Sunday, September 30, 2007

Three Hopeful Events

A few weeks ago I was blessed to experience all the major events of life in six days.

No, it wasn't the creation. That's already happened, you know. What I experienced was a birth, a funeral, and a wedding, all occurring in a six day span.

There's something about seeing a newborn and its parents that reminds me how miraculous we are. To think that we are all born helpless, totally dependent on others. Every newborn I have been around reminds me of the mystery and the beauty of our creative God. Each time I find myself in the hospital room with new parents, I am also returned to the joyous occasion of my own children's births. What joy there is in the birth of a child!

Two days later, I had to officiate a funeral. The woman who died was someone I had never met. Fortunately a member of the family was willing to speak about her life at the funeral, a trend of late in funerals that I think is very positive. As difficult as it was, I spoke at my grandfather's funeral several years ago. I came away from the experience feeling fortunate that I was able to honor his life with my spoken words.

What struck me about this particular funeral is how the same words are said at each funeral. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." "Before this person was ours, he or she was God's." "Almighty God, into your hands we place ________, a sinner of your redeeming, a lamb of your own flock." Death, like birth, is very egalitarian. We all have or will experience the deaths of those we love and someday we too (barring Jesus' return) will face our own deaths.

Finally for the first time in many years, I was actually in a wedding party. Not as the officiant mind you, but instead as one of the groomsmen. (One item to file in the memory banks--shoes that come with rented tuxes are extremely painful to my old feet. Next time I'll bring my own shoes, thank you.) It was a heartfelt joy to stand so close to the couple, though it felt somewhat voyeuristic from my post on the second step, as they recited their vows and exchanged their rings. Having personally experienced divorce and seen its tragic consequences in my life and ministry, my prayer for the bride and groom was that somehow they might find strength to trudge through the hard times. Marriage is not easy and I have come to realize there is something very special, very God-like, when we human beings keep our commitments. Especially the commitment we make to each other in the marriage covenant.

Before this six days in my life, I didn't realize how much weddings, funerals, and births have in common. Hope, blessed hope, is what these events share. A wedding is filled with the hope and promise of a life lived together in covenant relationship. A funeral is primarily a reminder of the hope of resurrection that we have in Jesus Christ. And a birth, as it is reflected off the faces of mothers and fathers, grandparents and friends, is all about the hope that is inherent in the gift of new life.

Hope. A word that we need to hear more often. A word that was witnessed in a birth, a death, and a wedding. Who says not much happens in six days?
Thanks be to God!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Is the Second Coming at Hand?

The increasing number of natural disasters of late is disturbing. A severe drought in our area has ruined crops and several people have lost their lives because of the intense heat wave that has lasted for weeks. Add to that the hurricanes striking the Caribbean and Mexico, wildfires burning in Idaho and Greece, and severe earthquakes in both Peru and Japan. Disastrous flooding in the Midwest became personal for me. I learned that Dora Horse, who was with a Native American group that visited our church at Rehoboth just last year, was swept away in the floodwaters, drowning along with her daughter and granddaughter. And if natural disasters are not enough, then think a minute about the recent headlines about people losing homes and jobs in the lending crisis, pet food and children’s toys found tainted with poisonous chemicals, a massive bridge collapse into the Mississippi river, miners trapped in a cave-in—need I go on?

I met someone recently who remarked, “There’s so much bad stuff going on in the world right now. I’m pretty sure that Jesus will be coming back very soon.” I pursed my lips and said, “Hmmm” mostly because I don’t like to engage in theological debate with people I’ve just met! My acquaintance would likely have been disturbed to learn that I never worry much about Jesus’ return, nor do I sit down regularly with my Bible attempting to decipher ancient prophecies about when it might occur. It’s not that I don’t believe Jesus will return, I do--and have affirmed often in church that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again." What I don't believe is that Jesus wants us to worry; instead Jesus instructed us to be prepared, to be ready, to be watchful. Just like many people prepare for disasters by having a battery powered radio or storing bottled water, we can best prepare for the return of Christ by sharing his love with others not just with words but also through our actions (I John 3:18).

In the gospel of Matthew, the last statement of Jesus to his disciples is this:
“And be sure of this, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20 NLT).
We should pray for, work on, and give towards easing the suffering of those caught up in the troubles of the world. Our strength does not come from looking at the state of our world with apathy hoping that Christ will return soon to make it all better. Our strength comes from knowing that Christ is with us always, ‘even to the end of the age’, no matter how bad the world seems to be getting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Wondrous Cross

The red mug, the painting of which was described in a recent posting, finally arrived. I was surprised when I looked it over to see that the cross, which was on the side I frantically tried to cover over, was still visible! The photo above, which I had to change to black and white to increase the contrast, shows the outline of the cross.

I suppose it reminds us all that no matter how you try to hide it, the cross is going to show through. Victory in Jesus indeed!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Myth Busters: Living Together Before Marriage

Recently I attended a wedding. Typically I find myself on center stage at weddings as the officiant, leading a couple through the marriage vows. However on this particular occasion I had the rare experience of sitting on the back pew observing the ceremony. What really stuck with me was the magnificent simplicity of the marriage vows. Here's what this particular couple said to each other:

In the name of God, I, (name), take you, (name), to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better or worse, for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
until we are parted by death.
This is my solemn vow.

These vows are nearly identical to the ones Kim and I recited to each other nearly 15 years ago and it was somewhat unsettling to hear this couple recite them. Isn't it intriguing how the vows reflect the truth that marriage will likely include times of hardship and sacrifice? Marriage is still popular despite the increasing number of couples that choose to live together. Most of these couples will at some point recite some similar vows and make their relationship a permanent one.

Wondering about the merits of marriage vs. living together made me curious as to what research might show about the effects of living together prior to marriage. Predictably, a Google search gave me numerous hits but one site in particular stuck out. Dr. Willard Harley, a psychologist who has written much about relationships and marriage, quotes many different studies on his web site found here.

The many studies that have been done show that the risk of divorce increases by 80%, more or less, among those who live together prior to marriage. I'm sure this confounds those who would like us to believe that there are no ill effects from living together. Fortunately, one study I read said that couples living together who attend premarital counseling prior to marriage reduce the risk of divorce, down to a nearly even level with those who do not live together before marriage.

One of the myths of our culture is that living together prior to marriage is OK. The research proves otherwise. Perhaps it's time to talk about this more in the church.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Red Mugs, Purple Feet, and the Potter's Gentle Hand

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 64:8 NIV

Last Friday afternoon was spent with my daughter Hannah at a place called Brown Dog Pottery. Hannah wanted to go because her good friend from church works there and will soon leave for college. I wanted to go because I needed a break from a hectic work week and wanted to spend time with my soon to be in high school daughter.

The store has a wide selection of paintable ceramic pottery, ranging from small tiles and figurines to plates and mugs to a "who would buy that?" two foot tall rooster. Hannah selected a jewelry box to paint, while I chose a good sized coffee mug. We sat across from each other at a long table after picking out colors and brushes.

Not having painted anything in a long, long time, I didn't anticipate how much time it was going to take. While my child quickly detailed her creation, I simply stared at mine. Trying to decide what design would most impress my friends and make my enemies cringe. Or something like that.

Hannah is extremely artistic, using colors, lines, and shapes to create one fantastic looking piece of art.

I painted my mug red.

As the red paint dried to a funny looking pink, I decided my creation needed a white "B" on it's side. This came to me only after spending an inordinate amount of time determining that the words "Red Sox" would be much too difficult to paint successfully around the side of the cup.
It seemed like eons passed as I traced a "B" on the cup with a pencil and then filled the traced "B" with white paint. Then I had to touch the edges up with red, then white, then red, then white--well, you get the idea. I didn't find it particularly helpful to be surrounded by all sorts of brightly colored, immaculately designed examples of painting by those who had gone before me. My frustration at my level of imperfection began to show through despite the girls continual reassurances that I had painted a really, really attractive "B".

Then an idea popped into my head. The other side of the mug could be different! Multicolored fish maybe, or a Bible verse, or perhaps a cross. Eventually I put a cross and a verse on the reverse side of the mug.

Sigh. It looked terrible. So I covered it up with even more bright red paint. Not satisfied with plain red, I perused the assortment of shape stamps. Finally choosing one, I put footprints, purple footprints, over the red paint. Watching the feet dry I searched for the perfect word to describe my creation, and it finally came to me.

Ridiculous. My mug looked absolutely ridiculous.

Sensing my discomfort as I disdainfully eyed my creation, Hannah's friend said, "Look, all you have to do is wipe the paint off. Cover it with a little more red, and you'll be done." Sure enough, a little water on a paper towel, some violent wiping motions, a little more red paint, and my mug with the decent looking "B" was ready for the kiln.

As I wiped the purple feet off my mug, I thought about Isaiah 64:8. About no matter how imperfect, how messed up, how sinful we can get, still all of us are all the work of God's hands and loved beyond anything we could imagine. How many times in my life have I made foolish mistakes, much more foolish than simply messing up my mug at the pottery place? And God, like a potter, always uses his tender hands to wipe our foolish mistakes away, so we can all look much less--well, ridiculous--and much more like him.

What a God this is, who is willing to work with us, to mold us and shape us into something valuable, beautiful, and priceless. A God who patiently wipes off our 'purple feet' mistakes, gently covering over them with the bright red blood of Jesus. A God who delights in filling our too human 'jars of clay' with the great treasure of his Spirit (II Cor. 4:7).

I'll not soon forget this experience at Brown Dog Pottery. A wonderful time spent with my 'little girl' who is all too quickly becoming a delightful young woman. And a powerful reminder of the awesome love of a God who shapes us with tender hands like a potter.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Refusing to Let Go of God

“…Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Genesis 32:26, NLT

Jacob’s story as it is told in the book of Genesis is one of my favorites. The story begins with Jacob camped out by the Jabbok River waiting to meet Esau, his twin brother. As you probably remember, Jacob cheated Esau out of his firstborn blessing and has now received word that Esau is about to pay him a visit accompanied by an army of 400 men undoubtedly in order to get revenge. As Jacob waits overnight and wonders what is going to happen, he ends up wrestling with a man. Because the ‘man’ saw he could not win, he wrenches Jacob’s hip from his socket. Astonishingly, even with his hip out of joint Jacob will not let go until the ‘man’ blesses him! The ‘man’, who turns out to be an angel of the Lord, finally blesses Jacob and gives him a new name, Israel, which means “he who struggles with God.”

What I most admire in this story is Jacob’s perseverance and the way he will absolutely not let go until he receives a blessing. His faith makes me wonder about my own--could I persevere with God in prayer and to not let go until God blesses? It seems that what most of us desire from our prayers are instant answers and immediate results. Yet the Bible speaks many times about persistence—from Jesus’ parable about the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18) to Paul’s many comments on persevering in prayer, such as ‘keep on praying’ (Rom.12:12), pray at all times and be persistent in your prayers (Eph. 8:18), ‘devote yourselves to prayer’ (Col. 4:2), and finally to ‘never stop praying’ (I Thess. 5:17).

For many years I have pondered the power of intercessory prayer, which is simply the type of prayer where we lift up the needs of others before God. Some people seem to have a gift for this type of prayer. Recently one of my professors described intercessory prayer as similar to when Jacob clung to God and would not let go--except in intercessory prayer we cling to God, not letting go until he blesses the person we are praying for. This certainly challenges the usual way we pray for others. Instead of just mumbling a prayer to God on someone’s behalf what if we, like Jacob, grasped God tightly and would not let go? What would it be like to persist in prayer and not give up when the answers don’t come quickly?

Would that we all could learn to be more like Jacob--unwilling to let go, daring to persist, to persevere, to hang on for dear life--as we lift others before God in prayer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Noah and the Impervious Neanderthals

3 minutes in the car tonight with my son Noah. A verbatim transcript.

"Dad, did you know that they are not going to launch the Space Shuttle anymore?"
"No I hadn't heard that."
"Yes, it is being retired. They are building a new ship that is impervious to heat, in order to fly to Mars."
Silence. Did he just say impervious?
How many 10 year olds know the word impervious?
"They want to build it within the next three years."
I want to ask him how he knows this but I'm afraid to.
Some deer are in a field next to the road.
"Oh. Hey look at all those deer! Did you see them?"
Noah looks around. "Yeah I see them."
"There were four of them. Did you see all four? One of them had horns," I say.
"Dad, deer don't have horns, they're called antlers."
"Oops. My mistake." How embarrassing.
We drive up to our house.
"Hey Noah, remember this time last year they were building our house?"
"I remember."
"And we were living in the rental house. Do you remember the rent house?"
Silence. He furrows his brow and frowns.
"I don't want to remember the rent house," he says very seriously.
"Why not?"
"Because I had to share a room with that Neanderthal named Hannah Potts."
Ah, yes. I also had a Neanderthal sibling. A terrible thing to deal with. I want to assure him that Neanderthals do get better over time, but he'll find that out for himself.
Interesting what one can learn by spending a few short minutes in the car with a child!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Let's Have Church at Bonnaroo

Time for confession.

I went to Bonnaroo. Yes, THE Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held on a 700 acre farm outside Manchester, Tennessee. With my good friend and music mogul Al B. Who drove us down in his turbocharged Mini Cooper. Yes, it was cool. Very, very cool.

An estimated 85,000 people were there I heard. Lots and lots and lots of people.

Let me tell you first of all, Bonnaroo was not as wild and crazy as we are led to believe. Is there wildness? Sure, in spots. Is it crazy? Not quite. Then again, I was there on Saturday night only and just for a few hours. The draw for myself and many of my middle aged peers was simply to witness this stop on the reunion tour of that aging rock trio from our collective past known as the Police.

The Police concert was excellent, though a close observer might have noted a distinct lack of passion in the band's performance. Our passes got us very close to the stage, so close in fact after their third song I began to wonder if I would be able to hear my beloved children arguing with each other ever again. Midway through the show, Al and I left the front of the stage for the posh digs of a luxurious tour bus, enabling us to sit in wondrous air conditioned comfort, courtesy of Al's producer friend. Not the usual 'roonie' experience, I suppose, but a lucky break for an ex-hippie pastor and his aching ears. Being able to leave behind the dust and the smoke was a bonus.

But I digress, as my intent is not to review the show nor talk about great it was to hang out with Al and his music biz friends. I want to know why there was no church at Bonnaroo. Specifically no church from my denomination. Please understand that I did not walk every square inch of the farm down in Manchester looking for someone from a church. I'm simply betting we had no presence there at all other than myself pumping my fist in the air during 'Message In A Bottle'. Friends, I believe that having no church presence at Bonnaroo is a mistake.

Now before someone calls the bishop and attempts to have me defrocked for posting heresy on the 'net, let me tell you what my first person experience there taught me. Bonnaroo attracts the very demographic that the mainline church can't seem to reach no matter how hard we try. The young people we are constantly wringing our hands over because they do not come to our churches were at this festival in droves. At first I believed they came because of the music. Maybe that was not the true reason. On the way home, deep in thought, it came to me.

While music and arts are obvious draws, maybe what these young people sought the most was the feeling of being a part of something bigger than themselves. To join a community of like minded people united in a common goal, sharing a common experience. Leaving behind a life that doesn't have much going on in it and coming to Bonnaroo for a few days.

Doesn't this sound very similar to the description of the church as it is written in the biblical book of Acts? A group of people united around a common experience (the death and resurrection of Christ), sharing a common experience together (gathered at the table for communion), so they could ultimately be a part of something bigger than themselves (the redemption of the world). Leaving a life that was not much to brag about so that they could instead be filled with the Spirit and life of Jesus. Wow.

I want to go back to the farm in Manchester. Not to hear the umpteenth inevitable reunion concert put on by a band from my generation. I want to go back and represent Christ there. Rent a booth. Give away lots of bottles of water. Silently pray for people as they pass by. Assist those who need help. Mix, mingle, and meet. No Christian t-shirts or giving away Bibles or asking for donations or anything like that. Instead go there with the express purpose of being salt and light and yeast and all those other metaphors Jesus gave us to help us understand our mission to the world. A mission to love people unconditionally, while being the church, the very presence of the living Jesus Christ. Right smack in the middle of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.

Of course there will be an outcry from those who think they know better. I hear their rumblings in the distance--"Going to Bonnaroo is a disaster in the making! You'll ruin your witness for the Lord!" they could say, or maybe warn "you might fail a drug test from all the secondhand, um, smoke that will get into your system" or "you'll end up being tempted to do something really awful that might make the news, embarrassing us all" or "Don't you know there will be strange new age practices going on, even those Wiccans will be there.' And on and on it could go. Someone might even question our motives by saying, "Why would you want to hang around with such scum?"

You might already know that they said the same thing to Jesus many years ago when he was at a dinner party with some unsavory, un-church-worthy folks (Mark 2:16 NLT). What a magnificent response he uttered to the snide comments made about the company he dined with. It's worth reading when you get a chance. Good stuff. God stuff.

I think we need to have church at Bonnaroo next year. Who's going with me?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Obey Your Thirst

“O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1

Weeks without any rain have made our backyard look like the Judean desert. What little grass we have, in between the rocks and the weeds, is brown and lifeless. In some places the ground is so parched that it has become cracked and even walking around stirs up clouds of dust. Seeing my yard in this state reminded me of Psalm 63, where the Psalmist compares his search for God with being in a dry, weary land that has no water.
Sometimes our spiritual lives can feel desert-like, dry and weary. God’s presence seems to have gone from us and we long to hear from God, to feel God’s love again, to be reassured of God’s grace. And just like the summer rains returned this week, nourishing lawns, gardens, and flowerbeds, suddenly and unexpectedly God’s mercy flows over us like rain. We are drenched in love and feel rejuvenated and fresh again in our faith.
In our faith journey desert like times will come, where we feel dry, disconnected, wondering where God is and why we can’t sense the presence of our Creator. The Psalmist reminds us that even in these times of spiritual drought we must continue to seek God out, longing and thirsting for nothing else. Just when we think we can’t go any further, God shows up—washing us tenderly in the waters of mercy, allowing us again to drink from his love.
If you are having a dry time spiritually, do not despair. Keep seeking God out and don’t give up. Sometimes we foolishly try to satisfy ourselves with things that cannot quench our thirst for God. Remember that the One who has the living water is faithful and desires to give your weary soul exactly what it most thirsts for. “Let anyone who is thirsty come,” is the invitation found in Revelation 22. And just like the surprising summer rains came, so will God come and nourish us again.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Good Grief

Grief is a funny thing in human beings. I had so much to do preparing last year to leave my former pastorate and getting ready to come to a new church that I did not give myself either time or permission to grieve all the things I lost in the move. Not the loss of physical things, though I'm sure some of my stuff might still be missing. I'm thinking instead of the loss of relationships, some that had been nurtured and sustained for years. Pastors have difficulty with grief in general. We are so used to helping others grieve, being strong and supportive, that we forget sometimes that we need to grieve as well. It took some time and some work, but I have recently been able to acknowledge a lot of my own grief about the massive change that took place in my life, and the lives of my family, over the last year.

Change causes us to grieve because we like stability. We like things to stay the same. But they almost never do. Some changes are good—indoor plumbing is one thing I really appreciate, for example. Some changes are not so good—the fact that food, mostly fast food, is available on nearly every corner is not a good change for me. Some changes are both good and bad—cell phones enable us to call someone in the event of an emergency but also can keep us tied down 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unable to take Sabbath time.

One of the things I had to learn this past year was that it is OK to grieve when things change. We need to learn to express our grief in healthy ways by acknowledging it and working through it. Grief, like other emotions, only becomes problematic when either we deny how we feel or when we hold on to our grief for so long we refuse to see the future God has planned for us. A lesson that I have spent the last year learning is that spending too much time in grief keeps us from being able to see God’s good future.

When I left Kroger for the ministry one of my employees gave me a paperweight with this verse on it:
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a good future.” Jeremiah 29:11

The verse has remained on my desk and in my heart since then. While we don’t always understand why things happen the way they do, what we can be sure of is that God wants for us to be hopeful of the future that is being prepared for us. Jeremiah wrote this verse in the time of the Exile, when Babylon had begun taking Jews as captives from Israel, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. So these words were not written in happy times, but instead when times were bleak and the Jewish people were experiencing a lot of grief.

Jeremiah reminds us that God always has a good future planned for us. While sometimes we might not really understand what God is doing, we always can trust that our God is good. Grief over change can lead to joy about the future, if we are willing to let go our grief and instead grab God's hand as he leads us on.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Finding an Oasis in the Sahara

I'm worried.

I know I'm not supposed to be. Jesus said very clearly not to worry.

Maybe a better word is concerned. I'm very concerned.

It seems like every friend I have is struggling with ministry right now. Some are ordained, some want to be ordained, and some do ministry without any thought of ordination by the church. (An aside, the last group might be the most satisfied--but that is a topic for another day).

Now I know that some of you are going to be consumed with who it is that I am talking about here. Others will be saying, "Friends? He has that many friends?" Just go ahead and get it out of your system right now. Because this is serious. Very serious.

Hear me out. Ministry can be intoxicating. Extremely intoxicating. Like preaching a sermon that people really respond to. Watching someone after years of searching finally 'get it.' Praying with someone who is desperate or despondent or both and knowing that it makes a difference. Feeling the Holy Spirit take over and touch others through you. Intoxicating.

Sometimes ministry is so intoxicating that it causes us to forget for a time how difficult ministry really is. How lonely it can be. How tough it is to say one thing only to have people hear another. How hard it is to really discern what God wants. How painful it can be to follow the path Christ has set before us.

This intoxication is dangerous. Intoxication by its very nature does not last. We can only stay on the mountain for so long. Then we have to come back down to the valley. And often our intoxication leaves us with a terrible hangover, one that makes us wish we had never answered God's call in the first place. God has not called us to be intoxicated, but to love above all. Love him and love each other. With every fiber of our being. No asterisks, no excuses, no ifs, ands, or buts. You already knew that didn't you?

Ministry is hard. Because life is hard. And people can be hard as well.

I've had many times that I just wanted to quit. To pack it all up and say to God and the church, "Take this job and shove it." But I've never been able to do it yet. Is it because I'm addicted to the intoxication of ministry? I hope not. I believe instead that I can't quit because I did not choose this path in the first place. Jesus says, "You didn't choose me, I chose you." We are chosen by God, all of us, ordained or not, by Christ. To minister to the world in his name. To teach and pray and love and seek peace and look for the lost and make disciples of each other. In Jesus' name. In Jesus' name.

Jesus was no stranger to disappointment, or frustration, or difficulty, or being misunderstood. In John 6 we see this very clearly:

66 At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.
67 Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”

Jesus cautions the disciples over and over again that following him will be tough. I think that's why the verse that came to me with my call, the verse that this blog is named for is so important. We must keep our hands on the plow AND not look back.

Perhaps we really need to read this reminder written by Paul from 2nd Corinthians 4:
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

I want for my friends, for myself, and for you that our spirits might be renewed every day by spending more time with God in prayer. The good thing about tough times is that we all tend to pray more, seek God out more, and become more receptive to God's teaching and leading. Spending time in the desert is an uncomfortable though necessary part of our walk with Christ. Intense, extended prayer during this time can feel like an oasis in the midst of the Sahara.

There is certainly no need for my worry or my concern. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." I'll keep praying for and encouraging and loving my friends. Just like they do for me.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Power of the Spirit

Our preaching series this month at church is on the Holy Spirit, which will culminate in the celebration of Pentecost Sunday. Recently we began a new, second worship service using a praise band. The first Sunday the new service went off without a hitch. Yesterday was another story entirely, as we had several logistical problems including periods of loud feedback from our brand new sound system. When I began to preach it seemed like the sermon really was going nowhere and people just weren't 'getting it.' I was despondent and frustrated as the service ended.

Last night my family talked about how the Sunday service really impacted them. My daughter Hannah talked about the powerful Spirit she felt in the service. Kim, my wife, said she thought it was one of the most meaningful services she had experienced. Later on I spoke with an old friend who had visited the service. Her take was that the sermon was one of the best she'd ever heard me preach(!) and that the Holy Spirit was very present in the room. My associate pastor had already spoken about how when we were in prayer all the people seemed to be in a physical attitude of deep prayerfulness.

Sometimes I want perfection more than anything else. Yesterday was one of those times. I want so badly for this new service to work well, for people to experience God in a mighty way, for lives to be changed and healing to occur. I should know better, but sometimes still mistakenly think that a flawless worship service is imperative to get the Spirit to show up!

Thanks be to God that all a worship service really needs is the power of the Spirit to make a difference in people's lives. Whether we get everything perfectly ordered on our end of worship doesn't really matter. When the Spirit shows up, worship truly becomes a place of amazing grace.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Graduation: The end, or the beginning?

I watched Tyler graduate from Station Camp High School last night.

It is the first high school graduation I have attended in some time. My hat is off to all educators; administrators, teachers, and staff who work hard to insure our children have the opportunity to learn.

Many things have changed since I graduated from high school 27 years ago, but one thing that remains the same is the recognition of those who have achieved the highest grades in school. In this school's ceremony the valedictorian and the salutatorian both gave speeches. As we drove home, I asked my wife Kim if she remembered who the valedictorian was when she graduated, as I could not remember either of the people who received this honor when I graduated in 1980. Kim could not remember the names of the recipients at her high school graduation either.

I wondered--which is more important, being at the top of your class or what you do with your education? Speaking as a person who is engaged in getting his third degree after the high school diploma, I can vouchsafe that it is not the degree or the grades that makes a person. We all know people who are terribly bright, very well educated, and painfully un- or under-employed. Not to mention all those who have important degrees from hallowed institutes of higher education but never do anything productive with what they learn. How sad.

"Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12 NIV). One might continue on getting further education seemingly forever, but until we use what we have learned, it is of no consequence.

Or as my favorite philosopher Yoda might say,"Remember what you have learned! Save you it can!"

Ultimately it matters more what you do with your education than whether or not you made it to the top of your class.

Approaching Pentecost

As we approach Pentecost Sunday and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church, I ran across a poem in one of my sermon illustration files. I share it without knowing where it came from or who might have written it.

We are God’s people, touched by the Spirit to—
Witness more effectively,
Think more clearly,
Feel more deeply,
Listen more insightfully,
Speak more truthfully,
Love more extravagantly,
Care more soulfully,
Serve more creatively,
Give more lavishly,
Encourage more lovingly,
Live more fully,
Teach more eloquently,
Give more generously.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Obedience School

I've been thinking a lot about obedience.

Yesterday one of my children defied a direct order from me. I know, I know, my family is not the military and I am certainly no drill sergeant. But outright defiance? From my precious progeny? Shocking!

I ended up having to threaten the whippersnapper to get their cooperation in doing what they had been asked to do. Which made me very upset. After all, I have provided much for this child of late, in terms of money spent, transportation to and from extracurricular activities, special clothing needs, etc. You would think there would be some acknowledgment and appreciation for what they have received. You might even think that this child would jump right up off the comfortable couch immediately because of their love for their father. Surely obeying my request to complete a simple task that would not take much time is not too much to ask.

The task? To walk our dog, Daisy. A 5 minute chore at best. After all I've done, was it too much to ask?

Then God spoke to me. After all I've done for you, is your obedience too much to ask for?

God asks us to be obedient. Simple. Uncomplicated. Easy to understand. Yet so difficult for us to do!

Most of the time we would rather (as my child did) sit on our 'couches' and
a) ignore the request or
b) argue with God or
c) whine about our circumstances or
d) all of the above

I am astounded at the obedience of Jesus. In the garden of Gethsemane he prays for the 'cup' to be passed by, that he might not have to drink deeply the suffering that he knows is coming. But finally Jesus has the courage to say, "Not my will but yours be done." Obedience to his Father was of ultimate importance.

Jesus' greatest gift to God comes through his obedience. His greatest gift to us came through his obedience. Jesus was willing to obey God even when he knew that his obedience was going to result in the sacrifice of personal suffering.

Perhaps what we need most to learn in our spiritual lives is to obey. In John 14:15 Jesus says, "If you love me, obey my commandments," and in verse 23 follows up by saying, "All who love me will do what I say" (NLT). Obedience is the one of the greatest ways for us to show how much we love the Lord.

May we all learn from Jesus that our love for God is not really love at all unless we are willing to learn to be obedient.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels

In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 22 verse 14, at the end of the parable of the great feast, Jesus says 'Many are called but few are chosen.' I have reflected on Jesus' words a lot during the past week after returning from a time set aside for evaluating those who wish to become United Methodist clergy.

I spent Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday interviewing people who were at various stages of trying to become clergy members of the Tennessee Annual Conference. The interviews were done under the guidelines and auspices of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, a group consisting of mainly clergy but also some laity who are charged with making sure the conference receives a called and well-trained group of clergy. The candidates submit references, written work, videotaped sermons and Bible studies, are examined by a physician and a psychologist, and present evaluation forms from churches, former employers, colleges and seminaries for review.

After four years of doing these evaluations and interviews, I can truly say it is the most gut-wrenching work I have ever been involved with. It seems that each year there are a few candidates who end up being deferred, learning that instead of being commissioned or ordained they will instead have to come back before the board at a later date, with hopes of their using the additional time to strengthen weaknesses or reflect on their call. Most of those deferred are heartbroken and angry, though many come back again and are affirmed in their call after they have done the required work.

I am troubled by all the requirements placed on ministerial candidates. On one hand, I see their necessity in helping to bring qualified and professional clergy to the church for ordination. But I also see that our system is unable to appreciate those whose gifts, talents, education, and call lie beyond what are considered the 'norms.' Too often it seems we get caught up in what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing--'straining gnats and swallowing camels.'

Perhaps we as a board and as a church need to reread the book of Numbers, chapter 11. Seventy Israelite leaders are supposed to gather under a tent to receive the spirit of God in order to be able to assist Moses. Two men, Eldad and Medad, somehow don't end up under the tent. Remarkably, the spirit of God falls on them anyway! Someone sees this and reports it to Moses. Joshua, Moses' right hand man, gets in a huff and wants Moses to stop Eldad and Medad. Moses' answer is enlightening--“Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them all!” (Numbers 11:29 NLT).


Thursday, March 1, 2007

What Would Jesus Build?

This week I have been in class in Montgomery, Alabama. The title of this class is "Mobilizing the Laity." We heard two rousing presentations this morning from Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, formerly pastored by leadership guru John Maxwell.

In his presentation, Garlow referred to the many obstacles the church has faced in building on the land they own. Most of the problems were caused when environmentalists sued because there was a certain rare type of bird that made its home on the property. The long and short of it is that the church has paid about $37 million dollars worth of legal fees and such trying to build.

While I admire their perseverance, I wonder--would Jesus spend $37 million dollars just for the privilege of having a church building in San Diego? While the church there has interpreted these obstacles as a call to persevere, one might consider if perhaps God was not calling the church to go in a different direction. It can be a difficult proposition indeed to determine when to persevere and when God might have something else in mind.

Pricey California real estate aside, $37 million is a lot of money for a church to spend for the mere opportunity to have their own place.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Hannah's Fast

The youth at Rehoboth participated in the 30 Hour Famine to raise money for hunger. As far as I know, it was the first time my daughter Hannah, who is 13 years old, had ever fasted. She described her experience in saying that at first she had a lot of energy. Once that wore off, Hannah says everything began to remind her of food. She even described hallucinating, imagining that everywhere she looked there was food, even though no food was around. We had a great talk about what it must feel like to involuntarily fast and how so many people around the world are hungry with no chance to eat.

I'm really proud of Hannah. She takes her faith very seriously and even challenges her father (that would be The Pastor) to take his faith more seriously. Hannah's witness at school and the ridicule she has received from her peers about how 'religious' she is reminds me that Jesus never said being a follower would be easy. Hannah's willingness to be faithful to God is a gift to me and an inspiration to us all.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Joy of Discipline

dis·ci·pline [dis-uh-plin] activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training. (from American Heritage Dictionary)

Wednesday February 21 begins the season of Lent, the 40 days (not counting Sundays) prior to Easter. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting, prayer, and self denial, designed to help us remember and reflect upon Christ’s journey to the cross. One of the words that come to mind as I think about Lent is the word discipline, specifically spiritual discipline. To be a great athlete, or a great musician, or a great anything one must discipline the body and the mind. To be a follower of Christ, we must use spiritual disciplines to train ourselves.

Lent is best known as a time when people give something up. In the past years I have given up sweets, sodas, television, surfing the Internet and eating meat during Lent, just to name a few. While the discipline of doing without these things reminded me of Jesus’ sacrifice, it also seemed to leave a void. Jesus once told a story about an evil spirit leaving a person for a while only to return to find its former home ‘swept clean and in order.’ The spirit then brings an additional seven spirits so that the person is worse off than before! (Luke 11:24-26 NLT) The point of the story is that we can sweep our lives clean by letting go of habits, attitudes, and actions that do not help us get closer to God, but if we don’t replace those habits, attitudes and actions with disciplines that grow us in God's love we may find ourselves worse off than before.

That is where spiritual disciplines come in. Adding times of prayer, Bible reading, journaling, fasting, meditation, and acts of service to others can fill the void left when we give up the things that don’t help us grow spiritually. Regular practice of the spiritual disciplines can help us grow closer to Christ and to better love others. While it might seem daunting to try to begin each one of the spiritual disciplines this Lent, maybe we should just try to add one to our list. Perhaps a time of prayer to begin or end each day would be a good place to start. Or reading a passage or chapter of scripture each day and writing a few lines to God in a journal. Or each day doing something for someone who cannot repay you in any way might help remind you how much God’s grace blesses your own life. Maybe we might even try (gasp!) fasting from food one day a week. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, prescribed a fast each week from noon on Thursday to noon on Friday. My own experience with fasting has shown it to be a rich practice that reminds me ‘man does not live on bread alone'.

My hope and prayer for all is that the disciplines practiced during Lent, whatever they might be, would not come to a screeching halt on Easter morning but instead become lifetime practices as we seek to be followers of Jesus. May our joy on Easter be full because we dared to discipline ourselves to walk with Christ during the Lenten season.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What's Up, Doc?

Today I spent a great deal of my time reading a book written in 1958 by a Dutch man named Hendrik Kraemer titled A Theology of the Laity. You are right if you are thinking to yourself that this is not a book someone would pick up and read for pleasure! I began last week to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. And yes, I have been asking myself why I chose to do this when I had to stay up late one night reading and writing...with all the other things a busy pastor has to do. Ultimately the learning I will gain is important and will be very helpful in my ministry.

My current class is titled "Theology of the Laity" and its concern is how best to rethink the theology of the laity and thus mobilize the laity (the loose definition of laity is everyone in the church that is not ordained). Reading I Corinthians 12 where Paul talks about how everyone has a necessary place to serve in the body of Christ, somehow has not translated into most church folks realizing they have a valid ministry God has called them to in and out of the church. Our consumeristic society which trains us how to receive but not how to give, some faulty theological thinking throughout the ages as well as clergy who have propagated an us/them mentality are likely a few of the culprits.

The effect of a faulty theology of the laity can be seen when laypeople feel the nudge of the Spirit calling them to ministry and they feel somehow unfulfilled unless they become ordained. (For the record, the priesthood of all believers concept that was championed by Luther during the Reformation unfortunately has not resulted in laity being accepted as ministers in the true sense of the word.) The clergy/laity split causes lay ministry to be seen as lacking somehow, which is unfortunate--if the clergy could somehow set the laity free to do ministry where they are in the world, more of Christ's ministry gets done and ministry gets multiplied in places clergy will never go.

I am trying to rethink my own ideas and learning about the laity and would like to know what you think. How do we unleash the ministry of the laity in the church? How do we get people to live out their God given vocation without them having to become ordained? How can ordained ministers (like me) best help to facilitate more laity involvement in ministry?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Blasphemy Challenge

The Blasphemy Challenge?

Yesterday Philip Eubanks, who is on staff with me at Rehoboth UMC, shared with me something that I found extremely disconcerting. On the 'You Tube' website, a group called the 'rational responders' has posted a video encouraging people to take the blasphemy challenge. Quoting Matthew 12:21, where Jesus says that 'blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven', the video encourages people to film themselves denying the Holy Spirit. After watching a few of the submitted 'blasphemy' tapes, I had to stop because of the revulsion I felt.
While the scholars debate over the exact meaning of this passage from Matthew, I am quite sure that a simple denial of the Holy Spirit is not the unforgivable sin.
I debated on whether or not to include the video, but decided that you might want to see this for yourself. May God help us all!