Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Eating the Scroll in Church Life Today

  We've been studying Revelation in Sunday School, and last week we came across John's prophetic commission in Revelation 10.  "Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth."  (Rev. 10:9)

  We talked in Sunday School about how this meant that the joy of the commission must have been overwhelming--what an honor to be clearly called by God and know, without a doubt, what your task was.  John has the joy of knowing God's love for him and is assured of God's ultimate victory.  He has the privilege of sharing this message, this Good News of God's triumph, with the world.

  And yet, it isn't an easy commission.  The sweetness of the call is soon followed by the bitterness in the stomach, as John comes face to face with the world's opposition.  The message of faithful discipleship, of servant leadership, of submission to Christ's Lordship, is not one the world is overly fond of hearing.  Many Biblical prophets have endured periods of deep depression due to the challenges of their prophetic call.  Some even wished they had never been born.

  As I look at the church in America today, I wonder if we maintain an appropriate sense of balance in our life together.  As we engage in ministry in our communities, does the church adequately focus on both the sweetness of God's love and the sense of unease and challenge we should have when we examine our lives through the Gospel lens?  It's easy to focus on the love of God--I believe it's a lot harder to focus on our need to be holy, on our need to flee from sin and actively resist its influence in our lives.

  I do not pretend this to be an easy task.  I do not believe I am successful in maintaining this balance.  But I believe I have much to learn from John's task of eating the scroll.

  There is much sweetness in the Gospel message.  We who have turned from God and chosen to build our own little kingdoms and reign in our own domains have been delivered from slavery to sin, redeemed from death, and brought into eternal life by our gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.  The gift of faith is freely given by the Holy Spirit, and through God's work in our lives and we can look forward with hope and joy to eternal life with God.  We recognize that our lives have purpose as we are joined to God's greater purpose, and we take confidence that God will use our humble efforts to build his Kingdom here on earth.  We are loved infinitely by our Creator, and he has promised there is nothing that can separate us from his love.  We should celebrate this Good News!

  But a look at the world around us, and our own lives, should cause us some unease.  We fail to live up to the standard of discipleship Christ calls us to.  The world is not receptive to our call to servant leadership and selfless service, and I think we are not always eager to accept Christ's definition of our neighbor, of how we should view wealth and privilege and honor.  We resist the call to law down our lives, and we hesitate to get involved in civic and social structures that oppress.  We prefer comfort and often hesitate when Christ asks us to give him all.  Our own sin should make us uneasy, and it should sit bitterly on our stomachs.

  Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge, and Proverbs 8:13 tells us what fear of the Lord is:  hatred of evil.  So may we hate evil and sin, and come to the Lord with humility.  May we, as the church, let ourselves be embraced by the love of Christ, and may the sweetness of his love define our lives.  May it lead us to examine our lives, and may we allow the bitterness challenge us to flee from sin, personal and societal.  May we not shrink from the call to speak hard truths.

  May we balance our proclamation and witness, proclaiming the love of God through our words and deeds, and also naming sin and injustice, however uncomfortable it may be.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sermon for 7/28/13 on the Lord's Prayer, part 1

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them one thing. There were many things they could have asked him to teach them, but we have record of one request: Lord, teach us to pray. I believe that this is because the disciples saw the fruits of Jesus' prayer life. I believe that they saw him spend countless hours in prayer, and they saw how his life was guided by his abiding relationship with his heavenly Father. I believe that they wanted this same intimate relationship, the same depth to their discipleship, and so they asked him to teach him to pray.
We, too, want a deep and abiding relationship with our Father in heaven. We want to be connected to God, to lean upon him and feel his strength and power in us. We want to place our complete trust in him, because we know that only in him will we find true life. We've tried everything else in the world, and we've discovered that they cannot fulfill our deepest longings. We know that only God can do this, and so we want to learn to pray like Christ prays.
In reply to the disciples' request, Jesus teaches them the Lord's prayer. He tells how to pray. As someone suggested, 'if Jesus had known a better prayer, he would have taught it to us.' So let us, too, sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him over these next five weeks.

Matthew 6:7-13  (CEV) 

7 When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people do who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. 8 Don’t be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask.
9 You should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name. 10 Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you, as you are obeyed in heaven. 11 Give us our food for today. 12 Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others. 13 Keep us from being tempted and protect us from evil.

When I was in seminary, I did a work study job in exchange for my scholarship. I worked 10 hours a week doing administrative tasks for one of the offices, and it wasn't exciting work, but it wasn't very difficult.
One day, my supervisor took me into a closet and opened up a cabinet. In it were two stacks of unwrapped paper. He told me that he wanted to know how much paper we had left. I looked at him curiously, because I knew how meticulous he was and inferred that he wanted me to count all this paper, which probably totaled several thousand sheets. This did not sound like an engaging or necessary task.
He left me to it, and after staring at this stack for a few minutes, I decided on a simpler method. I went and got a full ream of paper, knowing that it was 500 sheets, and I guesstimated based on the relative size of the unwrapped stack. I then went into my boss' office and told him about how many sheets we had.
I still have the distinct memory of the disappointment in his eyes as he looked at me. It was now very clear that he had expected me to count the individual sheets of paper. He asked me a few questions about my method, and then gave up on getting an exact number out of me.
I had fulfilled the task, I suppose. He was pretty disappointed with the effort I had put into it, and I knew that my heart wasn't in counting all that paper. I hadn't tried very hard to get an exact number, and it was a pretty big waste of everyone's time, despite the fact that the task was done.

We do this throughout our lives. We come up to a task that appears daunting, or maybe it's something in which we're just not interested. But it's something that has to get done, so we put in the time. Often it's half-hearted or distracted time that we invest, but we make sure the task gets done, even if it's not well done. We satisfy the requirement and check off the box, glad to have it done and confidant that if anyone asks, we'll be able to say we've completed it.
There's nothing wrong with this approach at times. No one gets really excited about paying bills, but it's necessary. If you've got to take the trash out, you don't need to get really excited about it first. Some things in life just need to be done.

The problem comes when we approach prayer in this fashion. We do it because it's supposed to be done, and we do it only because we think we look better to God after we have prayed. We trot out familiar lines and make sure we've completed our task, but we weren't necessarily paying attention to what we've just done. Sometimes it's a distracted prayer while the television is on, or maybe while we're rushing from this to that, and we don't even pay attention to the words we're saying, but we're praying, right?
Jesus warns his listeners of this risk. He tells them that there are people who used lots of words and pray long prayers because they think this makes them look good. They think that the longer the prayer, the better it is, so they go on and on, but their heart isn't really in it. They're just putting in an appearance, putting on a show. They've got time to fill, so they fill the time, but their empty hearts are not filled.

Jesus wants us to pray with hearts on fire for God. He wants us to get caught up in the passionate embrace of God, to fall in love with God and let God's love surround and fill us. When we pray, he wants us to recognize that it's more than empty words shouted at the heavens. It's adoration toward the creator of the universe, and it's intimate conversation with the God who promises to always abide with you. He wants our hearts and our attitudes to be in the right place, that we might be mindful of what we are doing when we pray.

And so he begins his prayer with an amazingly intimate term. “Our Father,” he begins, and instantly our relationship with God is placed in a different position than any other religion on earth. God as Father is not a God who dwells in the clouds and remains removed from humanity, preferring to keep his hands clean. God as Father is a God who desperately loves his children and rushes to meet them, rushes to love them, rushes to save them. Father is the God who sees his child running into the street and runs to keep him from certain death. Father is the God who hears the cries of his children and promises to always abide, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Father is the God who promises that not a hair shall fall from your head without his knowledge.
Now, Father is also a God who is willing to discipline, but only out of love, only because he wants the best for us. Father is a God willing to punish, but only in the hopes that we might be reformed and transformed, that we might see the error of our ways and repent, turn back, turn towards him. Father is a God who knows that only he can ultimately satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts, and so when he sees us playing with fire he sternly rebukes us, knowing that it will be our destruction. He doesn't want us to dwell in senile happiness—he wants us to dwell in abundant life with him forever.

This is all amazing that God wants to do this, that God wants to be in an intimate relationship. God is so holy, so perfect, that we know that we cannot look at him, lest we perish immediately. Our God is the one who created the earth, who told the rivers where to flow and set the stars in the sky. This is the God who will always be near, who will never let you be separated from him. Our God is amazing.

Look to the next phrase--'in heaven, hallowed be your name.' Jesus is starting our prayer with intimacy, but it is immediately coupled to the holiness of God. We can never forget just how holy God is. We can't lose sight of God's perfection and that he dwells in unapproachable light. If we lose sight of this, than God loses his power and simply wants to be our friend, but is incapable of doing anything about the dangers that threaten us. But when we hold onto the holiness and power of God, we recognize that the God who wants an intimate relationship is the same God who dwells outside of time and space, the same God who creates simply by speaking, the same God who is able to vanquish sin and death and promises to return to defeat Satan with finality. This is the God we worship, the God we adore, the God who will reign forever. There is no question of his victory—it is assured, and we have no need to doubt or fear.

And so, in the beginning of our prayer, Jesus asks us to hold together the intimate love of God with his awesome power and majesty. Our minds cannot wrap themselves around such a concept, for it is too great for us. As the Psalmist says, I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
So what can we do?
Here, we can only worship. We can bow before the throne of grace and marvel at the God who is all-powerful and yet deeply loving. We can be amazed at who God is and what God has done. We can simply fall before the throne and adore this God. We can be grateful for all that this God has done for us, for he didn't have to do any of it, but chose to use this power for our ultimate good.

This is how our prayers ought to begin, Jesus says. They ought to begin with adoration of God, and with a recognition of the depths of his love for us. They ought to remind us of where we stand—before the throne of grace of the all-powerful God, and they also ought to remind us of just whose we are—we belong to this God, and he proudly claims us in Christ. Nothing in the world or beyond it could stand between us, but he rushes toward us, wanting to be known intimately by us. He wants to hear our prayers, to hear our joys and concerns, to know our hearts. He doesn't want to hear half-hearted prayers tossed in his general direction so we can consider the task completed and go on with our lives. He wants our hearts to be completely oriented towards him, because he knows that such an orientation, and only such an orientation, will be completely fulfilling for us. For us to grow into the fulfillment of our potential, we have to turn to him alone, in love and worship, and Jesus begins our prayer with a simple sentence of infinite depth, one that focuses our hearts and minds upon the God who creates with a Word, upon the God who descends to earth and dies so that we might live with him, upon the God who abides with us by the power of the Holy Spirit in each and every day.

Let us pray

Thursday, July 25, 2013

July 25 New Hope E-News


Wednesday Night Suppers-- In the fall, our Wednesday Night Suppers may look a little different than they have in years past. Due to busy and changing lives, we simply don't have the number of cooks that we need in order to provide meals like we have, and catering is prohibitively expensive. We're going to experiment, and we ask your patience in advance. We're trying to listen to everyone's voice and be good stewards of the resources we have available to us.
Community Kitchen Spot
There are a lot of hungry and homeless children of God and the community needs some help feeding them. If you would like to help out, please bring the following items to church this Sunday & put them in the grocery cart.

New Hope News

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will continue to study Revelation. We'll pick up in chapter 7.

Building & GroundsThere will be a building & grounds meeting on July 31 @ 6pm. Speak with Larrie Mansfield if you'd like to attend.

Outreach CommitteeThere will be an outreach committee meeting on August 6 @ 6:00.

Pray For:
Lynn Meyer & Christine Dyer

Norma Capone

Give thanks for our new members!

Those in Spain affected by this awful train crash

Gary & Colleen Smith

David Smith


Keith's Random Thoughts

We're trying to get ready to switch Caleb from the nursery to his own room so that we can make room for another occupant in the nursery. (Only ~7 weeks to go!) We've taken a lot of things out of what used to be our guest bedroom, and the room is looking pretty barren. No one is going to mistake it for a Siberian jail cell, but it's not a warm and inviting room that a toddler will fall in love with, which is what we're going for.
All this means I'm in furniture building mode. (Which I love)

So there I was, sanding down the edges of a toy box, when I started thinking that sanding would be a pretty painful process if wood had feelings. (I don't think it does. I suppose I'd feel pretty guilty if it did.)
Think about sanding. You're running a highly abrasive material over rough edges in the hopes of transforming a piece of wood into something more appealing. You're hoping to remove eyesores and difficult spots as you build towards a finished product. It takes work and time.

We're all trying to do the same, I believe. We all have rough spots in our lives, difficult patches that need to be removed. We are aiming to be like Christ, to be imitators of him, to grow up and mature spiritually, but right now we still have a lot of sin, a lot of parts of our lives that don't resemble Christ. Those need to be removed, sanded down, so that we more closely resemble the finished product.

This can require difficult change on our part. It can be abrasive and exhausting and lead us to a point where we just want to stop and go back to comfort.

But Christ calls us forward, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that we are moving towards our goal of Christ-likeness. Our deepest desires can only be met by him, and only when we are like him will we be truly happy. So we follow God's calling, and we continue sanding away, removing those rough spots, praying for wisdom and courage and guidance, that we might more closely resemble Christ, that we might be like him in every way.

Text for this Sunday
7 When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people do who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. 8 Don’t be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask.

9 You should pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
help us to honor
your name.
10 Come and set up
your kingdom,
so that everyone on earth
will obey you,
as you are obeyed
in heaven.
11 Give us our food for today.
12 Forgive us for doing wrong,
as we forgive others.
13 Keep us from being tempted
and protect us from evil

New Hope on Facebook & Twitter
New Hope on iTunes

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thoughts on pregnancy

  If you're not careful, it's pretty easy to forget just who is in charge of this whole show.

  Rachel went to the doctor yesterday morning for a routine visit, and she was measuring small, so they scheduled an ultrasound in the afternoon to make sure fluid levels were fine.  (They were.  Everything is good.  There is 4lb 8 oz of healthy & active baby in there.)

  With every doctor appointment, there is always the chance that they could tell you that you're headed over to the hospital next to have a baby.  Had the fluid levels been extremely low, they could have sent us to deliver yesterday or today.  I doubt they would have done that, but they might have.

  Which means that all our plans for the next few weeks would have been out the window.

  When we make plans, we often forget this fact.  We have to, in a way, or else we'd be paralyzed by the reality that we have no idea what today or tomorrow holds.  We'd be afraid of ever scheduling anything.

  But it's probably healthy to hold onto the reality that God is completely in control.  We go forward in faith, trusting him, aware that we live and move and have our being in his hand.  Today is a gift for which we ought to be grateful, and we would be wise to let our gratitude show, to remind ourselves that life belongs to God, and he has given it to us for a purpose, and we should live life like the gift that it is.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sermon on Daniel 6 for July 21, 2013 (Biblical Lives: Daniel)

Click here for a link to Daniel 6



A few years back, John Brandon and I went to do housework at my mom’s for a few days.  Mom lives on 2.5 acres, so there is quite a bit of yardwork to be done, and since she is so busy a little extra help is appreciated.  John and I cut down a few trees and took care of some other things in the yard, and by the end of a day we had a rather large pile of branches to be burned.  It was in the middle of a large open space, and so we lit it on fire and sat back to watch.
Well, it didn’t light very well, and we kept trying to get it to start.  It wasn’t taking very quickly, though, so we shifted the pile a bit and then stood back to watch.  It wasn’t too long before the tiny little fire we had started had flames shooting thirty feet up into the air, threatening the trees that had once seemed far away from any potential danger.  We had thought that we were safe and that the fire would be pretty small… and then things got a bit out of hand.
A situation like this one has probably happened to each and every one of you at some point in life.  You start with something small, something manageable, something you can handle, and before you know it, things have blown way out of proportion.  You turned around for one second, and suddenly it’s out of control and has picked up momentum of its own.  It’s the proverbial snowball that seemed so harmless when you started rolling it and suddenly threatens the life of everyone below it as it picks up steam and heads downhill.  Things we believe we can control often don’t stay that way.
I’d like to suggest that sin works that way.  Sin often starts out as something that seems harmless, something that just looks like innocent fun, and we engage in it because we think we can control it, we believe we can manage its influence in our life.  We think we’re in charge.  But all sin, each and every one, intends to lead us deeper into its grip.  All sin, whether it’s greed or lust or addiction, starts small, seemingly benign, and then takes us deeper and deeper.  Often, we don’t realize that things are out of our control until it’s far too late.  We suddenly see that what we thought we could manage is actually controlling us.  This is why we’re constantly urged to hate sin, to flee from sin.  Any sin, no matter how small it seems, leads us into this spiral.  The letter of James tells us that sin leads to death, and while it’s hard to understand how a little white lie can lead to death, it’s easier to see that one lie leads to another, to another, and then to another, until the lies have taken over our lives and we can’t see any way out.  Sin has consequences, and often we end up losing what we value, despite the fact that we thought it was something we could easily manage.
In today’s reading from Daniel 6, we start out with King Darius.  He’s in charge of the massive Babylonian empire, and to help run the country he’s decided to let Daniel govern the whole kingdom.  We read that Daniel did his work so much better than everyone else that it was an easy decision for the king to put him in charge.  Here we have our first lesson for today:  if you do your work better than everyone else, you’ll end up in positions of influence.  As Christians, we’re called to work hard and to do good work, to work as though we are working for Christ, because our work brings glory to him. 
The other men were jealous of him.  They couldn’t find any fault in his labor, so they decided to attack him because of his religion.  They knew that his faith in the one true God made him an oddity in a land where people would worship whatever they were told, so they singled him out to get him into trouble.
To do so, the others went to the king with a seemingly innocuous request.  They asked that the king make a law that would make it illegal for anyone to worship anyone but the king for the next 30 days.  If anyone did so, they would be thrown into the lions’ den. 
The King didn’t see the harm in this.  He was considered to be like a god anyway, and he couldn’t imagine the consequences.  He didn’t recognize the danger down the road, and he was pretty sure he could manage this request.
Until it led him somewhere unexpected.  Daniel was unwilling to worship anything but God, and the other men were only too happy to turn Daniel in to the king for punishment.  They knew the law couldn’t be broken.  The punishment had to be served. 
Darius wasn’t happy about this, but he couldn’t find a loophole.  He couldn’t make an escape for Daniel, and so what he thought was harmless was going to end up costing him his most valuable worker in the kingdom.  The one person he couldn’t afford to lose would be lost because Darius had led things spiral out of control.  His sin had consequences he hadn’t anticipated, like all sin does.

Daniel, then, is thrown into the lions’ den, which is sealed with a large rock, leaving Daniel to do battle with hungry lions.  The rest of the story should be fairly predictable.

But notice how the King reacts.  He could not sleep all night, and he refuses to eat a thing.  He was miserable because Daniel could be lost to the lions.
First thing in the morning, though, he gets up and runs to the lions’ den.  He shouts into it, asking Daniel if he was saved by God from the terrible destiny that awaited.
Now, think about this for a moment.  The king goes to the lions’ den and expects Daniel to be alive.  Why would he expect this?  He’s thrown Daniel into a pit of lions.  That’s not something that any reasonable person would be expected to escape from.  This is as certain a death punishment as you could have.
Except that Daniel has indeed survived.  Miraculously, God sent an angel to keep the lions from eating him.  God has saved him.
 But why would Darius expect this?  What would lead him to believe that a God he doesn’t worship could save a man from lions?
Daniel must have lived his faith in an extraordinary way.  Clearly, the stories of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have filtered down to Darius.  But Daniel must have been an extraordinary person.  He must have lived his faith as though it truly and deeply mattered.  He must have prayed in such a way that he expected his prayers to have results.  He must have sought after God with such passion and energy that it was clear his entire life was dependent on God alone.  This was not a half-hearted faith—it was a passion for God.
And Darius clearly saw in Daniel a faith that could move mountains.  He saw a man whose God could save. 
Now, you and I probably will never be thrown into a lions’ den.  No one is going to come and peer into the jaguar exhibit at the zoo to see if we survived a night of punishment.
But people are watching how we live and how we pray.  They’re watching to see how our worship of God affects our lives.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is this:  what kind of God does my life proclaim?  Does it proclaim a God who has conquered death, who has rolled the stone away and revealed life?  Does it portray a God who is constantly involved with my life, who cares deeply about me and will stop at nothing to protect me?  Does my life proclaim a God who will suffer the very depths of hell so that I might not perish?  Do my prayers reflect a constant expectation that God will intervene in my life and lead me forward into abundant life?
If we were thrown into the lions’ den, do we live our faith in such a way as to proclaim a God capable of saving us from such a grisly fate?  Or do we proclaim a tame, mild God who exists merely to help us scrape through and enter heaven?

Let us pray

Thursday, July 18, 2013

July 18 New Hope E-News


$.02/meal—Next collection will be July 21. Can we get $200 again?

VBSA big thank you to Janet Geerlings and all of our VBS volunteers for all the work they invested this week!
Community Kitchen Spot
There are a lot of hungry and homeless children of God and the community needs some help feeding them. If you would like to help out, please bring the following items to church this Sunday & put them in the grocery cart.

New Hope News

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will continue to study Revelation. We'll pick up in chapter 4.

Building & GroundsThere will be a building & grounds meeting on July 31 @ 6pm. Speak with Larrie Mansfield if you'd like to attend.

Pray For:
Lynn Meyer & Christine Dyer

Polly Black's family

Norma Capone

Russell Mabry


Keith's Random Thoughts

There's a question we always ask sick people:
Are you feeling any better?”

I've asked it, and chances are you have, too. Whenever we do ask it, we're always hoping the answer is 'yes', because then we can move on and assume that everything will be ok.

Have you ever noticed your own reaction, or the reaction of others, when the answer is 'no'?
We draw back, uncertain of what to say. It's an uncomfortable moment, and we often fill it with assurances that things will get better, even when we aren't sure that they will. The raw honesty of 'no' can make for an awkward conversation, because we're not sure what to do with 'no'. If it's yes we can be hopeful and joyful, but 'no'.... you just have to sit in the discomfort of 'no'.
This happened to me the other week. What could I say in response? All I could offer was 'I'm sorry' and sit and listen to the lament of the other individual. I could hope that an opportunity to voice their pain might lead to some healing, even if it wasn't physical. I could hope that a path forward might appear after they voiced their pain. But only after. I was present, but it was not my time to speak.

I reflect on all of this in light of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy. I've read a lot of reflections on the violence, on the trial, on the verdict—and what I've noticed is that there is a lot of pain in this country revolving around race, and while we want everyone to say that things are getting better, the reality is that we need to listen to our fellow Americans who are saying that things still hurt, that there is still raw pain. It's not easy to sit and listen, but only after hearing their pain can we begin to look forward into creating a way forward. Perhaps there will be some uncomfortable moments in there, but if we gloss over the pain of others, what chance is there for real healing?

This may be a better time to listen to those whose experiences are vastly different than mine. This may be a time in which I recognize that just because I see the world in a certain light doesn't mean that everyone sees the same picture. The pain I may not see, the pain I don't want to be there, may still be present and working, and there are people who need to voice their struggles to a community that cares.

I don't know exactly what to say in light of everything that's taken place. And maybe that's ok for now, because maybe right now isn't the time in which I need to speak. Maybe it's time to listen and to look, that a path forward may appear in the midst of all of this.

Text for this Sunday
Daniel 6 is the tale of Daniel in the lions' den. Click here to read it online.

New Hope on Facebook & Twitter
New Hope on iTunes

Retreat Thoughts, Day 4

Imagine what Moses must have felt, staring into Canaan in the last moments of his life, knowing it would always be a step beyond his journey, a meal that he would never taste and yet spent his entire life preparing.  His life's work was to lead the people to Canaan, and as it taunted him from just beyond the Jordan, it must have seemed farther away than ever.  As the people prepared to journey forward, he prepared to make his last journey, to travel the last few steps into the land that awaits us all, just beyond reach and yet always near, the journey toward which we travel and yet never arrive until the end.

It's easy to think of life as a vast, empty canvas upon which we paint with the enthusiasm of our youth.  I do not pretend to have aged enough to know the pressures of time leaning against me, reminding me, through aching joints or fleeting memories or the passing of dear friends, that the journey in this place does not last forever, and whether we will it or not, the canvas will soon be filled with something.  It is our life's work, but often we wandered across it so unintentionally, so occupied with what we believe is pressing in the moment, that the footprints our feet leave do not have any appreciable pattern.  They are random, and while we could, perhaps, make some artistic interpretation of them, they have not been set there with design.

The alternative is to seize upon the canvas as the opportunity that it is, to paint with intention and purpose throughout our days, going about them with the sole focus of serving Christ in our present situation.  In this way, we are fully alive to what is before us, the gift of the moment, of the present, of now.  In this way, we are not so distracted that we miss what God is doing in and around us.  In this way, we do not make more of petty things than they deserve.

I dare not pretend that I have used all of my time here well.  Some of it, I will say, has been used well.  Some of it has been lived with intention, but much of it has been drifting, distraction, occupying my time rather than filling it.  And so I pray for wisdom and courage, for intention, so that I will remember that my time is fleeting, that my life has purpose, and that I might have the wisdom to glorify God in the midst of all I do.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Witness to the Resurrection of Polly Black

2 Corinthians 1:18-22

  18 God can be trusted, and so can I, when I say that our answer to you has always been “Yes” and never “No.” 19 This is because Jesus Christ the Son of God is always “Yes” and never “No.” And he is the one that Silas, Timothy, and I told you about.
  20 Christ says “Yes” to all of God’s promises. That’s why we have Christ to say “Amen” for us to the glory of God. 21 And so God makes it possible for you and us to stand firmly together with Christ. God is also the one who chose us 22 and put his Spirit in our hearts to show that we belong only to him.


The last few years have been rough on Polly.  No longer able to move as she once did, she was frustrated with much of her current situation.  Her body was failing her, and she looked forward to final redemption with joy in her heart.  She felt as though she had run her race, and she was waiting for the finish line to approach.
If we’re not careful, we let this final image of Polly dominate any other images.  If we aren’t careful, the idea of Polly in a hospital bed or a nursing home can loom larger over earlier images, images that are dominated by laughter and family and her devotion to church life.  We need to guard our image of Polly to ensure that it is a complete image, one that includes her earlier years as much as it does her later years.
So it’s helpful to gather and go through old pictures, just as it’s helpful to tell old stories, even if we’ve heard them before, because they remind us of what was good about Polly.  They tell a different story than the one nursing homes are capable of telling. 
In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, he also needs to do some reminding.  They have gotten caught up in some little things, in some debates that are leading their hearts away from the central issue of being the church together, and Paul is trying to bring them back to the promises God has made and the assurances we have in Christ Jesus.  Paul is trying to focus their eyes on God, and he does so by having them look at Christ, because Paul says that Jesus Christ is the ‘yes’ to all of God’s promises.
Now, think for a second about those promises.  These are promises of God to always be with us, to never let us out of his sight, that nothing shall separate us from his love and that we shall reign with him in heaven forever.  These are big promises, monumental promises, the type of promises that ought to make us cling to God in all we do.
But we tend to get caught up in other things, in little things, and they turn our eyes away from these promises.  We forget all the wondrous joy God has promised us.
And so Paul brings our eyes back to the joy of Christianity, back to the faith and the wonder and the hope of it all.  Paul fixes our eyes on Christ, and in so doing Paul reminds us that God has made it possible for us to stand firmly with Christ.  God has chosen us and claimed us by his Holy Spirit.  Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, is the assurance that all of these promises are faithful and true, that we can cling to them in all of life.
So we gather today to remind ourselves of Christ’s ‘yes’ to Polly Anna Black.  In Christ, God has said ‘yes’ to her, gathering her up in his mighty arms and shepherding her through the veil of death into life eternal.  God has said ‘yes’ to her, claiming her in the waters of baptism and making her his forever.  God has said ‘yes’ to her, because he has chosen her by his Spirit and will not let anything take her from him.  Polly belongs to God, and she now worships him in fullness and truth.
We, too, need to be reminded of these promises.  We tend to forget them in the face of life’s trials and tribulations and distractions.  We forget about all the good news and the hope and the joy.  We forget that God has said ‘yes’ to us, too, and claimed us forever by his Holy Spirit.  We forget that we depend on him and live our lives in the palm of his hand.  We forget that he holds the keys of eternal life.
So may you be reminded of just who is in charge of your life.  May you be reminded that Christ alone is the source of eternal life, and it to him alone that we must cling. 

Let us pray

Retreat Thoughts, day 3

Less than a mile from the retreat center where I have currently squirreled myself away from the busy-ness of daily life is the condo where I spent four months of my life before moving to Chattanooga.  Upon moving in, it was a grand escape, especially considering the situation which we had fled.  It was at the end of a street packed with stately houses lining the Chatahoochie River.  The verdant setting all but demanded a relaxing respite from the hectic job search in which I was immersed.

Of course, life had other ideas. 

Not long after we moved in, the man whose rims had been stolen was shooting at the car containing the chief suspects.  All of this took place at 5:00 in the evening, surprising both Rachel and I.  As we lay on the floor of our condo, uncertain exactly as how best to react to such a situation, the situation changed.  We no longer felt safe in our condo. 

Other things also proved to be a disappointment.  The weight room ended up being a ramshackle assortment of broken and dated machines, few of which were any good for exercise.  The days dragged on, despite my consistent raiding of the nearby library.  Boredom overtook me.

We constantly wondered what was behind the sign for the retreat center, but curiosity never carried me far enough to venture past the sign.  Had I done so, I would have discovered a lovely chapel and a serene setting where I could have passed the days in quiet retreat. 

My first thought upon arriving here this weekend was disappointment that I had not discovered this place.  I found that emotion odd, but common.  There is nothing I could do to change the past.  Those four months took place almost 6 years ago, and fretting over it now is hardly useful.  And yet that was my first reaction.

How much energy do I invest in wondering about the past, how things might have been different if only...?  How much time have I wasted wondering about what might have been, when that energy would be far better spent peering over the next horizon to see what God has in store or, better yet, paying attention to what God is doing here and now, that I might not look back with regret on time wasted or chances lost.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Retreat Thoughts, Day 2

In my backyard are two blueberry bushes.  They began life in the front yard, but when I was confronted with the sheer size and wildness of full-grown blueberry bushes, I opted to move them to the backyard, where they would be free to grow into their full splendor.  These are not the bushes out of which topiaries are made, and considering that I purchased them for their fruit-bearing capabilities, I had little interest in pruning them.

Since these bushes have been planted in my backyard, I have done nothing to abet their growth.  I have neither fertilized nor watered them.  They have been as neglected in the heat of a Chattanooga July as they have been in the depths of winter.  That they have survived at all is a testament to God's provision, not to any gardening capabilities I possess.  That they are thriving is quite shocking to any who might have attended to the neglect I have paid them.  Without a doubt, God has grown these little plants into mature bushes, and then God has seen fit to bless me with their fruit.  This year alone I was able to pull roughly ten cups of blueberries from their fertile branches.  All I have done is cover them with netting, and that endeavor was a selfish one, done to protect the budding fruit from the ravenous birds that might benefit from my bushes.  Considering how little I have done to aid these bushes in their growth, I ought not to be so protective of their fruit!
In sum, I have obtained the fruit of these bushes without tending to their growth.

In retrospection, I desire the same in my spiritual life. 

I long for spiritual consolation, for an alive and dynamic spiritual life, one that testifies to the reality of Christ's presence and is constantly aware of his amazing and gracious love for me.  I want to be awash in gratitude for unmerited favor, and yet I seem unwilling to invest my time and energy in practices that will open the eyes of my heart to God's presence and love.  I want the consolation, but I don't want to do the necessary work to be aware of it.  It's akin to saying that I want to be in Chicago but have no interest in investing in traveling there, preferring for God to miraculously transport me there instead.  While such a thing is surely possible for the God who designed the heart of the blue whale and the shell of the nautilus, it is highly unlikely.  If I had the wisdom to discern that God wanted to use me in Lincoln, Nebraska, it would be far wiser (and more faithful, I believe) to make travel plans accordingly. 

Yet my spiritual life indicates the opposite.  I act as though I believe that if God wants to console me by the power of the Holy Spirit, he will deliberately and obviously intervene in my life in such a way that I cannot miss it.  I do little to place myself in such a place to attend to and hear the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Taking a step backward to reflect, this is as foolish as waiting for God to teleport me to some distant location.  I do not doubt God's ability to do so—for surely the Spirit did such a thing to Philip in the book of Acts—but I do not expect such a thing.  In other areas of life, such activity would be akin to madness.  Imagine never saving money to pay rent in expectation of a wealthy benefactor appearing out of the blue to lavish financial gifts upon you.  While such an event might take place, it would be far more prudent to save money throughout the month so that the rent could be paid—in this way, one uses the gifts of God wisely to earn money to provide for oneself and one's loved ones.  Any money that appeared from a mysterious and wealthy benefactor would surely be welcomed with gratitude, but it would not be depended upon.  A lifetime of hard work and saving would not be negated by such a gift, but rather enriched.  Both would combine to form a solid financial resource.

It is my honest hope that I will endeavor to invest my energy in creating space in my life so that the Holy Spirit might have cleaner windows through which to shine into my life.  It is my goal to stop more often, to prop open the door of my soul so that the love of God might walk through, rather than always waiting for Jesus to transcend the often locked door of my life.  Just because I believe that Jesus can do so doesn't mean that waiting for him to do so is the most prudent way.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Retreat Thoughts, day 1

I spent last week on a 5 day silent retreat at the Ignatius House in Atlanta.  It was a blessed time of silence and reflection and prayer and reading.  The great thing about a silent retreat is that there are no distractions--you're not constantly thinking about the other things you need to be doing.  You can be present in the moment and pray without urgency.  I did some reflecting there, and I'll be sharing some of those thoughts over the next few days.

It seems silly to do God's work for him, as though God were not able to do it well enough himself.  Imagine trying to take the baton from the symphony conductor or ripping your tax forms from an accountant's hand—the mere thought of it is enough to make us recoil, for while we might be able to do a decent imitation of their tasks, in no way would the outcome resemble the product we so deeply desire.  It would be a poor imitation at best, a mockery at its worst.

And yet, in the process of spiritual development, we so often do exactly that.  We tear the responsibility for spiritual growth away from the giver and gifter of faith, confidant that our own human efforts can bring the sown seed within us to life.  We are certain that we know best the places to assert our efforts, and we do just that, toiling under the unforgiving sun of perfection that shortens our tempers and dampens our enthusiasm until the best of our efforts have wilted beneath the withering heat.  Our own efforts are tested and found wanting, and we fall defeated, certain that our best efforts at spiritual growth are fruitless, certain that nothing will come of the desire for a deeper communion with God.

Our disappointment grows only because the labors were exerted in the wrong fashion.  Our understanding of spiritual growth is inverted, twisted and convoluted into something barely recognizable.  Were we to approach spiritual growth Biblically, understanding that spiritual growth is a process of the Holy Spirit that is performed on those willing to submit their lives to the yoke of Christ's Lordship, we would see our role not as primary mover but rather as grateful recipient, patient on the work of the master potter, trusting the love of the generous sustainer, anticipating the final product that the God of resurrection is bringing to life within us.  We are not the potter but the clay, and that does not diminish our value at all; rather, it elevates us, for if we were the potter our finite lives would limit and define us.  Since we are crafted in the image of God and made for his eternal kingdom, we are not defined by our finite limits but rather live expectantly, limited in our understanding of God's transcendence but certain that we are part of a much larger reality than what our feeble eyes can reveal to us.

And so we begin anew, setting down the pitcher of water that we have been so desperately trying to carry up the hill, only to discover a seemingly infinite number of impediments.  We begin anew, accepting that we cannot carry a full pitcher to the peak of the mountain, ready and willing to let God carry us, ready and willing to let God fill us, ready and willing to set aside the false god of singular achievement that we have pursued and worshiped.  We are not individuals that stand alone , defining ourselves by the existence we can carve out and defend from the chaotic milieu; rather, we are each radiant points in a tapestry woven by God, our lives interlocking with one another and dependent upon God to stitch them together and reveal to us where they lead and how they work within the Kingdom of God.  This may not all be clear in the moment, but when we pass through the shadow of death and see from another perspective, we will step back and recognize the brilliance of God who was with us every step of the way. 

Then, and only then, will we truly understand.  For now, we press our faces against the murky glass, catching a glimpse here and then of something wonderful, something magnificent, something marvelous, and we let our hearts pursue God and be pursued by Him, and in the midst of this dance we are transformed, that the light of Christ shines through us for all to see that we belong not to ourselves but to the one who has purchased us with a price.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sermon on Daniel 5 for July 14, 2014 (Biblical Lives: Daniel)



I’m going to start by talking a bit about what I’ve been doing for the last week and why I’ve been doing it.  I spent the week at an Ignatian Retreat center in Atlanta for a 5 day silent retreat.  You may say that five days of silence sounds difficult.  It’s not easy, but it’s glorious--especially when you come from a house with a two year old.  Nothing about my house resembles silence. 

The reason I go isn’t just to get away from the noise and leave my wife and kids for a week.  The reason I go is because I’ve come to a conclusion about the state of Christianity in America, one that isn’t original to me.  I’ve realized that we spend a lot of time talking about prayer, talking about Jesus, but I worry that we don’t spend as much time in prayer, and I worry that we don’t set time aside to be falling deeper in love with God.  We want all the transformation and all the grace and all the good stuff God has to offer, but we don’t do a very good job of intentionally pursuing this life-changing relationship with God.  We like the benefits, but we don’t see them because we’re not willing to do the work of getting our lives in line with the will of Christ.  We like to talk about prayer more than we like to pray.

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone.  I’ve read a lot of books on prayer and spiritual disciplines.  I have many more still to read.  Ask Rachel about the stack of books on our bedroom floor that I told her I was hoping to read this year.  It’s still growing.  Sometimes, I pretend that reading books on prayer is the same as praying.  Think they are the same?  Then try this—tell someone that reading the owner’s manual on a Corvette is the same as actually driving it.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book on prayer.  But it’s far, far more important to actually pray.  It’s more important to sit down and make time to be with God.  Sometimes you need to find a quiet room and lock the door.  Sometimes you need to create your own space.
Whatever you have to do, pray.  If we want to know the will of God for our lives, we first need to attune our hearts and minds to him and his presence.  The more time we spend with the Lord, the deeper in love with him we fall.  We cannot help but be overwhelmed by the grace and love of God when we pray, for we recognize that he is light and good and mercy and truth, and we cannot help but be changed by an encounter with him.

It’s become vital for me to get away once or twice a year and set aside some serious time for evaluation.  Here I listen for the voice of God, to point out my sin and my straying, and to see where I need to grow.  Right now, God is telling me I’m spending too much time reading about praying and not enough time praying.  I think many of us are probably guilty of this—we read and talk about prayer, but aren’t spending enough time in prayer itself.

Now, I’m not going to say that our story from Daniel 5 is from a man who wasn’t that interested in prayer.  King Belshazzar, who has replaced King Nebuchadnezzar, his father, wasn’t that interested in anything other than himself.  He was prideful and believed himself to be the center of the universe. 

Last week we talked about how King Nebuchadnezzar came to faith towards the end of his life.  One thing he clearly didn’t do was pass this faith along to his child.  Nebuchadnezzar had a chance to influence the next generation, and he failed in this regard. 

So Belshazzar feels like he’s the center of the world, only God is about to remind him that it’s actually God who belongs in the middle of things.

Belshazzar decided during a feast that it would be fun to drink from the gold and silver cups that had been raided from the temple in Jerusalem.  These cups were crafted and dedicated to be used only for the glory of God, and here Belshazzar is profaning them by getting drunk and using them to praise his false gods.

God is not amused.

So a hand appears and starts writing on the wall. 

Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  I have a hard time thinking of something creepier.  The king was rightfully terrified.  I would probably be, too.  Four words are written, and no one, save Daniel, can interpret these words.

When Daniel is brought in, it is to be the bearer of bad news.  But Daniel starts by reminding them that it was God who gave his father his power and glory, and in response Nebuchadnezzar feared and honored God.  Daniel tells Belshazzar that his father chose to honor himself, and when he did all he had was taken from him, and it was only when he learned of God’s sovereignty that his power and clarity were restored to him.

Belshazzar knew all of this, we learn in verse 22.  He knows who gives kings their power, and he knows who can take that power away.  But Belshazzar has remained indignant, stubbornly choosing to believe in himself as Lord of all.  For this, he will be punished.

Daniel tells him that the writing on the wall consists of four words that mean that the king’s soul has been measured and found wanting, so he falls short of what it means to be a king and that ultimately, his kingdom will be divided. 

That very night, the king perished, and he lost everything, despite living as though such a thing could never happen.

What I’d like to suggest for us is this:  don’t live in fear of a magical hand appearing on a wall spelling out your doom.  If that’s what you take away from this passage, I’ve failed to do my job. 
I’d also like to suggest something else.  We have all been measured and found wanting.  We do not have what it takes to be a king.  Were it not for God who is rich in mercy and grace, this would be the end of the story.

But it’s not.

For Christ, who knows we are sinful, became sin to suffer the punishment so that we would not have to do so.  We who have fallen short have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.  God wants to give you eternal life in his precious name.  God wants to restore you to joy and peace and honor and blessing. 

All we have to do is say yes.  Each and every day, let us wake up with a yes to Christ in our hearts and on our minds.  May that joyous yes to Christ emanate throughout our days, as we receive from him every good thing that he has promised. 

We don’t have to live like Belshazzar, our senses dulled as we believe we’re the center of the universe.  We can live like Christ, letting the glory of the Father fill our hearts and minds and souls.  We can have a life-giving relationship with the Father, but it’s going to take some work on our parts, some setting aside of time, some investing in a relationship with the Father.

So let us pray.  Now, and constantly…