Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:46-55

At the end of the Cold War someone found a book from the 18th century buried in some papers in East Berlin. The book was about 100 pages long, and it was filled with symbols and words that no one could translate. The book was in a code so unbreakable that it had lasted for almost 300 years without being cracked. That is, until a few months ago.

The book is known as the Copiale Cipher, and it was finally translated by three scientists—one from the States and two from Sweden. As it turns out it was the manual for a secret society in Germany. It described their rituals and practices, and also their fascination with ophthalmology and eye surgery. Strange club.

The story of how they broke the code is interesting, and it reminds us of how hard it can be sometimes to understand what God is trying to teach us in the Scriptures. That’s not the issue in today’s text.

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

I’ve said before here that Mary is one of my favorite people in the Bible. She’s a young single pregnant teenager in a culture that wasn’t all that forgiving. But she’s been told by an angel that she’s carrying God’s child, and she responds with such faith and courage that it’s hard not to admire her.

Let’s remember just how courageous Mary is being at this point.

God calls all kinds of people to do his work, and most of them respond with excuses or try to get out of it. Abraham says he’s too old, and so does Sarah. Moses suggests to God that he made a mistake, and recommends that God try his brother. Jonah flat out runs away. God calls him to a task and he turns around and does a 100-yard dash…that is, until a fish gets him to come back.

Jesus—even Jesus, when he is in the garden of Gethsemane—even Jesus asks if God can come up with some kind of a Plan B.

Mary, though, somehow gets it and is willing to hear God’s call no matter what. Remember what she says to the angel just a few verses before our text:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Mary’s full response comes in the form of an outburst of praise. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. What we have after that is a song where Mary shows how deeply and completely she has absorbed God’s plan, even if she might have been terrified.

Mary didn’t misunderstand.
Mary didn’t try to haggle with God.
Mary didn’t have to decode God’s call in order to know what to do.
Mary understood God’s call on her life, and she responded by singing his praises.

We learn some things about God in Mary’s song:

First, God calls people to come to him in faith: “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Second, we see God’s sovereignty: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Third, God nourishes us for the calling he has given us: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” That’s not just a slam on the rich. God is calling out anyone who thinks they don’t need him—that they can take care of themselves apart from God. Mary describes a great feast that is open to anyone who admits their need for God.

And finally, in Mary’s song we see the fulfillment of God’s promises and the foundation for the promises to come: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” If God could be trusted then, then we can trust him now.

I like that there is an image of a meal here, which shouldn’t really be a surprise if you know me. I like the picture of a feast for anyone willing to trust God more than they trust their own power or money. This meal is where we’re filled with “good things,” with God’s mercy and forgiveness, with his salvation and Holy Spirit.

When the group of scholars cracked that 18th-century cipher, they were quick to say that it was their ingenuity and not fancy technology that got the job done. “This is something humans did, not something computers did,” they said.

What we celebrate during this season isn’t anything humans did. We celebrate God reaching down to all of us with the gift of his son—the gift of a way back to living the lives we were meant to live all along.

When we come to the Table we remember something crucial and life-changing that we were not able to do on our own. The sacrifice of Jesus is what we’re called to remember as we take the bread and the cup. It’s a sacrifice we can’t make for ourselves.

Mary helps us understand that. As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to say a prayer of thanks that a teen-aged girl in the first century was wise enough and brave enough to hear God’s call and say: “May it be to me as you have said.”

My prayer is that we can all show that kind of faith this Advent season. Let’s pray.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Message 2011

(This message was given in St Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day 2011.)

Ephesians 2:14-22

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving. It is truly an amazing thing to be able to worship together in this beautiful cathedral. We’re honored to be here.

According to the website About.com, these are the Top 5 Family Thanksgiving Traditions. This is really the only day when I get to use material like this, so bear with me.

First, there is the turkey dinner, though there are regional variations on how that’s prepared. There’s the traditional roasting; in New England you can have a salt-encrusted turkey; in Hawaii apparently they rub coffee on the bird before roasting—that may be a way to try to prevent falling asleep immediately after the meal. And somewhere in the south, God bless ‘em, they’re deep-frying turkeys today.

Second, of course, is football. Now for our English friends—or really anyone not from the States—we’re not talking about soccer here. We’re talking about heavily padded, fully helmeted, oversized American football. It’s a part of the holiday to sit and watch football before and after the big turkey dinner. I have three NFL games recorded at my house, just so we can have them on in the background today.

Third are the parades, though that really means the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And fourth is fighting over the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey. Apparently the tradition of breaking the wishbone and making a wish dates back to the ancient Etruscans in the 4th century BC. Aren’t you glad you came today?

Finally, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somehow pausing to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. Even in hard times, it’s important to be thankful for the gifts of life and family and friends, even if we’re separated by distance or time. We’re here today to join together and give thanks, and it’s a blessing to be here.

Unlike a lot of other American holidays, Thanksgiving is celebrated at home. In the States people get away from home whenever a long weekend comes along. Martin Luther King Jr weekend in January means a ski trip, and if the snow holds out so does Presidents’ weekend in February. Memorial Day is the start of summer, so we go to the beach or the lake. The 4th of July is for picnics in the park. For Labor Day weekend we’ll try to squeeze in one more outdoorsy vacation, and on it goes.

But Thanksgiving is about being home, or at least in someone’s home, and about sharing our homes with those who are far away from theirs. It’s about opening our doors and welcoming family and friends and even strangers to a time of food and football and fellowship.

I remember the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We’d been married for just a few weeks, and even though I knew the people around the table, I was still a little nervous. More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is steeped in very specific traditions. How you prepare the turkey, what kind of pies to serve, what do you do with the sweet potatoes, and then there’s the cranberry sauce.

Seriously. Let me just pause here for a moment. I‘ve seen people get in heated arguments about whether or not canned cranberry sauce is acceptable for a Thanksgiving table. Even now I can feel the tension in the room. Personally I love a good slice of canned cranberry sauce, complete with those little dents and ridges from the inside of the can.

But what made that first Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family so special, was how they included me and welcomed me to their table, and how they tried very hard to add a few of my own traditions into that first celebration together. It was wonderful to be included that way. I didn’t feel like a stranger or visitor at all—I felt like part of the family from the very first moment.

That’s what I love about the passage we heard from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians a few minutes ago. It’s a beautiful statement of the unity we’re meant to have as people of faith. Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

And then Paul gets to the point. “So then,” he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”

“You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Rena Garcia was my friend in elementary school. This past summer we caught up at our 30-year high school reunion, and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we shared a very special Thanksgiving memory from our childhood days. We grew up in Southern California, a part of the state that was filled with people from somewhere else. It was good preparation for living in London—we were surrounded by people and languages from all over the world. Half of Rena’s family was from Spain, and the other half from Mexico.

I remember that on the day before Thanksgiving each year, Rena came to school dressed like a Pilgrim—a carefully made black and white dress that looked exactly like the pictures of pilgrims we were reading about in our lessons at school. The teachers loved it so much that they passed Rena around like an artifact—she went from room to room where the teachers would show her off or use her as a visual aid for their explanation of that first Thanksgiving. I can still picture her—her brown skin and beautiful smile all dressed up like a 17th-century English dissenter, the people we grew up calling Pilgrims.

I think I may have felt sorry for Rena. I found out later that her mother had made the dress, and then sent her daughter off to the dangerous jungle we knew as primary school. I felt sorry for her, but one of the great things I learned later was that she wasn’t nearly as embarrassed about wearing the costume as we thought.

Because in Rena’s family there was a point to wearing that costume to school. Rena’s mother dressed her that way to make it clear to everyone that she was an American —that she belonged—that she was part of the family now. For her it was a gentle way of asking to be accepted—of wanting to fit into her country. At our reunion a handful of us shared our memory of the dress with Rena, and she couldn’t wait to go back and tell her mom that we’d all remembered it.

Thanksgiving is a time of gathering and reconnecting and accepting and remembering—it’s a holiday that’s perfect for looking a loved one in the eye and telling them how thankful you are that they’re a part of your life—how thankful you are that you get to be friends or family together.

Thanksgiving is also a time to welcome new friends. I’ve been hearing stories this past week of families who always set extra places at the table on Thanksgiving, just in case someone didn’t have a place to go. Some people invite students over, and others include a member of the military at their family gatherings. Homeless missions across the US today are serving turkey and all the trimmings to men and women and children who don’t have anywhere else to go.

All of this is a way to say what Paul said to his friends in Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

Paul’s letter was to a city that needed to hear a message of reconciliation and hope. The people of Ephesus lived under the threat of persecution; there were social and religious conflicts; and even within the fragile early church there was a danger of losing touch with the message that brought them together in the first place.

It’s a relevant message for today, no matter what your own faith tradition might be. For Christians this is a call to unity—unity of belief and unity of purpose made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. But whatever you believe today, for all of us there is an invitation in this passage to come together and share in a common purpose and mission.

“You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

As we look back on it, Thanksgiving didn’t really get off to a very easy start at all. Not long after the first Thanksgiving feast, devout pilgrims changed everything and celebrated the day of Thanksgiving with fasting and prayer. That doesn’t sound nearly as fun as a big joyful meal together.

Later, when Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday in October of 1863, America was in the middle of the Civil War. The very first Thanksgiving was celebrated just months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in the war.

Thanksgiving—this special day of giving thanks for the blessings in our lives—Thanksgiving has survived some very difficult and painful times.

The Occupy protesters outside today remind us that we’re in hard times again. But they also remind us that we have neighbors, people God calls us to love, who have experiences and fears and concerns that might be very different from ours.

And maybe one of the blessings of a protest here, today, just outside these doors—maybe the blessing for us on this Thanksgiving day is that the people who are most vulnerable and who have been affected most deeply by our wounded economy—those men and women are no longer strangers. They’re with us this morning, here in this place.

One way we can celebrate this day of thanks—along with the food and football and fellowship—one way we can demonstrate our gratitude is to listen to the voices of those who struggle. We listen, even when those voices provoke or irritate us—we listen, because we’re not meant to be strangers anymore.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, even in difficult times. Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times this week, told the story of a teen-aged boy who is a gifted pianist. He broke his right arm recently, but instead of giving up he went out and bought a copy of Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand and learned to play a new way.

Maybe that’s good advice for all of us this Thanksgiving. Clearly something is broken. Clearly we can’t go on the same way we’ve been going. But maybe, if we look hard enough, we can find other ways to live and grow and serve and make something new and beautiful together. Maybe, if we can turn the heat down a little and look for the light, we can find a way ahead that is more just, and more fair for everyone.

Maybe that makes all of us pilgrims, in a way. We search for ways to heal our hurts and those of our neighbors—we move around looking for better ways to raise our families and engage the world around us. Maybe we’re all pilgrims now, looking for God’s blessings as we work and study and play.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, but today, on this Thanksgiving Day, we pilgrims can be drawn to the promise in Paul’s words. “You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless you, today and every day. Amen.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

John Charles Harmon (1963-2011)

John D'Elia, Shane Sindle, Earl Bryant and John Harmon

I’m back in California this week, seeing family, reconnecting with people, and saying goodbye to a friend I’ve known my whole life. There were four of us boys, among some other great friends who grew up at First Presbyterian Church in Burbank, who stayed connected over the last 40 years or so. The four of us played baseball together, went to church camps and conferences together, and over the years supported, participated in and disrupted a generation of youth ministry at the church where we were raised. Some of the stories you’ve heard, and others aren’t really fit to print here. But through all of it, Shane Sindle, Earl Bryant, John Harmon and I developed friendships that shaped us as kids and which continue to influence us in our adult years. My childhood and adolescence are unrecognizable without John, Shane and Earl in the background (probably laughing about something), and it occurs to me that virtually everything I learned about Jesus as a kid I learned with those guys at my side.

The four of us had and have lots of other friends, but there was something special about our relationship that became even more so over the years. Once we got into our 40s we saw a new value or preciousness to the fact that we’d been together so long. It was clear we would do anything for each other, and even better, we began to go out of our way to make sure the others knew it. In the movie “Stand By Me” the narrator says: “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant.” In my friendships with John, Shane and Earl it was more like friends who entered into each other’s lives and then sat down and stayed for a long meal.

John died last week and the rest of us are trying to make some sort of sense of it. There isn’t any big answer to John’s loss, of course, but it’s important to wrestle with the questions. John was a complicated guy. Funny, gentle, charming, and almost childlike on the one hand, while on the other he struggled with depression and grief, and could never really escape the temptation to numb both of those with an assortment of drugs. Now the rest of us are thinking back to signals missed and clues overlooked, but the answer is, very honestly, that John wasn’t the type to reach out easily for himself. Just once in the 40+ years that I knew him did he call me and ask for help. He’d gotten himself in to a pattern of using that had destroyed his finances, his relationship, and was taking its toll on his body. My wife and I drove up to see him in Santa Barbara 13 years ago or so. We didn’t solve much, but it was a reminder to both John and myself that we’d do anything we could to help the other.

We’re left with this moment to begin to say goodbye. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back at my house in London with my family or in my office, thinking about how the four of us were going to get together next summer. I want there to still be one more chance for the four of us to hang out and talk about our lives. Maybe that’s what is giving my grief such an especially intense pain: I can’t imagine a world that John isn’t in. I can’t imagine a world where we won’t have another chance to tell the same old stories and comment on how those stories made us the guys we became.

The service is tomorrow and we’ll gather in the coming days to talk and cry and make plans for getting together in the future. I hope the sadness goes away and I expect it will, mostly, but for Earl and Shane and myself I think there will always be an enormous space among us, a space where John belongs. I believe in the promise of an afterlife, even if I can’t quite wrap my head around what that means. I believe I’ll see John again, whole and strong and filling his days with worship instead of the drugs that ruined him. But even with that hope it breaks my heart that I won’t see him again here, in this beautiful, broken, joy-filled, painful life.

So we say goodbye to John, in the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” as the Christian tradition says, though there will be varying degrees of sureness and certainty, I think. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends this week. I just wish they were all here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"And the Second is Like It"

Matthew 22:34-40

It’s been a little nostalgic this past week to think about some old neighbors of mine. We had a Japanese-American family on one side, and their grandfather shared with me about his experiences as an internee in Manzanar during WWII. Down the street there were neighbors we didn’t know very well, but we learned pretty quickly that the wife had a hard time parking her big car in their narrow driveway. She would get home at about 5:30 every day, and honk for her husband to come out and park the car for her. For years whenever we heard a car horn, our family joke was “that lady can’t park.”

On the other side of our house was a family that had a bible study during the 70s that had a big influence on my mom’s life. Across the street there was a Puerto Rican family from New York. The boy who lived there was a little younger than me and tagged along with whatever I was doing at the time. They took me to the beach once when I was about 10, and I remember afterward the dad taking us out on the front lawn where he kneeled down and rinsed the sand from our feet. To this day he’s the only person I can remember ever washing my feet besides myself or my parents.

We had some interesting neighbors, but I never really thought about what it might mean to love those people. I didn’t choose them. I didn’t know them all that well. I never really thought about loving them.

Turns out Jesus did.

And not just the neighbors that live in places near us at any given time. Jesus calls us to love neighbors, and by neighbors he really means pretty much anyone who isn’t you. Sometimes he means people who you can’t even stand. Occasionally he means people who would rather kill you than be loved by you.

In multiple places and in different ways, Jesus Christ calls us to love the people around us—the other people he made and loves and wants to reconcile to himself. Yeah, if you thought a series on loving your neighbors was going to be sweet and easy, better think again.

As we move past the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this seems like the perfect time to talk about loving our neighbors—maybe even about loving our enemies. Jesus talks about both a lot, especially compared to some of the other issues that churches get wrapped up in. He talks about it a lot, and if we’re honest we’ll admit that we don’t talk about it much at all. So, in memory of those who were lost on September 11th, and also in the 10 years since then, we’re going to take this on and see what we learn.

Talking about loving God and our neighbors is really an extended conversation about what it means to be a mature Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. The church has spent 2000 years mostly trying to define what it means to be a Christian in terms of statements of things we believe. But Jesus had a different perspective. He saw faith as being thoroughly linked with action—not to earn God’s love, but as evidence that we’ve experienced God’s love.

Now I’m not ready to give up the idea that what we believe is crucial to being a Christian. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. Doctrine matters—if only to put the brakes on our temptation to re-create God in our own image. Doctrine matters, but it’s not the point.

Jesus doesn’t define the life of faith by what we believe as much as he defines it by who and how well we love. Jesus doesn’t say “they’ll know you’re my followers by your sound doctrine.” No, Jesus says: “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It was a regular part of Jewish prayer life to begin and end each day with the prayer known as Shema Yisrael. We know it like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

This was the prayer that every faithful Jew said in the morning and again at night. It was the foundation for everything else. In our text someone approaches Jesus to trip him up, to catch him in some willful disobedience to the Jewish tradition. “What’s the most important commandment?” the guys asked.

Jesus took the main point of the Shema prayer and joined it with another line from Leviticus 19:18. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So Jesus’ response was to take a familiar answer and add to it something that hadn’t been connected to it before. Sure, every faithful Jew knew that they were supposed to love God, but it was easy to minimize that obscure bit about loving your neighbor. Jesus not only joined them together, but he added that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So the essence of being a follower of Jesus is to love God with all we’ve got—our heart and soul and mind—and to love and care for our neighbor as much as we love and care for ourselves.

How important is all of this? How central is this idea to what it means to be a Christian person? Let’s let Jesus take that one. He said: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Everything depends on this. When Jesus says “all the Law and the Prophets” he means the entire foundation of faith in the one, true God. It’s such an enormous claim—such an over-the-top radical statement—it’s so huge that I can’t believe Matthew 22:40 hasn’t ended up on t-shirts and keychains and anywhere else it can be printed. I can’t believe we haven’t seen on a poster in the end zone of an American football game.

Everything depends on this.

Think about that for a moment. Everything the Bible teaches on sexuality or personal morality. Everything the Bible teaches on peacemaking or social justice. Everything we know or will ever know about theology and doctrine.

Everything depends on this.

Everything hangs on the one-two punch of “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We talk a lot about loving and serving God here. We worship and fellowship together, we try to grown our faith through Bible study and reading. You saw today that we’re trying to move out in faith in this community and around the world to be God’s messengers, and there’s more to that report during our Coffee Hour today.

But loving our neighbor in the way that God defines love—and the way God defines neighbor—doing that part is a little more of a challenge. We’re going to focus on how these go together to form us into the people God wants us to be.

Over the next few months I want to invite you to read along in a very good book called The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, by Mark Labberton. Stephanie and I read it earlier this year, and we think it would be a helpful guide for thinking some of this through in the context of the rest of our lives. We have copies available downstairs if you’re interested.

Loving our neighbors, the author says, is about aligning our hearts to God’s so that we see the world and the people in it with his eyes, his heart. This is directly connected to the issue of justice in the world. Listen to what he writes.

“Our hearts don’t consciously will injustice. Nor do they deliberately withhold compassion. Nor is it that tales of injustice fail to grab us and concern us. Yet our hearts are weak and confused. Our hearts are easily overwhelmed and self-protective. They’re prone to be absorbed mostly with the immediacy of our own lives. Our hearts have the capacity to seek justice, but they’re usually not calibrated to do so—at least not beyond concern for our inner circle. In a world of such hearts, virulent injustice thrives. Systemic injustice, the absence of the rule of law, and the suffering of so many innocents at the hands of oppressors—that injustice relies on the complicity and distraction of our ordinary hearts.”

In order to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are our enemies, our hearts have to be calibrated—they have to be retuned so that we see the world and the people in it with God’s eyes—with God’s heart. It’s not easy—it seems overwhelming and challenging and impossible. And yet here’s the thing:

Everything depends on it.

Over these next few months we’re going to wrestle with what it means to love our neighbors. We’re going to do it with this Jesus Creed in mind, and starting next week, one way or another, we’ll hear it or say it together every Sunday until Advent.

“Hear O people of London, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
With all your mind and with all your strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”


Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11th: "Everyone Has a Story"

Acts 1:1-11

Everyone has a story.

When I was growing up my parents used to talk about where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. I remember where I was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and crashed. It was the way my grandparents remembered Pearl Harbor or VE-Day. All of those tragic, historic moments become markers that stay with us—they become a part of the way we see the world around us. They shape how we think about everything that happens after that moment.

Everyone has a story.

This past week, as we’ve come up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, people have been sharing their stories of where they were and what they were doing—of people they knew who had been lost or who had suffered losses.

One of my closest friends from childhood is a flight attendant for American Airlines. She has a terrifying story to tell.

Some of my colleagues who are pastors in New York or New Jersey or Connecticut remember the tragic funerals that filled their calendars and broke the hearts of their congregations.

For months after the attacks, The New York Times ran a series of biographical sketches called “Portraits of Grief,” telling a little of the stories of almost 2000 of the victims who died that day—from bankers to busboys, from soldiers to security guards, from police officers to transit workers to those 343 firefighters who ran into the Towers and never came back. The stories gave faces and names to the numbers we heard on the news. It was essential reading.

Over the past few weeks the Los Angeles Times has been collecting short articles that highlight the impact of that day on people’s memories now.

I was working for Fuller Seminary in California at the time of the attacks, had been in New York on a fund raising trip about a week and a half before. Most of us on the west coast were sleeping when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center—it was 545am in California. Many of us who woke up to the news at 6 saw the second plane crash a few minutes later. My son was not quite a year and a half old that day. I wondered what kind of world he was going to grow up in.

Everyone has a story.

Acts 1:1-8

1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Our text from the first chapter of Acts is a story that comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry and before the birth of the church—for those of you who follow these things, this passage falls just before the Ascension and Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. The disciples are in the presence of the risen Christ, still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the last month or so. Everything was going so well, then it all went catastrophically wrong, and then Jesus emerged from the tomb and you get the idea that the disciples were just trying to keep up.

Jesus is trying to prepare them for what was coming next, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about. Did you catch that question they asked while Jesus was telling them what to expect? Jesus has lived with them and taught them and demonstrated his love by serving people and healing diseases and casting out demons and dying on the cross—he did all of that to show that the values of his Kingdom are different from those of the world. And after all that they ask him: “So are you going to restore Israel to power now already?”

You have to think that Jesus groans here, wishing they could understand what he was telling them, but he presses on and says: “Once the Holy Spirit comes to empower you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.”

In so many words Jesus told them: You have a new story to tell, and I want you to tell it everywhere.

What was the story?

The first part of that story is that God came in the first place, that he took on human form. At Christmas when we sing about “Emmanuel,” we’re celebrating the mystery of “God with us,” of God coming to reconcile us to himself.

The second part of our story is the message that Jesus came to share. More than anything else he talked about the Kingdom of God. In his sermons and parables and his confrontations with religious and political power, Jesus described a world with values that went against the grain—of generosity and forgiveness, of grace and love for enemies.

But most importantly our story tells of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross—of his taking on our sin and punishment so that we could come freely into the presence of God.

When Jesus told his disciples to “be my witnesses,” this is the story he wanted them to tell.

Being a witness in Jewish tradition was a very important thing. Only with two witnesses could a case be presented in court. Being an honest witness was so important that it becomes one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against anyone.”

To be a witness was to testify, along with others, to the love and grace and sacrifice and redemption available through Jesus Christ.

The essence of the gospel is this: Through the life and ministry of Jesus we have seen what the world can look like when it operates according to the values of the Kingdom of God. Through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah we receive the good news that all people in all places can be reconciled to God.

So God’s already done the heavy-lifting. God has already done the work. The call on each one of our lives needs to be crystal clear: It isn’t to save the world. It’s to tell the story of the one who already has.

If that’s the story we’re meant to tell, then what does that mean for us today, as we gather to remember a horrible day and the impact it’s had on our lives?

First, it means that our lives aren’t trapped or limited by our memories of what happened 10 years ago. The gospel story is there to keep our fear and our anger in check—we have to keep from lashing out in revenge against people Christ came to redeem and to reconcile to himself.

Second, that new story means this: In the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God, our story of the September 11th attacks can become a catalyst for more forgiveness, not less. More work in the area of peacemaking, not less. More acts of gospel-sharing grace that tell the story of Jesus Christ in a meaningful, life-changing way.

But most importantly, to be a witness to the story of Jesus Christ is a daring, world-changing act of hope in a world that doesn’t have much of it right now. It’s an act of hope wrapped in the faith that announces to the world that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again to make all things new.

How does all of that happen? That’s what we’re meant to discover together as the family of God, the Body of Christ, this local church. That’s why we’re going to spend the next few months here talking about what it means to love our neighbors, even if our neighbors are our enemies. That’s an act of hope.

We tend to think of hope as something elusive—something we can’t really find on our own. Sometimes we think of hope as something that happens to us beyond our control.

But Christian hope is active—it’s rooted in God’s faithfulness to his promises in the past. Christian hope is a discipline—we practice it daily so that we can get better at it—so that it can be more than simply hoping for a good parking place, or hoping you get into the right school.

One great theologian wrote that Christian “Faith hopes in order to know what it believes.”

To be Christ’s witnesses in this world is to be people of hope, people who hope so that we can know God’s story is true. And so we can go out and be his witnesses with that new story here in London, all around this country, and to the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Joseph Bazalgette Teaches Us About Grace

(This message is one in a series titled "20 Questions With Jesus.")

John 21:15-17

We’ve all played some variation of 20 Questions before. One person thinks of a person or a thing and the rest have 20 questions to guess what it is. It’s usually a game we play to kill time on a long journey.

Jesus asked a lot of questions, too. We talk a lot about the sermons of Jesus, or his parables, or the conversations he had with his disciples. This is different from that. Jesus often used questions to help people understand what he was about—or to get people to wrestle with something he taught—or to prompt some kind of action that would show that his followers were learning how to live out what he was teaching.

We’re almost done with this series—just a few more weeks to go. This hasn’t been a game we play just to kill time on a long drive. The goal has been to give us some insight into who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us…as we are each on our own journey of faith and growth and discovery.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are theological—they get at something we’re supposed to know about him and his purposes.

Sometimes the questions are ethical—they get at what we’re supposed to do or how we’re called to live.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are confrontational—they force us to see something to change or confess or leave behind. That’s the kind of question we have in front of us today.

But before we get to the text…

If you love history, living in London is like a smorgasbord. Everywhere you look you see some monument, some detail about this amazing place, some story that inspires curiosity and study. OK, maybe that’s just me.

The other day I was flipping through a book about London when I came across an event called “The Great Stink of 1858.” Since there is a part of me that is an unreconstructed middle school boy, I had to read what this was about.

Basically, the growth of London during the 19th century led to a massive sewage problem that cause several outbreaks of cholera. Most scientists back then believed that cholera was spread through the air—through the smell they called “miasma.” In an attempt to get rid of the odor the government required all cesspits to be drained and allowed to run into the River Thames. Needless to say, this not only killed anything in the river that wasn’t already dead, but it also created an enormous problem of, well, a great stink.

Worse, the resulting outbreaks of disease killed tens of thousands of Londoners, and threatened to make the city unlivable.

Enter Joseph Bazalgette. He was an engineer who had worked on London’s train system, and he was chosen to solve the problem. His plan, based on the idea that cholera was spread by smell, was to build a sewer system that would carry London’s crud far beyond the city limits so they wouldn’t have to smell it anymore.

When planning the network he took the densest estimated population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen.' and doubled the diameter to be used. As a result, the massive pipes he build in the mid-1800s are still in use today—still big enough to take every bit of London’s waste product and deliver it to where it can be treated.

Now what Bazalgette and his partners didn’t know was that cholera wasn’t spread through odor at all, but through contaminated water supply. But by taking London’s sewage away from the sources of drinking water, he was able to eradicate cholera from the entire region.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

This is such a powerful moment in Jesus’ ministry. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion, is cornered by his master and forced to re-commit himself to the gospel. John the gospel writer knows exactly what he’s doing here. His readers know about Peter’s denial, but they also would know him later as the leader of the church. It was crucial to include this event in order to show that Peter had been restored to his place as a leader in the early church.

But those are just the details. This is also an enormously emotional story. Peter, in front of his friends and partners, has to confront his sin and answer the resurrected Christ. He answers the first time, but Jesus keeps going. You have to wonder at this point if Peter thought Jesus was going to ask him this question all day. In the end it’s just the three times—one for each denial—and by the third time Peter was feeling uncomfortable and wounded by the questions.

This is really a story about grace, about God’s freedom to forgive anyone for anything—about his power to clean up any mess no matter what kind of smell it gives off.

Maybe that’s what Joseph Bazalgette and the London sewerage system teaches us about the grace of Jesus Christ. The real achievement of Bazalgette’s design is that it was big enough to dispose of whatever crap London could throw at it for more than 150 years…and counting.

God’s grace is like that, too. What Jesus reveals to us in his interrogation of Peter is the depths and lengths and limitless nature of his grace toward us.

This passage helps us understand the capacity of God’s grace to get rid of the junk in our lives—the waste product that keeps us from becoming healthy people—whatever it is that keeps us from functioning sometimes as a healthy church.

Jesus looks Peter in the eye and asks “Do you love me?” over and over again. “Do you love me?”

It sounds so simple, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is one of the easy questions in our series.

Jesus looks Peter in the eye and asks “Do you love me?”, and in one single question he makes Peter decide if he wants to give his life as a disciple or if he wants to remain broken and lukewarm on the outside.

The key to these questions is found in the answers Peter gives.

Yes, Lord, you know that I do.

Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Lord you know everything—you know that I love you.

It’s Peter’s answers that open the door for Christ’s cleansing, restoring grace. It’s Peter’s confession that he loves Jesus with all his heart that makes his reconciliation and restoration possible.

In the end, Jesus looks at each one of us and asks us if we love him. He asks us again and again, even when it makes us uncomfortable—even if it hurts our feelings.

Jesus asks us if we love him, and if we do then we answer as Peter did: Yes, Lord, you know that we do. Yes, Lord, you know that we love you. Lord you know everything—you know that we love you.

And if that’s true, then Christ’s grace is sufficient to handle anything we need to get rid of in order to move ahead.

And if that’s true, then we enter into a new way of living—a life of answering God’s invitation to serve and love and sacrifice as he calls us to do. That’s what we’re celebrating on this very special Sunday. [Note: On this Sunday we celebrated four baptisms, welcomed a group of new members, and commissioned a short-term mission team for trip to Israel.]

Some have heard the call to be baptized and commit themselves to becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.

Others have taken the next step and come for membership, publicly professing their faith in Christ and their commitment to this church.

In a moment a group of people will stand up here and ask for your prayers as they hear God’s call to serve on a short-term mission project in Israel.

All of these are examples of an answer to the “Do you love me?” question that Jesus asks all of us.

But the power of the question isn’t really just the asking of it. The real power of this question is unleashed when we answer as Peter did: Yes, Lord, you know that we love you. Lord you know everything—you know that we love you.

That simple response of acknowledging that we know who we are and whose we are releases a power that we can barely begin to understand.

The grace that God offers through Jesus Christ is the lifeblood of this church and of every person who wants to live as a disciple. It is through that grace that we are transformed into the people who will accomplish God’s work in this place.

Chris Wright, the worldwide director of John Stott Ministries, said: “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.”

We become the people God wants for his mission when we decide to live differently because of our love for Jesus Christ.

The question is on the table: Do you love him? All that’s left is to give your answer.

Our hymn of response today is the song of people who have answered Jesus as Peter did. As we prepare to commission our Holy Land team, let’s stand and sing together, “Here I Am, Lord.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lent Day 31

I’m having a hard time with Lent this year.

I want to be reflective and repentant—I want to prepare myself to experience the full joy and power of the Easter miracle—but instead I am anxious and tired and distracted. Some of that is for good reason. There are some challenging and important decisions to make, and some difficult processes to lead right now, and so I’m feeling the weight of my role these days.

But in other areas I’m surrounded by joyful and encouraging events in the ministries at our church. Kids are learning about Jesus in a meaningful way in our Sunday School, our men’s fellowship is growing together as we study and build friendships, three teams from our congregation are going out in service to Israel, Haiti and Romania, and this spring we have as many as 18 men and women coming for membership. I’m surrounded by these affirmations of our work, and yet it’s too easy to forget to pause and be thankful...or even simply to enjoy them.

Without trying to turn it into just another commodity or product, I’m aware that I what I want is to experience the full Lent moment right now. Maybe that’s what feels depleted or absent to me.

Henri Nouwen's reading for today says: "Life in the Spirit of Jesus is therefore a life in which Jesus' coming into the world—his incarnation, his death, and his resurrection—is lived out by those who have entered into the same obedient relationship to the Father which marked Jesus' own life."

Maybe the point is that I could not possibly feel less obedient right now.

I want to listen for God. I want to conform my life to the life of Christ (and not the other way around). I want to live in that “same obedient relationship to the Father which marked Jesus' own life.”

Maybe Lent is supposed to be this hard, and it just took me this long to realize it. What if the reflection and repentance that mark the season of Lent are meant to remind us that this life is not our own, that we are a purchased people, free and enslaved at the same time? What if these feelings are exactly the reminder I need—that we all need—of who we are and whose we are?

Nouwen’s prayer at the end of today’s reading includes these words:

Help me, Lord, to life a truthful life,
A life in which I am guided
Not by popularity, public opinion,
Current fashion, or convenient formulations,
But by a knowledge that comes from knowing you.

I want to live that truthful life. My prayer for myself and for you is that our lives will be guided by the knowledge that comes from being in the presence of God—knowledge that comes from knowing and being known by Jesus himself.

Just 11 days until Easter. God help us.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Radio2 Spot #2

Here's a link to today's Pause for Thought on The Vanessa Feltz program on BBC Radio2. I'm on at about the 46th minute, happily sandwiched between The Pretenders and Van Halen. The topic, given to me by the BBC, is spiritual health, in recognition of World Health Day this week. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On the Radio...

I was asked a while back to prepare some brief Christian reflections for the early morning drive-time program on BBC Radio2. They gave me topics, like the one for British Mothers' Day this week, and I recorded them about a month ago. The pieces will broadcast on six consecutive Tuesday mornings at 5:45am (UK time), and the first one went out yesterday.

If you missed it (I did. Please, 6:30 is early enough!), there's a link to the program here. In the time bar just drag the little doohicky to the 45-minute mark. I'm on just after Billy Joel sings "My Life."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Useful Junk

(This message is one in a series titled “20 Questions With Jesus.”)

Luke 14:34

We were in New York last Sunday and had a great time roaming around the Upper West Side—checking out the shops and enjoying a sunny day. We spent some time in a flea market on Columbus Avenue at 76th Street—it had great shops: everything from furniture to vintage photographs to clothes. My son Ian and I spent some time looking at a collection of artworks made from “found objects.” There were pieces of discarded things in box frames, arranged because they were similar or to tell some story or make a point. They were beautiful. Thimbles, toy soldiers, colored glass.

Now we know that “found objects” is another way of saying “junk,” right? The discarded junk Ian and I were looking at had been picked up and rearranged—the pieces had been redeemed and made into something new. You can’t do that with everything, but when it happens it’s a beautiful thing. That thought will help us wrestle with our text this morning.

We continue our series, 20 Questions with Jesus. We’ve all played some variation of 20 Questions before. One person thinks of a person or a thing and the rest have 20 questions to guess what it is. It’s usually a game we play to kill time on a long journey.

Jesus asked a lot of questions, too. We talk a lot about the sermons of Jesus, or his parables, or the conversations he had with his disciples. This is different from that. Jesus often used questions to help people understand what he was about—or to get people to wrestle with something he taught—or to prompt some kind of action that would show that his followers were learning how to live out what he was teaching.

Between now and Pentecost we’re playing 20 Questions with Jesus. This won’t be a game we play just to kill time on a long drive. The goal is to give us some insight into who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us…as we are each on our own journey of faith and growth and discovery.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are theological—they get at something we’re supposed to know about him and his purposes.

Sometimes the questions are ethical—they get at what we’re supposed to do or how we’re called to live.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are confrontational—they force us to see something in our lives to change or confess or leave behind. That’s the kind of question we have in front of us today.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’ll confess that I don’t like this text very much—this isn’t one of my favorite questions that Jesus asks. It seems snarky and mean—maybe what I don’t like is that it seems so graceless and final.

The context helps a little. In Luke’s gospel this comes right after Jesus told a large crowd of people what it would cost them to be faithful disciples. It’s a hard passage. It talks about carrying the cross and being willing to leave our own families behind to follow Christ. It talks about counting the cost—about making sure we can finish what we start. It has a section that sounds like it comes from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, about considering the strength of your enemy before entering into battle.

See what I mean? This isn’t the easy stuff here. It’s about the hard choices—the total demands of Christian discipleship. And then it gets to our passage: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.”

It looks just slightly different in the way Matthew writes Jesus’ teaching about salt. In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about bad salt being trampled, which isn’t as violent as it sounds. Some salt in ancient times was so unstable as a compound that it would spoil. When it did it was used for paving—people walked on it or trampled it. It was still useful, even if it wasn’t useful as salt anymore.

Our passage starts with: “Salt is good.” We’ve talked before about how useful salt has been though history. It’s been a preservative and an antiseptic. It’s been an aphrodisiac and a rust-remover (there’s a joke there somewhere). In Roman times soldiers were paid in salt, which where we get the word: salary. Mostly, though, we know it as a flavoring. Serving salted vegetables is where we get the word “salad” from.

The rabbis in Jesus’ day talked about Israel as flavorless salt, meaning that it wasn’t fulfilling its end of the covenant God made with Abraham—Israel was meant to be a source of blessing to all the nations. Ancient rabbis, when they wanted to be critical of the way God’s people failed in their calling, described Israel as “insipid salt,” salt which had lost or given up its ability to be salt.

That’s part of the background for our text today. Salt is good, Jesus says, but if it loses its flavor how can you make it salty again? The simple answer is that you don’t –it just gets tossed out. That’s the part that sounds hopeless to me—it sounds like everything is somehow disposable when it fails us or disappoints us. It’s hopeless on its own, if we read it outside what we know about the rest of Jesus’ teaching—outside of the promise Jesus offers to make “all things new.”

Because we all know that things wear out. We buy clothes and shoes and other things, and enjoy them while they’re useful, and then they get replaced. Sometimes we can find new uses for things—we can reshape them or remake them into something different or beautiful—we can make them useful again in some way.

Sometimes that process can be miraculous.

It’s hard to imagine, but there are over 3.5 billion mobile phones in active use today. 290 million in the US and 75 million in the UK—in this country there are more mobile phones in use than there are people. That doesn’t account for the billion and a half unused phones sitting in drawers or tossed in the trash. Those phones have been set aside—they’re essentially high-tech junk.

Hold that thought for a moment.

According to the World Health Organization, each year 300 to 500 million people develop malaria and 1.5 to 3 million–mostly children–die. A simple lab test of blood could diagnose and lead to treatment for many of these patients, but many have no access to health facilities with the right lab equipment. Measuring the shape of blood cells is a key way to diagnose anemia, tuberculosis and malaria—three killers in the developing world. Part of the problem is that there aren’t nearly enough microscopes to handle all the tests.

Aydogan Ozcan is a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. He developed a little tool that can take a blood sample and send its image—in the form of a hologram—to a hospital or a lab…using the camera function in old mobile phones. They take the shapes of the blood cells and reconstruct them for doctors into images they would see in a microscope.

The potential for lifesaving is staggering. Remember that there are a billion or more phones that have been set aside as junk, and that each year 300 to 500 million people develop malaria and 1.5 to 3 million–mostly children–die.

The best part of the story—the miraculous part, really—is that it costs about 10 dollars per phone—about six quid—10 dollars to turn an unused, junked mobile phone into a lifesaving diagnostic tool.

The good news in the hard question Jesus asks us today is that it’s not the end of the story. This passage has to be read alongside God’s redeeming work that begins in the Garden and continues through to today. This text has to be read with the Cross in our sights—Christ’s transforming work for his creation and all people. The good news is that whatever happens—whatever changes come our way—God is working and reshaping and creating, even in the midst of our deepest losses.

Maybe we’re all in the process of becoming useful junk. Maybe we’re all “found objects” like the ones I saw with Ian last week. Maybe the point of the gospel is that all of us can be reclaimed and redeemed and transformed into something useful and beautiful. The key isn’t to focus on what might be lost. The key is to rejoice when we’re found and remade by the one who loves us and calls us to love and serve in his name.

The hope in this hopeless question that Jesus asks is found in the rest of the gospel. I’ve been reading through Henri Nouwen’s devotional during this season of Lent, and in yesterday’s pages he talked about the Prodigal Son, and how happy the father was when he came home. Remember how the dad kissed his son and told him that he loved him over and over again? Nouwen writes:

“This is the voice that Jesus wants us to hear. It is the voice that calls us always to return to the one who has created us in love, and wants to re-create us in his mercy.”

My prayer for all of us is that we’ll listen for God’s voice and his mercy, as he re-creates us into the people and the church he calls us to be. Amen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lent: An Invitation to Prayer?

So the first week of Lent comes to a close. How is it going for you?

We’re on vacation this week, visiting Washington, DC and some friends around this part of the country—more on that in a later post. The season of Lent, with its reflection and repentance and refocus on the life of discipleship—everything that makes up this time of the church year is meant to turn our eyes toward God. How is that going?

Part of how we connect to God is through prayer. Now I know it’s part of my calling to help people in their life of prayer, but it’s one area in my ministry where I feel particularly unskilled and, well, out of my depth. I’ve prayed—I’ve prayed a lot in my time as a Christian. Some of the prayers were regular daily sort of check-ins, and others were those prayers of desperation that we’ve all shouted at one time or another. Most of my prayers loitered somewhere in between those two extremes, and so here we are.

Rodney Clapp draws a distinction in a recent article in Christian Century, between two kinds of prayer, faithful and superstitious. When we link certain kinds or quantities of prayer somehow with God’s ability to act, we’re in the realm of superstition and magic. Faithful prayer differs from that, Clapp writes, saying that it “differs from superstition in that it does not presume control. It petitions God, the power at the center of all that is, while it does not presume on God’s answer or response. Faithful prayer is habitual prayer, prayer that does not only occur in crisis and does not end when a crisis is resolved. Faithful prayer is part and parcel of an ongoing relationship, a lifelong conversation, a prolonged attempt not to control God but to discern God’s presence and activity in all that befalls us.”

In Henri Nouwen’s Show Me the Way, he writes this as a part of today’s meditation: “The crisis of our prayer life is that our mind may be filled with ideas of God while our heart remains far from him.”

Is that helpful to you or just another way of saying we don’t do this very well?

I’m going to choose to be encouraged by this. In the spirit of the Lent season I want to be a part of that ongoing relationship Clapp talks about—that conversation that God is inviting me into. I want my heart to warm with the experience of God, even as I study and learn and reflect on what I try to know.

As we move into a second week of this beautiful, challenging season, let me invite you to start your own conversation with God. Not as a shopping list of needs and wants, and not as an act of superstition—this invitation is to a lifelong relationship, a process of learning to discern God’s presence and activity in everything we do.

One way to get started is to take what we call the Lent Challenge. Say the Lord's Prayer five times each day between now and Easter. If your prayer life is stuck or cold, this is a great way to remember why and how we connect to God. Try it...you won't be sorry.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent Blues (Already?)

Here I am at the first day after Ash Wednesday, and already I’m feeling as though I’ve lost any momentum for Lent. There are challenges at work that make me feel less than spiritually switched on, my family is preparing for a vacation even though I can’t imagine being away right now, and then there’s my own heart, which feels a little bruised and resistant to introspection.

How do I slow down and take hold what Lent is offering?

Each year I struggle to read through Henri Nouwen’s Lent reader, Show Me the Way. Today’s entry is forcing me to re-think my expectations of what this time of the year means and teaches. I hear the words “reflection” and “repentance” and I promptly give in to the temptation to make Lent about me—about my sin, my needs, my struggle to live a life of hope. I step into Lent and feel as though I’ve simply given my self-absorption a new, fancier name…a spiritual, church-sanctioned name, no less.

See what I mean about losing steam for Lent on the very first day?

The first sentence of Nouwen’s reading for today says: “A life of faith is a life of gratitude—it means a life in which I am willing to experience my complete dependence upon God and to praise and think him unceasingly for the gift of being.”

Oh, boy.

The very first line pierces me to the heart. Is my life of faith a life of gratitude? In my living and praying and studying and working and loving—in all of that, am I aware that it all revolves around being thankful to God?

The rest of the sentence helps me make sense out of where I want to be this season. I really am grateful to God for my life. I’m thankful for my wife and my step-daughter and my son. I'm amazed at the friends and colleagues God has given me. I still wake up most mornings a little surprised that I get to be the pastor of a church, a place that I love with people who are teaching me far more than I’ll ever be able to give back. I really am thankful, when I take the time to think about it, that God’s grace reaches into the darkest parts of my life, turns the light on and says, “I think we can do something with this mess.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The reminder today, as we look ahead to the Lenten season, is to be grateful to God for the gift of our very being. Whatever prompts you to “praise and thank him unceasingly,” I encourage you to make that the focus of the time between now and Easter. Whatever else you might do during this season of Lent, remember to pause and be thankful as often as you can.

We might just survive these 40 days after all.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Welcome to Lent

This is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins.

There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’

The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours...and yours...and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all. Welcome to Lent.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Question on the Table

(This is the first in a series of messages titled "Twenty Questions With Jesus.")

Mark 8:27-30

When I was a kid we used to play Twenty Questions on road trips. You know how the game goes—one person thinks of something, usually animal, mineral or vegetable, and the rest have twenty yes or no questions to try to figure out what the thing is. My sisters and I used to play it (in-between choruses of "You Are My Sunshine"), and now we play it with Ian.

Twenty Questions is usually a game we play to pass the time on a long journey. Today we’re going to turn that around a little and begin a long journey together. We’re going to spend the next twenty weeks looking at selected questions that Jesus asked during his ministry—there are actually hundreds of them recorded in the Bible.

We talk a lot about the sermons of Jesus, or his parables, or the conversations he had with his disciples. This is a little different from that. Jesus often used questions to help people understand what he was about—or to get people to wrestle with something he taught—or to prompt some kind of action that would show that his followers were learning how to live out what he was teaching.

Between now and Pentecost we’re going to play Twenty Questions with Jesus. But this won’t be a game we play just to kill time on a long drive. The goal is to give us some insight into who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us…as we are each on our own journey of faith and growth and discovery.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are theological—they get at something we’re supposed to know about him and his purposes.

Sometimes the questions are ethical—they get at what we’re supposed to do or how we’re called to live.

Sometimes the questions Jesus asks are confrontational—they force us to see something to change or confess or leave behind.

The most important of the questions do all of the above, like the one we’re starting with today.

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

This story appears in almost the exact same form in Matthew, Mark and Luke—the gospels that tell the story of Jesus as a story without very much interpretation. First Jesus asks the disciples who the crowds say that he is, and then he turns the question on the Twelve. Jesus asks them this question to see where they are in understanding his ministry, and then almost immediately he tells them that he’s going to have to die to make his point—to accomplish the mission that he came to do. He's not ready for this story to be spread just yet, so he asks them to keep it secret for just a little while longer.

The point of the passage rests on these questions. “Who do the people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?”

Questions are crucial to growing into mature faith. Questions are the ways we learn and struggle and come to understand things. I have all kinds of questions. They’re the same ones we all have.

Why is there so much suffering in the world?
What about other religions?
What really happens when we die?

I have all kinds of questions.

But in the end my ability to understand the responses God might offer to any of my questions—my ability to understand God’s answers is dependent on my answer to this big fat enchilada of a question that Jesus asks all of us:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Two things to notice about this question:

Part of this is theological: Who is Jesus? There are the textbook answers: Son of God; Savior of the world; prince of peace—you’ve probably heard those before. Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth and the life—no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Lots of people don’t want to wrestle with that one—with what Jesus actually says about himself, and so they rely completely on their own feelings about who Jesus is…to them. The danger in relying only on our feelings or thoughts about Jesus is that he becomes a savior in our own image, instead of the other way around.

I have a Jesus Action Figure with me this morning. Have you seen one of these? It comes with “poseable arms and a gliding action.” I can do a lot of things with this little toy, but it doesn’t ask anything of me—it doesn’t ask me any questions—it doesn’t demand anything from my life. As a matter of fact this Jesus Action Figure is completely dependent on me for it to do anything. That’s not the Jesus of the Scriptures.

When Jesus asks us “Who do you say that I am,” he’s asking “Just how much of my teaching are you willing accept—to wrestle with and believe. And so part of this question is theological.

But I think that the biggest part of this question is missional: Notice that he doesn’t say: “Who do you think that I am…when no one’s looking—when you’re hidden away?” This is not just a question about belief—this is a question about our habits and practices as followers of Christ. Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that to? Maybe the better question is: Do you ever say anything about who I am to people? Do you say anything about me?

I’ve been reading Stan Guthrie’s new book called All That Jesus Asks. It’s the new addition to the recommended reading list in the bulletin. In one chapter he’s talking about the miracles of Jesus—the healings and battles with the spiritual realm—and he says this:

“In these events we see that Jesus, unlike the religious action figures sold at Wal-Mart, is not infinitely bendable, able to assume whatever postmodern pose we give him. He’s not the pious, otherworldly, slightly effeminate savior we see in so much religious art. No, his hands are rough, even cracked, from hard work. He’s stared evil and suffering in the face, seized them by the scruff of the neck, and lived to tell about it.”

As we celebrate Communion together today, we have the usual bread and cup, but today there’s also a question on that Table. Jesus invites us to come and share in this meal and to remember who he is and what he’s done for us. Jesus invites us to be together with him, but he also asks this question: “Who do you say that I am?”

We may have different answers to that question right now, but we can’t really get anywhere unless we’re willing to face it honestly, with all our doubts and struggles and questions.

As we come to the Table, my prayer for us is that we’ll commit ourselves to this journey of twenty questions—that we’ll enter into a time of prayer and study and reflection—that we’ll be ready when someone else asks us who we say Jesus is—that we’ll have an answer that introduces that person to the one who came and lived and loved and stared evil and suffering in the face and lived to tell the tale.

Let’s pray together.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Big Hiatus!

Hi All,

It's not your imagination! This page has been dormant for a few months now. I've been working a lot through the holidays, and when I get a chance to go online it's usually to update my Facebook page. I'm not giving up on the blog, just taking some time away to rethink what this page ought to be. Stay tuned.