Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reflection on Philippians 3:4b-14

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” Ah yes, the old classic tune which is the favorite of many and known by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is the tune of someone who has been utterly lost in life, utterly lost in sin, but has found forgiveness and release in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. It is the tune of the recovering drunk or addict. It is the tune of the former thief or embezzler. It is the symphonic conversion story of those who have a new life after a former one that ruined their families and their reputations. It is the conversion story of our faith. It is a tune that has NO appeal to my dad.

My dad has hated the tune for years, not disliked, but hated! He would whisper an inappropriate word under his breath every time it would start to be played at church. If a new pastor was coming into the congregation, my dad’s main concern was what the pastor’s favorite hymn was. Because, two out of three times it was Amazing Grace. My dad had the unfortunate luck of landing in an area of southern Nebraska with just one Lutheran Church, that had just one pastor, who had just one favorite song, that we would sing one Sunday after another! Yes, every Sunday in Geneva Nebraska was conversion Sunday as people sang with their hearts and my dad swore with his through yet another rendition of Amazing Grace.

But, why? Why was this such a hated song? What would cause a man who would soon be a man of the cloth to relearn the foul mouthed language of his youth…in church of all places?

Maybe, because it was not his song. I do not mean that he just did not like the tune or the words, but it truly was not a song that was about him. He never was really lost in life. He had a nice childhood, no abuse or drugs or alcohol. He had a normal teenage life. And, his adult life was going as planned, one might say it was even blessed. Why did he hate it so much? Maybe because, by singing it every single Sunday he felt that the church was trying to stuff a conversion story down his throat that simple was not his conversion story. He was not a wretch. He was not lost. He never needed to be found. He never needed any great moment of conversion by God!

I do not think that my dad is alone in this. I have known many people who have grown in the church, come faithfully to worship, brought their children up in the faith, done well in life both economically and emotionally, and have never had any sort of great conversion event as described in the song.

Do not read me wrong.  It is good that the lost and broken people of the world have the song, because, in hearing it, they will know that they belong. The great sinners of the world know they have life in Christ.

But, what about the not-so-great sinners of the world? Where do they fit in the church? If they are not the beloved sinners of the story, are they the hated Pharisees? Maybe, but probably not. They certainly cannot be Jesus. Do you not see the problem here? These people who have grown their lives in the church, feel utterly out of place in their community. Where is their story? How does a normal, feeling pretty blessed in life person fit in?

In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul has a dramatic conversion story, but do not put too much stock in it because Paul himself does not. In fact, Paul’s own conversion story is just as normal and mundane as the best of us!

Look here in Philippians, where Paul goes on about how blessed he is: “I was circumcised on the correct day; I am a member of God’s chosen people, not only that, but my tribe is great!  I am more Hebrew than most Hebrews…you cannot get too much more Hebrew than I; as to God’s law, I’m a Pharisee…no one follows the law closer; as to righteousness…I’m pretty much your law abiding, kind, loving, blameless sort of guy.” No, Paul was not lost. Paul was not down in the dumps. Paul was normal. Maybe more than normal, Paul was blessed.

But, notice that God does not shut Paul out of the church because he lacked a good conversion story.

What is God’s word to Paul? What is God’s word to those of us who are just normal, with no great faith conversion stories? What is God’s word to those of us who feel left out somehow because we lack God’s forgiving touch for the simple reason that we really have not needed it all that much? It goes something like this; you think you have been blessed? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“All of that blessing that you have had in your life? It is nothing compared to what I have in store for you,” says God. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. What I have in store for you is going to make all of the good things of life look like garbage in comparison. Do you have a nice house and a nice piece of property? Looks good? Well, it ain’t nothing compared to living in Christ. It looks like living in a back woods shack compared to living in Christ.”

What a conversion story! What a promise! It makes Paul excited! It makes Paul giddy! He ain’t seen nothing yet! Life has been good so far, he wonders just how much better life in Christ will be?

You can hear the excitement and anticipation in his voice as he talks about trying to live his life in Christ! He talks about how it is like he is running a race…not one that he can win of course, because Christ has already won it for him, but he runs the race as if he could win it. He runs the race of grace and service to others as if he might win. The excitement in his tone is very contagious, like the cold I have…only without the bad side effects. You too can feel the excitement can you not; of trying to outdo Christ in grace, outdo Christ in loving the sinner and outcast, and outdo Christ in sacrifice for the neighbor? Not that you can outdo Christ.  You are not going to win a contest against Christ of course.  But racing is fun anyway; just like the little brother who races against his older brother hoping to win the race someday. The little brother probably will not win any time soon, if ever, but is it not fun to try?

Now, that is a conversion story that most of us who have not had amazing grace lives can cling to!

So, for all of you with “you ain’t seen nothing yet” conversion stories, I offer you a challenge. I bet you cannot love more than I. I bet you cannot serve the poor more than I. I bet you cannot love outsiders and sinners more than I. This is real challenge to you today. I am placing a bet with you. I bet you cannot reach the goal of living in Christ faster than I. Go ahead, I dare you to take me up on the bet! Hold on world, God has a whole bunch of people racing. Hold on world, you ain’t seen nothing yet, God is going to come through in a big way.

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 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The warm embrace of two people who have been separated for years; the tears of joy that come when the face of the one whom you’ve worried about and held in your prayers for so long is right in front of you; the amazing grace that happens when the one who has been lost has finally been found.

It would be an understatement to say that the story of the Prodigal’s Son is one of the most powerful biblical stories in our society. Everyone knows the story. Even people who have never stepped foot on the grass at the edge of any church property know this story. Heck, most people have lived the story. Who has not been lost? Who has not found themselves at the bottom of the pit, swimming in the mud, planning a way back from the bottom of life, and going home again to find themselves? Who has not felt the love and grace found in forgiveness, especially the undeserved kind? This is our story! This is one of the greatest stories we know!

But, hold on before we get too excited! Hold tight before we allow our imaginations to swim in the images of our loving, grace-filled God who accepts us back just as we are. Hold on, because the older brother has something to say also. And what he has to say, quite frankly is right. It is dead on, center of the target, straight as an arrow, 100% correct.

The older brother, angered that the little twerp gets to have a grand celebration, is 100% right about many things:

1. This twerp, this numskull, this son of a stupid and giddy Father has no right to be celebrated! He stripped his Father of loads of hard earned money when he asked for his inheritance, and he left his Father as if his Father was already dead. What is there celebrate? The older brother is right, the younger brother does not deserve this kind of attention.

2. Not only did he take the money early, but he was not even wise. The kid was one french-fry short of a Happy Meal if you know what I mean. In the same way that fourth grade boys blow all of their spending money during a school field trip on some cheap plastic light up toy that makes noise, and then have nothing left over to buy lunch; the younger son blew all that he had on everything fun but ultimately useless and had nothing left for the rainy day. What an idiot! Surprise, surprise, the famine came. And guess what? He had no money. What is there to be happy about in that? The older brother is right, the younger brother does not deserve to be taken back.

3. A grown father, skipping and giggling like a little school girl, jumping up and down with excitement over seeing this long-lost son of a… Need I say more. The older brother is right.

4. And, on top of it all, the little undeserving, scheming, lying, manipulative, does not want to suffer the consequences of a stupid life, son of the father…note, he is no brother, he wanted to be gone and dead and we are happy to oblige…is getting a party! A party! The good silverware has been set out. The twerp will steal it for sure. The good steaks have been grilled. And, who was not even invited to come in from working hard in the fields to celebrate? Who was out making the money for the family? The older brother. What an ungrateful father! What a stupid situation! Where is the justice? When does the older brother get to celebrate? When does the one who stuck around, did everything right, paid the bills on time, worked to make sure his father was cared for, ran the family business; when does he get to be celebrated? The older brother is right. If the stupid younger brothers of the world want the good things in life, they can work hard for it, just like everyone else.

No, I am not exaggerating, I am not rhetorically yanking your chain, I am not leading you down a blind path, I am honestly, truthfully, and correctly stating that the older brother is right. The younger brother does not deserve any of this. This is not just. This is not honoring the correct people. And, this certainly is not fair.

“Then the father said to [the older brother], ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

Everything that the older brother says is right, but it does not necessarily mean that it is good.

It is easy to get confused about this, but sometimes punishment is not the answer to the problem. Sometimes, locking people out is not what will make them healthy. Sometimes, we are absolutely right, but we are not good. Sometimes being right blocks your vision. You cannot see beyond your rightness, because, if you could look beyond your rightness, you would see a broken person on the floor right in front of you who could use a new life. Sometimes being right blinds us to the vast possibilities brought about, not by punishment, but by love and forgiveness and rejoicing. “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Jesus does not worry about being right. When it comes to his brothers and sisters, Jesus is worried about being good. Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Not because it is right, but because it is good. Even to the end, when the people who had nailed him to the cross were mocking and spitting on him Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus dying on the cross was not the just thing. It was not right. He should not have had to forgive those monsters.  It was not right.  But, it was good. It was full of forgiveness, and, it was not blinded by being right.

Come to the table and be fed by Christ. Though others may not, Jesus will eat with you. Come to find healing in Christ. Though others may not, Jesus will accept you. Come back home to Christ, his arms are waiting to embrace you.

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 Luke 13:1-9

Ok, so this was the easy part. When researching this reflection, seeing that the text included the unexplainable deaths of the Galileans who were killed by Pilate, and those who suffered from the collapse of a tower, it was easy to find a couple of modern day equivalents. We need to look no further than the earthquakes in Haiti and Chili to find unexplainable suffering.

It was also easy to find someone who would answer “Yes” to the question, “where those people worse sinners than us;” in essence, “did they deserve what they got?” A quick Google search revealed Pat Robertson declaring that the Haitian people were paying the consequences of making a pact with the Devil so that the French would leave their nation. Pat makes my reflection writing so easy sometimes. As predicted, he has certainly said something stupid and wrong, and I have the great fortune of quoting him, calling him horrible, and then pointing to myself as a wonderful, caring, smart man.

But, maybe his presence makes things too easy. Maybe his outlandish comments allow us to change the subject too quickly and we do not take a serious look at some of the natural instincts that we have when we face tragedy of great magnitude.

One of our first responses to a tragedy, such as the earthquakes, is one of care and assistance. This is good. This is Christ working in us at its finest. The need for morning $4 coffees and other luxuries goes out the window right away and people try to help the best they can.

But, lingering behind the aid is always the question, “Why?” And though none of us would ever go on television and say that a bunch of impoverished people deserved what they got because of what their government did years ago to free themselves from colonialism, you cannot stop the question, “Why, did they deserve it?” from flying through your head. It is in there before you even know it.

Psychologists have actually studied this phenomena and documented it. They did a study in which they showed a number of people a video with a mom doing something normal, such as baking with her daughter. They asked half the group what they thought of the mother. Of course, they got answers such as, “you can see they love each other,” “she is a good mother for taking time to do such a neat thing,” etc. But, the scientists told the other half that the mother died soon after that video was shot. Then they asked what the group thought of the mother. And, shockingly to us, but predicted by the psychologists, the majority of the people started to pick on the mother; how she did not smile as much as she should, how she did not pay attention like she should, etc. When grappling with great suffering, it is practically human to ask “why” and to wonder if the person or people suffering were worse than we.

Jesus answers differently than Pat Robertson and differently from our natural instincts. Jesus’ immediate answer is “No.” No, they were no worse than anyone else. Sometimes bad things just happen. There is nothing to be done about it. The victims are not necessarily any worse than the survivors. “No,” they did not deserve what they got. “No.”

And, I would love to end the reflection right there. It does not answer the question of “why,” but it does give an answer to some of our worst tendencies when disaster happens.

However, Jesus just has to ruin everything by addressing the other matter. Yes, it is the other subject that pops in our head when we are faced with tragedy. It is the one that sends people into churches after calamity hits and sends people into personal turmoil as they try to deal with death when it lurks so close.

Jesus remarks, “No, [They are no worse than you, but,] I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” They may seem harsh Pat Robertsonish words, but they are the other ones that pop in our head. In our language today, they take a form that goes like, “Wow, death can strike anyone at any time. Have I done what is wanted to get done…have I become who I wanted to become before the end of my life?”

Life is fragile. Life can be taken from a four year old as easily as it can be taken from a 90 year old. Just because tragedy has not taken us out, does not mean we are privileged. It can happen at any time. Have I become the child of God that I have always desired to be? These are questions that fade into the background of everyday noises, but they are still there. And, if people do not deserve the tragedies that befall them, then we cannot ignore these questions.

The gardener has not yet cut down the tree. The gardener is everyday placing fertilizer around the roots so that it might grow to a great height and produce wonderful fruit. However, it might be cut down if it does not produce fruit. Or, lightening might strike it. But, grace is being heaped up on the roots. Hopefully, the tree will find joy in what it has been given and produce fruit that will feed everything and everyone around it.

The question, “what have I done to show that in am a child of God?” is a good question. It is not one that we should stuff away for later because, in exploring its answer, we will find the grace that has been heaped upon our roots; and in finding the grace heaped there, those around us will enjoy our fruits. Why would we want to stuff that sort of joy away? God, is not willing to stop trying to make us grow, why should we?

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 Luke 4:1-13

“You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“My Son."  The name is still ringing in Jesus' ears as he is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. It is the name that keeps him going as the heat beats down on him. It is the name that he feeds on like a moist, juicy steak as he struggles to go yet another day without food. And, it is the name that he repeats to himself as a mantra while someone walks from the dust of the wilderness and starts to speak.

“They say that you are the Son of God. Am I in the right place? Did I find the right person?”

Jesus stares up through the beating sun at the tester.

“If you are the Son of God then you will have no problem doing as God did for the Israelites as they wandered starving in the desert; turn this stone into manna. Turn this stone into bread.”

He is the son of God. Why not get a little bread? God certainly cannot be against eating? Yet, the Holy Spirit has not led him to bread. God has not given him bread. He is God’s son. Jesus decides to wait for God to act.

“One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus replies.

The tester’s face twitches for a second, and then his calm smile returns. Then in an instant, they are standing high above earth, looking down on the world in the same way that God looks down on the world.

The tester addresses Jesus, "Look at all of this. You are the Son of God. You are the Messiah. This is all yours. Being in charge of this is your responsibility…no, it is your duty. You would not love the world if you neglected it. Therefore, I will turn over to you the authority over this place right now; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."

He is the Son of God. He is to love the world. He is to serve the world. The Son of God should care. Of course, the devil was claiming more than he should. The devil does not own the kingdoms. They are not his. However, Jesus is the Son of God. Why not start taking on his responsibilities now? it seems like a virtuous thing to do but one lingering question remains, if takes the reigns now who is in control? Is Jesus taking control? Is the devil taking control? God has not told him anything yet except that he is God’s Son. Jesus decides to trust God and to trust God’s timing. It is possible to jump the gun, even when doing something good. Jesus decides to wait for God.

Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "

The devil takes a deep breath, his face flushes with frustration, and in an instant they are standing, looking over all of Jerusalem, standing on the top of the temple. As they look down, they can see the priests right below offering their sacrifices. The smells of the meat rises past their noses. Beyond they can see the people in the temple who desire more than anything to be near God.

“You have not shown yourself to be the Son of God in any way. You are just like those people down there, a pathetic, normal human who stumbles around life and wishes for something better. You are not the Son of God. It is obvious. "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, "God will command God’s angels concerning you…the Messiah…, to protect you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone,' " the tester said pointing down at the stone altar. “Only the Son of God would trust God enough to put his life into God’s hands. Do you trust God, O Son of God?”

The question is similar to the ones we get posed to us today. “You are a Christian? Are not Christians supposed to do this? Are not Christians supposed to believe that, or vote in this way, or care about this cause, or not spend any time around this sort of person? Are you not a Christian?” It is not spoken out loud, but the insinuation is clear, “prove it to me by following my criteria for who a Christian is. If you do not prove it to me, then you will not be considered a Christian.” Or, “prove it to me or I will leave your church for a better…more Christian one.”

“So Jesus, prove that you trust God. Prove that you are the Son of God,” the tester says.

But, Jesus knows that he is the Son of God. He heard the voice over the waters of the Jordan. He heard God speak to him. He is God’s Son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. He has to prove nothing to anyone. He only needs to be who God called him to be: God’s Son.

Jesus answered him, "It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’" And, with that, the tester was gone.

At your baptism, you heard some words spoken to you also. You are not Betty or Sam or Charles or any of the names that people call you. You are much more than your name. You are a child of God. You are a brother or sister of Christ. And, with you God is well pleased. Your name shapes who you are. Your name directs what you do and do not do. Your name tells you who you follow, and in whose words you trust. Your name is “Child of God.” Child of God; what a glorious and beautiful name.

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 Luke 9:28-36

As I was studying the seeming amazing "transfiguration" vision of Jesus on the top of the mountain with his disciples, glowing with white clothes and a deified face, I noticed something that I had never noticed before. I should have because it is quite obvious, but I am willing to bet that you had not either. Before Jesus is revealed to be the glowing, Holy, Son of God on the mountain, Jesus is wearing regular clothes. It is only logical that if his clothes are transformed into glowing white clothes, then his clothes must have been something entirely ordinary to begin with. This seems such a mundane and insignificant point that I hesitated to mention it and talk about it in an entire blog post, but the truth is that it is not mundane and insignificant at all.

Just use google images to find pictures of Jesus and you will see that in most of them Jesus is glowing everywhere he goes, wearing his gloriously white garb.

What idiots people must have been back then to get rid of the obviously glowing and loving Son of God by putting him on the cross! What morons people must have been back then to not realize that this luminous person was someone special! What buffoons people were back then; if they knew that someone divinely extraordinary was standing before them.

Of course, they were not buffoons, morons, or idiots. They may not have had the internet on which they could search Jesus images, but they did have eyes, and what they saw when they looked at Jesus was just another dusty rabbi walking down the road. Sure, he could work miracles, but other prophets also seemed to work miracles. The miracles were amazing, yes, but that did not necessarily make the guy divine. What they saw when they looked at Jesus was exactly what Jesus showed them, an ordinary rabbi in dusty clothing. Remember, only three of the disciples got to see the white, wonderful clothing. In our need to remember the divine nature of Christ, we often forget his ordinary nature.

That is not so bad is it? Jesus, God with us, alleluia, glory to the lamb, and all of that! But, if that is the only Christ we know, then we will never see him. I repeat, if that is the only Christ we know, then we will never see him.

The hospital room was full of people. I skirted through some of the people to get to the bed of the 65 year old woman. The room was full of conversation and laughter, with a few people tending to the woman in turns. As I soaked in the wonderful scene of a healed and recovering woman surrounded by family and friends, I could not help but notice what a contrast the woman was to the scene around her. She was sad; profoundly sad as if the dreary rain had drenched and soaked into her skin.

“She’s not very happy right now,” one of her daughters mentioned to me.

I asked her what was wrong. She stared at her feet and said, “God has abandoned me. God let me get so sick. God has abandoned me. I am so lonely.”

I am in no way belittling her experience, but I do have a question for you: do you think it is a problem when the only Jesus we know is the shiny, glowing, divine Jesus? If that is the only Christ we know, then we will never see the one that heals through doctor’s wisdom…we will never see our Christ who touches us through devoted friends or family…we will never see our Lord who chooses to sit beside us on our bed through all of our struggles.

When we look around ourselves, we cannot expect to find the bright and white Jesus of the transfiguration; however we can expect to see Jesus. We will see him when a doctor’s touch provides healing. We will see him when we cry out in agony, and a friend is there to show God’s love. We will see him when we look at the cross and instead of seeing pain and suffering and torture, we see hope and new possibilities. Only when God reveals Godself in the ordinariness of life, will see start to see a glimmer of the glory that truly lies underneath. Like the disciples, we will discover that God can make the ordinary become extraordinary. That is the way that God’s grace works.