The Days Of Promise - Isaiah 35:1-10

Week 3 – Year A
(Isaiah 35:1-10)

Where do we see the Messiah's promising presence at work in the world? Or do we see it at all? Do we even know what those promises are or where they began? Without the story of God, why do we even question the state the world is in?

In a world where there is always war – how do we know what peace looks like?
In a world always full of suffering – how do we know what to hope for?
In a world of sadness – what does joy feel like?
In a world permeated by hate – what does it love look like?

The promise of Isaiah contrasts the two worlds – one of wilderness and one of life.

We don't live in a wilderness or desert...or do we? Tell people you live in Paulding County and they'll look at you like you're from another planet. Just five years ago, folks in Marietta used to joke about Hiram being the sticks and today you run into them shopping at Wal-Mart and going to Movies 278! Just 5 years ago, Cedarcrest was full of pine trees. Catch up with some of our old time families like the Ragsdales and Austins and Grogans and they'll tell you of the days when Cedarcrest Rd. was a 'pig trail.' For good or bad, we've been seeing a wilderness transformed – if only we have eyes to see.

My description is no where near what the words of Isaiah describe. It is classical poetry structured not merely to relay facts but share a vision. Like good story, good poetry changes minds by changing our emotions first.

It is a foreign desert and while we may never have driven through Death Valley, we've all lived through desert places. Whether we've known weakness or blindness isn't required – the writer paints a description that targets what we've seen or touched. This is one of those breaking away points for us – this poetry, a painting with words of a world that is and one that is not yet.

The structure is called a Chiasm – a pattern that walks us to a central point and then out again. For Isaiah, it moves this way..
Creation – healing
Humanity – healing
God – coming to save
Humanity – healing completed
Creation – healing completed

Consider our days right now. Gone are the greens of summer and even the yellows and oranges of fall have melted away. Consider as you leave today how in a sense, death reigns over the landscape of God's creation. Isaiah is writing to a people who have been dead inside and who are beginning to walk what they expect to be the barren, dead landscape from their exile and captivity in Babylon. They are on their way home...

Isaiah begins by painting a picture with words in his poetic description of the day of God's coming. They are words of encouragement and hope for a weary people on a long journey. Journeys like this aren't always ones in desert lands. Often they are in the desert place of our souls when we lose sight of God. Desolate places are in relationships at times with family and friends, damaged by the past.

But there is healing promised, and it begins in this one key verse of 4: Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."  Now that is the kind of God I'm talking about! At my greatest need – nothing is standing in his way...but it at his time that he is coming not mine or yours and often lost is that God is coming for His people – not just one or the other.
We are a very self centered people after all. It is one of the things which at times makes it difficult for us to read these words and even to live our lives – you and I have a hard time turning the “m” in me right-side up so it says “we.”

Years later, after the Christmas night, Jesus had begun his ministry but his cousin John was sitting in prison waiting to find out his fate. But when in Matthew 11:3, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, he asks, “Are you the one, or should WE wait for another?” And Jesus pointed to Isaiah 35, verse 5 and after and “... answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Matthew 11:4” The waiting for the Messiah was over.

Yet, we are called to wait again, to wait for His coming again.

It was a Sunday afternoon in Seattle when the priest stopped by the home of a member after church. She had a five-year old daughter who had just gotten a new jump rope. Like all of the best clergy, the priest began to demonstrate the finer points of jumping rope. After a while the daughter began to jump. First one time and then two. The mom and priest clapped loudly and cheered her accomplishments. After a while, the girl was doing quite well. She wandered off to practice more on her own and so the priest and the mom began to talk. It was only a few moments before the little girl returned dragging her rope and showing off a very pouty face. “Mommy,” she said, “I can do it but I need lots of clapping (The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham).”

We can wait for the second coming of Jesus but not alone. We can journey the desert paths but we need lots of clapping. You are NOT alone in the desert place. I am NOT alone in the desert place. We have each other and it is together we wait for the coming of God. How much better it is to wait together. This is the promise of Joy on this day – for a day of JOY is coming. I invite you today to a community that waits with hands at work and hands at worship and ALWAYS with hands clapping!

Is the question of clergy health the concern or should it be clergy holiness?

Dumped out for the world to see was the reporting by the New York Times of recent studies chronicling the struggles of modern day clergy. Studies and interviews from a number of denominations and from Judaism and Islam were noted in the article. Additional articles came out and the blogosphere lit up with more opinions and thoughts from clergy and laity alike.

The United Methodist Church led the way in most of these reports. As in most studies, there is certain biases that are brought to the forefront. Issues of obesity, hypertension and depression were among the noted items of concern in the NY Times article. But blogger Tom Nees took an alternative route and began to question myths about clergy burnout. To do so, he went to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and its director Joseph Arnold and found another side of the story.

In his blog, “Five Myths About Clergy Burnout,” Nees notes his conversation with Arnold that what is really happening is that clergy are sliding into the norm of society. On top of that, job satisfaction still remains high compared to less than 50% of the general population.

In a large part, I think Nees is right on target on questioning these findings. While I think he is right in questioning (I don't agree with all of his myths), I don't thing he has gone far enough. What has been even more greatly compromised may well be our very integrity as clergy for neglecting our very calling. It maybe different in each tradition so I cannot speak for them all, but certainly, the more we have tried to be like corporate America in the Church, we have certainly succeeded in sliding into being more like the world than like Jesus.

The core issues of preventing stress and burnout are, I think, being woefully ignored. Anne Dilenschneider's article on “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” hits much closer to the reality. She addresses pointedly the “...deeper “disease” of the soul that has plagued clergy...” for it is an issue of our souls which is truly at stake.

In his research for the book Spirituality for Ministry, Urban T. Holmes interviewed clergy across denominational lines. Holmes noted, “The pastor or priest is rooted in a world of symbols and takes on the character of his environment (Holmes, 34).” One of the priests in the study delved further into the implications of this noting that, “the priest can live the lifestyle that most people in the parish cannot and wished they could (Holmes, 31).” Maybe so, but the tragic reality our current studies show is that we obviously all are now living the same lifestyle

In 1786 John Wesley shared what was arguably his greatest fear namely, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” At least, as it pertains to my tradition of the Wesleyan heritage, I think the loss of the power is precisely in our spirituality, namely, our doctrine of entire sanctification – the way of holiness.

If it true that the people who call themselves Methodists are to be the “Grand Depositum” of this doctrine (Wesley's term - not mine!), then I am inclined to ask the question again of our clergy that was asked at our ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” Oh, surely we all say “yes” but what if I asked:

By what means are you getting there?
By what practices and habits are you nurturing your soul?
On the journey toward holiness, where do you think you are?
How are you nurturing others?

I once talked with a United Methodist pastor about whether he spent anytime reading Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons. His response was to blow it off, “Oh no. It is good theology but terrible preaching.” I challenge any laity of any tradition to ask a United Methodist Clergy, “Do you own a copy of Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons?” If it is good theology and terrible preaching then we must be far worse preachers today for who of us has had the impact in the world like Mr. Wesley?

I am writing out of concern as one in the trenches, one who knows full well in my life what these studies represent. It is all well and good to do studies and research to identify the problem but I can tell you in a nutshell what the “problem” is – we're human beings. Even us clergy. We're finite and fallible. From the largest churches to the smallest. From bishops to lay speakers – we believe there is a spiritual side of this life which will not pass away yet we treat our days as if this mortal body is all we have been given.

Clergy must do more than take a day off. Clergy have to do more than use their vacation time. Clergy need guidance in the way of their own soul care. We need to stop doing and start being and we need this to take place throughout our systems and structures. The systems aren't the pieces to blame – it is the two legged mammals with opposable thumbs who God has been gracious enough to love and redeem – we've done it.

We clergy cannot care for the souls of others if we cannot acknowledge the despair in our own. As United Methodists, it is past time we put aside worrying about our dying sect and consider instead that gospel message that gave birth to a movement that changed the world. It is time to return to that message and the methods – not worrying so much (at the start) our churches but our lives – which is the way of sanctification – the way of holiness.

Rob Bell on the Divine Dance

H/T to Jim Parsons for posting this great video. The rabbi story, I think, points to a huge piece of our faith journey we often have not wrestled with in ourselves. It seems to me, one of the problems with western Christianity today is that most of us are more like the policeman than the rabbi but we fail to admit it or fail to do anything at all.

Watch and see what you think...

Broken: The church you never knew you wanted. Week 1

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: (10) "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (11) "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. (12) 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' (13) "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' (14) "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14 NASB

On the recommendation of one of the monks at the monastery in Conyers a few years ago, I began reading the book, “The Spirituality of Imperfection.” One story is shared regarding a lecture at Rutgers University for alcohol counselors. On the board, the instructor had written the words, “human – humor – humility.” He turned to the gathering of would-be counselors and challenged, “you all know what 'humus' is don't you?”

In the back of the room sat a gentleman you might have thought was from the state of Texas. Being that he was every bit 6 foot something 250 pounds might have given and indication. Or his cowboy hat, boots and belt buckle. Or maybe his nametag cut in the shape of a star that said, “Tex.” In any case, in a deep drawl Tex, bellowed (and I'm editing here), “Yeah Doc, humus is worm dung!”

The authors note that we cannot work on one without working on all the others. I've mentioned before that following my cancer surgery in 2000, I was later diagnosed with clinical depression. I swore I'd never go there again. Never say never. I was again diagnosed with depression recently. Sitting around the table, we were talking as a family and I mentioned I was trying to get better. Logan looked at me and asked, “does that mean you won't yell so much?” We can't work on our humanity, our humor, or humility without dealing with our BEING humus.

It is humiliating to talk about being worm dung and dust isn't it? After all, we live in Georgia and know too well that being crushed or broken is not a good thing as Larry Munson reminded us that Saturday afternoon when he said,"We just stepped on their face with a hob-nailed boot and broke their nose! We just crushed their face!" We don't do broken well or at least not in public. But I would submit to you the unpopular notion that the only successful church is a broken church, the only successful Christian is a broken Christian and the only successful pastor is living a broken life.

Being part of the Church universal and a church in general is a most contrary thing. It associates you with the one organization in the world that exists for others. It associates with the primary logo of the cross – a symbol of a torturous death sentence. Its primary practices of baptism and communion are also symbolic of death. It is no wonder churches have moved these symbols out of primary places – they remind us too much of our humus.

And yet, how often do we hear a song on the radio or in a motivational seminar a question like, “what would you do different if you knew you'd die tomorrow?” Is it not the church, in our vows of membership, that reminds us of this very thing? How will you live differently? We are called to live for something more than ourselves and to be part of a revolution – the very body of Jesus Christ by our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

Like our humanity, humility and humor are tied together, so are the 5 vows. But I see these tied to each other in unique ways as well. Starting with Prayers and Presence – they make up the practice of Listening. To listen, we often have to give up myths, our own beliefs about people and situations. I think two apply here.

MYTH: I can worship God anywhere.
1) The Church creates Sacred Space where ever we gather and it is a place of prayer for all people – for the sinner and the self-righteous. I think it is significant that Jesus has the action of this parable play out in the temple. Other places in Scripture make the point of praying to God anywhere. Right here, Jesus could easily have done that but he does not. Instead, he puts the action in a sacred space where believers in Yahweh, God Almighty, are called to worship. It is here, that ALL people are invited (My house shall be called a house of prayer). We are a called people practicing presence.

MYTH: I've got to be perfect to come.
2) The Church, when creating Sacred Space, provides a place to break or be broken. The prayer of the tax collector has become known to the church as the– The Jesus Prayer - “Have mercy on me a sinner.” The practice of simple yet profound breath prayers is an ancient practice of the church stemming from this verse. Simple, one phrase prayers, remind us of our need to pray every moment, our need to be honest with ourselves and with God.

Prayer is a willing receptiveness to the power, presence and pleasure of God. To pray in this way means we must be willing to be present and actively listen. This is contrary to our nature that demands attention and a hearing. Jesus calls to the whole person – listen – in your prayers and presence.

A Message For Saints

Ephesians 1:18-23 NASB (18) I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, (19) and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might (20) which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, (23) which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

This week I was thinking about one of our conversations a few weeks back during our set-up time. For those of you who have never done set-up, you surely miss some great times and conversations! That week Rob had posted on Facebook about cleaning out his book collection of business leadership books. We talked about some of the titles that have made their way not just into business but into the church. Books like, “Who Moved My Cheese,” “From Good To Great,” and “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” that were forced upon us from managerial types who wanted to remake the organization.

Then I came across something written in 1756, where John Wesley remarked, “November 1 was a day of triumphant joy, as All Saints' Day generally is. How superstitious are they who scruple giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints.”

I thought about this quote of Wesley's regarding this day called “All Saints Day” and how little thought is given to such a day because of our superstitious nature or maybe we feel it is morbid. But as our conversation played out that Sunday, how much homage has been paid to those we have set-up to be leaders in the church – people who fail to recognize the One Irrefutable Law of Leadership that Paul makes fairly clear in his letter to the Ephesian church: It is Jesus, the Son of God who is over ALL.

It was a few months ago, I remember driving in my car and sitting at a stop light. I was totally discouraged and reflecting on my leadership. Sitting there, the Spirit of God reminded me that God gave Jesus, “as head over all things to the church (v.22).” Dr. Dan Allender, author of “Leading with a Limp,” would agree completely and then some. He takes it a step further with a cue from Paul's first letter to Timothy when he says that pastors are to be the chief sinners of the church!

When we try ever so desperately to gain control of things, we only move faster and grasp tighter. Trying to lead the church (or even business) is about leading people. Under the guise of modern leadership experts, we become “bulls in the china shop.” In our families and in our work and in our faith, the more we try the next principle or read the next book, the more we find things not turning out so right. We look at others and wonder how “they do it?” And we miss the wisdom of the grandmother who said, “The only completely happy people I know are the people I don't know at all.”

Now that is a funny little word, “ALL.” It gets kind of lost in our conversations. But Paul uses the word 5 times in these verses. I'm sure you're imagining there must be some Greek word of great significance behind this. Nope. It is the word 'pas' it means 'all'. In other words, it means what it means to us = everything; the whole; complete. And this is where Jesus sits, over it ALL.

It seems to me, this is ultimately what a saint is, someone who recognizes their position as a sinner/maybe even chief sinner and sees just how significant it is that Jesus is over it ALL. Jesus is over I-75 at 7am in the morning. Jesus is over homeroom and Advanced Math/English/Social Studies. Jesus is over babies with dirty diapers at 3am in the morning. Jesus is over the victim of the DUI at Grady Hospital. Jesus is over all the leaves that have to be cleaned-up and the HOA. Jesus is over Tuesday's elections and the results on Wednesday. Jesus is over abortion clinics and over the electric chair. Jesus is over AIDS and Jesus is over birthdays. Do you get it? Jesus is over it ALL and a saint comes to see that no matter what happens, no matter what you and I face, no matter how awful we feel curled up in a ball on the floor, He HAS been there and He is not merely over it but he is in it – ALL IN ALL.

God didn't come in Jesus looking for perfect people. He came looking for perplexed, pathetic people and it is those he wanted use to lead his church. The idea that saints are somehow a set-apart holy class is what some would like us to believe but the truth is that no Christian can be a Christian apart from Jesus Christ being who he in our lives as he is in the world – All in All.

There is a story about a conversation Jesus had with the archangel Gabriel when Jesus returned to heaven after the ascension. “You mean,” Gabriel said, “your whole plan to save the world depends on that ragtag bunch of former fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors?” “That’s right,” Jesus replied. “But what if they fail?” Gabriel persisted with alarm. “What’s your backup plan?” “There is no backup plan,” Jesus said.

It makes no sense does it? None of us who have served as leaders in business or military or community would ever think of such a thing! But saints get it – no one could do it anyway, not with out Jesus. From Stephen, the first martyr recognized by the Church to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and all those unknown to us (but known intimately by Jesus), they got it – and it is them we recognize, those who have gone before us, those who have lived and died and know the one irrefutable law of leadership that the Son of God who is over ALL. But they not only know they see the author and know him face to face and on this All Saints Day, I invite you to pause, maybe for the first time, or maybe for 1,000th time. Recognize you're a sinner, that Jesus loves you and know there is no backup plan – you are the saints you've been waiting for.

(Pastor's Note: Yes, I know that according to the liturgical calendar, we're a week early. After consideration it seemed better to reclaim the day.)

The Quest for Character: The End Game

(2Ti 4:6-8 GNB) As for me, the hour has come for me to be sacrificed; the time is here for me to leave this life. (7) I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. (8) And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day---and not only to me, but to all those who wait with love for him to appear. (2Ti 4:16-18) No one stood by me the first time I defended myself; all deserted me. May God not count it against them! (17) But the Lord stayed with me and gave me strength, so that I was able to proclaim the full message for all the Gentiles to hear; and I was rescued from being sentenced to death. (18) And the Lord will rescue me from all evil and take me safely into his heavenly Kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever! Amen.

As I understand the story, the District Superintendent had come to his wits end with this church that was never pleased with the pastors they were sent. At this year's meeting of the Staff-Parrish Relations Committee, the DS brought a letter from a potential candidate. It went something like this...

"I understand your church is looking for a pastor. I should like to submit my application. I am generally considered to be a good preacher. I have been a leader in most of the places I have served. I have also found time to do some writing on the side. I am over fifty years of age (no children), and while my health is not the best, I still manage to get enough work done to please my congregation. As for a reference, I am somewhat handicapped. I have never served in any place more than three years, and the churches where I have preached have generally been pretty small, even though they were located in rather large cities. Some places I had to leave because my ministry caused riots and disturbances. When I stayed, I did not get along too well with other religious leaders in town, which may influence the kind of references these places will send you. I have also been threatened several times and been physically attacked. I have gone to jail three or four times for expressing my thoughts. You will need to know that there are some men who follow me around undermining my work. Still, I feel sure I can bring vitality to your church. If you can use me, I should be pleased to be considered."

The SPR committee was a bit surprised the United Methodist Church would commission or ordain such a person let alone, that their District Superintendent would think this was a good candidate for them. The SPR committee chair, asked the DS, “Why did you come here with someone with these credentials? I'd like to know who this pastor is so I can call the Bishop!” The DS handed the letter over to the committee chair. His face went blank. Then someone piped up, “Who signed it?” The chair simply said, “Paul.”

In no story that I've read or watched have I found the quest or goal to be easy. We watch and read movies and books to journey with those characters on their quest. These characters face life and limb to achieve the results they desire. I think our kids grasp it better than us grown-ups because they have imaginations we have long sense turned off. But even we know the truth, usually in the times we brush up against our mortality.

I know from experience having twice in my life rubbed elbows with my death. The first, was night diving off of Radio Island, NC and getting caught in the tide going out. Suddenly, I was swimming against the current, and watching the rock wall go by, then nothing and then seeing the channel marker go past. I realized in that moment, that if I didn't get hold of that marker at 40 feet, I would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean. The second, was facing the diagnoses of testicular cancer in the year 2000. I hope that when the next time comes, I will be able to join with Paul I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. (8) And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God!

Three things Paul says he did three things in the course of his life to endure...

“I have done my best...” I cannot say or hear the words without thinking about my four years as a Cub Scout Den Leader and the motto of Cub Scouts - “Do Your Best!” But I also grew up with that motto when I was a Cub myself and it is a reminder to us all that WE can only do our best. Different translations have fight but the idea of race seems to follow better here as it does in 1 Corinthians 9:25.

Next up Paul notes that he has "run the race in full." William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study, reminds us of the history of the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. Upon defeating the Persians, a Greek soldier ran the entire way back to the magistrate to declare, “We won!” and then he died. 26.2 is the sticker on the backs of cars that indicates someone has completed a marathon.

Finally, he says, “I kept the faith,” but maybe not what you were thinking. You see this phrase has a couple of meanings, one of which refers again to the sports analogy that Paul is fond of using. You could say here, “I kept the rules of the contest and didn't foul out.” It is hard here in October, not to be reminded here of the doping scandals surrounding baseball and the Tour de France. Paul says in his quest he never tried to cheat his way to the finish line. His letter to the SPR committee assures us of that!

Yet there remains something of greater significance and it is by far of greater significance than Paul's will power as verse 17 declares, "the Lord stayed with me and gave me strength, so that I was able to proclaim the full message for all the Gentiles to hear; and I was rescued from being sentenced to death." Paul, on his own, could never have sustained himself over the course of his life. We don't have a biography or his journal to go by so we don't fully appreciate what Paul must have faced.

What we have is the assurance of where Paul has placed his trust, where Paul kept his eyes focused, and where Paul kept his feet moving – always toward Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel – that God had come into the world to rescue you and me from ourselves, from doing life our way. And Paul believed it had all been worth it – I for one, believe he was right. His example taught others to run the race and they passed down Paul's words and example all the way till today.

And what about today? What about you and me and the race before us? Maybe the analogy doesn't fit you. Maybe swimming or hiking or driving is more your thing. It doesn't matter, but what does, what is central is this, are your eyes on Jesus? Rest assured, no matter how bad you're cramping, no matter how lonely the road, no matter when you are about to give out, Jesus will stay with you and give you strength – not for your own goals but for pointing the next runner you meet in the direction of Jesus Christ. This is the Quest for Character – to give your life for others – just as Jesus did.

The Quest for Character: Words to Live By

2Ti 3:14-17 NASB You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, (15) and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (16) All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (17) so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2Ti 4:1-5 NASB I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: (2) preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (3) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, (4) and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (5) But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

There are certain sermons that as a United Methodist, I simply can't do without looking to John Wesley for some insight. But in a sermon on this very same text, Dr. Maxie Dunnam, retired President of Asbury Theological Seminary, took a unique twist. Dr. Dunnam noted that there is in fact a problem that has come from one of Wesley and it is this, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”

Dr. Dunnam went on to say that he wished Wesley had never said those words and I think I must agree. It has led far to many to believe that you can believe anything and be a Methodist. Granted, I don't believe that is Wesley's fault – it is at the root of what Paul was writing to Timothy when he said, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

When I moved the middle of my junior year of high school, just months after making the decision to follow Jesus Christ, I was just a baby in my faith. I knew that if I did nothing, if I sat ideally by, then this new relationship that I had with God would not last. At our new church, I picked up a copy of a little book called, “The Upper Room” and I began the habit of reading from the Bible everyday. Today, The Upper Room is my homepage on my computer for the very same reason.

Maybe the difficulty here is the idea that somehow the words of the Bible are stagnant. In terms of how this passage is normally taught, there is little reference to it beyond using verse 16 as a means to berate others to believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. As Professor Dirk Lange (@ puts it, “... faithfully continuing what we have learned does not mean quoting Scripture ad infinitum on any subject or controversy until we are blue in the face (or our opponents run away!).”

Look at theses verses again. My problem with school and learning was always that it had to do with regurgitating information for a test of a paper. But the truth is that isn't about learning – it is about living. And here lies a central point in Wesley's words - “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer.”

People will reject the Bible but are quick to believe and put their trust in practices of witchcraft or UFO's. How quick will we dismiss that God might have spoken something of relevance to our lives that we ought to change but are quick to listen to a politician or media personality. We prefer entertainment and contentment to righteousness and holiness. And we wonder why the world, our country and the Church is in the state that it is in?

The monk, Thomas Merton, wrote, “The Bible is without question one of the most unsatisfying books ever written – at least until the reader comes to terms with it in a very special way (pg 11, Opening the Bible).” Likewise, Eugene H. Peterson, whose works include, “The Message” Translation, places clergy in the cross hairs for “...turning their studies into “stills.”

“The great attraction for distilling Scripture into truths and morals and lessons is simply laziness,” Peterson writes (pg. 134, Working the Angles). This moonshine gospel, this 100 proof stuff, are empty calories that strip all the nutrients and life from the narrative that is the Bible. As long as we treat it merely as another book, then it will remain unsatisfying – and we'll live with tickled ears or in this case, throats warm to little more than snake oil.

Paul's words are clear and the tradition of the Church universal echoes through the centuries – ALL Scripture is inspired by God. It applies at once to the Old but by consideration of the Church also applies to the New. We do not seek it out for a word. It is The Word and the Word seeks us out.

Yes, the Word has given every follower of Jesus has their good work to do. (3:17)
Yes, every pastor is accountable to the Word in fulfilling their ministry. (4:5)
And yes, the Word is living and not stagnant – the Word “put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message)" and the Word is available for you and me today to follow and be changed into His likeness.

The Quest For Character: Conformation

2Timothy 2:1-15 NASB You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2) The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (3) Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (4) No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. (5) Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. (6) The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. (7) Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (8) Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, (9) for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. (10) For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. (11) It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; (12) If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; (13) If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (14) Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. (15) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

I like to do things my way. I like to eat my cereal with a tablespoon not a teaspoon. I like to mow my grass in a routine way. When I clean the bathrooms, I have my routine and cleaners that I like to use. I like my week's schedule to go just so. When I get up in the mornings, I have my routine and the same when I go to bed at night. I really like to do things my way.

The lion liked things his way too. One day he met a monkey in the jungle. The lion pounced on the poor monkey and said, "Who is king of the jungle?" The frightened monkey replied, "You are, O mighty lion." So the lion let him go. The next animal the lion met was a zebra. He pounced on it and roared, "Who is king of the jungle?" "You are, O mighty lion." So the lion let him go. The lion next met an elephant and asked the same question. The elephant grabbed the lion, twirled him around the threw him 50 feet. The lion picked himself up and huffed, "Just because you don't know the answer is no reason to get so rough."

The Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, tells the story of Naaman who was someone who liked things his way too. As general over the armies of Aram, he knew had plenty of power and knew how to get his way but he had one flaw. He was leper and his leperousy was taking it's toll on his health. From a slave girl he learned of the prophet Elisha in Israel and so journeyed to seek healing. When he arrived at Elisha's house, Elisha's servant came out to Naaman and told him to wash in the river Jordan seven times and he would be healed.

But Naaman wanted more! He wanted a show and a ritual! He didn't want wash in the nasty, dirty Jordan River! (5:13) But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" 95:14) So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. (5:15c) Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel...”

Oswald Chambers, author of the devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest” wrote, “My vision of God is dependent upon the condition of my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me. Before I can say, “I saw the Lord,” there must be something in my character that conforms to the likeness of God.”

Paul to Timothy says, Conform to the Gospel! (v.8) 2Ti 2:8 NASB “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel.” Paul is addressing here that we can't go around teaching something different than the gospel of Jesus Christ – what Paul was in fact in teaching. Verses 17-18 speak of Hymenaeus and Philetus who were preaching a different message, one that was stealing the hope from people.

Paul goes on to share from what appears to be an early hymn of the church. Our hope is not in Christ crucified but in Jesus resurrected from the dead. It seems to me that if I consistently want things my way, it is going to be hard for my character to ever look like Jesus'. For us to discover the trait of conformation of Character, Paul says

1. Die to your way (v.11)
John Wesley noted here it means we have to become, “Dead to sin, and ready to die for him.” This is precisely the path Naaman had to travel. Naaman struggled with pride. So do I. What is it that is keeping you from conforming?

2. Endure His Way (v.12a) It will be hard.
Enduring the way of Jesus Christ is not going to be easy. Ya think? This is what Paul is talking about in his own testimony. He is called a criminal though he broke no law. Naaman had to endure the humiliation of bathing in the Jordan river.

3. Don't disown The Way(v.12b) –
There are far too many zombies in the Church. What do I mean? We Christians preempt our dying. It takes place when we gloss over the point of Paul in the previous verse that being a Christian exempts us from difficulty. Rather than bathe 7 times we do it 1 time and then 6 times we take a sponge bath and think we followed directions. We got up and started walking around before the work was done and there is nothing pretty about it.

4. Your faith may falter – His faithfulness never will (v.13)
But losing faith isn't the same as disowning The Way. Like Peter, we may take our eyes off of Jesus and look at the waves. We might slip back into our pride as Naaman did before someone corrects us.

What is it you need to die to? What is there for you to endure? Have you disowned? Faith faltered? Today offers you another chance to conform to the character of Jesus. Character begins at the Gospel – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

The Quest For Character: Legacy

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy. For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. (2Timothy 1:1-14 NASB)

To this day, I give credit to Don and Jon Hall and Curtis Martin for mentoring me in my faith as teenager. But it was my grandmother Bonnie, with her body crippled by arthritis, who was faithful in prayer and in setting an example for me. Consider for a moment, who was it who truly kindled your faith?

This may well have been one of Paul's last letters written. He sends it from a prison cell in Rome as he awaits his fate before Caesar's court. It goes out to this young man Timothy, the pastor at the church of Ephesus.

Author and pastor, Bruce Wilkinson, tells about attending a conference many years ago. He discovered that a man sitting off to the side at this conference was the son of a very famous Christian leader. Wilkinson decided to introduce himself to this young man and find out what it was like to grow up in the home of such an admired leader. He worked his way over to the young man and said, "I understand that you're such-and-such, the son of so-and-so." This young man stared right at Wilkinson as he asked, "What was it like, growing up in your father and mother's home? What was it like being the son of such a great Christian leader?" The next thing Wilkinson knew, this young man turned, swore at him, swore at his father, swore about the Bible, and said, "I hate God. I hate Jesus Christ." Then he turned on his heel and walked out of that conference, and didn't come back the rest of the day.

Wilkinson was stunned. He couldn't think of anything more gut-wrenching than having his own children hate him, hate God and hate Christ like that. What had happened to this young fellow, he asked himself, and what could he do to avoid it happening in his own family?

What kind of legacy of faith are we leaving behind? Paul was encouraged by what he saw in Timothy's faith in Jesus Christ. Paul could see both Timothy's response to legacy left by his mother and grandmother and the Timothy's response to Paul's own example. But Paul knew more than Timothy about what was in front, things Timothy had yet to experience namely that suffering goes with the name of Jesus Christ.

The legacy of Faith Paul indicates is one that comes from the Holy Spirit (v. 7). It is a gift of grace. Then Paul uses a unique word here that I really like, a word we translate re-kindle. It is a word related to a fire. Having had a great deal of outdoor experience, one of the things we know is that when lost, the most encouraging thing one can do to help moral is to start a fire. Carefully tended, a fire can die down overnight and then be rekindled in the morning with coals once thought dead.

How we live makes a difference in the lives of others. Faith in Jesus Christ changes the character of a person and it does not easily die and it is worth striving for, protecting and growing. It is what we commit to as a church at every baptism. We testify to it every time we celebrate the gift of eternal life at the Communion table.

Sidestepping Suffering

We do our best as parents wrestling with our schedules to make the time we want and need with our families. I always seem to hit stretches that are just insanely draining and busy that keep me distracted and feeling like a planet on the outer orbit of the Sun – part of the whole but out of the warmth and company of others.

For some reason, it seems that in those times, I have to step and discipline. We have to do it – distant and removed though we maybe. Of course, the greater than average response is something along the lines of, “Dad - I hate you!” Nothing like feeling more connected to family.

To avoid it is to hold back what our kids need and we know it. We don't want to (and a good many parents choose not to for fear of the “hate” word) but to do so is to fail correct an error, one that could ruin a child.

The truth is, I think, we do not like to deal with pain. My good friend and chiropractor, Dr. George Tomes, likes to point out, “When we step on the tail of a dog and he barks, we don't say something is wrong with his mouth.” More to the point, when it comes to the spiritual journey, we cannot imagine WHY would God let me hurt?! Why would God allow ME to feel this way?!

We're scared of going deeper and addressing what we fear about God. Our modern Christianity is second rate and hides behind a cursory understanding of the Bible and theology. We say we want more of God but we fail to account for what that might look like.

OR we fail to peal away what we think is a “spiritual question” and ask what the real question might be because if we did it would come closer to one of these: Why is God acting like a parent and not a vending machine? Why is God acting like a parent and not Santa Claus? Why is God acting like a parent and not my best friend?

The writer of Hebrews sees most clearly what takes place in our journey of faith and God's instructions when he writes,

(4) You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; (5) and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; (6) FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES." (7) It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (8) But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (9) Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? (10) For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. (11) All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (12:4-11 NASB)

When was the last time you shed blood striving against sin? Yeah, me either – can't remember. The moment we hurt, we Christians tend to run and hide behind our pretty baubles at the book store and our perfect padded pews. I fear we revel in acedia. Martin Luther condemned the Roman Catholic Church for it's selling of indulgences and today's protestants sell our souls for a comfortable hovel. We have turned spiritual boredom into a spiritual gift.

St. John of the Cross (known for “The dark night of soul”) wrote centuries ago, “Nothing in this life can offer the secure hope, the limitless love our soul needs...It is because He [God] loves you that He refuses to let you rest your soul in this corrupt, dying world.” (Living Flame of Love: Stanza 1)

I can only see what I found in the mirror. I have taken measure of myself and found myself wanting and with good reason, God's work isn't finished. I dread the journey as much as I long for the results. Staying put is more often the road less traveled on a religious road use to sidestepping suffering.

Images from
1. Rotorhead
2. Lusi

A Dangerous Endeavor: Lost Week 2

The sermon today comes from Luke 15:1-10

H.H. Staton in his book, "A Guide to the Parables of Jesus" tells the story of having been on an ocean liner headed to the Middle East.

Nine hundred miles out to sea a sail was sighted on the horizon. As the liner drew closer, the passengers saw that the boat - a small sloop flying a Turkish flag - had run up a distress signal and other flags asking for its position at sea. Through a faulty chronometer or immature navigation the small vessel had become lost. For nearly an hour the liner circled the little boat, giving its crew correct latitude and longitude. Naturally there was a great deal of interest in all the proceeding among the passengers of the liner. A boy of about 12 standing on the deck and watching all that was taking place remarked aloud to himself - "It's a big ocean to be lost in."

Hearing that story reminded me of one of my favorite quotes of all time, “A ship in the harbor is safe but that is not what a ship is built for.” This world is a difficult place to be lost in but we were not created to simply tie up on the dock and set by.

Luke introduces us to two types of people here: the “holy” and the “heathen.” The holy are the pharisees and the scribes. The heathen are the tax collectors and sinners. Both are up to their eyeballs in what matters most. One group is focused on being perfect the other is focused perfectly on being. (Can't help thinking of Billy Currington's song - “I'm not known for doin' a lot, But I do my best work when the weather's hot, I'm pretty good at drinkin' beer.”)

Jesus could have easily aligned himself with the “holy.” In fact, this was what that group had been trying to do. But lost in translation is the word “Receive” - prosdechomai; a word we know well at Crossroads – Jesus was offering HOSPITALITY. Jesus was admitting heathens into his group – into the family.

And so in the midst of the griping and moaning of the holy people Jesus pulls out a story of a lost sheep and a lost coin. What is lost for us, is how much these two stories are influenced by their setting of home and community. Let's stop for a moment and consider this. In the USA we are an individualist society. We identify ourselves by our job, sports team, denomination, etc. But the Jews of Jesus' day had a community identity. Jesus OF Nazareth – Judas OF Iscariot / Simon Bar Jonah = 'son of' Jonah. The prayer of Jesus reflects this too: “OUR daily bread” and “forgive US.”

Jesus was not just building on this idea of community for the Kingdom BUT expanding it. Without searching a bit, this is lost to us. I had the chance a few years ago to listen to Dr. James Fleming who is an expert in first century Jewish culture. In his work on Jesus Parables, he notes that these parables are built on this important detail of culture – namely the Jewish home.

The Latin word for a Jewish home was “insula.” It is the root for the word “island.” These insulas are very much unlike our homes of today. Insulas contained more than one related families. Poorer families contained more holding upwards of 40-50 people. When the family grows, more walls/rooms are added. (1)

So think for a moment on the parable of the lost sheep. This lost shape endangers the livelyhood of the shepherd and the ability to provide for his family in the insula. Shepherds were considered unclean and the lowest of society. The family rejoices when the sheep is found because it is 'their' sheep too. And consider the coin of the woman. It is likely this is part of the woman's dowry, a gift from her father. It would be part of a group of ten such coins. So in essence she has lost one-tenth of her life insurance. Everyone has joined in the search AND celebration because they are in it together.

It has been noted that "Jesus used parables and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related." Jesus offered a vision of pushing out from the harbor – to follow Jesus meant then and means now, that we are setting off on what one person termed a “dangerous endeavor” = a life focused on transformation not conformation in merely ritual and beliefs. The focus, always for Jesus is people and that should NEVER CHANGE no matter how many centuries we are removed from Jesus' incarnation as a human. Jesus was who we were created to be. To that end, Jesus in these parables pushes off from the dock in search of those who are lost at sea.

Martin Luther, the monk who founded the Lutheran church described it this way: A truly Christian work is it that we descend and get so mixed up in the mire of the sinner as deeply as he sticks there himself, taking his sin upon ourselves and floundering out of it with him...If you are proud toward the sinner and despise him, you are utterly damned.  Why? They are family.

Tuesday this week I went home to my office to work. I walked in the door expecting to see our 6 month old kitten Zoe come bounding up to me, trying to sneak out of the house. Nothing. I called her. Nothing. I began looking in her napping spots. Nothing. I began a search through the house calling out her name, turning things over left and right. I went outside calling for her and her big brother hoping the two were together. Nothing. I was thinking the worst. When Heather arrived, she began retracing her steps from earlier and finally found Zoe in our daughter's closet.

I didn't want to be in a panic looking for our kitten but at the time, she became the focus – our home was incomplete. The fact is, we as a church, as THE CHURCH, are missing people. We are incomplete because we are missing people here that Jesus also has died for, we are being called to a dangerous endeavor of finding our missing family. It is a big ocean to be lost in out there.

What does that look like? It looks like we don't give up on people who've visited Crossroads. It looks like we don't give up on each other who are here at Crossroads. We keep inviting, we keep loving, we keep serving. We keep doing the simple things and avoid getting ourselves bogged down in miniscule things. We feed each other when we're sick. We help the poor. We teach our children. We focus a bit less on me and more on the we.

Until everyone turns to Jesus, the family isn't complete.

(1) referenced from Dr. J. Fleming's booklet: "The Parable of Jesus"

You Can't Do It!

Luke 14:25-33 NASB Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, (26) "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. (27) "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. (28) "For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? (29) "Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, (30) saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' (31) "Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? (32) "Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. (33) "So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

A while back Will Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and now Bishop in Alabama, got a call from an upset parent, a VERY upset parent. "I hold you personally responsible for this," he said. "Me?" Will asked.

The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."

"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," Will said.

"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.

As the conversation went on, Dr. Wilimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail. Will said, "You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."

"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," said the father, meekly. Hmm. (1)
I can recall a few of my own students from my youth ministry and their parents who had similar conversations with me.

It is almost a disservice to try and preach on these words of Jesus. It is almost arrogant of me to try and add anything to these words. We can say it is about counting the cost. We can talk about carrying our cross. BUT read between the lines – for I think it is in between the lines that Jesus is saying to us – get ready – you can't do it.

In Matthew's gospel we find the parallel where the words are just a bit different: Mat 10:37 "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. It is the same meaning – nothing comes between you and Jesus. But the truth is you can't do it.

Jesus isn't asking you to give up the worst things in life either. Revivals have loved to hear about those who gave up drugs or alcohol or promiscuity. But really, look at it, what is Jesus asking us to give up? The best things – the relationships and things that we say make life worth living. Do you understand? You can't do it.

Jesus is making people squirm. He isn't blessing the children right here. He isn't talking about feeding the poor. He isn't a consensus builder or a comforter. Jesus is thinning out the crowd. Follow me? You can't. You can't build the tower. You can't win the war.

When you know you can do it, then you obviously don't need Jesus.

When I began to follow Jesus, I left behind family – I would go where God sent. I left behind the ideas of “having it all.” My dad still worries about me.
What has it cost me to follow? It has cost me friends who are pastors. It has cost me friends who are Christians. It has cost me trust in my own denomination. It has cost me my health. It has cost me hair color for sure. BUT that is the point isn't it? What gets in the way has to go. It would all stop if I said I could do it.

Who is a successful Christian? What defines a successful follower of Jesus? Is it Hakuna Matata? Being in a mega-church? Is it being a pastor of a mega-church? Is it salary? Is it exemption from suffering? The truth of being a successful Christian? You get to die.

So just what is lost? I think in part it is this: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. In these stories and parables – Jesus is on his way to the place where he will lose his own life for you and for me. He is on his way to do what we cannot do – save ourselves.

He takes fisherman and turns them into disciples
He takes Pharisees and turns them into authors of the Bible
He takes a monk and turns him into a Lutheran
He takes an Anglican and turns him into a Methodist
He take Duke Presbyterians and turns her into a missionary
He takes a youth pastor and turns him into Methodist pastor and then a new church start pastor

None of these changes took place because they could it but precisely because they couldn't or can't do it! As long as we tell God what we are to do then we can do it. If we can do it then we don't need Jesus. Oswald Chambers, author of the devotional “My Utmost for His Highest,” once said, "Abandon to God is of more value than personal holiness.... When we are abandoned to God, He works through us all the time."

What is it you're not abandoning? What is it that God is calling you to do that you are saying, “I can't!” That is the place he is most likely calling you.

(1) (David E. Leininger, Collected Sermons, Adapted from William Willimon, Pulpit Resources, September 10, 1995, p. 45.)

I'm Going Old School

During the last few years I've done my own thing as has been the custom of many other clergy. It has been relatively easy to do so because there are today so many resources available for sermon series directed at "felt needs" in churches.

However, as I began reflecting on sermon planning for the coming year, I felt a particular draw away from that approach. As I have grown to question the motivations of my own heart this past year, I couldn't help but consider how my heart might also be impacting how and what I preach.

This has led me to go 'old school' and return to something called the Lectionary. More specifically, the Revised Common Lectionary. That doesn't mean I'm giving up on series preaching. In fact, from my experience, the Lectionary plan lends itself ideally to series preaching just not felt need preaching.

It is kind of like the signs I've seen one church posting around:

"Church for people who don't do church."

How about we do church for people who want to meet God?

Not the god of my "felt need" but the God of the Universe, the God of mystery who meets us in bread and juice and in the hands of the poor? I realize that there are three fingers pointing back at me as I point fingers here - I don't mind - that is exactly my point.

I'm going old school because I don't trust my heart - I don't trust my mind - I don't trust my instincts. Instead, I'm trusting the mystery of the Body of Christ, the CHURCH, with its flaws and mistakes but also filled with the mystery of tradition, reason, experience but ultimately, the Bible.

Two Invitations - Walking Wisely Week 8

Proverbs 9:1-18
Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars; (2) She has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; She has also set her table; (3) She has sent out her maidens, she calls From the tops of the heights of the city: (4) "Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!" To him who lacks understanding she says, (5) "Come, eat of my food And drink of the wine I have mixed. (6) "Forsake your folly and live, And proceed in the way of understanding." (7) He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, And he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself. (8) Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, Reprove a wise man and he will love you. (9) Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning. (10) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (11) For by me your days will be multiplied, And years of life will be added to you. (12) If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, And if you scoff, you alone will bear it. (13) The woman of folly is boisterous, She is naive and knows nothing. (14) She sits at the doorway of her house, On a seat by the high places of the city, (15) Calling to those who pass by, Who are making their paths straight: (16) "Whoever is naive, let him turn in here," And to him who lacks understanding she says, (17) "Stolen water is sweet; And bread eaten in secret is pleasant." (18) But he does not know that the dead are there, That her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

I began this series by asking what Pastor Andy Stanley calls, “The Best Question Ever,” namely, “What is the wise thing to do?” The book of Proverbs is chocked full of answers to the best question. We're not interested in asking “What do I want to do?” “What is the good thing to do?” or even, “What is the best thing to do?” No, it is about the wise thing.

Pastor Carlyle Fielding passed on a family story that occurred when his dad was a young man. It seems the young man had gotten in to hanging with a group of guys that were not making wise decisions and were getting into trouble. His father cautioned him but the young man continued to ignore him. Finally, the father asked his son to join him in his study to pray for him (how often are you doing this?). After prayer, the father said to him, “I don't want you running with these guys anymore.” “But Dad,” said the boy, “I'm not better than they are.” The father replied, “I'm not saying you are better than they are. I am saying that you have a better opportunity to make something out of your life.” And it was a lesson he never forgot.

There are two voices that cry out – shout out – even scream out to us. Two invitations are given to us. Solomon tells us those two choices boil down to choosing the way of Lady Wisdom or the way of Mistress Folly.

Wisdom has prepared a beautiful home with seven pillars (9:1). This number 7 throughout scripture implies the idea of completeness and perfection. The book of James in the New Testament sharese (Jam_3:17)the wisdom from above is described as (1) pure, (2) peaceable, (3) gentle, (4) willing to yield, (5) full of mercy and good fruits, (6) without partiality and (7) without hypocrisy. She has got a huge tailgate party spread. It has got the best brisquit and barbque, the best drinks available (9:2). No one is going away hungry.

What does Lady Wisdom desire? Wisdom desires a hearing (9:3) and to that end, wisdom doesn't sit idly by. She goes to the high place and sends out the message to those who are simple (9:4-6). Her promise is wisdom and understanding to those who fear and know God (9:10). Long life is found in wisdom (9:12). The way of wisdom is the BEST LIFE POSSIBLE!!!

But the voice of wisdom has a rival louder and more tempting. She has built nothing as is absent from the descriptions of her. She sits in the doorway or sits at the high place in the city. Believer's Bible Commentary describes her as “loudmouthed, empty-headed and brazen faced.” Another translation says of her that she is “loud, seductive and knows nothing. (ESV). God's Word Translation drops the description “folly” and says, “The woman Stupidity is loud, gullible, and ignorant.”

Folly is tempting – it sounds incredibly like what we want to be seen as in our day and age. But there is an interesting piece here in these words you may or may not have noted. You see, Mistress Folly is 'naïve.' Have you heard that before? Of course, she is no different from those she is calling to! Isn't it interesting that the word the world uses to describe people who follow after Jesus Christ - “naive” is the same word used by the Solomon to describe the world?

Did you hear about the controversy this week regarding Ms. Philippians at the Ms. Universe pagent? She grew up in hut with a dirt floor and no electricity. She worked her way through college. When asked about a major mistake in her life she said she hadn't made any. I listened as the guy on the radio, a member of a more “Open-minded” generation dismissed her answer as being a lie. Really? Did you know that same Hebrew word for naïve can also be translated - “Open-minded?”

The naïve, the silly, the simple calls to the simple and promises much! Stolen pleasures that are enjoyed in secret. They are no more than false promises.

I once met in the woods a former sheep dog. We struck up a conversation. Over the course of the conversation he shared with me how he recently became unemployed. It seemed a pack of coyotes lurked near a sheep pasture. But the dogs kept them at a distance and the sheep grazed safely. But the coyotes planned long and hard. From a distance out hearing of the dogs, the coyotes called out, “why is there always this hostility between us? We are wise and we know you are a simple minded and we have wanted to share our knowledge with you. But it is those dogs who are always stirring up trouble! Send them away and we will be good friends.” Well you can imagine where this is going, the dogs pleaded with the sheep not to send them away. The warned them but the sheep insisted. That evening the coyotes had the grandest feast of their lives.

The promise of Mistress Folly is hidden from the simple. In fact as I said, she her self is simple minded. A fairly accurate translation is that her home is a haunted house and it is the way of death. She promises much but the life she delivers is the worst possible.

It is a book seen as simple wisdom but then the best question is the same – what is the wise thing to do? Jesus said Mat 7:24 NASB "Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Tell me church, tell me friends – after you have heard the call of the wise and the foolish, which way will you walk?

Riddle Me This - Walking Wisely Week 7

Pro 1:5-9 NKJV A wise man will hear and increase learning, And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, (6) To understand a proverb and an enigma, The words of the wise and their riddles. (7) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction. (8) My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother; (9) For they will be a graceful ornament on your head, And chains about your neck.

There is a mystery here in Atlanta. It may not have run across your mind but there are some who have pondered it through the years. It surrounds manager Bobby Cox, his success in winning but also the impact of breaking the record of being tossed out more than any manager in Major League History. Sports Illustrated did a feature on the Bobby as he approaches retirement. Chipper Jones has certainly fueled a great deal of speculation. The article reveals some of the mysteries surrounding Bobby. I'll admit, I've never been a fan of Bobby Cox but I believe that I have come in part to understand the real mystery. You see, it isn't the impact on games one or lost that is the issue. No, if you want to know the real mystery of why it is this incredible manager has been thrown out so many it is the loyalty it has bred in the players who have played for him through these many years.

I'm fairly certain we each carry with us a list of mysteries that dwell in the back of our minds. For instance the one that has most troubled me, why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways? Yours I'm certain are deeper than mine – I just tend to the simple.

Yet at the beginning of Proverbs, Solomon notes that one of the pieces of concern, one of the central things that the book intends to address is helping those who desire wisdom to understand the riddles of life. Nowhere in Proverbs are riddles more pronounced than in the words of Agur son of Jakeh. His riddles are found in chapter 30 and reflect a totally different style of writing and wisdom than in the previous work.

The word riddle in the Hebrew, reflects the idea of satire. In a sense it is making a mockery – sarcasm possibly. Not surprisingly I think, the writer opens his lists with a work of mockery towards those who do evil.

The Riddle Of Evil Doers: Proverbs 30:11-14
Pro 30:11-14 NKJV There is a generation that curses its father, And does not bless its mother. (12) There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes, Yet is not washed from its filthiness. (13) There is a generation—oh, how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up. (14) There is a generation whose teeth are like swords, And whose fangs are like knives, To devour the poor from off the earth, And the needy from among men.

As we read those words, I imagine we begin to form pictures of people and situations we've been in ourselves. But we'd me at fault ourselves if we did not ask, “What is the wise the thing to do?” You see the danger in a riddle or an enigma is how quickly it mocks not someone else but the reader. Regarding verse 12 a Rabbi once noted "If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are the two. If only one, I am he."

It is not far from the scenario which played out before Jesus where the Pharisees attempted to carry out the death sentence on a woman caught in adultery. Jesus played in the dirt while they waited. When he spoke, his riddle was this, “He who doesn't have sin, you cast the first stone.” He went back to his drawing and all of the accusers went away. May I ask, what answers do you to these riddles of Agur in your life? (Pause)

The other point that comes through is the role of parables in Proverbs. These tend to often come out in the form of analogy and story. Of all the section which seems most applicable in my mind is Agur's 'Riddle of the Little.' In our world, so focused on big and shiny, Agur contrasts the wisdom of small things...

The Riddle Of Little: Proverbs 30:24-28
Pro 30:24-28 NKJV There are four things which are little on the earth, But they are exceedingly wise: (25) The ants are a people not strong, Yet they prepare their food in the summer; (26) The rock badgers are a feeble folk, Yet they make their homes in the crags; (27) The locusts have no king, Yet they all advance in ranks; (28) The spider skillfully grasps with its hands, And it is in kings' palaces.

The use of grouping ideas in threes and fours is found in literature throughout the Ancient Near East. It seems to have been beneficial in sharing thoughts and ideas with their students. But it tells of something more, namely, the evidence of God's design in the world around us. In this way, we come back around to Job and the examination of Job by God.

While such knowledge is good and has it's purpose, for us again, we must ask of ourselves, “What is the wise thing to do with these words?” To that I would look at the writer's intent – what wisdom is here for us? When you look at the ants or feel that bite on your foot, remember to be planning ahead. The timid rock badger makes a wise choice to hide where enemies do not find them. The locust, like a massive army, work in unison. And what about the spider who does it's skillful work – do you take note of it?

I have to wonder, as a young man, did Jesus not find this wisdom literature fascinating? The wise thing to note too, is how Jesus brought parables to the forefront of his teaching – alerting and pointing us to reality of God's Kingdom surrounding us, just as Proverbs did. What do I mean?
Mat 13:31-32 NASB He [Jesus] presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; (32) and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES."

“Proverbs is the scrapbook of common grace.” from Charles G. Martin. This is the way of God. Not in the grandiose. Not in vulgar displays. Not in extravagance. Just as the way of wisdom is found in the little, so to the Kingdom of God.Jesus – God of the Common. He was found NOT in palaces & with kings BUT with the poor & kicked around. He didn't speak to his disciples about being leaders BUT being loving. He didn't encourage followers to live a lavish lifestyle BUT to be looking at the Little. Jesus known not for doing BIG things but for doing the HARD things. The riddle is what has Christianity become known for and what is it that Jesus said we should be known for?

Who Gets To Judge?

I'm in so many ways a son of the South. I have lived most of my life in Mississippi, North Carolina and Georgia with a few stops elsewhere. I have lived and ministered among those who still use the N-word in everyday language and I have counted upon and put my trust in my brothers in Christ who are of African-American descent.

It has long been my desire to visit the King Center here in Atlanta and this summer, our family set our sights on making that happen. I have not read as widely as I'd like on Dr. King though I've read probably more than most. What I am most often struck by in the writings of so many is the absolute lack of recognition of the deep faith and the sermons of Dr. King which speak so forcefully of his trust in Jesus Christ.

So, during our time at the King Center, I looked for copies of sermons, of the messages of Dr. King, those rarely mentioned words inspired by God's Spirit. I managed to find two. I'll admit I was disappointed but I bought them and took them home. They've sit to the side now for a couple of weeks.

Now my own journey has taken me into the time that St. John of the Cross termed, “the dark night of the soul.” I have read his works and others on the role of suffering and pain in the life of the Christian. My own theology of suffering is being shaped in these many months and I've come to a recognition that our understanding of suffering in western Christianity is tragically underdeveloped. It barely hangs on life support, neglected and withered.

The times of dark nights are, in my estimation, misunderstood or more tragically, seen as weak faith. To read and hear Dr. King though, I come across one who both lived in times of dark nights and found there, the chance to face what God intends there – the places we need work.

As I rolled out of bed this week, I knocked those CDs off my bedside table. There, on the top, was the sermon, “Judging Others.” That signaled all to clearly a piece of my own soul that myself and others close to me, have found themselves dealing with lately.

Dr. King begins with the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1 saying, "Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” He goes on to share how Jesus modeled that with the woman caught in adultery, with Peter, the disciple who denied him, and Zacchaeus, the “wee-little man in the sycamore tree.” He added to it his own stories of trying to live out this command of Jesus in the face racism. He also shared of the conflict within the black community regarding the tension over non-violent protest or violent activism.

At the end of the sermon, Dr. King drives home the application points, questions which drive to the heart of the matter. We should ask these of ourselves in any and all situations where we might speak regarding others. Dr. King quotes from Dr. Alexander White, that before we speak we should ask:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it necessary?
3. Is it kind?

“If you can answer these three questions you can go out here and talk about anybody you want to talk about. When you answer these you come to a love of humanity. You don't judge too easily for in the process of judging, you judge yourself. As I come to my conclusion, our job is to be like Jesus.”

No, it isn't Martin Luther King Jr. Day but then wisdom doesn't ever call it in. Neither did Dr. King. Neither should the followers of Jesus.

From Bling To Blessing - Walking Wisely Week 6

Proverbs 11:23-31

Did you know that at one time generosity was illegal in Santa Cruz, California? That's right. Pastor Billy Strayhorn noted that about fifteen years ago, it was illegal for someone to put money in other people's parking meters without their permission. The practice called "plugging coins" was considered an illegal act by Santa Cruz municipal code. The fine for a parking violation was $12.00. The penalty "plugging" thirteen dollar.
Mr. Twister whose real name is Cory McDonald, is a professional clown and balloon twister, who has spared many car owners in Santa Cruz, California the misery of that twelve dollar parking ticket by putting quarters in their expired parking meters. After several warnings, Mr. Twister was ticketed for his random acts of illegal kindness. However, he refused to stop doing what he considers "doing to others as he would have them do to him."
But there is justice. In a strange twist, the news media got hold of the story and pretty soon Mr. Twister was being interviewed by CNN and nearly every news organization in the US. Letters from children all over the country began pouring into Santa Cruz City offices. Other clowns got into the act. Bumper stickers were created.
Mr. Twister became a local and national hero.
His acts of kindness prevailed. Declaring the law a "public relationship disaster," the Santa Cruz City Council took emergency action to yank the law from the books immediately. In an effort to show their support and their chagrin, each member of the City Council, along with the mayor, donned red clown noses and beeped their vote of approval.
Rather than see his Benjamins and Bling as something to aquire and protect, Mr. Twister saw it as a blessing and a chance to bless.

I am not a fan of clowns but I am a fan of this one! His story speaks to the heart of Proverbs on being wise with our bling. Yes – Proverbs speaks to gaining wealth and Yes – it speaks on the issues of poverty and Yes – it speaks on dangers of greed. John Wesley neatly sums this up in the sermon on “The Use of Money”. He laid out the foundational understanding that a believer should, “Having first, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then give all you can.”

But if all we dwell on is gaining and saving and avoiding greed – if this is what we take away from God's Word – on Solomon's wisdom then may God have mercy for we are clowns and jesters in the court and are making a mockery of the blessings of God and considering it merely our bling.

The issue at hand is not about giving money to the church – the issue is the condition of your heart. These aren't my words but the words of Solomon. This section begins and ends with a reference to those who are “Righteous.” A person who is righteous is in line with God's character for God is just/righteous as noted in the words of Job: "Shall mortal man be more just [righteous] than God?" (Job_4:1). On our own can we be righteous? The Bible clearly says no but it also makes clear that one of God's deepest desires is for his children to follow in His way. Over and over, the Bible identifies, describes, shows and demonstrates it is the nature of God to be generous. So to with His followers.

There are unfortunately barriers that come to us all – verses 27-29 identify that there are those who go after evil and when they do so they will find the results destructive. When it comes to finances and greed, such desire will damage even a family. Bankruptcy and tax evasion are two that I have seen in ministry that have damaged families, some irreprably.

When that damage occurs in the church, the family of God suffers harm and it calls into question whether the church is trustworthy. I know there are those who come here who carry wounds caused by churches. I know many of your stories related to this so you may think at this moment I am talking directly to you – and I am – but “you” are a whole lot of people.

It is hard not to hold back when we've been hurt in any relationship. But Solomon in his wisdom noted the danger in verse (24) that, “One person spends freely and yet grows richer, while another holds back what he owes and yet grows poorer.” Be it our estate or our soul, when we lack generosity we will know poverty. And so I ask the question, when it comes to generosity, what is the wise thing to do?

But Ken, that poor guy could get a job, why should I give? But Ken, I was in a church that abused my financial gifts? There valid questions – good questions but not the best because the wise question has to do with our souls. And the wise hear that we need not be irresponsible with our bling but turn it into blessing.

In 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the 30,000 pounds he had earned in his lifetime he had given away.

Wesley wasn't tithing. Tithing is the Bible's understanding of the minimum we ought to be giving to God. Generosity means we're talking above the 10 percent! Now you may say God has no right to ask that but if you believe God is God, and you are alive and have breath and are here then you are blessed. We all tithe to our mechanic, to our mortgage lender, to the grocery store – they tell us the cost – we give the minimum.

My words are a poor expression of all that I feel toward what God has given me. But the life that I now live following cancer and depression has strengthened my understanding of the generosity of God. If God only gave the minimum to us, we might have an argument. Look at it this way [says Paul in Romans 5:6-10] At the right time, while we were still helpless, Christ died for ungodly people. (7) Finding someone who would die for a godly person is rare. Maybe someone would have the courage to die for a good person. (8) Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This demonstrates God's love for us. (9) Since Christ's blood has now given us God's approval, we are even more certain that Christ will save us from God's anger. (10) If the death of his Son restored our relationship with God while we were still his enemies, we are even more certain that, because of this restored relationship, the life of his Son will save us.

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