Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crummy Start - Dec 30 2007

Matthew 2:13-23

Jesus was a refugee from a land torn by hardship and cruelty … warned in a dream of Herod’s plan to kill the child, Joseph takes his family, in the middle of the night, and flees to Egypt.

Matthew’s congregation would have understood … many of them were refugees, too … after the sacking of Jerusalem … the destruction of its Temple in the 70th year of the Christian Era.

Folks fled for their lives … displaced and uncertain.

A story played out in our world too many times … what with war and rumors of war … earthquake and flood.

12 million refugees – those who cross borders in search of safety - 21 million internally displaced because of violence or disaster – 33 million without a home.

It’s a hard life for millions … harder than most of us will ever know … and beyond all imagination.

In the brilliant movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” his rich Texas friend encourages him to do more about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Charlie Wilson is a little slow to move on it, so his rich Texas friend arranges for a flight to Pakistan to see the refugee camps first hand … Charlie Wilson walks through these camps, disease-ridden and teeming with filth, crammed with tens of thousands of desperate, hungry people, an no greater desperation than that written on the face of a child – Charlie Wilson is overwhelmed … he returns to Congress a champion of the Afghani people, working covertly to defeat the Soviets.

I have no idea what it is to be displaced … do you?

I remember the power outage of the summer of 2003; we were living in Detroit.

I was watching TV when the power went out … Donna called me from a nearby community, saying, “The power just went out.”

I remember thinking … power out here … power out there … this is pretty big.

I waited an hour or so, and still no power, so I called Rachel in California – cell phones were still working – I said, “Turn on TV at your office; see if you can find out what’s happening.”

There it was on CNN – the blackout spreading like spilled ink throughout the northeastern part of the nation.

“Is it terrorism?” we all asked.

Only later were we to learn how dangerously close we came to having the entire national grid go down like a series of dominoes.

For three days, no power.

Ten million people in Ontario, 40 million Americans in eight states.

That evening and the next two nights, we cooked out on the grill … neighbors brought stuff over and we sat in the dark … the night skies was clear … no ambient light … the stars were bright … being August, it stayed light until late … and then, like pioneers of old, our wake and sleep patterns followed the sun.

We made do for a few days until power was restored … but I remember thinking: “How much longer could we have gotten on? - no gas at the pump; stores without refrigeration; everything on emergency power; water still in the tap, but drinkable only after boiling … no cell phones, no radio; no internet; no trains or planes … nothing.

This past week, I drove by a building with an indented store front, claimed by a squatter – a shopping cart, an umbrella, tattered cushions and a sleeping bag, the detritus of poverty … and a salvaged Christmas Tree with a few shreds of tinsel and a bow or two.

Everyone wants a home … even the homeless make do as best they can.

Life is hard for millions of people … really hard, desperately hard.

Our LORD had a hard go of it … a crummy start … and it ended poorly … on a Roman cross and a borrowed tomb.

Why would God enter life on such a precarious note?

Why would God take upon Himself the stress and strain of life at its worst?

Why submit to the humiliation of a trial in Herod’s palace and Pilate’s court?

Why the cradle and why the cross?

What is God doing?

God is undoing death! And death’s paymaster – named “sin” … for the wages of sin are death!

Death in all of its hideous versions …

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death …”

The death that comes slowly to a human being without grace … like the movie portrait of Mr. Plainview, “There Will Be Blood” – a man sells his soul for gain … and what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? To trade life for death?

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death …

The death of hope in a child beaten by ill-gotten parents and betrayed by a poorly funded safety net that lets too many children slip through the webbing.

The death of faith, hope and love …

The death of a soul long before a body dies …

And death itself … “the final enemy” says Paul the Apostle, against which no human being can stand, no science prevail, no myth soften, and no incantation defeat!

The wages of sin are death … and we’re all gainfully employed in the market place of sin … all of us, great and small; good and bad … nary a one of us can escape:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one …” (Romans 3:10).

“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

Our spirit cries out with Paul: “Who will rescue me?”

Will our own goodness suffice to turn the tide and heal the wound?

But when and how?

Has not the world tried long and hard to heal itself?

Every nostrum fails in the final account … peace talks end one war only to witness the onset of another.

Poverty programs work for a time, and then the machinery of greed and power churns out another generation of haves with too much and have-nots with too little.

Medicine and technology promise the moon, but death still comes a-calling, and we each go off into the dark veil.

Hope cannot not be found within history nor will it be found in the human heart … neither invention nor innovation will lead us out of the vicious circle of temporary hope and bitter disappointment … there is no advanced civilization out there who will visit us one day and save us, nor some genius born today or tomorrow who will lead us to nirvana.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of my own I claim But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

From sin to salvation … from life to death … from fear to faith … delivered, set free and made new.

Salvation received on bended knee … but of what price God paid.

Our salvation cost everything God had and then some.

No easy work for God … undoing the damages of sin; unraveling the twisted cords of sin and sorrow; disentangling us from the web of death.

It was a breeze for God to create the world …
“Let it be,” said God, and so it was. No muss, no fuss.

Speaking of creation …

Do you now the longest day in the Bible? The day Adam was created, because there was no Eve.”

After God had created Adam he noticed that he looked very lonely.

God said "Adam, I've decided to make you a woman. She'll love you, cook for you, be sweet to you, and understand you."

Adam said "Great! How much will she cost me?"
God said, "An arm and a leg."
"Well," said Adam "what can I get for a rib?"

It was a breeze for God to create the heavens and the earth … the far-flung stars and the starfish in the tidal pool …

But sin entered in … a small thing at first – a question, a lie, a misperception, fruit plucked from the tree – and then gathering speed like a freight train - the onset of fear, the dissolution of love and the beginning of death.

God soon learned that an all-out frontal attack did no good … creating a nation and defending it with sword and spear did no good … commanding us to do better, be better and make something of ourselves did no good – neither promise nor threat resolved the issue and undid the damages done by sin.

So God enters into it, goes to the very heart of it … with a crummy start and a terrible end … God tastes every bitter herb we eat; God takes unto Himself horror and loss, fatigue and fear, ever injustice and every betrayal … at the bottom of the heap, the lowest rung of the ladder … to the very heart of death itself.

“For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The great exchange … the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by taking every lick of it, absorbing it, by living within it and feeling all it – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A pure and perfect love hanging on the cross, smeared with blood and spit; the great Son of God, standing in the breech … taking every hit … a refugee at birth … a man without a home … “Foxes have holes,” He said, “and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His Head” (Matthew 8:20).

Joseph took his family in the middle of the night … a crummy start to the hardest work God ever had to do … to undo the damages of sin, right the ship, get the train on track, get the car out of the ditch; save us from our sins … it was the hardest work God ever had to do!

That’s why He’s our Savior … that’s why He’s the King of kings and the LORD of lords … He’s the incomparable sacrifice; the uncontested Prince of Peace … He’s the Bread of Heaven and the Living Water … He’s life eternal and life here and now … He’s the Master who stills the storm and the hand upon the leper … He speaks to the woman at the well and takes little children into his arms … He bears the cross to Calvary and bears the sins of the world upon His shoulders … He dies our death, and death cannot hold Him … the Tomb would claim Him, but the stone is rolled away … He’s the Good Shepherd of the sheep; He’s the Head of the church, the Firstborn of the dead … He’s at the right of Hand God and He’s with us forever.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Odd God - Dec. 23, 2007

Matthew 1:18-25

“Imagine that” we say in response to a surprising bit of news … “wouldn’t have imagined that in a million years.”

“I can’t imagine how she could have done that.”

“I can’t imagine him doing that.”

“Imagine that!”

Advent is a time of imagination!

We imagine a world waiting … a world waiting for the Messiah … a world holding its breath; a world wondering: “What is God doing?” … “When will God deliver the promise? … “What is God up to?”

We imagine the tumultuous days of the first century … Israel occupied and governed by the iron will of Rome … the difficult trek of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the stable behind the inn … shepherds in their fields by night; angels in realms of glory … a star on high … wise men traveling from afar … the vicious plans of Herod to destroy the child threatening his throne … the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt … their return when Herod dies … and so on and so forth … the stories that guide our imagination and shape our faith!

Imagination is the heartbeat of faith.

When elders, deacons and pastors are ordained, one of the questions put to them: “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?”

Imagination is vital to a living faith …

But more than imagining the past … imagining the future …

A world that could be … to see beyond the smoke and sorrow, the hurt and pain, the noise and the nonsense … the daily grind of making a living and wondering when death will come.

To imagine the world as God would have it … a world of justice and peace … the world for which Jesus died and rose again … the Bible tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him – the world to be! Jesus died for the world as it is, so that the world might become as it should!

“Imagine that!” we say to one another … imagine a new world …

That’s our calling … it’s our work – never to accept the world as it is, but the world as Jesus would have it!

“Come and follow me,” said Jesus … let’s go to this new world … it’ll be costly, it’ll be hard, it’ll demand of you all that you have, and then some … but it’ll be worth it! Come and follow me!”

“Imagine that!”

Albert Einstein said:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Imagination … creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are everything in this world.

Carl Sagan:
Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.

Carl Sandburg:
Nothing happens unless first we dream.

“Imagine that!”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Imagine that!”

Imagination is the enemy of hell … “Let there be no imagination” cries Satan – “only reality - dull, grating, boring, enervating, irritating reality.”
The deluge of daily news – muggings and murders, war and want, disease and disaster, conflict and competition – keep people on edge, wary and weary … don’t ever let their imagination soar toward heaven; don’t ever let their imagination see a new world.”

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography … his journey from atheism to faith … from a lost and bewildered young man to a servant of the Most High God.

It’s all about imagination … being able to see with the eyes of faith what the physical eye will never see …

To see with the heart, with the soul, with the spirit of Christ.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Morey Plotkin’s Bible Class for the last few weeks.

What a story … the ghost of an idea, as Dickens says … the tale of a miserly old man, entwined in the heavy chains of greed, a soul bereft of joy … a weary spirit without a shred of imagination.

“Imagine that” said Marley’s ghost to Scrooge one night … three ghosts will visit you … the ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and then, the Ghost of Christmas Future.

“Can’t I have ‘em all at once?” asks Scrooge.

“No,” says Marley. “This will take some time!”

A long dormant imagination wakes slowly from the sleep of death … the process is unrelenting, and it hurts … Scrooge wants to flee, but the Ghosts hold him tight in the grip of love, a violent grace that will not let Scrooge hightail it back into the darkness – the Ghosts drag him, kicking and screaming, into the light … a world of divine imagination!

A world of Christmas joy and delight … parties and dancing … love and family … a world wherein Tiny Tim has a chance … workers given a living wage, charity the preeminent virtue!

“Imagine that.”

I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer languishing in a Nazi prison – he hears Allied planes overhead; he hears distant bombs exploding – freedom is coming. But will it come in time?

It wasn’t in time for Bonhoeffer.

Days before the prison was liberated by the Allies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was bound and hooded, walked to a scaffold, and hanged, April 9, 1945 … Flossenburg Concentration Camp.

December, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes a poem included in today’s bulletin:

The forces for good in wonder surround us,
Through faith and peace they’ll guard and guide.
And so these days with you I’ll live,
With you, my friends, a new year abide.

And ends with:

The forces for good surround us in wonder;
They firm up our courage for what comes our way,
God’s with us from dawn to the slumber of evening,
The promise of love at the break of each day.

“Imagine that.”

When it comes down to it, we have an odd task … to imagine an odd God … and an odd world, a world charged with the presence and the reality of God!

It’s not so odd to imagine the creator …
Or even the God of Sinai clouded in smoke and fire …
It’s not too odd to imagine the God who smashes the siege works of His enemies, or for that matter, takes His own people into captivity …
We can imagine such things – these are images of power and mastery, control and conquest … images we understand … images that govern much of our world.

But when we come to Bethlehem … God has taken a deep breath, changed courses … comes to us in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger … no crib for a bed.

Paul the Apostle writes forty years later:

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

An odd God … a very odd God.

The poet John Donne wrote:

“Twas much that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more” (Holy Sonnets, #11).

How odd of God …

A very odd God …

And that’s the good news we celebrate … the world is full of ordinary gods who snort and sneer, who conquer and contend … and God said, “Been there, done that.”

“And no more!”

From the flood to the cross … a huge change in the character of God …

To Noah’s world, God said, “I’m tired of you, and I wash my hands of you … let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.”

But the flood didn’t work … all that anger and all that death, didn’t work … never does, never will.

Even God had to learn a few things along the way!

So now it’s Bethlehem …

“O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by,
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fear of all the yeas
Are met in thee tonight.”

A very odd God indeed.

A virgin birth … how odd of God.

Joseph, bewildered and confused … ready to put Mary aside for her indiscretion …

But in the nick of time, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream …

How odd of God … to come to our world this way … but didn’t the prophet long ago say to us: a young lady, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son … and his name will be Emmanuel … God with us?

So Joseph took Mary as his wife … when the boy is born, Joseph names him Jesus … Jeshua … Joshua … Joshua who fit the battle of Jericho … Joshua who led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land … Joshua, Jeshua … in the Greek language: Yesus - Jesus.

How very odd of God!

Matthew ends the gospel 28 chapters later with a simple task and a profound promise:

Take this odd God and tell the world … in every nation, make disciples … no barriers, no boundaries – everyone deserves to hear about the odd God …

And you’re not alone in this endeavor … “I am with you always, to the end of the age, till the work is done, and all is made new.”

Imagine that … a very odd God! Amen!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Disappointment - Dec 16 2007

Matthew 11:2-15

You’re six-years old; you just broke the neighbor’s window with a rock, because you were angry at your playmate … your Dad says, “Son, I’m disappointed in you.”

Your favorite teacher calls you into her office and says, “I expect so much more of you. I’m disappointed in you.”

“I’m disappointed in you!”

We’ve all heard it … we’ve all said it.

Speaking of disappointment, I’m thinking about Christmas gifts …

Now that Christmas is nearing, a little advice about gifts for that man in your life:

Rule #1:
When in doubt - buy him a cordless drill. It does not matter if he already has one. I have a friend who owns 17 and he has yet to complain. As a man, you can never have too many cordless drills. No one knows why.

Rule #2:
If you cannot afford a cordless drill, buy him anything with the word ratchet or socket in it. Men love saying those two words. "Hey George, can I borrow your ratchet?" "OK. Bye-the-way, are you through with my 3/8-inch socket yet?" Again, no one knows why.

Rule #3:
If you are really, really broke, buy him anything for his car. A 99-cent ice scraper, a small bottle of deicer or something to hang from his rear view mirror. Men love gifts for their cars. No one knows why.

Rule #4:
Never buy a man anything that says "some assembly required" on the box. It will ruin his Special Day and he’ll always have parts left over.

Rule #5:
Good places to shop for men include Northwest Iron Works, Parr Lumber, Home Depot, John Deere, Valley RV Center, and Les Schwab Tire. (NAPA Auto Parts and Sear's Clearance Centers are also excellent men's stores. It doesn't matter if he doesn't know what it is. "From NAPA Auto, eh? Must be something I need. Hey! Isn't this a starter for a '68 Ford Fairlane? Wow! Thanks.")

Rule #6:
It's hard to beat a really good wheelbarrow or an aluminum extension ladder. Never buy a real man a step ladder. It must be an extension ladder. No one knows why.

Rule #7:
Rope. Men love rope. It takes us back to our cowboy origins, or at least The Boy Scouts. Nothing says love like a hundred feet of 3/8" manilla rope. No one knows why.

Follow these simple rules, and you’re man won’t be disappointed!

Years ago, I read a book about disappointment. It was really disappointing.

Not really … but one thing I learned and one thing I remember about disappointment … look carefully at the word … the heart of it - appointment.

We expect thus and so … we make appointments for folks …

But …

Children go their own way.
Friends leave us in the lurch.
The pink slip arrives on our desk.
A loved one does something so hurtful, we wonder if we’ll ever recover.
The university of our dreams doesn’t want us …
The boss doesn’t think we’re so hot …
The long-anticipated vacation is mostly a flop.

John says to Jesus, “I’m disappointed in you!”

What did John expect?

The Rev. Dr. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago and editor of the Christian Century, writes:

“What people wanted was a king … who would unify the nation, rally the troops, drive out the occupying Romans and reestablish the monarchy. That’s what a Messiah is supposed to do – make things right by defeating God’s enemies, establish a new order of things based on real power” (Christian Century, Dec. 11, 2007, p.3).

“One who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” said John. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

What did John expect?

We have to be kind with John …
He’s doing jail-time … Herod’s prison - the end of the road for this rough and ready guy.
A man of the desert … camel’s hair clothing, locusts and wild honey for breakfast.
Passionate about God - a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD!”
Now he’s in the slammer!

“Are you the One?”

Jesus sends back a message:

“The blind receive their sight … the lame walk … lepers are cleansed … the deaf hear … the dead are raised … the poor have good news preached to them.”

This is the work of the Messiah foretold by Isaiah …

But John couldn’t see it … his appointment for Jesus clouded his vision.

Jim and Susie wanted their son to pursue a career in law, because Mom and Dad were lawyers, but the son becomes a photographer instead; has long hair and wears jeans to work … he’s a good photographer, a fine young man, but the parents can’t see it. Every time they’re together, tension and bitterness …

Jesus says to John, “Look carefully at this.”

Like the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge: "Look upon me!”

A second look is warranted … a reconsideration … another go at it.

God is always more … or less … than what we expect, and people are rarely ever what we want them to be!

People are who they are … neither more nor less … innovative and creative, silly and sly … wonderful and loving … self-serving and conniving … mean-spirited and jealous … glorious and gracious … all of that and more in spades!

People are complex … life is full of surprises …

It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. The pastor of the church was looking over the lawn when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from among the figures.

He hurried outside and saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the little infant Jesus.
So he walked up to the boy and said, "Well, where did you get your passenger, my fine friend?”
The little boy replied, "I got Him at church."
"And why did you take Him?"
The boy explained, "Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus and I told Him if He would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give Him a ride around the block in it” (Thanks to Jan Murphy for this cute story).

Places we never dreamed, experiences we never expected … responsibilities that tax us to the limit and beyond.

“Mom, you never told me it would be like this.”

There’s probably no tougher disappointment than self-disappointment:

We’re going to be a millionaire by the time we’re 30 …
We’ll write a best-seller … join a rock band and go gold … marry the person of our dreams.
We’ll live in exotic lands and see the world …
We’ll have the perfect marriage.
We’ll sign up for great causes and win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Our children will be straight A students and find a cure for cancer.

But life goes its own way …

Perhaps you’re familiar with Bruce Wilkinson, author of The Prayer of Jabeze, a book that transformed the way millions of people pray.
After huge successes on every front, Mr. Wilkinson turned his attention to South Africa … a major effort to take care of the children of AIDs … to promote health and healing, faith and hope … huge dreams, but it all came crashing down … Wilkinson resigned and returned home, heart-stricken and sad.

No one’s immune to disappointment!

What do we do about it?

I think of David & Goliath … David had only a sling & his faith, and on his way to battle, David stopped by a creek bed and gathered up five smooth stones.

When it comes to disappointment, We have spiritual weapons at our disposal … a sling called faith and five smooth stones.


Surrender our life to God … day in and day out … moment-by-moment … everything we are and everything we hope to be … “LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, I give myself to you, in faith and obedience.”


Christ at the center of our heart, so nothing else can get in there … the light of Christ, the love of Christ, the glory of Christ … His kindness and His mercy … His forgiveness and His patience … His hope and His endurance.


To be generous in our estimate of people around us … to let them be more or less of who they are … to appreciate their creative energies and allow them space to a bad day … when I chat with parents, I remind them to let their children have bad day … we all have tough days, and one of the kindest things we can do is make allowances for such things.


To have a sane and sober estimate of life … things happen, things go awry … plans collapse; folks just don’t show up at the all the appointments we make for them, and we fail to meet our self-appointments. A little biblical realism – sin abounds … but so does grace. As Donna says to me: “Get over it!”


A positive mindset:

Life is good; God is good …
Rub the eyes and take a second look.
Determine to see the good, because it’s there
Look for it until you find it … wrestle with it until you get the blessing … Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long and wouldn’t let go until he got the blessing.

Count your blessings and name them one-by-one. Celebrate what you have, not what you’ve lost …
Remember, things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out!

Whatever comes your way, you’ll handle it.
However unusual your pathway, God is right there beside you.
If Goliath stands in your way, sling a smooth stone and send him crashing to the ground in a heap of dust.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Amen!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Violence? December 9 07,

Matthew 3:1-12

Who doesn’t need a fresh start now and then?

Who doesn’t need a second chance?

A do-over?

What do they call it in golf?
A Mulligan!
Hit a bad shot.
Take a Mulligan. Do it again!

Who doesn’t need a Mulligan now and then?

Speaking of golf … a pastor was an avid golfer … played for years … went golfing every chance he had.
Well, one Sunday morning, he gets up … it was a perfect golf day … unable to resist temptation, the pastor calls the Clerk of Session and says, “Stafford, I’m not feeling well today. You’ll have to fill in.”
And with assurances from Stafford that he’ll handle the service, and a little prayer for the pastor’s health, the pastor hightails it out of the house to a golf course 50 miles away … he didn’t want to be seen.
The angels in heaven see this and say to God, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
God says, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it.”

So the angels sit back to watch.

On the seventh hole, the pastor gets a hole-in-one!

The angels are baffled. “We thought you’d give the pastor a terrible game, but now you give him a hole-in-one.”

“I know,” replied God, “but who’s he going to tell?”

The love of God at work in our lives …

God is at work for good in all things … so in all things, you can find good …

I talked to a man who’s very successful … but who nearly didn’t make it … 25 years ago, a surfer doing drugs, smuggling drugs … on the edge of disaster … but he made it through … and God was there … today, he’s involved in a community of faith … ministers to young people … telling his story.

A man with a giant career in real estate and banking … a shady deal … time in prison … and now he’s got more of God in his life than ever before … he’s battling his third bout with cancer … and he’s till on top of it, still going strong, a man of faith!

A young lady who works for CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice – played a key roll in the new labor agreement between hotel workers and the LAX Sheraton – she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college … an inspiring young lady who faced the worst odds … in college, racism; told flat-out by some: “You’re here just because of your color.”

She loves God and she overcomes … and now she’s thinking about seminary.

They all turned it around … defeat into victory, scars into stars … loss into gain … pain into wisdom!

“You can do it!”
You can face anything and overcome it.
You can be handed a lousy set of cards, and still win the game.

Because God is near at hand … close enough for us to feel the mystery of grace …

Like standing close to an oven … you can feel the heat … or opening a refrigerator door on a hot day, the cool air rushes out, and it feels good.

God is close enough for us to feel the mystery of grace …

A message hell doesn’t want us to hear …

The Evil One delivers the message of hell every day:

You’re stuck, and you’ll never get out.
You’ve acted this way for 20 years, and it’ll never change.
Your behavior is shameful and disgusting – you’re a terrible human being.
You’re parents don’t love you; your children are going to hell in hand-basket, and it’s all your fault.
You make poor decisions; you’re a flub, you’re a flop, you’re a failure … and don’t think about changing: it’s too late … it’ll never work … you’re trapped and your goose is cooked.

The tools of hell: discouragement, defeat, frustration, resentment, jealousy, the sense of being cheated, denied and overlooked … hopeless entrapment – stuck forever; no way out.

I saw hell yesterday – In two parking lots - angry, aggressive drivers … honking horns, screeching tires, obscene gestures - everyone on their own personal mission … every car, a threat …

The stuff of hell … to tangle us up and take us down.

God has a life-giving message …
Faith, hope and love;
Grace, mercy and peace;
Patience, courage and endurance!

Because God knows what you’re made of … God knows how good and decent you are; intelligent and gifted … God knows you can do it!

God knows what you can do, even if you don’t know it right now!

I remember teaching Josh how to ride a bike. I knew he could do it. He didn’t know it at the time; only I knew it.

But Josh trusted me.

So there we are in the street … Josh on a bike he can’t ride, and Dad running down the street with him, hand on the bike.

Back and forth a few times … huffin’ and puffin’ until that magic moment … I’m still running beside him, but no longer holding the bike … Josh is riding it, all by himself … he’s doing what I knew he could always do.

And now he knows it, too … “I can ride a bike!”

We find our way through, around, under or over.

We rebuild our lives after disaster … loss of job … the end of a marriage … illness and death … and who knows what else.

Every day I’m amazed at what people endure, how folks make it … find a way to overcome!

Thomas Merton writes about his Father dying of an inoperable brain tumor the summer of 1930.

“All summer we went regularly and faithfully to the hospital once or twice a week. There was nothing we could do but sit there, and look at Father and tell him things which he could not answer. But he understood what we said.
“In fact, if he could not talk, there were other things he could still do. One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue notepaper on which he had been drawing. And the drawings were real drawings. But they were unlike anything he had ever done before – pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.
“Of us all, Father was the only one who really had any kind of a faith. And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of his isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him, and Who gave him, as I believe, light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul. …. And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even into the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.

And then Merton adds:

“… my father was in a fight with this tumor, and none of us understood the battle. We thought he was done for, but it was making him great” (The Seven Story Mountain, p.83).

On the road to Damascus … Saul the Pharisee, intent on great harm … and God would have none of it.

With a bolt of light and firm voice, Saul is tripped up and falls flat on his face …

Saul the Pharisee falls down … Paul the Apostle gets up!

A tough, unrelenting God … who will not let us go … the God of the prophets, Isaiah and Hosea … the God who plunges the knife of love into our hearts … and twists and turns … and it hurts like hell, but it’s the help of heaven … cutting away the old and bringing in the new …

John says to the crowd:

“What I do, I do only with water … but someone is coming after me … more powerful than I am … I’m not fit to carry his sandals …

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”

The threshing floor swept clean … the wheat gathered into the storehouses of God … the chaff burned with an unquenchable fire.

A violent message.

“If God wants children, God will raise them up from the stones at your feet.”

A violent message … shake us … penetrate the layers of discouragement and pride … get to the heart; perform CPR; get it beating again.

In the Book of Revelation, letters to seven churches … the first letter to the church in Ephesus … “You’ve worked hard, but this I hold against you: you have forgotten your first love.”

“Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:1-7).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says, ‘LORD, LORD’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … many will say to me on that day: ‘LORD, LORD, did we not prophecy in your name, and did we not drive our demons and perform miracles.’ Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:21-23).

“You gave me your mouth, you gave me your hands, but you never gave me your heart.”

Violent grace … shake us, penetrate us, strip away the defensive layers – excuses and pretensions … God awakens the heart and gets it beating again.

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a tour of his life – Scrooge watches the scene wherein the woman he loves walks away because Scrooge is more in love with his golden idols.

Scrooge cries out:

“Show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Scrooge. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next.

Violent grace …

“You brood of vipers.”

“The axe is already laid at the root of the tree.”

Violent grace …

“Your sins are no more!”
“They’re gone forever!
Washed away.
Done with and over.”

To Nicodemus in the night …

To Zacchaeus up a tree …

To the woman at the well …

To the lepers and to the lame …

To you and to me …

A fresh start … a second chance!

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever!”


Monday, December 3, 2007

Surpise - December 2 07

Matthew 24:36-44

What a fine looking group of people … like Lake Wobegon, where all the men are strong, the women good looking, and all the children above average.

What a fine looking group … although it may have something to do with the fact that I cleaned my glasses before worship … it’s amazing how much better the world looks through clean glasses.

Glasses rarely get dirty all at once … they get dirty over a period of time … slowly … grit and grime … one day at a time … and we get used to it … until one day Donna looks at me and says, “How in the world can you see anything out of those filthy glasses?”

And I’ll take ‘em off and look at ‘em, and she’s right – they’re filthy … so I clean ‘em, put ‘em back on … and the world is a better place … because I cleaned my glasses.

Which reminds me …

John went to visit his 90-year old grandfather in a backwater region of Georgia.

The first morning, John's grandfather prepared bacon, eggs and toast. But John noticed a film on his plate, and asked his grandfather, "Are these plates clean?"

His grandfather replied, "They're as clean as cold water can get ‘em. Just you go ahead and finish your meal, Sonny!"

For lunch the old man made hamburgers. Again, John was concerned about the plates as his appeared to have tiny specks around the edge that looked like dried egg and asked, "Are you sure these plates are clean?"

Without looking up the old man said, "I told you before, Sonny, those dishes are as clean as cold water can get ‘em. Now don't you fret, I don't wanna hear another word about it!"

Later that afternoon, John was on his way to a nearby town and as he was leaving, his grandfather's dog started to growl, and wouldn't let him pass. John yelled out, "Grandfather, your dog won't let me get to my car".

Without diverting his attention from the football game he was watching on TV the old man shouted ...


Clean plates … clean glasses …

Who doesn’t need a little cleaning up now and then … a good scrubbing of the attitude … a little dry cleaning for the mind … stain remover on the soul.

Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23).

“Healthy eyes” … the Greek word for healthy can also mean generous …

Healthy eyes: I will see things as God sees them … I will look at the world with generous thoughts … I will look at people and give ‘em a break … I will not expect too much, and I will forgive quickly.

By the way, where will the USC Trojans play football next year: at the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl?
A fan who goes to both venues was asked about it: “Well, parking’s bad at both, lots of things are needed … but as long as the concrete doesn’t hit me on the head, I’m okay … I just don’t expect too much, and then I have a good time.”

“I just don’t expect too much, and then I have a good time!”

Expectations …

Two weeks ago, fog cancelled flights out of LA – passengers were outraged … about what? The fog?

Airline travel … smaller seats, and now they’re even taking away the pretzels …

Andrew Robert Thomas, an assistant professor of business at the University of Akron says: “… the cattle-class experience has contributed to the rise and intensity of air rage incidents all over the world.”

“With the cutbacks continuing and the number of air travelers projected to triple in the next 20 years, air rage will be a problem for the foreseeable future.”

Air rage … road rage … what’s next, pew rage?

It’s already with us … at my former church in Detroit, a young family joined the church, enrolled in Bible study, became deacons … served the LORD with gladness.

One day, we were having coffee, and they said, “Tom, we have a funny story to tell you. When we were first started attending, we settled into a pew one Sunday, when along came Peggy, and she looked at us, and said, ‘That’s my pew; you’ll have to move’ and we did.”

Last week, pulled up behind an SUV, a rear-window decal – “Back off, I’m Grumpy” … with the Walt Disney character from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

One of my favorite Civil War writers, Bruce Catton, tells of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination … how Secretary of War Stanton fanned flames of resentment against the South … Stanton and others couldn’t let go of their ill-will … Catton refers to them as “bitter-enders” … a term from the Boer Wars in South Africa – those who fought to the bitter end.

If any of us want to get upset, we can do it … there are lots of upsetting things …

But I don’t wanna be Grumpy … I don’t wannna be a bitter-ender … I don’t wanna be outraged by the fog!

I want to have a generous eye!

I want to have what Paul had when he wrote: “I have learned to be content with what I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty” (Philippians 4:11-13).

A generous eye … Paul writes to the church in Ephesus:

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up … so that your words may give grace to those who hear … put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander … be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Philippians 4:29-32).

A generous eye …

Everything I read about the character of life: practice now a positive attitude … because you never know when you’ll need it.

“No one knows the day or the hour,” says Jesus.
So be ready … keep awake …
Life is full of surprises …
Good and bad surprises …
So be ready!

Jesus tells a story … ten bridesmaids waiting for the party to begin … it was late, and no party, so they took a nap.

But in the middle of the night, the groom shows up and the party begins.
Five bridesmaids had oil for their lamps, and turned them up …
The other five didn’t
Have enough oil,
So they asked to borrow some.

But the oiled five said, “Can’t do it. If we give our oil to you, no one will have enough. Go out and buy your own.”

Seems harsh … but they illustrate a principle: You can’t borrow a positive attitude.

You have to get your own!

It’s not hard … “go out and buy your own.”

We’re like those bridesmaids – we have oil, or we don’t!

When Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge, he’s bound in chains, ledgers, cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, deeds and heavy purses, all wrought in steel.

Scrooge asks what it means … Marley replies:

“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

To forge a godly life … a generous life … grace, mercy and peace; faith, hope and love; kindness, gentleness and patience.

Mary Oliver writes about prayer:

It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention; then patch

A few words together and don’t try
To make them elaborate, this isn’t
A contest, but the doorway

Into thanks, and a silence in which
Another voice may speak.

(from Oprah, Dec. 2007)

The doorway into thanks!

A very dear friend lost his wife to cancer recently, after a 4 1/2 year battle – in an email, he wrote:

“As you can imagine it's been a roller-coaster lately. So many layers to this whole scenario - some more emotional than others (try deleting your wife's voice from your voice mail greeting - it took a couple tries to get through that). At the end of the day, no one wants to be the one left behind, but that is the reality of the deal we enter into. As I told Shirley shortly before her last time in the hospital - I would do it all over again, even knowing the ending. It was that good.”

I think of George and Dorothy Wetters, 58 years married … fit together like peanut butter and jelly … after a time, Dorothy died.

I wondered how it would be for George … I’d stop by his home, or he’d stop by the church … always the same: “How I miss her. But I had her 58 years … I am so grateful.”

George’s mind began to slip; he moved into assisted living … when I visited him, the same words, “How I miss her, but I had her 58 years. I’m so grateful!”

A long-time married man was asked if he had a secret … “Yup, I have a secret … every morning, I stand in front of the mirror and say to myself, ‘Harry, you ain’t no bargain.’”

Joel Osteen recently said about marriage: “The next time you find yourself critical of your wife’s faults, remember, it was those faults that kept her from finding a better husband.”

Build a positive attitude – go out and buy oil for your lambs!

Walk through the doorway of thanks … stay close to Jesus … fill your heart and mind with words of assurance:

“I am with you always.”

“I will never leave you or forsake you.”

“Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

A generous eye …
A positive attitude …
When life springs a surprise on you,
you’ll be ready …
more than ready,
to live your best life!