I can't do it here and now. There are questions about how the Lord of Love could order his people to wipe out other peoples. What do we do with Scripture that suggests that the old is fading or even obsolete?

My overarching concern is that we do not mute or lessen the divinity of Jesus as we remember and relate to his humanity. An all too human Jesus, weakened by a lesser view of his place within the Trinity, is able to give us great wisdom and teaching, but cannot give us hope and a future without his being God as well.

GENEROSITY IN COURAGEOUS CONVERSING

a-modest-proposal-for-peaceA number of years ago, I saw this poster in our school dining hall.  While I was not from an Anabaptist background, I recognized the sentiment as being true to the words and desire of Jesus that his people be one and be willing to extend grace generously to each other.

I mentioned in a previous blog that a group in our community wanted to explore courageous conversation, where people coming from different and often opposing views learn to have a good and civil conversation over hard issues.  A group of us met today to start that process and it is clear that we are all feeling our way forward.  There is a real sense that this just has not been done and we really do not know what we are doing!

But I guess that is part of the process in these polarized times.  We are trying to do something that is not done or done well in our experience.  We are trying to do it in the midst of bitter social and political discourse.  We even wonder if we can do it and if it will be of any value or have any good outcome.

As we spoke today about getting this off the ground, the word that kept going through my mind was generosity.  If this is going to work, there will need to be a spirit of generosity among those who partake.  This is not the generosity of finance or material goods.  It is a generosity of grace towards one another, even as we disagree.

This seems to be the hardest thing to find in conversations.  Strong and emotional opinions seem to justify communicating, “I am right and you are wrong.”  I do believe removing emotion only blunts arguments and turns them into philosophical trysts.  The emotion we feel is part of the package of our understanding.  The emotions express the feeling of the matter that the words alone cannot carry.

Leading with emotions, however, brings an open justification to stand the ground.  Emotions lead us to see the other person as the argument we disagree with rather than one who holds a different opinion or point of view.  If the person is the argument and I disagree with the argument, then I can treat the person with less grace.

And so even devoted followers of Jesus stop seeing brothers and sisters in each other and see someone who is somehow less deserving of grace, maybe even an enemy.

In the least, Jesus was very clear that we needed to love our enemies.  Is our conversation representing Christ or our own inner desire to be heard?  To further this, Paul reminded the Colossian believers to bear with each other and forgive one another even as God in Christ had forgiven them. Does our current crisis of civility give us the opening to set aside the words of Christ that are to live in us so that we can say what we want and speak as we will?

To speak with those with whom I disagree – and who disagree with me – takes generosity of spirit and grace.  It means I see the person in front of me and believe that this person also wants what is good and right even if we do not see all issues or outcomes the same.  To seek to be generous is to extend graciousness in my words and tone and measure, knowing my limits and owning my emotions as part of the conversation while not putting the listener on the defensive.

Our work is just getting started here in Pennsylvania.  I believe what we are doing in my home area is learning to practice grace, the first grace being that we are willing to know each other and tackle hard issues together in generous grace.  As it moves along, I trust I will be as generous towards others as I desire for them to be generous towards me.

 

GRATEFUL IN THE MIDST OF IT ALL

It has been a rough week, but I am grateful in the midst of it all.

grateful-rock

Personally, things are well, which is a huge reason to be grateful.

But we have friends who are struggling, who are hurting, who endure loss, grief, and pain.  We have friends who are ready to give up, who are struggling to hold on, and some who are too far away to hug. 

Their burdens are our burdens and we bear them together.  So we are feeling that grief and pain and confusion along with them.  

In the midst of all this, I am grateful.

  • I am grateful that we have friends.
  • I am grateful that we have friends who have carried burdens with us and whose burdens we can help shoulder.
  • I am grateful that we can offer comfort and companionship.
  • I am grateful that there are rays of hope for some and they are on the way back.
  • I am grateful that these seasons do not last forever.

I am grateful that, in the midst of it all, I know a source of life that is a person, Jesus Christ.  As Isaiah described him, 

He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. (Isaiah 53:3, NLT)

I am grateful that Jesus knows first hand the hardship of being the only good and perfect person to walk the earth and still endure hardship and pain, even to the pain of the cross.  

Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.  In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. (Hebrews 5:8-9)

And now we have this same call, to comfort others as we have been comforted.  We gratefully stand with those who are hurting.  

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (2 Corinthians 1:4)

I grieve with my friends and ache for them. Yet I remain grateful in the midst of the hurt and pain.  This is a season that will come and go.  In this season, I am grateful for the many friends who stood with me over the years.  I am grateful that I can now stand with others who need comfort.

I pray you are able to be grateful today in the midst of your life.

INVITED TO COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION

What do you think would happen if a group of believers in Jesus of divergent political and social persuasion sat down in a room and talked?

people_talking_over_coffeeThe ministers of our area gather once a month to build relationships and work out our role and impact in the community.  At one such meeting, an invitation was made by one of the churches to consider gathering a group of people of diverse political leanings for a courageous conversation.

Given the hostility that appears to have seized most of the political conversations before and since the 2016 elections, it was no wonder there was a bit of shifting in the seats.  Would such conversation really serve any purpose?

The gentleman who sent the proposal was very aware of these dynamics.  He was also aware that his own congregation was made up of one type of voice and that they had not learned to listen to any voices that differed from their own.  He wondered if there was any way to build a conversation that would be meaningful and helpful to all.

So I joined the effort to bring about this group.  At one point, we thought we might try to do this among a larger group, but realized that a mustard-seed approach would be better.  We will start with a small group of interested parties and see if we build helpful and healthy dialogue.  

I must admit I have some apprehension about this.  I have a moderately right-leaning perspective, one that finds a home in my congregation, but not seemingly welcome in other circles.  

What gives me hope here is that the gentleman who proposed this sincerely wants to listen.  He wants to know what voices other than his are saying and what minds other than the ones with which he is at home are thinking.  I feel less defensive knowing that I will likely be heard.  

His desire to listen has awakened that same desire in me.  This is not a conversation to decide who is right or wrong, but to understand and discover common ground.  Just as I believe I will be heard, I want to have the posture of listening.

Now, what follows is truly what is most important to me.  We are a group that all claim to follow the Lord Jesus.  If there is any group that should be able to do this, it is a group of believers who follow the same Lord and have the same Spirit moving among them.  I am sure some would question whether these assumptions are true.  I suppose the fruit of these conversations will let us know what or who is truly at work.

What is true is that we will never know for certain unless we are courageous enough to sit with one another and hear each other speak.  We might not even speak at first about matters on which we differ.  We might just share our stories, finding that we have commonalities that we had not considered since our differences created barriers.

My oldest daughter shared with me after her graduation about the importance of sitting with another person and hearing his or her story.  The discipline of sticking with another’s story is a grace we offer people.  Their story made be true or it may be rooted in a fantasy.  But if we are willing to hear them before questioning the validity of the story, we get a sense of the being and desires of the other person.  I believe this will be at the heart of our courageous conversation as we pursue this over the next few months.  I hope to share more as the story unfolds.