Monday, February 27, 2017

Your Treasure Map

"Your Treasure Map"
Matthew 17:1-9

I've always been fascinated by maps.  Whenever we'd go on a family vacation, my father would stop at a Standard gas station to fill up the Ford Country Sedan station wagon that we'd soon be wedged into for a few hours of driving.  I went with him to gas up the wagon, so I could go in and get a free map.  Those were the good old days: 25 cents a gallon for gas, and free maps.

(I might say, putting in a plug for Nick Squires, you can go to his office at the DOT and still get free maps of Kansas.  That's one thing Governor Brownback hasn't taken away from us.  The newest maps just came in, if I heard right.)

The only thing I hated about those gas station maps was how to fold the darn things back up correctly.

And I liked to watch pirate movies as a kid because they always had maps.  They were either parchment or some kind of animal skin.  There were dotted trails.  There were upside down capital V's for the treacherous mountains.  There was the shoreline with waves out from shore; and maybe a sea dragon swimming amongst the waves.

There may have been a swamp, or a haunted forrest.  But mostly, on those pirate maps, there was always an X.  It signified where the treasure was buried.

I'd make maps like that.  I would get an old dog food can and steal one of the plastic reusable lids from my mom's kitchen drawer.  I'd put some of my treasure in the can and put the lid on.  I'd traipse off into the forest near our house, with the shovel, and bury it.  Then I'd make a map of where it was, just like the pirates had.  How many paces from this tree or that bush.

When I was through with that boyhood phase of my life, I have no idea how many dog food cans I had buried in those woods, and how many treasure maps were tucked around my room.  And how many times my mother would shout, "Has anybody seen any of those reusable lids for the dog food?"  Because my treasure burying was a solitary affair, neither of my three brothers or my sister could rat me out.

Those woods have long been turned into houses and condos, so all my buried treasures have been excavated away.  It didn't matter, because I lost or had thrown away all my treasure maps, where X marked the spot, anyway.

When I got older, I realized there are all kinds of treasure maps we can be holding on to.  X marks the spot where some memorable, or life-changing event took place.  (This might be a good journaling exercise for the up-coming journaling class:  draw a map or two or three where some marker experience happened in your life, some X marks the spot experience where one of the treasures of your life happened, and then write about your map.)

Certainly you would think that Peter, James, and John would have put this meeting of Jesus with Elijah and Moses on their treasure map of life experiences.  We know Peter did, because he mentions it in one of his letters.  "Lord, how good it is that we are here!" Peter exclaimed.  Here!  In this place.  This X-marks-the-spot spiritual highlight place.  They wanted to make a memorial stone in order to mark the spot of this amazing vision.  Some place, up on that mountain, lost now to anyone else but the collective memory of those three disciples, suddenly became unordinary.  On that particular place they witnessed an unbelievable sight, and that spot, that place, became a holy place.

I don't think Peter, or James, or John wanted to bury a tin can with some personal items at that place.  I don't know if they made a map of where on the mountain that place was.  I do know they wanted to make a pile of rocks, signifying a special place where their lives had been made different because of what they saw.

The same thing happened to Jacob in the Old Testament.  He laid down to sleep.  He drifted into the middle of an unbelievable dream-vision about a ladder with angels going up and  down on that ladder.  God appeared and spoke.  Jacob awoke, and with a tone of wonder said, "“What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the ladder of heaven!”  (Genesis 28:17)

Jacob then took the stone that he had used as a pillow and set it up as a pillar, an X-marks-the-spot kind of stone.  A simple place in the wilderness became an awesome gateway to heaven.

Places are important because of the memories we have and of the people who have shared those places with us.  Places have historical significance where some things have happened that provide continuity and identity across our life spans.  It has been at particular places that important words have been spoken, identity has been formed and honed, vocation has been defined, or a destiny has been envisioned.  There are places where vows have been exchanged, promises have been made.  I would guess most of us gathered here have felt the tug of particular places where we have been touched by the presence of the Lord.  Places have a way of rooting us to real life, to God himself, reminding us that we have not grown up, or continued to mature, detached from particular special places.

What is wonderfully amazing about our God is that even though God is as expansive as the universe, even though God's mind is greater than anything we could conceive, God is still a God who chooses particular places in which to reveal himself to us.  God seems to delight in just happening upon us at particular places in order to make contact.

One woman, for example, had the "till death do us part" become a reality after a 40 year marriage.  She spent a couple of months of quiet and reflection with her sister in another community, after her husbands funeral.  One Sunday, after she had returned, she came into the sanctuary intentionally late and found that her pew was occupied by a young couple who had begun to attend in her absence.

The following Saturday she went to visit her pastor.  She asked for help with what she called her sin of "idolatry."  She went on to explain, "For thirty-eight years I shared that pew with my husband.  I know it's idolatrous, pastor, but I feel God is closer to me there than anywhere else.  There is no place like that pew on earth."  For this woman, she had a treasure map and one of the treasures was the inside of her sanctuary.  There was an X that marked a particular place in a particular pew.  That X represented a very special treasure she had buried, so-to-speak.

I would guess there are more than a few of you who have similar feelings about your pew in this sanctuary.  (Show of hands.)  It's not hard for me to imagine, any of you, coming into our sanctuary with a sense of peace and worshipfulness, feeling like there is no sanctuary on earth like this one.  And then echoing Peter's words in your mind and you sit in your X-marks-the-spot place in the sanctuary, saying, "Lord, it is good that we are here."  How many other places are that kind of place for you?

One of the reasons that is so, besides the place itself, is who we share the place with.  A place is important because of the others who are there.  When Jesus was caught up in that meeting with Elijah and Moses, there were three men there to share that amazing vision.  Peter said, "Lord, how good it is that WE are here!"  He didn't say, "How good it is that I am here."  Here is where WE have been touched, and here is where it is that WE, together, remember.  But the place will lose its importance if others are not permitted to share the experience.  Or become part of the place and the story.

In a book about ministry in small churches, Carl Dudley wrote:
Those congregations who care only for themselves are becoming smaller and smaller.  Eventually their place will have no meaning, for they have not shared it with anyone.

The giving of a place to those who have none seems to me to be one way of defining the role of what it is we are to be as Christians.  Faith can only develop when each person has a place.  When we help people find their places we may be helping them come into contact with holy experiences—a place where they can pull out their maps and place a nice X.

The widow I just mentioned shared her pew, her place, that next Sunday with the young couple.  She shared not only the pew, but part of her memories with the couple.  The three of them became very close, and represented what ministry was at its heart in that congregation.  This is what we are wanting to do in the meeting following worship this morning.  When someone has visited our congregation, how can we follow up with some kind of intentional visit and hopefully give them the opportunity to put an X on their treasure map where Pratt Presbyterian Church is?  That's who we want to be.

When Peter looked back to this mountain top, visionary event, he wrote in his second letter,
When we told you about the power and the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling clever stories that someone had made up. But with our own eyes we saw his true greatness.  God, our great and wonderful Father, truly honored him by saying, “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.”  We were there with Jesus on the holy mountain and heard this voice speak from heaven.  (2 Peter 1:16-18, CEV)

Here, Peter recounts that memorable place and event for those who may not have known about it, have heard about it and doubted, but all of whom needed to know the story.  It was clearly a pivotal event for Peter and his own faith development.  Can't you just imagine Peter, though he never mentions it, pulling out his spiritual treasure map, returning to that place on the mountain time and time again, feeling the presence, reliving the simple power of what happened.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Are You Building With?

"What Are You Building With?"
1 Corinthians 3:10-15

I worked construction for a couple of summers while in college to earn money for school.  It sounds more impressive than it was.  The first summer I had one job.  I pulled nails out of boards.  I was a member of the Hod Carriers and Laborer's Union.  I didn't carry any hod that summer.  (Look it up if you aren't sure what hod is.)  But I did a lot of labor.  Boring, tedious labor.  What else can pulling nails out of boards be?

The carpenters would walk by and say things like, "How's it going college boy?"  "Are you getting yourself an education, college boy?"  That became my nickname.  I'm not sure what the crew was working on.  The job site was at the Northgate Mall in north Seattle.  I worked outside in a little fenced in area with my clawed hammer.  Someone would come out and dump another load of bent nail loaded studs and other assorted lumber for the college boy to work on.

I was making pretty good money:  $10.85 and hour.  Which was a lot of money back then.  Until I had to pay my union dues.  That truly was an education, working with the Labor Union.

When I went back to school in the Fall, my friends asked me the obligatory question:  what did you do over the summer?
I'd answer, "I worked construction."
"Far out," they replied.  (For those of you old enough to remember, "Far out" was what we said back then.  It was the "cool" of today.  I've been trying to bring back one of the other replies we used back then:  "Keen."  Or, "Super Keen."  But I haven't had much luck with that.

Anyway, when I told my friends I worked construction, they'd reply, "Far out."  Then they'd ask if I was building houses, or getting up on the girders, 20 stories straight up, welding rivets or some such thing.
I'd reply, "Uh, yeah; No.  I pulled nails out of old boards all summer.  I'd show them the callouses I worked up on my right, hammer-holding hand, and they'd just say, "Far out," and walk away.  I think they thought that "working construction" always involved building some nice structure like a home or a skyscraper.

But just as often as not, it also involves deconstruction, first.  You have to take out something that was there, before you can refill the space with something new.  That involved, in my case, pulling nails from old boards.  It was some OSHA rule about minimizing hazards and the probability of injury at the workplace.  So they paid the college boy $10 an hour to make sure that happened.

I quickly realized there was this disconnect between my college friends and the guys I was getting to know on the construction site.  My friends in college had no idea what it took to build something.  To make it right.  To make it sparkle.  Even to make it useful.  They'd walk into a store in the mall and have no idea what it took to rip out the old store that was there, and start over to make something entirely new.  It seemed to me that that would be an important thing for a Christian to know.  All my friends saw was the finished product—the new store.  They didn't see what had to happen, to make it so, including removing hazards like nails in boards.

Paul saw the truth in construction.  How that was an apt metaphor for the Christian life with some people.  With the Corinthians, especially.  Sometimes you have to start over.  Rip everything back down to the foundation of a person, and replace what was there with something new.  What Paul saw, with the Corinthians, it wasn't the construction that was the hard part.  It was the deconstruction.  It was the tearing down.  It was taking a life apart, stick by stick, but having to do so under great resistance.

You look down the road and you see the deconstruction crew coming.  They are big burly guys.  Shoulders like mountains; arms like oak trees.  Long sleeve shirts.  Hard hats.  Tool belts where menacing looking tools hang and clatter together.  And smiles on their faces.  You say to the Lord, "I thought you said we were going to build something new in my life.  What are they doing coming this way?  Tell them to back off."
And the Lord replies, "We gotta take some things out before we build again.  Sorry, but this is going to hurt a little.  But don't worry; these guys know what they're doing."

Would you let them?  Let them do their work?  Let them take you back down to your foundation?

The next summer I was moved to a hospital where we were tearing out the ceiling so the Duct Worker's Union could put in air conditioning.  I had a particular gift that was suited to this job.  I was 6'9".  I didn't need a ladder.  I could just walk down the hallways, reach up my pry bar, and pull the sheetrock down.  No taking extra time to get up and down off the ladder like the shorter guys.  I was fairly efficient at getting the job done…but I would pay the price of having 25 years of built up dust and who knows what kind of insulation come rain down upon me.  Then sweep and shovel it all up and wheel barrow it to a shoot at a window that would spill it all into the huge dumpster below.  It, like the summer before, was not a glorious job.  But I was "working construction."   And the carpenters I worked with found out the college boy was actually useful.

I got to know the carpenters and the electricians and the duct workers that summer.  I got to find out what make them tick.  What it was that motivated them.  What they were building their lives upon.

One of the guys I got to know was Mike.  He was the epitome of what you first think of as a construction worker.  He was probably 10 years older than I was.  He was a carpenter.  Skilled.  That guy could probably build anything he put his mind to.  Kind of like Rex.

Mike kept us all entertained.  His day was one of hard work.  He pushed himself.  He didn't want to end the day feeling like he had only given half of himself.  He'd work hard.  He'd go home and enjoy a good meal with his family that he knew he provided.  He'd drink a couple of beers.  Watch TV with his wife.  They'd have sex.  He'd get up in the morning, come to the construction site—usually one of the first—tell us all who were gathered around about what he did with his wife the night before, and start in on another day to do the same routine.  I don't know if half the stuff he told us was true, but his stories all held us in place.

Mike fell off a tall ladder that summer.  Broke his leg really bad.  It was a good thing we were working at a hospital.  We carried him right down to the Emergency Room.  When he was patched up with a big, plaster cast on his leg, it looked like it was going to be a 12 week heal.

I'd visit Mike during my lunch time, while he was still in the hospital.  His wife would show up with their kids.  It was awkward looking her in the face after hearing all the stories Mike told about their sex life.

Something I learned talking with Mike after that accident—he'd have his wife drive him out to the construction site at least every other day—what I learned through Mike was that healing and rebuilding can tear a man down even more than the breaking did.  Healing and rebuilding takes so long—it seems like it goes on forever.

Why, when you've got new construction, everything just buzzes along?  New buildings go up so fast.  But rebuilding and remodeling seems like it takes forever.  Especially when that rebuilding is going on in your life.  When God is doing something new in our lives.

And I believed God was doing something new in Mike's life.  I believed God was stripping Mike down to the foundation.  Mike was trying to rebuild with wood and straw, alcohol and bluster.  God was hoping Mike would build his life with something more substantial.  It took everything Mike had to have the patience to rebuild like God was trying to do.  Mike wanted to be fixed, but he wanted to be fixed now, and in his own way, so he could get back to his life.  God was trying to get Mike to clear some things out, first.  Like all of us need to do when we're being rebuilt.  Let the deconstruction crew do their work.  Then rebuild.

Mike and I had some good conversations.  When it was time for me to go back to school, Mike taunted the college boy.  "You go back to your la-la land, college boy.  This is the real world, not there.  This is where real work is done."
I said, "Yeah, but I gotta build my life on something more.  I don't want to fall from a ladder someday, and almost destroy what I had built my life on.  Or find out what I had built my life on was not enough to hold me up and keep me going.  I gotta have something more permanent than that."

We chatted some more about that.  And I drove away from the construction site, never to return.  I worked in churches the final two summers I was in college, running VBS's and Youth Groups.  I never knew what happened with Mike, and if God had gotten the rebuild project done in his life.  I hope the college boy had a small hand in making that happen.

DON'T USE  (story of contractor who had his supervisor build a house using the best materials.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Grow Up

"Grow Up"
1 Corinthians 3:1-9

When I was looking for a picture for this weeks bulletin, they were along two different themes.  There were a lot of pictures and quotes that had to do with the idea that we should never grow up.  That is, we should always let the child in us run free and unfettered.  That we could become too stodgy and adultish, and should never give in to such a thing.  I somewhat agree with that.

But…but…there was another theme to the pictures and quotes I found when looking for a bulletin picture, that were more like the one I finally decided to use.  They told the truth that like it or not, oh those of you who want to remain child-like your whole lives (and I'm sorry to be the one who has to tell you this) there comes the time in the story of your life that you need to grow up.  You need to mature.  You have to be an adult and take care of adult decisions and life choices that come your way.

Jennifer uses the term, "adulting," when trying to describe circumstances she is facing that calls for her to have to be an adult, but doesn't want to be.     For example, Jennifer likes to shop.  But Jennifer has a limited amount of income.  So, at those moments when she is shopping but can't buy something because her new budget won't allow it, that is an adulting moment.  Or when she has to make some big girl purchases, like certain kinds of insurance, or making investments in setting up long term savings plans—those are somewhat "painful" adulting moments.  She put up on her Facebook page recently a picture with the caption, "You is tired.  You is broke.  You is adulting."

So "adulting" is facing those times when you realize you can't allow the child in you to have its way all the time, and you just have to grow up.  Paul, at this point in his letter to the Corinthians, is trying to have one of those adult, instructive moments.  He's frustrated because the Corinthian Christians are just not getting the adulting thing as it relates to their faith in Christ.

Becoming a Christian is a process of growing up—what Paul calls maturing from being people of the flesh, or people of the world, to spiritual people.  Paul recognizes this is a long growth process.  We don't get to go from birth to adult in a matter of hours, and neither will we be able to do the same in our Christian growth.  But nevertheless, that kind of growth and maturity has to happen.  We have to grow up in our relationship with the Lord.

I've been watching a lot of nature documentaries on Netflix lately.  You know, we live in an amazing world.  So much variety and creativity God has designed into this world.  Anyway, there are some animals who have to make that fast transition of growing up.  Wildebeests, once they are born, have only a matter of minutes to get up on their feet and start running.  If they don't, they get left behind, since wildebeests are constantly on the move.  Also, if the baby doesn't get up and get moving, they become some predators dinner that night.

Humans take so long to mature.  To grow up.  For example, the prefrontal cortex—this front part of our brains—control the abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine the difference between good and bad, better and best, same and different; this part of our brain helps us figure out the future consequences of our current behaviors;  this part of our brain is what we use when setting goals and how to work towards accomplishing them; and finally, this prefrontal cortex helps us control and suppress behavioral urges, regulating impulse control so we don't do too many stupid, impulsive acts.  But this amazingly important part of our brain isn't fully developed until we are around 25 years old.

So when we yell at our kids, "What were you thinking!!? they can respond, "I guess I wasn't thinking, and I won't be able to until I'm 25.  Get used to that."

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons shows Calvin banging away with a hammer on the top of the living room coffee table.  Calvin's mom comes in screaming, "What are you doing!?"
To which Calvin replies, "Is this a trick question?"

Even though "growing up" is a long process for we humans, waiting for parts of us to catch up with the rest of us, we still have to do that.  Paul wrote that at some point, babies have to make the transition from mother's milk to solid food.  That's part of growing up.  Paul's figurative language is making the point that when we become Christians, we are sustaining ourselves on basic teachings of Christ and learning simple lessons about the Christian life.  But we don't get to stay there.  We don't get to ride the tricycle of basic Christian teachings.  At some point we have to get off the trike, and master the more intricate balance of riding a two-wheeled bicycle of the growing up life in the Christian way.

Paul wrote in this part of the letter to the Corinthians that there are a couple of human characteristics that get in the way of our growing up.

The first is jealousy.  The word in Greek that Paul used is the same word behind our English word, zealous.  Being zealous has to do with feeling the heat of adoration.  Zeal is the amount of energy and enthusiasm we put into pursuing some thing or some one.  Passion might be another good word to describe this kind of zeal.  It's a very positive word.

But, just as a person can burn with passion, that burning—that heat—can get out of control.  You can get to the point of wanting to be the only one who gets to claim the object of your passion.

Two shopkeepers were bitter rivals. Their stores were directly across the street from each other, and they would spend each day keeping track of each other's business. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at his rival. One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, "I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your competitor will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?" The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, "Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!"

That's the heart of zealousness that gets out of control.  It only wants for itself, and doesn't want anyone else to have what you desire.  It's that jealousy of all others who get, even just a little more than you and it seems so unfair.

You lie to yourself that you are the only one who cares so much.  You are the only one who understands that your zeal and devotion are the best.  You are the only one who deserves the object of your desire.  The good side of zealousness has all gone rotten within you, which infects the whole.  Which is what was happening in Corinth.  An over zealous few was bringing immaturity and the inability to grow in the faith to the whole community.

But if you can keep that zeal in check, the whole community is infected with your good choices and the power of positive desire that would benefit all, helping all to grow up.

For many years Sir Walter Scott was the leading literary figure in the British Empire. No one could write as well as he. Then the works of Lord Byron began to appear, and their greatness was immediately evident. Soon an anonymous critic praised Lord Byron's poems in a London Paper. This critic declared that in the presence of these brilliant works of poetic genius, Scott could no longer be considered the leading poet of England. It was later discovered that the unnamed reviewer had been none other than Sir Walter Scott himself!  That's the attitude of a healthy zeal--not wanting everything for yourself, but sharing a zeal for the best in others.

The other characteristic that Paul mentioned, that is keeping the Christian community at Corinth from growing up was strife, or being argumentative.  Strife, like zeal, starts out as a good quality.  It starts out as a healthy debate.  It was the attempt to have a civil conversation about two opposing viewpoints.

Instead of remaining there, the debate turned into contentiousness, wrangling, and strife.  One side may use a trigger word.  Or one pushes the other's button, because they know where to push.  The strife heats up.  Then all civility is lost.  Community breaks down, as others are pulled into verbal battle, and sides are taken.

Two men who lived in a small village got into a terrible dispute that they could not resolve. So they decided to talk to the town sage. The first man went to the sage's home and told his version of what happened. When he finished, the sage said, "You're absolutely right." The next night, the second man called on the sage and told his side of the story. The sage responded, "You're absolutely right." Afterward, the sage's wife scolded her husband. "Those men told you two different stories and you told them they were absolutely right. That's impossible -- they can't both be absolutely right." The sage turned to his wife and said, "You're absolutely right."

When in the middle of some verbal jousting that is getting out of hand, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is, "Is it better than I'm right, or is it better that I sustain the relationship?"  You can't have both.  So you have to make a wise decision.

That's what Paul was trying to get the Corinthians to see.  They weren't growing up in their faith, they weren't building their relationship with Christ or each other, because each of them had to be blasted right.  Is Paul the most important apostle?  Is Peter?  Is Apollos?  That's what they were arguing about.  But it's a who cares argument.  Which ever answer you fall on won't help you grow up.  It will only keep you childish and immature.  And the whole Christian community in Corinth, or anywhere else, will suffer for it.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Beyond Your Wildest Dreams

"Beyond Your Wildest Dreams"
1 Corinthians 2:9-15

The American novelist and poet, Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, asked, "What is the answer?"  Then, when there was only silence from those gathered around the bed, she asked, "In that case, what is the question?"  It's interesting to me that such a person would ask those kinds of questions.  She was an American who lived most of her life in Paris.  She hosted a Paris coffee shop type meeting place in her home, where the leading figures of modernism in literature and art, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Henri Matisse would meet.  Even rubbing shoulders with famous authors and artists like that, you'd think she'd pick up on some vital truths, by which she could live her life.  Instead, at the end of her life, she was still looking for the meaning of life.

Most people don't realize it isn't in the answers that the meaning of life is found, but in asking the right questions.  The chaplain at the college where my daughter attended, Azusa Pacific University, decided he'd try what Lucy from the comic strip Peanuts did.  Remember Lucy set up a booth with a placard across the top that read, "Psychiatric Help—5 cents."  The chaplain set up a booth for a week with the placard that read, "Spiritual Help—5 cents."  He said the most often asked question was, "What is the meaning of life?"

And that's the problem.  No one is asking that question any more.  Even if they ask the question, they are looking for the answers in the wrong places.  As Eugene Peterson wrote in his book, Run With The Horses,

The puzzle is why so many people live so badly.  Not so wickedly, but so inanely.  Not so cruelly, but so stupidly.  There is little to admire and less to imitate in the people who are prominent in our culture … People, aimless and bored, amuse themselves with trivia and trash.  Neither the adventure of goodness nor the pursuit of righteousness gets headlines.  (page 11)

Peterson has pointed out one of the main problems of our culture:  we have no role models who have found powerful and profound answers to that question (What is the meaning of life?), and are living those answers out in their daily lives.  Instead, we put the pictures and stories of self-infatuated movie stars and athletes on the covers of magazines, and those are the people youth and adults yearn to be like.  Somewhere along the way, we have left behind something important.

There have been a lot of high schools that send groups of kids to New York City to experience a Broadway play or some such thing.  One such group of kids were in the Big Apple, experiencing big city life.  They stayed at a bank of rooms on the 25th floor of a hotel.

When they got back from a long day of sightseeing, they went to get their room keys.  But they were told by the desk clerk that the elevators weren't working.  They could either wait till the problem was repaired or take the stairs.

One group of students decided to hike up the stairs.  They decided to pass the time, each of them were to tell one of the funniest stories they knew.  So up they went, laughing and giggling at each other's stories.  When they got to the 24th floor, one of the kids sat down on a step and just started laughing and laughing.  "What's so funny?" one of the other kids asked.
"You want to hear the funniest story?" he replied.
"Yeah," they said.
"The funniest story is that we forgot to pick up our room keys at the front desk."

How awful to get so far along in life, like Gertrude Stein, when you get to a certain climactic point, you have not acquired the "key" that will open the doors, or give you the answers to the questions that stand before you.

So many people expend so much energy climbing the stairs of life, but when they get close to the top they find out they are ill-equipped to go the rest of the way.  Stuck on a step in the stairwell, faced with the prospect of not being able to go any further.  Or having to back down the way they had come, retracing all their previous steps, life becomes meaningless, worthless, and purposeless.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, (and we need to pay attention here), don't let that happen to you.  Don't major on the minors.  Don't live a small life.  Don't live so that later on in your life you have to retrace your steps and start all over again.  Don't get yourself confined by all the wrong questions and all the wrong answers to the right questions.

Paul leads us to Scripture, which is where we find the right questions and the right answers to the right questions.  Paul wrote:

But, in the words of Scripture,
"Things beyond our seeing,
things beyond our hearing,
things beyond our imagining,
all prepared by God for those who love him",
these it is that God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
(1 Corinthians 2:9, NEB)

The world gives us answers to the questions of life that make us settle for so little.  We become anesthetized, we become so content with what is not life.  That's what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning protested when she wrote prophetically so many years ago,

What frightens me
is that men are content
with what is not life at all.

But God, through the Holy Spirit, says Paul, has offered us life beyond your wildest dreams.  You cannot even conceive in your mind what God has for you, it is so awesome.  God's Holy Spirit is the key that allows you to open the door to all that God has for you.  Don't you want to find out?  The Holy Spirit stands at the door, just waiting for you to approach, so that all that God has for you, all the meaning life was intended to have can be opened to you.

In Charles Dickens' great book, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the characters is a Doctor—Doctor Manette—who has been thrown in the Bastille prison wrongfully.  He nearly forgets who he was, what he was, and becomes a cobbler.  While there for a number of years, he mended the shoes of the other prisoners and the guards in his little stone cell.  Good fortune comes his way.  His daughter, who has not known the whereabouts of her father, finds him with the help of some family friends.  Dr. Manette was released.  (That's the pictured scene on the front of the bulletin.)

Dr. Manette's daughter represents the Holy Spirit in this novel, at this point in the story.  She has effected the freedom of her father so he could become what he was meant to be as a gifted surgeon and more.  But when Dr. Manette got to his home, he built a little cell out of stone inside his home.  He moved into that little room to live out his days and do his work, as a cobbler.

The cobbler in Dickens' novel, like many real people, became conditioned to a life lived in small ways.  They lock themselves up in cells of their own making, whether they be of stone, or of their own Spirit-less giving up.

Similarly, there are people like Ninus, the legendary king of Assyria.  Ninus had an ocean of gold and loved to party.  So he stayed within his palace.  He never went out at night to gaze at the stars.  He never went out during the day to feel the warmth of the sun on his face.  He never went out on the rooftop of the palace to look out at the world rolling out to the horizon line.  He never did any of those things because he said they made him feel small.  As long as he could stay within the confines of the little world of the palace, he could feel large and important.  Life had meaning.  But what a small life and what a little bit of meaning.

What God has for us, through the Holy Spirit, is a world of meaning bigger than the wide world you can see.  But we lock ourselves up in dungeon cells, or palaces of puniness, closing ourselves off from the "more" that God prepared for us.  Paul tells us, through this letter to the Corinthians, that there is more to life than what we see, hear, and know—even beyond anything we can imagine.

A woman, at a previous church I served, stood at my study door and cried out, "I want to see life!"  She cried out these words in a tone of utter despair, and I have heard her words echoed in so many people's lives.  "I want to see life!"  She had seen life all right, but nothing like God wanted her to see, and had ready for her.

Do you want to see life?  God's Holy Spirit wants you to have the kind of life the deepest part of your heart yearns for.  Come to the Holy Spirit and answer the Spirit's one question:  Do you love God?  Do you utterly and unashamedly love God?  When you can answer, "Yes," life and meaning will be yours beyond your wildest dreams.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Absolute Foolishness

"Absolute Foolishness"
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

I was disappointed with my seminary experience.  I'm not sure what I was expecting seminary would be like, looking back at that time in my life.  Because, as I said in another sermon, I felt the call to go into the ministry when I was in 7th grade, I never entertained any other possibility for my future.  I was going to be a Pastor.  That was that.  Which meant I had to finish college, then go on to seminary.

I watched what the three pastors of my home church in Seattle did.  The senior pastor seemed to sit in his office during the week and preach on Sunday.  The Christian Education minister was in charge of a huge Sunday School program.  And the Youth Minister, who I got to know best of the three, was like an energizer bunny building the youth groups from just a handful to over 50 every week.

But I was getting to know them so I could see what a minister did, not what their seminary training was all about.  I felt the calling, so I kept the three men under observation, so I could see what I was getting myself into.  I knew they had gone to seminary—that I was going to have to go to seminary.  I had no idea what happened there.

All I could picture were a bunch of monks sitting at their desks, with the stub of a burning candle shining a spare light, copying ancient texts by hand.  Chanting the Psalms, while unrolling dusty scrolls from ancient shelves in some archive room of the seminary.  Which is what seminary was, way back in the good old days of the 1600's.  I wondered if, at seminary, they still made you shave the crown of your head into a round bald spot.

But I think that's what I pictured when I thought of seminary:  a contemplative retreat where students walked the idyllic grounds talking about the wonders of scripture.  And praying together for long hours at a time.

But it wasn't like that at all.  It's one of the hardest Master's Degree programs you can attend.  The academics are rigorous.  It's a three year degree program, that usually takes four if you include an internship—which is what I did.  We also, in addition to our studies, had to work in a church in the community 20 hours a week.  No other Master's Degree program takes that long and is that demanding.

We had a prayer room off the chapel, but it was the least used room on campus, so they turned it into a janitor closet.  So much for spending long hours in prayer.  One of the first worship services I attended at seminary, lead by a student, closed with the song, "The Ants Go Marching Two-By-Two," and we all recessed out of the church together.  It was the mid-1970's and the church was really struggling with being relevant.  In seminary, being relevant was taken to the extreme, to the detriment of worship.

So, to say I was disappointed with my seminary experience is a serious understatement.  Half of our entering class quit some time during our first year.  I was almost one of them, but my sense of calling kept me going.

What was hardest was that seminary was just like any other Master's program of study, only harder.  Seminary trained us to be theologians, not Pastors.  We were trained in the wisdom of the world—psychology and philosophy—not the wisdom of God.  And what seminaries don't get is that congregations don't give a rats whisker for us being intellectual theologians.  Congregations want to know if we as Pastor's love them and if we love the Lord.

I've only had one guy in one congregation who wanted to do some intellectual, theological sparring with me.  He read theology as a hobby.  He probably knew more than I did about theology.  But he didn't know about prayer, or God, or relationship, or worship, which is what it's all about.

Needless to say, I was very confused when I got out of seminary.  I wasn't sure what I had to preach.  What they actually did to us in seminary was rip us apart with this philosophical theology, and never really put us back together again.  We were a bunch of Humpty Dumpty's who had had a great fall, and all the kings men and all the king's horses couldn't put us back together again.  But we were supposed to be leading a church!

I had to throw myself on the mercy of God.  And figure out, with the help of a couple of great mentors, what it really meant to be a Pastor.

You'd think, at seminary, they'd get the message of the Gospel and the Cross, right.  Looking at all that Paul was upset about concerning the Corinthian Church, in terms of the "wisdom of the world" vs. "the message of the Cross" were the same things I was upset about in seminary.  Paul wrote the message of the Cross doesn't make sense to lost people, so what did that say about most of my seminary professors?  Paul wrote that God saves only those who believe in this "foolish" message of the Cross, so what does that say about most of my seminary professors who didn't?  Paul wrote that we can't learn about God through the wisdom of the world, so why did most of my seminary professors teach the wisdom of the world rather than the message of the Cross?  Paul wrote that God will turn the wisdom of the world into confusion.  It sure happened to me.  Why did confusion have to be the result of my going to seminary?  You'd think it would be the opposite.

(I'm just making these comments about the seminary I attended.  Not all seminaries are like that.  Just wanted to make that clear.)

I think there are a lot of people who are confused about the message of the Cross.  That message makes no sense to maybe most people.

Like college students.  It just seems to be a normal occurrence that you get away from home for the first time and you get to decide a lot of things away from parental control and guidance.  You enter the realm of a totally different "group think."  You get "alternate facts" and "fake news" thrown at you from day one, and your faith and beliefs about the gospel are the first things to go into the blender of your confusion.

Or suburbanites, who I think are the toughest mission field.  Missionaries go to central Africa or rural China and find people are ready to embrace the message of the Cross.  But suburbia is throwing the message of the Cross, and church in general, out with the baptismal water.  Has been, for decades.  They are more concerned about what's causing the erosion of the American Dream than they are about holding on to the Gospel Dream.

Or large corporate headquarters.  See if you can get your way into a board room of a multinational company and tell them about the message of the Cross.  See how long it takes for you to be ushered, unceremoniously, out the front door.  The bottom line, and the welfare of stockholders is way more important than the message of the Cross.

Or politics.  A fatal misreading of the Constitutional amendment about the freedom of religion has killed the informing of politics by religion.  Instead we have the oft quoted line, "Religion and politics… (don't mix)."  Some of the best prayers I have read are in a collection by Peter Marshall, the Presbyterian Pastor who was Chaplain of the Senate in the late 1940's.  He would open up each session of the Senate with a prayer, and those prayers were incisive, and prophetic, and sermonic.  But not anymore.  Now, because of political correctness, you will never hear a prayer about the message of the Cross on the floor of the U.S. Senate.  You may not even hear a prayer anymore.

Our country has gone the way of the Corinthians.

So, what are we supposed to do when we are faced with a world that doesn't care about one of our most fundamental beliefs:  "Christ, the Crucified?"  How are we supposed to find our place in a culture, even our religious culture, that is attempting to cut the legs out from under our "way of salvation"?  How will our faith survive when our cherished "Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness" to most people?  Even in the training ground of novice pastors.

One of the questions that seems to be driving Paul, in the opening of this letter to the Corinthians is, What really proves the power of your personal beliefs?  Then Paul writes about three different answers to that question, based on three different belief sets.

The first belief set is that of the Jews.  Paul wrote that the power of Jewish faith is their "clamor for miraculous demonstrations."  Remember one of the questions the Jews kept asking Jesus:  "Show us a sign.  Show us a miracle to prove who you are."

The flavor of the Jewish hunger for the miraculous was caught in a humorous way in the musical, "Jesus Christ, Superstar."  Jesus has been arrested and is being questioned by Herod.  In the song Herod sings to Jesus, one of the verses is:

So if you are the Christ
You're the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that You're no fool
Walk across my swimming pool.
If You do that for me
Then I'll let you go free.
C'mon, King of the Jews!

The whole song is a daring of Jesus to do the miraculous.  To prove his power by doing something flashy.

Think of all the miracles associated with the major salvation story in the history of the Jews—the Exodus.  I've been creating my children's stories, of late, out of this freedom story of the Hebrew slaves.  Stories of miraculous plagues, and a miraculous walking stick, and the miracle man, Moses, who is backed by a miracle God.  It is the miraculous that drives the power of Jewish spirituality, says Paul.  It's the way of most of the Old Testament stories.  Christ, the Crucified doesn't seem very miraculous.  It seemed to them to be absolute foolishness.

For the Greeks, it's altogether something different.   Paul calls it, "philosophical wisdom."  Something that sounds wise.  Something that's intellectually stimulating.  Some new idea.  Something that struggles with the big questions of, What is life?  What is the good?  Why are we human's here?  What is truth?  Christ, the Crucified doesn't seem to be an adequate answer to any of these so-called great philosophical questions.  Instead it seemed to the Greeks to be absolute foolishness.

But, for we Christians, Christ, the Crucified is the message of God's power and wisdom.  Notice, I said the Cross is the message of God's power.  My original question was, What really proves the power of your personal beliefs?   What really gives you the power of your personal beliefs isn't you—it is God.  It isn't your wisdom.  It isn't your ability to pull of a Moses-like miracle.  It is God, and God only.

The main problem with the Corinthian church, and with today's church, is that people make the assumption that God must think like we do.  That some of our best thinkers must be at least close to what God thinks.  That our definition of miracle is the same as it is with God.  Or that the answers to the big, philosophical, life questions we come up with will match right up, word-for-word with God's.

Not so, writes Paul.  God's wisdom is based on that which is so different from ours, most don't get it.  God's action of the miraculous is so much broader than ours, we miss most of what God is doing right under our noses every day.  Especially in terms of those Cross-shaped experiences of life and death that we face every day, that most people refuse to see or understand.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Difference Being Different Makes

"The Difference Being Different Makes"
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul sat at a tiny desk in the home of Priscilla.  She and her husband, Aquila, were there in the room with him, trying to offer their support.  Paul was clearly frustrated.  While in Ephesus, preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, establishing a church with the help of women like Priscilla and men like Aquila, he had heard news.  It wasn't good news.  It was news about the church he had started in Corinth a couple of years earlier.

Paul was trying to compose himself and write a letter to the people in the church at Corinth.  But every time he started to write, his blood would make his face flush with heat and his nostrils flare.  He would slam the quill down and launch out of his chair.  "You write; I'll dictate," he'd demand of Priscilla, pointing to the scroll.  "I've ruined too much papyrus already."  Priscilla would sit in the chair, and then Paul would demand, "No, get up; I'll write!"  Up and down, they traded positions, not getting a word written, until finally, Paul with his back against the stonewall of the room, slowly slid to the floor and buried his face in his hands.

The church at Corinth had become Paul's problem child among all his church children.  They were irreverent.  They were selfish and self-centered.  They were personality worshippers.  They ruled by their emotionalism, rather than patient reflection.  They were gluttons.  They were sexually promiscuous.  They were insensitive to each other's needs.  They had one foot in the old ways of Corinthian society, the other foot lightly touched down upon their new faith in Christ.  They weren't sure on which of those feet they really wanted to put their full weight.  In a word, they were a mess.

The one question Paul felt he had to answer for them was, "Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have the power to change lives or not?"  Can the power of Christ overpower and subdue the power Corinthian society was exerting on the new church?  Once the people in the church had made a decision for Christ, the sabotage and allurement of the Corinthian way of life was ever in their face.

Paul began to remember the first day he had come to Corinth.  He was on the third leg of his second journey to take the gospel to the Gentile world.  He had just sailed down the Greek coastland from Athens.  Paul had heard stories about Corinth, but none of them prepared him for what he saw.  Landing at the narrow neck of land upon which Corinth was built, Paul remembered standing at one of the grand gates of the city.  His mouth was gaping as ships went by in both directions, being rolled on logs so they wouldn't have to sail around the treacherous southern cape of Greece.

Corinth's position made it the main city on the north-south, and east-west trade routes.  It had become one of the most important cities in the Roman empire, second only to Rome itself.  Paul walked up and down the well-kept avenues that led to the main buildings of the city, mostly built by various Roman emperors.  There was the Agora, a huge central marketplace with shops selling anything (and I mean anything) you would want from all over the world.

Paul gawked at the Baths of Eurykles; the Peirene Fountain; the Basilica honoring Emperor Julian; the theatre, unlike any theatre in the empire; the starting blocks for the races of Olympic games; the impressive temple of the Greek god Apollo, with 38 Doric columns, each 24 feet high.

And there was the temple of Aphrodite, goddess of love, which employed nearly a thousand temple prostitutes who would work their profession in the streets of Corinth, all in the name of their religion.  Along with prostitution, Paul had no problem recognizing the signs of moral depravity.  Gross immorality seemed to be the acceptable way of life in Corinth.  There was a reason there was a saying, "Live like a Corinthian," and the reason wasn't a good one.

Paul remembered standing on the roof of the Julian Basilica, looking down upon the press of people in the marketplace below, and suddenly having a great deal of sympathy for the prophet Jonah.  Jumping on one of those ships rolling by, and sailing in the opposite direction from that city was becoming and entertaining option.

But as he looked down upon the din of activity, he also remembered who he was:  an apostle.  He was a messenger.  He was called by the will of God to bring the message to whomever, wherever, whenever.  And he also knew, as he looked over all the faces in the crowd, that those were people whom God loved, people whom God wanted to be believers, people Christ wanted in his family.  Done watching, Paul climbed down from the roof and got to work.

Now, it was a couple of years later.  The Christian church at Corinth was being eroded away around the edges as Corinthian ways exerted their influence.  Instead of trying to stay distinct from Corinthian society, the believers in the church were finding creative ways to be both Corinthian and Christian.  Instead of giving up either, they were, in dangerous ways, blending the two.  The blend was creating a watered down gospel, robbing it of its power to effect the people's lives on a deep and sustaining level.

If you think the ways of Corinth are dead, just look around at American culture.  All the powers of nationalistic bravado, consumerism, capitalism, counterfeit sexuality, the media, and unbelievably out-of-whack priorities—all that is mixed up in the pot with the thick broth of denial, blame, and depression.  It's served up over ice, and people drink from it on a daily basis.  Christians in America are constantly trying to do the same thing the Corinthian Christians did:  mix their faith with a strong dose of the cultural elixir, thinking it won't do any harm.

So Paul sat down to write a fiery letter to the church at Corinth, and by so doing banked it off Corinth for a knock on the American church a couple of thousand years later.  If you are going to be a Christian, it means you have to be different from those around you, Paul wrote.  Those differences have to be shown in two distinct areas of your lives.  First, in the way you speak; and, secondly, in the way you understand things.

In terms of speaking, Paul uses a word that means, basically, "When you talk, use pregnant words, as opposed to empty words."  Use words that give birth, that produce life, not just a bunch of emptiness or gossip strung together as mindless chatter.

Consider this.  The Lord's Prayer contains 56 words.  The Ten Commandments have 296 words.  The Gettysburg Address has 266 words.  And a recent U.S. Government order setting the price of cabbage has 26,911 words.

Our American culture, indeed our world, is full of words.  We have probably not seen a time in the history of humanity where we have been awash in so many words.  But so much of society's words have so little to say.  For the Christian, Paul is demanding that we not add to the emptiness of our culture with so much verbiage with so little power of God in it.

We don't want to be like the preacher who was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in the middle of his sermon.  The nurse, fresh out of nursing school, accidentally put a barometer in his mouth instead of a thermometer.  When she went to check for a reading it said, "Dry and windy."

For Christians, our words must be pregnant words, gospel words, which carry in them the power of the Cross, the wonder of the Resurrection, the attractiveness of Grace, the influence of Life, and the punch of truth.  Paul is telling us, via the Corinthians, the importance and difference Godly speaking can and should make.

Secondly, along with gospel-filled words, Paul told the Corinthian Christians that the way they understand things must be distinct from the culture around them.

John Naisbitt, author of the popular book, Megatrends, wrote that, "We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge."  I think that is part of what Paul may have been trying to say.  Just like words, we are awash in information, but who is doing the serious reflection about all that information?  Who is doing the thinking and pondering and praying over all that information, helping us find our way through it, deciding what is important for our knowledge, and what is just plain trash?  Paul is saying to the Corinthians (and we need to pay attention) that Christians are supposed to be the kinds of people who are doing that serious reflection and guiding people toward useful, life-filled knowledge.

In the Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is pointing to a bug on the sidewalk and telling her brother Linus, "Look at this tiny, little bug.  It's appalling how little he knows.  He's not like us.  He doesn't know anything about voting or disease or earthquakes or love or Monday mornings!!"
Linus looked at her and insightfully asked, "Who's better off?"

Those are the kinds of questions Christians need to be offering up to the world as we are getting buried under an internet full of so-called information.  If you know this or that tidbit of information, are you really better off?  If you've watched this or that YouTube video, are you any cooler?  And if not, then what is it you really need to know?

For Paul, as he writes to the Corinthian church, what you really need to know is the message about Christ.  All that will matter in the end is that one thing.  If you know the message of Christ, you will not fail to receive a single blessing from God, says Paul.  If you want to know how to live in this life, and if you want assurance for the afterlife, then the gospel of Christ is all you need to know, take into yourself, and live out all your days.

Mark Twain once described a man he had met by saying, "He knows so little and he knows it so fluently."  That statement, though funny in its bite, can be taken a couple of ways.  Certainly it can be taken as Twain meant it, that the man he was talking about was ignorant about just about everything, but spoke as if he knew it all.

But in another way, it could be a statement that aptly describes a Christian.  We may not know a lot of things, but as believers we know the most important thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ—and we better know it fluently.  That's what sets us apart from the crowd and from our culture.

In the next few weeks I will continue looking at Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, getting a sense of what kind of difference being a Christian makes.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

An Ant, A Bee, And Man

"An Ant, A Bee, And Man"
Isaiah 42:1-9

A fellow minister stood up in his pulpit one Sunday and started his sermon by saying,

One of the unquenchable truths about our world is that we are all going to die.  It just so happens that some of you may already be dead.  It's just that we won't get around to burying you for 20 years or more.

The point he was making in his sermon was that there is a lot more to being alive than just walking around in an upright position, or breathing, or being able to keep your eyes open at the appropriate times.  There has to be something else.  Something not in the way of physical activity, although that's important.  But something intangible, yet very real.

I think the best word I can think of that can act like a peg on which I'll hang everything else I have to say this morning—that word is "purpose."  Purpose.  That intangible reality, that strategic ingredient that must be in the recipe of everyone's life in order for there to be life, must be purpose.

The problem is, so few know their purpose.  So few have a purpose.  Too many live life without purpose.  One motivational speaker once said, "You've removed most of the roadblocks to success when you've learned the difference between motion and direction."  So many go through the motions of life, but have no idea what direction their lives should be taking.  "Life," whatever that is, is making the decisions for them about their direction.  This happens not just for young people, but to all of us at different stages of life, such as when parents get to the "empty nest," or at the time of retirement.  At those times you have to define, again, your direction and purpose, not just be in motion.

The most basic questions about individual purpose are attempted to being answered in flurries of activity and motion.  You go no where and in the end accomplish little.  Or, more importantly, such busy, busy, busy-ness doesn't give a person a sense of accomplishment in life.  That kind of busy activity doesn't allow a person to look back on their lives in any measure of time and feel a sense of fulfillment about the purpose they served.

Dr. Will Menninger of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka once wrote,

It is so easy just to drift along.  Some people go through school as if they thought they were doing their families a favor.  On a job, they work a long in a humdrum way, interested only in their paycheck.  They don't have (purpose).  When anyone crosses them up, they take their marbles and walk out.  The people who go places and do things make the most of every situation.  They are ready for the next thing that comes along on the road to fulfilling their purpose.  They know what they want and are willing to go an extra mile.

At our "Grow the Church" team meeting this past week, I asked the team to watch a You Tube video that was a talk about millennials—that generation of people born after 1985.  In the "Vivid Vision" the team wrote at the start of our process, we decided we wanted to grow our congregation with a percentage of millennials.  So we better know who we're talking about.

In the talk, the speaker said most millennials want to have a purpose, they want to make a difference, they want to have an impact on their world.  But the reality is, this generation has the least joy of any generation.  I would define joy as the fulfillment of having made an impact, of making a difference.  Instead of joy, when asked how their lives are going, millennials simply say, "Fine."  But it's different than when most of us reply, "fine."  It's more like the millennial generation is fine with fine.  Even though they want to make a difference, if they aren't, that's "fine."

Somehow, we in the church need to help the millennial generation realize fine is not fine.  That we are ready to stand by them and work with them to have the kind of impact on the world they dream about.  To fulfill a purpose that makes life good, and joy-full.

The trouble is, that as humans, unlike the animals, we have choices as to purpose.  The ant knows its purpose.  It is instinctually born into it.  Build the anthill.  Gather food.  Protect the queen and her eggs.  The same is true for bees.  Build a hive.  Collect pollen.  Protect the queen.

Ants, bees and all other animals don't have to bother with the big existential problems of purpose and meaning we humans face.  Only people are confused about his or her purpose.  We all live under the same sky, but as humans we don't all have the same horizon.  Therein lies the trouble.  There are so many purposes in life we could choose.  (Vanessa wanting to be a doctor, but what kind of doctor?)  But we get so easily overwhelmed with the enormity of choices we could make, and thereby make no choice at all.  We settle with, "fine."

When Jesus rose up out of the waters of baptism, he had a purpose.  He knew what it was.  He saw the Spirit of God descending, he heard the Voice and everything was clear.  The same statement that is spoken to Jesus is also spoken by God in Isaiah read from chapter 42 earlier.

Most people expect that their purpose in life will be communicated to them in some way.  That they won't find it within themselves, but that it will come from outside themselves—hopefully from God.

The Biblical story is consistent in presenting God as the one who speaks, and Israel or the Church as a people who listen.  But how can you hear if you're not paying attention?  If you're not listening?  If you haven't for a long time?

It's important to realize if you are feeling purposeless, and if you are waiting for God's Voice to speak, those who hear God's Voice have taken the time to develop a real and intimate relationship with God.  What they hear comes out of that relationship, not out of the blue.

What can you expect to hear, in terms of your purpose from God?  Specifically, I can't really say.  Generally, based on my experience and that of others with whom I have talked, I think there are a couple of things you can expect.

First, you will hear that you will have to make choices and concentrate yourself and your efforts.  Discovering purpose means coming to terms with the fact that you can't divide yourself amongst many purposes.  Divided concentration will never bring one to a sense of accomplishment as does a single-minded purpose.

In Isaiah 42, God says of the special Servant:
…he will make sure
that justice is done.
He won't quit or give up
until he brings justice
everywhere on earth.  (vs. 3-4)

Notice the single-minded mission that creates the purpose in the Servant's life.  "Bringing justice" is that single minded mission.  Because the Servant is single-minded in that mission, he will be able to have a global impact.  Things will happen.

In the Peanuts comic strip, Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels, threatening him if he didn't.
"What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?" asks Linus.
"These five fingers," says Lucy.  "Individually they're nothing.  But when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold."
"Which channel do you want?" Linus stuttered.
Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"

Purpose can be an effective power in life if there is a sense of cohesive singularity about it.  Purpose is hard to find when there are a lot of little purposes all clamoring for attention, or going in several different directions.  Dwight L. Moody once said, "I'd rather have a man who says, 'This one thing I do', rather than, 'These hundred things I dabble with.'"

But there is a grief process involved here.  Some purposes, around which we would like to build our lives, which may be noble in their own right, must be let go of in order to pursue a singular purpose.  There is grief in coming to terms with the fact that we can't do all the things we wish we could.  (Back to Vanessa and her future choices.)

I was talking with Benton about this over Skype last month, when we were having one of our deep discussions.  If you choose this purpose to give your life to, then that means you can't choose something else.  By choosing this, you have excluded that.  By grasping this as a noble purpose, you have to let go of your grasp of that as a noble purpose.  There's where the grief process comes in.  You end up grieving the loss of a choice you can no longer make.  But you have to do that if you are going to concentrate on one, singular, noble purpose for you life.  As the Lord's Servant chose:  bringing justice everywhere on earth.

And the other thing I think you will hear from God about your purpose is that it will be action, outward, other oriented.  God's purposes for people are not primarily for their own self-fulfillment.

At one point in this message to the Servant, God said, "…and I sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations."  Do you hear anything in there about the Servant finding his own self-fulfillment?  The Servant is to be outward oriented to the nations (which is a code word for the other heathen, non-God believing people).  Not only is God asking the Servant to be other oriented, but those others are people who have nothing to do with God.  Doesn't sound very personally fulfilling, does it?

At another point in this message of God in Isaiah 42,
You will give sight to the blind;
you will set prisoners free
  who sit in darkness.

One of the first times Jesus preached in a synagogue, he opened the scroll of Isaiah and read these very words.  He told the people, "This is my purpose.  I am that Servant whom God spoke about.  This is the purpose to which I call all of you who want to follow me.  To extend yourselves beyond yourself to meet the needs of others.  To help people really see, and to set people free from their own self-imposed darkness."  In other words, a self-centered purpose does not qualify as a noble purpose.  Nor a Godly purpose.

What God promises is that you (yes, you) have the power to effect other people's lives in an eye opening, freeing, and releasing sort of way.  The poet, Swinburne, had a line in one of his poems:

…sealed as the voice
of a frost bound stream.

It's a wonderful image.  Image a running stream, but in winter time, the water is frozen over on the top so you can't hear the chattering of the water as it flows over the rocks, underneath that layer of ice.  The "voice" of the stream is still there, but can't be heard because of the ice on the surface.

Just like this stream, so are many people's lives.  Some kind of coldness covers the voice of their purpose.  They need someone like you to start chipping away at the ice, so they and their greater purpose can be released and heard.  You can free them from their frost-bound stream and help them move towards their singular, Godly purpose.  Your purpose, given by God, will not be for yourself, but for others.