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 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.