Archive for September, 2016

27
Sep
16

HOW GREAT THOU ART!

 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

    the moon and the stars that you have established;

 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

    mortals that you care for them?”

Psalm 8:3-4, NRSV

 

This is a hard admission to make… especially for a professional “word guy.”

But the truth is: sometimes words just fall short. Or ring hollow. Or both.

Pictures are a huge improvement. But sometimes they fall a little flat, too.

Sometimes God’s glory just has to be experienced instead of explained.

That insight will stand as Takeaway #1 from the vacation we just returned from.

As some of you know, Joan and I spent the last two weeks traveling to and touring around the amazing state of Utah.

During the course of that time we drove 4,255 miles, saw four National Parks, three state parks, two Tribal Areas, and approximately 1,563,412 awesome and amazing sights. Here are a couple of pictures just to whet your appetite a little:

on-horses  mesa-arch

tree-gnarl

If you have been to this part of Utah before, you know what I am talking about. There are so many areas that offer breathtaking views of some truly indescribable natural beauty.

And the crazy thing is just how DIFFERENT all of these places are from one another. There is the dry desert area near Moab that produces one type of rock formation, a totally different misty, forested scenery in and around Zion National Park, and then some strange, otherworldly moonscapes near Bryce Canyon.

We had some scorching days above 90 degrees, thunder and lightning and hail, and one morning where we awoke to a light blanket of snow on the car… all within a few days and a few hundred miles of one another.

If a person traveling through this same area were even halfway awake and paying attention, it would be impossible – in my opinion – to be anything but completely awestruck and humbled by the experience.

When you consider the millions of years of time these mountains represent… the small and yet profound effect of wind and water and seismic pressure that have all conspired to carve these ornate and magical shapes out of rock and sand… the perfect harmony of colors… the blend of light and shadow and tree and grass that come together so perfectly… again, words fall painfully short of doing it justice.

A trip like this helps put me in my place. I encounter this kind of natural majesty and realize just how small I am in the face of eternal time and space.

AND YET… the miracle of it all is that the God who designed and activated all of the processes that produced the mountains, the stars, the forests, and the bighorn sheep is the same God who made YOU and loves you more deeply and profoundly than you can possibly imagine.

Whoa! My little three pounds of brain is just too small to comprehend that kind of awesomeness I’m afraid.

Whether it takes regular trips to the mountains, time spent meditating on scripture, or something else entirely, it is good to encounter this kind of humbling reminder of our own mortality and God’s amazing eternality now and then.

As much as we sometimes like to believe otherwise, you and I are NOT the center of the universe or the reason for its existence.

My God how great thou art!

20
Sep
16

“Easier Said Than Done”

broken-down-car-620x480

Try as I might, I have to confess that there are several categories of people I really have a hard time extending Christ’s love toward.

Some of those categories include: people who are deliberately mean… people who see only the negative side of every situation… people whose worlds revolve exclusively around them and their needs, and fans of Mixed Martial Arts, to name just a few. (Just kidding there on that last one. Sort of…)

But the person I find the most difficult to love, without a doubt, is the HYPOCRITE. You know the hypocrite… the person who says one thing and does exactly the opposite.

I have an especially hard time loving the hypocrite when I see him staring back at me from the bathroom mirror.

It’s like this: a few weeks ago I preached a sermon that centered on the parable of the Good Samaritan. By way of a quick recap, this is the Bible story about the man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the road that runs between Jerusalem and Jericho. As Jesus tells the story, good, God-fearing, church-going people – including a priest – passed by on the other side of the road, ignoring the battered man. But then another man stopped and helped him. The twist of the story is that it was a man who belonged to a group who were sworn enemies of the injured man… the Samaritans. The Samaritan stopped, bandaged the man’s wounds, carried him to a nearby inn, and paid for his care.

He sacrificed on behalf of a total stranger.

In the course of delivering this sermon I took a few swipes at the sanctimonious religious people who were more concerned with their ceremonial life than with ministering to the needs of their neighbor. Bam! Slam! Take that, you sanctimonious religious people who don’t practice the faith you preach! You blankety-blank HYPOCRITES!

And then – faster than you can say “hypocrite” – I became one of them

I came home from work a few days after preaching that sermon and found a strange white car parked on the curb right across from my driveway. It was parked in an odd place… fairly inconveniently placed, but I didn’t think much about it.

I didn’t see anyone with the car immediately, but then when I looked closer I saw a young African-American man sitting on a bench in my neighbor’s back yard. We have a small, close-knit neighborhood and so I immediately recognized him as someone I didn’t recognize.

At this point, the Samaritan in Jesus’ story would have identified the stranger on the bench as a person in trouble… a person with a problem that he himself was not able to solve.

The Samaritan would then have abandoned all concerns except the concern for figuring out the exact nature of the young man’s problem and what he could do to help solve it.

And what was I doing? I was peering out my front door periodically to see if the car had been moved yet, wondering if someone was on the way to pick up the young man, speculating on how the white car got there in the first place, and hoping to heck it would be gone by the time I had to leave for work the next day. That is… my important ceremonial religious work.

In terms of my actions, I was huddling safely in my home doing NOTHING. In baseball parlance, I had come up to the plate and utterly whiffed.

I’ve noticed that sometimes in life when I whiff, I pull out the phrase “easier said than done” to excuse my whiffing. It is a verbal device I use to excuse myself from engaging in risky or complex ethical action.

Do you ever do this?

It is a way of granting myself a kind of cheap grace. The use of the “easier said than done” phrase suggests that KNOWING the right thing is very nearly as good as actually DOING it. It conveniently ignores the truth posited by the writer of the book of James when he said, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17, NRSV)

Who knows what the situation was with the young man and the white car? Who knows what I could have done to help? Who knows what the outcome might have been had I walked over and tried to help?

Who knows indeed? But what I do know is this: I could have done something and I chose not to.

Today I am praying for forgiveness. I am praying for courage to match my convictions. I am praying that I will be granted the chance to come to the plate again soon and not whiff.

And I am praying that the young man in the white car is OK. But I know that if he is, it is no thanks to me.

Abundant blessings to you!

13
Sep
16

Things Fall Apart

blown-out-shoes-in-guate

Things fall apart.

Besides being the title of the epic 1958 novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, this statement is one of those pesky immutable truths about life.

“Fallingapartness” just seems to be a characteristic that is hard-wired into the way things are.

If you’re a thing – even an exquisitely well-designed and well-built thing – you WILL fall apart at some point down the road.

I know this because I have recently had to replace some things of mine that fell apart.

My razor became dull and wouldn’t shave my face properly anymore. It had to go.

A wonderful shirt my wife gave me quite a while ago finally got a little too threadbare and was regrettably relocated to the ragbag.

In my life I have had cars that have fallen apart… furniture… lawn mowers… shoes (see photo above)… baseball gloves… tree houses… pants… tree houses, and front porches that have all unceremoniously bitten the proverbial dust.

I have seen other sad disintegrations in my time. You can’t really call them “things,” but I have also seen relationships, worldviews, theological positions, certainties, reputations, and trusts fall apart as well.

If you have reached a certain age (like me!), you have also become aware that in some very specific and highly annoying ways, parts of YOU have also become prone to a bad case of finiteness.

And I am not just talking about my silky smooth jump shot either.

Sometimes we get the feeling that things are falling apart more easily or at an increased rate of speed than they did previously. We grumble and harrumph and say things like, “Well, back in MY day…” and wax poetically about the Glory Days of High Quality.

(But here’s a little secret I’ll let you in on… It’s not true. The quality of most things is actually better today than it used to be. It is just our mature stage of life that makes us yearn for the things of the past.)

The reality is: the process of falling apart is natural. It is part of life. It is called ENTROPY. And it is inevitable. Job 14:18 reminds us that eventually even, “… the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place…” Old things go away and new things come and take their place. That fountain of wisdom, Disney Studios, calls it “The circle of life.”

We rail against the degradation of the world around us for a lot of different reasons; we don’t like it because it is unexpected… it is expensive… it is inconvenient among other things. But most of all I suspect we rebel against entropy because it reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us that we ourselves will ultimately fall apart.

But take heart, my fellow mortals. All is not lost. Even in the face of the inescapability of our mortality, there is a life ring of hope for us each to cling to. And not surprisingly, it comes to us from our gracious and merciful Creator.

In countless passages of scripture, through the voice of the prophet or an apostle or some other designated messenger, God extends to us the promise of a renewed heart and mind. Isaiah tells the beleaguered Babylonian captives, “…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, NRSV).

Paul addresses his wayward flock in Corinth and offers them this comforting reassurance: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16, NRSV).

The psalmist sings joyfully of the renewing power of God’s spirit in Psalm 104:30 – “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”

We can – and should! – exercise. We can and should eat right. We can spend a ton of money of face creams and concealers and make up and even Botox. But there is really only one sure way to renew and rejuvenate this finite, failing, falling apart life we have inherited… it is through the daily renewing of our Spirit through faith in the Living God.

And the best part is: it can happen right here and right now! TODAY! Hallelujah!

Abundant blessings to you today.

06
Sep
16

preaching 911

sadness-image

The year 2011 was the last time September 11 fell on a Sunday. First, perhaps because it was the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and second, perhaps because it was my first year in a new church, I felt compelled to preach about the events of September 11, 2001.

According to my files here, it was a message of hope. We concluded the service by passing out of some of those rubber bracelets that had the words “CHOOSE HOPE” embossed on them. Furthering the HOPE theme, the bracelets were green… the color of life and growth.

But I have to tell you; as we approach another September 11 Sunday this year, I confess I do not feel driven, inspired, compelled, or called to preach about the terror attacks of 9/11/01.

I wonder why not?

There is no danger that I will ever forget what happened on September 11, 2001. The shock, sorrow, horror and loss of life on that day were too dramatic to ever put out of my mind. Those images and emotions are seared there forever. (But stop for a moment and think about this: no child under the age of 15 today has any personal recollection of the events of that horrible day. Is that incredible or what?)

Since that day there have been countless investigations, speeches, sermons, books, and even a movie or two… all trying to answer the unanswerable: WHY? Why did it happen?

But my own “why” question is very different: why am I so very disinclined to preach about it again this Sunday?

As I ponder this question, two possible answers come to mind. One of these possible answers is healthy and positive, the other not so much.

On the healthy side, I think my reluctance is connected with a measure of healing we have experienced as a nation. For a very long time, there was a large, open wound in our collective psyche called “911.” Like the death of a dearly beloved family member, those digits tore at our hearts every time we said them out loud.

And so, in our grief, we needed the solace of biblical and cultural wisdom to help heal that wound.

While no wound of grief is ever completely healed, the healing of this wound seems fairly advanced. Yes, the scar is still there, but much less visible than before.

And even though this will be the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks, there is another reason I am reluctant to make them the subject of this Sunday’s sermon.

It is because of the current state of our national dialogue on race, religion, and tolerance. And by “current state,” I mean, “the current degraded state…”

Right after the attacks initially came across our TV screens, Americans seemed to be unified by two emotions: sorrow and anger. We mourned the tragedy and senselessness of the innocent loss of life. But we were also mighty pissed off at the goons who planned this attack and carried it out.

Heck, we went to war over our anger!

And it seems that even today, our expressions of sadness and sorrow inevitably include shadings of righteous indignation about the “enemies of freedom” who “seek to destroy our way of life” as well as our iconic skyscrapers.

Let’s be clear: I do not at all dispute the legitimacy of the anger toward those who perpetrated this tragedy. It is absolutely valid. My problem is that I look around and see that we seem to be stuck today in an endless loop of fear and suspicion and intolerant invective these days directed toward the OTHERS. And by OTHERS I mean anyone who do not belong to the same demographic, psychographic, faith-o-graphic, or class-o-graphic group as the speaker.

In certain quarters we seem to be fixated on the narrative of a collapsing nation, besieged by slackers and scalawags within and monsters without. The authors of this narrative are all too eager to locate and eradicate those “enemies of freedom” so that we can wake up from this national nightmare get back to the way they believe things “are supposed to be.”

And too often, events like the anniversary of 9/11 are cynically used as a means to advance that xenophobic narrative.

And so the other part of my reluctance to preach about 9/11 comes because I just don’t want to be another instrument of feeding that narrative.

How about if instead we use the day to celebrate the healing God has granted us, pledge ourselves to make the day a day of reaching out to neighbors in acts of service (the real spirit of America) and praying prayers of gratitude for our first responders?

As luck would have it, I found a website (https://911day.org) that is dedicated to suggesting ways to help us do exactly those things!

Abundant blessings to you today!




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.