Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Reflection on John 3:1-17

Dorothy was the kindest neighbor anyone could have. This 85 year old woman was mother to everyone on the block. She made sure that everyone’s homes were secure while they were off at work, and watched people’s children as they played out in their yards so that nothing bad might befall them. It was this ability of hers to make you feel secure and loved that made me surprised when she unsettled my soul as I started to drive away to work one morning.

“Jira wait!” she shouted as I started to pull away in my rusty S10. “Can you help me move my lawn chairs inside when you get home this afternoon?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Also, you should go to church with me this evening. My church is absolutely wonderful, and tonight might be the night that you get saved.”

“Uhhhh…” I said uncomfortably. “I already have a church. I have been a Christian ever since I was born. Thanks for the offer, but I really need to get off to work.” I tried to remark kindly while starting to roll up my driver’s side window.

“You say that you have been a Christian all your life,” she said sticking her head through my window, “but have you been born again? Have you chosen to let Christ into your heart for all eternity?”

“What a weird thing to ask,” I thought. “Have I chosen to let Christ into my life? Christ was in my life. Christ had been there since my baptism…since I can even remember. Was there ever a time that Christ wasn’t in my life.”

“Don’t confuse going to church with having Christ in your life,” she said as she backed away and waved me on to my job.

And with that, my soul was effectively unsettled. Had I missed something important about the faith? I had a choice to make? Was I going to hell because I chose to eat Lutheran noodle casseroles instead of Church of the Nazarene fried chicken?

And today this same unsettledness leaps back into my soul as Jesus tells the highly educated and devout Nicodemus that he must be “born again” or “born from above” before he will see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is a devout Jew. He has been following God’s word his whole life. He has been doing acts of love and kindness for years and years. I feel his pain as he is told that his soul is in the dark. Had he missed something? Was there something that he was supposed to do?

Without ever realizing it, Nicodemus hits the answer right on the head. “How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born again?” he asks. “You can’t,” is the answer he is trying to get at. No one chooses to be born. We had no say in the decision to come out of the nice warmth of our mother’s womb into the cold world beyond. I certainly did not choose to have my backend cut by the surgeon’s knife when I was delivered by C-section. Neither can Nicodemus or you “do” anything to be born from above or to be born again. God alone makes this choice. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” God’s Spirit blows where the Spirit wants, not where we desire it to blow.

My dear neighbor Dorothy was wrong. It is not I that chooses God; it is God who chooses me. I had not forgotten to do anything to be accepted as a child of God. You and I have been chosen by God to be a child of God, born from above, because God desired it. It is God's desire that all people be brought close to God's heart through God's grace. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Most of us were infants when the water’s of baptism claimed us into God’s family, and even if we were adults, do not be mistaken; it was God who drew us to the waters. We do not choose God, God chooses us.

This seems to be such a fine point, such a fine detail of the faith; who cares? Consider this question: Who lives the freer life? Who is more secure: the person who feels they must do something to be accepted and loved, or the person who knows that they are accepted and loved because they were told that fact was true? Which person has the freedom to truly be a child of God?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 by Randele and Jira Albers

Temptation #1:
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

There are very few things that I “need right now” in order to make my life better. But, if you know me at all you can probably guess one of them: chocolate. I “need” chocolate. I need its silky smoothness to make my day perfect. I need it so much that eating just one is not good enough. Not only do I need a peanut butter cup, but I also need the smoothness of a plain chocolate bar, along with a handful of M&Ms, and of course half a package of Oreos. If I am honest with myself, all this “needed” chocolate has never made my life perfect. Perhaps, it has made my minute of eating it better, but my problems still persist the minute after I swallow those empty calories.

The problem with all of my “needed” things is that none of them have ever come close to healing my soul. None of them filled me with the true bread of life. Jesus was not fooled. Could his famished body have used some bread after fasting for 40 days? Of course! Did he need it more than he needed his Heavenly Father? No. Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Only there will we find the nourishment for which our soul hungers.

Temptation #2:
"If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

We are encouraged to trust God for everything in life, but can we really know for a fact that God will save us? Perhaps, we are just fooling ourselves and hurting ourselves in the end by trusting that which may not exist? That is the doubt lingering behind this temptation, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Does not God love you enough to save you from all danger and harm? Make your Heavenly Father prove his devotion.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have the love of our God, our parents, our spouses, even our friends, proven beyond a shadow of a doubt? Wouldn’t it be nice to set up a test of that love by seeing how far they will go to keep us safe? “Well, would God really send angels to catch me before I am dashed upon the rocks? Let me jump and see.” “If I make my husband a little jealous, does he love me enough to win me back? Let me jump and see.” If I get sick enough, will my parents abandon everything and everyone else in their lives to get me better? Let me jump and see.” “If I stop calling my best friend, does she love me enough to keep calling me until I answer again? Let me jump and see.” That sort of proof would make a relationship so much less confusing and painful – until the test fails of course and you find yourself crushed on the hard rock below! If Jesus had succumbed to the devil’s challenge and jumped, he would not have been proving his trust in God’s promises, he would have been proving a lack of trust in God. I have learned that the fastest way to push someone away, is to constantly be testing their love and concern for you whenever you feel a slight doubt. You test it enough, and one day they just may quit caring in order to save themselves the emotional pain you continually cause them.

Instead of testing his Heavenly Father’s faithfulness, Jesus proves that he can trust God’s promises. Jesus answered the Devil, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test." And, he chose not to jump.

Temptation #3:
"All these kingdoms I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."

“Fall down and worship me and you can have all this! You won’t have to work for it. You won’t have to hang around those stupid disciples, all those nasty sick people, or those filthy poor people! You can be King of Kings and Lord of Lords with one small bow!” Who doesn’t want things to be a little easier? Winning the lottery would be wonderful; debt-free in an instant! Or how about dropping the extra 60 pounds we have put on over the years in just a month or two, or even faster if we go under the knife! Wouldn’t it be great to start making thousands of dollars every week working from your own home all while sitting on a lawn chair drinking a martini on your perfectly manicured lawn? If we have a baby, our marriage will be so much happier! I can just take more vitamins to counter-act the stress in my life!

I think we all learn the hard way that hardly anything in life comes easy. The Israelites thought that leaving Egypt would solve all their problems; but Egyptian domination was only part of their problem. The real problem of worshipping the wrong God followed them into their life of freedom, and it bound them up tighter than the Egyptians ever could. We’ve seen this happen time and again with lottery winners. The money doesn’t free them, it only magnifies their real problem, the problem that probably caused them to buy the ticket in the first place: trusting in the wrong thing to save their life.

Jesus chose to continue to worship the only one who gives life and gives it abundantly: his Heavenly Father. “Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

The most amazing thing about God just happened in those last words, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” God did provide angels to care for Jesus without being put to the test. God does care. God can be trusted. We just didn’t see it until the very end of the story.

I think that Jesus lives his life backwards. He lives his life knowing the end of the story, and it makes all of the difference. He knows that in the end God will provide, so he doesn’t need his life to be run by his wants, or by his insecurity, or by trusting some quick-fix or get rich notions. He knows the end of the story and it makes a huge difference in how he lives his life. With the security of knowing the end, he does trust that God will provide, he does risk his life and tell the truth to those who could harm him, he does serve others rather than himself, and he does give up his life to save the world. He knows the end of the story, and so do we. We know that in the end God provides and that God saves us through the cross. And, knowing this does make a difference.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Jesus had a close relationship with his father. It was to his father that he would retreat when the ill were pressing against his skin and [invading] his personal space and his disciples were trying his patience with their unfaith. Needing this one-on-one time with his Father, he would make certain that almost no one knew where he was going, he would climb a nearby mountain or find a secluded garden, sit, and talk and pray. It is too bad that we do not know the content of this alone time. Who would not want to be the bug on the rock that heard what Jesus and his Father talked about in the privacy of their relationship? Unfortunately, we do not have any clue what was talked about. Encouragement maybe, mentoring maybe, simply listening perhaps, we do not know; no one was invited. But, the very fact that Jesus went off so often tells us that this Father/Son time in the quiet of God’s creation was extremely important for Jesus. It was as important as eating and drinking. There was nothing frivolous or fake about this relationship. And because of this, we see that Jesus was in no way religious.

“What do you mean that Jesus wasn’t religious, Pastor Jira? Ask any kindergartener and you will find out that Jesus was the most religious person in the world.”

I would answer that Jesus was one of the most faithful people in existence, but Jesus was not religious.

Religious people are concerned that others know they gave money to help the church or gave money to help the poor. This is not a conscious thing, of course. However, they gain great satisfaction when their names are known. They appreciate having plaques nailed onto church rooms, banners at events such as benefit concerts, or even stadiums named after them.

Faithful people are concerned that God’s creation and God’s people are cared for. Recognition does not matter.

Though it certainly is not conscious for most, religious people want others to know that they have given up a lot for the sake of God. When they fast they want others to visually see the indented cheeks and the hand that goes up to soothe a hunger related headache. They are satisfied when others see that they are feeling miserable and have sacrificed a great deal for the Lord.

Faithful people want the ache of their stomach to reveal how much they need the Lord for even the simplest thing in life: food. Fasting is a space created in life for God to enter in and reveal something important. Sympathy is not needed.

And yes, though probably not consciously, the religious person looks sideways out of their eye to see the smile of satisfaction on a friend’s face when a well-crafted prayer is appreciated.

The faithful person talks to God because they need to talk to God.

Jesus was not religious. But, that does not mean that Jesus failed to have a relationship with his Father. Do not forget that God named Jesus his beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. In Jesus, we see a healthy relationship with God the Father. It is the close relationship that people in today’s fragmented world yearn to have. It is the relationship that God yearns to have with all of us.

Sometimes as I wander in my mind, drifting off to sleep, I wonder what it must be like for our heavenly Father. Is God like the parent of a particularly emotionally distant teenager? Does God yearn the lost days of cuddling and sharing whispered secrets in the ear; secrets only for God and for no one else? I imagine that our heavenly daddy would go to any length try to get us to have a close relationship like that again. Imagine the joy God would have if we were to take God off into the deep woods, climb a secluded tree house, and talk about the day at school while staring through the rustling leaves.

When people are religious, this emotionally distant teenaged behavior (which, as you know, can go well through adulthood) must be quite depressing. It would be something like finding out that a good friend of ten years spent those hours of talking in the golf club simply for the sake of gaining good stock tips from your vast knowledge, and now doesn’t care about you. No, Jesus was not religious. Jesus has a real relationship with the Father and he used the disciplines of almsgiving, praying, and fasting for only one purpose; building up that precious relationship.

I invite you these forty days of Lent to seek that close relationship with your Heavenly Father. Choose a discipline that will open you up to God’s presence. Giving, praying, fasting, searching the Word of God, among many other disciplines, can assist in opening up a closer relationship. Choose a discipline for these next forty days, and discover the warm, loving arms of your Heavenly Father once again. And I pray with Jesus that none of us may discover religion.

Reflection on Matthew 4:12-23

As the players jog across the field to take their positions on the side-lines, the team looks just like any other High School football team. Pads, helmets, and playful shoving are all there. But, when they start playing and you analyze their game, you start to see a big difference. It’s not that they use special plays that no one has seen before. They also don’t have a quarterback hero who saves the team. But, they do have a coach with a smile on his face, who hugs players as they come off of the field. This difference is really obvious when you look to the other side of the field and see the red faced coach yelling at the kids, hoping that his lecture will instill a sense of perfect game play. This coach is a disciple of Christ who has decided to bring the light of Christ’s love to the demanding sport of high school football. Oh, and there’s one other difference between the two teams: his team is often winning.

Now, this team is not some sort of cult for Jesus. His team is a normal high school team with all of the prohibitions against preaching “Jesus saves you” to its team members. This makes no difference, because being Christ to the kids on your team and inviting them to be Christ to each other is much more than having them repeat back the hollow words, “Jesus saves me.” This coach knows to his core that every kid entrusted to his care needs to have the opportunity to be loved. This is not huggy group counseling either, but his players will never be told to “just leave all the junk at home, and play the game.” They are not cattle after-all. They are human beings. Just as Jesus enters into the dark gentile regions and makes his home with the gentiles, this coach and his staff invite themselves into the sometimes dark lives of the players and make a home there. The hope is that if a little light is shone into their lives, they will turn around to look at the light and discover that darkness and fear do not have to win, they are people who can be loved. And when they are loved enough, they are free to play some good football.

Love and forgiveness and second chances and help to recover from mistakes are all a part of helping the players be loved. In overtly religious terms, the opportunity to repent and turn around ones life can also turn around ones attitude towards the game.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jesus proclaims. Jesus' message essentially says this: “Turn around from the dark road you are traveling on, look into the light, and see that you are loved and forgiven and given a second chance.” This team takes these words to heart.

Just as Jesus expects the fisherman who have heard his message to drop their nets and follow, so too the coach expects the players to follow his lead. Based closely on Jesus words, “You should love one another, just as I have loved you,” this coach expects his players to do as he and his staff have done for them. He expects the players to make sure other players are cared for. There may be poor players, but no one is sidelined from being loved. Besides, those benched players have a gift; they can see what may be going wrong in the game because they have the vantage point of the big picture. Everyone has a gift to offer. He expects his players to be the first ones to make sure a downed player on the other team is OK. They are expected to be there even before the other team’s members can reach their companion. He expects his players to get up from the jock lunch table and sit with a lonely outcast kid at another table during school lunch. It is starts out as a racing game for the players, but it ends in those labeled "losers" being cared for. No kid should be left eating alone, that is inhumane. Jesus ate with the sinners and the outcasts, and these players too will join the outcasts. He expects that his players will give others in their little circle of influence in the world the opportunity to be loved. He expects his players to love. And, they do, and it makes a difference.

The team is repeatedly a winning team. They are renown for their superior sportsmanship. The tightness of the school and the strength of the school spirit is amazing. People want to know how he pulls off such a feat, and they are continually surprised when he answers that the key to his success is encouraging his players to simply, be loved, love, and make a difference. His team may not sing “Jesus loves me” or wear “Prayer is power” uniforms onto the field, but his team knows and shares the good news of God’s grace stronger than any afterschool prayer club could hope for. Christ is not just the part of their life that happens of Sunday; Christ is their life. “Be loved, love, make a difference,” these words are who they are and it has made a difference.

Being the body of Christ is not about cheap tactics to sell the church to more people. It is not about becoming the huge rich church that can do everything. Being the body of Christ is about coming together as a group of people and living these words, “Be loved, love, make a difference.” Christ does love you. You are lovable. Christ can make your life turn around. You do have a purpose and it is the same as God’s purpose: to love. When you love others, Christ has effectively used you to make a difference in your home, or at your work, or in your school, or on your dart team, or even on your football team. “Be loved, love, make difference,” that is what being the body of Christ is about.

Reflection on Psalm 40:1-11

I waited patiently for the Lord, hoping that the Lord heard my silent cries as I sat in a chair next to my daughter in the ER. She had slipped into the murky bog of her past mixed with present stresses and was found drowning in its sludge. As she cried in pain from her self-inflicted state, clutching her stomach, I looked up to God, hoping that the Lord’s ear was found open. Not sure of the outcome, I whispered into God’s ear a prayer that my daughter’s act of self-destruction not be the last word. “There is forgiveness with you Lord. There is new life in Jesus Christ. May this be true for her also.” Even with this prayer, I couldn’t help, but doubt and find myself being drug into the murky bog of despair myself.

A few days later, when I saw the smile on her face and a sense of joy in her eyes as she laughed with a new found friend in the hospital; the Lord “drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” I walked away from her room feeling like my feet were secure. I was not going to stumble from despair. In fact, the ground was firm enough that I felt like taking a skip, and humming a glorious song. I couldn’t help myself. Turning a corner so that those behind couldn’t see, I did exactly that. The unseen nurse I found around the corner just stared out of the corner of her eye. “My daughter is going to be fine,” I mentioned as she passed. Not only did I want to explain why a 32 year old man is acting like he is 6, I wanted her to know that the Lord is good. And, as I looked around the hospital during the rest of my trip, I saw something I had never seen before; I saw people with smiles. Assumptions are bad things. I had always assumed that a hospital is a place where bad things happen. I had always expected to see pain and sorrow on the faces in the hallways. Strangely, on this day I saw smiles. I realized that I was joining a whole community of people who had been pulled out of the murky bog and set onto solid, rock ground.

“I am so glad Chris is better, we can go to the dance together now,” I overheard one teenager say to her mother.

“This was for the best, he will no longer have to suffer,” I heard whispered from a relieved 50 year old woman.

“This is already feeling better,” I heard from yet another man flexing his arm.

“Do you have a cigarette?” I heard from yet another. Now, I don’t know if he was coming out of a bog of misery or not, but he had a smile on his face when he was handed a cigarette.

I realized, walking down that hall, that I had joined the community of the thankful. Songs of thanks were softly hummed from the lips of those around me, and at that moment I couldn’t help but think, “God is good.”

This wasn’t the first time that songs of thanks to God erupted from my lips. The day that I first kissed my wife, a song of thanks to God erupted from my lips. The day that our children first moved in with us, a song was sent sailing up to God. When someone whom I had hurt deeply looked into my eyes and said, “I don’t want to fight anymore, I accept your apology; I forgive you,” Christ, the author of all forgiveness was immediately thanked.

I once thought that the church was a gathering place for those who were hurt and broken. And though it is completely obvious that is the case, I now see that the church is more than that. It is much more than a gathering place where people’s hurts are heard and taken care of by a trained chaplain. The church is more rightly the gathering of those who have found grace and healing in Jesus Christ. It is a gathering of many individuals, drawn together in joy and song because they have been pulled out of the drowning waters of despair and death, and given new life by Jesus Christ who pulls us into the fresh air above.

Some people are convinced that the faith is about keeping historical family churches open, preserving the traditions inside. Some people are convinced that the faith is about being great people…about sacrificing a great deal in order to make God smile. Still others are convinced that the faith is about getting what you want, singing the songs you want, having people perform the way you want, and finding heaven filled with all of the things and people you want.

To those who have been humbled by the murky pits death and saved by the arms of Christ, all of these reasons for gathering are simply childish. If you look close at the small smiles on those around you in the pews (those who have felt the saving arms of Christ) you will discover that the real reason we gather and sing out is because God has been good, and we can’t help but share it with others. We are in a community of those who have found God’s grace. Now we walk together in life, unable to do anything but be thankful. We are in the same company as the writer who weaved together the beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” The grace was so sweet that it could not be held in. Now its melody reverbs from the lips of millions of people and floats down the streets of our communities. The song hits the ears of all who need to hear a word of hope as they struggle to stay afloat within their own murky bogs. May God’s song not be stopped by church walls of wood and brick today. May, God’s song exit our places of worship and continue to ring out into our communities when we leave.