Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rejection and Light

What does rejection have to do with light?

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate Epiphany (it’s actually Epiphany Eve as Epiphany occurs on January 6 just like Christmas is always celebrated on December 25).
In the common vernacular, an “epiphany” is a
sudden insight or revelation
– an “Aha!” moment. 

In traditional Christian worship, we talk about the Epiphany as the manifestation of God to the Gentiles using the celebration of the magi (non-Jews) arriving to worship the Christ child.  The theme of light is very important during the season after the Epiphany. 

Identifying Christ with light is a theological theme and nowhere is there a more overtly theological gospel than John.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) but later, John writes that Jesus is the true light of the world (John 1:9). 

As the early church began to define Jesus, we start in Mark’s Gospel with the baptism of Jesus.  Luke and Matthew are written using Mark as a template but seem to say that Mark didn’t start early enough and so they both give us stories of his birth.  Written last, John states that in order to really define Jesus, you must go back to creation itself.  We see that Jesus is the Word – present as God in the very beginning.

This is key in our doctrine of the Trinity that states that Jesus is a part of the Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But as John gives us these great themes of light and Word, why would he mention the rejection of Jesus by his hometown in Nazareth in the very beginning of his Good News?  What does rejection have to do with light?

In the liturgical calendar, the second Sunday after Christmas includes John 1:1-18 that contain these themes.  This Sunday, if you are in Piedmont or Cashion, I invite you to come and hear this scripture and the sermon meditation, “His Own People Didn’t Accept Him”.  If you are outside the area, you can catch the sermon online next week – I’ll post a link in the comments section of this blog post.
In the meantime, may the light of Christ shine on you and through you this week as we close out one year and begin another!

In Christ,


The "epiphany" picture is from Flickr commons and was posted by djwtwo.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Taking a Cell Phone Sabbath

This summer, Sheryl, the kids and I went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for some rest and relaxation.  Fortunately for me, our cell phones didn't have international coverage.  When the plane began to taxi down the Dallas runway, I turned off the cell phone and kept it on airplane mode for about ten days.

I didn't listen to voice mail.

I didn't read any text messages.

I didn't check my email.

I didn't even check into Facebook.

As the days rolled on, I felt myself unwinding.  I didn't even know I had been tense - at least not consciously.   But as I began to relax, I realized how much I needed to get away.

I love being a pastor.  I love going into the church everyday.  I love visiting with people.  I even love connecting with all of my friends, relatives and colleagues on Facebook.   But I discovered that I also needed to reboot.  Like a computer whose memory has slowed way down, I needed to shut down and start over.

We got to do some of the things that I love such as swim in the ocean.  The surf right outside our hotel was a little rough for snorkeling but the view of Land's End was spectacular.

Kyla (on the right) and I relax in the Sea of Cortez.
Just beyond the rocks is the Pacific Ocean.
One afternoon, I was floating on my back and just being. When your ears are under the water as you float, you can hear the sand moving under you.  To me, it seems as if there are lots of little sea creatures "clicking" beneath me. As I look at the sky above and hear the sounds of the ocean below, it reminds me of how really big our planet is.

To commune with the creation is to know the creator - at least in part.

It reminded me that I'm not indispensable.  Oh, I would be missed for a while but the world is a big place.  An incredibly large part of the universe functions just fine without me and the place I call my home will do the same.  While I intrinsically know this, overtly remembering it tends to take some of the pressure off.

Take a deep breath.

Let it out.

After getting back, I feel that I am functioning at a higher capacity.  God was here with me before I left.  God was with me on the trip and God is still here now that I'm back.  God didn't change but I did.

The call to help people - to make a difference - to offer living water - is still there.  But the anxiety that had built up has dissipated.

I'm reminded of the Gloria Patri:

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.



Thursday, May 23, 2013

Living in Oklahoma

Picture by DVDSHUB on Flickr
Earlier this week, Oklahomans were once again forced into shelters as another F5 tornado brought
destruction upon our people.     I was with some of our church's middle schoolers when I first heard the news that Moore was being hit yet again.  The news got worse: an elementary school was leveled and they were trying to dig out the children from the rubble.

We paused what we were doing and circled up to pray for those families who lost lives, who lost homes and for the rescue workers trying to help in this time of crisis.  We eventually found out that 24 people died in the storm.  Ten of those were children and infants.

Two years ago, our community of Piedmont faced an F5 tornado and we also lost lives but were more fortunate that it took a less populated path.  "Fortunate" being a word for statistics really.  If you personally lost a loved one or a pet or a home, the use of this word becomes ridiculous.   

When we are hit with this kind of magnitude, it is hard not to take it personally.  Is someone out to get us?  Have we done something wrong?  Many people in the media begin to turn to these kinds of questions and you often hear a wide variety of answers.  As a professional theologian, more than a few of the answers leave me cringing.

Some of the cringe-worthy responses come from my fellow clergy.

Comments that Pat Robertson made in 2012 with regards to a tornado resurfaced and hopefully, no one gave his ideas too much credit.  He claimed that people shouldn't live in a place where tornadoes were likely to crop up.  This is a more scientific statement in that we do know that we live in a state where severe weather is more likely to happen.  I still remember my seminary friends asking me about the movie, Twister that came out when I was living in Georgia.

"Why would you want to live there?"

At the time I mentioned that there weren't any earthquakes and that is mostly still true. We don't have any hurricanes and we don't have a lot of landslides.  Being an Oklahoman gives one an attitude.  When you live through something like this, you become a survivor and we are stronger for it.  Paul mentioned this in Romans about suffering producing endurance which leads to character which gives us hope.  I believe this is true.

However, it is still a pretty insensitive thing to throw in someone's face when they have just lived through a nightmare.  Not very pastoral of Mr. Robertson to ask tornado victims why they live in a place that is known for the inclement weather.

The other thing he said was that those in the path of the tornado should have prayed harder.  This becomes a double-dose of blaming the victims.  It could lead people to say:

"Why should we help them?  They shouldn't have been living there in the first place - they knew the risks!  And even if they did choose to live there, they should have had more faith!"

This is the moral equivalent of a pastor telling a family that they should have prayed harder for healing for the loss of their loved one to cancer.

Nothing like piling on with the guilt when you are grieving, right?
Picture by U.S. Dept. of Defense on Flickr

And still we grieve and wonder.  The questions I hear the most for Moore are, "Why the school?"

Why did the tornado have to destroy an elementary school?  And if we were praying for safety, why wouldn't God alter the path - change the laws of physics - suspend reality as we know it for just a moment?

Why are some spared while others die?

In all my reading, thinking and praying, I've not ever developed a sufficient answer for this question.

In spite of our lack of understanding, the Christian response should be clear: God grieves with us.  

God is the one motivating us to move to help in times of need.  And in Oklahoma, lots of people listen to God. We have an amazing community of people that do the right thing when they see people in trouble.

Why would you live in Oklahoma?

Because the people there very often do have eyes to see and ears to hear.  They have arms and hands that will hold onto you when you are in need.

That doesn't make me cringe at all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Coping with Tragedy

For me personally, dealing with an event that is far away like the terror bombing in Boston always seems so surreal.  I was living in Georgia when the Oklahoma City bombing happened in 1995.  I still remember watching CNN and seeing the smoke rolling out of the large hole in the Murrah building.  It was real and yet not real at the same time.  I was so distant in geography - feeling that I couldn't do anything to help.  This inability to make a positive impact may be what made it seem somewhat unreal.  One coping mechanism most human beings use is to distance ourselves emotionally rather than face the grief.

As a person of action, when the tornado hit Piedmont two years ago, I stayed very busy and active in trying to help people put their lives back together.  What helped me to cope with the chaos was to help others cope with the chaos.  The helpless feeling when looking on our brothers and sisters in Boston is difficult.

With the mass shootings such as Columbine or Virginia Tech or Aurora, Colorado or Newtown, Connecticut, we mourn with the victims and grieve with their families.  The perpetrators of the violence are known almost immediately and we are soon given a portrait of them by the media.  We discover their mental illnesses and can put a label (madness) on why it happened.

In the hours following Oklahoma City or 9/11 however, we didn't know immediately the cause for such destruction.  Until we find out who did it, we fear that more attacks may occur.

Was this a Ted Kaczynski-type?  Or was it another Osama bin Laden?

I preached on injustice on Sunday as we looked at the plight of Joseph from Genesis 39 going from slavery to jail even though he didn't do anything wrong.  I'm sure that there were many times when Joseph asked God, "Why me, Lord?"  but the Bible doesn't reflect any soul-searching on his part.

What's clear is that God remains with Joseph in his plight.  It seems clear to me that Joseph's unjust slavery and imprisonment was not caused by God to somehow teach Joseph a lesson.  This doesn't mean that with God's help, Joseph didn't learn anything or didn't come out stronger because of it.

Whenever families go through tragedies such as this, sometimes they look for their own answers because it is
Martin Richard, 8, died in the bombing at the
Boston Marathon.  I look at my own 9 year old
son and my heart aches for his family.
so deeply personal for them. They do ask God, "Why me, Lord?"

It is not uncommon for parents to wonder if they are somehow being punished for their sins when faced with the loss of their children.  This is because we want to have some control over our lives. When children face terminal illness, parents will often seek to bargain with God for healing.  My response to the tornado was to get out and help which is compassionate and faithful but also a way to re-exert control over the chaos.  Similarly, a theological questioning may be a quest for answers - a quest to have some control over the chaos.

We used this prayer on Sunday.  It is written by Katye Fox, a 2000 Masters of Divinity graduate of the Candler School of Theology (my alma mater) and is based on Mark 4:35-41.  I pray that it would be helpful for those in Boston and anyone struggling with the chaos right now.

O Christ, Calmer of the Seas,
    You call us across to the other side.
    You call us to come and go with you
               even as the storms around us swell.
Cry out to the winds, “Be still.”
Cry out to us, “Peace.”
Do this, O Lord,
               so that we can safely arrive on others shores.
               so that we may find within you and within ourselves
                             reminders of the faith we so deeply need.
In your name, O Creator of the water and the wind. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Good Influences

When I was in college, I had one large reservation about becoming a pastor in a church: I didn't think that I wanted to write a paper each week and give a speech on it which was primarily how I saw the task of the sermon. 

The church had done much to shape and nurture me.  At the tender age of 14, our children's minister Virginia Gray asked me to be a leader for 6th grade camp.  Even after getting into trouble at my own senior high camp (a story for another blog post), she called me and asked if I thought I was ready for this responsibility.  I humbly said that I was and she took a chance on me.  It worked out well and I worked that camp each summer for years.

I remained active in the church even through college.  I served as a resident custodian at the Wesley Foundation which was our campus ministry in Stillwater.  Whenever our campus minister, John Rusco, had seminary recruiters show up, he always made sure that I was around to visit with them.  John had a passion for thinking through the faith.  This style resonated with me and had me thinking that maybe some form of ministry would be in my future.

I remember praying about this and asking God if I was really called to be a pastor.  I still didn't like the idea of weekly sermons but I thought to make a compromise.  I enjoyed my summer church internships helping with youth programs and so if a job presented itself, I would work as a youth minister to see if this was really where God was calling me to be.

Shortly after I had come to this decision, the phone rang and it was Lynn Tegeler on the other end.  She told me that New Haven United Methodist Church in Tulsa asked her to apply for their full time youth minister position opening up.  She told them that she already had a job and didn't feel called to work with youth full time but that she knew someone who would be good for the job.  Lynn and I had worked together in the summer for Boston Avenue UMC and in spite of this, she still gave them my name.  

Now I'm not a huge providence guy, but I clearly remember the surreal feeling and asking God, "There's really not much of a choice here, is there?"

I interviewed and was given the job where I got to know Ken Tobler (the senior pastor) and Linda Harker (the children's minister) on that staff. They taught me about working with others on a church staff and while the overwhelming majority of the congregation was great, I did learn that not everyone leads with grace all the time!
Chris Porter took this picture of me sharing my growth and
maturity with Christina Mallory at church camp. Sadly, this
was only a few years ago - it may be that I was
helping her remember her baptism.  

It was a wonderful time for me for growth and maturity.  I felt my call to ministry solidifying.

And yet, I still had this hesitation for preaching...

Fortunately, my frugality came in to help me out. My friend, Van Hawxby was also a youth minister in Arkansas and he was working at a church in Little Rock.  They had money set aside to bring someone in each year to lead a youth retreat.  He told me that his church would pay me $400 to come do this event.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me.  But there was a catch.  You had to preach at the Sunday morning worship service.  It was a pretty big congregation and they also broadcast over local radio.  

I decided that God must be behind this.

I did my best to write a credible sermon.  I practiced it until I had it memorized and had this nervous excitement that Sunday morning.  I preached and found that this was right.  It was what God had been calling me to do all along.  

This was around twenty years ago.  I still have an excitement for preaching and continue to live out my calling as an ordained pastor in the church.  God's calling comes to us both internally and externally.  It was internal in how I was shaped and nurtured in the faith - how my prayers, thoughts and feelings with God moved me to consider this as an option.  It was external in that people in the church interacted with me and pushed me in this direction.  They saw something in me that corresponded to what was going on inside.

If you are wondering about God's call upon your life, I would invite you to be open (maybe even open to checking out this cool link or event). Don't allow hesitations or fears to shut God down.  In the long run, I don't think it will work anyway!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hear My Faith

Fellow clergy, Jeremy Smith is promoting a synchblog for the upcoming Exploration 2013 event for the United Methodist's General Board on Higher Education and Ministry.  I will be participating and sharing my own answers to the question, "Who called you on the journey of ministry?"

As I begin to think about how I answer this for my upcoming blog, I reconnected with the song, "Seal My Fate" by Belly (it happened to be playing on internet radio).

Seal My Fate by Belly on Grooveshark

Tanya Donnelly's lyrics are just vague enough to lend a great variety to the interpretation. As I'm thinking about call to ministry, the passage from Isaiah's own call to ministry came to me.
Isaiah's Lips Anointed
with Fire
Benjamin West

As Donnelly sings:

  Unholy and dirty words I gathered to me,
 Thinking the point was keep what's mine for me,
 While he's laughing.
 Hear my faith.
 Seal my fate. 

it reminds me of Isaiah's own declaration that he's a man of unclean lips.  In his vision, the angels purify him with fire and he responds, "Here I am, Send Me."

Donnelly also expresses the uncertainty of the spiritual experience:

   And if you think you've finally found the perfect light,
 I hope it's true. 


  I'd like to see it happen. I hope it's true
 'cause I can feel it.
 I hope it's true.

The call of God pulls us in sometimes risky directions that turn our previous plans upside down.  At the end of the day, we hope in faith that it is true.  The song expresses to me a sense that it's almost too good to be true - there is a hesitancy there.

This may be a universal sensation when we encounter grace.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 24:1-53

Reading the entire chapter I think is more satisfying for Easter than just hearing the first twelve verses which is the traditional lectionary reading for Luke.

The later verses are prescribed for Easter evening but most pastors (& laity) are worn out from all the Holy Week services to have a Sunday evening worship service.

But as we read them here, we complete the picture of Easter.  From the empty tomb, to the encounter on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of the bread, to the appearance to the eleven remaining disciples, to the ascension, we see the whole story as Luke paints it.
The Three Marys at the Tomb Resurrection Morning
by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1910

Each of these stories speaks to us as people of faith. There are time when our experience of Jesus is more like the empty tomb - we are able to observe where the risen Christ has been.  We see evidence of his presence and we wonder with awe at what has happened.

There are other times when we have the experience of the living God within the sacrament of Holy Communion or at worship and we see Christ in the breaking of the bread.

There are other times when we experience the call of Christ on our lives to go out and be a witness: to share truth in love with our neighbors.

However you experience the risen Christ, I pray that your faith will be strengthened.  As we've read through these devotions over these past forty days, we've seen a portrait of our Lord that is unique to Luke.  May the living Christ grow stronger in you that you might more often shine God's light into the hearts and lives of those who are hurting, lost and lonely.  As you do this and witness lives transformed, you too may be overwhelmed with joy!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Day 40 of Lent, Saturday, March 30, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 23:26-56

Luke gives a rich tapestry of the passion scene in today's reading.  The women who are present throughout Luke's gospel continue with Jesus until the very end.  They follow him as he carries the cross and are present at the cross when he dies.

Roman Centurion from Passion of the Christ.  Although
excessive in violence for my tastes, the film offers
excellent visuals in sets and costumes.
We also have a variety of people shown such as Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross beam for Jesus as well as the two criminals executed with Jesus.

We have the Roman centurion who seems to come to deeper conviction about Jesus.  And we have Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council who was in the minority  among his peers when it came to the identity of Jesus.

I wonder if the early church in Luke's day (writing about 50-60 years after Jesus' earthly ministry) would have had a richer lore about these people than we have today.  They were people of faith who were important to the story - each attesting in their own way to who Jesus was for them.

As we consider the story of Jesus in our own lives, we must also look to the variety of people of faith that we encounter.  Some believing much as we do while others have a different understanding of God.  Some may be more faithful than we are while others may scorn our beliefs.

At the end of the day, we are reminded of the words of Jesus only found in Luke, "Forgive them Father for they don't know what they're doing."

This is the end.  And yet...

Friday, March 29, 2013

Day 39 of Lent, Good Friday, March 29, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 23:1-25

Although Jesus shows reluctance in yesterday's reading through his struggle in prayer before his arrest, today finds him resolved to carry this through.

Jesus makes no attempt to soft-sell or excuse what he's done or who he is.

He first appears before the council in Luke 22 and then in chapter 23 he goes before Pilate, the Roman Prefect of the province of Judea.
Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man") by Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891)

Although Pilate asks Jesus in all four gospels if he is the "King of the Jews", only Luke adds the charge of opposition of the payment of taxes to Caesar. We may be reminded of the trap laid for Jesus in Luke 20:20-26 where Jesus is asked whether or not it is lawful according to scripture to pay taxes to a Gentile ruler.

Jesus, teaching in the area of the temple, asks for a coin.

When they produce it, he asks them to state whose face is on the coin.

They must have reluctantly said, "Caesar's".  Roman coinage often linked Caesar to divinity which would have been idolatrous and not welcomed among law-observant Jews - especially in the region of the temple.

He bids them to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.  It could have been perceived that if you live like a Roman, pay your taxes.  If you refuse to use Roman coinage, it stands to reason that you would also refuse to pay Roman taxes.

If this was his stance, it certainly might have received the attention of the Roman authorities.

But in Luke's account, Pilate finds no charges against him.

The crowds are the ones who cry out for his death.

It would have been hard for Jews to live in collusion with the Romans.  Hard to maintain the Law of God.  Hard to keep one's identity intact.  Hard to keep from being polluted with unclean practices, ideas and habits.

Did the teachings and ministry of Jesus make some feel guilty for how they had lived? Was it easier to cry out for his death than to look at themselves in the mirror?

Self-examination is never easy.  How many of you like to hear yourself on audio?

But as I write these words for this Good Friday, I have to wonder about my own absorption of what is easy rather than to stand for what is compassionate and good and right.

I know that I'm not as resolute as Jesus.  What part do I play when I read that Pilate handed Jesus over to the will of the people?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Day 38 of Lent, Thursday, March 28, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 22:31-71

Was Jesus a reluctant Messiah?  I'm not sure if this is the right word to use but we have in today's reading a clear hesitation to go to the cross.

The pain and suffering that he knew would come with this is evident in his time of prayer.

Luke brilliantly juxtapositions the initial willingness of Peter with the disinclination of Jesus on the Mount of Olives.  We see that Peter's resolve melts under the heat of the moment just as Jesus predicts.  Jesus, however, stands resolved before the Jerusalem leadership.

It also reminds me of the parable of the two sons which is contained only in Matthew's Gospel:

   “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” (21:28-32a, NRSV)

In my best moments, I have kept to my integrity when facing the fire.  However, I also know that these moments have been built on previous failures.  There's no guarantee that I won't fail again.

Peter goes on to conquer his fears and to lead the church.  He didn't allow his failure to define him but he did allow it to shape him.  It shaped his resolve and it also shaped his grace.  

On this Holy Thursday, I pray that I will stay firm in the faith and to offer the grace that I have so often received in my life.  And no matter if you are feeling strong in the Lord or fallen in sin or somewhere in between, this passage offers good news today.

This sculpture is from the English: Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family
in Barcelona, Spain.  Fascinating that this story is shared prominently not only in
the gospel but in art.  Taken by Utente:MM

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Day 37 of Lent, Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 22:1-30

United Methodists have long held the value of equality in marriage between men and women.  Some denominations have emphasized places in Paul's letters where it may imply that women are subjugated to men within the marriage.  However, we see the overall value of equality that Jesus lifts up in Luke.

I find it interesting that following an argument among the disciples over which of them could or would betray Jesus, they start debating over which of them is the greatest.

It seems a strange transition from which of the disciples is the worst to which is the best!

Muhammad Ali said, "I am the greatest!"
This may be a good tactic for sports but
not necessarily for relationships.
Jesus indicates that authority over one another is not what it's all about.  We are to have the attitude of servants with one another.

In doing marriage counseling, I find that those with a servant attitude tend to rebound from problems better than those who have a me-first attitude.  Those that tend to want authority over the other in a relationship may need to re-examine this value that Jesus lifts up.

As I consider my own marriage, I find that our happiness comes more completely when we consider the desires of the other first.  It becomes contagious!

Conversely, when I put my own needs above Sheryl's, our relationship becomes more shallow and we each become more isolated.

There are always moments of selfishness as human beings but when we lift up the values that Jesus shares with us today, we find in them worthy goals for how we interact with one another!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Day 36 of Lent, Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 21:20-38

Repent for the end is near!

Picture by Javier Rodriguez of Miami, Florida
from stock.xchng
On a first read, the end of chapter 21 does have a doom and gloom feel to it. But when you read this, you should do so with the understanding that it was written after the second temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in the year 70.

This passage reiterates the coming of the Messiah from Daniel 7:13-14.  It is here that we first see the term, "Son of Man" or as the Common English Bible translates, "one like a human being."

If you just experienced the destruction of the temple, this passage would hopefully offer a sense of hope that God can work through even these dark times.  In the events of history, we may often despair.  I think of 9/11 as one of those for the United States. However, this shows that God can work for good even in the midst of our misuse of free will.

This foreshadows the cross and resurrection even as that took place almost forty years before the destruction of the temple.  Jesus admonishes us to stay alert and remain true to our faith.  This is also helpful as we will see that the disciples need this reminder for their own faith struggles when Jesus will be taken from them.

As we continue in Holy Week, we too approach the cross with Jesus.  It wouldn't hurt for us to stay alert either.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Day 35 of Lent, Monday, March 25, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 21:1-19

Today's reading reminds me that chapters and verses were later inventions.  Jesus had spoken of cheating widows out of their homes in the previous paragraph in chapter 20 and then mentions the poor widow giving all she had to the Temple.

The idea of the poor widow giving everything she had to God doesn't always sit well with the pragmatists among us.  We think that she should have kept what she had in order to feed herself.  It may cause us to have a dim view of organized religion.  At the worst end of faith, we have the scandals of high profile ministers receiving the social security checks from the poor elderly so that they can air condition their dog's house or pay for that private jet.

This is certainly awful but we may miss the point.  She wouldn't have enough to live on if that's all she had.  She would rely on people of faith to step forward and help her in her daily need.  The prophets continually remind to care for the widow and the orphan.

And so she donates to God.

It's a matter of dignity for her.  She knows that she is dependent upon God's grace for survival - similar to the daily manna from heaven the Israelites received during the exodus. It is reflected in the prayer Jesus taught us, "Give me this day my daily bread."

It is more than what the rich gave because they weren't dependent upon God in their minds.  They had plenty of resources to fall back on.  They don't really believe that they need God - they'll take care of themselves.

Maybe that's what Jesus has in mind in Luke when he says, "Blessed are the poor for yours is the Kingdom of God." (6:20).  If you are poor, you may be blessed because you have a greater understanding of how God works in your life.

The Widow's Mite by James Tissot, c. 1890

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sixth Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 20:20-47

There are times when I've had my world-view - my assumptions of how life works - challenged.

When someone does this, it can lead to a verbal sparring match.  As long as we keep things respectful, there's nothing wrong with honing one's beliefs in a spirited debate.

This may cause you to reflect on what you actually believe!

I remember arguing once over Noah's flood.  Rather than view it as a truly global devastation  my interpretation was that it was a localized event.  Noah's known world was flooded.
"My world is a flood.  Slowly I become one with the mud."
These lyrics are an interesting interpretation.

This didn't bother my faith to think that it may not have covered the entire earth.  But it did bother my friend. His faith was anchored in a literal interpretation of scripture.  If it didn't gel with the Bible, he didn't believe it.

Jesus shows us in today's reading that rabbinical interpretation of scripture was an important way to process the faith.  He does it to explain his beliefs and to teach the crowds.  He shows us that we are to study and know the Bible for use in this life.

Jesus stays focused on loving God and loving neighbor (the two most important commandments).  He ends with an example of what not to do: cheat old ladies out of their pensions and then thank God for your blessings.  Evidently, people could do this legally and then sleep well at night because they didn't see themselves as doing anything wrong. Jesus interprets their actions differently.

This, of course, is rooted in the prophets who called out the Hebrew people many times on this very issue.

It's good to know our Bible.  I try to anchor my beliefs in what Jesus consistently shows us to be true.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Day 34 of Lent, Saturday, March 23, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 20:1-19

Where does Jesus get his authority?  What the chief priests want to know is, "which rabbis did you study under to be granted the authority of a rabbi?"

When we are baptized, we submit to the
authority of Jesus in our lives.
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  John the Baptist was seen as a rabbi by many in that we know even into the book of Acts (long after his death), he still had disciples.

The witnesses to Jesus becoming a rabbi were John the Baptist and God!  As you remember his baptism, God states, "You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:22).

So when Jesus questions them on whether or not they considered John the Baptist a rabbi, they couldn't answer him. Obviously the crowds considered John an authority and so the religious figures were prudent and kept their mouths shut.

Jesus moves on knowing that if they wouldn't make a commitment one way or the other on John, they couldn't decide on him either.

At this point, Jesus does not need their blessing to proceed.

How Jesus was perceived is not as important to us after 2000 years of Christian tradition.  Our perception is that he had all the authority he needed.  Our question during Lent may be, "How much authority do I give Jesus over my life?"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Day 33 of Lent, Friday, March 22, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 19:29-48

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday when we celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  As we read Luke's account of this event, we see that the welcoming crowd is made up of Jesus' disciples.  Luke really shows us that there were more disciples than just the twelve.

Luke has the tradition of Jesus sending out 72 disciples.  He also has stories of women followers and disciples.  Now we get the sense that his disciples were the ones preparing the crowds for his entry.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd try to stop the disciples.  Maybe they are afraid for their own lives if an insurrection was about to occur (we remember that this is the week of the Passover when all Judea was remembering their freedom from slavery in Egypt). Maybe they are afraid innocent people will be hurt.

Whatever their reasons, Jesus must continue his mission and he actually escalates the possibility of violence by making a scene at the temple.

Wave that palm but make it count!
We've all been guilty of turning a blind eye to keep the peace.  What does Palm Sunday mean to us today?  Is the waving of palms symbolic of our testimony to our Lord? Is Jesus asking for more than praise?

It may be time to take off our coats and throw them in the mud.  The King is not only passing by, he's leading us into life.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Day 32 of Lent, Thursday, March 21, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 19:1-28

Taxes have never been popular.

Zacchaeus in the Tree by William Hole, 1908
We see that in Jesus' day with today's reading.  When Jesus goes to eat with Zacchaeus, verse seven states that everyone grumbled.  As a rabbi, Jesus was respected - those with clout would want to host him at their home.

Zacchaeus was not a regular tax collector, he was chief among them.  For Jews living at the time, he must have been seen as a real collaborator with the Romans.  The frustration for many would have been along the lines of, "how could the Messiah who is coming to free us from Rome, be eating in the home of a Jewish traitor like Zacchaeus?"

Jesus sees beyond the politics of the day.  The freedom he is bringing is larger than governance and more personal at the same time.

Because people weren't getting it, Jesus tells the story about the King who entrusted money to his servants.  The King had expectations and some succeeded while others failed.  When Jesus embraces Zacchaeus and he changes for the better, this is a win. When others shun those they consider sinners and they remain outside of the larger relationships with the community, this is like wrapping up the money in scarves.

How are we working within the relationships we've developed to bring the grace of God to them?

Zacchaeus's tree (Sycamore fig tree) Jericho, Palestine
by Tango7174 of wiki commons

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Day 31 of Lent, Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 18:18-43

I come from a creative family.  Growing up, we would often play games that my dad made up.  The only trouble with a creative mind is that they are always tinkering.  He would sometimes get bored with the game and want to switch up the rules.  It was usually just when the rest of us were getting settled into the game.

One thing that seems pretty universal is that we all want to know the rules.  Most people thrive if they are given clear expectations.  It is tiresome to live with a moody person because you never know if he or she will be up or down.  How will they respond to us today?  Or even this minute?

The rich man who comes to Jesus seems to want to know the rules.  He wants to know what is expected of him for eternal life.  Jesus shares this with him and he may smugly answer that he's got it all together.  Except he hasn't.

Jesus starts out with some of the 10 Commandments which the man has done.  But he doesn't explicitly mention "have no other gods before me" or "don't bow down to any idols." Instead, Jesus asks him to sell his possessions and to follow him as a disciple.

James and John gave up their fishing profession - the family business - to follow Jesus. They must have been relatively well-off in their culture.

But this man can't part with his things.

The idea of a rich man struggling to enter heaven would be another reversal in Jesus' day; along with the Messiah suffering and dying.  Isn't he supposed to conquer our enemies?

Blind Man's Bluff by Fragonard.
Jesus tries to take the blindfold off the rich
man's eyes as well as the disciples'.  A lot
of the time I may not let him get near mine either.
To top it off, Jesus heals a blind man who then begins to follow him.  He correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (son of David).  Maybe he sees better than any of them.

This causes me to ask the question, "What blind spots do I have in my faith?"

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day 30 of Lent, Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 18:1-17

I remember going to Denny's Restaurant for a Grand Slam with my good friend Terry Eads when I was home in Tulsa visiting from college.  They put us at a half-booth with the split table that could extend to make a large table for more seating or fold up to make two tables for two smaller parties.

There were two other young men sitting next to us.  It's hard to pretend you're at two separate tables when their is such a small gap dividing you.  We were essentially seated together!

They were speaking of religious things which peaked my interest so I struck up a conversation.

I found out that they had been "slain in the Spirit" and wanted to know more about their experience.

When they found out that I had not received this spiritual gift, their demeanor toward me changed.

I eventually asked them, "You still think I'm going to heaven, right?  I am a Christian too, you know."

One of them said, "Well, yeah.  You just may not be in as nice a neighborhood..."

Then they laughed and he said, "I'm just kidding!"

Except that it didn't feel like he was.

When I left that evening, I didn't feel like being "slain in the Spirit" was something that would help me mature in my faith.  I'm sure there are many people whom this helps but these two had a long way to go.

As Jesus shows today, we should be persistent in our prayer lives - but it should also make us humble like the tax collector rather than self-assured like the Pharisee.

I've tried to remember this life lesson through the years.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Day 29 of Lent, Monday, March 18, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 17:20-37

"The vultures gather where there is a dead body."

This quote by Jesus really stands out to me in the Common English Bible.  It reminds me of the song, "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley of Eagles fame.

Jesus declares that God's kingdom is already among us.  It is the kingdom to come and it is the kingdom that is already present.  We have expectation and current reality.

It is often hard to stop and see it in the present.  Disappointments and trials keep us wound up and then we miss it.
The advice to keep ready for the day of the Lord captures our imagination as we consider the doctrine of rapture and loved ones being "left behind."  As a child, I remember seeing a film where loved ones were taken and some were left.  Later, when I was playing in the backyard, I went into the house.  My mother had gone to the front to water the flower beds but I couldn't find her and I thought that I had been left behind.

It was very scary for a four or five year old and I later found out that she had experienced similar fears when she was younger.

I believe that the concept of being "left behind" may be more figurative than literal.  Some of us see the kingdom for what it is here and now and others may miss it.  We do need to be ready but I don't think God wants us living in fear.  We would then miss out on all the joy of the kingdom of God at hand!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 17:1-19

On which shoulder are you standing?
What does it mean to have faith?  Here, Luke begins to cover a wide group of scenarios.

Jesus mentions that we shouldn't be the ones leading others astray.  Peer pressure seems especially bad if we're the peers exerting the pressure!

And so the disciples ask for greater faith.

Jesus then mentions having faith the size of a mustard seed (very small in this context) and then tells a story about a servant.  Faith seems to be more about discipline than great deeds.

Our discipline may show in our gratitude.  The Samaritan leper (a surprise here) is the one that returns to give thanks for being made well.  Jesus states that his faith has healed him.  Is healing is more than a restoration into society?  Could healing come when we adopt gratefulness as a regular part of life?

If we show a life of thankfulness rather than assume we are owed everything, maybe this is what keeps little ones under our influence from tripping and falling into sin.

For what are you grateful today?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Day 28 of Lent, Saturday, March 16, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 16:14-31

Well the money woes continue in Luke's gospel.   Not that Jesus is poor or suffering from a lack of funding - rather, he is casting down the rich throughout this chapter.

Even when he mentions his stance against divorce - if put into context of the chapter, it would be prohibitive for the men and not necessarily the women.  Men could divorce their wives - women couldn't afford the same option.  If a woman was divorced, she would have difficulty finding another husband.  She may have been reduced to prostitution depending on the circumstances.  It would create someone who would be considered poor.  By prohibiting divorce, Jesus is standing with those of his day who didn't have as many rights.

The parable of Lazarus is a reversal of what the people of the day would have naturally assumed.  If someone was rich, they were thought to have God's favor.  Consequently, the poor were often seen to be out of sorts with God.  Lazarus is a complete role reversal of popular thought.

Americans like the idea of unrestricted access to God.  It isn't dependent on your wealth or resources. However, we don't like the seeming preference for the poor.  Not that we think of ourselves as rich.  But unless someone printed this out for you, according to the standards of the world, simply by reading this, you would be considered a person of means.

I believe that this parable is not chastising us for being well-off.  It is simply moving us beyond what our expectations of what compassion should be.  This is something we all need to re-examine from time to time.

Lazarus, is that you?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Day 27 of Lent, Friday, March 15, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 16:1-13

No strings attached?  Well, I may
need a place to stay later.
This parable is another head-scratcher.  It is probably the hardest parable to deal with in the Bible.  The household manager is doing a poor job. He is dishonest and unethical.  He's admittedly weak and proud.  He cheats his former employee out of what is rightfully his.  And yet he is commended for being clever.

As Christians, we don't believe that Jesus is calling us to be cheats.  This counters too much of the rest of scripture to come to this conclusion.

So what is he saying by telling this parable?

We are left with a strange sense of reality at the end of the parable when the master doesn't get angry over losing all of the goods at the household manager's actions.  Instead he praises him for being shrewd or clever.

As I mentioned, I don't think Jesus is telling this so that we might be unethical.  It is reflective of the Kingdom of God.  We are reminded that God doesn't act in the same way that we do.  God is not constrained by our expectations.  Grace is something that is sometimes unexpected and certainly not deserved.  I think this parable shows that quality completely.

If we use this story allegorically, what would we have to give away that is not ours to give? Something we don't own ourselves?

God's grace is to be given away.  Forgiveness is ours to share.  In doing this, we find ourselves closer to God's kingdom - maybe even praised.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Day 26 of Lent, Thursday, March 14, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 15:11-32

First we have lost sheep, then lost coins and now Jesus completes the trifecta with the parable of the lost child.  The beauty of this parable is that sometimes we are lost in the way of the younger son and sometimes we are lost in the way of the older.

All of us are in need of God's grace - maybe especially those who presume to already have it.

One of my favorite songs by the Rolling Stones is from their Beggar's Banquet album - Prodigal Son.  It was written by Rev. Robert Wilkins under the original title, "That's No Way to Get Along".  I sang this song on Sunday during worship which I've wanted to do for a while when this passage came up in the lectionary.  I was glad Hagen Jackson was able to learn it on the guitar so quickly!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Day 25 of Lent, Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 15:1-10

Does Jesus think we're stupid?

Who would leave 99 sheep alone to get in trouble on their own while you looked for one crazy sheep?  It has probably already been eaten by a coyote anyway.

I mean by the time you got back with that one sheep, how many of the 99 do you think would still be there?

It's better to cut our losses and move on.

Except that God doesn't seem to be willing to do that.  This parable is about the extension of grace.  It's hard for us to understand from a practical perspective because sometimes grace isn't very practical.

We prefer to live in an entirely sensible world that always plays by the rules until we're the ones in need of grace.

Isaiah said it best, "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6).  Maybe that's what Jesus was trying to explain to the Pharisees in the first place.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Day 24 of Lent, Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 14:25-35

This is a difficult passage.  There are those who read the Bible literally who kind of ignore this passage on hating your family.  In fact, those that don't take it literally also seem to blow it off.

So what does Jesus really mean by this?

I've heard some commentators state that they believe Luke is writing to a situation in his time rather than in Jesus' time.  In other words, by 80-90 ACE, the situation in some of the local synagogues would have been that many families may have split over their belief of the identity of Jesus.  Some thought he was the Messiah and some just thought he was a traveling rabbi.  Their disagreement may have gone to the family level.

As a clergy person, I would say that my joy comes with following my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  However, I also do not feel that this is conflicted with my love of family. For the most part, my family and I share the same Christian values and so while our practice of faith may vary, the core values are not a case for conflict.

Bearing our cross is not silly - if more Christians
took it seriously, the church would reach
places we miss.
However, what I believe this passage is getting at is a sacrificial commitment.  What does it mean for us to carry our cross? We've trivialized the statement, "my cross to bear" to cover things like inconveniences or problems with relatives.

I believe that bearing our cross has to do with being Christ-like to the world.  Loving those that may not love us back is difficult.  Jesus certainly understood this on his journey to Jerusalem.  It takes a strong faith for us to do this as well.

Whom do you find difficultly loving because of their actions, their identity or both?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Day 23 of Lent, Monday, March 11, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 14:1-24

Reciprocity: a mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges.  (World English Dictionary).

I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine.  This is one of the oldest understandings of human behavior.  We seek relationships where we aren't constantly giving without receiving anything back.  Ideally, we get back more than we put into it.

Are relationships more than just another commodity to be exchanged?

Jesus is challenging us to be people above the social fray and to value people for more than just what we can get out of them.

To place ourselves at the bottom rung of the social ladder is not meant to be done in a self-deprecating way but is more likely taking ourselves out of the game-playing that people like to do.  I refuse to define myself by how others see me and I am trying to give others the same consideration.

Maybe this is part of what it means when the guest said to Jesus, "Happy are those who will feast in God's kingdom."

No pressure, right?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 13:18-35

God clearly wants to gather us in as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  However, it is equally clear that we have free will and self-determine our own destiny.

The illustration of people not making it inside before the doors are locked is an indication that we've wasted our time.  We've assumed that there is always more time and this is not always the case.

Pink Floyd actually expresses this sentiment in their song "Time":

     You are young and life is long
     And there is time to kill today

      And then one day you find
      Ten years have got behind you

      No one told you when to run
      You missed the starting gun

We are more than half-way through this Lenten season.  Jesus is looking toward Jerusalem but not with relish.  This reminds us that everyone has an ending in front of them.   How are we making good use of our time?

"Time" appears on Pink Floyd's
Dark Side of the Moon released in 1973.
Looks like more than ten years have got behind me!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Day 22 of Lent, Saturday, March 9, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 13:1-17

It's odd to us today to see any controversy over the Sabbath.  We even forget that it is one of the ten commandments:

8Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11, NRSV).

We may wonder at the idea that anyone would be upset at healing someone on the Sabbath.  However, it may have been that the religious leaders were worried that a healer would make a show of it - making it more about their healing than about God.  Or it could be that those in need of healing would also hijack the time which belonged to God.
I've been a donkey on the Sabbath
but I'm not sure if I've helped one then.

Every congregation has people that seem to divert the attention squarely on themselves.

Jesus reminds us of our priorities and of God's.  We are happy to help our livestock - especially if it messed with us financially. How about some human compassion?

Today, our controversy over the Sabbath may not be that we're not compassionate enough - it may be that we have forgotten to keep it at all.

What makes the Sabbath holy for you and how do you keep it?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Day 21 of Lent, Friday, March 8, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 12:35-59

This is a difficult reading to look at from the majority view.  When Luke recorded it, the synagogues were likely in dispute over the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Was he the Messiah?

Was he the Son of God?

Can you read the sign of the times?  This sign
reads tomare in Japanese which means, "stop"
Some had experienced the resurrection and some had not.

The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed maybe as early as ten years before Luke released this gospel. Those following the Hebrew faith would have been in a turmoil.  You can see how these texts would have resonated within the original context of the times.

Within the United States today, the Christian faith is not a minority sect.

There is not generally family division over the expressions of faith - at least not as there was then.

But maybe our complacency is part of the problem.  Christianity is on the decline in the US - especially with the newest generation of adults.

In Jesus' day and beyond, there were many Christian martyrs.  People put their lives on the line for their faith.

Is there anything about the Christian faith worth dying for today?

Not an easy question for us as individuals to contemplate as we move through Lent and toward the cross...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Day 20 of Lent, Thursday, March 7, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 12:1-34

"Field of Lilies" by Daderot,
Tiffany Studios, c. 1910
Ironic isn't it that Jesus ends a passage telling us not to worry while earlier he has just mentioned this unforgivable sin!

"Consider the lilies of the field..."

"Um, Jesus, what was that other thing you just said about the unforgivable sin?"

"You mean blaspheming the Holy Spirit?"

"Yeah, can we go back to that for a minute?"

This idea of blaspheming the Holy Spirit also appears in the other synoptic Gospels in Mark 3:28-29 as well as Matthew 12:31-32.  Hebrews 6:4-8 and  10:26-29 also allude to sin sticking with people who set themselves against Christ after their salvation.

The latter can be countered showing that Peter was certainly forgiven after his thrice denial.

So how does one really blaspheme the Holy Spirit?  How do I make sure that I keep from doing this?

There's not a lot of agreement on exactly what this means.  In fact, most commentators seem to think that if you're worried that you've done it and are seeking to repent, it means you haven't blasphemed the Holy Spirit.  In other words, one who does this is unable to feel repentance in his or her heart.

The idea of an unpardonable or unforgivable sin seems to go against the whole concept of grace and the idea that one can repent up until death.  In fact, when I was getting ready to go to seminary, I heard that there used to be a "Blaspheming the Holy Spirit" Club at one of them.  This was really just a silly attempt to declare that God's grace overcomes anything.

If we look at the original context of the statement in Mark which is the oldest of the gospels, we see that Jesus is saying this because the legal experts were saying that he had an evil spirit.  So maybe blaspheming the Holy Spirit has to do with speaking evil about what is really good.  In any event, if it were really unpardonable, I think that Jesus would have spent more time on it.  This may be why John's gospel omits it entirely.

We've all got our issues where we struggle.  It's probably better for us to focus on the ravens and the lilies.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Day 19 of Lent, Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Today's Reading: Luke 11:27-54

A chromolithograph of The Dog in the Manger from a
McLoughlin Brothers book for children, New York, 1880

I first heard of the term "dog in the manger" when I heard my mother use it when I was growing up.  She was referring to a contract dispute that the family business was having with our software marketer.  He wouldn't sell but had an exclusive contract and so no one else could sell either.  She referred to him as a "dog in the manger."

The idiom actually refers to the title from one of Aesop's Fables.  Here's the story:

The Dog in the Manger

A Dog looking out for its afternoon nap jumped into the Manger of an Ox and lay there cozily upon the straw.  But soon the Ox,
returning from its afternoon work, came up to the Manger and wanted to eat some of the straw.  The Dog in a rage, being awakened from its slumber, stood up and barked at the Ox, and whenever it came near attempted to bite it.  At last the Ox had to give up the hope of getting at the straw, and went away muttering:

"Ah, people often grudge others what they
cannot enjoy themselves."

Jesus seems to refer to the Pharisees and the legal experts as dogs in the manger.  With the rules of the Law, they are keeping access to God to themselves and justifiably so in their minds.  Today's average church-goer probably doesn't consider himself or herself as a legal expert on the Bible.  This usually leads to most people dismissing these passages as irrelevant to them.  And so our introspection needs to look at how we may unwittingly keep others out.

Are there ways in which we keep God's grace to ourselves?  Are there stances we take that limit access to others coming to worship?  Are there things we insist upon in the sanctuary or in our pattern of worship that are more cultural rather than spiritual in nature?

I think most of us really do want to share the hay.