Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reflection on 1 John 4:7-21

The quick footsteps thudded off of the brick walls of the alley. With the snatched money grasped tight in his hand, the man glanced back over his shoulder and saw shadows of police and well-trained dogs racing across the pavement. They were close, much too close. His lungs were now wheezing. He could not handle it any longer. He turned a corner and searched for a safe place to hide. There was nowhere to hide. There was not even a garbage bin along the street. Feeling hopeless, the man pressed his heaving and wheezing chest against the wall. He waited for the dogs to turn the corner and tear into his leg.

He wished that he could get just one break in life…just one break. He filled his lungs to cry out a prayer of “Please” when he felt the small door knob pressing into his ribs. He glanced down to see a rusty door knob the size of which one might find on a cupboard. Strangely, it stuck right out of the brick wall. Attached was a worn price tag fluttering from the power of his labored breath. “Kern Furniture” it said on the front. On the back was the curious instruction, “Do not open unless you understand the eye.” He did not know what “the eye” was, but it seemed that his prayer had flown from his heart of its own accord.

With the sound of hounds just seconds away, the man pulled on the small knob. Opening a hidden brick door with relative ease, he slipped through the door to the safety inside.

He found himself closed away in a small room with a pillow, a small box of canned food, a can opener and a light shining from a single bulb hung overhead. The small room was a little cramped, but it was sound proof, and that was what he needed right now. He needed someplace sound proof and guilt proof; someplace where he did not need to face the world of fear beyond the hidden brick door.

After cracking open a can of baked beans and licking the last drips of sauce off of the rim, he sank back against the pillow and gazed toward the ceiling. That is when his tired eyes saw it. It was painted remarkably well, almost has if Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint the ceiling of this small room; above, next to the hanging light bulb, he saw the eye.

“It’s just a painting,” he said to himself, and rolled on his side to take a needed rest from life.

But, the eye stared at him. He quickly shut his eyes to eliminate this intruder's presence in his safe, small room. But, he knew it was there, staring at him. He took a quick glance out of the corner of his eye. Indeed, it was only a painting. The corner of the eye had an area where the paint had bubbled from moisture. Water collected in small, clinging droplets from this small imperfection. Despite that small obstruction, it continued its persistent stare.

“A painting, nothing more,” he thought.

But, it was something more. “Could a painting peer into your soul and read the story written there?” He fell into an uncertain sleep.

After what seemed to be days (how could you know, locked away in a little coffin such as the brick room), the man glared at the eye. Picking up one of the empty cans, he hurled it at the the eye. He continued hurling empty cans at the eye staring down from above. “What do you want with me,” he shouted at the eye. “Stop looking at me.” But, it did not stop. It just stared down; the eye of God, the eye that he feared, the only eye from whom he could not hide. “I cannot take this!” he screamed to no one in particular.

In a rage, the man pushed open the brick door only to stumble right into the arms of police running toward the small room.

Grabbing hold of the man's arm and wrestling him to the ground, officer Carl screamed, “The only place you are going to be running to is a jail cell.”

“Wait, you guys are still chasing me?” the man said dazed.

“You just turned the corner sir, have you lost your mind? Now, get up!”

As Carl strong armed the man toward the police cruiser, the man stuttered a story of spending days in the small room and tales of the eye…the hated eye.

“You think I’m crazy,” the man said to officer Carl.

Stopping next to the cruiser, Carl glanced around quickly, stared into the man’s eyes, and said in a hushed tone, “Two years ago my eight year old daughter, Maggie, was chased down this street by who we suspect to be a known child molester living in this neighborhood. She told us that she had escaped by hiding in a small room. We did not believe her, but she said that in the room was food, a pillow, and a loving angel who was watching over her the entire time. Get that, the eye of an angel from God was caring for her, protecting her. I found her on this very street. She seemed to be safe and happy. She was picking flowers from the cracks in the street, and giving them to people walking by. When I ran up to her, she had a whole handful of the beautiful things waiting for me. ‘I love you daddy' she whispered in my ear. I have never forgotten that. I have never forgotten her story.

Officer Carl lowered the man into the police cruiser and whispered into the man's ear, "I guess she understood the eye.” The man sat stunned as the cruiser pulled away.

Preacher William Sloane Coffin once stated that, "the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear." If you think God looks at you and judges you, then your life will be one lived out of fear. It will be a life of running and hiding. But, if you know God looks at you and loves you, then your life will be one of love. There will be no need to run and hide. I guess it all depends if you have heard the story of God’s love for the world; a love that will go to any length to reach you, even death on a cross. I guess it all depends if you understand the eye of God.

We understand this truth from 1 John, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” God is love. How would life in this world be different if everyone knew that God is love?

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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reflection on Psalm 23:5

Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. 4 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 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.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Who you are allowed to eat with says a lot about you, who you are, what kind of people you hang out with, and who cares about you. The table you are allowed to eat at says a lot.

I had a lot of experience with this in school. My parents moved a lot, and I had to find a new place to sit each time I wandered into a new school cafeteria.

Who am I allowed to sit with? The well dressed give me a cold glare. I continue with my tray. The sporting guys thrash around dangerously, paying no attention. I continue with my tray and look around trying to find a seat. A group of girls (apparently friends, because they all wear matching fake gold friendship necklaces) laugh at me as I keep turning around, scanning for a place to sit. I am not sure that I find the humor in it. Maybe, I will forgo eating today. Maybe, I will just throw the food away and leave. “God, please prepare a table for me.”

When caught in such a situation, we pray simply for a lonely table to be prepared for us off in a corner somewhere, where we can just gulp down our food and go. Of course, a table with people who will take an interest in us and care at least a little would be glorious, but you do get to a point where simply any table would do. It is often hard to find a place to sit.

Can the newly divorced find a place to sit at the family table, or are they now excluded? Can the newly widowed find a person to eat with at all, or are they simply alone? Can the loud mouthed destroyer of the community find a place to sit after all have turned against him or her? Can the town drunk find a place to sit after it is known that he destroyed his family? Can the person riddled by a hidden guilt and pain find a place to sit where they do not have to pretend to be “doing great.” Where do these people find a place to sit?

Most often, we find ourselves sitting at the tables of those we know and like. I find that this sort of selective table company even happens within the church. It is so much a part of human nature. And, because of that, it is striking to read in the Bible that Jesus ate each day with those who would betray him and abandon him in the end. We would tell our children to forget those backstabbing people and move on to someone better, but Jesus did not move on. He prepared a table for them.

It is interesting to note that Jesus ate meals with the drunks of the town, with the prostitutes, with the losers, with the socially challenged, with the loud children who were supposed to be at the kids table, with those who would rob others, and with the obviously hungry and physically deformed (those people who are easily overlooked because their very existence is uncomfortable). We would protect the sanctity of our table from such losers. But, Jesus prepared a table for them.

In the presence of their enemies, in the presence of those who would judge and condemn them, Jesus prepared a table for them.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

“You can come sit with us,” says a big guy dressed in a football jersey. “No, he can sit with us, you guys need to pull up an extra chair, we got this one…he’s ours,” says another huge guy dressed in the same jersey. This is the response newcomers to the cafeteria will find when they experience one amazing high school football team who live by the words, “you prepare a table before me.” This team has been challenged by its faithful coaches to play better off the field than on the field. The team has been challenged to live the words of God. The team has learned to share the truth of God through one simple statement, “you can come eat with us.” Christ’s table is for all. You can come eat with us.

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.

Reflection on Acts 3:12-19

God has just done an amazing thing through the hands of the apostles Peter and John; in the name of Jesus, the hands of Peter and John healed a man who previously was stuck in a life of little to no movement.

From birth the man was unable to walk, and was completely dependant on others to eat and even use the bathroom. In an instant, the man was healed and dancing around the temple in Jerusalem. The people in the temple took a look at this healed man, turned their gaze, and simply stared at Peter and John. They stared, mouth gaping, at the two men who could do such a thing. Peter felt compelled to honestly explain that he and John could not do any healing themselves; it was Jesus who actually did the healing, but in his explanation we start to hear the harsh word: “you.”

Jesus did this healing, remember the one whom “you” Jews handed over to Pilate. Remember, he is the one whom “you” rejected. He’s the one whom “you” murdered “you” Jews. “You” killed the author of life. “You” killed the savior of the world. “You” killed Jesus. “You” killed the author of life.

It is so easy to fall into this language. “I” was not the one who hit the baseball, “you” were the one who hit it through the window and directed it right at Mom’s miniature tea collection. “You” did it. “You” are going to be in trouble. “You” are the evil one. Of course, “I” have not had this type of conversation before. That tea set thing was completely made up. But, “you” on the other hand. “You” have done this plenty. “You” constantly make the situation about “us” and “them.” It is “you” who divides this country into Republicans and Democrats. It is “you” who is polluting our world. It is “you” who keeps readjusting my office chair to a different height. I know, it is one of “you.” It is “you” who is to blame for the ugly carpet and tile job. I would have chosen something beautiful. I cannot believe “you.” It is “you” who are at fault. I bet it is “you” who would kill Jesus if he were standing right here. It is “you” who sucks the life out of the room.

“You…you…you deserve to be punished. “You” deserve everything that you get. What goes around comes around. Maybe, we should just nuke “you” and we won’t have to worry about “you” messing up the world. Think about it, “you” deserve to be punished. “You” will not be missed when “you” are finally gone and are no longer a threat to “us.”

This is dangerous language. We have used it to make all kinds of hate look good. It is easy to forget that other people are also God’s beloved children when “they” are the evil ones. Consider, that God’s own chosen people, the Jews, the very people that God promised to be devoted to forever, have been targeted by people throughout the years as a “you.” This is dangerous language. This language leads to war. This language leads to holocausts. This language leads to death. This language actually is not the language used by Peter, therefore we cannot excuse ourselves when we use it.

Do not forget, when Peter speaks of “the Jews,” he too is a Jew. “He” also denied Christ, and the cock crowed. “He” too contributed to Jesus’ death. “He” stood by and let it happen. “He” abandoned his Lord. “He” too did not take Jesus seriously. “He” too killed the author of life. And, last but certainly not least, “He” is a living example of what God does with those who kill God’s love.

Does God kill those who do not agree? Does God create wars to destroy those who are a danger? Does God refuse to ever talk again to those who do not see eye to eye? Does God hate “you?” Peter gives us the answer:

Now, friends, I understand that you acted without knowing what you were doing, as did also your rulers…turn around from that hateful life therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

For God, killing is not the correct reaction. War also is not the answer when people are divided. Ignoring those who are in disagreement also is not the option God goes for. Instead, Jesus chooses another way; forgiveness and love. He does not exclude the “yous” of the world from his table. Instead, he invites them to sit down and feast. “You” too are invited to the feast of love.

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.

Reflection on John 20:19-31

There is something very strange about this story of Jesus and the disciples. It happens whenever you see the words “peace be with you.” You see it first when Jesus enters into the locked room of the fear-struck disciples and he breathes on them a message of peace. You see it again when Jesus makes a special appearance for the benefit of giving Thomas his portion of Christ’s heavenly peace. Here is the strange thing; whenever Jesus speaks peace, he shows his wounds.

Have you ever thought about that before? Isn’t that weird? I mean, would not a person think it strange, if that person were in my office, crying because her husband left her for another woman, and I said, “Peace be with you, here let me show you the scars from appendectomy…they’re cool”? I can’t say that I’ve tried this pastoral care technique of Jesus. “Peace be with you. Now take a look at this canker sore! You feel better now don’t you?” It is very strange to put peace and wounds together, but for Jesus peace and wounds go hand-in-hand.

Of course, the problem with revealing my canker sore or the scar on my stomach is that they are somewhat trivial wounds. They have nothing to do with the woman’s problem of an unfaithful husband. Jesus’ wounds are anything but trivial. They are the wounds of death. They are the wounds inflicted by his own people. They are the same wounds that the people would inflict on Jesus’ own followers. They are the type of piercing wounds that are able to keep the disciples locked away in fear. The disciples have good reason to be fearful. What if they were to leave the safety of their small bunker? Would they swept up and crucified also? Maybe. Probably. But, is keeping yourself locked away in fear any way to live. It sounds like a coffin to me. It sounds like death.

What if Jesus were to enter into their fearful world, show him his wounds, and prove that wounds do not have the last word? What if Jesus was to show them that his formerly, blood soaked, raw hamburger wounds; are now healed, and that he is very much alive: resurrected even? Would they believe? Would they leave the safety of their bunker, venture courageously into the world, and proclaim the kingdom of God? Would they risk obtaining those wounds themselves, secure in the knowledge that all wounds can be healed?

When I was in college, this disciple’s heart was suddenly hollowed out and left profoundly empty when I began to doubt God’s existence. Words such as, “you just need to believe,” and “God is there for you,” failed to breathe the life filling words of the Holy Spirit. Walking around the school in a deep doubting Thomas depression, a religion professor of mine saw my depressed stupor and asked what was wrong. I mustered up the courage to tell this religion professor that I doubted if God was even there. He looked at me and said, “That is one of the most painful things you can go through. I almost ended my life when I went through it.” He really did not say much more. That pretty much ended the conversation, with one exception, he did said, “Come to worship this morning.”

Though it seemed silly to go and worship a God in which I did not believe, I did go to worship, because he asked. I know where your mind might be going, and it did not happen. He did not preach a sermon directed at my doubt that miraculously restored my faith. His sermon, as I recall, was about Abraham and was extremely boring. What I do remember was seeing this: I remember seeing a once profoundly wounded, doubting Thomas of a man, stand in the front of a congregation and declare the words “I believe I God the Father almighty…” and later take the bread and say with conviction to every person who came to him to eat, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” What I saw was a scarred man…a wounded man who had been healed, and at that moment the breath of the Spirit gave me peace. Was my struggle over? No. But, did I have hope that God could resurrect my faith and pull me out the door of my dark and empty soul. Yes.

A lot of people get very confused. They believe that the life of faith is one that will have no wounds. Preachers on television will tell you that if only you believed hard enough, you will get money, the love of your life, and yes, even a life of peace with no hardship. Jesus promises no such thing. The life of faith will have wounds, but the wounds will not be the last word.

In fact, your healed wounds have the power to heal others. Jesus had no shame in sharing his healed wounds. And, in showing his wounds, Jesus freed the disciples from their fear. Look at your hands, your side, and your heart, what healed wounds do you have? Have you ever considered sharing them with someone whose wounds are raw and bleeding? Through wounds, the Holy Spirit just might bring peace and salvation to someone who is trapped in a coffin of pain and fear. Healed wounds can bring peace. Just consider, you were saved by the wounds of Christ.

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.

Reflection on John 20:1-18

Welcome to this blog. I only have one question for you today. It is the same one Jesus asked Mary in the garden as she glanced hysterically at the risen Lord, but did not recognize him in the least. “Whom are you looking for?” “What exactly are you looking for?”

Whom are you looking for? What exactly are you looking for as you surf through blogs? Are you searching for a spiritual experience that will completely rock your world? Are you searching for a great church to visit? Would moving cyberlights flashing all around the altar and an accomplished, well polished band be enough to fill your soul? Would professional singers send you out with a charged heart and a willingness to share God’s love? Is a great performance the good news you need? What exactly are you looking for today? Whom are you looking for? If you are searching for spectacle, you may not find Christ. Sometimes it is hard to recognize the Lord. The problem with the Lord is that he is often overlooked because he comes to us as a simple gardener.

Are you searching hear from a seasoned pastor with silver streaked hair whose voice alone will overpower your soul and fill you with a power that you think must be the Holy Spirit? Are you searching desperately from the lips of this pastor the words that will touch your heart; words that will send you literally into tears of joy? What exactly are you looking for today? Whom are you looking for? If you are searching for greatness, you may not see Christ. Sometimes it is hard to recognize the Lord. Remember, he was not born a king, he was born in an animal’s slop trough. Remember, he did not die a king, he died as a criminal, abandoned by his closest followers. The problem with the Lord is that he is often overlooked because his words are more a whisper in the early morning than a loud shout at the end of the day. You probably will not find Christ while staring at a well known Pastor. But, if you look to your side, you may catch a glimpse of an ordinary gardener with words that can moisten a dry soul with the fresh water of eternal life.

What are you looking for this morning? Whom are you looking for? If it is truly Christ you are looking for, you may have a chance. Christ is with you. He is probably much too obvious to be seen right away. He will blend in with the scene completely. But, if you listen closely you will find him. He is the one who will call you by name.

Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

You may not recognize him, but he knows you like the back of his hand. In the beginning, he called your name and you were brought into the world. He called you by name, drawing you through the waters of baptism, and soon you found yourself washed clean. He died and saw you struggling in the pit of death. He remembered his promise to you. Again, he called you by name. He took hold of your hand and raised you out into the light. He does not forget a name, and because he remembers, all he calls are saved. You may not recognize Christ, but Christ will certainly recognize his own people.

You may have stumbled on this blog for any number of reasons, but deep down, is Christ the one you are looking for? If you find yourself here today, it is because Jesus called you here by name? Take a look. Listen closely. You will find him. Christ is here. He is very much alive. He is risen.

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.

Reflection on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” Jesus knew he was going to die very soon. Jesus had heard the dark words, “you only have a few days left, make them good ones.”

I was told of a woman who heard these words come from the lips of a very sullen doctor. The words transformed the woman in a matter of minutes. This normally calm, complacent, stay-at-home woman turned to her still shocked family and said, “I am going skydiving. I have never been skydiving. My husband would have never let me go when he was alive. But, I want to go.” The shocked family just stared at their mother. “I only have a few days left. What is it going to matter if I die tomorrow with a thrill on my face or in this bed just a few days later? I am going skydiving. You are taking me skydiving.” And they went. And she survived the thrilling fall. And she died happily a week later.

Knowing the time of your death can change things a lot. Your old life, with all of its daily concerns and problems, fades away and dies its own quiet death. None of those worries seem that important any more. At the same time, a new life with new priorities emerges and controls your life. For this woman, skydiving…the thrill of the fall…the thrill of something she would have never allowed herself to do before took priority.

Jesus had a priority also. It was not skydiving. It was not traveling to a foreign country to see sight never seen and experience tastes never tasted. It was not even to spend every waking moment with his family. He wanted more than anything to show his disciples one thing.

Jesus stood up from their meal, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, bent down, and washed his disciples feet. He the teacher, washed the feet of his students. He the King, washed the feet of his servants. He the Lord, God, showed his disciples that he was willing to do anything so they would know they were loved. Jesus did not expect his disciples to do things to comfort him in his final days, instead, Jesus showed the disciples through the care of dirty feet, that they could expect a great deal from him. He would go to any length, for their sake.

Jesus and the woman who chose skydiving did have one thing in common though, they had both become comfortable with the thought of dying. But, it is amazing that Jesus fear of death did not cause him to focus on himself and his bucket list of 1001 crazy things to try before he died. He had one item on his list and death was not going to get in the way of it. Death was not going to get in the way of showing love and devotion to those he cared about. It is amazing how easily love triumphed over death for Jesus.

It makes me wonder if I need to be a little more comfortable with the idea of death. It makes me wonder, “What would I be willing to let go of…to let die…in order to let the love of Christ burst forth from me?” Are their long cherished grudges that I must let pass away before Jesus’ love bursts forth? Are there expectations that I think I must fulfill first, that I have to let die and go unfulfilled? Is there a proud persona of Jirahood that I must let shrivel away? What must we allow to die in order for the priority of love and the heart for serving others (especially our enemies) to burst forth? What must we let die?

Accepting the reality of death has a way of rearranging our priorities. May Jesus’ priority of love shape our lives until the very end…and beyond. May nothing get in the way of Jesus priority in life, to love one another just as Jesus loves us.

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.