Monday, April 28, 2008

Reflection on John 14:15-21

Friday, while I was driving back home from work in the car, the Spirit came to me. Now, do not misunderstand me. I am still Lutheran. I have not become Pentecostal on you. We are not going to start rolling down the aisle or anything. Even so, the Spirit of God did come to me in the car.

I was about a quarter of the way home when I started to get hot. Reaching out to turn on the air conditioning I discovered that it had not survived through the winter. Sweat started pouring down my forehead and I resorted to manual air conditioning: rolling down the windows. But, that was not helping.

I already was not in the best of moods. I was already feeling orphaned by God and not allowing me the grace of cool air was just the cherry on top of the Sunday. I was worried about oil prices. We all know the truth. Experience tells us that prices are not going to go down. They are simply going to continue upward, causing families in the area to make hard choices; “Should I pay the electric bills or should I buy gasoline to go to work? Where are you God? Why are you not fixing this?

Also on my mind was the food shortage. People are rioting in places like Africa and Haiti because the poor do not have enough money to cover the rising cost of food. And again I ask, “Where are you God? Why are you not fixing this?”

By now the sweat was collecting around my neck and I swear I could see the heat emanating from the ground. This caused me to start worrying about the greenhouse effect on the earth. I have children and I want more. I want them to have an earth to live on when I am gone. Where are you God? Why are you not here with us fixing this? Have you left us to struggle on our own? Have you left us to fend for ourselves? Are we orphaned?

Here is one observation that I have made: whenever I start feeling orphaned, I start to turn inward. I start to worry only about protecting myself. This is an outlook of fear.

The outlook of fear causes me to think that I must plant a garden, just in case the food shortage rises to epidemic proportions. Of course, I have never planted a garden before, but this just may be the time to start. The outlook of fear causes people to go out and stock up on rice though we are assured that there is no shortage of food in the US. I even know a father and mother who have inviting their entire family to come back home and live with them in their four bedroom house. I am not talking about inviting just their children back into the home. I am talking about inviting their children, the children’s spouses, grandchildren, and pets all to come home, hole up in the bunker of their four bedroom home with stocked canned food, and start a beautiful experiment in family harmony.

Even the richest of us worry and slip into this outlook of fear. Ted Turner, one of the richest men in the world who has billions to his name and millions in pocket money, told reporter John Stossel that he does not give away more of his money because he is worried that he will not have enough for retirement.

An outlook of fear causes our sight to be myopic. We are not able to see beyond our own needs. It causes us to fail to see and to love the neighbor in need right next to us.

So, that was the mental state that I was in while I was driving, one of those worrying, self-absorbed moods. The heat was not helping my mood. By this point, I had sweat marks under my armpits. I never get sweat marks under my armpits. I reached down and turned the fan up to full blast. Even that did not help. In fact, it seemed to make things worse. If I would have taken the time to look just to the left of the fan knob, I would have noticed an important detail which would have explained why this April day in cool Pennsylvania was so hot: the heat was turned up to high. But, I did not notice. Instead, my delirious mind took me into the memory of a sweltering trip I took into the deep south. It was at that point that the Spirit moved me.

On that trip, I remember staring out the window through the humidity and seeing the impoverished houses. Just beyond the impoverished houses I would see a church. And beyond the church I would see more impoverished people and houses. Then I would see yet another church, and so it went. At that time I thought to myself, “Wow, what a great opportunity for ministry! What a great opportunity to really make an impact on someone’s life.”

And, while that memory was going through my mind, something happened to me; the Spirit, dwelling within me, opened my eyes to see the homes and the people along my daily route as if for the first time. I saw a rundown house and thought to myself, “I wonder if anyone there needs help?” I saw a woman sitting on her lawn crying. I didn’t stop, though I should have, but at least I noticed her. “I wonder if she needs any help?” I saw all of these things as if for the first time and instantly the Spirit had reversed me from an outlook of fear to an outlook of love. An insatiable need to minister to those around started to take hold. I had not been orphaned. God’s Spirit was present within me; I had just forgotten to seek.

That day the Spirit was my encourager. That is what it means in Greek by the way. The Greek word for Spirit is “Paraklete.” It is more than just a fun word which can spawn many puns such as: When God sent the Spirit to Jesus in the form of a bird it was not in the form of a dove, it was in the form of a tiny chirping paraklete. What is on the bottom of a track star’s shoes: a parakletes. Where is a drum kit when you need one? Enough with the puns, “paraklete” means, "exhorter," "comforter," "entreater," "advocate," "counselor," and most importantly, "encourager." I have been encouraged by other faithful teachers to think of “paraklete” as primarily meaning “encourager.”

This title certainly fits what happened to me that day. The Spirit encouraged me to see what had been right in front of my face for years; people in need of love. I was brought into a life of Jesus’ command: love one another as I have first loved you. The Spirit gave me the eye opening gift of an outlook of love.

My story is certainly not new. The Spirit has been present and at work for many years. A few years ago, a business man from Cairo was encouraged to have an outlook of love. On his commute by train to the business district of Cairo, a man saw for the first time what resided out the windows of the train between his beautiful home and his business office: a huge slum, miles in length. “How had I ever missed it?” he thought to himself. Because the Spirit gave this man an outlook of love, hundreds of people in that slum now have fresh drinking water. The Spirit had not forgotten either the man nor the people in the slum. The Spirit was present, waiting for the right time to give the gift of an outlook of love.

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus assured us that we would never be orphaned when he gave the gift of the Spirit. We are not orphaned. We are not forgotten. We do not have to worry and live in a state of fear. God is right there in the pain, frustration, and the suffering. God is not afraid to be with the hungry. God is not afraid of execution. God is not afraid of death on a cross. God’s Spirit is not afraid. The Spirit is present with us, even in our suffering.

The Spirit is a real gift when trapped in an outlook of fear. Our encourager is present in both our joys and our sufferings, giving us the gift of an outlook of love. And, when we are encouraged, we can be sent as encouragers. And, the Spirit will find home in still more people.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reflection on John 14:1-14

If you were to take time and read John 14:1-14 you would see the beautiful words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

I have heard these words before. They seem so familiar. Where have I…? Oh that’s right, they are the words spoken at nearly every funeral in existence. They are the words that spawn great sermons, all of which go something like this: In God’s big retirement resort in heaven, Christ the house servant has prepared a room with beautiful, dark blue walls, walnut trim, a large picture window, and direct access to the golf course, just that way poor old Jira would have wanted. Now he can be happy. And next door, Jesus the house servant, has prepared a room with pink walls, delicate lace, and a garden out the sliding glass door, just the way Clint Eastwood would have wanted it. I am just kidding. Clint does not want a garden outside his door.

That is how these Florida golf resorts in heaven sermons go do they not? They are not terrible sermons for funerals. Do not get me wrong; Christ has prepared a space for us. We will never be parted from God’s eternal love in Christ Jesus. But, if we focus on our resort in heaven too much, we just may miss the whole point of Jesus’ teaching.

Look closely at this John text and you will notice something. You have words popping out at you like, “prepare,” “go,” “going,” “the way,” “going” again, “the way” again, “the way” a third time, “through me,” “believe,” and “do.” These words are in motion. These words are on the go. They are not words for the dead. They are words for the alive and moving. The rooms that Christ has prepared are anything but rooms in an eternal, stationary mansion in the clouds. The Father’s house is more likely an RV!

Jesus Christ has prepared a room for us alright; our room is on God’s ministry RV. I’m not sure how cramped the rooms are, but I do know that each room is filled with tools for work in the kingdom of God. Maybe your room has golf clubs, but they are not intended for eternal personal enjoyment. They are intended to be shared with another person here in this life who needs to hear a word of belonging, friendship, and hope from your mouth in the beautiful and non-threatening setting of the green. They are a tool of God’s grace.

Perhaps, Clint has a view of a garden out his window, but it is not intended for eternal personal visual stimulation. It is more likely intended to feed a child next door whose parents leave her neglected and eating cake mix for lunch. The garden is more likely intended for spending time, playing in the dirt with that child who has no one else who cares. It is a tool of God’s grace. And when that work is done, God’s RV moves on to another place and new tools appear in our rooms.

Do not misunderstand me, the words “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” are about eternal life. But, I’m not certain that everyone in the Christian Church quite understands what Jesus meant by “eternal life.” Do not forget that it means, “life with the eternal.” It means nothing less than life with God. Eternal life is not a destination. It is not a retirement plan. Eternal life is a way of life, both in this life and beyond.

When Thomas wonders out loud where Jesus is going, notice that Jesus does not say, “heaven.” Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Eternal life is a way of life. Eternal life is finding yourself in Jesus Christ and participating in his life of forgiveness, equality, feeding the needy, and welcoming the sinner.

To put my point crassly and irreverently (you have never known me to be a very revenant reverend anyway), Jesus is the RV. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

One thing that is clear to people who study such matters, churches that focus exclusively on a promise of eternal life in heaven in the presence of a God who is currently distant and far away are churches that are shrinking. They are churches whose walls echo a deadening, empty tone. Of course, they echo a dead tone, they are dead. Have they not heard about Jesus who is the way the truth and the life? Do they not know that Jesus is truly present, working the kingdom of God through its members?

One thing that you always hear from the mouths of people who visit churches that are alive is, “When I was at that church, I knew Jesus was there.” I will promise you right now that these people were not wrong. They were not misled. Jesus was there, and in some way those people experienced a taste of God’s acceptance and forgiving love. Somehow, through someone at that church, those people felt invited into the way, the truth, and the life. Somehow, through someone, these people heard the message, “You have a place in Christ; you fit. No matter how messed up you may be, you fit here and you have a purpose in life.”

All of us fit. All of us have a purpose in life. All of us are given a room in Christ, equipped with a tool, measured and fitted just for us for use in the kingdom of God. It may be a golf club, it may be a garden, it may be a gift for poetry, or it may be a gift of working hands; no matter what the gift is, it has been fitted just for you so that you too can participate in the way, the truth, and the life.

There is no doubt that the apostle Stephen had the incredible tool of forgiveness. Though people had thrown him into a deep hole in the ground and were crushing his arms and ribs with huge boulders as if they were dead twigs, he still prayed these last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He gave the gift of forgiveness even while he was being stoned to death. Can you imagine? This kid was definitely on Christ’s RV. He truly had a room in the way, the truth, and the life.

You are no different from him. You may think so, but you are not. You, along with everyone else in the faith, have an important room in the body of Christ. And this room, this way of life, truly is an incredible gift from God.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reflection on John 10:1-10

With this reflection I am going to do something a little different. I have to because these stories about the good shepherd are poetry for the soul. Just as talking to you about the quality of a certain cup of coffee will not help you experience the rich aroma and taste of the brew, so also lecturing you about sheep and shepherds will not allow you to experience our shepherd, the good shepherd, Jesus the Christ.

Therefore, in this reflection, I am going to ask you to get your own cup of coffee so that you too can experience its rich taste. In other words, I am going to ask you to open yourself to the possibility of experiencing your shepherd. I am asking you to get comfortable right now, take a deep breath or two, actively engage your imagination, and imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ flock of sheep. Surely this was much more effective in the church with eyes closed, but at least you will not have to sit on a pew. Today, jump in to the imagery of the good shepherd and his sheep.

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;for you are with me;
your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.

Continue to imagine with me as we explore deeper the imagery found in John. As the last rays of the evening sun filter away, your shepherd gathers you into the sheepfold. In the safety of its strong wooden fences with your shepherd laying across the opening, making his body the gate, you feel safe from the shadows of the darkness that lurk just beyond. You settle down in the warmth of everyone else who has been gathered in.

Piercing slightly the silence of the night, a voice is heard. It is not the voice of your shepherd. That voice you know. It is another voice. The voice speaks smooth words which entice you toward the edge of the sheepfold. Someone is found sitting on the fence. What this shadow has to say is easy to understand. The words are clear and the directions given do not need to be thought about. Sometimes your shepherd is not easy to understand. Sometimes you struggle to interpret his words. The clear words of the shadow ringing through the cold night air make you feel important. You take a deep breath of pride. The words make you feel smart. The words make you turn around and look at the other sheep as if they were pitiful little lambs who are lost. Of course you are not lost, you are important.

This thought, prompted by the smooth words of the stranger, do cause a slight discomfort though. The words seem too easy. The words cause your heart rate to go up. Even though the words of the stranger are perfectly clear and make sense, they are not the words of your shepherd. They are entrancing, but they are not familiar.

Suddenly, you hear your shepherd’s voice as it pierces your thoughts, and at once your heart rate calms. He calls to you, and you leave the stranger, going back to the comfort of all those warm bodies. Only him will you follow. Though his words are sometimes confusing, at least they are the words of the one who knows you by name. He loves you, and you love him.

As sun breaks the seal of night and orange and pink bathe the sky, the shepherd gets up from the opening of the gate and calls each sheep by name. Hearing your name, precious on his lips, you follow with the other sheep out of the gate into the world beyond the sheepfold. You do not know where he is taking you, you do not know what sort of dark valley you will have to wander through as you go, but you look at the hands of your shepherd. In them are his staff and his club. With protection in his hands, you trust that in the end you will find yourself in a lush green field of soft grass.

Walking through a tight, dark canyon with those around you, the smooth voice is again heard from the cliffs nearby. It tells you that there is lush grass just up a small ravine on the side of the canyon. The voice advertises it as a small, abundant patch of lush grass for you and only you if you do not tell anyone else. It could by yours. You sway a little toward the voice. Dare you look up the small ravine?

The smooth voice speaks nice words, but they are not the words that would come from your shepherd’s mouth. Your shepherd cares for all the sheep. You have never worried about needing your very own grass before. You have never worried that there would not be enough for you in the past. Why should you now?

You feel the rod of your shepherd lightly tap you away from the smooth voice, you feel the warm body of the shepherd move to your side, getting in between you and the smooth voice. In your heart you know that your shepherd will go to any length to keep you safe. Surely, the smooth voice, so willing to forget the rest of the herd for a small patch of lush grass would do no such thing. It is the voice of a bandit.

You continue to follow your shepherd. You don’t know where this tight canyon will lead eventually, but he has always guided you and those walking beside you to lush valleys before. This time will be no different. He leads the entire herd and soon you see the green of the huge valley beyond. Jesus, your shepherd, gives everyone life, and the life is abundant.

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, April 10, 2008

Reflection on Luke 24:13-35

One truth that every person (usually in their teen years) eventually discovers is that you cannot repeat a road trip. The feel of the warm summer air on your face as you move along with the windows down, the excitement of seeing the majesty of the mountains in the distance for the first time, the jokes you tell each other in the darkness while trying to go to sleep, and the great food that is discovered in those local, back alley restaurants that can only be stumbled upon; these are experiences that stick in the mind and cannot be repeated. A person will try of course. A second road trip is always attempted, but it is never the same. Usually, the excitement of the undiscovered wanes into the already known, things are not as funny, and most of all, you don’t have that certain someone along with this time who made the trip worth it.

Two disciples are on the road again, but it is not the same. The first time around, they had that certain someone with that made the trip worth it. They had Jesus right there beside them. He spoke words that gave life. He shared meals that were unforgettable. He did things that were on the edge, good things like defending the poor and sinful against the powerful, and it was exciting. He was God, right there in the flesh. You could ask him a question of divine proportions and you would actually get an answer. "Why is there suffering Jesus?" And, you would get an answer. Granted, it was probably a cryptic story about towers falling on people, but you would get an answer straight from God. Above all, you knew that while on the trip, you would always experience God’s love in an ultimate, always forgiving sort of way.

Two disciples are on the road again, but it is not the same. Jesus is not along with; so they assume. They do talk with a stranger who joins them on their road trip. They don’t see Jesus in the stranger as they share the sad news that the good times are over, Jesus is gone for good. They longingly reminisce about their previous road trip. But, it cannot be redone. The prophetic and powerful words are gone. Justice for the poor is gone. Healing for the sick is gone. The man who made these things possible, who made the trip worth it was put to death and now even his body is gone. Things will not be the same. As the disciples reminisce about past road trips, they clearly see that things will not be the same.

Road trips can be fun to reminisce about. They bring you back to the good times; they bring excitement into your life again as you remember the new and crazy things that you did. But, as the disciples experience, reminiscing can also be a trap. It can cause you to overlook what is happening around you right now. It can cause you to fail to see the exciting possibilities surround you while you bemoan bygone days. It can cause you to miss Jesus entirely though he walks right beside you for seven miles and teaches you out of the scriptures the entire time.

Don’t miss him people of God, Christ still walks with us, teaching us along the way. The scriptures are right in front of us. The words of life that the disciples experienced first hand can be experienced first hand by us also. Is it a different sort of trip, of course! But, don’t miss that Christ is still along for the ride. Open up to the gospels (or anywhere in the Bible for that matter) and you will find words that engage you as if you were talking right to God.

Once when I was struggling in my relationship with God, trying to figure out what the heck God trying to do in my life, I haphazardly grabbed my Bible and opened it up. As I randomly flipped through the pages, questions swept through my tired mind. "Where are you leading me God?" "What kind of God are you anyway?" "Why do you do things the way you do?" Stopping the pages with the stroke of one finger, I stumbled upon the meaning of God’s name in Exodus: “I will be who I will be.” God will be who God will be, God will do what God will do.

Do I know what God is up to? No, that was my problem. I had no clue. Did I need to worry about it? No. God will do what God will do, just as the meaning of God's name indicates. This revelation spoke right to me in a way that sparked a fire of trust for God in my soul. Jesus was right there, speaking right to me, not words of knowledge to be memorized like in confirmation class, rather words that my soul needed to hear. Jesus had not forgotten me, I simply had forgotten to listen for Jesus until I grabbed the Bible. He is still here, speaking to us in the same way he spoke to those two disciples on the road; through scripture.

And, in Holy communion, we eat with Christ, the same as those two disciples. You will share with Christ a blessed meal of bread and wine and through it you will feel the touch of God. Through it you will feel the burn of the Holy Spirit as it cleanses your sin and impurity. You will eat with Jesus and be sent out on the road again as a refreshed, new person, burning with a new fire for God and God’s forgiving love.

Granted, the trip will not be the same as before. It cannot be the same as before. Jesus wants you to walk to new places and minister in new ways this time around. Do not fall into the trap of constantly reminiscing about past trips, you just may miss Jesus; you just may miss where Jesus is leading you. He is still here, speaking to us and eating with us. Hear his voice speak to you through the scriptures, feast with him at his table, open yourselves up for a new road trip that will be completely different than before, but will be as equally exciting. Leave today and take a new trip with the risen Christ.