Posts Tagged ‘healing’

3001809-poster-942-you-are-here-why-location-smartphones-killer-mapThe Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

My reflection this morning will be a little different. Those of you who come here regularly are probably saying to yourself, “So, what’s new?”

Fair enough; on this Pentecost morning, the Spirit will draw us again and again into now as we mark several important events happening in the life of our community, ultimately gathering around the table to break bread and share cup. The gift that the Holy Spirit gives us, one that we are likely to neglect otherwise, is to pay attention to this moment: here…now…reminding us that God is at work for us, in us, and through us.

Most of us tend to avoid the moment before us. And for some of us, that means getting caught up in the past. We let grievances and traumas get the best of us, defining us not as who we are, but as what has happened to us. Or maybe we think that the best approach is to just put those things behind us, to gut them out.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Our ability to heal from old wounds can only come when we are willing to seek out those who have the spiritual gift of healing – healing in body, in mind, in spirit. They are the ones God has gifted to strengthen us so that we can face the past, come to terms with it, and even find redemption in it.

In healing our pasts, we would do well to remember the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a fierce seeker of God. It was this fierceness that gave him the limp that he carried the rest of his life. And so, his battle scars ran deep – but his faith ran far, far deeper.

For others of us, the past defines us in ways that seem like misty, near perfection. We reminisce, holding onto precious memories, wishing life could be that way now. The more we learn about memory, however, the more we understand how unreliable it is. This means that we risk becoming captives to nostalgia, to things that never were or, at least, were not the way we choose to remember them.

More importantly, though, as people of faith, it means that we tend to think of God as someone or something that was at work only in the past, as though God has given up on creation, leaving us to our own devices. This idea runs counter to everything we say we believe; and yet, it can take hold of us.

The truth is that God is at much at work in this moment as at any other time behind or before us. Even in those times that it feels like God is away, God is very much here – closer than our own breath.

There are times when we need to be reminded of that truth, of God’s constant presence.

Some of us flee the present moment in exchange for what is yet to come. We get caught up in looking forward, planning ahead, mapping out the road in front of us, that we neglect the beauty of what is happening. It’s as though we are walking along the beach, but remain focused on where the car is back in the parking lot, and never cast our gaze toward the endless horizon.

We can also let anxiety about the unknown future take hold of us. Our financial worries, our medical fears, our relationship uncertainties – all of them can trap us in places where hope gets dampened. And yet, just like we talked about last week, even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. In other words, we are going to be OK, no matter what, because God will always be God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

From our lesson this morning, when Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, this is exactly what he was talking about. God uses our excellence, those things that bring us joy, for the sake of God’s desires. We are, each of us, gifted by God for the working of God’s hopes and joys. The invitation is to move deeper into God so that we might not only find those gifts, but also to discover God’s own self.

And in exploring that faith, we also hope to find ourselves and our unique calling, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that rests on each of us. In other words, faith in Christ ought to be something that speaks to us in its own particular way and, at the same time, knit each of our strands into a wonderful tapestry of shared faith.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

Today we mark that ancient Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit visited the disciples, flames of fire dancing on their heads, sending them out into the streets, gifting them with languages they had never known, giving birth to the Church.

And yet, what made all of that possible was the fact that the disciples first gathered together. Jesus, their teacher and friend, was gone. Unsure what to do, they only knew to do what they had done with Jesus: they came together. They prayed. They sang. And…they ate.

Around the table, that first generation of Jesus’ followers broke bread and shared cup together. And when they did, they found themselves connected across time and space with an infinite number of tables, all different shapes and sizes, that look back and forward at the same time.

As do we.

At the table, we look back to that moment in the upper room when Jesus broke bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me.” We look back to that moment when Jesus took the cup, poured it, and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed with my blood, shed for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the same time, we look forward with expectation to that heavenly banquet, that moment where all of God’s beloved, former enemies and friends alike, gather in God’s presence and feast together.

And, above all, we are in this moment, now, because God is here! In this sacred space at this sacred time, Jesus is in our midst. After all, this is not our table. It is his. And when we break the bread and share the cup, we are somehow, by the grace of God and God alone, opened to God’s Holy Spirit moving us, shaping us, inviting us to be who it is that God has created us to be!


Read Full Post »

Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

Read Full Post »

Power On - textureVision over power.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus and his disciples have finished up their ministry in the bucolic Galilee and are making their way toward urban Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples what exactly all of this Messiah stuff entails: betrayal, abuse, torture, and death. This makes such an impression on them that James and John ask if they can call dibs on the seats of power next to him.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying, “Have you been listening to a word I’m saying?!? You still think this is all about the earthly kingdom of Israel, don’t you?” After he sets them back a notch, the rest of the disciples get in on the act, angry at James and John for sneaking around on them. Apparently, they weren’t listening, either.

It’s at this point that they go through Jericho. Jericho, sitting just west of the Jordan River, is an oasis for travelers. For Jesus and the disciples, they would have left the verdant hills of the Galilee, heading along the Jordan down toward the Dead Sea, the vegetation disappearing and the temperature increasing along the way. At Jericho, they would have turned westward, finding the winding road that leads up to Jerusalem. Jericho sits at this crossroads, with numerous springs that have made it a welcome habitation for thousands of years.

And there, almost lost among the pressing crowds, is the blind beggar Bartimaeus, calling out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

A number of things happen simultaneously in this moment. First, we are told that Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus”. In other words, though he was a blind beggar, shuffled off to the margins of polite society (and impolite society, for that matter), he had a family that – at least at some point – cared for and loved him.

Second, the crowd gives us some insight into the human condition. At first, because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of him, they try to hide him from Jesus. “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jesus! Leave him alone! Don’t bother him. He’s got more important things to do!” As soon as Jesus singles him out and calls him forward, the they immediately changes their tune, perhaps hoping to benefit from their connection with Bartimaeus: “Come on! Good news! He wants to see you! Let’s go!” The crowd is fickle; willing to go along with what is popular rather than what is right.

Third, Jesus responds to Bartimaeus plea the same way he had responded to James and John, with the exact same question he had asked them: “What do you want me to do for you?” Though the disciples were his friends and Bartimaeus was a complete stranger, he treated them with equity.

Fourth, Bartimaeus request is simply granted. Unlike James and John’s desire for power, Bartimaeus is given the gift of vision.

And finally, though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way, he immediately begins following Jesus. His response is gratitude. And that thankfulness leads him into discipleship, into Jesus’ baptism and cup.

For me, the chorus that rings through all of this is “vision over power.”

Power plays a significant role in Jesus’ entire ministry. And today’s lesson is no exception. It is the possibility of power that fools the disciples, filling their ears with false hopes so that they cannot hear what true discipleship costs. The crowd tries to surf the changing perceptions of power – first by silencing Bartimaeus and then by elevating him. And it is powerless Bartimaeus who takes center stage in the lesson as the one that Jesus hears, invites, and heals.

This fits well within Jesus’ overall message, which takes power and flips it on its head. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The King is crowned with thorns; his royal robes are stripped away to reveal his nakedness; his throne is a cross, with a title over his head to mock and scorn him. Whoever wants the seat of glory must become a servant.

The truth is that power is seductive, and very, very complicated. What makes it most disturbing is that the ways in which we hold power are the ways we are least likely to know that it is ours. Power is at work in all of society. It plays a role in gender; in age; in sexuality; in ability and disability; in education; in race; in language; in economics; in politics and influence; in religion; in employment; in office and stature.

Every single one of us, without exception, inhabits power roles in our lives. Mostly by virtue of things that are completely out of our control, we have been handed an advantage in this life. The thing is, if we never bother to stop and take stock of that fact, we will never know it. Instead, we are far more likely to focus on the power we don’t have that others do. In other words, power is not something to be ashamed of; it is, at the same time, something to be absolutely aware of.

And that’s because power is tempting. It may be the most desirable temptation there is, And yet Jesus, who had all the power in the world, gave it away in order to bring freedom to any and all who need it. Rather than make power the most important thing, Jesus put healing and wholeness first – in the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus gave him the vision he so desired.

Vision over power.

Like James and John, we may yearn for the power we do not have; but Jesus wants us to be more like Bartimaeus. The truth is that we are blind – maybe not completely, but our vision is far from perfect. We all have blind spots. Acknowledging that fact is the first step, and it’s a crucial one. Our spiritual vision will never be 20/20; and yet, if we invite Jesus to work on our vision, we are more likely to see the things that God desires we see.

For example, the way we typically talk about vision is misleading. We tend to think of those who have “vision” as those who can predict the future, see things that are not there, read the tealeaves. But vision is, simply, the ability to see clearly – to see what is, and what is not, there. And one aspect of that vision is recognizing power: where it is, where it is absent, how it is at work in our lives and the lives of others, and how it is at work throughout the world.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this – really struggle with it. It feels like there is inherent hypocrisy in a straight, white, male, able-bodied, educated pastor to talk about who does – and does not – have power. This is one of those moments where those temptations to power can make you come across as preachy. Fair enough. I can come down from the pulpit, but I’ve still got robes that confer some sense of authority. I can remove those, but I’m still the one with the microphone. Even without that, I’ve got title and position, and the privilege that those give me, as well as ten-plus years of history with this particular congregation. And even if those were all to evaporate in an instant, our pews are all pointed in the same direction and bolted in place that way.

So my prayer today, just as it is each and every Sunday, is for the words I speak and the thoughts we all carry to point to God – in other words, that our eyes be filled with what it is that God envisions for us.

And in that vision, the call to follow Jesus is intimately tied up in how we deal with the nature of power. In the kingdom of God, power is transformed into justice – God’s justice. Those who have power are invited to lay it down for the sake of those who do not. And those who do not have it are the ones Jesus is most likely to call to lead.

Are we willing to follow? Would we ever be so bold as to take a chance on the power we hold? Could we loosen our fists, even if that means risking that this power might fall through our fingers, slip through our grasp?

Let’s put it this way: could we ever imagine putting ourselves in the role not of the crowds, nor of the disciples, but to empty ourselves of the power we inhabit and live into the place of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus? Would we be willing, even just for a moment, to admit how helpless, how in need of mercy, we really are? Or are we more likely to pretend that we are in control of our own destinies, that we don’t need or depend on anyone else? Or do we live with the fantasy that this power is realistically within our grasp, if we could just get hold of those elusive advantages that we do not currently have?

Friends, the truth of it all is simply this: we are blind. And Jesus is here, ready to give us vision and send us on our way. The faithful response is to follow him, even if that means going all the way up to Jerusalem. Are we ready to follow?


Read Full Post »

There may be missteps in the journey of grace; but the destination is still a good one.

Our lesson this morning follows the leaders of the early church as they move through modern-day Turkey, bringing the gospel with them as they go. Paul (who was once known as “Saul”) and Barnabas are the evangelists to the Gentiles, taking the word and promise of Jesus beyond the Jewish sect of Christians and out into the broader world.

As they depart Antioch and enter the city of Lystra, they encounter a crippled man whom Paul, somehow, recognizes as someone who believes he can be healed. And he is. The result, however, is not what they anticipated. First, the crowds are convinced that the gods have taken human form and begin to worship and sacrifice to them. Second, Paul and Barnabas do, indeed, take the opportunity to preach about Jesus; but the crowds pretty much ignore them. Third, our lesson stops short by one verse to what I see as the real crisis: the local Jewish community overwhelms the crowd, forcing Paul into a fate he once forced on others: he is barraged with stones and left for dead. Let’s just say that this day probably did not go the way Paul had hoped.

Have you ever had days like that? Have there been times when you can see the destination at hand, but the closer you get, unforeseen obstacles rise up to block your way? If not, then please leave, because you’re making the rest of us look bad!

I am pretty sure all of us have had those moments – whether in faith or in anything else – where the journey gets tough, to say the least. We know where it is we are headed, but as we approach, we lose footing. We are beset by something unexpected. Unanticipated crises knock us off course.

There are, for certain, missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, the promise is that the destination is a good one.

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story of faith we say we believe. Sin and grace battle it out. And while sin may lurch ahead in the short run, nothing can outpace the outrageous abundance of grace that surrounds us.

It’s there in the story of creation. God makes and calls good. The snake tempts and leads astray…but God stays faithful.

Then God makes promises to God’s people. They forget and throw their weight behind other gods…but God keeps God’s word, sending prophets to encourage and cajole them back toward faithfulness.

God’s people still don’t quite live up to their end of the bargain, so God decides to show up personally. And this Jesus loves, heals, graces, forgives. This perfect mercy, however, is too threatening. Jesus is betrayed, sentenced, sentenced to death, killed, and buried. But God isn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.

The long arc of salvation seems to be marked by this push and pull, even today. God stays faithful, and we are grateful. And then we forget and wander off…but God is committed to this promise, this trust that we are far more worthy than we seem to be able to demonstrate. When we are desperate, we call on God. When things are good, though, that’s when we think we can take a break from God…until things get bleak again. And our personal cycle from faith to distrust to pleading and back again continues.

And yet, if we look closely enough, we can see the key to staying in focus right there in our own fumblings. You see, no matter what, God believes in us. Despite all evidence to the contrary at times, God still believes in us! It’s as if when all we can see is an empty shell, God sees our purest selves and calls out in that still, small voice: “I’m not done with you, yet. There is far more good to be done.” At the times when we find ourselves stranded on the margins, whether by our own doing or by the doing of others, that’s when God comes to us, healing us, restoring us, loving us more than we think we deserve.

Our calling is to take that character of God we know in Jesus and to mirror it to the world around us.

That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas were doing in Lystra. They saw this man who, in all likelihood, had simply become part of the scenery in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this people had stopped even seeing this crippled man, so used were they to his injuries and imperfections. And yet, Paul immediately recognized him and his suffering, saw his faith and desire, and reached out in compassion to love and to heal.

That’s what the church is supposed to do: to see those whom others have stopped recognizing. We are supposed to reach out to those on the margins, to extend a helping and healing and praying hand of comfort and courage. This is why we do Habitat builds. This is why our hearts break when we read of massive earthquakes in Nepal and terrified refugees in Syria. This is why we are so distraught when the world doesn’t go the way it should: because we have that glimpse of God within us and know the world can be a better place than it seems to end up so often. We can sense God’s desire and feel God’s heartbreak for a broken world.

This is our call, friends: to be those instruments of grace, the hands and feet of Christ in a world that sometimes literally crumbles before our eyes. There are times when we move forward. And there are times when we are knocked back, when the missteps seem take over the journey. And yet, the destination is still in God’s hands and is one of goodness.

After Paul is left for dead on the streets of Lystra, he and Barnabas leave for Derbe, where they meet with more success in sharing the good news of Christ. From Derbe, they head back to Lystra, where we are told they encourage the believers. In the end, it seems, despite all evidence to the contrary, their initial work had actually paid off. Even though it first appeared that they had been ignored, and even though their lives had been threatened, the gospel had taken root after all. How? Was it the healed man, becoming God’s messenger and proof of God’s goodness? Was it the crowds who saw Paul lynched, moved to compassion and sympathy? Was it that the evangelists’ words of caution about Zeus and Hermes rang in the people’s ears long after Paul and Barnabas had left?

Whatever the case, despite the missteps and obstacles, they journey continued on toward goodness.

You see, that’s just the thing: what matters, among everything else, is that Paul and Barnabas are crystal clear about what it is that motivates and moves them. When they are greeted as gods in human form, when even the priest of Zeus is convinced that it’s best to break out the sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas remain steadfast in their devotion to God. They do not take the glory for themselves, but seize the opportunity to let the confused crowds know that it is the power of Christ within them that brings this healing. It may not have sunk in at first, but eventually, their witness bears great fruit.

Do we do this?

We might not ever be in the position of bringing a crippled man to dancing. And yet, we might be among those who bring healing to a fractured community. We might be among those who allow a struggling family to celebrate the gift of home ownership. We might be among those who extend a hand of compassion to those who are broken down. We might be among those who reach out in grace to those around whom the world is crumbling. Whatever it is, if someone were to ask us why we do what we do, would we be able to give an accounting? Could we point toward what it is we believe about God’s story of creative purpose? Can we speak to the hope of Christ within us, even when the world seems to be pointing in the other direction?

Friends, there may be missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, no matter what, the destination is still one of goodness. That much is sure. When we draw on our own strength, it is likely we will run dry. But when we lean into each other and God’s strength that knits us together, that is when we are likely to do signs and wonders that point far beyond us and to the God whom we worship, serve, and love.

Read Full Post »

Andrew McFarlane, 2008. Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/farlane)

Andrew McFarlane, 2008. Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/farlane)

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

With our Scripture lesson today, Jesus begins the “Sermon on the Mount”. The whole discourse covers three chapters in the book of Matthew. It includes not only the blessings we read today, or the metaphors of salt and light for faith in Christ. It also looks at the sacred Law in depth and what it means to keep up with God. It holds Jesus’ prayerful example up, which we have adopted as our weekly prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. In short, it is a summary of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and stands as a kind of “mission statement” for the kingdom of heaven.

Before we jump too quickly from this reading to an application for us today, we would do well to sit with it surrounded by the rest of Matthew’s gospel. If we remember, Matthew’s account of the story of Jesus begins with King Herod’s jealous rage. Unable to locate the infant upstart who might challenge his throne, Herod orders the slaughter of innocents throughout the Bethlehem region. Blessed are those who grieve…

And while Matthew’s gospel ends with an empty tomb and a risen Christ, the grisly details of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death must come first. Blessed are those who are persecuted…

It can be tempting to take the lessons of Scripture and move to what it might mean to us. Don’t get me wrong: we should get there, eventually. That said, to make that leap without first resting in the story for a while risks domesticating Jesus’ message to empty platitudes as we deal with the neighbor with the messy dog or the cousin who derails every reunion or the co-worker who takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. It’s not that these problems are unimportant; in fact, they can often feel like they consume our entire world. Instead, my point is that wrapping up these personal matters in Christ’s blessings might keep us from recognizing that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus was concerned with life and death.

What matters to God is what matters in the kingdom of heaven. And what matters in the kingdom of heaven is what should matter to those who love and follow Jesus, those who call themselves “church”. And that, I believe, is the charge to us today. Are we, those who gather for worship at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church today, open to these Beatitudes – these blessings, both old and new – moving from idea to reality? And are we willing to let God use us to make that true?

Blessed are the grieving, the humble. Blessed for those who desire righteousness and make peace. Blessed are the merciful, the pure. Blessed are the persecuted, the insulted, the harassed, the hopeless. In other words, blessed are those who don’t feel particularly blessed. What is it that we do – or rather, what is it that God does through us – to shower new blessings on those who are more likely to feel forsaken and alone?

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

Today’s service, especially our liturgy of healing that will take place later on, are the gift of our deacons’ ministry to the kingdom of God. Many of you know firsthand what these loving people do, offering a comforting presence at those times when we are most in need of comfort. When I think of those who grieve, and how they are blessed, it is through our care for one another that Christ’s promise is fulfilled. My own family has been carried through the chaotic joy of birth and sorrow of death alike by meals, cards, prayers, visits, babysitters, gifts, memorials…all of them in the name of Christ. And I know from what you share with me that I am not alone.

This is, I believe, is a glimpse of what Church can be. What begins with just a few very quickly grows into something much larger, reaching out to the world with love and concern. When we do what Christ calls us to, to be a blessing, then those whom we bless will, in turn, reach out and bless even others. The hope is that this ministry of blessing would reach not only within these walls, but well beyond. Indeed, if our efforts to bless are ever confined by architecture or membership or even whether we judge someone worthy of our care, then they do not reflect the boundless love of God.

That’s both the challenge and the gift of what we do here, week in and week out, as we gather for worship. We are here to be both nudged and encouraged not so that we can live our lives in the church’s echo chambers, but so that we can be voices, hands, acts that nudge and encourage the world with the good news of God’s healing love. In order to breathe, you must both inhale and exhale. We come here to breathe in the Spirit that we might share it with the world, so that others, too, might experience the life-giving breath of God’s grace.

It all begins here. The question is where we go next.

Because when we look at the rest of the Beatitudes, at the rest of those whom Christ calls blessed, that is where the church is called to be. We are called to be a blessing to those few who truly seek justice, peace, and righteousness, which is a lonely calling. We are meant to encourage and support those for whom faith is a matter of life and death. I especially think of our faithful, death-defying sisters and brothers in Christ in Syria and Iraq. We are supposed to care for and with those whom society casts to the margins: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the unlovable, those who have lost hope.

It is when we do these things that we will discover not only that we have already reached out to those whom Jesus calls merciful, pure, humble. We will also see clearly that they have ministered to us in ways we can only begin to understand.

Beloved friends, maybe it helps to think of it this way: today we put on our bibs that we might feast in God’s healing presence. Tomorrow, we put on our aprons that we might feed the world in its hunger.


Read Full Post »

“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine, but it’s what we do with it that matters the most: making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love’. That’s what really matters.”

The words of that great Presbyterian theologian Mr. Rogers: it’s not what we have, but what we do with what we have.

Many of you are aware that Mr. Rogers was, in fact, the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. And his particular ministry was his television program, his gift to the world, teaching young children that they are special “just the way they are”, which may be the best definition of unconditional love that ever existed.

These words about sharing follow in the echoes of many Biblical stories and texts, including our lesson this morning.

This story of Elisha and Naaman illustrates God’s expansive and ever-expanding love. Grace and healing cannot be confined by national boundaries or military front lines, by tribal barriers or religious practices. Instead, God’s surprise is one of outrageous, generous mercy.

In our lesson, the nation of Aram is a mighty one. They roughly cover the same territory as the area around modern-day Damascus. One of their great generals, Naaman, is afflicted with some terrible skin condition. It may or may not be leprosy as our translation related, but the point is that it is both unsightly and painful. Aram is at war with ancient Israel, and one of their raiding parties ends up capturing a young girl who then becomes a servant to the general’s wife.

However, there are times when God transforms something intended for ill into something gracious. Through the young Israelite girl, Naaman learns about a powerful prophet acrtoss the border who might hold the key to his healing.

Surprisingly, the Aramean king sends a diplomatic letter to the Israelite king asking for Naaman to meet with Elisha.

The Israelite king suspects trickery at work – a kind of Trojan Leper. But Elisha welcomes the general, the enemy of his people, as an opportunity to reveal God’s glory.

As Naaman approaches Elisha’s home, the whole story almost comes off the rails as Elisha sends out a servant rather than welcoming the general personally. Naaman is outraged, and his own national pride kicks in. That pitiful little Jordan River is nothing compared to our rivers back in Aram!

Then Naaman’s servants prevail on him to give it a shot. “Why not?” they reason. “He’s not asking a lot. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” He does, and is cleansed. To God be the final, ultimate glory!

Do we get what an unusual story this is? Much of the Hebrew Bible spends time convincing us of the rightness of the God of the Israelites. And it does so by recounting victory after victory after victory over enemy nations. And when Babylon defeats Israel and takes the people captive, the lesson still underscores the same idea: God was so fed up with Israel’s wandering ways that God decided to give Babylon the victory. God is God, ruling by might and power and victory.

Here, the story goes out of its way to illustrate God’s power not through military victory, but through sharing God’s healing power with a feared enemy.

How willing are we to share?

That’s the root message of Stewardship Season, isn’t it? That it’s not about what we have, but what we do with it? As a church, we can only exist to serve because of the fact that we, as a community, share. We pool our resources and serve the broader community through our sharing and giving and serving.

I have to admit that, though I grew up in church, it wasn’t until I was grown that this whole notion finally hit home to me. I have told the story many times before that I was of the school that would drop a few bucks in the plate when it passed. When Elizabeth and I made the decision to tithe, we did so as a mathematical formula: we added up our income, divided by ten, and gave that away.

We did this when we were graduate students living off of loans and working a series of part-time jobs. We did this when we were DINKs (that’s double income, no kids). We did it when we were missionaries overseas. We did it when we returned and became a one-income family with small children. We do it now with two full-time jobs and two school age children. And we try to instill the same practice in them.

While the percentage has remained roughly the same, the amount has fluctuated wildly through the years. The only thing that has remained constant is the intention and practice.

Look: I know it’s dicey business when the pastor starts talking about money. Whenever I do, I can always count on a few of you to let me know. It can be especially odd when the pastor starts talking about his own money. I’ll be honest with you: I’m OK with making us squirm from time to time. That’s part of what I’m supposed to do. And if we truly believe that God is in charge of all of this, that also means God is in charge of our money.

Above all, though, I mainly want to encourage each of you to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what it is that you give. And if I only get one thing across to you today, let it be this: I want you to consider these two questions:

What do you give? What are you willing to share? And how is it that you go about making that decision?

If you can already answer these questions, that’s great. If not, then I would suggest you consider doing this before Stewardship Dedication Sunday on November 16. Calculate your income; calculate your charitable giving; and then figure out what percentage you are currently giving away.

We are together in our sharing.

When Elisha decides to share God’s healing power with Naaman, he does so despite his King’s assumption of treachery. It is not Elisha’s own glory he’s interested in; he doesn’t even leave the house. Nor is it the glory of Israel. No doubt he knows how the Jordan River compares to Aram’s own rivers. He invites Naaman into this healing because he knows that God’s power will be revealed.

But when Naaman is met not by the prophet but by one of his servants, he is furious. He has made this incredible effort to come all this way. He has stooped to cross into enemy territory. He deserves to be met by this Man of God. Instead, Elisha passes a note. “Do you want to be healed? Check one: yes; no.” Shouldn’t a man as great as Naaman be received with all of the greatness his status and standing require?

Friends: we share what we share not for our own sake. We don’t even share what we share for Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s sake. We share what we share for God’s sake. We know that God is generous. And our desire should be to become conduits of generosity, so that it flows from God, through us, and out into the world.

After all, it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it.

This past week I learned that several families who are members of other churches give to Oglethorpe Presbyterian financially, week in and week out. Some of them have historic connections to us; but others have a relatively tenuous relationship. And yet, they give.

I was particularly stunned when I learned that a couple of these families are members of Buckhead Church, where Andy Stanley preaches.

It turns out that, a while back, Andy had challenged his congregation to tithe – that is, to give a straight up 10% of their income away. And, he went on to say, don’t give it to Buckhead Church. Several of these families took this to heart. And knowing Oglethorpe, they decided to share that tithe through us.

I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that Buckhead is Naaman to our Elisha, or the other way around. I don’t think that’s the point here. Instead, this story underscores the message of generosity about as clearly as I can imagine: it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it. And it’s not as important where you give, but that you give, and do so intentionally.

Every year, we ask you to prayerfully consider your pledge. This year, I ask you to consider your pledge both prayerfully and thoughtfully.


Read Full Post »

Focus is not what we think it is…

Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a praying church. That is not a startling revelation all by itself. Many churches pray. We pray before meetings, when we meet for lunch, before worship, during worship, after worship…prayer is an important part of everything we do.

What I mean when I say that Oglethorpe is a praying church is that prayer has grown in what it means to us in the past few years. Our prayer list, once an opportunity to list members in need of prayer, has grown into a ministry of its own, with far more names of people outside than inside our congregation. Our practice of asking for prayers during the service has multiplied as well: from a trickle of a card here and there to a consistent flow of praise and concern. Since January, we have been working at developing a daily habit of prayer in our lives. When Lent began, we kicked things into overdrive, expressing our prayers in many ways: through words, silence, and even through song.

And today, as we turn our attention to Jesus and the blind man, our focus turns to…focus.

I am the last person in the world to talk about focus. I can be too easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. It is a gift when multitasking is required; but when I want to dedicate my energy to one thing, it is maddening. For me, focus takes discipline. Repetition. Habit. When I talk about developing a daily habit of prayer, the temptation to pay attention to more interesting things is great. And so, for me, daily prayer takes practice, because I am prone to want immediate results. It takes grace, because I will drop the ball more than once. It takes creativity, because what focuses me today will not be what focuses me tomorrow. And it takes God, because I cannot do this on my own.

So in an effort to focus my focus today, I want to suggest four thoughts about prayer. I am hoping that one or more of these will land with you, and give you focus in your prayer and practice.

First, prayer is a process.

Prayer is not something that comes to us naturally. It takes practice before it takes form. Think of learning to write. First, we have to learn how to hold a pen. Second, we have to develop the muscles in our hands. Third, we have to learn the motions required to make letters recognizable. It is only after years of practice that we can write without thinking carefully about each minute step.

You see, process is a part of the life of faith. Because faith lives in that world of the intangible, we tend to miss this point. But it’s an important one. When Jesus heals the blind man, we know that he could’ve said, “you are healed” and be done with it. Instead, he first makes mud out of spit and dirt. He then rubs it in the man’s eyes. And finally, he tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. When the man does, it is then that he is able to see. The process is crucial to the healing. The man’s faithful response, of trusting Jesus enough to go wash, is essential for the healing to be complete. I suspect that his role in finishing the healing is what makes him own it, what gives him the willingness to stand up to the crowds and the Pharisees and call them on their hypocrisy.

What is true about faith being a process is also true about prayer. It takes time and patience to develop the muscle memory to pray. And before we get there, our prayers are likely to be chunky, indecipherable. Since January, I have been encouraging you to use the template on the back of the white pew card. It’s not a magic formula, but if you find yourself still holding your prayer pen like it’s a murder weapon, this is as good a process as any to start building up those muscles.

Prayer is a process.

Second, prayer is personal.

The way you pray will be different from the way someone else prays. Cheryl mentioned last week how her most prayerful times can be on the tractor – no one can bother her, and she can run over anyone who tries. My prayers of late have been ones with eyes wide open, sitting in coffee shops and restaurants. My quiet refrain has been, “Who should I pray for?” There are days that nothing comes through clearly; but more often than not, I get some kind of clarity: I see someone that has been on my mind of late, and we end up in conversation; my wandering thoughts end up focusing on one of you and your life, and I lift that up in prayer. For me, and the way I am wired, the paradox is that distractions bring me focus.

Jesus knew the importance of personalized encounters. If playfulness was called for, he toyed with words. If bluntness was needed, he flipped over tables. If compassion was necessary, he wept. And with the man born blind, he saw the whole experience as an opportunity not just to heal, but also to call the Pharisees to account for their own blind spots. And through it all, the man isn’t simply an object lesson in the battle; he becomes an outspoken critic of the Pharisees and a powerful witness to the power of Jesus. His healing is much deeper than gaining his sense of sight; it is about gaining his sense of self as he understands his relationship with this Jesus.

What about you? Maybe you’re like me, looking for a way to hack your short attention span for prayer. Or perhaps you require utter silence…or a candle to stare into, or a phrase or song to run through your mind. Maybe drawing or journaling or doodling would help bring clarity. Or perhaps it’s a walk in the woods, or around the neighborhood that will give you the ability to free your spirit of what weighs it down, to bring your mind to focus on what God desires for you. My suggestion is that you experiment…play with different kinds of prayer until you find what fits you.

Because prayer is personal.

Third, prayer is about results.

What is it that prayer does for you? Is it measurable? Definable? If you read the literature about what prayer does to our brains, we are just beginning to understand the possibilities. But what we do know is that prayer matters. It is a practice that over time can rewire our brain. It increases our ability to concentrate and to have empathy toward others.

From my own experience, I can tell you that following this particular formula of prayer has definitively heightened my awareness of the world around me and where it is that God wants my attention. It is seeing these results that convinces me that we should grow our life of prayer here at Oglethorpe.

Results tend to speak for themselves. When the Pharisees grill the man born blind about his healing encounter with Jesus, he simply points to the results: I was blind, and now I see. What more proof do you need that he is a man of God? The Pharisees, religious gatekeepers of their day, are fixated on Jesus’ lack of regard for the religious rules. After all, he is a Sabbath breaker. How can a scofflaw be a healer? Surely, there must be something else at work here! Maybe it’s a different man? Maybe his parents would help us identify the issue?

But in the end, the Pharisees cannot argue with the results. He was born blind; but now he sees. End of story.

If this is the result of faith, can you imagine what Oglethorpe would look like if each of us spent our days attuned to God’s desires? Our ability to make faithful decisions, to shape ministries that serve the community, to invite, welcome, and encourage those not only who come through our doors, but with whom we come in contact – all would grow measurably, simply because we have spent five minutes a day asking God to make us more aware!

Prayer is about results.

And finally, prayer is unbelievable.

Since our story is about a blind man given sight, I’m not sure there’s much more to say about how outrageous the life of faith can be. The Pharisees can’t believe it; the crowds can’t believe it. Jesus’ healing is, quite clearly, unbelievable. And yet, it happens.

Oglethorpe is a praying church. And if we become a community focused on prayer, focused on asking God to move and attune and shape and stir us for what God desires, we won’t believe what will happen.

Because, in the end, focus is not what we think it is. In fact, focus is a Latin word that means “fireplace”. In other words, until very recently in human history, the focus was a literal place. It was where people would gather for warmth, huddling around the very sparks that kept them both safe and alive.

Can prayer be our focus? Can it be the very thing that gives us purpose, guidance, direction, life itself?

Read Full Post »

ImageAt table with our enemies.

The scene shifts in our 23rd Psalm this morning. The Lord, Yahweh, is not only our shepherd, but also our host. We are welcomed into the heavenly abode, where a table has been spread before us.

The meaning of the phrase is not immediately clear. Is the table spread before our enemies so that we might sit together? If so, that’s a radical notion of reconciliation. Or is it that this is all done so that our enemies might see how beloved we are, a kind of meal-based rubbing it in their faces? If so, that seems to be petty, but also pretty satisfying.

Keep in mind that the psalms are, by and large, prayers. Whatever you might think about their authorship or the purpose and meaning of Scripture, these prayers were prayed by people. Human beings, like you and me. That doesn’t take away from their power at all, or that they were Spirit-led in their writings. Each week, we gather as a community to read and re-read these passages, assuming that they have meaning not only for the time in which they were written, but also for the time in which we live. And I don’t think this is possible unless God is intimately involved in the writing – and the reading.

If we are honest, though, we know that our prayers are not always on the mark. We pray for things all the time that we should know better than to pray for. Like any obsessed Braves’ fan, I know I have asked God to intervene in playoff action every now and then. Do I really think that the balance of the universe hangs on whether or not Craig Kimbrel gets another save? Probably not…

The point is this: the prayers of the ancients were no better or worse than our own. And there were times when they prayed for the vanquishing of a foe when, perhaps, they ought to have been praying for something a little more eternal, lasting, holy.

I think that might be the case with our Psalm text today. While the meaning may be unclear at first blush, a deeper look clarifies that the author is writing about retribution. The table is prepared for me – not me and my enemies, just me. And the table is prepared in the presence my enemies – the word in Hebrew does not mean “near”, but against them. What the psalmist wants to say is that this table is mine, and nobody else is even gonna get so much as a crumb from it. That may be the case, but I’m not sure that’s what God wants to say.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. When we look at the whole of Scripture, there are lessons that point to God giving victory over foes and against incredible odds. And when that happens, the victory is God’s. And there are lessons that point to God’s presence even in the midst of defeat; because the victory is still God’s, no matter where we might be for the moment.

What we also see, time and time again, are incredible stories of unlikely forgiveness and reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their parents. Jacob and Esau’s bitter sibling rivalry gives way to the embrace of brotherly love. King Cyrus of Persia frees the Israelites from their Babylonian Captivity, and the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt with the help of Assyrians and Phoenicians. Judas, the betrayer, is at the table when bread is broken. Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who put him to death. Saul, the persecutor of early Christians, becomes one of their leaders.

Whatever the psalmist might have intended, the overarching story of salvation is that enemies do sit at table together in the kingdom of God.

Some of you have heard of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. In 1943, his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent 47 days on a life raft before he was rescued from the sea…by his Japanese captors. He spent the next two years being tortured in a POW camp. That experience tormented him for years, and his life story was all too familiar to those who have ever experienced the horrors of war and post-traumatic stress: nightmares, addiction, broken relationships…Somehow, along the way, he was convinced to go to a Billy Graham revival. Right then and there, he became a Christian and began to understand what forgiveness means. Since then, Zamperini has returned to Japan several times, seeking out former captors so that he could experience that forgiveness face to face. And at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, he was invited to carry the torch, as the Japanese crowds cheered him on.

I don’t know what Louis Zamperini is made of. But I do know that his life story finds its inspiration in God’s story. And that is the story we see in our Scripture lessons today, where enemies meet in the most unlikely of ways.

Take the amazing story of Naaman, the head of the Aramean army. Ancient Aram and Israel were rival nations – we read about that in our lesson, as an Israelite girl is taken captive by an Aramean raiding party. Through their prisoner, the Arameans learn about the powerful Israelite prophet Elisha, who might just be able to cure the general’s leprosy. Much to the chagrin of the Israelite king, he does. There is no requirement of a non-aggression pact, no cease fire is signed. Elisha provides for Naaman’s healing, and he refuses to take payment for it.

To get an idea of how insane this is, imagine for a moment that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaeda, comes to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City for free cancer treatment. It’s unthinkable – and yet, here it is: an enemy general is healed of leprosy. And the purpose is to give witness to the holiness of Yahweh, the divine shepherd.

Even though the scene in Luke is less military, it is no less unbelievable. Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of the infamous rabbi. Among them is diminutive Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He is well known, and despised, by all around him. Tax collectors, after all, were Jews who took money from other Jews and gave it to the hated Roman occupiers. He is, in short, a traitor. When Jesus calls him down from the tree, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd think Zacchaeus is going to get his come-uppance. Instead, Jesus wants to be his guest, elevating Zacchaeus’ status right there in front of God and everybody. And, perhaps most importantly, he does all of this before Zacchaeus offers to repay everyone he has swindled. A relationship with Jesus does not come as a result of righteous living. Instead, a relationship with Jesus paves the way for doing what is right.

The kingdom of God, therefore, operates very, very differently from our own world. Enemies sit at table together: Barack Obama and Edward Snowden; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Alex Rodriguez and anyone on the planet. It is a concept that absolutely baffles the imagination. If God is the host, then God is the one who gets to send the invitations. We may not like everyone on the guest list, but remember: it’s not our party.

Where does this leave you? Imagine yourself in the place of the psalmist. You are ready to sit down at this fantastic spread. You are looking forward to rubbing it in the face of your worst enemy. Suddenly, you realize that God has set another place…for them. Who is it? An ex? A former neighbor, or co-worker? A nameless, faceless other? What is it that wells up within you? Repulsion? Anger? Surprise? Joy? Forgiveness? Are you already looking for another table or calling for the check?

Friends, this faith stuff is not for the faint of heart. And don’t misunderstand me: there is much, much more to reconciliation than simply sitting down at a table together, “letting bygones be bygones.” If you have read any of the stories of those who have experienced such a healing, you know the courage and pain it involves. From South Africa’s post-Apartheid challenges to prison system programs here in the U.S. for victim-offender reconciliation, forgiveness is hard, hard work. And there are times when reconciliation can only possible beyond the grave, because it needs God’s first-hand involvement that badly. No matter what, if we want to call ourselves Christians, then, at the very least, we need to recognize this: at the heavenly banquet, there is room for all. No matter the distance that might lie between you and your enemy, the distance between you and God has already been bridged; because the victory belongs to God, and God alone.


Read Full Post »

How often do we use the phrase “God’s will” as an excuse?

As we continue our focused look at the Lord’s Prayer, we come upon “thy will be done.” What follows helps to flesh them out fuller: “on earth, as it is in heaven,” wording that seems to indicate that God’s will is perfect in heaven, and we’d sure like it to be that way on earth. More about those thoughts in the weeks to come.

Today, my question is this: what do we mean when we say “God’s will”?

For the language geeks in our midst, let’s get the rest of the phrase out of the way. “Thy”, of course, means “your”, and reminds us of the intimate relationship we seek in prayer with God. “Be done” has a Beatles-esque tone of “Let It Be”, a desire for God’s wishes to be fulfilled right here in front of us. If we take the verb of the New Testament Greek in which the Lord’s Prayer is written, or in the ancient Aramaic which Jesus spoke, there’s a subtle spice that gets added, so we translate it as, “let your will come into being” or “let your will be born.”

But what, exactly is God’s will?

When we talk about something that we “will”, we mean “desire” or “hope” or “want”. When we talk about God’s will, these synonyms work just as well: God’s will is what God wants; what God desires. It can even be understood as what God’s purpose is.

And very quickly, we move from linguistics to philosophy and theology. If it’s God’s will, and God is omnipotent, then it just is, right? I mean, as Presbyterians, we talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is in charge. So if God’s in charge, and something happens, it must be because God wanted it to happen, right?

This is the place where most of us get tripped up on the whole “faith” thing. It seems like a straightforward, either/or proposition.

On the one hand, God’s running the show, in which case, all the bad stuff  that happens is stuff that God is doing. This seems to be the position that the insurance industry takes, categorizing the ravages of nature as “acts of God”. And if this is true, then we can either swallow hard and assume that there’s some bigger purpose of which we are unaware; we can realize that God is just a big, mean jerk; or that there is no God and life is a series of random events.

On the other hand, God’s not running the show, and again, we’re left with the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, or that God is just one of many options out there vying for control, and our choice to believe in God is just that: a choice.

I don’t know about you, but none of these seem like particularly compelling options to me. If I’m going to believe in God, then I want God to have it all figured out. And if there is no God, well, then let’s just go home and stock up bath on salts for the Zombie Apocalypse.

You have probably already anticipated the punchline here, that there might be another way at looking at all of this. Either that, or we just stop right here, and we’ll all end up wondering why we wasted our time getting out of bed and braving Fahrenheit 451 out there today.

I ultimately don’t know that I have a satisfying answer; but I do have an answer that works for me. And a glimpse of it lies in the lesson from Mark that we read this morning.

Jesus goes with the disciples across the Sea of Galilee. No sooner has he set foot on dry ground than a VIP, Jairus, approaches Jesus, asking him to use some of his magical healing powers on his daughter, who is near death. Jesus begins making his way through the crowd; and as he does, a woman reaches out and touches his clothes, and is immediately healed. Jesus senses that he has lost a little bit of his healing power, and so stops to figure out what happened. By the time the delay is over, Jairus’ daughter is dead, and Jesus seems to have been thwarted. There was apparently enough juice in the battery for one healing, and the woman in the crowd got it. Too bad for Jairus.

But no: Jesus continues with his original mission, arriving at Jairus’ home, and entering with his inner circle of three disciples, Peter, James, and John. The young girl is healed, and the crowd is stunned.

So what was God’s will here? If we really believe that Jesus was more than just an awesome teacher, or a barnstorming faith healer, if we really are willing to believe in the absurd idea that Godliness rested within Jesus himself, then we can rephrase the question this way: What was Jesus trying to do? And what is this story trying to teach us about God anyway?

Jesus arrives on the shore. Did he know Jairus would approach him about his daughter? And as he made his way through the crowd, did he know that this woman would reach out in search of healing? And if so, why did he seem not to know who touched him? Did he know that he would be delayed, and that Jairus’ daughter would die? If so, why did he decide to stop, instead of making a beeline for Jairus’ house?

I don’t know about you, but I find a hint in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus addresses God as “Abba”, Father, Daddy, Papa.

God is our parent. And we are God’s children. And much like a parent, God is in charge of us. And part of being in charge means leaving us to our own devices, giving us options, choices, free will. Parents never want their children to experience pain. And yet, the only fool-proof way to keep them from experiencing pain is to shelter them so totally that it ultimately serves them no good whatsoever. That’s the risk inherent in parenting, and the question that parents always ask: how much freedom do I give my child so that they have the chance to make mistakes, learn, and grow? And, at the same time, how do I keep them safe from the consequences of poor choices, whether theirs, or someone else’s?

Ultimately, I think, it’s not about what Jesus knew, but about what Jesus did. As he landed on the shore, the crowd saw him approached by a man of power, who came to him humbled and vulnerable. As he made his way through the crowd, his mere presence brought miraculous healing to a woman who had been sick for twelve years. And by the time he got to Jairus’ house, he found himself with the opportunity not just to heal the girl, but to raise her from the dead!

I believe, with all my heart, that God intends nothing but good for this world. And part of that good is giving us, just as any good parent would, just enough freedom to make our choices. And as a result of those choices, whether ours or someone else’s, this world is far from perfect. It is broken, and deeply so. “God’s will” does not let us off the hook, because our choices are often in direct opposition to what God desires. But that does not lessen, by any degree, God’s sovereignty. God is in charge. This world is very imperfect. And what that paradox means is that hope has the final word. God does not desire evil or suffering. But God can work through places where evil and suffering have been at work to show a better way, a healing way, a way that brings life out of death.

And one of the ways that this comes to be is through prayer, as we open ourselves to God’s desires, as we hope to align our choices with God’s own.


Read Full Post »

I am one year older than my cousin, Ian. I have always been a little bit taller than him, and he has always been much stronger than me. And even though he grew up in Boston and I in Atlanta, meaning we only saw each other a couple of times a year, we have always been close; which is why, as kids, we were always in competition.

Our parents tell us that we were always trying to outdo each other, and I have a few memories which would seem to confirm that. One is of each of us trying to be taller than the other (remember who has the natural advantage), climbing on top of successively higher pieces of furniture until we could climb no further, and he knocked me off.

I am also confident that our parents were trying to pick sides. One Christmas, we got Batman costumes which, we were told, were absolutely identical. But if you really paid attention, there was a subtle, but important difference on the stitching of the cape. On my cape, the stitching revealed that the cape was plastic. On his, though plastic also, the stitching gave the appearance of fabric.

It’s good to know I’ve moved on.

The truth is that competition comes naturally to us. Even for those of us who are not athletically inclined, we will find something to compare ourselves with others and compete about that: income, success, happiness; or even undesirable things, like suffering. When we win, there is this little surge of adrenaline, like watching Sid Bream slide into home plate to clinch the National League pennant. And when we lose, the memory can linger for quite a while, like poor Bill Buckner, letting a routine grounder go between his legs, ultimately costing the Red Sox the World Series.

Competition is emotionally trying. And yet, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is using competition as a metaphor for the life of faith. Writing to a cosmopolitan crowd, he recalls the energy of the public stadium, where athletes (which literally means “wrestlers”) compete for prizes: laurels, medals, things that are of only momentary significance. We, on the other hand, compete for a prize that is eternal.

What is Paul’s intention here? Is he trying to convince the Corinthians that they have to try harder to achieve God’s blessings? Are there limited slots on the heavenly medal stand, and so they are in competition with others to see who ultimately wins and loses, climbing on the back of furniture, comparing the insignificant details of children’s play things? Doubtful…and yet, it is clear that Paul is suggesting that one of the marks of faith is an athletic one.

What does it mean to be athletic? I want to suggest that there are two characteristics. The first is focus.

Elite athletes train with a focus that can border on maniacal. There is the physical focus, learning and re-learning basic skills so that they become ingrained in muscle memory. But there is also the psychological side. As Yogi Berra once wisely said, “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”

I recently watched the film Man on Wire which tells the story of a French tight-rope walker, Philippe Petit, as he dreams, plans, and executes stringing a wire between the roofs of the World Trade Center and then walking across. Though not exactly competing, Petit demonstrates the focus of a dedicated athlete. He is physically fit, practicing the basics of wire walking over and over and over again. For this particular feat, he assembles a whole team of planners, who scout out the location, map out the physics, and accompany him on his mission.

Petit describes that moment some 35 years ago of stepping out onto the wire, having to make the decision to shift his weight from the foot on the building to the foot in thin air. It was, to say the least, nerve wracking; but once he did it, that’s when the concentration kicked in. Once he stepped back off the wire and into the waiting arms of New York’s finest, he was stunned to learn he had crossed the distance eight times, spending 45 minutes suspended above the city; such was his focus.

Do we have that kind of focus when it comes to our faith? Not the kind of concentration that would give us to daredevilish feats, mind you, but the kind that works always to keep God in mind? Do we discipline ourselves in the basics, prayer, reading the Bible, worshiping, serving, to the point that they take on the character of muscle memory, something we do without so much as thinking about it? And do we, in the deepest depths of our mind and soul, keep a focus on the kingdom, on being in on God’s dreams for this world, the way God desires us to be? Do we measure ourselves against this yardstick, not in an effort to beat ourselves up or compare ourselves against others, but to know where we are and where we want to be, as Paul writes, “staying alert and in top condition.”

Focus keeps us looking ahead. After all, the backwards glance could cost the runner the race.

The other characteristic of athletic faith, I want to suggest, is health. For athletes, this means physical health – eating well, sleeping well. When we look at the gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus cares about physical health as well. The leper comes to Jesus, looking for cleansing. And Jesus obliges, granting him the healing he so desperately wants. For the leper, this was about so much more than just clean skin. This was about inclusion, about moving from the margins into society’s mainstream. Jesus desires wholeness in life – and that wholeness is both physical and spiritual.

Physical health may not seem like it has a direct parallel with a life of faith, but then again, we do talk about the church as the body of Christ. Is the body healthy? Are we doing the things we need to do to keep the body healthy? Here at OPC, we are in the midst of a process of self-examination, taking a look at our ministries, seeing where both our health and our frailties are. Many of you have filled out the congregational survey, and many of you took part in our town hall meeting two weeks ago. And as the elders have discussed, listened, and prayed about all of this, I believe that it is an athletic faith at OPC which is their hope.

In the coming weeks and months, you will be hearing more from the Session about both our focus and our health, as well as plans for keeping ourselves in shape. And as we do so, I want to offer this note of caution: we do this all not for our own sake. If we do, if we are comparing ourselves with the income, or the success, or the happiness of other congregations; if we are building ourselves up, moving to ever higher pieces of furniture in an effort to tower over others; then we leave ourselves open to being knocked down.

Instead, we do all of this for the sake of God and God’s desires. We practice the disciplines of faith, not to outdo others, but so that we would keep our focus on God. And we take stock of our faithful fitness, not so that we can earn our rightful place on the medal stand, but because God has already given us that eternal prize, that gift of grace. And so, motivated by gratitude, we strive for God’s glories.

Like the healed leper, nothing could keep us silent about it. We want the world to know what God has done for us!

So, my sisters and brothers, I want to leave you with this question: what is it that God has done for you? What is it that being part of this community, here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow, means to you and your walk with God? Have you experienced a moment, even just a moment, whether in worship, or fellowship, or in prayer, where you know that God has been at work in your life? I know you all well enough to know that most, if not all, of you can answer “yes” to this. If so, then I know that the race is before us. May we run it with grace and joy!


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »