Monday, December 11, 2017

Reflection on Mark 1:1-8

Everyone likes a good ride through the wilderness.  As you peer out the window of the car, you enjoy seeing the grandeur of the tallest pines (or the tallest cacti if you are traveling through the desert), feel awestruck by the sheer size of granite cliffs, and keep a look out for a rare glimpse of a bear, buffalo, wolf, or mountain lion. 

If you are really lucky in the southern parts of the wilderness of Arizona you might even catch the very rare glimpse of a jaguar.  That would be exciting, as long as you are in a car. 

But, when driving through the wilderness, you are not really in the wilderness.  It is more like you are simply touring the wilderness; seeing it as if you are watching on a 3D television screen. 

You would not actually be in the wilderness unless your car broke down.  When your car breaks down, then you are actually in the wilderness.

It is kind of like when you attend the funeral of someone you barely knew from the community.  It is good you are there.  It is good to honor the memory of a person and to pay your respects, but it is like driving a car through the wilderness. 

You are not actually in the wilderness of grief; just passing through seeing others in their grief struggle. You can try to say the right words, but you do not actually know what it is like to wander in this particular wilderness of grief. 

You would not actually be in the wilderness of grief unless your car of life suddenly broke down and you lost that special one who had latched onto your heart.  Then, and only then, are you in the wilderness of grief.

The same is true for the wilderness of cancer or divorce or financial struggle or any other wilderness of life.  It is not until your car breaks down that you are actually in the wilderness. 

When it does break down, then suddenly you are forced to take stock of what you have. 

Do you have any food in the car?  Can the car still serve as a shelter?  Are there any blankets?  Did you bring a phone?  Are the cushions of the seats flammable? 

In other words, do you actually have the tools to make it through this wilderness experience, or are you lost, wandering through the dark, with no food and no one in sight who can help or who understands your struggle?

Do you know what would be great to have in a wilderness struggle? 

A road. 

After-all, roads lead somewhere.  Roads can bring you to a place of safety.  Roads are relatively straight compared to the wanderings of someone lost in the wilderness.

In addition, even if you are too injured to follow it, that straight road might at least bring someone your way: someone who can help; someone who knows how to get through the wilderness; someone who has been there before; someone who can save you.

To those who struggle in the wilderness, the gospel writer Mark announces directly to you some good news. 

“Good news,” by the way, can be rightly translated from the Greek as “good news from the battlefront.”  It hearkens back to images of messengers running from the field of war with good news about the progress of the battle. 

So, here, Mark is telling all of us who struggle in the wilderness that there is some “good news from the battle” or “good news from the struggle.”  

And, the "good news" for you who struggle in the wilderness is: there is a road. 

On some days, that alone is good news.  When going through the pain of grief, simply knowing that there is a road through it is, on some days at least, hope enough.  The pain that comes with wandering in the wilderness of grief is not the last word.  There is a road. 

When going through cancer, it is nice to know that the doctors have a road to travel.  Where it leads is not known, but at least there is a road.  At least there is hope.

But, Mark did not say that this is the "good news of the road."  Rather, he said that this is the "beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." 

This is the beginning of the good news that says, not only is there a road through your wilderness, but there is someone who is coming down the road to meet you and to walk with you.  There is someone who is coming down the road who will save you.  Jesus Christ will come to meet you in your wilderness wandering. 

Not only that, he will come with a tool to help you in the wilderness; the Holy Spirit.  God’s very own Spirit will be with you in the wilderness.

I am here to tell you this morning that there is a road through your wilderness.  There is way in your wilderness.  There is an end to your wilderness wandering. 

And, you do not walk alone in your wilderness either.  Jesus Christ comes to walk with you in your wilderness.  He knows the way.  Heck, he is the way. 

He is the hope for the hopeless. 

He is the love for the loveless. 

He is the grace for the graceless. 

He is the way the truth and the life. 

When it seems no one else is there, Jesus Christ promises to be right there in the middle of the suffering. 

This should be no surprise to the people of faith.  When we search the scriptures we find that Jesus is always with the suffering.  He is always with the struggling.  Wherever crosses of burden can be found so too do we find Jesus; standing on a road of new life leading away from the struggle.

Jesus Christ comes to us with good news from the battlefront.  He is there to lead on the path to salvation.  Jesus Christ is there to lead us back home.

“Precious Lord Take My Hand"

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home (lead me home)

Songwriters: Thomas A. Dorsey
Take My Hand Precious Lord lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reflection on Mark 13:24-37

It had become a ritual for the boy. 

Every evening he would grab his basketball, go out onto the porch, and stare where the road met the horizon. 

He was waiting to see the silhouette of his father returning home from war.  He had done this same thing for a couple of years, and his mother’s heart broke for him each evening when he would come back in and say, “He didn’t come tonight.”

Eventually, too much time had passed with no letters, and no response from the military.  The mother assumed the worst and slumped into a grief stricken sort of depression. 

The boy, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction.  He maintained his evening watch on the porch, with the basketball firmly planted at his side, but he also learned to pick up the slack around the house. 

He did the things that his father used to do.  He mowed the lawn.  He washed the dishes.  He fixed the toilet.  He changed the oil in the car.  He made the bed in the guest bedroom.  And, he even made his parent’s bed every morning…a task that his mother just could not bring herself to do any longer. 

He had resolved to be the man of the house until his father’s return.  The boy did this for years without fail.

The boy had devoted himself to “keeping awake.” 

It is the same sort of "keeping awake" that Jesus encourages us to maintain until his return.  It is not a one and done sort of wakefulness though.  In other words, it is not the sort of one time spiritual awakening that you get when you finally see the truth and the truth then forever sets you free.  It is not the one time, blinding vision of Jesus on the road that changes everything for the rest of your life. 

As valuable as those spiritual experiences can be if you are lucky enough to have had one, the wakefulness that Jesus encourages is the kind that quietly, continually, happens every single day. 

We are encouraged to keep awake like the boy on the watch for his father. 

We do not know the time of his return, so “keep awake” Jesus says.  We do not know when the end will draw near, so “keep awake.”

This is the way it is when you live in the end times.  Each day is lived as if preparations are being made for Jesus’ return. 

It is as if an employer has gone off on a vacation and left the employees in charge.  The employees would continue to produce the goods.  They would continue to order the raw material.  They would continue to hire workers to assemble the product.  They would still hire the trucking company to distribute the goods.  And, though the company is running smoothly, the guard at the gate still watches for the employer’s return, and is ready to open the gates as soon as his car turns the corner.

And, so it is with the followers of Jesus who wait for his return.  We care for the sick, feed the hungry, pray for the imprisoned, comfort the grieving, and forgive the sinner until he returns. 

It is a way of life. 

It is washing the dishes, and changing the oil, and making the bed in the guest bedroom until the father’s return. 

Just as the boy has no idea when or even if his father will return, we too do not know about that day or hour.  Yet, we do not stop being the people of new life and new possibilities in the meantime.

As legend has it, when asked what he would do if he was told that the world was going to end tomorrow, Martin Luther answered, “I would plant a tree.” 

In other words, he would continue to live a life that gives life.

If you were told that your days were numbered what would you do? 

Having walked with many people in this situation I know what most people do.  They do the things that matter.  They do the things that are important. 

They spend time with children.  They forgive in abundance.  They make things that will last ages such as writing books or letters.  Some finish life-long dreams such as recording the music they had always hoped to pass on, or writing journals full of wisdom for the family that they will leave behind.  They go on that long dreamed of hike in the mountains with family and friends.  They take the time to be with those they love.  They touch base with those whom they had forgotten.  They hug a lot. 

In other words, they love and love as if tomorrow there might not be a chance to love again, because maybe there will not be another chance.  They plant trees all the way through to the last day.

Living in the end times is not a time to lay back, give up, and rest in the corruptness of the world. 

Living in the end times is a way of life that is awake.  It is a way of life that loves and hopes all the way to the end. 

It is a way of life that would love even enemies all the way to the cross.  It is a way of life that would forgive even as the nails pierce the hands and feet.  It is a way of life that would embrace the world even though the world abandons.  It is way of life that seeks God’s ways to the last breath, “it is finished.” 

It is the way of life, backing up Jesus’ story a few paces, that stays and prays in the garden of Gethsemane even though the disciples fall asleep.  It is the way of life that loves those who fall asleep, but desires much more than a life of sleep for those disciples.

The world might seem cruel and harsh, and we may be enticed to just give in and fall asleep to it all; but sometimes being awake pays off. 

A young man now, he still sits on the porch as he always has with the basketball in his hand looking out to the crest of the horizon.  But, this evening is different.  This evening the crest is breached by the heads of two figures.  As they near, the young man can see that they are both in uniform.  They walk with purpose.  They walk as if they have something to say.

Knowing the news that the sight of two soldiers always brings, his heart falls to the dust as does the basketball. 

As they approach, they take off their hats and the hat of the soldier on the left reveals a face that he knows very well.

“Dad!” the young man screams embracing the soldier.  The father embraces his son back, and the mother joins them in shock after hearing the all the commotion on the porch. 

“This is my friend Chuck” the father introduces the second man. 

“He has no home or family to which he can return.  I hope that the guest bedroom is ready.”

“It is dad.  It is.” the young man says proudly.
“That’s my boy.  I knew I could rely on you.  Now, I believe that a game of basketball is long overdue.”

And, with that, the father picks up the basketball, and they play the long anticipated game deep into the night.  It is a game that is more about love than it is about winning. 

Sort of like this life in the end times. 

It is a life that is more about love than accomplishing tasks, following rules, or getting ahead in life. 

It is a life that is awake though it waits. 

It is a life that is awake to others and awake to Jesus. 

It is a life that is awake to love.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 25:31-46

If you had to make a bet, you would not have bet on her.  Yet, she was the one who journeyed off into African tribal lands to live with the poorest of people and help teach them sustainable living. 

The act seemed wildly holy and Jesus-like, but she would have never put it that way. 

She sent back pictures of her time in the Peace Corp. and they showed her living in her small, dust floored hut, working beside the people in their small fields, and even dancing with them while they sang and worshiped. 

She was the one who actually went out and did it. 

Many of us talked about it.  Many of us said we would go off and make a difference in the places in the world where there was suffering. 

But, it was the one atheist in our graduating college class who actually did it.  She was the one who went out and loved some of those people who Matthew would describe as “the least of these.”  She was the one who went out and loved as Christ loved.  And, here’s the real kicker, she did not even realize what she was doing.  Christ’s love was working through her and she did not even know it.

Her story flashes through my memory whenever people corner me at the end of church halls and ask the desperate question, “What does God do to those who do loving things, yet do not believe?” 

The question is always desperate, because they are not ever asking as if this were a generalized theological question for their own self-education.  Rather, the question always has a name attached. 

“My husband Bill was a good man.  He loved everyone, yet he never believed.  What will happen to Bill?” 

“Rachel was the sweetest little girl, but she never had time to know the Lord before the cancer took her away.” 

“My brother in arms, Chuck, lost his faith in the war, but he saved a bunch of us.  If he ain’t going to heaven, then I don’t want to be there.”

Her story flashes through my mind when these questions fly my way because it is her story that reminds me of Matthew 25.  Matthew 25 actually answers these questions and answers them quite clearly.  Matthew 25 does let us know what the King of Kings thinks of the nations who have not heard of him or sought to worship in his name.

So, here is what Matthew 25 has to say: 
As people from the nations come to the throne (people of the nations are people who do not know God or follow Jesus) the king declares,

"’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'’

This story is talking about my Peace Corp. friend and your husband Bill, and little, innocent Rachel, and your friend Chuck and about any number of other loving people. 

This story is about those people who were filled with the love of Jesus, but did not know it.  It is about loving people who showed that love onto the lonely, vulnerable, and forgotten. 

Notice that the people in Jesus’ story are not surprised that they showed love by helping someone.  They knew what they were doing, after-all they wanted to do something good!  They knew they were caring for others and serving them. 

What they did not know…and what they were surprised to discover…is that they were actually serving Jesus. 

“When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,” they asked.  They were shocked when they were told that their love was directed at Jesus.  They are surprised to find out that they care about all that Jesus cares about.  In other words, they were surprised to discover that they had been loving with the love of Jesus and following the ways of Jesus the whole time.

Now, if I were to go up to my devoutly atheist Peace Corp. friend and declare that I know she is going to heaven because the Bible tells me so, I am pretty certain that she will look me straight in the eye and flip me the bird. 

But, for Jesus, it is not about getting into heaven or not getting into heaven.  For Jesus, it is about love. 

Does the love that he showed on the cross, the love that cares for powerless and hopeless, the love that cares for the poor in spirit, the love that seeks justice for the lowly, the love that raises up the sinner to new life; does that love show up in real ways in the real world? 

Jesus loved the whole world and died for it, and is therefore overjoyed when that love reaches the farthest points.  Jesus will use whoever Jesus needs to use to spread that love.  And, Jesus is overjoyed when that impulse to love is not stifled.  There were those who did not help “the least of these” who must have stifled the love given to them.

My Peace Corp. friend did not stifle that love.  Instead, she lived in it.  She basked in its glow.  She was the love of Jesus.  She was no stranger to that love. 

Now, being an atheist, she will certainly be surprised when she discovers that there is a King of Kings and a Lord of Lords.  But, one thing she will not be shocked by is that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is not like the corrupt and powerful leaders and institutions of the world. 

She will be happy to see that the King of Kings shows up in places like humble mangers and in vast fields filled with the poor, sick, and hungry.  She will be happy that Jesus gives attention to those who she gives attention.  She will be happy that the King of Kings loves the people she loves.  I think she will be happily surprised to find out that the love of Jesus has been with her the whole time.

I think she, and all those who love others but do not know the Lord, will be happy to hear Jesus’ words of love that sound something like, “welcome to eternal life.”

Reflection on Luke 17:11-19

Over the years I have had the opportunity to hear many people at many Thanksgiving tables share the things for which they are thankful. 

Most of them are heart-felt, yet predictable: “family,” “friends,” “children,” or “spouse.”  I have even heard a couple of people mention the rare but coveted “good employment.”  But, some of the most memorable came from children.

When it was his turn to share, one little boy answered, “Chocolate.”  When his grandmother asked him to share something a little more appropriate and dignified he answered, “Dove chocolate?”

Another child was asked what she was thankful for and she answered, “Cucumbers.”  OK.  I guess she really appreciated cucumbers. 

But, I love the answer from one little guy provided when his grandfather asked what he was thankful for. 

The boy answered, “Amebas.” 

“Amebas?” his grandfather asked.  “Why amebas?”

“Because they’re small,” he beamed proudly.

Who can argue with that?

What I really like about these answers is that they are so heartfelt and honest.  I do not know about you, but I am tempted to believe that my thanksgiving answer somehow needs to be profound or heartwarming.  I actually take a little time to think about and plan on what I am going to say. 

These children, on the other hand, simply answered what was right on the top of their heads…or right on the top of their tongues, because they were simply and purely thankful for those things.  They felt no need to plan ahead in their answers.     

We see this sort of purity of thankfulness coming from that tenth Leper in our Thanksgiving Bible reading from Luke 17. 

As you already have read, all ten Lepers called out for healing.  All ten Lepers were instructed to go show themselves to the priests so that they might be found clean and allowed back into the everyday life of their towns.  All ten Lepers walked away and looked down to see that their skin was made clean.  All ten were healed by Jesus as a gift, but only one was made whole. 

What I mean by that is that only one had a heart that was compelled to return to Jesus and give thanks.

We might be tempted to be a little harsh of the nine who walked away without giving thanks.  I know that in the back of my mind I sit on the judgment throne and declare them unworthy, as if I am qualified to do such a thing. 

But, here is the one thing that gives me pause: Jesus found them worthy of healing.  

No, they did not return to give thanks, but all of them followed Jesus’ instructions to a T.  The nine went off to the priests as they were told to do.  The nine did as they were told and were healed.  The nine were all probably great people.  The nine were probably a lot like you and I who go about our everyday lives, yearning to do the right thing and yearning to be healed.

I once talked to an emergency room worker who regularly saves lives, and out of curiosity asked how many people sent letters or cards of appreciation after their lives were saved on those dark nights.  He responded that he rarely gets them, but that is not why he does it.  Maybe ten out of every hundred people sent a letter or card giving thanks. 

Now, I was never any good at math in school, there is a reason that I am a pastor and not an accountant, but if my math serves me right, I think 10 out of 100 emergency room clients is the same percentage as 1 out of 10 lepers.

All of us are healed, but not all of us are made whole. 

All of us recover, but only a few of us have a change in heart. 

The tenth leper was made whole.  The tenth leper had a heart that was changed toward faith.  The tenth leper was given something special, and I think that I yearn to have it. 

I yearn to have that sort of gratefulness to Jesus.  I yearn to have such a purity of thankfulness.  I yearn to have such faith.  But, such wholeness of faith is a gift and not a task to accomplish or a rule to follow. 

Given that, I guess that my simple prayer to Jesus is to be made whole. 

I desire the purity of thankfulness that can appreciate amebas.  I desire the gratefulness that causes me to stop in my tracks, turn around, and worship.  I desire to love as much as I have been loved. 

But, until my prayer is granted by Jesus, I guess the best that I can do is find ways to take time to be thankful to Jesus.  I know it is not the same, but just as smiling when you are unhappy can actually bring about happiness, maybe, just maybe, the practice of being thankful every morning and evening will open up the door for Jesus to make us whole…to make us truly thankful. 

Reflection on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

The pain came out of nowhere.  It happened while she was in yoga class performing a particularly muscle soothing downward facing dog, but the pain was so great that it caused her knees to buckle to the floor. 

Those around her stopped what they were doing and asked if she was alright.  “It’s just a muscle cramp, I’ll be OK,” she replied as she left for the locker room, but the pain was greater that any muscle cramp she had ever had. 

In fact, the pain felt like.  No it couldn’t be.  It’s impossible.  How could she have gotten this far along without knowing?  But, it did feel just like a contraction.  Another pain hit while she took a drink at the water fountain and she clung to the fountain for dear life.  Many contractions later, it was all over and she was the unexpected mother of a baby boy.

You, my friends, are not this mother.  You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are the young mother who knew from the very first bout of acid reflux that you were pregnant with the Holy Spirit. 

God’s work in your life does not come as a huge surprise.  It is not as if God has shown up in your life like a thief in the middle of the night, exposing the fact that you had failed to lock the doors.  Not at all. 

When the Lord comes, you will be the young mother who has bought all the baby clothes, decorated the baby room with soothing colors, and bought that one special stuffed animal that will stay with the baby their entire life.  You will not assume the first kick is a bout of indigestion, nor will you mistake the first contraction for anything else other than what it is in the middle of yoga class. 

You are Mary who expected the Lord to come to birth.  You are Joseph who heard the angel’s whispering and followed the instructions. 

You are children of the light.  You know you are children of the light.  You desire to live as children of the light.  No darkness shall overtake you.

In fact, if the end of the world were to happen tomorrow and the Lord would come back, descending from billowing clouds fashioning a heavenly staircase down to the earth, you would not fear as others fear.  You would not fear the end as if there were no hope. 

You are children of the light after-all.  The birth of the second coming would not shock, nor would it confuse. 

It would be a joyous day; tough but joyous none-the-less.  It would be an unsurprising day of labor pains that leads to joy in the end as your savior embraces you in those long expected, everlasting arms. 

Let me remind you then, children of the light, to not fall asleep. 

I do not mean that literally.  Go ahead and make sure to get your full 7-8 hours of sleep every night so that you can be fully awake during the day. 

So, I should really say, do not fall asleep in the waking hours.  Do not let the darkness overcome you; for there is certainly a lot of darkness out there in the world. 

Wars and rumors of wars, nuclear fears, and unneeded destruction all cast a shadow of fear over the world that lulls us into a type of waking sleep that entices us to look away. 

“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you” (Isaiah 60:2). 

Do not let fear overshadow.  Do not let darkness lead you to believe that darkness will win.  Do not say to one another, “It has gotten worse and worse, I am glad that I will not be living in the days to come.” 

You are not darkness.  You are light.  Evil that lurks, hidden in the dark will not overtake you.  It cannot.  You are children of the light.  And, you most certainly will not be surprised that light wins, because light always banishes the dark. 

The morning always comes. 

Light always wins.

Of course, darkness will always continue to threaten.  It always has.  The evil one has always lurked in the shadows. 

But, on that day of darkness, do not grieve as others grieve, as if there is no hope.  Rather, when the day of grief comes be sad that a life has come to an end and be sad that you will miss all that you love, but darkness shall not overtake you. 

For you know the truth.  You have the hope of eternal light that spans the skies forever and ever, beyond the horizon.

Do not let the fear of the dark entice you “get away from it all.”  You do not need a vacation from the world that God has created.  You do not need to hide in the comfort of drunkenness.  You do not need to get accustomed to the dark. 

Listen, I know that it is easy.  I know that it is natural to hear about tragedy and ignore it because to think about it would bring too much pain. 

It is easy to become accustomed to living in the dark, hiding in the shadows, ignoring the labor pains. 

But, children of the light, you know that darkness will come to an end.  It was promised to you on that day when the cross turned from a device of terror into a symbol of redemption, and when Jesus’ tomb transformed from a locked door of death into an open door leading to new life. 

Rather than being lulled into a sleep that ignores the world, put on the breastplate of faith and love.  Put on the helmet of hope of salvation. 

Do not hide in the dark, face the dark.  Be the light of faith and love for all those around.  After-all, Jesus has made you the light.  You are the light of the world.  You shall not be snuffed out. 

Never forget, God has made you the soon to be mother who prepares a small world of love and bright color in her home.  You are the soon to be mother who glows that pregnant glow even on the rotten days.  You are the soon to be mother who knows that the days of love and giggles and snuggling will soon be here. 

You are the one who walks through life as if the light will win, because you are children of the light. 

After-all, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). 

Shine with the glory of the light of the Lord, even when the day is dark and long, because God has destined you for light.

Do it together though.  Because, let us face reality here, the lull of the darkness, the pull of depression, the desire to escape, and the reality of the world can become overbearing.  There will be days when you want to sleep through the darkness.  There will be days when the darkness is just too much to bear.  There will be days when the weight on your shoulders is far too great.  All of that is true, but one other thing is also true.  We are not the light by ourselves. 

God has given that glorious eternal light to those brothers and sisters in Christ who are a part of your life.  Their light will shine on you when the darkness seems too much.  Their hope will get you through when the labor pains seem unending and unbearable.  Their hope will remind you of the joy through the pain when you have no joy to offer. 

WE are the light. 

WE are the light of the world. 

WE have been destined for salvation. 

WE hold the promise of eternal life. 

WE do it together.

“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). 

Pray together that Jesus might keep us awake until that day when the shadows fade and the light shines from all sides. 

Awaken our souls, and set our sights on that day.