Monday, December 5, 2016

At Hand

"At Hand"
Matthew 3:1-12

The college basketball season is at hand.  That builds my anticipation, but also my frustration.  As a lot of you know, about 3 or 4 years ago, I gave up television.  I decided I was just watching too much TV in my spare time, and my brain was turning to jello.  So that makes this time of year really tough for me—college basketball is the only stuff on the "tube" that I really miss.  Realizing that the college basketball season is at hand, then, creates some mixed feelings for me.  (I listen to all the KU games on internet radio, which is actually kind of fun.)

Anyway, that the college basketball season is at hand, is nothing compared to a statement like, Your surgery is at hand.  That kind of statement makes the anxiety level escalate a bit.  Having a surgery date get closer and closer—being at hand—is a bit unnerving.

At hand.  Those two small, simple words, are so good at building anticipation or anxiety or both.

For something to be "at hand" it means that it is approaching, and that approach is closer and closer.  To be "at hand" means that something is coming near.  Either the good or the bad can be at hand.  A final exam.  A house closing.  Your mother-in-law coming for a visit.  A dentist appointment.

It's an interesting word in the Greek language in which Matthew wrote his gospel.  The word, "at hand" literally means, "to join one thing to another."  When John the baptist used the word here, he was making the point that an event in the future is going to be joined to this present moment.  The present and the future are getting closer and closer to each other, until one day they will be joined together--they will be at hand.

What is it that John the baptist says is "at hand"?  It is the "kingdom of heaven."  The kingdom of heaven, that time when God brings all things to fulfillment, is at hand.  That is, the kingdom of heaven, that promised future is getting closer and closer and, behold, has already invaded this present moment.  At a time of God's own choosing the future promise and this present moment will come together in the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven holds within it all present moments, and all of God's moments to come.  The kingdom of heaven is yet, but not yet.

The kingdom of heaven is a huge change in the way of the world.  Time--past, present, and future--have always been separate.  In this present moment, you can't go backwards.  Even by a minute.  The second I started this message became a second in the past.  Neither you or I can go back to that precise second and live it again.  It's gone.  It's left behind by this present moment.

And the future is unknowable.  Even the next word I'm going to say.  None of you know what that word will be.  But I just said it.  It was the word "none."  I just said it in my last sentence.  And now it's in the past.  The unknown future to be lived into.  All separate.  Unmixable.

Except as the kingdom of heaven.  The "at hand" of the kingdom of heaven does the impossible, mixing the future and the now.  In order for that to happen, in order for that huge change in God's world, God's order of things, God's kingdom of heaven to happen, a huge change has to happen to us and in us.

When the kingdom of heaven, the yet/not yet, the present and future of God begin their mix, three things happen  repentance, baptismal cleansing, and winnowing.  All three of these have to happen to each of us if we are going to be God's new people in God's new world where times blend—where present and future are blended together.  These three qualities of God's yet/not yet mix will have a huge impact on who we are as believers and generally who we are as human beings.

First, repentance.  We all know what repentance is, right?  Basically it's a reversal of direction of your life.  Repentance is what we do when we have made a life choice or decision, and we realize that was the absolute wrong choice.  So we choose, with God's guidance, to go in an entirely different direction.

It can be a change of mind, also.  You make up your mind to do such and such, or be a certain kind of person, and you realize that wasn't the right thing to do, so you change your mind.  Or you adopt a way of thinking, a point of view, a frame of reference upon which you hang all other things in your life.  But then you realize that frame of reference has gotten your thinking all muddled up.  So you make what's called a paradigm shift.

A paradigm is basically a framework upon which you build your way of thinking, your values.  It's like the stud work of building a house.  A carpenter can't put up the sheet rock for the walls if there is no frame work there to hang it on.  The studs are that framework.  But what if the framework of your way of thinking ends up being all wrong?  That framework doesn't allow you to build a life you're proud of, and you just keep getting deeper and deeper into a mess.

That's when you need to do the hard work of making a frame shift, or a paradigm shift.  In my mind that's just a fancy term for repentance.  It means having to tear down the old framework so you can rebuild.  That's the work of repentance.

John the baptizer is making a further point about why we have to repent, and why repentance is a major part of the kingdom of heaven.  At verse 8, he says, "Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives," (Common English Bible).  So, to repent is to effect a certain result in your life that could be called "fruit." What you recognize, prior to repenting, prior to making a paradigm shift, prior to rebuilding your life's framework, is that you aren't bearing fruit.  Your life may be a lovely tree, but you're an orange tree, and you haven't ever produced any oranges!  It's time to do something very different so you can produce fruit as you were meant to.  It's time to repent.  Reframe.  The kingdom of heaven, which is at hand, demands you do so.

Secondly, John says if we have repented, if we're ready to reframe our lives to bear fruit in a way that's pleasing to God, there is a ritual by which you signify that inner paradigm shift.  It's called baptism.  John told the people, "I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives" (vs. 11, CEB).

Interestingly, the word that John uses for "baptize" doesn't mean just once.  It doesn't mean "once for all time," as we believe as Presbyterians:  "Once baptized, always baptized."  Here, John has used the word to mean dip repeatedly for the purpose of cleansing.  It's more in line with the Jewish rite of baptizing or ritual washings.

For example, in a Jewish household, you have to wash your hands ten times before each meal.  It's like baptizing.  You have to wash your hands, then have someone pour water over your hands as a baptism, then repeat the process nine more times.  There were all kinds of ritual washings for purification like that in the Jewish religion.  It was a repeated dipping or pouring of water for the purpose of ritual cleansing.

Baptism, or ritual water washings, then became the norm for the Christians to signify they had repented.  Baptism as we now have it as a sacrament of the church is an action by which God signifies to us that we are his own--that our sins have been forgiven, once and for all.  But baptism which was the daily ritual washings were the way people signified to God that they had repented, and were now ready to make that shift in their lives to become a kingdom of heaven person.

And let's face it, we mess up--a lot.  We may end up repenting on a frequent basis, as we continually make those shifts after each mess up.  We need a way to ritualize our promise to God that, this time, our lives, our life direction, the stud work holding up our lives, is really going to change.  And so we dip repeatedly in the cleansing waters, for the purpose of signifying our inner cleansing promise.  That we are now ready to live as a kingdom of heaven person.

Third, and lastly, to be a kingdom of heaven person we need to do some winnowing.  With the kingdom of heaven "at hand", that is, approaching and preparing to mix its time with our present moment, we get ready by repenting, by signifying that repentance with cleansing, and then winnowing.

Farmers have big machines to do their winnowing for them.  They're called combines.  And they cost a lot of money.  Back in Jesus day, they did all that work with a shovel--a winnowing shovel.  The dried wheat stalks would be laid out on a large cloth on the ground. Those stalks would be beaten to release the wheat from the heads.  Then, on a windy day, the farmer would take his winnowing shovel, scoop up the wheat and throw it straight up in the air.  The lighter chaff, or husks, would blow away, and the cleaned, heavier wheat seed would fall back down to the cloth.

Using this imagery, John talked to the people about the final process by which the coming Savior would prepare the people for the approaching kingdom of heaven:  "The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands.  He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn.  But he will burn the husks with fire that can't be put out" (vs. 12, CEB).

The kingdom of heaven, that yet/not yet moment, that major work of God's future ushered in by the Savior that will become mixed in with our present, is a time for God's people to get rid of that part of our selves that really doesn't matter.  There is a part of us that really does matter to God.  That's what God wants to hold on to in us.  That's the part of us that God wants to save, the part of us that God says is worthy.  The fruit, if you will.

But there is a part of our selves that is husk.  It's worthless.  It did it's job of protecting the fruit.  But now that the Savior has come, the Savior will protect our fruit--those worthy, God-saved parts of us that will become the kingdom of heaven.  Those husks need to be let go of.  They need to be cast to the wind.  They need to be burned away.  They aren't the part of us that will go with us into the kingdom of heaven with the Savior.

Only the Savior can do that.  We can't.  We would try to hold on to too much that is unnecessary and useless.  We have to let the Savior do his shoveling work so that we can be totally released and ready to become kingdom of heaven people.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  The Savior is coming.  A big change is on the horizon.  The changes that God is making come near will as of us to make some major shifts so that we will be ready:  Repent,  a paradigm shift;  baptize washed, a constant dipping into God's cleansing waters;  and let God use the winnowing shovel on us so we will finally let go of the chaff in our life.

Sunday, November 27, 2016



Do you remember all those disaster movies that were hits a long time ago?  One of the first was the movie, "Earthquake" that came out in 1974.  It was the first film that came out in sensuround, a kind of stereo sound that was supposed to make you not only hear the earthquake, but feel it as well.

The storyline of the movie began with introducing the audience to a number of characters.  We watched and became involved with their individual stories.  We saw how their everyday routines were lived out each day.  As the audience, though, we knew the secret the characters on the screen did not.  We knew an earthquake was coming.  The people in the movie just went on with their everyday lives.  But we in the audience wanted to shout out the secret, "Watch out you idiots—an earthquake is coming!!"

That's about the way every disaster movie since then has been developed.  Whether it was an alien attack in several movies, like "Independence Day," or a volcano erupting out of the La Brea Tarpits in Los Angeles in the movie, "Volcano", we first get to know characters carrying out their everyday lives until the huge unexpected event drops in their laps.

That's also what is so scary about all the terrorist attacks that go on every day around the world.  You never know.  People are carrying on with their normal everyday lives.  They are going to work.  They get on the subway.  They get on a school bus.  They are standing around the coffee pot having their normal morning banter.  Then the subway train starts gaining speed and the brakes don't work.  Or a bomb goes off.

Each day, people look at the mounds of work on their desk in their cubicle, wondering when it would get done.  They were thinking about the argument they had had with their spouse that morning across the breakfast table.  And then everything starts shaking.

They were looking through their iPhones and iPads, sending texts and tweets, updating Facebook.  Then a spaceship shows up, shoots a death ray into the building, imploding it.

They were kissing loved ones at the airport terminal and boarding what they thought would be a routine flight.  They were asking stewardesses for a pillow for the long flight ahead.  They were opening their laptops once the OK was given by the pilot to turn on electronic devices.  Then the unexpected happened:  Snakes on a Plane!!

The movies and the real life events people have faced in our country lately have all served to remind us of the reality that none of us knows what's going to happen in the next moment.  We assume life is a stable progression of events, mostly predictable with few if any surprises.

But the truth is, we really can't be sure what unexpected things might be dropped into our lives at any one moment.  Possibly the very next moment.  As the bumper sticker from the late 1960's stated, "One atomic bomb can ruin your whole day."

Jesus was making the same point about the unexpected return of the Savior.  Jesus likened it to the time of Noah.  People went about their everyday lives.  They carried out their ordinary kinds of tasks.  From small, routine matters to big ceremonies they lived through their predictable, ordinary lives.

Then the rain started falling.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing unexpected.  Everyone saw the rain clouds forming.  Lots of people probably looked up and said to someone else, "Looks like rain."  Rain was a normal kind of occurrence.  Except this rain didn't stop as expected.  "It rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies…" until all life on the planet was drowned except Noah's family and their floating zoo.  That was totally unexpected.

That, said Jesus, is what the Second Coming of the Savior will be like.  People will allow their lives to be lulled into predictable routines.  They will become numb to the holy.  They will go on with their treadmill lives, with no Godly pursuits happening.  They will make their squirrel cage existence go round and round, but never make something happen with the Lord..  They will continue to live like rats in a maze, scratching down alley after alley, looking for a reward that doesn't even matter in the larger scheme of things; or maybe giving up on the idea that there ever was a reward somewhere in the confusion.

And then, BAM!!  The Lord will return unexpectedly, sweeping up the faithful and leaving the rest behind to face their fate.  No one will see it coming.

Jesus used the story of Noah for a very particular reason.  That reason was because he wanted us to see that this is the way God likes to make things happen.  The biggest events God has made happen, and will make happen were totally unexpected.  It's just the way God does things.

Let's use a couple of pieces of the story of Moses that I've been telling the kids.  Moses, out in the wilderness taking care of sheep, doing, day after day, whatever it is shepherds do.  And then, whoa!, there's a suddenly a bush on fire nearby, but it's not burning up.  Moses couldn't have expected that, no matter how creative his mind may have been.

Or, standing at the edge of the Red Sea, Pharaoh's army coming like a dust storm down upon them.  Had they escaped, just to be slaughtered?  But then God tells Moses to hold up his staff, and when he does, the sea parts before them, and the Hebrew people walk across on dry ground with two huge walls of water on each side of the procession.  Totally unexpected.

Or, moving to the birth story of Jesus, Mary's life unfolded with the normal, small town, Middle Eastern culture predictability.  She was arranged by her father to be married to Joseph, a man from a family on the good side of town, with a respectable occupation.  As a carpenter, Joseph lived by the rule, "Measure twice, cut once."  It applied to every part of his life.

Mary would have a stable life (pardon the pun) being a wife, and, God-willing, a mother of several sons.  Well, God was willing, only a lot sooner than Mary was willing.  In an unexpected way and with an unexpected message, God dropped his world-changing plan into her lap.

But more than that, God dropped the Savior into the lap of an unsuspecting, unexpectant world.  In one of the smallest of Israel's towns, in a cattle stall, while the rest of the world carried on, or slept on, God was birthed into his world.

With the same kind of unexpectedness, Christ will come again to end and remake all of creation.  That's how God likes to make things happen, says Jesus.  So you better be alert.  Those least alert will be left totally clueless.  You don't want to be one of those, Jesus added.

Or, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard Jesus is supposed to come again, but I'm not going to wait around for it.  I'm going to go on and live my life and not hold my breath.  I've got places to go and people to see."  According to Jesus, those kinds of people were drowned in the flood.  Or, will be left behind at the second coming of Christ.

Queen Victoria was one of the most loved Queen's of England.  She would make unexpected calls on the farm folks who lived in cottages or small villages across the British countryside.   Any day might be a royal day, and the humble Brits would put a chair at their table prepared for a possible, yet surprise, visit.

They would keep their houses spotless. They were a clean and wholesome people, but the Queen's surprise visits added to the joy of keeping their homes lovely. The old people who remembered her visits in their youth charmed visitors by the expression used in the residences across the countryside. They would say, "Perhaps today, she’ll come my way."

Or, as Christians, we should say, "Perhaps today, the Lord will come our way."  The people, with the first coming of the Savior, had all but given up that God would send such a one into the world.  They were already amending their expectations that God would usher in a "Messianic Age" but that an individual Messiah probably wasn't a part of God's plans.

Then, surprise, Jesus the Savior is born, and all their expectations went out the window.  It was God, who had to say, through Jesus' coming, "Perhaps today, the Savior will come your way," so that they could get back on track with what God was doing.

The kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself, this Advent, are questions like, How could the Lord catch you the most unawares?  What kinds of activities do you get so wrapped up in that you would miss today—the coming of Christ or the Second Coming?  What kind of qualities do you have that would make you "takable" rather than being "left behind?"  When are the times you are most attentive to God?  Most inattentive?

What I'm thinking is, if God is important to you, you better be ready for the unexpected.  You better be ready for anything.  And, especially, you better be ready to have God impose his agenda and his schedule upon you.  Because, in the end, ready or not, that's how it's going to come down.

"Maybe today, the Lord will come your way."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Grace Descending; Gratitude Ascending" (part 3)

"Grace Descending; Gratitude Ascending"  (part 3)
1 Thessalonians 5:18 (KJV)

"In everything give thanks…"

Four words.  In.  Everything.  Give.  Thanks.  Let's look at them individually in order.

First, "In…"  Other words and phrases we could use instead of "in" might be, "during",  "while in the midst of…",  "immersed in".  The point is, that we are giving thanks while something is happening.  We aren't giving thanks while in some sort of life bubble or experience vacuum.  That's not possible.  And we aren't giving thanks after everything is over and we are looking back and saying, "Thank God that's over!"  Although that would be legitimate.

That's why "in" is so important.  We have to determine, in what?  In life, whether we be in panic mode, in procrastination mode, in multi-tasking mode.  We are in the middle of some kind of experience, good, bad, or ugly.  Because we're in the middle of it, we don't know how it will turn out.  Our circumstance could go this way or that.  Our circumstance could present us with an infinite number of life options.  That may be part of the panic.  We aren't in control.  We feel like the situation is taking us for a ride rather than us being at the steering wheel, which is the position we'd like to be in.

When we are in control, we are less willing to see, and therefore take a look at more options.  So while we are "in" some circumstance in which we aren't in control we may be open to other possibilities that we might otherwise not entertain.

Not only that, but while we are "in" some circumstance we may be more willing to rely on another.  That other may be God.  Or a fellow Christian.  Most of us would probably say we rely on God most of the time.  But there are times we really lean on God, when we are "in" some kind of circumstance we'd rather not be in.

When you think about it, we are always "in" some situation or another.  Usually many situations at once.  Life is a "being in" experience.  Think about the opposite.  What is a "not in" kind of life?  Uninvolved.  Unconnected, with no relationships.  Ungiving.  Ultimately, being "not in" life is a death spiral kind of living.

In.  Another way I like to look at "in" is adventure.  The disciples would be a good example here.  If you are reading along the 5 x 5 x 5 Bible reading plan, we just finished up the gospel of John not too long ago.  At the start of the gospel, (as it is at the start of each of the gospels) Jesus calls the disciples.  Before Jesus, their lives followed a daily routine: get up in the wee hours of the morning, climb in their boat with their brother or father, row out on Lake Galilee, cast the nets, pull them back in, pull any fish you caught out of the net, cast the nets again, pull them back in, hour after hour, row back to shore, sort the fish, salt the fish, carry some to market, mend the nets, go to bed, start it all over again the next day.

That is, until Jesus came and offered them to be part of an adventure.  To join him not in a life of ruts, but a life of adventures, one after the other.  Something new each day.  It may be a life changing conversation with someone.  Or it may be a healing.  Or it might be teaching others about God's ways, and seeing the lights go on in their faces.  You are helping them get it!

That's the kind of "in" that many of you are living.  In an adventure.  Living an adventure with God.  You are "in" life, not "out of life", out of synch with God and God's ways.

The next word is "everything."  Everything.  This may be the hardest word in the phrase, because when Paul says "everything," he means, everything.  The good and the bad.  The beautiful and the horrifying.  When we hear the word "everything", that's where we usually go—to the horrible side of everything.

We put all our experiences on a continuum.  On the far side are the experiences that fill us with ecstasy and wonder, amazement and total goodness.  On the other end of the spectrum is the gut-punching, life-sucking, endless emotional pain, kinds of experiences.  That's the end we think of first, because it is so difficult to marry gratitude with grief.

When I lived up in Nebraska, I went through a 12 week class called, "Grief Recovery."  I took the class for a couple of reasons.  One was, I wanted to lead such a group myself in the church I was at, so I wanted to see how this one was run.  And I took the class to work through, in a group setting, some of my own long held on to grief that I needed to find a way to let go of.  It met once a week for the 12 weeks.  There were about 50 people in the class.  I wasn't prepared for what happened.

For the first few weeks, at the opening, we all had to sit in a circle in a big room, and at the start, speak out loud why we were there.  We had to introduce ourselves with our name and then say what our loss was.  It wasn't so hard for me to speak my loss, but to hear everyone else's.  It was overwhelming.

Parents whose teenagers were friends killed in an auto accident on graduation night.  One man's daughter was raped and murdered.  There were at least two families whose family member had taken their own lives.  One man's adult daughter died of AIDS, that she had gotten from her husband because he was cheating on her.  One young woman's husband, a few days after they were married, was killed in an auto accident.  And on and on it went around this circle of 50 people.

The collective grief filled the room with tears until the level was up to the ceiling and I thought I might drown in that liquid grief.  When I think back to that class, and then try to speak out loud these words of Paul, "In everything give thanks," it's like my mouth and throat can't do it.

But I know the Paul, who wrote these words, didn't just put them out there as some kind of Joel Osteen platitude.  Paul had been beaten several times to within an inch of his life, had been stoned nearly to death, imprisoned several times, shipwrecked, all simply for preaching the gospel.  And at the end of his life he realized he was going to be beheaded.  If someone like that can write, "In everything give thanks," then I can certainly listen.

Remember, I just said our life experiences are on an everything continuum, which means there are some really great things that happen to us.  That "everything" means "everything"—which means all the great stuff too, as well as everything in between.  And even then, in response to the great things on the everything spectrum, we aren't very good about saying thanks.

It's like the story of the 10 people who were healed by Jesus of their leprosy and only one returned to Jesus to say "Thank you."  Think how the lives of the other 9 had been changed for the better!  What an amazing thing to be released from that death sentence of an awful disease where body parts rotted and fell off.  Now they were whole and cured and able to see their family and friends.  They got their lives back.  That was an opposite end of the spectrum experience from the bad stuff that can happen to a person, and still they were thankless.  So on either end of the everything experience spectrum, we aren't very good at being grateful people.

In everything.

In everything GIVE…  Not receive; give.  Throughout the history of the Dear Abby column in the newspaper, one of the main themes of the letters she'd receive, was about this very issue.  Somebody did something for someone else (gave them a gift, did a good deed) but no thanks was given back.  The person writing in to Abby ended up being resentful and angry.  How dare someone not give thanks!  To us!  It's a sign of our ever deepening narcissism that we are more concerned about getting thanks, than giving thanks.  We would rather put someone in our debt, than being indebted to someone else.

It's part of what's wrong with our relationship with God.  To "give" thanks means you are giving thanks to some one else.  You have been given to, and so you are responding to the giver with thanks.  So, in order to give thanks, you have to acknowledge that you've been given something, by someone.

That is the understood, but invisible object of Paul's statement:  In everything give thanks.  But to whom?  To whom do we give thanks?  For Paul, of course, the answer is God.  In everything give thanks (to God).  If we are to give thanks to God in everything, that means everything is a gift from God.  All that we have, all that we experience, all that we are, is a gift from God, deserving our thanks.  So give God what is his due, for everything that comes our way.  Don't wait to read God's letter to Dear Abby, before you give God that gratitude.

Lastly, is the word, thanks.  In everything give thanks.  Now this will be the hardest part.  I've already said, at the start of the message that giving thanks for the most awful experiences seems nigh impossible.  But what I want to try and explain now is going to seem really counter intuitive, and equally impossible.  So you're going to have to listen well to this part.

Remember the continuum of great things on one end and really awful experiences on the other?  What we all hope will happen with our lives is that we will end up with more good experiences on that end of the continuum than bad things on the other end.  We think life is about collecting more thankful memories than grief-filled, resentful memories.  If life doesn't end up that way, we are sure we will not come to the end of our lives with much of a thankful heart.  No one wants to end up feeling that way.

Now comes the hard part.  Gratitude in everything is a way to reclaim your past.  It doesn't make sense, does it?  But what if gratitude is a way to redefine your past, including rejections, abandonment, loss, and failures?  Can we be grateful to God in everything, and through that thankfulness, celebrate how we gained a heart for deeper love, stronger hope, and broader faith?  Can we trust, and therefore thank, God no matter what?

When our gratitude for the past is only partial, or we are grateful for only part of our past, our hope for a new future can never be full.  If we are not grateful for everything, then we will miss how God can make even the worst of our experiences into something good.

Another way to look at being a totally converted person—as I believe Paul was— is to gather up all of your past, and to express your gratitude to God for it all.  It is seeing how God has taken all of your experiences and by God's hand, transformed them all into ways that makes you grateful.  Everything becomes wrapped up into an expression of God's grace, and thereby something for which we may express our gratitude to God.

In everything give thanks.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Saying Grace: Living a Life of Gratitude

"Grace Descending; Gratitude Ascending:
Saying Grace: Living A Life of Gratitude"  (part 2)
Luke 24:30-31

Dinner, the evening meal, was the only meal my growing up family ate together.  We sat in our chairs at the dining room table, my father turned on the TV in the next room, where he could see it from his dining table chair, and we ate the standard meat and potatoes meal my mother had cooked.

My mother almost always served some kind of fruit out of the can with our dinner.  A favorite of the family was fruit cocktail.  All of us 5 kids made sure that someone else didn't, by the luck of the scoop, get more cherries than anyone else.  The cherries in the fruit cocktail were the most valuable thing at our family dinner table.  And therefore the first thing eaten.

But we couldn't eat until we had said the prayer at the table, which was usually offered by my mother.  We all had to fold our hands and bow our heads, and close our eyes in reverence during the prayer.  When the prayer was done, all of us kids would unfold our hands, grab our spoons, open our eyes and lift our heads, all as quickly as possible, and eat the cherry out of our fruit cocktail.

Except me.  Mine would be gone.  During the table prayer, my father would steal the cherry out of my fruit cocktail and eat it.  He thought it was funny.  He'd always laugh.  Ha ha ha ha.  I always thought it highly irreverent that he would steal something during the prayer—especially MY cherry.  It always made me mad he'd steal from my bowl, simply because I had the bad misfortune to have to sit next to the guy.  I think he enjoyed making me mad and disappointed when we had fruit cocktail.

That was just one of the many dysfunctions at our family dinner table.  The fact that it happened during the most sacred part of the meal—the dinner time grace for our food—forever gave me a tinge of anger at every table grace since then.  That memory has tainted for me what should have been something holy, expressing gratitude to God, but ending up making me feel entirely ungrateful.

Mine was not the only table where the table grace had become twisted.  In one episode of "The Simpsons" the family was voted family of the year.  So news and camera people followed the Simpson's around for a day.  At the end of the day, they are gathered around the dinner table, Homer asked Bart to say grace, the TV cameras are humming, while Bart prayed, "Dear God, we bought all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.  Amen."  To which everyone sucked in an air-filled gasp.

It was my daughter Kristin who saved the table prayer for me.  I never liked the rote table graces, and so, like my mother, would offer a prayer for our food.  When Ryan and Kristin got old enough, they wanted to say the prayer for our food.  Kristin was probably about four or five, and she would start praying.  Kristin's meal time prayer went on and on and on, thanking God for everything her wonderful little heart could think of at that moment.  And it was a long list.  Every family member by name, her friends at kindergarten, all by name, the church, birds chirping outside, our dog Jake, the shirt she was wearing that day.  And on and on.  Sometimes Ryan and I would open just one eye and look at each other and smile, wondering when her thank-full monologue was going to be over.  But I just let her go on, because I loved it, and treasured her prayers.

Kristin saved the table prayer for me because her prayers had three qualities of gratitude that I will share with you, in the hopes that your gratitude will find these qualities and you would make them a part of your grateful living.  I think the the table grace can model the larger life of gratitude to God.

The first quality of her praying gratitude was simplicity.  Even though her prayers were long, her gratitude was simple.

When Alan Luttrell and I first started getting together for breakfast once a week 4 years ago, before Rod and Rex joined us, we'd have these conversations.  One conversation I remember was around this question:  "Is faith and belief simple or complicated?"  Is the Christian faith simple or complicated?  I think, if I'm remembering that conversation correctly, we both came down on the side that believing is really simple.

I'm of the opinion that faith in God and all this, when looked at from God's perspective, is really quite simple.  You believe or you don't.  You act in faith or you don't.  You take God at His word and heart or you don't.  For Alan, it all came down to (as he said last week in his moment for mission), "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as your self."  It doesn't get any simpler than that.  We are the ones who make faith complex and muddy.

Kristin's simple prayers of gratitude opened that quality of simplicity up for me.  Karl Barth, was a German theologian during the Nazi era. He wrote a multi-volume work of Christian theology titled, Church Dogmatics.  It's so complex and wordy in it's writing that just one of Barth's sentences may go on for 5 pages.  Years later, in a seminar attended by an American audience, Barth was asked to summarize his beliefs into one sentence.  Barth started singing: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…"

Our beliefs are not that complex.  Our faith is as simple as, "Jesus loves me…"  Expressing our gratitude to Jesus is that simple, because it's simple gratitude expressed out of a simple, yet powerful faith.

The power of the simplicity of gratitude is discovering it is the one thing necessary.  I've preached before about getting caught up in so many things that seem like they are necessary for us to have a good life, and we try to do them all and we wear ourselves out chasing them.  But being grateful to God is one of those simple and necessary things that causes ripple effects through so much else in our lives.  That's what we need to look for—the ripple effect qualities, not just the one splash qualities.  That's the power of being simply a grateful person—that gratitude to God casts ripples throughout our whole lives, affecting so much.

The second quality of Kristin's meal time gratitude was spontaneity.  Her prayer-full gratitude flowed spontaneously out of her little girl heart.  She couldn't hold back.  Everything, and I mean everything, was an object of gratitude for her, and she couldn't wait to thank God for every bit of it.  She didn't write it out on paper ahead of time.  She didn't memorize it.  She just let it flow, in a wondrous gush of uninhibited prayer.  She wasn't worrying about what I or Ryan was thinking of her—she just let go.

I talked a bit last week about how gratitude doesn't seem to be part of our natural make-up as human beings.  We have to coax gratitude out of our children—"Did you tell grandma thank you for giving you that K-State toilet seat cover?"  It seems we have to teach, or model to our children a sense of obligation for being a person of gratitude.

That's why those moments, like when Kristin prayed at the meal time table, that she had no sense of obligation.  "Who want's to pray?"
I never heard, in response, "I guess I'll do it, so we can get it over with, so we can eat."

Kristin had none of that kind of obliged drudgery about having to be made to say thank you to God for every little thing.  For her, that spontaneous gratitude was like listening to improvisational jazz music.

A couple of years ago, I went to a concert at Johnson County Community College with Ryan and his wife Amanda.  It was a concert of Miles Davis music.  Miles Davis was one of the great jazz trumpet players, and known for his gift of improvising.  Throughout this concert, the performer would stop and talk about the genius of Miles Davis' music, because he would improvise—that is he would compose music on the spot, while other musicians carried the melody and rhythms of the song underneath Davis' improvising solo's.

That's what Kristin was doing when she was 4 years old:  Improvising her gratitude.  Her grateful prayers were the solos she'd play, layering them at the dinner table over the rhythms of her 4 year old life.  On and on she'd pray out of her amazing spontaneous thankfulness, and I got caught up in the sheer originality of her composing on the spot, right there at our mealtime table.  That's what gratitude opens up for our lives and living.

The third and final quality of Kristin's grateful table grace was unrestrained delight.  She loved to pray out her gratitude.  She'd be disappointed if I said the prayer, or asked Ryan to pray.  She delighted in saying the table grace.

The word in Latin for our English word, gratitude, is gratia.  It literally means, pleasure.  Gratia is the taking pleasure in some gift or relationship.  Gratia, or gratitude is the way of finding pleasure in all things.  The reason we are able to find pleasure by offering thanks for all of life's occasions is because we don't know which will turn out to be, possibly, one of our greatest blessings.  Even our worst experiences, as they start out, can suddenly change by the hand of God.  Then we find ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude because we didn't see the good God planned coming.   The only proper response is gratefulness, expressed in unrestrained delight.

Think of the scene of the Last Supper.  It's somber.  In a few hours, the betrayal of Jesus will take place and the whole trial and Crucifixion will be set in motion.  Jesus announced that one of the 12 was going to betray him and the disciples are all wondering who that was going to be.  Each of the disciples is wondering, silently, "Is it me?"  Into that dreadful scene, Jesus says a table grace.  He takes the bread, he breaks it, he blesses it, and says thanks to God.

How do you look upon such a scene and say, "Thanks"?  How do you live in the midst of such a dour experience and break bread, and speak blessing into such an experience?  How do you change your facial expression from anxiety to unrestrained delight?  The only way is to do as Jesus did, to speak thanks, to give blessing, to express gratia—pleasure—knowing that to do so is to transform that occasion and all of life with gratitude.

That's the power of the table grace—to let that one prayer be the symbol for living a life of gratitude.  It's such a common prayer.  It's the one kind of prayer that most people pray, even if they don't pray any other kind of prayer.  But to pray at the table, in the simplicity of faith, spontaneous, and with unrestrained delight, is what overlays all of life with gratitude to God, no matter what.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Grace Descending; Gratitude Ascending

"Grace Descending; Gratitude Ascending"
Colossians 4:2

A Jewish mother is at the beach playing with her young son.  She is standing on the beach not wanting to get her feet wet, when all of a sudden, a huge wave appears from nowhere and crashes directly over the spot where the boy is wading. 

The water recedes and the boy is no longer there. He simply vanished. She holds her hands to the sky, screams and cries, "Lord, how could you? Have I not been a wonderful mother? Have I not given a tenth of all my income to you? Have I not tried my very best to live a life that you would be proud of?" 

A minute later another huge wave appears out of nowhere and crashes on the beach. As the water recedes, the boy is standing there, smiling, splashing around as if nothing had ever happened. A loud voice booms from the sky, "Okay, okay, I have returned your son. Are you satisfied?" 

She responds, "He had a hat."

Some people just don't know how to be grateful.  Or maybe it's that they are only partially grateful.  They show gratitude, but…  They are thankful, but…  There's that "but…" always in there that keeps them from embracing full gratitude.  They know they received a certain measure of some unmerited gift, and they say thanks, but they also, in the back of their mind, think they deserved more.  Or they can't get past their critical nature that keeps them from being fully thankful.  "Thank you for saving my son from the wave, but don't you think you could have returned him with his hat intact?"

Being thankful means overcoming our resistance to not be grateful.  It doesn't appear that we are born with the innate ability to say, "Thank you."  When you were a child, and you had received something from someone, what did your mother always ask you?  "Tell them, 'Thank you,'" or some such thing.  We have to be told or taught to be people of gratitude.  A boy said to his father, "Guess what?  I can say please and thank-you in Spanish, German or French."
His father responded, "How come you never say it in English?"

It is remarkable, isn't it, that it's not in our human nature to be grateful.  It's more in our nature to take things for granted.  Or, out of some narcissistic sense of entitlement, to think that what we received was not all that great, and we certainly should have received more.  Or to look upon the task of writing "Thank You" notes as sheer drudgery.  Or we are so self-centered, how do you say "Thank you" to yourself?  Like the guy who in his bedtime prayer said, "Dear God, is there some way you could help me, but make it look like I did it myself?"

There is a resistance there, isn't there, to not be a person of gratitude.  Which means it has to come down to a conscious decision on each of our parts to be thankful people.  Just google "quotes on gratitude" and you'll get list after list of such inspirational material about gratefulness.  Some of them may fill you with the motivation to move towards being a thankful person.  For a day or so.

William George Jordan once said, “Ingratitude is a crime more despicable than revenge, which is only returning evil for evil, while ingratitude returns evil for good.” Why?  Why are we so resistant?  Why does it seem like we have to be convinced to become people of gratitude?  And how do we become convinced?

The apostle Paul linked, in several letters, the attitude of gratitude with prayer.  As our verse for the morning says:  "Persevere in prayer, with minds alert and with thankful hearts" (Colossians 4:2, REB).  Because having "thankful hearts" is so difficult for us as human beings, Paul emphasizes that to move toward that goal, we need to persevere in prayer and have our minds alert.  Think of gratitude as both a process and a goal in the Christian spiritual life.

A thankful heart keeps a person alert in prayer, wrote Paul.  Alert for what?  Alert not only for God, but also for the gifts of God.  Two women were walking through a park one bright Spring morning.  One of the women was not much of a believer in God.  The other woman was a believer.  The non-believer, overwhelmed by the park's beauty said, spontaneously, "I'm so grateful for the beauty of this day."
Her believing friend replied, "Grateful to whom?"

That's the alertness that gratitude in prayer helps with.  Maybe our problem is not that we are ungrateful, or that we are somehow beyond an exclamation of thankfulness.  We just don't know, because of our lack of or limited faith, who we are supposed to be thankful to.  We may be thankful for a number of things, but who are we thankful to?  Life?  The universe?

Alertness in prayer, Paul wrote, is what focuses our attention.  Alertness to God.  Alertness to the movement of God in our lives.  Alertness to the blessings of God that come our way every day.  Alertness to being aware of the many occasions during even the most ordinary of days, that would inspire us to say, "Thanks be to God."  That is one of the main works prayer—to be alert every day for the instances when we saw the hand and movement of God, and we can't help but say, "I'm so grateful, and I know the One to whom I am grateful."

A man stood at the front of the congregation and humbly announced that he and his wife wished to donate $5000 toward a new stained glass window in memory of their son who was killed in Afghanistan.  A woman in the congregation then nudged her husband and quietly whispered, "Let's do the same thing."
"What?" the husband whispered back.  Our son wasn't killed in Afghanistan."
"Yes," she replied, "I know."

Both couples, alert to God, decided to do the same thing, respond in the same way, because they were thankful for two opposite reasons: a son's ultimate sacrifice in war; and a son who didn't have to be faced with such a moment.  It is that prayerful alertness that has to happen in order that gratitude may be the response to Godly action, no matter what that action is.

That's where I got the sermon title for this series, "Grace descending; Gratitude Ascending."  In other words, God acts first.  God is moving about in our lives and in our world.  We see that action, when we are alert to it through our praying.  And once we see it, we respond.  God's grace falls upon us like the sunshine.  God acts first in some descending activity.  Once we see it, once we catch a glimpse of it through our praying alertness, we respond with "gratitude ascending" to such a giving and amazing God.

Our verse for today had one more element of gratitude:  "Persevere in prayer, with minds alert and with thankful hearts."  The word is "persevere."  To have an alert and thankful heart is not something that comes at the snap of the fingers.  Such a heart can only happen when we persevere.  Cultivating a thankful heart, alert to God, takes a lifetime.

One author was the guest of honor at a writer's club.  He declined to give a speech, but agreed to answer any questions the club members might have.  One lady raised her hand and asked, "Tell me, to what one thing do you attribute your success?"
The author paused for a moment and answered:  "I can best answer that by telling a story of a Swede in Alaska.  He was the owner of several rich mines, and all his friends wondered how he had managed to become so successful.  So finally, one of them asked the Swede their question.  'Ay never told anybody before,' the Swede replied, 'but Ay vill tell you.  Ay just kept diggin' holes.'"

I talked at the start of this message about our resistance to be people of gratitude and overcoming that resistance.  Being an overcomer means having that perseverance in prayer.  It means having not just the attitude of "keep diggin' holes," but actually doing the work.  The Swedish miner didn't have good intentions about diggin' holes.  He did it.  And he kept digging, and he kept digging, and he kept digging.

The result of that kind of perseverance in prayer is intimacy with God.  That's the only result of persistent prayer: growing an intimate relationship with God.  All three of Paul's qualities work together to build that kind of faithful relationship.  If you are keeping your mind alert for the activity of God, if you are responding to the activity of God with a grateful heart, if you are persevering in prayer, even in the times you don't feel like praying, when you just keep at it, you just keep diggin', the result is a long intimate relationship with God.  When you then come to the end of your life, you know the one whose hands your are laying your spirit into.

Even when you get to the end of your life, whenever that is, because of your prayers and alertness and thankfulness, you can gratefully turn your soul over to our amazing God, with whom you have walked your whole life.

One grandmother was talking to her granddaughter.  "I hope you like the dictionary app I got for your iPad for your birthday.
Her granddaughter replied, "Yes, and I just can't find the words to thank you."

All that we have to live a wonderful life has been given to us by our God-of-all-gifts.  It is simply our task to receive those gifts, to recognize and be alert to those gifts, and then to find the words to let our gratitude ascend to that most amazing God.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Meet the Press

"Meet the Press"
Habakkuk 1:1-11

MTP:  Welcome to, "Meet the Press."  We're fortunate to have with us one of the rising stars in prophetic circles: Habakkuk.  Do you pronounce your name Ha-bak-kuk or Habak-kuk?

Habakkuk:  Either is fine.  Most people just shorten it to "Kuk" (Kook).

MTP:  Uh…OK.  Well, Mr. Habakkuk, first tell us a little bit about yourself.  Not much is known about you.

Habakkuk:  No.

MTP:  No?

Habakkuk:  No.  I won't tell you anything about me.  Being a prophet of the Almighty God isn't about me.  It isn't about getting to know me.  It's about God.  Getting to know who God is.

MTP:  Well, this should be interesting.

Habakkuk:  Probably not.

MTP:  Right.  OK.  Let's get started.  You've been attracting a lot of attention lately for your law and order messages.  Tell us more about that.

Habakkuk:  (Pauses for a long time staring at the correspondent.)  Basically, I'm just sick of it all.  With our rulers, the scarcest commodity is the truth.  Religious nut-jobs killing people for religious reasons.  Our police have a "stab first, ask questions later" attitude.  Drunkenness.  Drug addiction.  Children are mistreated by parents.  Babylon.  Assyria.  Egypt.  All trying to take over the map.  My eyes soak up corruption and violence.  It leeches its way into my pores.  It's becoming a part of me and I'm sick of it.

MTP:  It's just the way the world is.

Habakkuk:  No.  I don't believe that.

MTP:  You can't deny reality.

Habakkuk:  But that's what's so frustrating!  I can't deny reality.  And I hate this world's reality.  I hate being lied to.  I hate looking people in the face, them smiling or with some smug expression of authority, and lie to me through those faces.  Why can't people just tell the truth, take their lumps for telling the truth if they have to.  At least they'd be holding on to some integrity.

MTP:  (said with a smiling, lying face)  I feel your pain.  But like I said—It's reality.
Habakkuk:  There has to be another reality!  There has to be something better going on in the world than mayhem, crime, and cruelty.

MTP:  Aren't you one of those believers in God?  Certainly your God must be doing something good in the world.  You say you speak for God—you're a prophet.  What does your God have to say about all the injustice?

Habakkuk:  (Sits and stares at MTP person again with a long, sobering expression.)  God.

MTP:  Yes, God.

Habakkuk:  Well, that's a good question.  I've been asking God those kinds of questions for so long.

MTP:  Get any answers?

Habakkuk:  Yeah, but I didn't like them.  I know you and your audience isn't going to like them either.

MTP:  Try me.

Habakkuk:  (Another long pause.)  Well, I asked God why God allowed all these lies and all this violence to just go on and on and on.  God said, "Me!?  Why do you and everyone else allow it to go on and on!"  God said, "You're the ones living with it.  Why don't you do something about it!?"
Then God said, "You never challenge all this violence and lies.  All you do is get used to it.  You throw up your arms and say, 'We just cant do anything about it.  Guess we'll just have to get used to it.'  That's what make me sick."

MTP:  And have you ever wondered if your God is all wrong?  Maybe some of what's going on in the world isn't that bad.  It's progress!

Habakkuk:  (Stares at MTP and shakes his head.)  That's the attitude that caused God to say the other thing.

MTP:  "Other thing?"

Habakkuk:  Yeah.  About punishing our nation.

MTP:  God's going to punish our country!?  How, pray tell?

Habakkuk:  God's tired of the mess we've made of this nation.  Tired of our waywardness.  Tired of the people living as if God didn't exist.  Tired of indifference.  Tired of people drifting away from God's churches.  No one listens any more in this country.  No one cares.  God is tired of being 8th or 9th or 10th on people's priority list.  So, it's time for a little attention getting—a little punishment.

MTP:  How is God going to do that?

Habakkuk:  God's going to send a foreign army.  Maybe the Babylonians.  Or the Egyptians.  Or both.

MTP:  God's going to send the Babylonians as punishment?

Habakkuk:  (Nodding his head, yes.)  They're going to sweep across this land in numbers like the sand on the beach, with the ferocity of a locust swarm.  They will make us all look like a pathetic laughing stock as they strip us bare and spank us.

MTP:  (Snickering)  Really?  That's going to happen?  God's going to use the Babylonian armies to spank us?

Habakkuk:  (Folds his arms, leans back and stares at MTP.)  People in this country need to see how serious God is about cleaning up all the corruption, violence, and lies.

MTP:  So God's going to clean up the violence in our country using violence, inflicted by another country's army?  That makes no sense.  Why does God need to use some other country's Godless army?  Why doesn't God just do it himself?

Habakkuk:  To alter your phrase from earlier, "It's just the way God is."  (Pause)  Maybe some day, God will come to earth and take care of our violence, lawlessness, crime, and cruelty in a personal way.

MTP:  What if…

Habakkuk:  Yes?

MTP:  What if we changed?  What if we were sorry?

Habakkuk:  (Looking at MTP, again for a long time, but smiling; then leaning in to MTP)  You have no idea how long I have hoped for that—how I have dared to think that such a thing was do-able.  Do you think…

MTP:  Do I think it's possible…that a country can change?  That God would change God's mind and save us all?  I don't know.  You're the one who's in the God business.

Habakkuk:  I'm one of those hopeful kinds of people.  And I do the whole prophet thing backwards.  I know I'm supposed to listen to God, and speak God's words to the people.  But I end up listening to the people and making their case to God.  And I just think, if there's going to be a change in our nation, it has to start somewhere.  With a small group of believers.  Start making the change, living the change, and multiplying the change.

MTP:  Interesting…

Habakkuk:  People are so fascinating, don't you think?  At least they are to me.  I keep telling God we're all a mix.  We definitely aren't all good, be we as individuals aren't all bad either.

MTP:  So how does God separate out the one from the other?

Habakkuk:  That's what I keep asking God!  Human beings are infinitely more complex.  (Pause.)  I keep telling God to give us a break, cut us some slack.  It's really hard to figure out this being human thing.  And God ought to know that, since God made us all. 

MTP:  How does God respond?

Habakkuk:  God's a good listener, despite the times He says He's going to wipe us all out with some other country's army!  I told God once He ought to jump into our world as a human being and try it out.  It's not as easy as it looks, being human.

MTP:  Interesting suggestion.  What did God think?

Habakkuk:  God said, "You're way ahead of me."

MTP:  What did that mean?

Habakkuk:  I'm not sure, but I got the idea God has a plan.

MTP:  So, is God going to sweep our country clean with some army?

Habakkuk:  That's probably still going to happen.

MTP:  Well, folks, time to start packing.  Get out while you can.  That according to our guest, the prophet Habakkuk—the one who speaks for humans to his fiery God.  Let's hope Habakkuk can get a good word in for us all.  See you all next week.  Maybe.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Handwriting On The Wall

"The Handwriting On The Wall"
2 Timothy 4:6-8

Many of you know I have a defibrillator in my chest.  It does a lot of things.  One of those things is monitor what's going on in my heart.  Every 90 days it sends a report about my heart to the Heart Hospital in Wichita, using this other device that sits on the table by my bed.

After the last 90 day report was sent in a couple of months ago, the nurse at the cardiologist's office called and said, "You need to get in here as soon as possible—within the next week.  That's a scary call to get.  Especially when that's all she'd say.

I went in the next day after she called, and the electro-cardiologist, Dr. Parikh, told me my defibrillator had gone off a couple of months prior.  I had no idea.  "I thought I'd feel a jolt," I said.
He said, "You probably passed out for a second before the jolt came—then you would have woken right up, not knowing what happened.  That passing out and jolting took a second, maybe two.  Then Dr. Parikh said, "If you didn't have the device in your chest you would be dead right now."  That's what gave me a real jolt—his statement.

The device logs everything, so I was told what day my jolt happened, what time of day, etc.  I pulled out my iPhone and checked the date and time.  Nothing much happened that day, according to my calendar.  Except for the fact that I could have died that day.  It was a Thursday, 10:34 a.m..  I would have been sitting in my chair, behind my desk.  Totally oblivious to what had just happened.

Leigh Ann Curtis has a similar device in her chest, and has been thumped a couple of times by it.  One of those, Joel got in on it, catching Leigh Ann as she was going down.  So she knows what it's like, more than me, since, as I said, my heart's disrythmia made me pass out first.

I haven't told very many people about it.  I told my friend Gordon Stofer about it one day, when we were chatting, comparing medical notes.  He said, "Whoa! That's great!  The device worked!  You're alive!"  And that's true.  It's the reason he embodies our Optimist Club Creed.  That's what I should be concentrating on.  But I confess I have been a bit freaked out since hearing the report from my electro cardiologist.

I feel like I'm caught in this "twilight zone" between Gordon's reaction and the Dr.'s words.  I'm alive!  But I could have died.  When I was talking to my son and daughter, Ryan and Kristin, about it, I said that part of it is the difference between a hurricane and an earthquake.  As we saw with hurricane Matthew in Florida, they could track the storm, they had a good idea where it was headed, the computer had given them several models of where Matthew would end up.  The storm did exactly as expected.

But with an earthquake, you never know when it's going to hit.  My heart problems are not vascular.  My issues don't have to do with clogged arteries.  It is all electrical: pulses that constantly misfire, and evidently now, misfire between the nerves in my heart that can put me down.  For good.  And I'll never know when.  I won't have any soreness in my shoulder or arm or back to warn me.  Or have any forewarnings that feel like indigestion.  Nothing that can be tracked and measured and monitored, like other forms of heart disease, or cancer, or other assorted deadly and chronic illnesses.  That total lack of warning is part of what has gotten me a bit distressed.

The handwriting is on the wall.  Which is a biblical term, if you didn't know.  It's from the Old Testament book of Daniel.  The king of Babylon has a vision of a huge hand writing an indecipherable message on the wall.  Only Daniel, one of the captive Jews from Israel is able to tell the king what the handwriting on the wall means—that he, the king and the Babylonian kingdom, is doomed.  That night, the king dies.

For Paul, also, he has seen the handwriting on the wall.  When he wrote the second letter to Timothy, Paul was in prison.  He wasn't just under house arrest as he was before, waiting to make the gospel known to Caesar, free to come and go as he pleased.  Now, he's in a dark dungeon in Rome.  He knows his death could come at any moment.  The second letter to Timothy is the last he wrote before he was beheaded.

Part of the reason Paul is writing to Timothy is to ask Timothy to come see him.  Paul is lonely.  Because he has been labeled an enemy of the empire, everyone else deserted him.  Maybe they were afraid they would be arrested also if they were associated with Paul.  Some were ashamed of Paul—here was someone who devoted his life to Christ and the gospel, and look where it got him.  So they abandoned Paul, and feeling that abandonment, he was lonely for his friend Timothy.

In the old Bob Newhart show, Bob played a psychiatrist.  In one of the shows, he was standing in front of an elevator door waiting for it to open.  He was reading.  When the door opened, he hadn't paid attention.  The elevator car wasn't there.  Unaware, Bob stepped into the empty shaft.  At the last second he grabbed one of the cables and swung himself back to the floor he was on.  The whole show was about his near death experience.

His wife, at one point doesn't understand why Bob is so worked up.  "I just see death as part of life," she says to him matter-of-factly.  After a pause, Bob said, "Yeah, the last part."

So it is that Paul is asking Timothy to come and spend that last part with him, so he won't have to face death alone.

But also, here at the end of his letter, Paul is doing something else.  Knowing death is coming, he evaluates his life.  He talks out loud thoughts about how he feels about his life as he stares the good possibility of the end in the face.  He sees the handwriting on the wall, so he ponders his life, what he has accomplished.  Which is a bit of what I have been doing these past couple of months since getting the news from the cardiologist.

Paul uses a lot of imagery in his life review.  So I want to go through some of that imagery with you.  Maybe it can help you pause, maybe just for this moment, and think about where your own life has gone, what you have done with your life, what more you could do, so that when you see your own handwriting on the wall, you, like Paul can feel good about it all.

The first image Paul used is the "drink offering."  A drink offering was wine that was poured out upon the altar in the temple.  The altar was a huge, natural rock in the temple, upon which the sacrificial animals were slain for the forgiveness of the people's sins.  The wine could be poured out on the altar as a cleansing and purification of the altar before a sacrifice was make.  Or the wine could be an offering itself given to God.  Poured out.

Paul was using that image as a way to describe how he felt his life had been.  It was a life poured out for others.  It was a life poured out for God.  It was a life given in sacrifice to do the will of God.  His life wasn't one controlled by his selfish desires.  His wasn't a life of narcissism and self-indulgence.  Instead it was a life totally given to the will and purposes of God.

As I'm looking at my life, those are the two choices it seems I have.  Or, we have.  How much did my life sing along with Frank Sinatra, "I did it my way"?  Or, how much did my life sing along with St. Paul, "I did it God's way"?

Secondly, Paul says his time of departure is at hand.  The word, in Paul's language, for departure literally means, an unloosing.  It's like loosing a boat from its moorings.  Paul is ready to have his life untied, and set sail for that distant shore.

For most of my life, I was no where near ready to be "unloosed."  As a single father, I couldn't stand the thought of leaving my kids, especially by death.  Any way I could, I secured that rope to the dock.  I'm not so anxious about that now.  As I have pondered over the last couple of months, I think we all have to be prepared, at any time, for our departure, our unloosing.  No matter what stage or age we're at.

As Ryan has told me a few times, he believes life is precious.  And what I've been taught is that life is precious because you never know when you will be loosed from your moorings.  So we need to make the most of the time we have, while we are moored, while we are tied to this life.  Don't waste what God has given you.

Thirdly, Paul said he "fought a good fight."  Life was a struggle.  He was in competition with an adversary.  And at the end, he felt good about that fight and struggle.  It made me think about the times I have struggled with my adversaries, the times I have tripped myself and fallen on my face big time, the times I gave into anger at God and should have kept my mouth shut, the times I have drifted in doubt and self-doubt.  I wonder about this one.  If I can say, evaluating my life, if I have fought the good fight.

Maybe you have seen the movie, or read the book, about Mother Teresa that describes how much she questioned, her awful times of doubt, her struggles with the great evil in the world.  All of that was an internal fight, in which she wrestled with her internal self.  I am no saint, like she is.  But I feel her internal struggles about "fighting the good fight."

Which leads to the next way Paul pondered his life at the end.  He said, he had "finished the course."  Finished doesn't mean just ended.  Finished means "accomplished" or "fulfilled."  It is the same word Jesus used on the cross when he said, "It is finished."  He and Paul meant, when they came to the end they hadn't left anything undone.  They had fulfilled everything they had been commissioned by God to do.

Fighting the good fight has most to do with coming to the possible end of your life knowing that you have, by fighting the good fight, however old you are, or however along in life you are, that you are confident, up to that point, that you have "finished the course"—you have done ALL God has wanted you to accomplish.

And the last thing Paul says, in evaluating his life at the end, is, "…I have kept the faith."  The word "kept" is a great word in the Greek that spoke and wrote.  This word, "kept", literally means guarded, or more so, built a fortress around.  Paul was writing, at the near end of his life, that he was sure, that above all else, he had built a fortress around his faith.  He had guarded and protected his faith above all else.  He protected his faith because it was the most important, the most vital, the most meaning-full part of him.

So, I've been asking myself, as I hope you are asking yourself, "What is it that I have built a fort around, and protected above all else?"  Has it been my faith in Christ?  Or has it been my career, which is something else entirely?  Has it been my faith in my Lord Jesus, or has it been my ego?  Paul wrote in his last letter, he had kept the faith.  I want—and I hope you want too—to say the same.

After doing this self-evaluation, Paul smiles.  He knows that his life is solid in the Lord.  Because of that, what awaits Paul after death, is the crown.  In Greek, it is the stephanos.  It's my name.  The stephanos is the olive branch crown given the victors either in war, or in the Olympic games.  Such a crown was the most honored, the most coveted item a person could attain.  Paul knew such a crown was waiting for him, placed upon his head by the Lord Himself—the Lord whom Paul had loved and served his whole life.  The Lord whom Paul poured his life out for.  The Lord who would one day soon unloose his moorings.  The Lord, Paul had struggled and fought the adversary for.   The Lord, Paul fulfilled his life for.  And faith in the Lord that Paul had built a fortress around and protected.

That's how Paul evaluated his life at the end.  It is what I ponder ever since I found out about that fateful Thursday, when death was near, but I was given more.