Monday, April 17, 2017

"A Curious Detail" (Easter Sunrise)

"A Curious Detail"
Easter Sunrise
John 20:1-18

Scripture Reading:  John 20:1-18
Message:  "One Curious Detail of the Easter Story"

What was going on inside the tomb, right before the stone was rolled back out of the way?  What happened right before Jesus stumbled out of the tomb?  Although, something tells me Jesus didn't stumble out of the tomb, shielding his eyes from the morning light after being closed off in the darkness.  But we'll get to that in a minute.  Right now I'm wondering what was going on just prior to moving the stone.

Jesus probably would have been naked when crucified.  It was part of the humiliation the Romans heaped upon those who received this kind of capital punishment.  Were the angels shopping for cloaks for Jesus to wear for his grand reentrance back into the world?  "Should we get the white one or the one with pinstripes?  Cotton, or cotton blend?"  Jesus pacing back and forth inside the tomb, wondering if he could trust the angel's shopping skills.  "I hope they didn't go to the Gap and get something too trendy," Jesus may have been thinking.

But I don't think that's what was going on either.  Somehow they solved the no clothes issue.  Something else was going on, and John gives us a glimpse of it in his version of that Resurrection morning.

Right in the middle of John's story of Easter morning John gives a small detail that is extremely intriguing.  Let's go back and put his story time line together.

First, we see Mary coming to the tomb—watching the dust rise up from the way she is dragging her feet.  She is more than a little despondent, her heart broken from the dying of Jesus.  We hear the twilight sounds of the morning starting to rise with the sun.  We sense the stillness—even the emptiness—of the air. We see her tears and feel the crushing weight of her even greater grief as she discovers in the dimness of the morning the stone rolled away. We hear her shrill cries as she sobs out her testimony to Simon Peter and John, after running back to them, telling them that robbers must have come and stolen Jesus' body.

Then comes the running of two men. We hear the panting. We feel the hot breath. We see the younger of the two outrun the older. Then, by the first rays of light, first, by John, and then by Peter, that the tomb is indeed empty. That's when we get the detail.  It's through their eyes that we get to see inside the tomb.  We get to hear about this one, obscure detail:
"…and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself" (John 20:7).

It's a curious little detail to include, don't you think? John was there—the first inside the tomb.  He saw the whole burial cave scene. The memory of that place was so ingrained into him that he wanted to record every last detail.  The face cloth was one of those details.  The way the other burial cloths are described, in the Greek, it's like Jesus' body just went up through them, as if he were a ghost.  The cloths lay just as they would have if they fell through his body.

But not the face-cloth.  It was rolled up and set in an entirely different place in the tomb.  Why?  I don't know.  Neither does anyone else.  So we get to imagine.  Imagine Jesus, having just arisen.  He stands up.  The face-cloth is still stuck to his face.  He gently takes if off.  Holding it loosely between his fingers, he takes his time to view the place where he had lain dead.  Because he had never seen it before.  He was, of course, dead when they brought him there.  The binding strips laying there in a helter skelter fashion.

While he stares, he consciously takes the face cloth, folds it in half, and rolls it up.  What is he thinking?  What is going through his mind?  Was he thinking, There is where I lay.  There is where I was dead.  He gingerly touches the nail scars in his wrists.  No pain.  Totally healed.  This is where I was wounded.  But I feel nothing.  I was dead.  But now I am alive—in a different and new way.

In an unhurried way, Jesus takes it all in.  As he stands there, the stone begins to move, effortlessly.  It rolls up its little ramp and settles on it's positioning plateau.

Jesus looks out into the world from inside his tomb.  He begins to walk out, but stops.  He remembers he has the rolled up face-cloth in his hand.  He smiles.  He looks back at the heap of grave cloths.  He places the rolled up face-cloth on a tiny shelf of rock, where a candle would have been placed, above the place where Jesus would have lain.

Again, he stands for a moment looking at that scene, that in a moment, he will turn his back on and never look at again.  Why did he place the face-cloth there?  Maybe it was a visual parable.  Like when the Father God, at creation, changed all the chaos into order, Jesus put a little symbol of order over the chaos of his death bed.  The world was at one time a spiral of disorder where up was down and left was right and life was death. Everything was flipped on its head, but when He stepped out of the tomb, with the placement of the rolled up face-cloth, He announced to our broken creation that He was setting everything back the way it was always supposed to be.  Order above the chaos.

Out of disorder and into order. Out of death and into life. Out of brokenness and into wholeness. And maybe that reordering started with that simple act of taking what might have otherwise been a wrinkled, tattered mess, folding and rolling it up neatly, placing it in an intentional and specific spot.

Then, with a wry smile, He walked out into the light …

Resurrection Sunday Dialogues

"Resurrection Sunday Dialogues"

Scripture:  John 14:6-9  (RSV)

Philip:  You ask him.
Thomas:  No, you ask him.
Philip: No, you!
Thomas:  You!
Jesus:  Ask who?  And ask who, what?
Philip:  (elbows Thomas)
Thomas:  (elbows Philip back)
Jesus:  (sighs)  What do you want to ask me?
Thomas:  We were just wondering if, you know, when, or in what way…
Philip:  (breaking in)  When are we going to get to see God?
Thomas:  Right.  That's what I was going to say before Philip, here, interrupted.
Jesus:  (with a look of sadness and dumbfoundedness)  You want to see God?
Philip:  Yes.  I mean, we've seen you and all.  And you're phenomenal!  Don't get me wrong.
Thomas:  Yes!  Amazing!  All the stuff you do, healing people, changing water into wine…
Philip:  (interrupting)  That one was great!  And the wine—superb!  Not too dry, not too sweet.  I didn't even get a headache after a couple of cups.
Thomas:  You had six cups…
Philip:  Not important… (pause)  Anyway, Jesus, we were thinking it would be amazing…
Thomas:  AMAZING!
Philip:…if you would, somehow, let us see God.  That's all we need.  Then we will be convinced enough.
Jesus:  Convinced enough for what?
Philip:  To go tell others we have seen God!
Thomas:  Yeah, we just want to see God!
Philip:  (nodding affirmatively)  Just see God; that's all.
Jesus:  That's all—you just want to see God?
Thomas and Philip:  (shake their heads affirmatively)
Jesus:  Done!
Thomas:  (with a fist pump)  Yes!  We get to see God!
Jesus:  You already have.
Thomas:  (looking around)  What?  Where?  Here?
Jesus:  Right here.
Philip:  Where, right here?
Jesus:  (pointing to himself)  Here.
Philip:  You…?
Jesus:  Me.
Thomas:  You're God!?
Jesus:  Yes.
Thomas and Philip:  (look at each other)
Thomas:  Whoa, I did not see that one coming.
Philip:  Neither did I.

Song:  "Behold the King" (with "Open the Eyes of My Heart")

Second Dialogue:  Philip and Thomas

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 11:23-26

(Use wooden stool and little wooden chair.)
Philip: (sitting in little chair)  Why do I have to be the one who sits in the little chair at the Passover meals?
Thomas:  Because you're the youngest.  (pats Philip on the head)
Philip:  It's humiliating!  (folds his arms across his chest)
Thomas:  You do get to ask the questions during the Passover meal.
Philip:  (mockingly)  Oh, boy; what fun.  (pause)  And why are we all sitting on the same side of the table?
Thomas:  Wait a minute—what's he saying?
Philip:  I don't know; I can hardly see above the edge of the stupid tabletop.
Thomas:  (whispering)  Did you just hear what he said?
Philip:  (whispering)  Something about the bread being his body.
(whispering the rest of the way through)
Thomas:  I wonder what that means.
Philip:  He just said his body will be broken.  Why would he say such a thing?
Thomas:  And who is going to do that to him?
Philip:  I dunno.
Thomas:  He's had some close scrapes—but he always got through them.
Philip:  Yeah, remember that time they wanted to throw him off a cliff?
Thomas:  (a little too loudly)  That was scary!
Philip:  So what does he mean his body is going to be broken?  Is he going to die?
Thomas:  For some reason, I never thought that could happen.  I mean, he told us that time he is God.  Can God die?  What will happen if he's dead?  If he's killed?
Philip:  (shrugging his shoulders)  I don't know.  (pause)  Let's not think about that.  What's he doing now?
Thomas:  Saying something about the wine is like his blood.
Philip:  What!?  Now what does THAT mean!?  (pointing)  And where is Judas going?

Song:  "You Are The Bread"


Third Dialogue:  Philip and Thomas

Scripture:  John 20:24-29

(sitting with backs to Communion Table or on top step)
Thomas:  I have no idea why I'm here.
Philip:  Uh, because you're a disciple.
Thomas:  I'm not sure I want to do that anymore.  I mean, Jesus is dead.  Who are we even following?  (points at the congregation)  Look at those saps over there.  It's time for them to put on their big girl panties and face the facts.  He's gone, Philip.  Dead. And. Gone.
Philip:  But he's alive!
Thomas:  Yeah, yeah.  (with an eye roll) The women said so.  Right.
Philip:  They said they saw him.  That he talked to them.
Thomas:  (patting Philip on the back)  Philip, Philip, Philip.  Ever read any psychology?  Mass hysteria?  That kind of stuff?
Philip:  (shakes his head no)
Thomas:  It's all in their heads.  You know how women are.  See what they want to see.  Hear what they want to hear.  Always overly emotional (fake crying).  Always making something so much more than it really is.  (pause)  He even duped us, Philip, telling us he was God.  How does God die, for God's sake?

(Jesus walks in and stands in front of them.  Thomas sees him and jumps straight up to his feet.  Philip gets up more slowly, looking back and forth between Jesus and Thomas)

Thomas:  What the…
Jesus:  Hello, Thomas.
Thomas:  Jesus?  (turning to Philip)  Pinch me; I might be hallucinating.
Philip:  (pinches Thomas)
Thomas:  Yeowwww!  Dang, I'm not hallucinating.  So you see Jesus standing there, too?
Philip:  Yup.
Thomas:  So he's really alive?
Philip:  Yup.
Jesus:  If you're still not sure, come here; touch my wounds.  Be absolutely sure.  It's the truth!  I'm the truth!  I'm alive, and you of all people need to be sure of that truth.
Thomas:  (falls at Jesus' feet, crying emotionally)  Oh my God, I've been such a fool!  I am so so sorry, Lord.  I do believe, and I promise I will do whatever you say!
Jesus:  (extends a hand; brings crying Thomas to his feet)

Song:  "See What A Morning"

Sunday, April 9, 2017

This Silly Religion

"This Silly Religion"
Psalm 31:6-16

I've been having you look at several Psalms during the season of Lent.  I wanted us to look at the Psalms because of the important place they have in the life of the church, and the spiritual development of believers.

The Psalms has been called the church's prayer book.  When Christians aren't sure how to pray, or what to pray, they can turn to the book of Psalms, and find there a guide—the words to say when words aren't there.  And I have had you use them, this Lenten season, as kick-starters for your writing in your journals.

One of the things you need to know is that Jesus used the Psalms in his own praying.  There seemed to be times when even Jesus was at a loss of words, and not knowing what to pray, what words to use to express his emotions, he would turn to the Psalms.

This Psalm in particular was important to Jesus and it formed the basis of his prayers at two awful points in his life:  praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and while he was dying on the Cross.  This Psalm, these verses, formed the core of his prayers at those two times in his life.

At verse 6, a shift happens in this psalm.  The shift happens because the psalmist—King David, here—has come to a fork in the path of his spiritual life.  He has to choose between two options.  It's either one or the other.  One option is following what he calls "silly religion."  The other fork in the road means trusting God whole-heartedly.  Silly religion or whole-hearted trust in God.  Silly religion vs. being "all in."

In one of our Sunday School class sessions we were talking about this kind of devotion to God.  Gordon Stull used the image that Don Peters would be familiar with on his poker night.  In poker, one of the choices you have, when it's your turn, is to raise all the other bids.  Make others decide if they want to risk more money.  One choice you have, at that juncture in the game is to go, what's called, "all in."  That is you look at the stacks of chips before you, and either through an elaborate bluff or a confidence in the strength of your hand of cards, you push all your chips into the pot.  You go all in.  You have put yourself in the position of losing everything.  And at the same time you have put yourself in the position of gaining everything.

Could you do that with your faith in Christ?  That's what Gordon was challenging our Sunday School class with in using his image of "all in."  But that's what this Psalm 31, starting at verse 6 is challenging us with also.  Either following silly religion, or going all in with God.  Not just going a few chips in with God, but putting everything on the line of giving yourself over to God.

That's why Jesus liked this Psalm, and why he prayed this Psalm often, but at especially tough times in his life.  This Psalm reminded Jesus of who he was, and what he was doing with his life, and having to make this choice of going all in with God over and over and over again.

When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he had to decide anew if he was going all in with God, again.

Then he went on a little farther, threw himself on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible this hour might pass him by.  "Abba, Father," he prayed, "all things are possible to you; take this cup from me.  Yet not my will, but yours."  (Mark 14:35-36, REB)

This is the last time that Jesus comes to this fork in the road.  Will he be all in this one final time, because there will be no turning back.  So he prays through this section of Psalm 31.

One of the consequences of going all in with God is that it doesn't make you many friends.  Life doesn't get easier.  Choices become more problematic.  That's what the psalmist discovered.  At verse 8, the psalm recognizes that going the full distance with God brings you face-to-face with "tormentors."  At verse 11 they are called "enemies."  But the hardest twist comes also in verse 11.  These tormentors and enemies aren't just trouble-makers, people who enjoy making life difficult for others all the time.  No.  The hardest realization is that those who were making life difficult for the psalmist, once he went all in with God were "neighbors" and "friends."

These neighbors and friends turned against the psalmist not because he turned against them, but because the psalmist turned towards God in an all-in way.  They changed in their actions toward the psalmist because he changed.   He made that one major shift, he chose that one fork in the road—trusting God; throwing himself on God—and that change flipped the fundamental nature of his friendships and neighborly relationships.

For Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to be spared.  One of the gospel writers described Jesus prayer as sweat like drops of blood running down his face.  He is in utter anguish, knowing what's coming.  He has disciples there with him in the Garden—just a few steps away.  But they are asleep when he seeks them out for solace.  His "friends" have let him down.

You have to realize that is going to happen.  You are warned, by this psalm.  You go all in with God and others are going to treat you differently.  And not in a better way.

How did his neighbors and friends change their behavior toward the psalmist?  How does the psalmist describe his treatment from others in the Psalm?
—Friends and neighbors treated the psalmist as if he were a monster.  They approached him with great fear and terror.
—Friends and neighbors ridiculed the psalmist, attempting to heap shame upon him, rebuking him for his choice for God.
—Friends and neighbors avoided the psalmist, to the point of crossing the street when they saw him coming.
—Friends and neighbors tried to totally forget him, as if he were dead and gone, to be spoken of no more.
—Friends and neighbors tossed the psalmist aside as if he were useless.
—Friends and neighbors branded the psalmist with labels of contempt—labels that they knew others would believe, even though they were hurtful.
—Friends and neighbors plotted against the psalmist, in an attempt to intentionally ruin him for good.

Jesus prayed through this Psalm because it was his life.  It was his life, not because Jesus was a total jerk.  Neither was the psalmist who wrote it.  They were treated like this simply because they went all in, in their trust of God, rather than compromise and go the easy way of "silly religion."

But being treated like this is just the half of it for the psalmist.  It's not only how friends and neighbors are treating him, but also how that treatment makes him feel.  Notice how the psalmist describes his feelings in response to being treated so badly.  The psalmist describes those feelings this way:
—as if it's hard to breathe or catch his breath
—he cried
—he felt hollow inside
—as if the only sounds he could make were groans and sighs
—like he was worn out from dealing with so much negative and hurtful behavior
—and as if his bones, which should give him stature and the ability to stand, were nothing but powder.

Again, these feelings aren't because the psalmist is being victimized for victim's sake.  It's because he refused to just go along with silly religion.  It was because he had thrown himself upon God.  It was because he placed his days—his seasons of life—in God's hands.

The question, then, is why is forgoing religious mediocrity and silliness in favor of choosing being all in with God so threatening to others—especially others who know you, neighbors and friends?  What is it about that shift of allegiance that makes others so darn uncomfortable?

As the psalmist discovered, almost from the moment he took his path of total trust in God, he experienced the reaction from friends and neighbors.  In a word, sabotage.  The end game for these friends and neighbors is to get the psalmist to come back to silly religion rather than total relationship with God.  They were trying to pressure the psalmist to go back to his old ways so everyone could be comfortable again with the way things were.
Just come back to "this silly religion" and we will like you again.
Just come back to "this silly religion" and we will accept you.
Give up being this "holy Joe", this holier-than-thou, Jesus freak.
Quit trying to take God so seriously.
Just follow the rules of what you call our "silly religion".
Everything will be fine.

If this is the way the psalmist was treated, if this is the way Jesus was treated, should we who make this choice of commitment expect any different?  Jesus highlighted this point, that I think was developed out of his continual praying through this psalm.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.  (Matthew 5:11-12)

People want us Christians to follow silly religion.  That is, make what we believe about following rules rather than developing a dynamic relationship with God.  People want us to follow silly religion, which means blending cultural practices with Christian teaching so that the end product is neither.  People want us to follow silly religion, which means compromising our relationship with God to the point where God has nothing to do with who we are and how we act.  People want us follow silly religion which means being cool rather than being committed.  People want us to follow silly religion which means paying attention to other people's words rather than God's Word.  People want us to follow silly religion which means conforming to their ways and wishes, rather than conforming to Christ.  People want us to follow silly religion which means being just part of the way in, rather than all in.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on what has become Palm Sunday, the people were ecstatic.  They danced before Jesus.  They threw palm branches in the roadway as if he were a conquering king.  The Pharisees told Jesus to tell all those people to control themselves.  In other words, be like people who follow silly religion and act subdued, rather than be all in and celebrate Jesus.  Jesus mocked the Pharisees by saying that even if the people stopped, the inanimate stones would be all in.

Silly religion hailed Jesus for a few hours.  Then silly religion arrested him, conjured up a silly trial, brutally abused him, and finally crucified him.  Friends and neighbors turned against him, choosing the fork in the road that held to silly religion, rather than choosing the fork that led to total commitment to Christ.

We will come to that fork in the road several times during our lives, and we must choose.  Maybe now is one of those times.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Hopes and Yearnings

"My Hopes And Yearnings"
Psalm 130

I want you to think a minute with me about what your deepest yearnings are.  If I were to ask you that question, what would your answer be?  Some may want to work less and get paid more.  Or some may want to be independently wealthy.  Or along those lines, win the lottery.  Or be healthy.  Most everyone is dealing with some body issue.  It would be nice to be free of all that and just be healthy.

Maybe some of your deepest yearnings are about a wish to change your story.  To somehow relive your history so that your past wouldn't be your past.  That you would be free of certain memories of a cruel time when you experienced the gross unfairness of life.

I'm going to be bold here and say that however noble or self-centered those yearnings are, they aren't your deepest yearnings.  They aren't your dearest and most heartfelt longings.

I make that statement because I don't think you really know what your deepest yearnings are.  You aren't in touch with them, because they go deeper than you have ever dared probe before.

Social psychologists have come up with stage theories of human development.  That is, we as human beings develop along several stages, from birth to death.  Erik Erikson's stage theory is one of the more popular.  At each of those stages, Erickson says there is yearning that must be dealt with or we don't go on to the next stage well.  Let me zip through these stages quickly, just so you have a bit of an understanding of what I'm talking about.

The first stage is Trust vs. Mistrust.  Our deepest yearning at this stage—birth to 18 months—is having the assurance that the world is a safe place.  Or is the world full of unpredictable events and accidents waiting to happen?  If the care the infant receives is consistent, predictable and reliable, they will develop a sense of trust which will carry with them to other relationships, and they will be able to feel secure even when threatened.  That's our first yearning—to know we can trust the world and people around us.

The second stage of human development is called Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.  Between the ages of 18 months and three, children begin to assert their independence.  If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.  So at this stage, our deepest yearning is for self-confidence.

The third stage is Initiative vs. Guilt.  Around age three and continuing to age five, children assert themselves more frequently.  Children develop a sense of initiative and feel secure in their ability to lead others and make decisions.

Conversely, if this tendency is squelched, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt. They may feel like a nuisance to others and will, therefore, remain followers, lacking in self-initiative.  The deep yearning at this stage is the beginning of feeling a sense of leadership and purpose.

The fourth stage is called Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority.  This stage occurs during childhood between the ages of five and twelve.  If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, if it is restricted by parents or teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities and therefore may not reach his or her potential.  Our deep yearning at this stage is a positive answer to the question, "Am I a person of competence?"

The fifth stage is Identity vs. Role Confusion.  It occurs during adolescence, from about 12-18 years.  During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs and goals.  Two identities are involved: the sexual identity, and the values/beliefs identity.  These are huge, and when teenagers feel pressured by others into a certain identity, it can result in rebellion in the form of establishing a negative identity within their sexuality and their values.

There's a really good book that came out about 25 years ago titled, Leaving Home.  (I'm sorry I couldn't find it on the internet, so if you were interested, you could check it out.  It may be out of print.  I can do some more digging, if you're interested.)  The author's premise is teenagers whole yearning at this stage is leaving home.  They don't want to do it in one fell swoop, but in pieces.  Everything they are about is defining themselves apart from the growing up family, and the only way they think they can do that is by getting out of their family.  Thus, parents and teenagers enter into this weird dance of moving away from each other, then drawing close; moving away and drawing close.

The sixth stage is called Intimacy vs. Isolation.  Occurring in young adulthood (ages 18 to 40 yrs), we begin to share ourselves more intimately with others. We explore relationships leading toward longer-term commitments with someone other than a family member.  This is the stage the so-called Millennials (even though there may be no such things as millennials) would be in right now.

The main difference between how this stage worked when Erickson developed his stage theory and now, is called the internet.  Previous to the internet, people going through this stage did it face-to-face.  Now they are doing it via Facebook, Instagram and other social media.  The main yearning is still the same—developing deep relationship—but it's much different trying to accomplish that over the cyber net.

The second to last stage is Generativity vs. Stagnation.  This stage is when we are 40 to 65 years old.  During this stage we are trying to make an impact on our world, rather than the world making an impact on us.  We have developed our "vivid vision" for ourselves and we are trying to live into that vision.  We attempt to impact society through raising our children, being productive at work, and becoming involved in community activities and organizations.  By failing to achieve these objectives, by failing our Vivid Vision, we become stagnant and feel unproductive.  So our main yearning in this stage is for impact.

Lastly, stage eight, is called Ego Integrity vs. Despair.  That sounds awesome, doesn't it?  As we grow older (65+ yrs) and become senior citizens, we tend to slow down our productivity and explore life as a retired person. It is during this time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life.  In doing so, we are attempting to answer at least two questions at once.  One is, "Is what society is telling me, that if I haven't reached my Vivid Vision yet, I never will—is that evaluation correct?  (I'd say it's a lie.  Don't believe it.)  The other question has to do with, "Have I lived a life I am proud of?"

Depending on how we answer those questions, if we see our lives as unproductive, feel guilt about our past, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness.  At this stage our deepest yearning has to do with wondering if we mattered.

As you can see by this stage theory of human development, our deepest yearnings change with whatever stage we are in.  None of these deep yearnings have to do with money, or independent wealth, or anything self-centered.  They all have to do with a person's place and role within other human relationships and our world.  As you are going through these stages and if you are trying to come out on the other side as a lone wolf, you are not succeeding at meeting our deepest yearnings for great relationships.

What I like about Psalm 130 is that it highlights some of our deepest yearning within our deepest yearnings.  Let's say that Erik Erickson is right in his observations about the stages we go through.  They are built upon very deep psycho social yearnings.  But as we go through each of those stages there are deeper needs we have, that Psalm 130 points to.

The first is in the first verse—I know this must be a deep, deep part of our yearnings, because the psalmist uses this phrase in a lot of psalms.  It reads:
From the depths of my despair I call to you, Lord.
Hear my cry, O Lord;
   listen to my call for help!

Hear me when I'm crying, O Lord.  Or, literally, "Hear my tears, O Lord."  What is the sound of tears flowing down from our eyes, cascading down our faces?  What is the sound of that salty water pooling in our eyes?  What is the sound of tears making their streaks and trails upon our cheeks?  What is that sound?  Whatever that sound is, God hears it.

In all of our stages of life there is pain and struggle and failure.  There are tears.  But it used to be we shared those tears, we privileged others, with our tears.  Crying was a communal thing—people cried with their families, with their friends, with community.  Crying wasn't considered a sign of weakness or shame by women or by men.

Now when I ask people about their crying, I find it has become an entirely private matter.  Tears are shed in the shower, or in the shop, or on the tractor.  It's a deeply human emoting that is hidden away in the closet.  You don't want anyone to see you or hear you.  But yet, but yet, you deeply wish someone heard, someone was paying attention.  You deeply yearn for someone to hold you while you cried.  "Hear my cry, O Lord.  Don't leave me alone in my tears…"

Isn't that a deep, deep secret yearning of us all?  Even though most of you probably cry alone, is not your deep, deep hope and yearning that through all your stages and ways of life, your tears will not go unheard or unnoticed?

The other deep, deep yearning Psalm 130 brings out has to do with forgiveness.
If you kept a record of our sins,
    who could escape being condemned?
But you forgive us,
    so that we should stand in awe of you.

The assumption and acknowledgement of that statement is that we mess up, and we mess up a lot.  The other truth of this statement is that we can't hide our messes from God.

Notice the "If" at the start of the statement.  It's in almost every translation.  The inference is that God could keep a record of our screw ups (plural) but chooses not to.  Instead of keeping a list, God simply forgives.  Since there is no list, that means God also forgets our mess ups and screw ups.

Who could stand?  Who could escape?  Who would last long?  (All depending on what version you are using.)  The assumption is that we would all be doomed!  We would be doomed because the other assumption behind the "God list" is that God sees all.  Nothing we do, say, think escapes God's ever watching eyes.  And, another assumption behind the "God list" is that we would each be judged for what's on our list; and that judgement wouldn't go well for us.

The "If" is countered, thank God, with the "But" of verse four.  "But, there is forgiveness with you…"  God evidently doesn't want to be known as the list-making God.

He's making a list,
He's checking it twice,
He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice
(God Almighty's) coming to town.

God could be a list-making God, But God doesn't want to.  God wants us to be attracted by forgiveness, not be afraid of God's "list."

Think about the stages of development you've already gone through.  All the times you've screwed up.  All the times you've made awful choices that led not to growth and spiritual maturity, but to more bad choices, and more messes.  All the times we sinned.

Isn't what God is promising in Psalm 130 what we hope and yearn for?  Forgiveness.  Understanding.  Someone who sees the big picture about us, which is the prerequisite for true and full forgiveness.  To know that God is not about finding fault, but finding a way into forgiveness for us.

These are our deepest hopes and yearnings in life—having someone who hears our tears; and having someone who knows us and forgives us anyway.  These yearnings have everything to do with God, and our acknowledgement of God in the deepest parts of our lives.  May you all find what you are most deeply yearning for.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Grasping Or Receiving?

"Grasping Or Receiving?"
Psalm 23

The Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote a short story titled, "Land Enough For A Man."  In the story there is a man who decided he needed more land.  He already had quite a bit of land, but he wanted more.  In some of the vast plains of Russia, the government allowed people to set up land claims if they would settle there and farm the land.  So this character set out to stake his claim.

To stake a claim, each person had to walk the distance in circumference around the amount of land they desired.  In one day.  The man decided to walk as far as he could in one direction, then, when he thought he had enough for a man, he would drive a stake in the ground.  Then he would turn 90 degrees and start walking again until he felt that would be enough for a man.  There he would drive another stake in the ground.  He would keep doing so until he had walked off a huge square of land, "land enough for man," he would tell his family.

So he set out walking, with his four stakes in hand.  After having walked a long journey with two more stakes yet to be positioned, the man began to be weary.  "I don't have enough," the man talked to himself.  "This isn't land enough for a man," he spoke to the sun.  He hadn't taken enough water or food with him for the trip.  He pounded in his third stake and headed for home.  His feet were dragging.  His tongue was caked and dry.  He was out of food and out of water.  The sun beamed down upon him like lasers.  In total exhaustion, before his final stake was driven into the land to make his claim, at the end of the day, the man collapsed and died.

His family searched for and found the man.  At the place he died, they buried him.  It was a plot of ground, as Tolstoy's last words of the story described, "that was land enough for a man."

Like I've been telling people lately, I've been watching nature documentaries on Netflix.  With each show I am always amazed at what a beautiful planet we have, put together by such a creative God, who must have a great sense of humor when you look at the colors and behaviors of plants and animals that also call this planet home.

In parts of central Africa, one of the big "industries" is the capture and export of monkeys.  Trappers have a unique way of catching monkeys.  First, trappers spread the kinds of foods the monkeys like around on the ground.  They do this for several days.

Then they fill a hollowed out coconut with some of the food.  There is a hole cut in the coconut just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in.  On the other end of the coconut, a thin but strong rope is attached.  The trappers leave the food filled coconut lying on the ground.  Holding on to his end of the rope, the trappers hide in the bushes.

When the monkey finds the coconut, it is as ecstatic as a gold miner coming across the mother lode.  It reaches in and grabs a handful of food.  But because of the size of the hole, it can't get its full and fisted hand out.

That's when the trapper starts reeling the monkey in.  The monkey, greedy as it is, will not let go of its handful of food.  Therefore it has doomed itself to being caught and shipped off to one of the world's zoos or pet stores.

If we have evolved from monkeys, it appears we haven't evolved very far, behavior wise.  We seem to be greedy graspers by nature, when the opportunity for being greedy presents itself.  We grab for things and we don't want to let go of them once we have them, even if those things become our cage or lead to our demise.  We generally are people who aren't satisfied and always want more—or want something different.  A deep sense of satisfaction, at-homeness, or peace eludes most people.

There seems to be a law—and I think it's a spiritual law—that the more you grasp or grab, the more you lose (or stand to lose).  But, the more you are willing to receive, the more you gain.

Psalm 23 is about that law.  In order to understand that law, in light of this psalm, do some imagining with me for a moment.  Imagine King David, the author of this psalm, as an old man.  He is looking back over his life, remembering, reviewing the high and low points.  He is making a mental ledger sheet of sorts, dividing up what he assesses to be the things he has been able to keep and the things he has lost.  He ponders why he was able to keep the things he has kept, and lost the things he lost.

As you watch David in your mind's eye, and hear his thoughts, it suddenly becomes clear to you that what he lost are the things he grabbed for, particularly in his episode with Bathsheba.  His grabbing for her cost so much, including the death of his son.  But the things he kept were the things he received as gifts from the LORD, particularly those things related to his kingship and devotion to God.

And then you watch, as this old man David, who, through his memories, has come to realize that truth:  The more you grasp, the more you lose, or stand to lose.  The more you receive the gifts from God, the more you find satisfaction, contentment, peace, well-being, roundedness, and at-homeness; in other words, the more you gain.

The philosopher, W.P. Montague, suggested that the question we start each day with should be, "How can I keep from letting the things that matter most from being at the mercy of the things that matter least?"  I would add and amend that question to be, "How can I keep myself from grasping and grabbing at the things that matter least and recognize and receive from God the things that matter most?"

If David did write this Psalm in his old age, as some scholars think, why must we wait until old age to look back and ask such questions?  Why does it take so long for us to understand such a truth?  When you grab, you lose; when you receive, you gain.

The Lord is my shepherd
I have everything I need.

There is power and meaning behind the truth I am talking about.  Part of the power of this opening phrase in the psalm has to do with the structure of Hebrew poetry.  There is no word rhyme in Hebrew poetry.  Instead, they rhyme ideas.  One phrase makes a statement, and the next phrase rhymes, or builds on and enhances the first.  The second phrase restates the meaning of the first statement so that a fuller understanding can be gained by the reader.

This opening verse of Psalm 23 forces us to examine what it is we really need, versus all the things we want and therefore grab at.  What is it that we really need, according to this verse?  Answer:  The Lord as our shepherd.  Beyond that, there is nothing else we need.  But we can't get the Lord as our Shepherd, or what the shepherding Lord has to offer, by grabbing.

Here's your journaling exercise for this week.  Walk through your house, barns, fields, offices, and look at all your things.  Look at all the stuff you have accumulated around you.  As you look at each thing, simply put a label on it:  grabbed, or received.  Be honest.  And when you have completed your walk and assess the amount of stuff under each of the words grabbed or received, what was the cumulative effect?  Write about that.

What are the things you really need, that give you a sense of personhood, meaning and identity?  My guess is they really aren't the things you have grabbed and acquired over the years, but things you have received from God.  What, in your life, is represented by "still waters," "green pastures," "right paths," "shepherd's rod and staff," "a banquet," an "overflowing cup," "a home."

I believe you ultimately come to the realization that David did, that one's companionship with God gifts you with everything you need, both spiritual and material.

It is that companionship with God which transforms every situation in life, as this Psalm alludes:

Where there was stress there is rest;
Where there was dry, sultry noise, there is quiet;
Where there was weakness, there is strength;
Where there was a sad string of misguided choices, there are now right paths;
Where there was deepest darkness and fear, there is presence and protection;
Where there was running from enemies, there is a banquet enjoyed in front of them, before which they are not invited;
Where there was the loneliness of being an outsider, there is the welcome as an honored guest;
Where there was homelessness, there is eternal home.

All of this issues from the transforming companionship of God, who is the Creator of a new orientation, the Giver of all that is needed, and the Provider of amazing options.  Our Shepherd God only asks that we receive what He has to give.  All that we receive from our Shepherding Lord, we will never lose.  Because, ultimately, as David discovered, all that we have grabbed along the way will be lost from our grasp and become meaningless.  The only things that will remain is what we have received.  Because all that we receive from the Lord is all we need.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have everything I need.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The List of Thankfulness

"The List of Thankfulness"
Psalm 95

How many of you make lists?  (show of hands)

How many of you who make lists, mainly make To-Do Lists?  (show of hands)  Jan Luttrell is a great To-Do list maker.  And she gets a lot done each day.  It must be very gratifying to scratch out stuff on your list as you go through your day.  I always put, "Drink a cup of tea" on my To-Do list.  That way I know I'll get at least one thing done.

There are other kinds of lists you can make.  I saw a list this week that was titled, "Fun Things You Can Do On An Elevator."  Here it is:

1.  Stand silently and motionless in the corner, facing the wall, without getting off.
2.  Crack open your briefcase or purse and while peering inside, ask, "Got enough air in there?
3.  Drop a pen and wait until someone bends to pick it up; then scream, "That's mine!"
4.  Leave a box in the corner, and when someone gets on, ask them if they can hear ticking.
5.  Stare, grinning at another passenger for a while, then announce, "I have new socks on."
6.  Stare at another passenger for a while, then announce in horror, "You're one of THEM!" and back away slowly.
7.  Greet everyone with a warm handshake and ask them to call you Admiral.
8.  Dress up as the devil and then ask other people as they get in, "Going down?"
9.  Put a small desk in the elevator, and sit behind it.  When the door opens, ask the person standing there, "Do you have an appointment?"
10.  Announce in a creepy voice, over and over,  "I must find a more suitable host body."

How many of you would do such things?  (show of hands)

So far, during our Journaling Class, as well as Sunday mornings during sermons, I have suggested a few exercises to write about using lists.  Making lists, within the spiritual discipline of journaling can help you in a lot of ways.  Lists can be answers to important questions.  The more answers you have to look at, the less confusion you have to deal with.

Making a list can help you select and prioritize what is really important.  Looking at your lists, you can decide what is just minutia, and what really matters.  Once you have your list made, say of values you feel are important to exemplify in life, and you cross off those that really don't matter, or create the kind of ripple effect you hope for, then you've gone a long way in setting your priorities.  Now that you have a short list of your core values, you can develop the actions you will take in which those core values will shine through.

There are times in anyone's life where you feel chaotic, scattered, unclear and out of control.  Making a list of these situations, and looking at them on paper can help you organize and contain a sense of inner chaos, which can make your load feel more manageable.

This morning, I'm going to suggest you make a short list—no more than three items—of what you are thankful to God for.  We're going to use Psalm 95 as a guide for those three items for which we are thankful.  So, in a way, the list has already been made for you.  Easy-peasy assignment.  Until you see what the three things are.

The first thing Psalm 95 thanks God for is that,

The LORD is the greatest God,
king over all other gods.  (vs. 3)

That seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it?

An interesting fact is that the Old Testament doesn't dispute that there are other gods.  In fact, the Old Testament people assume there are.  They know there are.  At some points the Old Testament prophets make the case that these other gods are actually no-gods at all.  At other places, the other gods are acknowledged, but the people are told not to worship them.  At all!

These other gods were all over the place.  There was the god baal, who in many cultures around Israel, was the god of the storm.  Baal was the god who created and granted fertility of crops and people.  He was also the god of justice, of whom people were terrified because his justice was so harsh and punishing.  The goddesses, asherah, astarte, and anath, were consorts of baal, mostly having to do with fertility rites.

Dagan was the god of the coastal people called the Philistines.  He was the fish god, and also a fertility god.

There are other gods today, some of which go along with the gods of the past.  Our other gods today are more ideas, or false values.  Things like pleasure, the self, prestige, safety, the human body, and power.  Two of the biggest gods, that are invoked daily in our culture, are blame and denial.

Mainly, these false gods are things that have weaseled their way into your lives to such an extent that it would be really hard for you to separate them from who you are.  They are such a part of you, such a part of your everyday life, that if you had to stop giving it that place, you don't know what you'd do.

Here's the part I really want you to do some hard thinking about.  List and identify that in your life that is on the level of being another god.  Then, once you're done making your list, ask of each entry, compared to this entry, "Is the LORD the greatest God, king over this god?"  Are you thankful for the fact that the LORD is greater than all other gods—so much greater, in fact, that the LORD wants that other god out of your life?

Secondly, the psalmist is thankful that the LORD holds the deepest parts (meaning, the oceans) in his hands.  The reason that ancient people were thankful God holds the oceans is because the oceans—the deep—was the scariest part of the creation.  The ocean is where the most fearsome beasts dwelt.

One of those beasts was Tiamat, the symbol of chaos prior to creation.  Tiamat was a female god of great beauty, but who could transform into a monstrous sea serpent dragon, unleashing chaos upon the world from the bottom of the ocean.  Tiamat was believed to have created the first dragons who were filled with poison instead of blood.

The other ocean god was Marduk, the storm god.  All storms were believed to originate in the oceans, created by Marduk.

So, as the psalm states, if God holds the deepest oceans in his hands, God also, then, holds the scariest parts of those oceans in his hands as well.  Thus, our God is in control of the oceans and anything in them.

Think of the scariest parts of your life—the things that terrify you the most.  God has control of those, holding them in his hands.  For God to hold our scariest thoughts, and experiences means God can deal with them in mighty and powerful ways.

So make a list of what scares you most.  Keep the list pretty much in the center of the page of your journal.  Then when you are done with the list, draw a large pair of hands holding that list.  Aren't you so thankful for God's hands are holding and taking care of your fears?

And, lastly, the psalmist is thankful for how God tends to us like a shepherd does her sheep.  The psalmist states, "…we are his people, the sheep he takes care of in his own pasture.  Listen to God's voice today!"

Jesus said something similar in the gospel of John:
When (the shepherd) has led out all of his sheep, he walks in front of them, and they follow, because they know his voice.  The sheep will not follow strangers.  They don't recognize a stranger's voice, and they run away.  (John 10:4-5)

There are lots of qualities of the relationship between shepherd and sheep.  But the one—the only one—highlighted here, is, as God's sheep we hear and know his voice.  The psalm first identifies us as God's people.  Then, as God's people we are sheep he takes care of.  Then, that which links us most intimately with God is hearing his voice "today."

One of the themes I am running into in all the classes I'm teaching now is the temptation or trait we humans have of trying to do everything on our own—to face life as a lone wolf.  It may not be self-centeredness, as much as it is our assumption that we should be able to take life on, on our own.  That somehow we're a failure as a person if we have to ask for help.  Or that we have to have someone take care of us.  Our fierce independence is part of what keeps us from allowing God to take us to his pasture and take care of us as he sheep.

Aren't there times you just want to be taken care of, though?  To just give up taking life on alone?  Or trying to bandage yourself up from all the wounds life inflicts?  To just let God tend to you?  To hear God's tender and tending voice, calming you while God bandages your wounds?  To be taken, by God, out into a lush pasture—whatever that represents for you—and lets you roam, and eat, and rest, and sleep in the soft grass?  Don't you wish you could turn yourself over to God for that kind of treatment?  That's what the psalmist thanks God for.

Make a list of the ways you would love to have God tend to you.  In and around and through that list draw the grass of God's pasture, symbolizing your thankfulness for how God takes care of you.

So these are the three experiences with God the psalmist is thankful for.  In your journal this week, write three things you are thankful to God for that has to do with the three themes in this Psalm.  See what you come up with.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ask A Question

"Ask A Question"
Psalm 121

Albert Einstein once said:  (up on screen)

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes to determine the proper question to ask; for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

I want you to apply Einstein's thinking in this quote and tell me how it applies, exactly to the opening two verses of Psalm 121.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

Ready.  Go.  (Discuss to see if anyone gets it.)

The psalmist is struggling with the proper question in the opening of his psalm.  The clue is in the first two verses.  The first question he asks is, "From where does my help come?"  He asks the question as he is eyeing the hills around Jerusalem.  Those huge, strong mountains.  The most famous mountain was the Mount of Olives which stood about 300 feet higher than the Temple Mount, upon which Jerusalem stood, and over 100 feet higher than any part of the city. On the north side of the city stood the awesome Mizpeh of Benjamin. There was also Gibeon and Ramah and the ridge near Bethlehem in the distant east.

These mountains symbolized strength and permanence.  But even that kind of durability and constancy can't provide the "help" that the psalmist needs.  You can't rely on something for salvation that needs salvation itself.  As the apostle Paul wrote, "All nature groans in its need for salvation, and to be put right with God"—to become again what God saw when God looked at creation and said, "It is good."  The psalmist realized this.  The psalmist realized he needed not some thing but some One.  The psalmist realized the right question was not where, but who.  Once he got the question right, the right answer fell into place instantly.

My help comes from the LORD
who made heaven and earth.

The psalmist is not looking to creation for help.  The psalmist realizes he must look to the Creator who stands behind the creation—who made the mountains.

OK; so we've asked the right question.  And we've got the right answer.  Our helper is not some place.  Our helper is some One.  "My help comes from the LORD."  Now we're ready for question number 2.  What is "help?"  We need to realize that our questions for help come out of our own anxiety and neediness.  Hope and assurance mean little where no anxiety exists.

The psalmist is looking for help.  He wouldn't be looking for help unless he was anxious about some situation in his life.  The question—the second question—then is personal and about the psalmist himself.  The psalmist is not asking just for some generalized sort of help that has to do with all mankind.  He's looking for a particular help for a particular situation in his life.  All of our helping questions probably start out this way—they are about us.  But even this question must lead us to the same answer as the first question did.

Again, hope and help mean little where no anxiety exists.  Basically what this is saying is that we, as human beings, are full of anxiety.  Our anxiety takes many forms.  The psalmist identifies 5 or 6 forms of human anxiety, for when we need help from God.

We've already answered the basic question:  from whom does our help come.  The next two questions are: 1) what do we need help for? (our anxieties); and, 2) what form will that help take?

The first form of anxiety revolves around the question (see, I'm full of questions this morning—but you have to ask them): What am I here for?  Do I have a purpose?  Is that purpose for we alone to decide, or is there something larger going on in this human life?

We spin off all kinds of anxiety—usually our whole lives—all around those questions.  To that anxiety, the Lord answers in this psalm, "My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth."  Pay attention to the word "made."  It can be translated a lot of different ways.  One way is to use the word "appoint."  " LORD appointed heaven and earth."

I like that, because the Hebrew word, in all its nuances, has intentionality behind it.  God intentionally made heaven and earth.  If that is so, God intentionally made each of us as well.  God had an idea, a purpose, an intention for our making.  That is a powerful remedy for the anxiety we have, wondering if we have a purpose, or a reason for why we are here.

The second form of anxiety has to do with wondering if our foundations are strong:  "He will not let your foot be moved."  The image behind this word has to do with a pole that is stuck in the ground.  Think of a fence post.  If you've had to dig holes for fence posts, you know how deep they have to be, to be sturdy enough to stay stable.  When an 800 pound steer comes to rub up against it, is the post deep enough to not move or waiver?

That's the image.  So, the anxiety demonstrated by this image has to do with the question, "Can I hold up?  Can I withstand the push and shove of life?  Can I keep upright when life is hardest?  Am I buried deep enough in the LORD, so that I have the confidence to say, 'Bring it on!  I am buried deep enough in the LORD that I know I can't be moved!  I will not be moved!!'"

The third anxiety comes from our wondering sometimes, if God is listening.  Is God attentive? we might ask.  Is God off asleep somewhere?

In the movie, The Reivers, based on William Faulkner's novel, the grandpa is going on a trip.  Just as he is boarding the train, he turned to his 12 year old grandson and says, "Your pa tells me you're afraid of the dark."
The boys says, "Yes, sir," back to grandpa.
"Well don't you worry, boy," grandpa says.  "The Lord's up all night."

That's what the psalmist tells us—"…he who keeps you will not slumber."  The Lord is watching over you, even when you are asleep.

The fourth anxiety has to do with our fear of the evil in the world—the kind of evil that only takes away from us.  It peels us  back, layer-by-layer, like an onion, until we feel there's nothing left of us.

Another way to translate this word, evil, is, "exceedingly great grief."  This kind of evil wants to keep us in such a state of grief, because of great loss, so that we never get out of that hole.

I've been in Kansas City the past couple of days with Ryan and Amanda.  Last Sunday, Ryan was going to the donut shop.  He opened the front door and their dog, Roux, ran out, and took off down the street.  She got out on Pflumm Road, and a driver was speeding and not paying attention.  He hit Roux with such force, it knocked the front bumper off.  And didn't stop, but just kept going.

Ryan, chasing after, heard Roux "screaming", picked her broken body up and started running back to the house.  Roux didn't last that long.  Roux was a great dog.  Everyone, every animal, she met was a friend.  Her loss from our family causes us "exceedingly great grief" at this kind of evil.  We have shed so many tears this week together.  But it has been so amazing to see the little things that have happened that the LORD has kept us from evil—from going down the deep hole of grief and evil.

Lastly, the anxiety the psalmist deals with, that most of us have questions about, is the future.  More particularly, eternity or eternal life.  The Jewish people really didn't have an idea or belief in eternal life.  This word, at the end of the psalm, the word "forevermore" literally means, "as long as it takes."  If that means forever, so be it.  The LORD has promised to be with us into our futures, as long as it takes.  Even if that means forever.

Now, there's one word throughout the psalm that encapsulates everything I've said.  (Put the psalm back up on the screen.)  this word occurs six times, a way the psalmist was saying, "Notice this word!"  Can you see which word it is?  (Keep)  This is a great word in the psalmist's Hebrew language.

The word, keep, literally means to build a hedge around.  But not just any hedge.  A hedge made of thorny bushes.  In all these anxieties we spin off, the LORD is "keeping" us.  That is, building a thorny hedge around us, to protect us, to keep us safe from intrusion, even from ourselves and our own anxieties.  Our anxiety isn't going to be able to get at us, nor our fears, and they're going to get all bloody trying.

As you go out into each day, imagine the thorny hedge God has grown around you to protect you and KEEP you safe.