Thursday, December 30, 2010

Make Sure You're Alive

The temptation is always to reduce life to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is the mystery.

As far as anybody seems to know, the vast majority of things in the universe do not have whatever life is. Sticks, stones, stars, space - they simply are. A few things are and are somehow aware of it. They have broken through into Something, or Something has broken through into them. Even a jellyfish, a butternut squash. They're in it with us. We're all in it together, or it in us. Life is it. Life is with.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. "There is only one miracle," he answered. "It is life."
  • Have you wept at anything during the past year?
  • Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
  • Have you thought seriously about the fact that someday you are going to die?
  • More often than not do you really listen when people are speaking to you instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?
  • Is there anybody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?
If your answer to all or most of these questions is No, the chances are that you're dead.  - Frederick Buechner

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Echo of Kindness

The other day I received this handwritten letter from a man I have never met. Let me pass the blessing on to you.

Pastor,

Many years ago I went to your church when I was a youth. I am now 75 years old. I want to thank the church even after all these years. It has taken me a long time to realize some things.

This is the reason that I am writing this letter, to thank the church for feeding us when I was young. God loves us and used other people to help others. I did not understand at that time. I was young about God's love and grace.

Thanks again for the church.

Your brother in Christ

Monday, December 13, 2010

No Greater Gift

"Remember, merciful Jesus, that I am the cause of your journey."

- Mozart's Requiem

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Moment We Break Faith

"For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out." - James Baldwin, Nothing Personal

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soul Friends

"Your friend is the companion of your soul, another self." - Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship

"In friendship, we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years' difference in the dates of our births, a few more hundred miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another . . . - any of these chances might have kept us apart. But for the Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work." - C. S. Lewis

"To find a spiritual friend is truly to be found, to be chased down, smoked out of one's hiding place in the corner of existence and brought into the center, swept into the blazing presence of God." - Emilie Griffin

"What bliss there is in finding a corresponding soul who singles us out! How long we move about, desperate to discover someone who can really see us, tell us who we are." - James Hillman 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Asking the Wrong Question

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked [on the Jericho Road] was "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But...the good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Old Iron: A Lesson in Humility

In the early 20th century, Samuel Logan Brengle preached all around the world. Brengle was a talented man who spent a lifetime managing his ego. In his journal are these revealing words:

"If I appear great in their eyes, the Lord is most graciously helping me to see how absolutely nothing I am without him . . . The axe cannot boast of the trees it has cut down. It could do nothing but for the woodsman. He made it, he sharpened it, and he used it. The moment he throws it aside, it becomes only old iron. O that I may never lose sight of this."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No Place for a Little Boy

The other day some of us were talking around the coffee pot, sharing childhood stories of the first day of school, starting off to kindergarten, and such. Someone asked about our earliest memory, at least our first conscious memory. Mine is very vivid. I remember my family quietly huddled around our black and white television, watching the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy. I knew something significant must have happened for all ten of us to be gathered, to be so quiet, to be so focused on this sad, black and white parade.
I remember the little boy, John Jr., bravely standing near his mother, saluting as his father's flag-draped casket was carried away. I remember the sound of the hoofs on the pavement, a riderless horse. I remember the guns booming their salutes. But little John Jr. held my attention. Just a three year old boy whose world would never be the same again. Just a three year old boy...like me. I was just two months short of my fourth birthday.

Somehow I guess this three year old boy learned on that sad, dark day that this world I was just beginning to see and understand wasn't Disney World or Neverland or Paradise. This fallen world is often touched with tragedy, prone to tears, and sometimes no place for a little boy.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"A Dangerous Church" Part 1

When the Church sprang to life at Pentecost it was almost immediately perceived as a threat, marked by the enemies of Christ as extremely dangerous.

It was Christ’s intention that His Church be filled with His power to change the world and overcome obstacles and break down barriers and turn an upside down world right side up again. Jesus did not die for pews and programs and potluck. He gave Himself for a lost world and established and empowered the Church to get His Gospel lived out and delivered.

So if Christ called out this dangerous band of brothers and sisters to reach all neighborhoods and nations, to overcome evil with good, to share His love with all people, to go out and change the world – then why is the church as we know it so safe and civilized, so harmless and secure behind our big brick walls?

Christ died for a dangerous church. He did not sacrifice for a safe church.

What is a safe church?

A safe church caters to religious consumers rather than calling out committed followers of Christ.

A safe church preaches a gospel of personal fulfillment and success, rather than radical faithfulness and service to Christ.

A safe church holds up a standard of commitment and behavior that most members generally ignore. And, of course, people notice. Everyone sees it, the discrepancy between what the church professes and how its members actually live.

A safe church focuses on budgets and buildings and bigness, much like any business or organization. 

A safe church avoids any ministry involvement that doesn’t pay off in a bigger church.

A safe church spends almost all of its time, money, and resources on itself.

A safe church is preoccupied with protocol, following the rules, and enforcing the policies.

A safe church thinks outreach means attracting more people just like themselves, usually from other churches.

A safe church builds walls that exclude other kinds of people, rather than bridges to reach them.

A safe church talks about reaching the world, but ignores the needs of its own neighborhood and community.

A safe church cares more about how many people come to church on Sunday than how many people in town do not have food or clothing or a home.

A safe church is disconnected from the real life needs, issues, and problems that people face every day. As a result, it doesn’t even show up on the radar of a lost world. There is a total disconnect. A safe church might as well be on another planet.

A safe church never attempts anything that would require the power or intervention of God.

A safe church is no threat to the powers and principalities, and no threat to the sick and sinful status quo of this lost world.

A safe church shows the world lots of religion, but not much Jesus.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

We Live As We Believe

"I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying." - Joan of Arc

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How Does Your Story Go?

"How do I happen to believe in God? I will give one more answer which can be stated briefly. Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot." - Frederick Buechner

Monday, July 5, 2010

Words to Remember

On the evening of the Fourth, I was participating in our community celebration at the state fairgrounds here in Sedalia. It was not unlike what many small towns in the Midwest do on Independence Day, I guess. I saw older couples tottering up the stairs into the grandstands, lots of young families with strollers and water bottles, little kids excitedly waiting for darkness and the fireworks to begin, and a few politicians working the crowd. There was a local band playing country music to pass the time as more folks filed in and the sun sank lower in the sky. A few organizers and community leaders gathered, said a few words and recognized outstanding citizens for helping to make our town a great place to live. When the time was right, the VFW marched in with Old Glory, we stood for the national anthem, and then the sky came to life, glistening and exploding with a great fireworks display, complete with "Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" and lots of cheers.

But the best moment for me was earlier, at the beginning of our festivities. Before anything else had happened, I saw something truly remarkable. To start things off, our local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored something I had never witnessed before. First, a young boy in colonial dress came along carrying a large Betsy Ross, thirteen star flag and shouting "Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye!" The restless crowd quieted. A tall man came to the stage dressed as if he had just come from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He unrolled a wide sheet of pretend parchment and with a strong voice began to read:

"In Congress, July 4, 1776, the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people . . ."

I was standing behind our patriot reader and I could look over his shoulder and see the faces of hundreds of people in the crowd. Every eye upon him, he read those stirring words:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

All kinds of people, some poor and others well-to-do, the well-educated and the uneducated, all riveted to the speaker and his timeless words. It's a fair guess that most of the folks, like myself, had never heard anyone just stand up and read the Declaration of Independence and they seemed to hang on every word. On and on he read, reciting the litany of grievances against King George and Parliament. Still, the hushed crowd listened like children in a one room schoolhouse, or perhaps like the first crowd of ordinary folks who heard those words read 234 years ago. And when he came to the words, "solemnly publish and declare, that these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States," I sensed that some in the crowd wanted to cheer and a few even wiped away a tear. The concluding words are the most sobering of all and still bring a lump to my throat:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

I won't forget that moment or the many faces I saw last night. Maybe every July 4th, we should all sit down and listen and remember who we are and why we are here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy All Day Long

"Three things I do every morning so I will be happy all day long. The first is to affirm the reality of Jesus Christ and to thank Him for His lordship. The second is to call to mind the reality of Satan, who will seek throughout the day to make me a miserable contradiction of evident joy. Third, I call to mind the gifts that are mine in Christ. If I live each day faithful to my gifts, developing and improving them, I find I am, indeed, a happy person. If I am sloppy and careless in developing my gifts, I find a predictable negativity fixing itself into my life." - Calvin Miller, "The Taste of Joy"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fathers and Sons

I'm looking forward to Father's Day this year, more than usual I guess. Our oldest son, Sam, has been overseas finishing his studies and will be coming home Monday, so we are excited to see him. He says he's hungry for some barbeque, not one of England's specialties, so I'll fire up the grill and cook up something tasty to welcome him home.

Sam was born just a few weeks before my father died of cancer, so Father's Day always pulls my thoughts both directions, as a son and a dad. Somewhere I have a picture of my dad in his hospital bed holding our little newborn baby boy, but I can't hardly bring myself to look at it. My kids would have loved their Grandpa Hill, and he would have been wonderful part of their lives. My mother and I try to help our kids know their Grandpa through our stories and memories, but it still seems like a poor substitute for the man himself.

Each of these past twenty-one Father's Days has brought its own memories and reflections for me, maybe best summed up in these words from a couple of years ago: In the Shadow of the Man

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Prayer of the Persecuted

Who wrote the following prayer? No one knows. It was scrawled on a scrap of paper and placed inside the clothing of a child who was killed at Ravensbruck, a concentration camp where the Nazis killed thousands of innocent people. Whoever wrote the prayer may have died in the same gas chamber as the child.

"O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, 
    but also those of ill will.
But, do not remember all of the suffering 
    they have inflicted on upon us:
Instead remember the fruits we have borne 
    because of this suffering -
our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, 
    our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.
When our persecutors come to be judged by you, 
    let all of these fruits that we have borne 
    be their forgiveness."

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Game of Kings

My father taught me to play chess when I was just a little guy. That's me in the red striped shirt. I've always enjoyed the game though I don't get to play very often these days. My son, Sam, and I have a pretty good collection of chess sets from places like Rome, Athens, Kiev, Minsk, Moscow, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and even one from Bethlehem. Suzanne is still wondering why anyone needs more than one set.

Lately, I've been teaching my little friend, Brian, a soon to be second grader at Heber Hunt, how to play the game. The game seems to capture his usually non-stop imagination and twenty second attention span, and helps him learn to focus his thoughts for a little while - just a little while.

I guess everyone knows that chess is a strategy game, but I've been wondering if there might be something more for us to learn from the old game of kings. What truths and insights might we gain about life and faith from the chessboard? A few thoughts . . .

First, life is much more like a battle than many people seem to realize. We live in a fallen world, a world filled with astounding beauty and horrid ugliness, genuine goodness and unspeakable evil. Better wake up and smell the coffee. This world is a mean and cruel place with plenty of mean and cruel people. So, be alert, be watchful, be wise.

Second, the key to victory is to never go it alone. Winning in chess means that you attack with all of your pieces in place, supporting each other, defending each other, moving forward together as part of a common plan. Only a novice brings out the queen too early and attacks without support or backup. It's suicide. Sheep to the slaughter.

As a pastor, I have seen too much of this, too many people who start out in the right direction with great enthusiasm, but they go it alone, they won't wait, they won't listen. Off they go, right into the meat grinder of the adversary. So, before you go charging off to do battle, turn around and take a look. Who's got your back?

Third, don't just live for the moment. Chess is all about thinking ahead, anticipating, planning and adapting our plans to capture the prize. Computer chess games usually have skill level settings from 1 to 9 or 1 to 10. That's how many moves ahead the computer will be "thinking" as your opponent. If you set it on 10, the computer will carefully calculate the best move planning 10 moves ahead, and you will likely be dead before the computer gets to its tenth move. I do better when I set the computer on 3 or 4. It's hard to plan 10 moves ahead.

The trouble is, in life too many of us don't seem to plan any moves ahead. We just live in the moment, do whatever sounds like fun today without any thought to the consequences. When I was teaching our daughter to play, she would often just mimic my moves or move random pieces. Then, sometimes, a little later in the game, something on the board would catch her eye and she would stick her tongue in her cheek and begin to formulate a plan. I soon learned to watch for her tongue in cheek warning. Watch out. She's got a plan.

Success in life and progress in the faith requires taking the long view, planning ahead, anticipating threats and dangers, adapting to setbacks and pitfalls, and moving ahead step by step. Those who just live for the moment never get anywhere. They become targets, tackling dummies in a world of real players.

Finally, faith, like chess, is best learned from a person, not a book or a TV show or a computer program, as helpful as those resources may be. Every really good chess player has a teacher, a mentor, one who has mastered higher levels of the game and is willing to show you the way, sometimes by beating your brains out until you learn to do better.

So it is for the follower of Christ. More than anything else we need a person (or persons) who genuinely cares about us and is willing to invest his/her time and effort to teach us, to show us how, to keep us between the ditches, to mentor us until we are no longer novices, until we are ready to be a mentor to others.

And the One we need most of all, is Christ Himself. One day when Sam was just a boy I came home to find him sitting at the computer playing chess with some unknown player online. Sam said, "Dad, look at this game. This guy's killing me. What do I do?" So, I looked at the board on the screen, sized up Sam's predicament and suggested a move, and then another. "Nice move, Dad. Now what?" I helped Sam notice a few more moves and in just a couple of minutes, his opponent resigned, probably just a young novice like Sam, wondering what happened to the kid he was playing.

At times in my life, I have found myself in tough predicaments, desperately in need of wisdom beyond myself. That's when Christ really comes through, helping me find a way that I just can't see, leading me on the path to life. He is a master, the Master. In life and in faith, we might as well learn from the best.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Patch of Blue

Several thoughtful friends and family called last night to check on us when the tornado touched down in the neighborhood. No real damage, just some tree limbs down in the front yard. I guess a weather helicopter for channel 9 taped the tornado, some pretty dramatic footage.

Like most people during a bad storm, at least most of the guys I know, I divided my time between the basement and the backyard, trying to keep an eye on the sky and the radar, while the piercing storm siren down the street seemed to signal the end of all things.

In the middle of this big, blustery mess, a little patch or two of clear blue sky shown through. I took it as a positive omen, signaling a swift end to this swirling storm, and a return to normal, whatever that is.
Maybe that's a good reminder for those of us fighting our way through bigger storms. Hang on to something solid and wait for it. Blue skies are coming. Better days ahead.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Powerful Beyond Measure

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

-- Marianne Williamson

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Keeps Me Running

With the coming of Spring, I'm back out on the trail. It's been a long, hard winter, and I had almost forgotten how much I love it. For me, running is so much more than just physical exercise. My early morning runs are my solitude, my sanity, and my spiritual discipline. Running is my connection with nature and my communion with God. Every mile is a return to the exuberance of my childhood and an act of defiance against the aging of my 50 year old body.

Let me share a few lines that keep me running. Then, go get your shoes on, stretch out and get going:  

"I always loved running...it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs." - Jesse Owens

"Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it." -Oprah Winfrey

"Running is a big question mark that's there each and every day. It asks you, 'Are you going to be a wimp or are you going to be strong today?'" - Peter Maher, Canadian marathon runner

"We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves...The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, 'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable." -Sir Roger Bannister, first runner to run a sub-4 minute mile

"What distinguishes those of us at the starting line from those of us on the couch is that we learn through running to take what the days gives us, what our body will allow us, and what our will can tolerate." - John Bingham, running writer and speaker

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Act of God

Most folks around here already know that I was prevented from teaching at the seminary in Kiev, Ukraine this week by the volcano in Iceland. I was on the all-night flight to nowhere, taking off from Houston, getting turned around as the volcano erupted, and landing seven hours later right back where we started. At least I was fortunate to be able to get back home, unlike the tens of thousands who are stranded.

I've watched all the reports on CNN and I had many conversations with stranded travelers from the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany while I was still in Houston, and one phrase kept turning up over and over - "an act of God." This is not really a biblical phrase, although scripture tells us about all kinds of things that God does. No, I'm guessing we made up this phrase ourselves to describe those horrific moments when nature violently reminds us just how vulnerable and helpless we are. So whenever nature seems to go on a rampage, such as asteroids crashing to earth, volcanoes erupting, earthquakes leaving cities in shambles, tornadoes tossing trailer houses across the Midwest, we survey the wreckage and debris and call it, "An act of God."

And, I guess there's a sense in which that statement is very true. After all, God is the Creator, isn't He? He's the Big Guy who started this show in the first place, whether you think it took six days or six million years. God has established the laws by which this universe exists, from the tiniest molecule to the grandest galaxy. He made the rules, and He is ultimately responsible.

But, I have to tell you, I'm a little uncomfortable with that phrase, "an act of God." When airlines use it, they mean, "No refund." When insurance companies use it, they mean, "You're not covered." When some religious types use it, they mean "God is punishing you." When children hear that phrase, they wonder, "Is God mad at us?" When skeptics ponder those words, they point to the randomness of nature and say, "See, there is no God who rewards the good and judges the wicked."

An act of God. What do you make of it? Well, I don't think God sits around playing with nature like a kid playing with his X-Box, constantly changing the game options to make it more interesting. The Creator created and nature will continue to play by His rules - rules that we can only dimly comprehend, even in our scientific sophistication. Nature will never be tamed or predictable or controlled and neither will the Creator. Get used to it. This is life on planet Earth.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life and What You Make of It: Part 3

"The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it." (William James)
 
"Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself." (Harvey Fierstein) 

"Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out." (Anton Chekhov)

"Every man dies. Not every man really lives." (William Wallace)

"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'." (Erma Bombeck)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

No Mere Mortals

Remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. - C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Unforgettable Morning

I took this picture at dawn on January 11, 1985, the morning of my 25th birthday. I had just arrived in Israel as a seminary student taking a class in Old Testament archeology. My first journey overseas had been a blurry nightmare including a bad head cold, a blown tire on takeoff in New York, landing in a blizzard in Belgium, an extra 17 hour delay spent trying to sleep on the floor of an airport, some woman who spoke no English offering to buy me a drink, and then an 8 hour bus tour spent mostly snoring with my mouth wide open. I probably slobbered, too. Finally, we arrived in the city of Tiberius. After a hot shower and a good meal, my longest day came to a merciful end.

The next morning I got up early and drew back the curtains of my room. There it was, the Sea of Galilee, calm and serene, the water lapping almost up to my door. I pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt and took a walk along the shore, still just a hint of early dawn in the east. As I walked, I thought back over that long journey and realized this was the 11th, my birthday. What a unique and wonderful birthday gift, watching the sun come up over Galilee.

I soon realized that I was not alone. I don't know how to describe it, except to say Christ came near to me. I can hardly write about it. It was so moving and mysterious and yet unmistakable all at once, just taking a walk with Jesus. He came to meet me that morning as if He had been waiting for me. I can't fathom such love and grace, condescending to me. Jesus reminded me that I, too, am His disciple, called to follow wherever He leads. It was a morning I will never forget, and when I see this old picture I run back to Galilee and listen for His voice again.

On this Good Friday, I am 50 years old, twice my age when I first saw this sunrise. Yet, still He calls and still I follow, just walking with Jesus, until we finally make it back home - this time to His place.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Searching for the Real Jesus

Kevin DeYoung shared these great thoughts on his blog recently. He gives us great food for thought and reflection for the Easter season. I'll bet you'll be blessed, too.

The greatness of God is most clearly displayed in his Son. And the glory of the gospel is only made evident in his Son. That's why Jesus' question to his disciples [in Matthew 16] is so important: "Who do you say that I am?"

The question is doubly crucial in our day, because [no one is as popular in the U.S. as Jesus]—and not every Jesus is the real Jesus. …
  • There's the Republican Jesus—who is against tax increases and activist judges, for family values and owning firearms.
  • There's Democrat Jesus—who is against Wall Street and Wal-Mart, for reducing our carbon footprint and printing money.
  • There's Therapist Jesus—who helps us cope with life's problems, heals our past, tells us how valuable we are and not to be so hard on ourselves.
  • There's Starbucks Jesus—who drinks fair trade coffee, loves spiritual conversations, drives a hybrid, and goes to film festivals.
  • There's Open-minded Jesus—who loves everyone all the time no matter what (except for people who are not as open-minded as you).
  • There's Touchdown Jesus—who helps athletes fun faster and jump higher than non-Christians and determines the outcomes of Super Bowls.
  • There's Martyr Jesus—a good man who died a cruel death so we can feel sorry for him.
  • There's Gentle Jesus—who was meek and mild, with high cheek bones, flowing hair, and walks around barefoot, wearing a sash (while looking very German).
  • There's Hippie Jesus—who teaches everyone to give peace a chance, imagines a world without religion, and helps us remember that "all you need is love."
  • There's Yuppie Jesus—who encourages us to reach our full potential, reach for the stars, and buy a boat.
  • There's Spirituality Jesus—who hates religion, churches, pastors, priests, and doctrine, and would rather have people out in nature, finding "the god within" while listening to ambiguously spiritual music.
  • There's Platitude Jesus—good for Christmas specials, greeting cards, and bad sermons, inspiring people to believe in themselves.
  • There's Revolutionary Jesus—who teaches us to rebel against the status quo, stick it to the man, and blame things on "the system."
  • There's Guru Jesus—a wise, inspirational teacher who believes in you and helps you find your center.
  • There's Boyfriend Jesus—who wraps his arms around us as we sing about his intoxicating love in our secret place.
  • There's Good Example Jesus—who shows you how to help people, change the planet, and become a better you.
And then there's Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Not just another prophet. Not just another Rabbi. Not just another wonder-worker. He was the one they had been waiting for: the Son of David and Abraham's chosen seed; the one to deliver us from captivity; the goal of the Mosaic law; Yahweh in the flesh; the one to establish God's reign and rule; the one to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, freedom to the prisoners and proclaim Good News to the poor; the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.

This Christ is not a reflection of the current mood or the projection of our own desires. He is our Lord and God. He is the Father's Son, Savior of the world, and substitute for our sins—more loving, more holy, and more wonderfully terrifying than we ever thought possible.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Life and What You Make of It: Part 2

God writes a lot of comedy . . . the trouble is, he's stuck with so many bad actors who don't know how to play funny.  (Garrison Keillor)

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.  (E. B. White)

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.  (John Burroughs)

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.  (Robert Frost)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Making the Most of Manure

In his book Tell It Slant, Eugene Peterson uses the short parable in Luke 13:6-9, a parable about manure, of all things—to talk about our need to practice resurrection in everyday life. In the parable, a man has a fig tree in his vineyard that doesn't yield any fruit. Frustrated, he says to the man who takes care of the vineyard that after three years, it's time to cut the thing down. But the caretaker replies, "Leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down." Peterson reflects on how this parable challenges us as believers—a challenge worth hearing at Easter, when we celebrate the power of resurrection. He writes:

Instead of goading us into action, [Jesus' Manure Story] takes us out of action. We have just come across something that offends us, some person who is useless to us or the kingdom of God, "taking up the ground," and we lose patience and either physically or verbally get rid of him or her. "Chop him down! Chop her down! Chop it down." We solve kingdom problems by amputation.

Internationally and historically, killing is the predominant method of choice to make the world a better place. It is the easiest, quickest, and most efficient way by far to clear the ground for someone or something with more promise. The Manure Story interrupts our noisy, aggressive problem-solving mission. In a quiet voice the parable says, "Hold on, not so fast. Wait a minute. Give me some more time. Let me put some manure on this tree." Manure?

Manure is not a quick fix. It has no immediate results—it is going to take a long time to see if it makes any difference. If it's results that we are after, chopping down a tree is just the thing: we clear the ground and make it ready for a fresh start. We love beginning: birthing a baby, christening a ship, the first day on a new job, starting a war. But spreading manure carries none of that exhilaration. It is not dramatic work, not glamorous work, not work that gets anyone's admiring attention. Manure is a slow solution. Still, when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow—yeast, salt, seeds, light. And manure.

Manure does not rank high in the world's economies. It is refuse. Garbage. We organize efficient and sometimes elaborate systems to collect it, haul it away, get it out of sight and smell. But the observant and wise know that this apparently dead and despised waste is teeming with life—enzymes, numerous microorganisms. It's the stuff of resurrection.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Three Things Prized Most in Heaven

I read an excerpt from Frederick Buechner this morning that seemed to put life in a healthy, straight forward perspective. I was blessed. See what you think.

"May the shadow of Christ fall on thee. May the garment of Christ cover thee. May the breath of Christ breathe in thee," she told them each morning at sun-up. . . . True faith. A simple life. A helping hand. She said those was the three things prized most in Heaven. On earth it was a fair wife, a stout ox, a swift hound. Beg not, refuse not, she said. One step forward each day was the way to the Land of the Blessed. Don't eat till your stomach cries out. Don't sleep till you can't stay awake. Don't open your mouth till it's the truth opens it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Life and What You Make of It: Part 1

I think I have discovered the secret of life - you just hang around until you get used to it. (Charles M. Schulz)

I have a simple philosophy: Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. Scratch where it itches. (Alice Roosevelt Longworth)

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. (Henry Ellis)

Life is a long lesson in humility. (James M. Barrie)

Look, I don't want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you're alive you've got to flap your arms and legs, you've got to jump around a lot, for life is the very opposite of death, and therefore you must at very least think noisy and colorfully, or you're not alive. (Mel Brooks)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Promise Made Is a Promise Kept

Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, a wonderful story was reported by Page Ivey of The Associated Press. It emerged from a school house in Columbia, South Carolina.

First, a little historical perspective. Two years after the Civil War, with much of Columbia still in ruins, some of the bitterness over the North-South conflict was put aside by a single gesture: New York firefighters set out to collect pennies to buy Columbia a firetruck.

On February 17, 1865, a devastating blaze…had devoured over 36 blocks, or about one-third of the city. Columbia had lost most of its firefighting equipment during the Civil War and desperately used bucket brigades in their attempt to douse flames.

Not long after, New York City firemen, many of them former Union soldiers, raised $5,000—mostly in pennies—and put a hose-reel wagon on a steamship bound for Columbia, South Carolina. It was March of 1867. On the way, the ship sank, but instead of giving up, they took up another collection and sent a second hose-reel wagon in June of that same year.

So overwhelmed was former Confederate Colonel Samuel Melton that he made a promise on behalf of South Carolina's capital city to return the kindness "should misfortune ever befall the Empire City." 

After 9/11, elementary principal Nancy Turner and her teachers were trying to find some tangible way their students could respond to the attacks. The children were too young to give blood, and no one liked the idea of simply sending money to an impersonal national fund. Eventually the decision was made to collect money to buy a fire truck.

Then Turner stumbled on records of New York's long-ago gift while researching the cost and what type of truck to buy. It was easy to get city leaders and the state governor, Jim Hodges, to join in. Columbia's fire chief was a New York native. The effort was renamed "South Carolina Remembers." After 134 years, the day to remember came and the children of Columbia took it on themselves to honor that pledge.

They collected pennies at football games, held bake sales, and sold T-shirts in a drive to raise the $350,000 needed to replace one of the dozens of New York City firetrucks destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

The idea began from a lesson in giving. Donations poured in. One donor wrote: "When I was growing up in Columbia, Mama always said you need to return a kindness. I know she'd be as glad as I am to be part of this wonderful thank-you gesture." 

In notes to the students, donors told personal stories connecting them with loved ones who died on 9/11, to firefighters, and in one case, to Confederate soldiers.

In her article, Page Ivey tells about one of the most unforgettable donations, coming from Russell Siller of Rockville Centre, New York. Siller's brother, Stephen, was part of the elite firefighter force Squad 1. He died that terrible day. Siller wrote: "At a time like this, when the whole nation is still mourning its loss, what a powerful and poetic message your efforts send to all of us. I am proud that New York's bravest sent you a fire truck in your city's time of need. . . . To think that you would honor a pledge made so many years ago! The new fire truck will become a symbol for your love, for your country, and for New York's bravest."

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Prayer for President's Day

Harry S. Truman had a favorite prayer, one he said often from his boyhood days to his presidency and after. It provides a glimpse of his character and profound faith:

"O Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of heaven, earth and the universe: Help me to be, to think, to act what is right because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellow men; help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings even as Thou understandest mine."

On a penciled memo on White House stationery, dated August 15, 1950, Truman wrote of that prayer:

"This prayer has been said by me - Harry S. Truman - from high school days, as window washer, bottle duster, floor scrubber in an Independence drugstore, as timekeeper on a railroad contract gang, as an employee of a newspaper, as a bank clerk, as a farmer riding a gang plow behind four horses and mules, as a fraternity official learning to say nothing at all if good could not be said of man, as a public official judging the weaknesses and shortcomings of constituents, and as President of the United States of America."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Old Testament Table Manners

Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable, in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown substance you may eat, but not in the living room.

Drink your milk as it is given you, neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for, you shall be sent away.

When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck: for you shall be sent away.

When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother or your sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister hath done the same to you.

Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

For we judge between the plate that is unclean and the plate that is clean, saying first, if the plate is clean, then you shall have dessert.

And if you try to deceive by moving the potatoes or peas around with a fork, that it may appear you have eaten what you have not, you will fall into iniquity. And I will know, and you shall have no dessert.

Do not scream; for it is as if you scream all the time. If you are given a plate on which two foods you do not wish to touch each other are touching each other, your voice rises up even to the ceiling, while you point to the offense with the finger of your right hand; but I say to you, scream not.

Likewise if you receive a portion of fish from which every piece of herbal seasoning has not been scraped off, and the herbal seasoning is loathsome to you and steeped in vileness, again I say, refrain from screaming. Though the vileness overwhelm you, and cause you to faint unto death, make not that sound from within your throat, neither cover your face, nor press your fingers to your nose. For even I have made the fish as it should be; behold, I eat it myself, yet shall not surely die.

-- "Lamentations of the Father" by Ian Frazier, The Atlantic Monthly, 1997.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Young Guns for God

I spent three days this past week in Louisville, Kentucky, serving as a mentor at the Academy of Young Preachers. This first ever, one-of-a-kind event featured 100 young preachers, age 18-26, from all kinds of Christian backgrounds and traditions, coming together to preach, to sharpen their skills and celebrate their calling. Each preacher was required to enlist a mentor preacher, and that's why I was there, mentor for Harold Sims, our summer missionary last year.

The diversity was dizzying, with Catholics and Pentecostals and Baptists and Brethren, mainline and non-denominational, male and female, black and white, liberals and conservatives, all in fellowship, affirming and encouraging each other as they came to preach Christ. Students from Liberty University and Harvard University and all points in between were present and participating and preaching.

And preach they did. I listened to 26 sermons during the Festival, each one preaching on some aspect of the life and work of Christ. I heard passion and purpose. I saw remarkable creativity. I marveled at the depth of their insights. And most of all, I could feel their sheer joy, the joy that comes from proclaiming the best news of all, the joy that God gives as we answer His call upon our lives.

And in their youthful eagerness and exuberant joy, I felt my own joy rekindled and my own calling renewed. Harold and the many young preachers I met thanked me repeatedly for investing a few days in their future ministries. But I am the grateful one, so thankful and stirred and blessed. Thirty years of preaching melts away. I feel like a kid again.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hearing Voices

In the year that King Uzziah died, or in the year that John F. Kennedy died, or in the year that somebody you loved died, you go into the temple if that is your taste, or you hide your face in the little padded temple of your hands, and a voice says, "Whom shall I send into the pain of a world where people die?" and if you are not careful, you may find yourself answering, "Send me." You may hear the voice say, "Go." Just go. 

Like "duty," "law," "religion," the word "vocation" has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all. "Vocare," to call, of course, and a man's vocation is a man's calling. It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing he is summoned to spend his life doing. We can speak of a man's choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation's choosing the man, of a call's being given and a man's hearing it, or not hearing it. 

And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. A man's life is full of all sorts of voices calling him in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for? - Frederick Buechner

One night long ago a sixteen year old boy sat alone on the back step of our home, gazing up into a clear, sparkling, night sky. In a strange, whispering, wonderful moment Someone called to me, my calling came to me as I listened, struck silent by the enormity of God and my own littleness. I heard it, and something stirred in me that had never moved before, something deep, something real, something alive, something struggling to speak, to take flight in me. I had no words, no answer.

My life from that moment has been my own harrowing and halting effort to answer that Voice, to fulfill my vocare, my calling.