Sunday, November 19, 2017

Let Go Of Your Balloon

"Let Go Of Your Balloon"
1 Thessalonians 5:16

Are you a joyful person?

Do you have a deep sense of indwelling joy?

"I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
down in my heart
down in my heart,
down in my heart,
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
down in my heart,
down in my heart to stay.

Notice, I didn't ask, "Are you happy?"  If I asked that, then you'd be tempted to intellectualize your answer.  You'd respond with questions like, "What do you mean, by 'happy'?"  "Everyone defines happiness differently," you would rightly say.  But that's all just evasion so you don't have to answer the question: Are you happy?

Each of us knows the answer to that question.  It's a yes or no question.  It's not an essay question.  Yes or no—are you happy?  And, more importantly for today's message …are you a joyful person?  Yes or no?  Do you have a deep sense of indwelling joy?  Yes or no?

I'm not going to let you off the hook here.  Mainly because I wouldn't let myself off the hook as I asked myself that question all week.  I am troubled by my answer.  If I were preaching a sermon about prayer, I'd be excited about all I could say.  I know about prayer.

If I were to preach about being thankful in all circumstances, I would be excited to talk about that because I have learned so many lessons about that—the hard way.

If I were to preach about the power of the Holy Spirit, I would be excited about that, because I have done a lot of thinking and reading about the Holy Spirit in the last few years.

But talking about joy, deep indwelling joy, has me a bit nervous.  I'm not really sure if I really know what it's like to be joyful always.

I once attended a conference at a Presbyterian church in Omaha, when I was serving a church in the Lincoln area.  People were given red helium filled balloons as we entered the sanctuary.  We were told to release the balloons at some point in the service when we felt like expressing the joy in our hearts.  It was a very Presbyterian thing to do, since we Presbyterians usually don't feel free to say "Hallelujah," or, "Praise the Lord." Unless you're Alan and Jan Luttrell's granddaughter.  So, all through the service, balloons ascended.  When the service was over 1/3 of the balloons were unreleased.  One third of the people there were still holding on to their red balloon.

Did I let my balloon go?  You're wondering aren't you?  I'm sad to say, No.  I was one of the third who was still holding on to my balloon.

Am I happy?  By all outward circumstances, yes.  Mainly because happiness is dependent on outward circumstances.  Think of similar words:  happenstance, happens.  All are from the same root word, hap.  Hap means lucky, or fortunate.  Happenstance is a combination of the two words happen and circumstance.  Those all have to do with things that go on outside of ourselves that effect us internally.

So, am I happy?  I have two wonderful, amazing kids and their spouses—we have a great relationship.  I have a vocation I dearly love—being a pastor is all I have ever wanted to be.  I think I will always be a pastor, somehow, someway, even into retirement.  I am in a great congregation.  You are welcoming, and embracing, and open to new directions, and take on phenomenal local mission projects like Eagle Wings, and you are forgiving, and loving, and fun and funny.  I could go on and on about how great this congregation is.  It's a jewel, and there aren't many congregations like ours out there.  So, am I happy?  By all means, yes!  Life is good.

But am I joyful?  Do I have a deep sense of indwelling joy?  I'm not sure.  Why did I hold on to my balloon?

The word for joy in the Bible is chara.  It is where we get our English word, "Harrah!" from.  It's an expressive word that has to do with the whole person celebrating the indwelling presence of God.  Chara was a way that the early believers greeted God in the morning—with the utter joy of being alive each new day.  It was a word used when people wrote letters to each other.  The first word of the letter would be, chara!  Joy!

So why is it not my first word in the morning?  Maybe some of you are now asking yourself the same question.

Something gets in the way.  I/we allow something to get in the way.  I think I know what it is, for the most part for me.  If you answered "no" to the joyful question, or you aren't sure, then you must figure out what it is you are allowing to get in the way.  Different historic figures have tried to put their finger on their reason for a lack of joy.

The philosopher, Voltaire once wrote: "I wish I had never been born."  Clearly, though an amazing thinker, his lack of joy came from a miserable self-hatred.

Lord Byron lived a life of pleasure more than most. But he once wrote: "The worm, the canker, and grief are mine alone."  His lack of joy came from letting little things eat away at his life.

Jay Gould, the American millionaire, when dying, said: "I suppose I am the most miserable man on earth."  His lack of joy came from trying to hold on to everything he could, and never found a way to let it go.

Lord Beaconsfield enjoyed more than his share of both position and fame in society.  But in old age he wrote: "Youth is a mistake; manhood a struggle; old age a regret."  His lack of joy came from never finding anything worthwhile to really give his life to.

Or, Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world in his day, wept in his tent, before he said, "There are no more worlds to conquer."  He thought his joy was an insatiable quest for power, but found that way to joy was a lie.

For me, a large part of what has gotten in my way of the kind of joy I am trying to describe is an unyielding loneliness.  Loneliness has been, for me, like a low grade headache that won't go away.

This loneliness for me has had to do with a loss of place.  From the time I left home for college, and then to seminary, and into the ministry, I have made nine major geographical moves.  All of them have been from one state to another.  Three of them were moves half way across the country.  How many have made nine major geographical moves in the past 40 years?  Eight?  Seven?  Six?  Five?  Four?  Three?  Two?  One?  None?

When you think/when I think of place, I think of rootedness and story.  You can build your personal story best when you are rooted in one place for a long time.  I've learned that when a congregation starts telling me stories, not only about the church, but about their personal lives, they are pulling me into the story of place.  They are making me part of who and what they are.  And I am part of all that.  It's immensely embracing to hear, and be included in your story.  It makes me less lonely.  More in touch with what a deep joy is for me.

But there's this occupational hazard in the ministry that no one ever talks about.  In seminary we were taught to not make friends in the congregations we would serve.  I have failed that immensely.  The rationale for such advice was, we weren't supposed to make the congregation feel like we were playing favorites.

And the other hazard I wasn't prepared for was that we are to cut all ties with people in the congregation we are leaving.  I have already been warned by the moderator of the Committee on Ministry that I better have plans to move away from here after I retire, or suffer her friendly reprimand.

So for those nine major moves, I have had to cut off my relationships with all my friends.  At each new congregation I served, I was more and more aware about how tough and how lonely it will be to someday leave.  There is an immense importance of place, and longevity in a place, in creating and maintaining identity.  To cut myself off from past places; to move to a new place, and know it will never be my place, has been very emptying for me.  Very lonely.  And that vocational and geographical loneliness has stunted my feeling of inner joy.  No other vocation is like this, in this respect.

But something is emerging as I get closer to retirement.  Something that I think has to do with joy and not happiness.

As I pondered joy this week, it seemed one thread ran through all I read and thought about—joy comes out of nakedness.  (That got your attention, didn't it?)  Not the rip all your clothes off kind of nakedness.  So let me explain, before you get the wrong idea.

St. Francis of Assisi told about a time in which he was stripped of everything:  physical comfort, shelter, recognition, community, even identity.  He had nothing.  And then St. Francis wrote, "True joy consists in patient acceptance of this nakedness."  St. Francis was trying to make the point, not only vocationally as a priest, but also by the way he lived, "…that there is radical joy in having nothing to lose, nothing to protect, nothing to hide from, nothing to gain."  (Weavings, vol. III, no. 6, page 18)

That may sound a bit weird to you.  I thought about that a lot this week.  I think I will continue to think about it for a long time.

But here's the surprise for me.  The Women's Bible Study has been looking at the letter to the Philippians.  I've been kind of reading along, as a silent partner, in their study book.  Philippians 3:8-9 (Jerusalem Bible) caught my attention.  Verse 8 reads,
For Christ, I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ…

I would always stop there because the verse numbering splits Paul's sentence.  This time I read on…
…if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him.  (read whole verse again)

That phrase, "…and be given a place in him…" hit me, not like a ton of bricks, but like a running embrace for which I have always longed.  I have a place!  I felt a connection with Paul—someone who also moved around a lot and was feeling place-less.  I have always had a place.  In Christ.  That loneliness I have always felt simply began to evaporate.  Why did I take so long to realize this?  In the nakedness that both St. Francis and Paul speak to, in that kind of loneliness, I discovered I really have everything!  "…If only I can have Christ and be given a place in him."

In the nakedness of my loneliness, feeling like I had no place, I discovered I really have all places…"if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him."

In the nakedness of my loneliness, understanding more fully how that loneliness blocked my joy, I discovered joy…"if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him."

Are you joyful?
Find your joy.

But I think you are going to have to look where you are most naked, in the way that St. Francis and Paul describe it.  Only then will you find your joy.  In Christ who is waiting there.

When your joy comes, when that day comes, you must release yourself to it, and give it expression.  You must let your balloon go.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Wedding Wait Dance

"The Wedding Wait Dance"
Matthew 25:1-13

Weddings.  Ugh.  I’ve always said that I’d much rather do a funeral than a wedding.  There doesn’t seem to be any other kind of event than a wedding where Murphy’s law applies most often:  If something can go wrong it will.

The thing that’s irksome to me about weddings is that couples want to get married in a church, but have no idea why.  When I ask the “why” question, the most usual answer I get is, “That’s where a wedding is supposed to be, isn’t it?”  But they don't have an answer as to why weddings are held in churches.

And another thing that’s irksome (I have a whole list of irksome wedding things—sorry Shane and Erika) is that usually someone besides the bride and groom hijacks all the wedding planning.  Do you remember that book from quite a while ago, Everything I Learned, I Learned In Kindergarten.  Robert Fulgham, the guy who wrote it is a minister.  One of the essays was about a wedding he did where the mother-of-the-bride took over everything.  Come the day of the wedding, something went wrong that delayed the start of the wedding.  While the bride was waiting, she was snacking on reception food and glasses of champagne.  By the time the wedding processional started, the bride was green from all the food and alcohol she had consumed.  Just as she got to the front of the church, she turned to her mother, smiled awkwardly, and threw up all over her.

So it’s more than a bit disconcerting to me, that here, at the end of his life, at the time where Jesus was trying to make sure people got it, he chose this image of an emotionally laden wedding event to tell about the kingdom of God.  I think Kingdom of of God...and my mind just goes to a very dark place.

At the start of the gospel of John, the first “sign” Jesus did was at a wedding.  And Murphy’s Law was operating there as well, since they ran out of wine.  If something can go wrong, it does.  Jesus had to bail the wedding host out by turning water into wine.  You think that Jesus would have gotten it, that weddings may not have been the best symbol for the Kingdom of God.  But evidently not, because here we are, near the end of his ministry, he is talking about the Kingdom of God, and what does he liken the Kingdom to?  Weddings.

Here’s what happened at weddings in Jesus’ day.  The guests would all get together at the home of the bride.  If the bride and groom were from a small town or village, everyone would be invited.  It was the bride's parents job to entertain all these people while they waited for the groom to show up.  The groom, not the bride, was the most important person at a Middle Eastern wedding.

When the groom showed up, all the guests lit lamps, or torches, and in a parade-like procession, walked to the groom’s home where his parents were waiting to start the ceremony.  After the ceremony there would be a great banquet that would go on for days.

In Jesus’ parable here in Matthew 25, Murphy’s law strikes again:  the groom is delayed several hours.  Even though there is an expected timeline for these kinds of events, those expectations are irritatingly dashed by some kind of delay by the groom.  We aren’t told in the parable what caused the delay.  We Americans read that line in the parable and immediately bristle.

We hate delays.  We hate to wait.  We can’t stand it when:
—we are put on hold with a customer service representative named Achmed who lives in Pakistan;
—we are stopped at a highway construction site, and the pilot car is no where in sight;
—we are having to read all the magazines at the doctor’s office because they don’t seem to know how an appointment works;
—Amazon ran out of what you ordered, and it will take two whole days more to get what you want.

As a result, we value a more fast-paced world.  Faster communications, faster food, faster weight loss, faster job advancement, faster answers to prayer.  I read this week about a new phenomenon called, “speed yoga.” That sounds like one of those oxymoron’s.   But it might be fun to watch (mimic a speed yoga session).

I also read this week about a new movement called the Slow Revolution, or the Slow Movement.  It has sprung up in the last couple of years as a criticism and balance to the growing global addiction to the fastness of things.  Carl Honore, one of the voices of the Slow Revolution said, “...the world has become a giant buffet of things to do, consume, experience—and we rush to have it all.”

Tiredness is a symptom of trying to take life at too fast a pace.

So is not engaging deeply in and with the people and events of your life, because you’re living too fast?  Think about that.  How deeply are you engaged with others and the things that happen in the now?  One of the statements that gave me pause to reflect, as I read more about this Slow Revolution, was this:  “Going too fast keeps you from (having) vivid memories.” Doesn’t that just slap you up the side of your head?  Taking life at too fast of a pace makes everything a surface experience.  Nothing sinks in.  There is no depth.  No time to fully experience.  No relaxing reflection.  No “vivid memories.”  Does that not strike you as sad, but true?

OK.  So what does all that have to do with Jesus’ parable?  The groom delayed arriving.  Which meant the guests were waiting.  At the bride’s parents home.  Who have to entertain all those waiting guests for hours.  Hours nobody signed up for.  Imagine the house full of guests are all Americans.  Impatient.  Checking their watches or smart phones every five minutes, wondering when this dog-and-pony show will be over so the real thing they came for can get started, so the ceremony can be over, so the reception can start, and the liquor starts flowing.  “C’mon!  Where’s the groom?  Let’s get this show on the road.  We have places to go, people to see!”

Now here’s the kicker.  Whenever Jesus told a parable about a wedding or a groom, the groom usually represented himself.  Oooh, snap.  Here we have a parable about the Kingdom of God and a groom and waiting.  So it’s not just a groom we’re waiting on.  It’s the very Kingdom of God and the very Savior Jesus.  The parable is forcing us to deal with our patience and our comfort level with waiting and delays, especially as those perceived delays involve God.  How long can we wait on God to arrive and act before we start grumbling?  How much do we build into our lives the readiness to wait on God, no matter how long it takes?  How do we act if we don't think God is showing up quickly enough to take care of what we want God to take care of?

That’s why the wise girls are let into the wedding celebration when the groom finally arrives.  They had extra oil for their lamps.  What does that mean?  It means they were prepared to wait.  It means they were willing to live their lives prepared for the groom's timeline, not theirs.

The foolish girls only brought enough oil for their lamps to last the limit of their own expectations.  If the groom didn’t come by the time their lamps ran out and their flames went out, too bad for the groom.  It’s his loss.  It means the unwise girls were more concerned about their own agenda, rather than the timing of the groom.

It’s all about timing.  And whose timing.  And what we do during the delay.  And if we are prepared for, and comfortable with waiting on God.  Like I said, Jesus didn’t give us any details about why the groom delayed so long.  It was evidently the grooms own business.  And the delay wasn’t contingent on the patience or impatience of the guests.

But I’m going to toss you an idea about the reason for the delay—those times you are waiting, and waiting, and waiting on God.  Remember I mentioned the “vivid memories”?  Maybe in your waiting, maybe in your test of patience, the Lord has one or two vivid memories he needs you to make.  But in order to pass those on to you, the Lord needs to get you to slow down from all the speed of life, all the surface living you’re doing, and get you to rest, to relax, to breathe, to even sleep (as the girls did in the parable), to reflect on that which will give you something—a vivid memory—you will never forget.  And it may have nothing to do with the thing you are waiting for during the delay.  The Lord, the Groom, only knows.

Then, when the Groom arrives, you will truly be ready to receive him, to go into the celebration with him, and smile like you’ve never smiled before.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Matthew 23:1-12

I was talking with Jennifer a week ago, or so, about some of the results of the survey the Pastor Nominating Committee has emailed out.  According to an early assessment of the early results of the survey, it appears even Jesus may not measure up to what people want of their next Pastor.

So I shared with Jennifer a version of the description of the perfect pastor that has been going around on the internet for a number of years.  The following is a variation of what I sent Jennifer.  This version is a chain letter about the perfect pastor.  This is what it says.

The following is a description of a perfect pastor.  A perfect pastor is one who preaches exactly 20 minutes, but who shares with people the wisdom of the ages.
The perfect pastor condemns sin but never hurts anyone's feelings.
The perfect pastor works from 6 a.m. until midnight, and is also the janitor.
The perfect pastor makes $100 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a nice car, and gives $75 a week to the church.
The perfect pastor is good looking.
The perfect pastor loves to work with the youth, and spends most of the time with older folks.
The perfect pastor smiles all the time with a straight face, has a great sense of humor and is seriously dedicated to the work of the ministry.
The perfect pastor makes 25 visits a day on church members, yet spends most of the time evangelizing the unchurched and is always in the office if and when needed.

If your pastor does not measure up to this description, box up your pastor and send him/her to the church at the top of the chain letter list.  In one week you will receive 1,562 pastors.  One of them should be perfect.  Please follow the instructions closely.  Don't break the chain.  One church broke the chain and got its old pastor back.

I've seen a number of lists like this.  Someone has even made a poster of the perfect pastor with a number of the same details.  What is interesting to me is that I have not seen a similar list, from the Pastor's point of view, of what they think the perfect church member, or the perfect congregation would look like.

I know ministers get together and grumble from time to time.  But the wisest of pastors I know have come to terms with the fact that there is no perfect congregation.  And the wisest congregations I know have come to terms with the fact there are no perfect pastors.

And a further truth is, we are all ministers.  The dividing line between ministers and parishioners is a false one.  We are all trying to do the best we can in the work of Christ in this place.  We all struggle with how to be effective in our own ways in this thing called ministry.

Maybe you have asked yourself, What can I do in service to the Lord?  How can I know that I've made some impact on other people's lives in the name of Christ?  How do I best do ministry?

When I am asking myself these kinds of questions, I turn to the 23rd chapter of Matthew's gospel.  In this chapter, Jesus is frustrated. He is frustrated by people who are trying to be ministers but they're going about it all wrong.  They are asking themselves the same kinds of questions we ask ourselves, but their answers are all wrong.

A businessman decided to move his family to the country because he wanted to be a chicken farmer.  So he got a batch of eggs and started to work.  But all the eggs died.  He got another batch of eggs and tried to get them to hatch.  Not one of them did.  So, he went to his county agent and tried to find out what he was doing wrong.  He looked at the agent and said, "Am I planting the eggs too deep or too far apart."

Jesus is telling the disciples and the crowd that those who are going about the ministry all wrong have the eggs, they have the tools, they have the farm, but they are using the right things in the wrong way.  By listening to what Jesus says the ministry is not, we discover what Jesus thinks the ministry is.  By listening to how Jesus tells the people how ministry is being done wrong, we find out at the same time how to do the ministry right.

One side fact you need to remember is that the Pharisees, to whom Jesus was talking, were not priests, they weren't ordained, nor were they clergy in any way.  They were lay people.  Parishoners.  Church members, trying to be more intentional about being ministers.  They were like you.  So let's turn to Matthew 23 and see what Jesus said about how they went wrong, so that we won't make the same mistakes.

First, Jesus said that the people who were trying to be serious about doing ministry didn't practice what they preached.  The problem wasn't with what they were saying.  It wasn't their preaching.

They weren't like the minister who was preaching his sermon when a man in the back pew turned his head to one side and said, "Louder!"  The preacher raised his voice a notch and continued his sermon, which was not too interesting.  After a few more minutes the man said again, "Louder!"  The preacher raised his volume even more and continued on.  But by now, the sermon had become really boring.  The man in back said again, "Louder!"
At this point a man on the front row turned and yelled back to the man in rear, "What's the matter, can't you hear back there?"
"No," said the man in the back.
"Well," said the man down front, "move over, I'm come back to join you."

The people Jesus was talking about, on the other hand, knew how to communicate.  They were good story tellers.  They had all the right scripture memorized.  In fact, they knew their Bibles from the front cover to the back.  There was just one problem, said Jesus.  They weren't listening to their own preaching and teaching.  They didn't do what they were telling everyone else to do.  They weren't following the advice they were doling out.  They weren't practicing what they were preaching.  There was a huge gulf between what they said and how they acted.

By telling people how ministry should not be done, Jesus is telling us at the same time how it should be done.  If you want to be an effective follower of Jesus, what is vitally important is that how you live be in line with what you profess.  People who are observing you, who may not be believers, are trying to gauge how much you really believe what you are saying you believe.  The only way to figure that out is by how much you put into action, how much you practice, what you say you believe.

My brother in Minneapolis put up a post on Facebook that told about an older couple from that area.  They were found in their home frozen to death.  They had had their electricity shut off.  They were apparently eating dog food out of the can for their meals.  There were two ironies about this frozen couple.  The first was, in their closet, a suitcase was found with $60,000 in cash.  The other irony was that this couple volunteered at the local community health clinic, teaching the poorer people in the Minneapolis area about proper personal hygiene and food preparation.

What Jesus is saying here is clear.  What it really comes down to is not what you teach.  You can still be an effective teacher just spouting information, Bible verses, theology, or, evidently, hygiene and food preparation.  But you can be much more effective in your ministry if you make sure that how you live is the same as what you teach and what you profess.  That's called integrity.  Integrity is the best witness.  Integrity is that quality where what you believe comes together with how you live.  Integrity, says Jesus, is the most profound way to do ministry.

The next rule Jesus addressed had to do with the rules themselves.  How'd we get so many rules?  That's the question Jesus is asking.  Who made up all these rules, and why are people trying to carry them all around like a burden strapped to their backs?  Why do religious leaders push so many rules at people, and why do people accept those rules as the gospel?  What is Christ's ministry and teaching and sacrifice on the Cross all about, anyway?

Let me read to you a list of verses that answer those questions and see if you pick up on the most important word in all of them:
For freedom Christ has set us free.  Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.  (Galatians 5:1)
God has called you to a life of freedom.  (Galatians 5:13)
You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.  If the son set you free you are free indeed…  (John 8:32, 36)
Live as free people… (Hebrews 2:16)
My friend, the message is that Jesus can forgive your sins!  Trying to follow all the religious laws to the letter could not set you free from all your sins.  But everyone who has faith in Jesus is set free.  (Acts 13:38-39)
The Holy Spirit will give you life that comes from Christ Jesus and will set you free from sin and death.  (Romans 8:2)

Did you catch the key word in all those verses?  What was it?  (Free/Freedom)  You are free!  Free from what?  You are set free from a tyranny of shoulds and oughts, rules and regulations, heaps of expectations, loads of guilt ridden intimidation.  You are free because God in Christ has forgiven you.  God has forgiven all those who make too many religious rules and those who break too many religious rules.  God has forgiven it all.

If it is forgiven, then why are we still carrying it around?  Let it go.  In fact, what I think Jesus is saying here is that those who want to be effective in their ministry are the ones who loosen burdens, not add to them.  Ministry is not about pushing burdensome religiosity.  Ministry is not about loading people up with guilt and then saying, "Have a nice day."  Ministry is about helping each other become relieved of all that, ripped off of us if need be.

As ministers to one another, we can't allow each other, in the name of Christ, to take our Christian beliefs and turn them into a bully stick of do's and don'ts, and beat each other over the head with it.  Why do we do that to ourselves?

I attended a preaching seminar in Dallas early in my ministry.  Someone asked the minister who was leading this one particular workshop why his loud, more forceful preaching of his younger days had given way to a quieter, more persuasive manner of preaching. The minister laughed and said, "When I was young I thought it was the thunder that convinced people; but when I grew older I discovered it was the lightening.  So I determined that in the future I would thunder less and lighten more."

That's the role of effective ministry, says Jesus to the disciples and the crowd.  Ministry is about the business of lightening people's loads, not adding to them.  Don't carry all that stuff around:  guilt, confusion, shoulds and oughts, a sense of unforgiveness.  Be free.  Get together with another follower in this sanctuary and through confidential, prayerful conversation, help each other take the load off.  There is no greater ministry than that of lightening people's loads.

The last point I would make (since I need to come close to my 20 minutes for this to be a perfect sermon) is that Jesus is telling people that to be effective in ministry, you must make proper use of Scripture and prayer.  That is, the spiritual life, the life of scripture and prayer, is more internal than external.  Those doing ministry in Jesus day got this mixed up.  God gave the following commandment:
And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

People thought God meant this literally.  I think what God wanted the people to do was to put God's teaching foremost in their minds and hearts.  Read it as often as possible.  Read it not just to read it, but so that it will become part of your thinking and feeling and daily living.  Make sure God's word is in front of you, visible, and attention grabbing.  Read it.  Pray it.  Live it.

But instead, people were wearing little boxes tied to straps that dangled right between their eyes that had tiny scripture verses inside.  They literally wrote scripture on their door posts and gates.  They wrote scripture on their wrists and hands.  They did all that because they took this verse in Deuteronomy literally.  They made their spirituality a matter of external scripture boxes, tattoos and graffiti rather than an internal matter of the heart and mind.

The spiritual life of scripture reading and of prayer is something you do like eating.  If you just paint scripture on your door post, you can walk by it everyday and forget it's there.  But if it's like eating you chew on it, you digest it.  You let it become a part of you, nourishing every part of you, informing every decision you make.  Scripture, in this way, must also be allowed to subvert, if necessary, our prejudices, our laziness, and our half-hearted commitment and faith.

Doing effective ministry means not treating our spiritual life of prayer and scripture reading as simply some adornment.  We are not to let our spirituality become only a piece of jewelry, or a bumper sticker.  To do that is to make a gross miscalculation of the purpose and power of scripture and prayer.

There are lots of ways to do ministry.  The key is not to get side-tracked into doing ministry in an ineffective way.  We all want to be faithful.  We all want to be ministers for Christ in some way.  Paying attention to Jesus' assessment of what effective ministry is NOT, here in Matthew 23, helps us see what Jesus thinks effective ministry really IS.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Three Prays-Worthy Qualities

"Three Prays-Worthy Qualities"
1 Thessalonians 1:1-3

Standing in his tower, looking out over his kingdom, the midget king of the comic, “Wizard of Id,” observed, “Thanksgiving Day again.  And as I look out over my kingdom...I must pause to give thanks.”  After thinking it over, he left muttering to himself, “Thanks for nothing.”

There are people like that--people who find nothing to be thankful for.  They go through life bitter and depressed.  That’s why one of the qualities I admire about the apostle Paul is that he could write to each church he started, and no matter how bad the situation might be in that particular congregation, he found something for which he gave thanks to God.  Even in the church at Corinth--a church that created headache after headache for Paul--he still found many reasons to give thanks.  And so it is with the church at Thessalonica.

When Paul first went to Thessalonica, he had only been there three weeks, when opposition mounted.  A few Jews converted to Christianity, as did a number of non-Jews.  But those Jews who were repulsed by the Gospel, and out of a furious jealousy of Paul, hired what Phillips translation called, “...the unprincipled loungers of the marketplace.”  These people “gathered a crowd together and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5).  Those who had come to believe in Christ, whisked Paul out of the hands of the crowd and got him safely out of town.

It wasn’t too long after that experience that Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonian church, giving thanks to God.  For what?  For such a “great” reception?  No.  For the believers and what they were having to go through in order to hold on to their new-found beliefs, in a church that was in the stages of infancy.  He told the Thessalonian believers that he was thankful for three specific qualities he saw alive in them.  Let’s go through them together.

The first trait for which Paul gives thanks concerning the Thessalonian congregation was that their “ has meant solid achievement.”  The word Paul used that is translated, “solid achievement” has to do with the work you do in your occupation--your chosen vocation.  But it isn’t about what you accomplish in your work--how many widgets you sell, how many computers you fixed, how many miles of road you got paved, how many student’s papers you graded, etc.  What Paul is describing has more to do with the attitude with which you work.

When we ordain an Elder or Deacon or Minister in the church, one of the questions they are asked is, “Will you serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”  That, I think, is what Paul was describing how the faith of the believers ignited some great qualities of how they worked, not what they did in their work.  Does your faith in Christ energize your working, rather than just sap you dry by the end of the day?  Does your work, because of your faith, use the full reaches of your mind and intellect?  Does your faith push you to stretch your imagination of what could be--of what is possible?  That’s what Paul was praising the Thessalonian believers about.

So the “solid achievements” weren’t things the believers were doing in the community--just yet.  It was what they were doing in themselves, first.  Then, as they changed as people, as individuals, they began to transform others around them.  By making individual changes, they then began to transform the culture around them.  Those are truly “solid achievements.”

During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the British government began to run low on silver for coins.  Lord Cromwell sent his men on an investigation of the local cathedrals to see if they could find any precious metal there.  After investigating, the soldiers reported, “The only silver we could find is in the statues of the saints standing in the corners.”  To which Cromwell replied, “Good!  We’ll melt down the saints and put them into circulation!”

Our purpose as believers is not to stand in the corners of our churches and allow ourselves to be seen as only some kind of relics, who hold on to the same kind of relic faith.  Our attitude toward our faith is to one of an active energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, that gets us in circulation in order to transform the culture around us.

That leads well to the second quality that Paul gives thanks to God for in the Thessalonian congregation:  “...your love has meant hard work…”

This is a somewhat gruesome phrase in the Greek language that Paul wrote in.  Its most literal meaning of the phrase, “...has meant hard work…” is to suffer a beating and feel the bone weariness that such a beating causes.  In a more general meaning, it has the sense of the kind of exertion that brings on physical tiredness, almost to the point of collapse or exhaustion.

What Paul is praising God for, concerning the people in that congregation, is for developing the kind of love that doesn’t come easy; the kind of love which takes a beating, but is not beaten down.  As the old Timex watch commercial used to say, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

A church custodian was once asked how old he was.  “I’m 47,” he replied.
“But how long have you been working here at the church?” he was asked further.
“55 years,” he said in reply.
“And how could you do that?” the questioner asked.
“Overtime!” the custodian replied.

The kind of love exhibited by these Christians was “overtime” kind of love--above and beyond the call of duty.  Such love, by the nature and level of antagonism dished out by the culture in Thessalonica, had to be an overtime, extra mile kind of character.  We get the idea here that love is hard work, but also that the Christians worked hard because of their love.  The Good News translation has this phrase as, “...your love made you work so hard…”  It was for love, and out of love that the Christians kept up their work of sharing the Good News of the Gospel in the face of constant setback and abuse.  In fact, Paul went further.  To him, it was sheer joy.

Khalil Gibran, in his book, The Prophet , wrote,
Work is love made visible.  And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy.

Work can only be a joy if love is the mainspring that keeps the whole thing wound and running.

If we love, it doesn’t matter what we are facing.  That is not just a romantically frilly statement either.  The kind of love Paul was being prays-worthy about to the Thessalonians was the kind that was willing to exert itself, the kind that was willing to work through exhaustion, the kind of love that was willing to roll up its sleeves and sweat.

The final prays-worthy quality for which Paul thanks God about the Thessalonian congregation was that, “...the hope that you have in our Lord Jesus Christ means sheer dogged endurance in the life that you live before God.”

This kind of endurance Paul is talking about is characterized by the ability to stand fast, while at the same time waiting, and being full of expectation.  It’s not just an anemic kind of perseverance.  It’s more an energetic (there’s that word again, like in the first quality--see how these are all tied together?)--it’s more an energetic kind of endurance.

Timothy Walker, in his book, The Stained Glass Gospel, told the story about a man who lives in Maine.  The man used to live in a little town named Flagstaff, which was flooded as part of a large dam and lake project carried out by the Army Corp of Engineers.  The man said the most painful part of the experience, besides relocation, was watching his hometown die.  He said all improvements and repairs ceased.  What was the use of painting a house which would be covered with water?  Why repair a building when the whole town would be wiped out?  Why worry about rubbish and potholes in the streets or graffiti on the walls?  So week after week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled and desolate.  Then he added this comment:  “When there is no hope in the future, there is no power in the present.”

Hope does focus itself on the future, but it must be lived out in the here and now.  That is what patience and endurance is all about.  What Paul is praising the Christians for is that he knows they have hope, because they are energetically resisting and enduring RIGHT NOW!  If, in the way they were living in the present was not demonstrated by such endurance, he would have known they had given up their hope.

A chaplain was talking with one of the soldiers of the army of the Potomac, who took part in the battle of Gettysburg.  He belonged to the Sixth Corps, the corps that made the famous march from Manchester to Gettysburg.  The soldier told the chaplain, that march, with the clouds of dust, the perspiration, the blood of wounded limbs trickling down into his boots, was the hardest experience of his whole long war service.

It is, often harder to march than it is to fight.  We know what to do with ourselves in tight skirmishes with the enemy.  We know what to do during the heat of the battle.  But the test of endurance in life is the long march of faith.  It is a march that all Christians have set out upon.  You will meet many others who have gone part of the way and turned aside.  You will have by your side many others who are ready to quit.  But always there are some who are going steadily forward, and who have no idea of anything but enduring to the end.  Of using every bit of their energy, intelligence, imagination and love to keep going.

And why is it that we are able to endure?  Here is how these three prays-worthy qualities intertwine.  We endure because of our faith in Jesus Christ—a faith that works, and achieves.  But it isn’t our faith as much as it is Whom our faith is in:  our Lord Jesus Christ.

When I lived in California, I discovered that it is one of the states that consistently rates toward the top in the country in terms of its percentage of suicides.  The reason sociologists and psychologists think that is so is because many people have gone to California with what has been a last hope scenario, either as to health or for personal fortune.  When that hope in a dream or hope in themselves failed them, life no longer held anything for them.

What Paul is saying is that we can be hopeful and endure because of who our faith is in—not some last gasp grasp at straws, either in California or anywhere else.  Instead it is an unashamed faith in Jesus Christ and our hard-working love for Him as Lord and Savior will be the only thing that keeps us enduring.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Syzygus, Syntche & Euodia

"Syzygus, Syntyche & Euodia"
Philippians 4:1-3

Syzygus was nervous.  He paced back and forth, biting his lower lip as he thought about the task that lay before him.  In a little less than an hour he would be meeting with a group of believers in his home.  Two women would be there.  One was Euodia, who had been one of the first converts in Philippi.  She had graciously opened her home, so the followers of Christ would have some place to meet for worship and for teaching.  Syzygus had admired her courage and leadership from the first.  He was the leader of this group of Christians.  He’d been put in charge by Paul himself.  But Euodia was the backbone of this little congregation.

A problem had arisen, and Syzygus wasn’t sure how he was going to handle it.  It was time for him to step forward and take charge of the situation.  Syzygus thought through how it had all began, hoping he would find a way to bring the situation under control.

Two months ago, a younger woman was brought to church by Euodia.  Syntyche was her name.  Euodia had been talking to Syntyche about Jesus and the group of believers who met in her home.  It seemed to be an ideal situation--the older, wiser Euodia, gently bringing this young woman into the fold.  Even though Syntyche lived on the other side of the city, Euodia was going out of her way to make almost daily contact with her young friend.

Syzygus remembered back to the night that Syntyche gave her life to Christ.  There were a number of people who had come to Euodia’s house wanting to find out more about Jesus.  Syzygus had preached about how Jesus had changed his life.  Many of the two dozen believers shared how Jesus had touched their lives also, and how they had come to believe.  Stories of dramatic turn-arounds were shared.  Questions about Jesus were asked and answered.  Several times that night the group stopped their story-sharing for prayer.  The Holy Spirit was moving amongst that little collection of believers and seekers.

Then it happened.  Syntyche stood up, weeping and holding herself, and cried out, “I want to have Jesus in my life!  I want the salvation of Jesus!  I want to be free of my sin and my past.  I want to live!  I want to live with Jesus!”  Euodia quickly moved to her side.  Syzygus asked two of the other believers to bring a bucket of water from the well.  Euodia was leading the people in prayer, saying a line, and then all would repeat it.  The others who were still not sure about these Christians, watched everything that was happening with expressions that were a mixture of fear and wonder.

Those with the water bucket came hurriedly into the home, spilling water as they came.  Syzygus asked everyone to step outside, where they all gathered around him, Euodia and Syntyche.  Syzygus reached out and held Syntyche by the shoulders and said, “Syntyche, you have expressed your faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord of your life.  Do you now wish to be baptized in his name?”
Through a tear streaked face, she shook her head, “Yes.”
Syzygus then said, “Under this water you will be with Jesus in his death.  When you rise up from this water, you will rise up with Jesus in his miraculous Resurrection.  The person you once were, you will be no longer.  The person you are and are to become in Jesus is now who you will be.  Sin and the past will no longer be the master of your life.  Only Jesus will be your Master.  Is this what you want?”
“Yes!” Syntyche burst out.  “With all of my heart!”

Syzygus motioned for the bucket of water.  Euodia had Syntyche kneel, then backed away a step.  Syzygus held the bucket over Syntyche’s head and began to pour.  The water cascaded down upon the kneeling and praying form of Syntyche while Syzygus spoke, “Syntyche, I baptize you in the name of Jesus our Savior.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”  When all the water had been poured out upon her, he reached down his hand, and said, “Arise, Syntyche; arise in Christ our Resurrected Lord.”  She stood, a beaming smile upon her face.  Euodia led everyone in a responsive hymn, and then they all congratulated Syntyche, welcoming her into the faith and their little body of believers.

Syzygus stopped his pacing, closed his eyes and paused his remembering so he could say a quick prayer of thanks to God for that wonderful night.  But then other memories interrupted his praying.  Memories of how a rift had grown between those once close women.  Soon the two women would be gathering with other believers Syzygus had asked to come and be part of the healing.  He began pacing again, wondering how it would go.

Syzygus had asked everyone to come to his home.  He had received a letter from Paul, and everyone should come hear it, was the word Syzygus had put out.  No one would want to miss hearing Paul’s letter read, including the two feuding women.  They had both come, but they were sitting in opposite sides of the room, surrounded by their supporters, as if they were two wrestlers ready to come out of their corners when the gong sounded.

Syzygus knew what was in the letter.  He had read it earlier.  He had sent word to Paul about the situation between the two women, and had been anxiously awaiting a reply.  He held the papyrus scroll in his hands.  It was not as much as he had hoped, but he realized the little Paul had written was full of wisdom.  Would the women hear it?  Better yet, would they listen to it?

The room was silent as Syzygus opened the scroll and began to read Paul’s flawless handwriting.  Slowly, Syzygus read his way through the letter, getting nods of approval and thoughtful expressions on the faces of those gathered.  Syzygus felt like he had a live bird in his belly and it had grown in size as he neared the place in the letter.  He took a deep breath, swallowed the bird down out of his throat, and continued reading:
My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God.
I urge Euodia and Syntyche to iron out their differences and make up. God doesn’t want his children holding grudges.

And, oh, yes, Syzygus, since you’re right there to help them work things out, do your best with them. These women worked for the Message hand in hand with Clement and me, and with the other veterans—worked as hard as any of us. Remember, their names are also in the Book of Life.

Syzygus stopped reading, but kept staring at the words on the scroll, afraid to look up, and really afraid to look in each of the corners of the room where the women sat.

“How did Paul find out,” a voice asked.  Syzygus knew it was Syntyche’s.
“I wrote to him,” Syzygus confessed
“I did, too.”  Syzygus’ head snapped up to see who had spoken.  It was Cletus, one of the original converts who had first heard the gospel from Paul.
“And so did I,” said another.  Three others raised their hands pointing to themselves, signaling that they also had brought the situation to Paul’s attention.  Syzygus’ shoulders relaxed quickly as he pleasantly realized he was not carrying this burden alone.  Others were bothered by it as well.  Syzygus would have much welcome support in the process he was about to lead.

Syzygus took advantage of this revelation.  “Do you see what this means?” he spoke to the two women.  They both quickly avoided his looking at them and did not speak.  “It means,” he continued, “that your arguing and divisiveness affects us all.  It isn’t just between you two--it is about us all.”  Still they would not meet his look, nor would they speak.  “Your feuding defines us all.  We are no longer concerned about growing in our faith, but instead whose side we are on.  Jesus no longer occupies our thinking.  You two, and your gossipy bickering have taken over that spot.  I believe, as your leader, given my authority by Paul, that this fight can not be resolved simply by you two alone, but must involve all of us.  This is not just your problem; this is our problem.”  Syzygus paused to let his words sink in to all those listening.

“And what’s worse,” Syzygus started in again, “is that it took Paul to remind you two, to remind us all, to whom we belong.  We belong to the Lord Jesus.  We think that Jesus is only part of our worship and our praise, and forget that Jesus is a part of our everyday lives also.  And that includes our arguing and bickering and behind the back gossiping.  Do you understand that?”  Syzygus had rehearsed this speech over and over in his head ever since he got Paul’s letter, but now in the moment, he wasn’t sure it was coming out like he intended.

“Euodia,” he said looking her straight in the face.  Then turning his head to the other side of the room, “Syntyche,” he said.  “Listen to Paul’s words.  ‘You belong to the Lord.’  Do you believe that?”  They both nodded, “Yes.”  “Do you know what that means?” he asked.  No response from either woman.

Then Euodia spoke.  “I believe it means we are not our own.  I believe it means that we don’t get to do how our inclinations lead, but instead we are to move in the direction that our Lord leads.  I believe,” she said slowly, “it means we involve Jesus in everything we do, both the good and the bad.  I believe,” and now everyone gathered was repeating after her as if she were leading them in a unison reading, “that what we have as our common unity is Jesus the Lord.  I believe, that every time we argue, we are not just tearing the fabric of our relationship with each other, we are tearing Christ.  That is what I believe.”  And there she stopped talking.

Syzygus allowed the silence to do its work.

When the silence crossed the line and became uneasy, Syzygus cleared his throat and said, “You know what I was remembering this morning?  I was remembering the night of your baptism, Syntyche.  It was one of the most moving experiences of faith that I have witnessed.  I was remembering who was standing by your side the whole time--the same person who first told you about Jesus.  As I remembered, I wished that the two of you could be like that again.  I wished that that memory of the night of your baptism wouldn’t be smeared by the sight of you both in opposition to each other now.  With our dear friend, Paul, I add my weight to his pleading, knowing I can’t force you two to reconcile.  I can only beg of you to see clearly in this.  For our sake as your brothers and sisters in Christ.  For your own sake.  And for the sake of the Lord Jesus to whom you both belong and binds you together.”

And then he stopped talking.  He simply stood waiting and watching for any movement from either corner of the room.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Scoop The Poop

"Scoop The Poop"
Philippians 3:1-11

One of my best friends in high school and into college was Tim Allen.  Not Tim Allen the comedian.  This was a different Tim Allen.  Tim was one of those kinds of athletes who was endowed with natural ability but built on that natural ability with hard work.  He could master any sport, and he did.  In the Seattle area where we grew up, Tim was an all-conference and all state flanker in football.  He was all-conference honorable mention in basketball.  And he was an all-state low and high hurdler in track.

He went on to Montana State University on a football scholarship and attracted a lot of attention with his speed, agility and ability to catch any pass thrown in his direction.  It was like his hands were made out of rubber cement.  Tom Landry, then head coach of the Dallas Cowboys was personally checking in on Tim.

In terms of Tim's faith, he was a leader in Young Life, a non-denominational senior high Christian fellowship.  He went to weekly Bible Studies.  He was in church every Sunday.  He had plans to enter some kind of Christian vocation.

One of my treasured memories with Tim was at our Senior Party that followed our high school graduation ceremonies.  Tim wanted to talk, and I know this is going to sound really weird, but we found this really large janitor's closet, so we went in there and he talked about his faith and where he felt God was leading him.  And I talked about the same for me.  All the rock music, and dancing, and hubbub of our graduation party that was going on outside the door of that janitor's closet faded away in the quietness of our praying together for each other.

Tim was dating, and eventually became engaged to one of the popular cheerleaders at our high school.  She was also active in Young Life, a straight A student, and had a perky, outgoing, but not overbearing personality that contrasted nicely with Tim's shyness.

After a year at a community college in the Seattle area, I transferred over to Whitworth College in Spokane.  It is a small Presbyterian college, much like Hastings College in Nebraska, but Whitworth was better.  Tim was becoming increasingly disgruntled with Montana State because of a huge lack of Christian fellowship.  He knew I was going to a Christian college, knew a little about it, looked into it further and decided to transfer over.  I couldn't believe it.

We arranged to be roommates in the same dorm and had a blast together.  He was grinding up opposing football teams almost single handily.  And we were growing in our faith and friendship.

But something happened halfway through our sophomore year.  Once he moved to Spokane, Tim started going to a little, charismatic kind of church.  It was a church that started in China, and somehow moved into the United States.  It bordered on being a Christian cult, with a lot of weird kind of programming going on.  I went to one of what they called their "Bible studies," and it was more a shouting match.  One person was the leader; he would shout out a piece of a Bible verse and everyone else shouted it back.  They would go on like this for hours, adding a little piece of the verse until they had shouted the whole thing.  Tim would come out of those sessions totally hoarse and unable to speak.

After the Fall semester was over, Tim moved out of the dorm and into the communal living house owned by that church.  A few weeks later he moved out of my life.  And everyone else's, as a matter of fact.  He was going to get married that summer to his high school sweetheart.  But he broke that engagement off, almost unfeelingly, quickly, and coldly.  He quit football.  Then he quit school.  Then he quit his family.  And lastly he quit his friends.

The heart of his justification for his actions was the verses just read from the third chapter of the letter to the Philippians.  I can't tell you how many times he told me that everything in his past was nothing but garbage and death.  That the only thing of value to him was Christ and Christ alone.  "It's like a drink of fresh, cold, pure water," he'd tell me, trying to describe the change that had come over him and the Christian awakening he had experienced.

He saw in my eyes that I didn't really understand.  That I didn't understand anything about it.  I tried to pretend that I did, but I didn't really.

He moved back east for a time; was elevated to the position of "prophet" in that church—whatever that meant.  And then I lost track of him.  I got his address from his mom a time or two, wrote a couple of letters, but his responses were along the lines of, "You just don't understand."  I gave up trying.  I gave up trying to understand why, in my estimation, he had thrown his life away, and all the promise it represented, all in the name of his new-found religious fervor.

That whole experience gave me an inside look into what must have happened with Paul and his peers, when Paul gave up his life to become a follower of Christ.  Paul dropped his past like a rock thrown into the sea.  And it appeared he couldn't wait until it had sunk far enough as to be out of sight.

He called his past "garbage."  The King James Version uses the word, "dung," which is actually as close to the true meaning as you can get.  It was a vulgar word Paul used, equivalent to our "s" word.  He used such a crass word because he wanted to emphasize the lengths to which he had gone in terms of renouncing his past, and contrasting the total valuelessness of his past compared to his present relationship with Christ.  Likening his past to worthless sewage, Paul flushed it all away.  As did Tim.

Some people give something up for Lent.  It was like Paul, and Tim, gave everything up for Lent.

It is important that we see what Paul was calling "poop."  The opening verses of this 3rd chapter give us the picture:

I was circumcised when I was a week old.  I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew.  As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the church.  As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault.  But all those things I might count as profit I now reckon as loss for Christ's sake.

Now, when we think of someone trashing some aspect of their lives we can imagine all the immoral, lowlife, back alley kinds of characteristics.  Those kinds of things should be pooper scooped out of our lives.

In a little devotional book titled, My Heart, Christ's Home, Robert Munger likens his heart to a house with many different rooms.  When he invites Christ into his home, Christ begins to walk through each room transforming it.  This cleaning is almost complete except for one room:  the hall closet.  Here is how Munger tells it:
One day I found Him waiting for me at the door.  There was an arresting look in His eyes.  He said to me, "There is a peculiar odor in the house.  There is something dead around here.  It's upstairs.  I think it is in the hall closet"  As soon as He said the words, I knew what He was talking about…In that closet, behind lock and key, I had one or two little things that I did not want anybody to know about and certainly I did not want Christ to see.  I knew they were dead and rotting things.  And yet I loved them, and I wanted them so for myself that I was afraid to admit they were there.

Munger went on to explain how, after choking back anger and fear at the demands of Christ, he handed over the key to the closet door and allowed Christ in to clean it out.  "I haven't the strength to do it," Munger wrote.

We all have locked closets, don't we, with a few or many things that need cleaning out?  They are full of dung heaped things that are better scooped out by Christ for Him to cleanse from our lives.

But, that is NOT what Paul was describing when he was talking about scooping the poop out of his life.  Alarmingly, Paul was talking about scooping some fairly fine qualities.  He was retelling the flushing away not of a sordid past but a past decorated with accomplishment.  His was not a life that people wagged their heads and shook their fingers at.  Instead it was a life that brought Paul admiration and respectability from community and peers alike.

Paul's past was not one of a destitute, skid row bum.  Nor did it resemble anything close to a mafia racketeer boss, nor was he in any way, shape or form an immoral scoundrel.  Instead, Paul was an up and coming Jewish yuppie wonderkid, who advanced quickly through the ranks of religious stardom!

It was that kind of admirable past that Paul was calling poop.  Here is where the roads of St. Paul and my friend Tim converge.  Tim's early life was a string of success stories that seemed to be leading him to a bright future.  It was something you'd read in a storybook.  And then he gave it all up.

This trashing of life is even more puzzling when we see what it was that Paul really wanted for himself.  At verse 10 he states:
All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of His Resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like Him in His death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life.

Put those two lists side-by-side.  That is what he was in the past, and this is what he is trying to attain in the future.  Which would you choose?  Really.  Wouldn't we go for the Paul who was full of growing power and influence rather than be like the Paul who was emptying himself towards a weakness and vulnerability that is epitomized by a man suffering, crucified and dying on a cross?  Wouldn't we?

Wouldn't we be standing with all of Paul's friends shaking our heads in disgust down at the Toga Kosher Bar, wondering what's come over our old friend Paul?  How he's gone off the deep end?  Wouldn't you, likeI did, just stand more than a little baffled about a best friend who just told you his total past was death and poop, knowing that you were a big part of that past?

This is difficult stuff, because that kind of total sacrifice and expulsion is certainly scary and maybe it is just beyond most of our abilities to comprehend.  But let me attempt to bring this all home for you.

It's about the long road of faith we are on, and how to get on that road, how to stay on that road, and what it means to be on that road.

The on-the-road advice Paul is giving us for our journey, by retelling some of his story, is that we need to travel light.  If we don't, we will be forced to.  Or, at least we will be forced to decide if we want to go on in the journey scooping out the poop; or, never go any further with Christ because we would rather carry around the poop we think is so important.

There is the story of a hiker who came too close to the edge of a cliff.  He lost his footing and fell over the side.  Clawing and scratching to stop his deadly slide towards a vertical drop, he caught a shrub with both hands and held on for dear life.  Filled with terror he called out heavenward, "Is anyone up there?"
A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky and said, "Yes there is."
The hiker pleaded, "Can you help me?"
The calm voice replied, "Yes, I can.  What is your problem?"
"I fell off a cliff and am dangling in space, holding on to a bush that is about to rip out of the ground.  Please help me!"
The voice from above said, "I will.  Do you believe?"
"Yes, yes, I believe!
"Do you have faith?"
"Yes, yes, I have a strong faith!"
The calm voice said, "Well, in that case, simply let go of the bush and you will be saved."
There was a tense pause; then the hiker yelled, "Is there anyone else up there?"

In order to have Christ, in order to go through the Cross as we journey, we must be willing to scoop not only the things that really are poop in our lives, but also those things that may represent our security and respectability.

Paul realized, as maybe did my friend Tim, that there comes a time in one's life, if you are on the road of faith, journeying "in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life," when you come to that Cross, getting past it always means that we gain by scooping the poop, we attain by relinquishing all, and we take hold by letting go.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An Attitude Adjustment

"An Attitude Adjustment"
Philippians 2:5-11

Here are different kinds of attitudes toward life that you can have that might be beneficial.

Go for all the gusto in life that you can.
Fill up your life with all kinds of experiences—it does not matter what, just go out and experience everything.
If it feels good, do it.
Don't hold back.
Do it your way.
Let it all hang out.
Gain as much as you can in terms of wealth, possessions, and especially power.
Get as much leverage as you can over other people and use it to your advantage.
Take care of yourself first, because, hey, who is going to look out for number one if you don't.
Do not be in debt to anyone, but make as many people in debt to you as possible.
Pull your own strings.
Become so powerful that you can make the rules rather than have to cow to someone else's game.
Do not give an inch.
Live life according to your agenda rather than someone else's.
Take command.
Do not march to anyone else's drum beat but your own.
Defer to someone only when it will be to your advantage to do so.
You only go around once in life, so get yours while you can.
Do not worry about consequences; they will take care of themselves.
Do not do anything unless it is personally profitable.
Press your every advantage.
Gain the upper hand.
Crack the whip.
Climb the ladder of upward mobility.
Get on the inside track.
Throw your weight around.
Be assertive.
Do not be a nobody.
Be one of the movers and shakers rather than being moved and shook.
Remember that nice guys finish last.
Do not get mad, get even.
Do not be a follower, be a leader.
The world is a jungle out there, so remember it is the survival of the fittest.
Do unto others before they do unto you.
You have to get it while the goings good.
Do not miss out on your piece of the pie.
It is the early bird that catches the worm.
Nobody remembers second place.

If you have these kinds of attitudes toward life, and if these are the values upon which you base your relationships, then you will probably go very far.  You will probably be envied, and you most likely will be some kind of celebrity.  Your opinion will be sought after.  You will not only be famous, you will be rich.  Somebody might even write a book about you, or produce a movie about your life.  With these kinds of attitudes I have listed, you could have all that and more!

But you would not be like Christ.  You would not be letting your attitude to life be  that of Christ Jesus.  You would not be letting your actions towards others rise out of your life in Christ Jesus.  In fact, you would be the exact opposite.

Paul wrote at this point in the letter to the Philippians:  "As you deal with one another, you should think and act as Jesus did" (2:5).  Then, Paul went on to describe what Jesus' actions were:
He made himself nothing.
He did this by taking on the nature of a servant.
He was made just like human beings.
He appeared as a man.
He was humble and obeyed God completely.
He did this even though it led to his death.
Even worse, he died on a cross!

Paul told us a lot about who Jesus was in this short hymn or poem here in the letter to the Philippians.  If you want to know who Jesus was, and what Jesus' life was about, what Jesus based his character on, this is one of the best places to go to find that out.

We find out that Jesus was God and one with God.  But that Jesus gave all that up in order to become a human being.
"In his very nature he was God,
Instead he made himself nothing."
It is as if you were a four star general but you gave that up to become a corporal.
It is like you were the king, but you gave that up to become a homeless beggar.
It is like you were a lion and you gave that up to become a mouse.
It is like you were a nuclear power plant, but you gave that up to become a lump of coal.
It is like you were Denali, but you gave that up to be a prairie dog mound.
It is like… (you get the idea).

If you were going to chose the kind of attitude you would want for life, what Paul wrote about Jesus probably would not be it.  We would probably be more comfortable with some of the ones I rattled off at the start.  We are more comfortable with them, because they are the prevailing attitudes of our culture, and they impact us whether we admit it or not.  To go against such deeply intrenched societal attitudes, to totally empty ourselves as Christ did, takes a decision on our part, a force of will once that decision has been made, and the grace of God when we go back on our decisions.

But I want you to notice how Paul started out this section of his letter:  "As you deal with one another, you should think and act as Jesus did."  This whole part of Paul's letter is not primarily to tell us about Jesus—although it does that very well.  No, the main purpose is to tell us, as Christians, how to "think and act" in our dealing with each other!

Don't get me wrong.  As I said, we learn a ton about the nature and person of Jesus.  We learn a lot about who Jesus was and what Jesus' relationship to God was.  But instead, just as I also said, the primary reason Paul is writing this about Jesus is to make the point that we all have to find some way to relate to each other in the church.  For Paul, the best way to do that is look at Jesus, who he was before and after he came into the world, and what Jesus gave up just to come into the world, to us and for us.  And once we have figured that out, to act that way towards each other.

One of the most important words in Paul's Christ poem is the word, "humble," in verse 8.  In the Greek language Paul was writing, the word literally meant, "to be leveled," or, "be reduced to a plain."  The word then morphed into some more particular meanings that have to do with humility.  Some of those included, "to erase all pride from your soul."  Or, "to be empty of all haughtiness."

John Ruskin, the English art critic and social thinker of the 1800's once wrote:
I believe the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility, doubt of his own power, or hesitation in speaking his opinion. But really great men have a ... feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them; that they could not do or be anything else than God made them."

So, one way to put all that together is to think of a conduit.  Humility is not about who you are, but how much of a conduit you are.  Humility is not about you being the conduit.  It is about that which flows through you as the conduit.  Or, in the case of Paul's meaning, whom you allow to flow through you.  Thus, Paul described Jesus as the one who had the widest, most open flow of God through himself.

How can we be such a conduit, such a pipe for the flow of God through us to each other?  For Paul, it was in a word:  Humility.

In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn't a technology problem like radar malfunction--or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship's presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.

In our relationships with each other, that's what pride does—it forces us to run into each other in an awful collision.  Instead of being a conduit for God for each other, we end up banging on each other, rather than letting God flow through us.  Instead of being humble, and erasing all pride from our souls, or being empty of all our haughtiness, we push and posture ourselves into a terrible catastrophe.  And it all could have been avoided if we changed the way we act and think to how Jesus did.

Pride makes us become less than what God created us to be.  Humility brings out the best of what God created us to be, because it brings out God, not us.  And that is all up to you.