Sunday, May 19, 2013

May 19, 2013, "The Hound of Heaven"

Psalm 139; Matthew 26.56

Ever been chased by a dog?

As a kid, one time walking down the sidewalk, a pretty big dog - at least big in my memory - came at me from a yard, snarling, only to be caught up short by a chain. 

Thank God for chains.

But I’ve not forgotten that moment, and it was a long time ago.

When I was in high school, we had a wonderful German Shepherd by the name of Bismarck - very appropriate name for a GERMAN Shepherd.

A wonderful dog, never leashed; everyone in the neighborhood loved him, as he patrolled the neighbor on a regular basis - people felt safe with Bismarck on duty.

One day, he was down a few houses checking out what dogs check out, when a saleswoman pulled up by our house, parked her car, and stepped up the driveway.

Bismarck, full speed ahead, came running at her … I said to her: “He’s okay!” … but the poor lady, frightened by this large German Shepherd pounding toward her, put her hands over face and screamed.

Bismarck ran right by her and continued down another two houses - I’m sure for him, it was a lot of fun.

I think the lady recovered.

Chased by a dog.

An appropriate image from one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson - wherein he uses the imagery of a large dog following him … the dog, no less than God … pursues him, unhurriedly, until the end, and there is no escape from the love of God … though Francis Thompson turned many a corner in the hopes of eluding God … 

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; 
I fled Him, down the arches of the years; 
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways 
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears 

I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 
Up vistaed hopes, I sped; 

And shot, precipitated, 

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, 
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. 

But with unhurrying chase, 

And unperturbèd pace, 

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 

They beat—and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet -

“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

There is no escape from God.

It’s God, sooner or later.

God’s purpose for us cannot be thwarted.

There is no resistance we can mount that can defeat the love of God for us.

No where to go.

No place to hide.

Noting to do.

No means of escape.

Neither in this life, nor in death.

There God is … God the creator of life, the LORD of death … in the light of day, and when its dark, pitch dark, darkness is as light as day for God.

Morning, noon and night - God! The lover of our soul, the creator of our life, the One who gives us breath; the One to whom we shall return when the last breath is drawn.

A young seminarian listened to a professor speak about the glorious promises of God … especially when Jesus says at the end of Matthew: I am with you always.

The young seminarian raised her hand and asked the professor: “Is that a promise or a threat?”

No one in this room can shake God off our trail … 

The Prodigal Son thought he could run from his father with some wild adventure in a faraway land … and it didn’t work.

When the prodigal son returns home, there the father stands … waiting … and in the largest sense of God’s grace, it’s God who bankrupted that young man in the faraway land … it’s God who dragged him into the pig stye, to eat the garbage thrown there … it’s God who stripped away that young man’s pride, until he came to himself and found his way back home.

The disciples hidden in the upper room, because of fear - yet God finds them; even when we’re paralyzed with fear, God finds us … tongues of flame appear over us, and when we couldn’t speak a word about God, suddenly we can, and the words tumble out of us.

Jonah running for his life to get away from God’s calling … as far away as Jonah could get … on a ship headed west, across the sea … and God found Jonah, in a storm and a giant fish.

Or you and me … struggling to find ourselves, our purpose in life, and turning away from God, as we often do, even as we go to church and play the religious role.

Religion becomes a hiding place - as the Prophet Jeremiah sees it - folks come to the Temple to hide from God, right under God’s nose, so to speak.

Some of the most religious folk I’ve ever known have spent a lifetime hiding from God.

And sometimes, just plain not wanting God … maybe even afraid of God - that God will punish us, hurt us, shame us … for what we’ve done … and we’ve all done plenty, haven’t we? 

It would seem that human beings are afflicted with fearfulness - as Adam and Eve in the Garden - after they ate the proverbial apple - when God shows up in the cool of the day, the pleasant part of the day, to sip a little iced tea with them on their front porch, they hightail it outta there for the bushes, to hide from God.

It took some effort to call them out … and when they came out, there came out defensively - blaming everyone but the kitchen sink for their problems

Maybe Adam and Eve expected a good scolding, or worse … it wasn’t a pretty picture, that’s for sure … things were broken, and broken badly.

But in the end, what does God do?

God becomes a tailor for Adam and Eve.

God takes up needle and thread - in my mind’s eye, I can see God hunched over a table, threading a needle, and stitching together a sturdy garment for his children.

And not just any garment … a garment made from the skins of a beloved animal; one of God’s creatures gave its life for Adam and Eve … 

The first sacrifice.

Only with the shedding of blood could sturdy clothing be made.

God made good clothing for Adam and Eve … clothing to endure the difficult journey ahead.

Maybe Adam and Eve said to themselves afterward, “Why were we so afraid of God? God didn’t punish us as our sins rightly deserved. Our sins messed things up pretty badly, but one of God’s beloved creatures paid the price to clothe us. And God did the sewing. And mighty fine clothes God made for us. Why were we afraid? What’s to fear in the great love of God?”

And should we run away, which we all do, from time-to-time, sort of like a child dashing ahead of mom and dad in a department store, only to look back over her shoulder to see if mom and dad are watching - should we run from God, God is there … sometimes we need the spiritual exercise, but run as we will, God will catch us up into God’s loving arms … from such a God, so great in love, there is no escape … no escape from the Hound of Heaven.

There is a great compassion in the heart of God for the likes of us … 

Jesus never gives up on any of us.

The Spirit pursues us.

Like some kind of a giant dog, the Hound of Heaven … unhurried and insistent … keeping pace with us where’re we go.

The Psalmist rightly asks, Where can I go to flee your Spirit?

The answer?


Nowhere can any of us go to flee the Spirit of God … 

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

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope [Jeremiah 29.11].

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom [Luke 12.32].

God be praised … the Hound of Heaven catches us all, sooner or later … there is no escape from God’s great love.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My 12, 2013, "What's In a Name?"

Exodus 20.7; 1 John 3.23-24

Human beings always live in an in-between place … neither here nor there, but somewhere in between … in the middle of moving currents … one pulling us this way, and the other tugging at us for the other … betwixt and between, we say … first one way and then the other … never quite sure who we truly are … 

Are we good?

And if we’re good, how do we explain all the horror of history? 

Are we evil?

And if we’re evil, how do we explain all the good things we’ve done for one another?

Betwixt and between …

Genesis 2 - created in the image of God, shaped by God’s loving hand, filled with the very breath of God … given the garden … called to greatness … all is good!

Genesis 3 - foolish and irresponsible … fear takes hold … quick to blame everyone and everything else for the ills of the day … a shadow falls upon the human race … our story takes a bitter turn … all is not so good any longer … the Garden is lost … humankind begins its tired journey.

Betwixt and between … neither here nor there … who are we?

Today, it’s Mother’s Day … and what a joy it is … we celebrate those who gave birth to us … and those who raised us … and sometimes they’re not the same person … but whatever our circumstance, we’re here … and we give thanks …

We send cards full of loving thoughts … we plan dinners with care … we make our phone calls and extend our love, our best wishes, and wish you were here, if distance holds us at bay.

It’s a good day … our hearts are full of kindly thoughts and dreams …

Yet, who are we?

Are we not betwixt and between?

War and rumors of war plague our world … economies out of whack … lack of health care, safe food and clean water … it seems as if the powers-that-be are incapable of finding peace … and maybe even prefer the state of war, though none would say so … there is something seriously wrong with humankind … something still working its way through our story … and it’s not good at all.

Yet goodness abounds on all sides of the story, too … grace, mercy and peace … faith, hope and love … great advances made for health … justice breaks out in the most expected ways and times … the Berlin Wall is torn down, apartheid comes to an end … sometimes the buses even run on time, and the Expo Line nears completion all the way to Santa Monica.

Betwixt and between …

Neither here nor there …

Darkness on the one side ...

Goodness on the other ...

Betwixt and between … that’s where we are, and that’s where religion is born … 

Born in the in-between places of life … religion comes about when the sorrow of life and the joy of life run side-by-side … when, like Paul, we cry out - Who can save us from this crazy state in which we find ourselves … the good we know so clearly to do, and often fail to do … and the wrong that we despise, we often end up doing … can anyone save us? 
Can anyone put this together so that it makes sense for us, and maybe we can find some ways of moving along to a better place with all of this?

That’s religion … the cry of the heart for something, or someone, to make sense of it all … to bring together all the bits and pieces of life … to diminish the evil and increase the good … to spread abroad the happier message that maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves and our best purpose, and get things worked out, after all … 

That’s religion … 

And of religion, God’s says, Be careful … my name is likely to be involved … and if my name is involved, be careful … you can use my name; I give it to you, but use my name well.

God knows all too well that religion can go haywire.

Religion can be tempted to use God’s name in vain … those who speak immodestly of God, as if they knew all about God, as if they had all the answers … as if God were on their side in all manner of undertaking … every religion does it - Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism - we all speak as if the gods were our own possession, and  everything we undertake in God’s name is our right, because God said so, God told us, and, frankly, one of the worst things that Christians say far too often, “It’s in the Bible” … 

That phrase, “it’s in the Bible,” has been used to justify just about every crime imaginable … slavery, because it’s in the Bible … subjugation of women, because it’s in the Bible … whipping children, because it’s in the Bible … war, because it’s in the Bible … 

People who pay attention to such things note how religion has declined in Europe throughout the 20th Century, and continues to decline in influence; people have walked away from the church.

Those who study such things and ask the big questions attribute the decline of religion to religion’s immodesty - religion’s lack of restraint - seen in both World Wars - all the combatants claimed the will of God for their own purposes, sending out soldiers with God’s blessing and hymns, accompanied by chaplains to anoint bombs and bullets.

So confident were the nations that God was on their side … and in the death of millions, the suffering of millions more, people rightly ask, What is this god-thing that some talk about with such ease, and smugness and confidence - that they can willingly send millions to their death and believe that somehow or other this is God’s mighty will and purpose?

Paul Tillich, one of the great 20th Century theologians wrote: “I speak now of a public use of the name of God which has little to do with God, but much to do with human purpose - good or bad. Those of us who are grasped by the mystery present in the name of God are often stung when this name is used in governmental and political speeches, in opening prayers for conferences and dinners, in secular and religious advertisements, and in international war propaganda” [“The Divine Name” - in sermon collection, The Eternal Now].

God cautions Israel to use God’s name wisely, to use God’s name with care … because God knows how crazy religion can get … immodest religion full of itself, convinced that it has the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and we’ve seen plenty of that in our world.

God reminds Israel to be modest in all things, restrained and tactful … for who can claim to have the final word on God? Indeed, we have much to say, and much to give, but we’re limited, and in our limits, God calls us to be cautious, lest we violate those limits and begin to violate one another, too … when religion loses its humility, religion quickly becomes cruel.

We can only speak of God with restraint … humility and awe … because we don’t have the last word … for now, we can only see through a mirror dimly … we know only in part … and what counts, says Paul, is that God knows us!

That’s what Moses had to learn when Moses asks God for some inside information - Let me see your glory so I can lead this people through the wilderness.

But God says to Moses, No, you can’t see my glory; you can’t have more of me than anyone else can have … but this much I say to you, and I say it to you, Moses, and to all the people: I am with you, I will go with, and I will help you.

Modest religion …  religion with restraint … religion, more often quiet than loud … with a holy silence, respectful of the great mysteries of God …

Job says to his yakety yak friends - Oh, be quiet … If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom! [Job 13.5].

The writer of Proverbs says: Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent [Proverbs 17.28].

And on a more positive note, the Prophet Habakuk says: the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him! [2.20].

The poet Dyer noted, long ago, in the 16th Century:

The firmest faith is in the fewest words;
True hearts have eyes and ears, no tongues to speak;
They hear and see, and sigh, and then they break.

Oh to be careful with the name of God … to use God’s name well … to speak modestly of God, for love is modest and gentle … believe in the name of Jesus, says John, and to love one another … love and belief; belief and love, walk hand-in-hand, quietly … 

A quiet faith is open to life’s most profound emotion - if love is the greatest of all spiritual gifts, the greatest part of love is sorrow.

Jesus comes over the brow of the hill, and when he sees Jerusalem, he weeps … he weeps for all the lost opportunities … all the bad choices the great city makes … the arrogance of faith that claims the power of God for itself … the pomp and circumstance of temple and throne … 

Jesus weeps … it’s a good thing to weep now and then … we needn’t fear tears … tears soften the heart, when our heart is tempted to be hard … tears humble us when we’re tempted to be proud … tears quiet the heart when we’re tempted to shout out with condemnation and pride … tears are the stuff of justice … tears are love’s companion.

With humility … let us put our hands to the plow and not look back, and with faith, hope and love, and great modesty, take up our work.

The high and holy calling of God Almighty … to join with Christ, in the work of building a better world … that mothers everywhere could look upon their children with joy and peace … healthy children, safe children, children with a future.

We take seriously the name of God, because there is serious work to be done … we use the name of God carefully … we speak of God modestly … in matters of faith, restrained and humbly quiet … careful to measure our deeds by the faith we profess; careful to profess a faith that is measured by deeds of love.

Happy Mother’s Day to you, and to all the Mother’s of the World, grace, mercy and peace … rest assured dear ones, there are millions of people all around the world, religious people, and people who choose other pathways, who are all doing good, and God is pleased!

 Amen and Amen!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

May 5, 2013, "If It Is of God ..."

Isaiah 40.3-5; 2 Corinthians 3.4-6 

In one of the greatest confessions of reality ever written, Paul the Apostle,  says, Of ourselves and of our work, we are not competent to make any claims whatsoever …

Our competence is of God …

God has made it possible for us to be ministers, ministers of a new covenant …

Not of words written, but of the Spirit given … not by human decision or effort, but rather by the grace of God … 

By the Spirit, who gives life … 

In all of this, Paul does us an enormous favor … Paul shows us the way through the two most powerful temptations the Evil One brings our way … 

Two temptations that damage our soul, and can even destroy us ...

The first temptation is arrogance … spiritual arrogance … pride of place, seniority in the kingdom of God.

The Little Jack Horner Syndrome …

Little Jack Horner 
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I.”

Paul does away with all such pretensions … of ourselves, we have no competence when it comes to the things of God … we can only be humble servants … doing the master’s bidding …available to God … with open hands awaiting our assignment, hearts open, waiting for the filling of the Spirit … disciples, one and all, waiting for our orders.

And all of that will come in various ways and times - our assignment is given, the Spirit fills our spirit, our marching orders are issued … such is the work of the Spirit … making us competent to be ministers … all of us … ministers of the new covenant, servants of the Most High God, friends of Jesus and friends with one another.

All of this is given to us, in due time, as needed … not of our own doing or competence, but of the Spirit of God.

 Here’s the key to Christian fellowship … we’re all in this together … we need one another … learn from one another … rely upon one another … the Spirit uses all of us to build the body of Christ … the fellowship of the church … no one of us has everything needed; we all have something needed, and when we share together in the household God, good things happen, because we enrich one another with the gifts of life the Spirit gives to each of us.

There can be no arrogance in God’s people, nary a thought of being better than anyone else … arrogance is deadly, it’s divisive, its disordering … no one is better than anyone else … besides, we cannot know the heart of the other, can we? … so we cannot judge the other … no one can say, 

I’m better.
I’m smarter.
I’m more spiritual.
I understand more of Christ.
I have a corner on the truth.
I’m closer to God.
I’m a better Christian than Joe or Jane.

Indeed, we may know a lot.
We may have tremendous experiences in the things of God.
Our lives can be exemplary.
But all of it is of God …

Of ourselves? 

We’re not competent in the things of God … it’s of the Spirit who we are, and what we do ... and of the Spirit, we have competence to be ministers of the new covenant. 

We can do all things … in Christ … not on our own, nor by our resolve or strength of character … but in Christ, and by Christ, by the Spirit … we are, one and all, ministers of the new covenant.

Herein Paul treats the second temptation - despair. If arrogance is the first temptation, despair is the second. If, in the first instance, we’re tempted to think too highly of ourselves, in the second, we debase ourselves and think ourselves unfit for the kingdom of God.

Despair about our spiritual state is the second great temptation … yes, sometimes our spiritual state is lousy.

Nothing new about that … tell the truth … be honest … our spiritual state is always marginal, fragmentary - our soul can be a tempest, and often is … a storm of dark clouds and harsh winds.

So the Evil One says to us: You see what a terrible person you are? You’re unfit for the kingdom of God. Why even bother showing up? Just go away; you’re no good, and you’ll never be any good.

Like Peter, after denying Jesus three times - Peter gives up and walks away; Peter returns to his nets and fish … overwhelmed by despair about his spiritual state.

Who am I to think that I could serve the LORD God Almighty?

That’s a good question, and Paul would approve. But it’s a question that demands a godly answer. 

Unless we hear the godly answer, we might well decide in our despair that have no place in the kingdom of God, that we have no right to be here … that God can’t use us because we’re so messed up.

But we DO have a place in the kingdom of God … all of us, each of us, everyone of us - we have a role to play in God’s mighty purpose, the new covenant, the reshaping of the world, to bring life where there’s death … hope where there has been too much defeat … peace where there is war and rumors of war … healing and health and goodness and mercy … 

All of us have a place in the kingdom of God ...

Because of the Spirit.

The Spirit gives us life …

The Spirit gives us competence …

The Spirit takes hold of our lives, and moves us along.

Like Saul on the Damascus Road …

Matthew at his toll booth …

Peter with his nets and fish …

The Spirit takes hold of our lives and moves us along …

Of ourselves, we’re not competent, yes, yes, yes … we must know that, lest arrogance take root in our soul … but of the Spirit, we have competence … of the Spirit, of God, and that we must know, too, lest despair take root in our soul.

And so the twin temptations of the Evil One are defeated … arrogance and despair.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket: in one pocket "For me the world was created." and in the other pocket, "I am but dust and ashes." 

When we have moments of self loathing take out the first; in moments of grandiosity the second. 

Our souls are poised between greatness and nothingness; in knowing both are we blessed [1765–1827; one of the main leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland].

All of this by the Spirit …

And how does the Spirit come to us?

How do we know it’s of God?

The Spirit comes to us in the strangest of ways sometimes …

The Spirit can be a small, insistent voice calling us beyond ourselves to that which we don’t even fully know … You can do it; yes, you can; you really, really can do it!

The Spirit can be a desire to strive for something greater than the profanity of the average day … 

The Spirit can give to us the courage to say “yes” to life in spite of all the junk we’ve experienced … around us, and within us.

The Spirit can reveal to us that we’ve hurt someone … and then the Spirit helps us to find the right words that might restore the relationship …

The Spirit can give us a love that enables us to move a little more easily with someone we might not otherwise like … to look with a little more care at someone in whom we might otherwise have no interest …

The Spirit can conquer our sloth, when we cease striving for what we know to be the aim of our life … don’t give up … stay the course … be patient and endurance

[thanks to Paul Tillich for his thoughts about how the Spirit comes to us].

A thousand different ways and means … the Spirit comes to us us … 

To give us life.

To the glory of God.

Amen and Amen!