Monday, August 22, 2016

Heroes Welcome

"Heroes Welcome"
Jeremiah 1:1-10

I ran across a website this week that was really encouraging.  The name of the website is “My Hero”  (  It is a website dedicated to the everyday people who do things that serve others in selfless ways.  People can log onto the website and nominate people who have been their hero.  The stories you find there are what we might think of as simple acts, but meant so much to those who received from these heroes.

For example, there is Claudia Martinez, who with bright elastic bands and simple care is smoothing the edges of suffering for earthquake victims.  The 31-year-old Dominican tends to dozens of hospital patients who have made it across the border to her country, tenderly combing and braiding their hair for free.

Carrying a basket filled with colored elastic bands and a comb, Martinez comes every day to Santo Domingo's Dario Contreras hospital where injured people with broken bones and shattered lives come for healing.

Her task may seem trivial, but she believes restoring a bit of beauty and humanity to people who have lost everything and survived deplorable conditions is important.  Martinez says she just wants to make people feel "clean and a little bit better."

Or, there’s the story of Clara Hale, who in 1940 faced the most tragic thing in her life. Her husband died, leaving her with her two children. Desperate to find the resources to take care of her children, she got a job as a babysitter for children with mothers too busy to take care of their own children. She soon learned that she could become a licensed foster mother..

During the next 25 years, she was a foster mother to over 40 children, all with unique and different backgrounds and religions. Many of them were children whose mothers were drug addicts, or children who had contracted AIDs from their mothers.  Clara’s goal was to take in all of these children which no one wanted, and she accomplished that goal very well. Clara was a loving, generous mother to over 800 children in her life. She dedicated her whole life to these unwanted children. Her life ended with a great feeling in her heart that she had changed people's lives.

With so many scandals being reported in the news lately, we could easily be led to believe there are no heroes any more.  There are no great personalities that are being held up for others to emulate.  Only narcissistic, self-indulgent entertainers and politicians whose lives seem constantly out of control.

In a Time magazine article about the Millennials, one section had the heading which read, “Leaders:  Heroes Are Hard To Find.”  Listen to a portion of that section:
Today’s potential leaders seem unable to maintain their stature.  They have a way of either self-destructing or being decimated in the press, which trumpets their faults and foibles.  Says Christina Chinn, a 21 year old from Denver, “Now you get role models like our presidential candidates…--no one with real ideals.”

I have felt for a long time the need that the twenty-something generation is now beginning to articulate on a large scale:  the need for more heroes.  But the more I thought about trying to hone what I mean by a hero, the more I begin to fumble.  Once, the poet Robert Frost was asked, “What is poetry?”  His answer was classic.  “Poetry,” he said, “is something poets write.”  We may have to answer in the same way about the hero.  A hero is someone who does the heroic.  But then we’re right back where we started:  What does it meant to be heroic?

The inability to pin down a clear definition is compounded with the problem that the Time magazine article highlighted.  Many of the people who have been put forward as positive role models, even heroes, have self-destructed, or have not stood the scrutiny of the public eye.

That seems to be a reality that we would have to deal with in trying to figure out a definition of a hero or positive role model.  None will be found who will come out squeaky clean.  The Bible is unashamedly clear on this point.  All of it’s characters are real people with chinks in their heroic armor.  And those chinks aren’t just little spaces here and there, but large openings of vulnerability.  Abraham lied to save his own skin.  Jacob was a first class cheat.  Moses was a murderer and whiner.  David committed adultery, and then lead a cover-up that included murder.  Peter blasphemed and denied he ever had anything to do with Jesus.  Paul was a murderer and torturer of Christians.  And on and on.

Oliver Cromwell, once lord protector of England, Ireland and Scotland, was having a portrait of himself painted.  He never looked at it until it was done.  When he saw the finished work, he was quick to realize that the artist had left off several facial warts.  Cromwell then stormed those now famous words, “I want the portrait redone, warts and all.”

The significant characters in Scripture, we are also quick to realize, are all fashioned from the same clay as the rest of us.  Scripture portrays them “warts and all.’’  So, our definition of hero, if we are honest, can not include flawless character.  Perfection is not a part of what it’s going to mean to be heroic, or on a lesser scale, a good role model.

Another problem I run into when thinking about society’s need for some heroic personalities is in the form of a question:  What kind of living do heroes inspire?  What kind of living should they inspire?  It seems to me what happens most often is, instead of learning heroic behavior, we simply succumb to hero worship.  Rather than trying to forge a similar kind of positive lifestyle using the building blocks of what it means to be heroic, we more often just become worshippers of the positive.  We dress like the heroic, we talk like the heroic, but deep down there has been no significant change.  Instead of becoming people of more depth and character, we become simple coat tail riders.  We miss the fact that maybe we are supposed to assert ourselves toward being positive role models.

The real goal of having a role model, it seems to me, is not to be just like them, but instead to inspire us to find ways in which we can also be exemplary people given our individual characteristics and unique situations.

The role that God asked Jeremiah to model was that of truth speaker.  Jeremiah is someone who speaks the truth with passion.  There is an alarm in his voice.  He will tell us unflinchingly, as we look at his words in the coming Sundays, where we have fallen our faces.  He will warn us, honestly, where the traps are hidden along the way that seek to slow us down or sidetrack our devotion.

As a truth teller, Jeremiah’s words are not easy to listen to.  Not many model for us such utter honesty.  God gave Jeremiah a very difficult role to play.  God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says,
"Behold, I have put My words in your mouth
See, I have appointed you this day
over nations and over the kingdoms,
To pluck up and to break down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10)

God gives Jeremiah the role, through his words, to pull down people’s lives so that God can rebuild them.

In our dedication to God, the truth is, we are either in the process of become less or more.  Certainly God desires that we would constantly become more, not less.  Jeremiah, if we let him play his role in our lives, will give us the truth we need:  tearing down or building up.  It may be a little of both.

Eugene Peterson wrote:
A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency . . . and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.  A prophet angers us by rejecting and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are.  A prophet makes it difficult to continue with a sloppy or selfish life.

As we shall see, Jeremiah was a reluctant role model.  Time after time he complained to God about the role he felt he’d been forced into.  But yet, Jeremiah pushed on.  Jeremiah had such a heart for the people he spoke truth to, that at times it hurt his feelings more than the feelings of those he had to speak to.  That was the burden of the role he had to play.

Jeremiah becomes the kind of reluctant hero that surfaces in all imaginative literature.  In these kinds of stories the hero is often the person you would least expect.  In the legend of King Arthur, for example, the boy Arthur pulls the sword from the stone after all the champions--the expected heroes--have tried their hardest and failed.

In the imaginative tales of J.R.R. Tolkein, in The Lord Of The Rings, the heroes are characters who have no quality of the heroic about them.  There is nothing that would distinguish them as models of high morality or daring do.  Instead, Tolkein’s main characters are a couple of Hobbits named Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  They are stick-at-home kind of creatures who would rather just sit in their easy chair, smoke their pipes, read good books, and eat good food.

What makes both Bilbo and Frodo heroic role models, eventually, is that they are called to go on a quest of great and grave importance.  Their success or failure would determine the future of their people forever.  Both, in their turn, accepts the challenge.  In their quiet, simple, yet bumbling ways, they slip unnoticed into and conquer the threatening powers of evil.

As I said before, there is nothing about Bilbo or Frodo that would give you the impression that you were in the presence of greatness.  They were both normal, everyday characters who were called upon to accept a challenge that was larger than anything they had faced before.  It was simply in their willingness to accept the challenge that elevated Bilbo and Frodo into the level of the role model, even the hero.  It is one of the main themes of that set of books.

So, let’s put together what we’ve got so far concerning our definition of a role model and hero.  First, a hero is a real person, imperfect in some ways, and who must definitely be taken warts and all.  We will be disillusioned if we expect otherwise.

Secondly, a hero or role model, is someone we are not to worship or copy in a second-hand way.

And thirdly, heroes are the role models they are because they rise to the occasion when it is presented to them.  They use the talents they have--even their weaknesses--for the cause of God’s good.

That’s the kind of person Jeremiah the prophet was.  Jeremiah is a person we can look up to, someone we would unflinchingly call a positive role model.  Jeremiah is so, because he has a passion more for God than for himself.

It is this prophet and this prophet’s message that we will be focusing our attention upon in the coming weeks.  He is the kind of role model who is universal to time and culture because his message and his personality speak truth loud and clear to the excesses as well as the measly ways people choose to live.  He is the kind of role model who will challenge you to live a God-centered life.  He will make you squirm in his challenges.  He is a true hero in that he refuses to let us live life on his, or anyone’s coattails.  Instead he calls us to honestly live faithfully and creatively in our unique situations.

He is also a person not without some quirks and glitches.  We’ll have to accept those along the way.  As we move through Jeremiah, it is my hope that we will not just be imitators of him, but instead discover for ourselves, what it means to be faithfully heroic.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Faith On The Cruel Edges Of The World

"Faith On The Cruel Edges Of The World"
Hebrews 11:29--12:2

Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, got into trouble again with some off-hand comments about a middle-eastern couple, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention about their son, who had given his life as an American soldier by protecting the lives of his unit.  The week went on with Trump and the Khan family throwing statements back and forth at each other.  It was yet another sad week in the presidential election race.

The Kahn's son, Captain Humayun Khan, is buried in Arlington Cemetery.  Has anyone been there?  It is a sad and profound experience to look out over those thousands of uniform rows of white grave markers, and think of all the young men and women whose lives were ended in a war.   Viewing Arlington Cemetery had a silencing, and profound effect on me.  Thousands of young men and women, lying under the grass and trees, lives ended tragically in a time of war.

It’s a hard reality for me to grasp, totally.  Such a sacrifice.  Such a loss.  Men and women like Captain Khan who died for the value of freedom around the world.  18, 19, and 20 year olds.  What direction would human history have taken without the rows and rows of those grave markers?  Their deaths have a direct link with the history we are living today.

This is also especially true of the history of the church.  Our place as the people of God, followers of Jesus around the world, is a place that stands on the grave sites of Christian martyrs who gave their lives simply because they believed.

I want us to listen to a few of these stories of the martyrdom of the saints, and be sobered into profound silence at what they faced, what they endured, what they sacrificed, so we can sit here today, and worship.

James And Other Disciples
Somehow, perhaps because of his strict observance of the Law, the Pharisees thought they could get James, the brother of Jesus, (called, "James The Lesser") to discourage the people from believing. They asked him to stand at the pinnacle of the temple on Passover and speak.  Apparently, James agreed.
They brought him to the top of the temple, and they shouted to him from below:  "Oh, righteous one, in whom we are able to place great confidence; the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one. So declare to us, what is this way, Jesus?"  Obviously, this wasn't a very wise thing for them to do. James was ready to take full advantage of such a wonderful opportunity as this!
His words are memorable:  “Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!”
The Pharisees were horrified, but the people were not. The believers began shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!"  The Pharisees, realizing the awful mistake they'd made, began crying out, "Oh! Oh! The righteous one is also in error!"  This had little effect on the crowd.
So the next obvious thing to do was to push James down from the temple, letting the people know exactly what happens to those who dare to believe in Jesus.  As the people shouted, the Pharisees threw James from the pinnacle of the temple.
It didn't kill him.  He crawled to his knees and began to pray for them. "I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing."  This would not do! The Pharisees began to stone him as he prayed, while those from the roof rushed down to join the execution.
One of the priests shouted, "Stop! What are you doing! The righteous one is praying for you."  It was too late. A laundryman took out one of the clubs that he used to beat clothes and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow.
Other of the apostles and disciples were martyred--most by crucifixion.  Mark, the Gospel writer, had a rope tied around his neck and was dragged through the streets until he was dead.  Bartholomew was flayed alive and then crucified.  John the Evangelist was cooked in boiling oil.  All these were killed, simply because they believed in Jesus Christ and sought to spread the Good News.

If you had an angry mob come up to you, an anti-Christ mob, and they said, “We’re going to put a rope around your neck and drag you through the streets of Pratt until you’re dead,” what would you do?  Would you start moon-walking backwards, and say something like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa; where did you get the idea I was one of those Jesus freaks?”
If the authorities captured you and tied you to a stake in the middle of town, and started cutting a slit down the middle of your naked chest, while saying, “You’re one of the Jesus believers, aren’t you?” what are you going to do.
Thank God we don’t have to live under that kind of duress and fear and cruelty.  But some of our fellow believers in the past, beginning with the time right after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, did face that.  They had to make supernatural decisions in moments of immense pain and in the face of cruel death.
We decorate their graves today; and when we place our flowers upon their graves we thank God we didn’t have to live back then and face death like they did, simply because they chose to remain steadfast to the Savior.

Justin Martyr
Rusticus shrugged. "Let's get right to what matters, then. You've been brought here to offer sacrifice, all of you together, to the Emperor and all the gods."
Justin wasn't interested. "No one in their right mind leaves godliness to take up ungodliness."
"You're aware that unless you obey, you will be mercilessly punished?" Rusticus sneered.
Justin answered, "Through prayer we can be saved because of our Lord Jesus Christ, even after we have been punished. This will become salvation and confidence to us at the much more fearful and universal judgment of our Lord and Savior."
The other martyrs echoed his sentiment. "Do whatever you want. We are Christians, and we don't sacrifice to idols."
Rusticus was uncaring. He had done his duty.  Rusticus stood to make his pronouncement. "Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, then let them be led away to be beheaded, according to the laws."
Justin and the others, having glorified God, were taken to the customary place, and their heads were chopped off.

All they had to do was burn a little incense to the Emperor at his shrine and say, “Caesar is lord.”  That’s it.  And that, only once a year.  Doesn’t seem like that big of deal.  Just burn the incense, say a few words, and do what you want, worship Christ the rest of the year.  And, by the way, save your life.  Doesn’t your life seem that much more valuable than making this little annual compromise to what you really believe?  Just think how many more people you can serve, in the name of Christ, if you are alive.  Certainly God would understand.
But that’s not how Justin and many others saw it.  They weren’t willing to compromise their beliefs, even in this little way.  They were willing to die, rather than give lip service to the emperor, and by so doing accept standards of belief that are undesirable to God.
How do these men and women hold on to their beliefs so strongly that they aren’t willing to give an inch, and are willing to put their lives on the line rather than move that inch?  And why do we so easily compromise our faith every day without a second thought?
We decorate their graves this day; and when we place a wreath for them we wonder by which standards we have lived: With the Justin's, or those of the Rusticus’ of the world?

Jim Elliot And Four Other Men
Five men with Wycliff Bible Translators went to Ecuador in 1952 as missionaries.  They wanted to make contact with the Auca tribe, a fierce people who lived deep in the jungles of Ecuador.  After about two months of flying over the Auca village with gifts, the missionaries decided it was time to land on a little beach beside the river, close to where the Aucas lived. They would build themselves a tree house to live in, and try to talk to the Aucas.
There were five men altogether: Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully. They prayed and talked with their wives for a long time before they made the decision to move into the Auca’s country. All of them knew very well that it was dangerous. But they loved God and knew that they belonged to Him.
So they landed their plane beside the river and built a house in a tall tree. Some of the men flew over the Auca village again, calling: “Come down to the river! We want to visit you there!” Then they camped and waited.
On the third day, the men were sitting in their camp, when suddenly they heard a shout from across the river! Their hearts jumped as they turned to look. Three Aucas were stepping out of the woods: a man and two women. Calling out, “Welcome! Welcome!” in the Auca language; Jim waded across to meet them. He took their hands and helped them back across to the missionaries’ camp. The five missionaries tried hard to show the Aucas that they wanted to be friends. They gave them food and gifts, and smiled and talked.
They soon nicknamed the Auca man “George”, and when “George” asked for a ride in the plane, they were happy to give him one! They flew the plane low over the Auca village once more, and George laughed with delight as he recognized his home. He leaned out to wave and yell at the other Aucas.  When the plane landed back at camp, the five missionaries gave thanks to God out loud, looking up toward the sky so that the three Aucas could see what they were doing.
That night the three Aucas returned to their village. They did not invite the missionaries to come with them, so Jim and his friends stayed at their camp. That was on Friday. On Sunday, Nate called his wife on the radio to say that a big group of Auca men were coming. “Just in time for a church service!” he told her excitedly. “This is the big day! I’ll call you back this afternoon and let you know what happens!”
So the missionaries’ wives waited eagerly that afternoon. They were hoping to find out if the men had been able to visit the Auca’s village. But the afternoon passed, and the men did not call as they had promised. Night came on and the women began to worry. What could have happened? Were the missionaries safe?
The next day more men took another plane and flew over the camp. They brought back sad news: Jim and Nate and their friends were all dead. The Auca Indians had killed them with their spears!
The five missionaries had guns with them in their camp, but they did not use them to fight the Indians. When the Auca men came toward them with their spears, they did not shoot back with their guns. They knew that if they would shoot the Indians, they could probably save their own lives. But then they would never be able to teach the Aucas about Jesus! So they chose to let themselves be killed, and let the Aucas have another chance to become Christians.
The Aucas always remembered those five strange white men who had been so kind to them and had not tried to kill them. And so a year later when more missionaries tried again to speak to the Aucas about Jesus, they were ready to listen.
Several of the Auca men who had killed Jim and his friends eventually became Christians.
After their deaths, Elisabeth Elliot went to Ecuador with her children, to live with the Auca tribe, and continue the work of her martyred husband and the four other men.

A movie has been made of these 5 men’s bold venture to talk to and communicate the love of God to this Auca tribe.  The book and movie has moved countless numbers of people to explore further the Good News of Jesus; and the book and movie has moved countless Christians to raise the level of their Christian witness.
Here were five men, five Christian men, who were armed and could have fought back, and saved their lives.  It was self-defense.  Even the Bible allows for killing another human being if it is in self-defense or in the defense of a loved one.
But the five men made a choice about using ultimate force.  To do so would have compromised both what they believed in, and what they were trying to demonstrate to the Auca tribe about Jesus Christ.  Self-defense morality was on a lower level of importance compared to portraying the selflessness and self-sacrifice of their Savior and Lord.
Elisabeth Elliot’s decision to put herself and her children in harms way may have sounded equally immoral and tremendously unwise, if not foolish.  But she and her husband believed in a Lord who showed another way that doesn’t make sense to morality and simple prudence.
We decorate their graves today; and when we place the wreath of peace for them, we think about the difficult people we face in life that come at us with spears of hatred, and we wonder if we could put our guns down, catching a vision for that other way.

Ri Hyon Ok
In June 2009, Ri Hyon Ok, a 33 year old woman, was executed in North Korea for giving out Bibles.  Ri's husband, three children, and parents were sent to a political prison on June 17, 2009, a day after she was executed in Ryongchon.   They have not been heard from since.

Just for giving out Bibles!  It boggles my mind about how, for so little a Christian work, people are executed.  I have two shelves of Bibles.  I had more, but I gave a bunch away before I moved.  I can go to just about any bookstore and buy ten more if I wanted.  I have the freedom to do that.  Evidently not in North Korea.  Evidently, people die in North Korea, and in other places on our globe, simply for having a Bible, let alone, giving them away.  Amazing.
We decorate her grave today; and when we place a Bible for her there, we think of the many freedoms we take for granted and treat so nonchalantly.

I agree with the writer of the book of Hebrews.  In talking about these followers of Jesus who didn’t give up or didn’t give in, the writer of Hebrews states, “...the world doesn’t deserve them.”  He describes these followers as those “...making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.”

Those statements both sadden and encourage me.  Maybe they do you too.  Maybe we in the world don’t deserve them.  But we urgently need them.  We need people like them, making such an ultimate sacrifice, simply because they are followers of Jesus.  We need to see, by their example, how we have tried to make our Christian journey so easy when in truth it is not.

But there’s another line from this eleventh chapter of Hebrews that catches my attention even more.  It is the last line of the chapter.
God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

Do you understand what he’s saying?  He’s saying that we are the reason those believers made the ultimate choices they did.  I remember a line from the movie, "Amistad":  The main character said, “I am the reason my ancestors existed at all.”  That statement is true genetically, and biologically.  We are the generational product of our ancestors.

But we are also the faith ancestors of those who came before us.  We are not isolated from our past, the history of Christian believers, and the sacrifices they made so we could be sitting here in worship today.  Most of you got up this morning and had the decision of sleeping in or coming to worship.  Many of our ancestors of the faith woke up one day and had to decide between life and death, simply because they had the audacity to be a follower of Jesus.

And we are the reason our people of the faith in the future exist.  When I was living out in Leoti, I worked part time in the church there while also working as a special education para.  I was sitting in the grade school cafeteria.  In came the kindergartners to eat.  Then the first graders.  Then the second graders.  And I sat there watching all their little excited faces, snarfing down corn dogs many of them waving to me, “Hey Mr. Wing!”  I saw these children’s faces, and I knew that my faith, and these children’s one-day-faith must also come together, and I must do my part now, whatever that part is, no matter how ultimate it might become, so that they too can become part of God’s future wholeness.

Monday, August 8, 2016

All Of It?

"All Of It?"
Luke 12:32-34

“What, in God’s name, are all the boxes doing in the garage?” Mark asked as he came into the kitchen through the garage door.  “I couldn’t even get my car parked in there.”
“Exactly,” his wife, Karen, replied.
“Exactly, what?” he asked, reaching for a can of diet Pepsi from the fridge.
“Exactly in God’s name,” said Karen.
“The boxes are there in God’s name,” she smiled.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said.  “Let me start over.  I’ll try to talk a little slower.  What—-are—-all—-those—-boxes—-doing—-in—-the—-garage?”
“Getting ready for the big sale,” she said, as if he should have already known the answer.
“Oh, we’re having a garage sale?  That’s a good idea.  We could stand to sell a few things around here.  I have a some shirts I haven’t worn in years.”

“Well, not exactly.”
“No, really,” Mark said.  “Remember that pink golf shirt with the green pinstripes?  That’s one of…”
“I don’t mean your shirts,” she interrupted.  “I mean it’s not exactly a garage sale.  It’s going to be more than that.”
“Oh, like a multi-family sale.  Who’s going in on it with us—Babs and Larry down the street?”
“No, it’s not a multi-family sale.  It’s just us.  Just our sale.”
“Well…” Mark spoke hesitantly, “…what exactly are you planning on selling?”
“Umm, just about everything we own,” Karen said leaning into the oven, checking the roast.
“What!!??” Mark said with a spray of diet Pepsi.  “You’re thinking about selling everything we own!?” he said wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
“Not thinking about it, dear; I’m going to do it.”
“Which of those women’s magazines did you get that hair-brained idea from?  How about instead of selling everything, we just cancel the subscriptions to all those magazines and throw out all the back issues?”
“I didn’t read about this in a ‘woman’s magazine’,” she said making quote marks in the air, and mimicking his voice.  “I read it in the Bible.”
“The Bible,” he repeated.
“The Holy Bible,” she said shaking her head up and down.
“OK; uh, yeah,” Mark stammered.

Karen started pealing the potatoes, acting as if the discussion was over and that Mark totally understood.
“Uhhh.  I’m totally lost here.  What the heck is really going on, Karen?  Are you moving out?  Do you want a divorce?  (louder)  Are you having an emotional breakdown?”
“No; no; and no, Mark.  I’m OK.  You’re OK.  I love you.  You’re blowing this way out of proportion.  Jesus just told me that we have way too much stuff, so we’re going to sell it.  All of it.”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
“Jesus?  Jesus told you?  When did this conversation with Jesus take place—like 3 a.m. this morning while you were dreaming?  Or later when you were hallucinating?”
“No, silly,” Karen said smiling.  “This morning, yes, but while I was doing my devotions—reading the Bible and praying.”
“Jesus spoke to you during devotions?”
“And he told you to sell everything we own?”
“Mmmm, Hmmm.”
“I think you’ve been watching too much Oprah.  Let’s see her sell everything she owns!” Mark said with his pointer finger in the air.
“This has nothing to do with Oprah.  It’s in the Bible.  Look it up yourself, if you remember where the Gospel of Luke is.”
“Oh, now we’re into sarcasm, are we?  Is that what Jesus told you to do this morning also, is slam your husband when he came home from work?”
“No, and I’m sorry, dear.  It’s just that I don’t understand why you don’t understand.”
“That’s because I don’t understand!” Mark said a little too loudly.  He stomped away toward their bedroom.  Then he was back, Bible in hand.  “Show me,” he demanded, plunking his Bible on the counter next to the sink where she was working.

Karen dried her hands on her apron, then looked up Luke 12:32-34.  She read him the three verses, closed the Bible, handed it to him and said, “See?”  She turned back to the sink and continued pealing the potatoes.

Mark scratched his head, looked up the verses again and read them for himself.  “You don’t think Jesus meant us, do you?” he finally asked.  “Look, it says he was talking to his little group of disciples.  They were special.  They were supposed to do stuff like that.  Take a vow of poverty or something like that.  That’s not for us normal kinds of believers.”
“So you’re saying you aren’t a disciple?” Karen asked him.
“Of course I’m a disciple,” Mark replied.  “Just not a disciple disciple; you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t; a disciple is a disciple, Mark.  There aren’t different levels of discipleship.  You either are or you aren’t.  And if you are a disciple then you do what Jesus said.  Do we only get to do the easy things Jesus said to do?  Right there in your hand it says that Jesus said to sell everything.”
“It doesn’t exactly say, ‘everything’,” Mark stated.  “It just says to sell what you have.  And certainly the disciples didn’t have that much to sell like we do.  They aren’t giving up that much.”
“Well, what all do we have that isn’t everything?” Karen asked.  “Just take a walk through the house.  I did this morning, after I read that in the Bible.  Walk through our house, Mark.  Look at all the stuff we have.  When you look at it, ask yourself the question, How much of this do we really need to live?  Ask yourself that question, and answer it honestly.  How much of this stuff do we really need to live?”

Mark sucked in a couple of lungs full of air and exhaled it all through his nose.
“Go on,” she prodded, pointed the potato peeler at the kitchen door.  “Go on a hike.  Through the house, I mean.”
Mark shuffled off like a kid who was being sent to his room for time-out.  He went into the living room, did a u-turn, and then was back in the kitchen.
“OK, so we have a few extra things,” he conceded.
“No, Mark.  You weren’t gone long enough.  Go through every room in the house.  Look at everything.  When you look at each thing, ask yourself, Do we need that to live?”
He exhaled again, let his shoulders droop, and went off on his expedition of their home.  In the time it took Karen to get water boiling, peal and slice the potatoes, plop them into the boiling water, and wash up a few dishes, he was back.
“So, what do you think?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Karen,” he said as he sat at the kitchen table.  I can kind of see your point, but the thought of selling everything makes me really nervous.  I guess the good thing is that at least we’d have the money from the sale.”

“Not really,” Karen said.
“What do you mean, not really?” he retorted.
“Don’t you remember?  Jesus said to sell your possessions, and give the money from the sale to the poor.”
“What!!??  That’s too much!” Mark said loudly.  “I’m sure Jesus was just talking to people who were going into the priesthood.  That’s what they’re supposed to do.  Not us.  Not our kind of disciples.  How can Jesus expect us to live with nothing?  How can Jesus expect us to sell all the nice things we have worked so hard for?  We do have a lot of really nice stuff, Karen.  Most of it, you bought.  Most of it is stuff, at one time or another, you said we had to have.  Now you want to get rid of it all in some altruistic whim?  I’m sorry.  I’m just as religious as the next guy, but this idea of selling everything, and then not even getting to keep any of the money is too much!”  He stopped talking and crossed his arms across his chest as he leaned back in the kitchen chair.
“I know what you’re saying, dear,” Karen spoke up after a bit of a pause.  “It is a scary thing.  I’ve just been thinking about Jesus’ words all day long.  I keep asking myself questions like, How much is enough?  How much of this stuff do we need to have to live happily?  How simply can we live?  Do we own these possessions or do they possess us?”
Karen stopped and let those questions sink in to Mark’s mind.  Then she started again.  “What’s more important to have, possessions or the kingdom of heaven, like it says Father God want’s to give us?  And if we have the kingdom of heaven, what more do we really need?  It appears from Jesus’ statement, you can’t have both at the same time.  That’s the way we’d like it—a both/and, rather than an either/or.  We’d like to have all our possessions and heaven’s treasure as well.”
“Don’t you think,” Mark interjected, “that Jesus really doesn’t mean to sell everything?  Don’t you think what he really means is that we’re supposed to keep our priorities straight?  Don’t you think he simply means to keep him our top priority?”
“Of course.  That’s part of it,” Karen answered.  “But as long as we have all this stuff, that’s where our heart will be.  Our lives will be all wrapped up in protecting it, holding on to it, keeping it up.  We’ll look at all this stuff and think that it determines who we are in life.  It makes us think we are somebody because we have all these possessions.  We even determine our status level by how much and what kinds of things we own.  God doesn’t care about that kind of status.  As long as we have all these things, they lure our hearts away from the kingdom of heaven.  It’s so subtle, we don’t even realize it’s happening.  Without all this stuff, our hearts get to be someplace else, captivated by a different treasure.  That’s got to be our Father God and the kingdom of heaven.  Where is our treasure, Mark?  And where, really, are our hearts?”

Mark stared at the salt and pepper shakers on the table where he sat and said, quietly, “I don’t know.  But do we have to box everything up tonight?  I need more time to think about this.  Let’s take a little more time and think it through, OK?”
“And pray about it,” Karen added.
“Yeah,” he replied.  “We’ll pray about it.  Can I set the table; are we ready to eat?”
“I just need to mash the potatoes.  Sure, you can set the table.”
“Which set of our dishes would you like me to use?” he asked her, looking at her with a wry smile.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Hinge Pin

"The Hinge Pin"
Colossians 1:17

Certainly someone must recognize what I have in my hand.
(If someone says, “A hinge”)  Not exactly.  It’s only part of a hinge.  I need another part to make it a hinge.  This other part looks like the first, but it’s different.  The second part is not identical, but it corresponds with the first.  They fit together.  They were made to fit together.  So, once you put the two together, you have a hinge.

Actually, that’s not quite right, either.
There’s still another piece missing.

I found out about this other piece when I was a kid.
Somehow, some way, I noticed that one of the hinges on one of our doors was not quite right.  Something was sticking up.  I pushed on it, and it slid back down.  I was fascinated.  I pulled it up.  I pushed it down.  I pulled it all the way out.  I got up on a chair and pulled the upper pin out.  “I wonder why those things are in there?”  I remember thinking to myself.

I found out when I closed the door.  The door came out and fell down.  I thought that was keen.  I went around to all the doors in our home and took all the hinge pins out.  It wasn’t out of maliciousness or some kind of childish prank.  It was just that I was kind of proud of myself for figuring out how something worked.  For some reason, it absolutely fascinated my 7 or 8 year old mind.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t equally fascinating to my mom when all the doors she went through fell down.
Then I had to go around and put all the hinge pins back in.  I found out it’s harder getting the pins in than it was getting them out.  The whole door has to be just right or the pin won’t slide in place.  Trying to hold the door still and steady while trying to get the pin in, as a kid by myself, wasn’t as fascinating as pulling them all out.

I think I remember all that because, like I said, it was the first time I had figured out how something worked on my own.
I was just entranced by the simplicity of how it worked.  You just put this pin in here and it’s held together and it functions as it’s supposed to.  You pull the hinge pin out and it’s a disaster waiting to happen, as my mom found out.

It looks like it could work without the hinge pin.
And it might for a while.  But before too long, the door will fall.

So, what have I got here?  (Hold up one side of a hinge.)
(If they say, “A piece of a hinge,” say…)  Not exactly.

What this is, is a person.
It doesn’t look like a person.  But it is a person.

(Holding up the other side of the hinge)  And what is this?
(If they say, “It’s the other side of the hinge, say…)  No; actually this is God.  I know most of your pictures of what God is like do not match up with this.  But this is God.  It kind of looks like the human over here in this hand.  But they are much different from each other.

Remember in the story of creation, in the first chapter of Genesis?
When God created humans, what does the story say?  It said we were created in the image of God.  So there is some kind of semblance between ourselves and God.  But mostly, to me anyway, what it means to be made in the image of God is that God made us to fit in with our Creator.  When humans come together with God there is an important connection that’s made.  When we are joined to God, it feels like a perfect fit.  When we connect up with God, we work like we’re supposed to.  So, the more we are connected to God, the better off we are going to be.

The problem is, we think we can do it better on our own.
Or we think we are independent enough that we are able to live life solo.  We think we don’t need God’s other piece to fill out our own.  We think we don’t need to fit in with God.  We don’t need connection.  Or, maybe it’s outright rebellion.  Just a step at first; then another, then another.  It starts with pulling ourselves apart.

A guy got a job painting a yellow line down the middle of the streets in a town.
After three days, the foreman complained, saying, “The first day you did great—you painted that yellow line for three blocks.  The second day wasn’t bad—you did two blocks.  But today you only painted the line for one block.  Keep that up and I’ll have to fire you.”
On his way out of the foreman’s office, the guy looked back and said, “It’s not my fault.  Each day I just got farther away from the paint can.”

That’s what happens in our relationship with God.
At first, we make a break for it.  We loosen ourselves from God.  (Pull the hinge pieces apart.)  Then, step-by-step, we get farther and farther away.  As someone put it once, “If we are not feeling as close to God as we used to be, who moved?”  We need to find some way, if we really want to remain close to God, of staying joined.

God has provided that way.
With this.  And this is?  (If someone says, “The hinge pin,” say…)  No, this is Jesus Christ.  I know this doesn’t look like the pictures you have seen of Jesus.  But this is Jesus Christ.  God wants to be inter-connected with our lives.  God wants to be a part of all that we do.  Deep in our hearts, I think we want that as well.  We want to be connected to God in a meaningful and everlasting way.  In a way that will not and cannot become separated.

So God provided our Savior Jesus to make sure that happens.
We get connected up with God.  Then Jesus makes himself the hinge pin of that relationship.  Jesus connects us to God in an intimate and unbreakable bond.  We are connected to God forever through Christ—and God with us.  We work and function as we are supposed to.  We live lives of usefulness, purpose, contentedness and peace.  All because of the hinge pin—Jesus Christ.  Our Bible verse for this morning from Colossians says that in Jesus, all things are “held together.”  Everything depends on Christ, the hinge pin, to hold it together—if the hinge pin is in place.  If it is not, weakness and self-centeredness is the result.

So, (hold up one side of the hinge) what is this?
(If they say, “God,” or, “A person,” say…)  No, actually this is a husband.  It may not look like a husband, but it is.  And, (holding up the other side of the hinge) what is this?  Right, a wife.  Now you’re catching on.  Together, they make a marriage.

Well, sort of.
A lot of couples try to make a marriage with one of these two pieces.  One of them ends up doing all the work, making the marriage work.  Or, with just these two pieces.  They do fit together.  They were made by God to fit and compliment each other.  That’s God’s design.  Remember what Adam said when he first saw Eve?  "At last, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”  So similar. So similar, they fit.  The Bible story goes on to say, "That's why a man leaves his father and mother and  cleaves unto his wife."

But then remember our Bible verse:  “In Jesus Christ all things are held together.”  Just fitting together isn’t enough.  Just coming together—the “cleaving”--isn’t going to give that relationship enough strength when stress comes.  The couple needs to do more than just come together; they need to be held together.

The ability to come apart is too easy.
What is needed is this.  (Hold up the hinge pin.)  And what is this?  Right, Jesus Christ.  Not until Jesus Christ is allowed to be made part of that relationship will the relationship become strong and solid.  With the hinge pin, with Jesus Christ, the two truly become one.  As long as that relationship is held together by Christ, focused on Christ, instead of on self, it will be held together.  The two shall become one.  That is the promise.

So, (hold up one side of the hinge) what is this?
Actually, this is a parent.  It doesn’t look like a parent, but that’s what it is.

(Holding up the other side of the hinge) And what is this?  Right, this is a child.  The same “held together” principle applies.  You can be bound together by all sorts of ways with your children, or, as children with your parents.  But there is a part that is needed in every parent-child bond, no matter how old you are, so that you are bound together.

(Hold up the hinge pin.)  And that part is?  Yes, Jesus Christ.  When you pray with your children/grandchildren, when you read scripture with your children/grandchildren, when you have some kind of devotional time with your children/grandchildren, when you attend church with your children/grandchildren, you are acknowledging the hinge pin, Jesus Christ.  You are making sure that pin stays in place.  You are making that special relationship strong and whole.

I could go on and on.  All of this is true for you and your friendships, you and your co-workers, you and all Christians, you and God’s creation.
In Christ, all things are held together!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Kingdom of Light

"The Kingdom of Light"
Colossians 1:12-14

(We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul -- not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives.  It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in the kingdom of light that he has for us.  God rescued us from the dead-end alleys and the power of darkness.  God has set us up in the kingdom of light in the Son He loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.  Colossians 1:12-14, MSG)

A couple of weeks ago, we passed the summer solstice—the longest day of the year, the first official day of Summer.  The long, hot days of summer have been upon us.  But at the same time, since we have passed the summer solstice, that means the days are gradually getting shorter and shorter.  What that means is, the days will be the same 24 hours, but the amount of sunlight we will see, will be less and less. We are now moving toward the winter solstice, the shortest day of daylight of the year—ever increasing darkness.  Back and forth, between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.

Another way to look at this is the times in our history, where people have come to our country from their home country—a place of darkness to, hopefully, a place of light.   When the first pilgrims came to this land, they were coming for one main reason.  Freedom.  They were coming to escape oppression.  They were coming so they could worship freely.  They were coming to escape the persecution of those who wouldn’t allow them to express their Christian beliefs in a way they desired.  It was a religious freedom that brought most of the new colonists to this country.  Once they got here, they knew they had found that freedom -- that they had been brought over from a land of oppression to a land of liberty, from a place of darkness to a place of freedom and light.

That’s how Paul described to the Colossian Christians what had happened to them when they came to believe in Christ.  That’s what he told the believers they should be most thankful to God for:  that they had been brought over from the kingdom of darkness and now had become residents in the new kingdom of light.

In the ancient world, a conquering army would take the defeated people, lock-stock-and-barrel to the conquerors land.  The vanquished people would be blended into the conqueror’s culture.  They would gradually lose their identity, becoming members of a new way of life with a new people.  That’s what Paul is saying God did for us through Christ.  God had to conquer us and our old life -- the life of darkness -- and take us, like captives to a new and different life -- life in the kingdom of light.  Some of us may not have been, initially, happy about the change.

For a time, the two ways of life would overlap.  That overlapping time would be the time of our conversion, of our initial coming to belief in Christ as Savior.  We go through a time of disorientation.  To which kingdom do we really belong?  We aren’t sure.  We have feet in both the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light.  But conversion, God’s conquering of us, puts us on the road of a long journey into a new place.  We find that our life becomes one of movement toward an ever increasing light.  We begin to see, on the horizon, and then become more and more a part of God’s kingdom of light.  We understand, in a progressively greater way, the will of Christ, our new ruler and King.

Notice that Paul uses the phrases, “kingdom of his dear Son,” and “kingdom of light” as synonyms.  The dear Son is the one “who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.”  These terms help us understand what it means to be people who are now in the kingdom of light.

But I think we’ll understand even better what it means to be residents in the new kingdom of light if we realize what light itself can do.  When I was a pastor up in Nebraska, there was a man in the congregation who had seasonal affective disorder—that condition where the decreasing daylight causes emotional, physical, and psychological problems.  It began to really get to him starting in the Fall, as the days get shorter, and we enjoy less and less light.  He helped me understand just how important light is to life.

Many of our bodily functions, at least a hundred, have daily rhythms.  They go through their work in a routine way, day after day.  They complete a cycle every 24 hours with more precision than the atomic clock in Colorado.  These rhythms are genetically programmed, but it takes more than genes to make them work.  It  takes sunlight.  Light coming in through the eyes gives these rhythms their ability to function.

Sunlight coming into the brain through the eyes is transferred to a little pine cone shaped gland called the pineal.  It’s about the size of a pea.  That gland then kicks off a hormone that gets into our blood stream that allows these bodily functions to go through their genetic routine.

If there were no light coming into the pineal gland, the many rhythmic functions of the body would resemble an orchestra without a conductor, all those bodily functions playing their own tune to their own timing.  It would be chaos.  If light is absent, temporarily disrupted, or markedly reduced, this creates a significant disturbance in our bodily and emotional stability.  All controlled by the sunlight.

When Paul wrote that we have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light, could he have known what he was saying?  Without the light of Christ in our lives, stability is gone.  Emotional and physical well-being has its roots in the kingdom of Christ.  True Christian spirituality has to do with the body and the soul.  The more we are in the light of Christ, the more we will feel secure and in synch with the way we were created to be.

The kingdom of Christ -- the kingdom of light -- has to do with daily rhythms of body and soul that need to be synchronized.  But that can’t happen as long as we are living in the kingdom of darkness.  The kind of God-light that needs to get into our lives, and transform us, can’t happen if we stubbornly remain in darkness.

Can’t you just feel it when your life gets out of synch?  All the daily rhythms that make life feel good, are disrupted.  All our systems are on red alert.  The man I mentioned, from my congregation in Nebraska, would experience severe symptoms during the winter.  Psychologically, he would experience ever increasing depression.  He became lethargic.  He would get illnesses and body aches that were hard to diagnose as to their origin.  His mood would swing from fun-loving to flared temper tantrums.  He would sleep too much, then he wouldn’t be able to sleep for days.  All his systems were more and more out of synch.   And the doctors couldn’t figure it out.

Then, by chance, he read about this seasonal affective disorder.  He changed out all his light bulbs in his home and office with full-spectrum lighting.  Within a week he was showing signs of huge improvement.  Then all the symptoms went away.  It all had to do with the kind of light that he needed, especially in the winter.

Similarly, when we feel all out of synch spiritually, we might need to check how much Christ-light we are letting in through our eyes.  Have we retreated back into the kingdom of darkness?  Are we using an artificial kind of light that really doesn’t have the power to make the kinds of changes in our lives that Christ's light can?

The pineal gland plays a major role in every aspect of human functioning.  Research has shown that this little gland is the regulator of reproductive functioning, growth, body temperature, blood pressure, motor activity, sleep, tumor growth, moods, the immune system, and the very length of our lives.  And without sunlight, that little gland, being unregulated can create dysfunction in one or many of those body and emotional processes; as it did in my friends life.

Playing off of what we know about the pineal gland, I think you can make the jump to understanding how important it is for our wholeness to be a part of the kingdom of light.  To be rescued from the kingdom of darkness.  Notice that little word “rescued.”  Most people don’t just voluntarily walk out of the kingdom of darkness.  It has to be a rescue effort.  God, through Christ, had to covertly invade this world and take us hostage so we could see the reality of the difference between the two kingdoms.  Otherwise, it may have never happened.

I want to briefly comment on another quality of light that I learned as I journeyed with this man and his light deprivation disorder.  Light heals.  Different colors of light have a healing quality to them.  Over 100 years of research have been done on the ability of light to heal and nourish the body.

The body absorbs light, not only through the eyes, but the skin as well.  Our bodies are literally photo-receptors of sunlight.  The full spectrum of light coming in through the skin nourishes and heals our bodies.

Research has shown that different colors of light enhance healing in different kinds of injury or illness.  Has anyone, with a broken bone, undergone light therapy?  Certain colors of light heal breaks faster.  Doctors who work in this field have isolated different sections of the human body that respond positively to different colors of light, or combinations of colors of light.  There are 12 main colors that have been found to have amazing healing and restorative qualities:  red, orange, yellow, lemon yellow, green, turquoise, blue, indigo, violet, purple, magenta, and scarlet.  The colors turquoise and emerald green were found to have the widest range of healing powers.

Isn’t it interesting that, in the book of Revelation, the color most associated with God and the throne of God is emerald green.  To be brought into the kingdom of his dear Son means to be bathed in the healing light of God.  It means to have every part of our body and soul shined upon by the reviving and recreative and healing light of God.

To continue to be in the kingdom of darkness is to go without God’s potent and embracing light that heals us from sin and sets us free from breaks and disruptions that seek to do us harm.

Think of all that light does for us and means to us.  Light enables us to see and understand our world.  To see light and absorb light is literally life.  Light brings freedom.  Light lifts the spirit and increases our hope.  Light has to do with creation, conversion, and healing.  Conversion is new creation.  Conversion is our entrance into the kingdom of light of our God.

What a wonder it is, to be brought by God into the kingdom of light, the kingdom of His dear Son -- which is the only way wholeness of life can be had.  Thank God that you are not in the dark anymore.  Thank God that you have been rescued and brought into the kingdom of light.

Monday, July 4, 2016

If Only...

"If Only..."
Galatians 6:1-10

"If only..."

"If only I had gone this way instead of that way".
"If only I had made this choice instead of that choice".

We've all heard stories of missed opportunities.  I'm sure each of you could tell your own stories of times you zigged when you wish you would have zagged.

Two friends went for a car ride together.  Walter was driving, and he took his friend Arthur for a ride way out in the country.  Walter drove off the main road and onto a dirt road, through a grove of trees to a large open plot of land.  A few horses were grazing, and a couple of old shacks remained.

Walter stopped the car.  Both men got out.  Walter started describing to Arthur, with great vividness, the wonderful things he was going to build.  He wanted his friend Arthur to buy some of the land surrounding his project, to get in on the ground floor.

Arthur thought to himself, Who in the world is going to drive 25 miles for this crazy project?  The logistics of the venture are staggering.

Walter explained to Arthur, "I can handle the main project myself.  But it will take all my money.  The land bordering it, where we're standing now, will in just a couple of years be jammed with hotels and restaurants and convention halls to accommodate the people who will come to spend their entire vacations here at my park." Then he said, "I want you to have the first chance at this surrounding acreage, because in the next five years it will increase in value several hundred times."

Looking back on that conversation, Arthur said, "What could I say?  I knew he was wrong.  I knew that he let a dream get the best of his common sense, so I mumbled something about a tight money situation and promised I would look into the whole thing a little later on."
"Later on will be too late," Walter warned as they walked back to the car.  "You'd be better to move on it right now."

And so it was that Arthur--who was Art Linkletter--turned down the opportunity to buy up all the land that surrounded what was to become Disneyland.  His friend, Walter--Walt Disney--tried to talk him into it.  But Art thought he was crazy.

If only...

If there was anyone who never said, "If only..." it had to be the Apostle Paul.  He was a person who took all the opportunities God gave him and never said no.  We don't know much about the very first opportunity given to Paul.  Here is all it says at the beginning of Acts 13:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

That's it.  The Holy Spirit said, like Walt Disney, I have this great plan.  I want Paul and Barnabas to be a part of it.  The Holy Spirit didn't ask, like Walt Disney did of Art Linkletter, if Paul and Barnabas wanted to be a part of the grand plan.  Just, "Set them apart for me" and "send them off." We aren't told if there was any stuttering going on, or negotiations.  It sounded like Paul and Barnabas were given an opportunity, accepted it, and went out with it.  It was the way they both worked with God throughout their lives.

Imagine if in Men's Bible Study, or in Women's Bible Study, the Holy Spirit makes it suddenly known that John Cochran and Joel Curtis were to be sent to Chicago and New York City to proclaim the gospel; or Shannon Squires and Tonie Graber were being given the opportunity to go to the Central African countries and be ambassadors for Christ.  The Holy Spirit's will is clear; away you go.  Here's an opportunity.  Take it.  Go.  Would you?  With no more information than the Holy Spirit wants you.

Like I said, I don’t think Paul ever missed an opportunity that was given him by the Holy Spirit.  Even though we would hem and haw after hearing the meager discussion that the Holy Spirit wanted a couple of us to take off for some undetailed mission, Paul never did.  He listened.  He accepted.  He went.  That’s Paul’s thrust in this part of his letter to the Galatians:  seize the opportunities given you to do good in the name of Christ.

In this part of his letter, Paul switches motivations.  The main motivation Paul used in the early part of the letter is along the lines of dealing with the consequences of the judgement of God.  Here in the ending part of the letter Paul is trying to use incentive rather than motivation.

If you’re not sure what the difference is between incentive and motivation, maybe this will clear it up.  One corporation had a workshop for everyone in the company about employer-employee relationships.  No one was getting the distinction between incentive and motivation.  Finally, a factory worker stood up and said, “When the boss tells me that if I increase my production to a certain number of units a day, I’ll get a raise, that’s incentive.  When he tells me that unless I increase my production to a certain number of units per day I’ll be fired, that’s motivation.”

Here, Paul is trying to use incentive.  That is, that we will reap what we sow, he said.  If we “sow to the Holy Spirit”—that is, if we do what the Holy Spirit asks us to do, we reap eternal life.  That’s incentive.  The carrot of eternal life is held out before us.  All we have to do to gain that eternal life is be obedient to God’s Spirit.

But gaining that eternal life is not easy.  Paul wrote, “And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”  The Holy Spirit is asking every believer to live a life of well-doing.  By doing so, we gain eternal life.  That is, Paul wrote, “if we do not lose heart.”  In other words, it can be so hard to be a well-doing person, a person who does good to all (all).  The word for “lose heart” in the Greek that Paul wrote in literally means to “faint in your souls.”  J.B. Phillips translates this phrase with, “throw in your hand.”  In other words, give up.  Give up because the task looks too hard.  Give up because doing what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do by being good to all people, is just too much responsibility.

I’m looking forward to the Olympic games this summer.  Hopefully some athletes will show up, especially after reading this week that the police force in Rio has run out of money.  If that doesn’t scare people away, nothing will.  Anyway, there was one Olympic Games I was watching the swimming events.  I can’t remember what year it was.  The event was the 4 X 200 Freestyle Relay event.  The gold medal was coming down to the last swimmer for the US and the German team.  The final swimmer for the German team was the world record holder for the individual 200 Freestyle race.  The US swimmer could have “thrown in his hand,” so to speak, and convince himself he’d never win.  Just swim his best and expect to lose.  It would be easy to lose heart.

The German took an early lead in the last leg of the relay.  It looked like the Germans were going to be the winner.  The commentators even thought so.  The race was over.  But the anchor on the US team slowly gained ground.  Closer and closer.  In the last 5 yards the US swimmer caught the German swimmer and out-touched him at the wall to win the gold for the US.  It was one of the great upsets in those games.

Trying to take every opportunity to do good to all people feels like having to swim as the last swimmer in that race.  How will you ever accomplish what it is up to you to do?  Especially when you start thinking about all the people you want to have nothing to do with.  It is hard to do good to all people.  We could say to the Holy Spirit, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”  Opportunities for doing good can be costly to us.  We may have to give up what we want.  We may have to curb our anger, even when we feel it’s justifiable.  Instead of confronting someone with anger, we would have to learn to confront in love.  Going the extra mile with someone, may be difficult because you didn’t even want to go the first mile with them.

To push ourselves way beyond our comfort zone of extending kindness to all makes it so very tempting to just throw in our hand.  Give up.  Lose heart.  Lower ourselves below what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do.

But to lose heart and grow weary in showing kindness to all, means we will miss opportunities the Spirit has brought our way.  I’ve been watching a series on Netflix about Marco Polo.  Before Marco Polo made it to China, his father Nickelo and his uncle Matteo made it in 1271.  They were given an audience with the great Kubla Kahn.  Kubla Kahn at that time ruled all of China, all of India, and all of the East.

The Kahn, as he was called, was attracted to the story of Christianity as Nickelo and Matteo told it to him.  He said to them, “You shall go to your high priest and tell him on my behalf to send me 100 men skilled in your religion and I shall be baptized, and when I am baptized all my Barons and great men will be baptized and their subjects will receive baptism too, and so there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts.”

But because Nickelo and Matteo didn’t like Kubla Kahn and felt like he was deceiving them or manipulating them, nothing was done.  Nothing was done for about 30 years, when a couple of missionaries were finally sent.  Too few too late.

It baffles the imagination to think what a difference to the world would have been made if in the 13th century, China had become fully Christian.  If in the 13th century, India had become fully Christian.  If in the 13th century, the East had be been handed to Christ.  The opportunity was there in spades.  But Nickelo and Matteo Polo folded, threw in their hands, lost heart, and threw away one of the greatest opportunities in all Christian evangelism, simply because they didn’t think the Kahn was worth them doing this good for him.

Verse 10 reads, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  There is one little word that can be translated a couple of different ways, and the different ways make an interesting difference.  The word could be “as” or “while.”  “…as we have opportunity…” or, “…while we have opportunity.”

“…while we have opportunity,” carries the meaning of “while we have time.”  That could be a reference of our time, of how much time we may or may not have left to live.  With the time we have, may we take opportunities to share the kindness of Christ with all people, no matter who they are.

I was talking with my son Ryan about last weeks sermon about the shootings in Orlando.  I told him how I tried to make the point that the main reason for the shootings was the violence that resides in all of us.  Again, this week, a supposedly devoted and Christian mother senselessly shot and killed her two teenage daughters then was shot and killed by police.  No one knows why this happened, exactly.

But for Ryan, the meaning that came to him about all these shootings is how precarious life is.  None of us knows how much time we have.  Those two teenage girls woke up one morning last week not knowing that by the end of the day they would be both shot dead by their own mother.  A bunch of people were excited to be going to a night club in Orlando, not knowing many of them would be shot dead.  Travelers were at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey this last week, excited about catching their plane, and a bomb goes off, killing 40 people.  Life is precious because it is so precarious, Ryan said.  Which means we all have to do as well as we can with who we are because we never know when our lives will end.  Do what you can, do the best you can, NOW, because you don’t know.  I liked his perspective.  It may be what Paul was trying to say, “…while we have opportunity…”

The other possibility is “…as we have opportunity…” which carries the meaning of, “as the opportunities are presented to us by the Holy Spirit, take advantage of them.”  It’s been said that opportunities are like eggs—they come to us one at a time.”  But I would add that once we take advantage of one egg—one opportunity—another will come, then another, and another.

And notice it says, “…as we have opportunity…”.  That means it’s all about the opportunities, not us.  It doesn’t say, “As you feel like taking advantage of an opportunity,” as if it’s about you.  The promise of eternal life that Paul mentions is about the opportunities the Holy Spirit gives us, that we grasp, and then grasp another, and another, as they come.

From the story I started this message with, it appeared that Art Linkletter was kicking himself because he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to buy up land around the proposed Disneyland.  I’m not sure if we kick ourselves because we lost an opportunity to do good to someone else, as we were directed by the Holy Spirit.  Remember the incentive, Paul talked about:  eternal life as reward.  And think about how all these awful events that end people’s lives makes us think about how precious life is in its precariousness.  Do good, now; take advantage of the opportunity to do good, now.  Because you never know.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Free At Last

"Free At Last"
Galatians 5:1

What do you hear when you hear the word, “freedom”?  I would guess what we hear is along the lines of either, “freedom from…” or, “freedom to…”.  We think of situations, or people that we have been freed from, so that we can live without terror or guilt or oppression.  Or, we think of situations, that because we are free, we get to do.

Freedom is a huge value for us as individuals.  Many of the advertising cliches trying to hook us are based on freedom, or our yearning to express our freedom.  Phrases like:
“Do your own thing.”
“Pull your own strings.”
“If it feels good, do it.”
“You aren’t the boss of me.”
“Just do it.”

Those are all freedom statements, spoken to a people who have a good measure of freedom to choose to do any of those.  Most of us have no personal experience with living a life where we don’t have the freedom to choose something, or do something.

As Americans, freedom is our national right:  “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" is a quotation attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia.  He is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War.  The catchy phrase inferred that it would be better to die, than to not be able to live a life of freedom.  And so, freedom, became one of the dominant quality-of-life foundations of our country and the way we live.

The apostle Paul gave us a similar Patrick Henry type of phrase, that has been a rallying statement for Christians down through the ages.  “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”  It is a striking phrase, especially if you have read through the book of Acts, and seen how Paul was most often being either thrown out of town, or thrown into jail, or held in stocks and shackles while being beaten.

How can a person who was in jail so often for preaching the gospel, talk about freedom in such a way?  Paul’s idea of freedom had to be shaped because of and during his jail time.  I’m thinking what he was thinking about freedom was way different than how most modern people think about freedom.

So many people are in a jail cell.  But the jail they are in has no bars.  There are no locks.  And thus, no keys.  But they are in jail cells nonetheless.  So what do those jail cells look like from inside?  Let me describe a couple these jail cells, without walls or bars or locks or door, that I have seen people get themselves into.

First, there is the story of Herman.

One night at a concert, a distinguished pianist suddenly became ill while performing an extremely difficult piece of music.  He had to stop in the middle of the piano piece and be escorted off stage.  Quietly, a man named Herman, got up from his seat in the audience, walked up on stage, sat at the piano.  He flawlessly and masterfully finished playing the piece.  He then went on to play several other pieces, to the amazement of the audience.

Later, when being interviewed, Herman was asked how he was able to perform such a demanding piece so beautifully without notice.  He then related this story:

In 1939, when I was a budding young concert pianist, I was arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp.  Putting it mildly, the future looked bleak.  But I knew that in order to keep the flicker of hope alive that I might someday might be free and play again, I needed to practice every day.  So I began fingering a piece from my repertoire on my baseboard bed late one night.  The next night I added a second piece and soon I was running through my entire repertoire, and I did this every night for five years.  It so happens that the pieces I played tonight at the concert hall were part of that repertoire.  That constant practice is what kept my hope alive.  Every night I renewed my hope that I would one day be able to play my music again on a real piano and in freedom.

What Herman understood was that he wasn’t just practicing his piano pieces.  He was playing out his truest and best self, holding on to that self, but knowing that that self couldn’t be known until he was free.

I think the Holy Spirit knows our truest and best self.  The Holy Spirit is trying to give everyone of us a clear sense of that, an accurate picture of who we are at our best.  A sense of our talents.  A sense of our capabilities.  A sense of our own self-worth.  A sense of our direction and dreams.

If you are living out the Holy Spirit’s vision for you, do you not lie on your bed at night, and in your best Godly imagination, play out what it might look like to be totally free and let that truest, best self out?

But, sadly that best self, that Holy Spirit self, may be locked up by our internal gestapo in a cell of insecurity.  Maybe it is locked up in the concentration camp of all the ways we have given others control of our life, with their judgmental and oppressive ways.

Remember the story of Zacchaeus? Others had a vision of Zacchaeus as a sinner.  They grumbled at him.  He was hated.  He was a short man, and people belittled him.  But deep inside him, Zacchaeus had a different vision of himself.  Someone who was generous.  Someone who saw the ways he lived a small and stingy life and wanted the chance to repent.  When Jesus came through Jericho, Zacchaeus knew in his truest heart, this was his chance to become the man the Holy Spirit was showing him he could be.

And, by Jesus, that chance was had.  “Today is salvation day in this home!” Jesus said to Zacchaeus, looking up at Zacchaeus who had climbed a tree to see Jesus.  What does “salvation day” mean in this story’s context other than the fact that Zacchaeus has finally been given the freedom to become the man he knew he could be—the man the Holy Spirit had put as a vision in his heart and mind.  Zacchaeus was released from the cell of his own self-loathing and the judgement of others.

Another way to understand our freedom in Christ is to know about caterpillars.  One biologist did an experiment with processional caterpillars.  First he took a plant he knew the caterpillars loved to eat and planted it in a clay pot.  Then he took a number of processional caterpillars, put them on the rim of the pot, and lined them up so that the leader was head-to-tail with the last caterpillar.  The tiny caterpillars circled the rim of the pot, following each other round and round for over a week.  Not once did any one of them break away to go over to the plant and eat.  Eventually, all the caterpillars died of exhaustion and starvation.

We think we are a much more highly developed species than caterpillars, but are we?  We get ourselves in ruts, doing the same thing day after day.  We end up avoiding and ignoring that which would feed us and nourish us and sustain us; but why?

There are probably lots of reasons.  Everyone else is doing it, it must be right.  Everyone else is circling the pot, round and round.  But if we ask the person ahead of us where they’re going, they don’t know either.  And if that person were to ask the person ahead of them why they’re going the direction they are, they wouldn’t know either.  We aren’t told or taught to ask questions.  We are taught to keep our mouths shut and just keep following the rest.  Round and round.

What everyone is doing is following others who are visionless and fearful to make a shift in their lives.  One of my favorite Farside cartoons showed a posse riding through the woods at night.  Several had torches.  They all had guns.  They were all following a bloodhound, who had his nose to the ground but was thinking to himself, “I don’t smell a darn thing.”

That is so many people’s lives:  locked up in the cells of their going round and round, not knowing where they going, or why they are going round and round.

Think of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.  Remember her story?  You can find it in John 4.  She’s had had five husbands and she’s working on number six.  She was living the unreflective life of the immoral round and round.  Instead of trying something new, jumping out of the jail cell of her round and round, she just kept doing the same thing over and over, trying to find a new life by making the same mistakes she had made before.  Thinking that the more she did the same, just maybe there would be a different outcome.  But not so.

Jesus came and gave her the chance to quit living a processional caterpillar life.  To quit following the parade of her useless same old-same old solutions.  To step out of the circle.  To step towards the one who gives us the courage to step aside from the procession of thoughtless, unreflective living.

And what does she do in response, once she’s jumped off the merry-go-round of her former life?  She ran into town and said to everyone she met, “Come and see a man who…knows me inside and out.  Do you think this could be the Savior?”  The Savior.  The one who releases us from the invisible jail cell of the round-and-round.

Another way to understand our freedom in Christ is to be released from the jail cell of our fears.  There’s a dramatic scene in a play about a farm family that had been taken hostage by an escaped convict.  They were being held in the family’s living room.  Somehow, while the convict was waving his gun around, the father recognized there were no bullets in the chambers.  The man was holding the gun to the head of the young son in the family.

The father began to calmly talk to his son.  He tried to get the boy to come to him and away from the escaped convict.  All the other family members were crying out to the father, pleading with him to stop trying to get the boy to come.  All the while the convict was yelling that he’d kill the boy if he tried to move.  The boy was crying and shaking his head “no.”

Still the father reassuringly beckoned the son to come to him.  “Come on,” he’d say.  “It’s OK; it’s gonna be OK.  Just come to me, son.  Trust me.”  Finally, after what seemed like forever, the boy, crying out, “Daddy,” broke free and ran to his father’s arms as the convict pulled the trigger of his unloaded gun.

The fear that has kept your truest and best self captive is an unloaded gun.  All the while, the Father God is calling to you, “Just come to me; it will be all right.  That fear is empty and has no power over you.  Come to me.”  Once in the Father God’s arms will you see and know what an empty gun fear is, and how free it is to be out from under the barrel of fear that may be pressed to your head.

A final way to understand our freedom in Christ is to feel the bands of guilt, in which we are so tightly bound, finally released.

In the book, God’s Smuggler, by Brother Andrew, the early chapters tell the story of Andrew’s time serving in the Dutch Army in Indonesia.  He bought a young monkey, a gibbon, as a pet for the barracks.  He noticed, though, that when he touched the monkey on certain places of his body that the gibbon would let out a squeal.  He examined the gibbon more closely and found a raised welt that went all the way around its waist.  What Andrew surmised was that when the monkey had just been a baby, someone had tied a piece of wire around the monkey’s middle and never removed it.  As the monkey grew larger, the wire became embedded in his flesh.  And now was very painful.

That evening, Andrew began his operation.  Using his razor, he shaved off all the monkey’s hair in a two inch wide swath around its middle.  Gently, he cut into the tender flesh until he exposed the wire.  The gibbon lay there with the most amazing patience.  Even when he was obviously hurting the monkey, it looked up with eyes that seemed to say, “I understand.”  Once down to the wire, Andrew cut it and pulled it slowly out of the monkey’s skin.

Instantly, as soon as the operation was over, the monkey jumped up, did a backflip, danced around Andrew’s shoulders, and pulled Andrew’s hair in sheer happiness.  Andrew wrote:

After that, my gibbon and I were inseparable.  I think I identified with him as strongly as he with me.  I think I saw in the wire that had bound him a kind of parallel to the chain of guilt still so tight around myself—and in his release, I saw a symbol for the thing I also longed for.

Guilt is probably one of the hardest things to be free from.  Guilt is an internal reaction to an external action that we did that was bad, wrong, hurtful, or sinful.  And the problem is, we can either feel overly guilty, which is its own kind of jail cell.  Or we can feel too little guilt, and thus don’t take responsibility for our actions.

Just like the gibbon couldn’t get rid of the wire that had become lodged under his skin, neither can we remove the guilt that cuts into our spirits, and keeps us locked up.

Think of the apostle Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times, during the arrest and trial of Jesus.  Peter could have carried that guilt the rest of his life.  But the risen Lord came to Peter, asking Peter if he loved Jesus three times—one for each of the denials.  And Peter had to speak that love to Jesus’ face.  Freed of that guilt-like wire that dug into Peter’s spirit, Peter was then empowered to lead the church, which he couldn’t have done still strapped by his guilt.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Now what do you think of when you hear the word freedom?  Hopefully you are thinking of Jesus, and how he has come to you, either in the past, or maybe now in this moment, to release you from some kind of jail cell, that you have fashioned.  It is time to come out.  To be free.  To be released from your guilt, your fear, your round-and-round life, or your insecurity that keeps you from living your best life in Christ.  Whatever it is that holds you back and holds you in.  Come out.  Christ has broken down your jail cell door.  It can never lock you in again.