Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I haven’t posted anything in quite some time. Partly, that was about the busy season and trying to finish up the semester. Mostly it was about fear, though. I got bogged down in my uncertainties about the future and bittersweet memories of the past, and I didn’t really want to hear what God might have to say. It was more comfortable to wallow in self-pity than to turn to God and give Him the opportunity to heal my hurt and point me in a new direction.

So I’m back now. Can’t promise that I won’t wander away again. I tend to struggle with that. But I’m trying again, and that’s the best any of us can expect from ourselves – when we finally realize that we’re the ones holding ourselves back, we get back up, dust ourselves off, and walk on.

So today, I’m cheating a little bit. I’ve been thinking about Advent. In the church I grew up in, I don’t remember ever even hearing the word Advent. I had no idea what it was until I began singing with church choirs. I think that was in high school or college. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the liturgy and the lectionary readings interest me so much. I grew up about as far from a liturgical tradition as you can get. And now that we have entered this season of Advent, I find myself wondering what the big deal is. It’s the BIRTH of Christ that matters, right? Because it’s the death of Christ that changed the world.

So, I cheated a little bit today, and went back to the lectionary reading for Sunday, because the Sunday readings seem to be more timely than the weekly readings; more focused on the calendar. And I was a bit surprised by what I found.
The first reading is Zephaniah 3:14-20

Verse 17 says, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior, He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” And verse 19 says, “Behold, I am going to deal at that time with all your oppressors, I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. “

What I remember taking from Christmas as a child was the idea a precursor of John 3:16 –“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” You know what I’ve never noticed about that verse before? It doesn’t say anything about Christ’s sacrificial death. I still believe it’s implied, but Christ isn’t just talking about His death here – He’s also talking about His life. And somehow or other I’ve always had the idea that this verse, and Christmas, were about Him arriving so He could die. And that’s all. But that’s not what John 3:16 says. It says believe. It says the Son was given. Yes, that implies a sacrificial death. But it also implies the simple act of living. We speak often about the pain God experienced in watching His Son die on the cross. The Scriptures say that He turned His back. But we rarely discuss how it must have felt to watch Him leave heaven for Earth. To watch Him walk among mortals for 33 years. To watch Him go through the same fears, pains, disappointments, betrayals, heartbreaks that we puny humans do. The act of allowing Christ to live must have taken almost as much from the heart of God as the act of allowing Him to die.

So that life must have meant something. And that’s what Advent is about.
Advent prepares our hearts for the coming Christ. Because, as Zephaniah says, He came to DO things. Not just to die. Not just to become the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Not just to pay the price of our redemption. But to live among us, “to exult over us with joy,” to “gather the outcast,” and to “turn their shame into praise and renown.” Those aren’t things a dead Man can do. Not even a resurrected one. So His life mattered too.
So Advent exists. And in the second reading from Sunday, Luke 3:7-18, John the Baptist brings a message of preparation. Yes, he speaks of coming judgment. But his specific instructions to those who would ask are not about guilt or shame over sinfulness. They are about LIVING in repentance, justice, and mercy. He tells the wealthy to share with the poor. He tells the tax-collectors to do their job honestly. He tells the soldiers to be good stewards of their authority. He doesn’t tell the rich to feel guilty that they have when others don’t. He doesn’t tell the tax-collectors to quit their jobs because they are universally despised. He doesn’t tell the soldiers to leave a corrupt system. He tells them all to DO SOMETHING to change perceptions and change lives.

And so must we. As we walk through this Advent season, we need to remember that God has called us to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” In preparation for the coming Christ, Who will teach us how to do all things well, we must turn back to the work of the Kingdom, in showing the love and God to a hurting world. Surely that was Christ’s mission here for all 33 years of His life. We can renew our commitment to it for one month.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Tuesday's Lectionary Readings:Zechariah 11:1-17, 1 Corinthians 3:10-23, Luke 18:31-43

I'm still totally stumped on the Zechariah verses. I see what appears to be a prophesy referring to Judas's betrayal of Christ. But I have no idea what to make of the rest. It seems to be the ravings of a vindictive deity that doesn't sound anything like the Abba that Jesus preached about. Can anyone help with this? Any insight?

The passage in Luke seems to confirm the thoughts I had yesterday on the previous verses in chapter 18 (and I swear I didn't read ahead). It specifically says that the disciples were totally confused by Jesus's prophesies about His death. And right after that, Jesus heals a blind man. Because the man asked Him to. Am I the only one who sees a metaphor here?

The verses in I Corinthians have the most to say to me at the moment, although I'm not entirely sure exactly what they are saying. Paul speaks of building on the Foundation. Christ is the only true Foundation, and all believers have that in common. Once you have accepted the gift of salvation, whatever else you build up in your life can neither make you more or less saved. Knowing Christ and doing His will is joy and life to a believer; that would be the gold, silver, and precious jewels that Paul talks about. But if a believer does not spend her life drawing closer to the Lord, they will still be saved, albeit "as though through fire."

And then in the following paragraph Paul says that each person will have to make an accounting to God of what they did with their body, with their life. You can't lose your salvation, but you will have to have a personal, private audience with your Lord and Abba to explain the choices you made in your life.

So don't you think that's enough accountability for any life time? Why do some Christians feel compelled to protest outside of abortion clinics or rail from church pulpits about the evils of homosexuality? I don't see anywhere in the Scriptures that tells us we have the right to judge other people for the way they live their lives. And I am absolutely certain that those tactics are never going to bring anyone to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ or encourage a fellow believer as they struggle through difficult situations. This Scripture seems to be telling each individual believer that they are responsible for what they do and say; nothing leads me to believe that I am accountable to Christians who disagree with me about non-salvation issues.

Paul closes this chapter with a sober reminder - if you think you know anything at all, you're deceiving yourself. If you think you have attained wisdom, you've only just begun to achieve knowledge. God confounds us all.

I hear two things in this passage: 1. To those who think that they know the Scriptures, and would use them to condemn others, be prepared to be shocked at your foolishness when you get home 2. To those who would seek to change the way the Scriptures have been interpreted for hundreds of years, be careful that you do not become so immersed in your freedom as thinking, free-willed creatures that you forget that God is God, and there is no other. You, too, may be shocked on the last day to find that you have been misled.

Taken altogether, the message I feel the Spirit has given me is this: God alone knows exactly what He intends and how all of this will end. Our job as believers is to seek His face and His will in all things. And we are and will be accountable to Him and only Him for how our lives go. And no one will find, when they get home, that they have understood everything perfectly.

I would love to hear other thoughts on this. I by no means am certain I have this right. What do you all think?

Monday, November 23, 2009

So many things we don't understand

Today's Lectionary Readings: Zechariah 10:1-12, Galatians 6:1-10, Luke 18:15

This a very interesting group of Scriptures. Quite honestly, the selection from Zechariah has me completely flummoxed. The prophet seems to be offering hope to Judah in a time when hope has long been forgotten. But what is he promising? Perhaps he refers to the coming Messiah when he speaks of the cornerstone from Judah. But the war-like images he employs fit more with John's Revelation of the end time than with what Jesus actually did and said on earth. So Zechariah offers redemption, but to who, and when?

In the passage from Luke, it seems that the disciples are as confused by Jesus teachings as I am by Zechariah's prophesies. If it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, then how will anyone ever be saved. With God all things are possible. And anyone who leaves behind family, friends, and the familiar for Christ's sake shall receive back what they had lost many times over in this life, and eternal life in the next.

But we as modern Christians know that this is not "true." Aside from John, every man listening to Christ teach here is doomed to die horrible, painful deaths for the kingdom. They did receive eternal life in the next world, but how on earth could Christ say that they would receive anything of value in this world? They gave up everything for a reward that did not come until they were dead. So Jesus was wrong, here, wasn't he?

I know - many of you are marshaling your forces to disagree with me now. To point out that Christ did not speak of the material benefit, nor even of the emotional benefit, but of the spiritual. Yes, they gave up wealth and relationships to follow the Way, but they gained the ultimate relationship with God, and were the tools God used to start His kingdom. Their lives were truly blessed. And the historical record shows that they all counted it gain to give up their lives for the sake of the cross. At least, they did when they got to that point.

But let us not forget that as they are listening to Jesus, they are still harboring zionistic fantasies. They believed that the coming of Messiah would usher in a Jewish kingdom on earth, destroying their oppressors and bringing glory to Yahweh through the might of His arm. Even after Christ sacrificed Himeself, they still couldn't understand that the Messiah they thought they were looking for, and the Savior Who Came were simply not the same Person. That God had other plans. Jesus had to appear to them in person several times before they began to understand the real glory of God's kingdom and what it meant for them on earth. At this point in the narrative, they are still arguing about who will get to sit on Jesus' right and left hand when He reveals His kingdom. At this point, martyrdom and the blessings of knowing God as Abba are just about the farthest thing from their minds. They were so clueless.

So I have to ask this question: What makes modern Christians so certain that we have everything figured out? If the disciples themselves, who walked, talked, ate, slept, prayed, and ministered with Jesus couldn't understand Him, why do we think we can? If they were misinterpreting the Hebrew Scriptures, believing that Messiah would come the first time in power and might and destroy the enemies of Israel, then how do we know that we aren't misinterpreting things still today.

I really have no idea what Zechariah was trying to tell his audience, or what the Spirit was trying to tell us through him, and I'm really not sure what Christ was trying to say about the difficulty of the rich entering heaven. I suppose there are those who have studied these things and would have answers to offer me. But if we can agree to haggle over interpretations of these Scriptures, why not others?

If the disciples were wrong about the Messianic prophesies, who's to say that the Fundamentalists might not be wrong about the Scriptures on homosexuality? If the disciples could believe, after learning at His feet for three years, that Jesus was really just dead, and it had all been for nothing, then how arrogant is it of modern Christendom to think that they know anything about Christ's teaching for certain?

The disciples were wrong. Often. Maybe we have been too.

When I was in college, I met a young woman who caused me to deeply question my faith. I got to know her well, and I could see that the Spirit of Christ was at home in her heart, but she didn't believe everything that I believed. As a matter of fact, according to some teachings I had known, she was going to hell. But I couldn't believe it. And I struggled to understand. At that time, I came to the conclusion that these were "non-salvation" issues. I wasn't sure what the answers were for her particular beliefs, or for mine. But there was one thing I was sure of - "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." One Truth. One Savior. "Only one thing is necessary... and it shall not be taken away from her."

May the Lord add His blessings to the study and honest search for Truth in His Word. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Blessing and Benediction"

Today I'm going to share some thoughts on a song the Chancel Choir at Arborlawn United Methodist church sang a couple of weeks ago in service. It is titled "Blessing and Benediction".

Our amazing director, Tom Stoker, told us to really consider the words we were singing - what the author of the piece was trying to convey, and how important it really is. I didn't get it until we actually sang it in church.

I'm going to give you a line by line, and my reflections.

"May God be in your head and in your understanding."

Don't just know the Word; live the Word. Be open to whaqt the LORD has to say. Be ope to the idea that what you thought He said, wasn't. Be open to the idea that what He really did say yesterday is not what He's saying today. The Scriipture exhorts us to "hide [His] Word in our hearts." What a beautiful pciture. Do so much more than memorize it. Put it in your heart and let it breathe through into your life through your love.

"God be in your eyes and in your seeing."

Jesus warned His disciples that many would see the signs and wonders, but few would believe. Don't just look; see. Don't just observe; engage. Don't just watch; interact. If the love you have for God does not move you to action, you not truly seen.

"God be in your mouth and in your speaking."

Don't just focus on speaking the Word, on keeping you consverstaions on Christ, on refraining from idle talk. Those things are good pure and right, but they do not lead you or anyone around you to the wonder and awe of grace and renewal that is Christ. Focus instead on the conversations, on the encouragement, on the blessings that you have the power to bestow when you truly speak with the heart of God. Scripture is not the only holy Word. God is still speaking. Will you allow Him to speak through you?

"God be in your heart and in your thinking."

How amazing that it is not "heart and feelings" or "mind and thinking." What does this tell us? I'm not sure I know. But the Spirit is stirring within me because of this line, and I rest content that He will reveal it to me in time. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month. Perhaps all of them. Perhaps all differently.

This I know. Jesus said, "love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself; these are the greatest commandments."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"The reckless raging fury that we call the love of God"

I'm borrowing from lyrics by Rich Mullins for this post. The title of the entry comes from one of his songs titled "The Love of God." I couldn't come up with any words of my own that better describe the thread I see binding the three readings from the lectionary today.

The first is from Joel, and I think Chapter 2, verses 12-13 is one of the most amazing Words of Scripture I have ever read: "'Yet even now,' declares the LORD, 'return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping, and mourning; and rend your heart, and not your garments.'"

The Israelites have ever been a people of deep tradition. That was one of Jesus' most scathing criticisms for the scholars of His day - they clung to their traditions, and not to the heart of the message; they followed the letter of the Law, and forgot it's soul. In this passage from Joel, God cuts through the visible trappings of obedience, and pierces straight to the reality of obedience. "Rend your heart and not your garments."

I read this as a reminder that all the Laws, provisions, traditions, and practices are designed to do one thing and one thing only – point us toward the heart of God. And His heart is “Return to Me! No matter where you are, where you’ve been, or how badly you think you’ve screwed up; return to me with all of your heart and nothing else really matters all that much.

Jesus reiterates this point in Luke 15 with his parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He doesn’t talk about making sure to punish the sheep for not paying attention to the shepherd. He doesn’t discuss quizzing the sheep to make sure it remembers the rules once it is found. He talks about carrying the sheep home and throwing a party to celebrate its return. That is the heart of God. “Rejoice with me, for I have found [your name here] which I had lost!”

So Joel and Jesus talk about the heart of God. What, then, do we do with Revelation 19? Verses 17-18 says, “And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, ‘Come, assemble for the great supper of God; in order that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of might men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” What an awful, bloody, disgusting picture. How diametrically opposite to what we have read in the Hebrew Testament and in the Gospel. How can these two pictures be contained in the same volume? How can these two images reflect the heart of God?

What I am about to propose will offend and shock some of you. I apologize. I mean no disrespect. But remember, I have never claimed to speak for God, or even to be certain that I won’t change my own mind in the months and years to come. But I don’t think that this does reflect the heart of God. I remain steadfast in my earlier assertion. Revelation more accurately reflects John’s own emotions, because God speaks to us through our own experiences and meets us where we are. The message he is sending to John has to come first through John’s consciousness, so it has to look different than it would if it came through my consciousness. John wants to see a victorious warrior, sweeping in to save the day, much as he and his fellow disciples expected a Messiah who would come to conquer. And for John, that’s what it will feel like on the last day.

But I agree with Brian about the true message of Revelation - this is about God protecting His children, His family, His remnant on the earth. The real message here is this – you are not forgotten, you are not abandoned, I will not leave you without a hope and a salvation. I will come for you. I will bring you home. I will do whatever it takes to make you safe.

In John’s understanding, there must be bloodshed and retribution, and perhaps there will be. But the feeding on flesh in this picture is more about the time period in which John is writing, about the realities of persecution faced by Christians, than it is about the true essence of the message. Much as slavery has passed away in the time since John wrote, the appropriateness of war-like images has passed away. If the Revelation had come to an inspired writer today, I suspect it would have been much, much different.

The message, though… the divinely inspired Word of the LORD cannot and will not change. Joel, Jesus, and John agree on this point. God loves us. He will do whatever is necessary to show us that love. There are no lengths too great to reach us. There are no obstacles too high to divide us. There are no Laws, traditions, or customs too rigid to bind us. And once we are reunited in His love and His presence, there will be no celebration more epic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Writer, or the Writing?

The Lectionary for this week (where does that come from anyway?) offers Joel 1:1-14, Revelation 18:15-24, and Luke 14:12-24 as reading for today. I don't know how they decide what goes together in the Lectionary. Maybe it's totally random. But I've begun to look for patterns in the groupings. And I have a theory.

On an episode of Bones, they were talking about how a piece of writing really reveals more about the author than about the plot. How we approach a subject as writers is determined by our own personalities, perceptions, and experiences. We cannot write about something without changing it. And I am beginning to believe that the writer has to be considered when attempting to understand Scripture.

I don't believe this detracts at all from the Divine Inspiration of Scripture. The essence of Truth cannot be altered by our human fallibility. But we do have to think about context and intent of the author.

Joel is a man who feels lost. The Chosen People haven't been acting very set apart, and they're feeling a little neglected and forgotten. Joel's offering is a beautiful lament - he is begging God to notice. So this tells us quite a bit about Joel. But look at what it tells us about God. What kind of God must Jehovah be that his prophet feels comfortable in crying out to Him in agony. It's not really about the answer God gives, or the future of the Jewish people... it's about Joel being able to go to God in relationship and tell Him about his pain. And be confident that God will listen. It's been a long time since the Jews felt like God was with them, but that doesn't mean that God has forgotten them, or that Joel has forgotten the stories of God's faithfulness.

Meanwhile, in Revelation, John the Disciple is an old man experiencing a vision of the future as he meditates. He is very near the end of his life. He has watched his contemporaries, one after the other, be martyred by a hostile government. He was the one whom Jesus loved. He was of the inner circle. He has committed his whole life to message and love of Christ. The images he paints, both literally and metaphorically, are of a finally victorious movement. Babylon (read Rome?) will finally be defeated, and the blood of the martyrs will be avenged. He needs a message of hope. And he is not the type to lament, as Joel did. He is a man of action. And so he envisions a final victorious action.

The amazing thing is, that God meets us where we are. Whether we need to scream in indignation or claim promises of victory, God is there to listen. Whether our friends have given up hope that God will answer, or have given the last full measure of devotion to the belief that He is answering, God reminds us in these passages that it is really not about what is going on around us, but about the relationship between us, and the reality of the Spirit living within us. Circumstances don't matter. God knows us. Knows our personalities, perceptions, and experiences. And will speak through them to our need.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Nature of Fear

Today at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, Reverend Ben Disney spoke about the story of Elijah and the widow that is recorded in I Kings 17: 8-16. The story tells us that Elijah was sent to a certain city where God told him a widow had been appointed to take care of him during the drought. The story does not seem to imply that the widow herself knew that she had been chosen for this task. Especially since, when Elijah found her and asked her to make him some bread, she replied that she could not, since she had only enough oil and flour to make a last meal for herself and her son, and then they would prepare to die. Elijah's response? "Fear not." He tells her to make the bread for him first, and God would make sure that there was enough to make bread until the drought ended.

In the Scriptures, "Fear not" always comes just before something truly terrifying. But, if we turn to fear, we won't be able to receive the blessings that God wants to give us in the face of that terror. Whenever God offeres you a blessing, fear is the only thing that can rob you of it.

The widow in this passage would have starved with her son if she had given in to fear.

The Hebrew slaves fleeing Pharoah's army would have perished if they had not trusted God's provision of the way through the Jordan.

And if Mary and Joseph had given in to their fears. where would the world be? Christ's own earthly family had a choice. Let the nations rejoice today that they chose blessings over fear.

It seems that there are so many things to fear today: a cratering economy that seems painfully slow to rebound, a global war on terror that seems to claim almost as many lives as it saves, and a political climate that seems to feed on mudslinging, name-calling, and blaiming the other guy.

And this pervasive fear in the secular world seems to be infesting the church as well. We are afraid of those who think and worship differently than we do. We are afraid of allowing God to work in ways we do not understand. We are afraid of being wrong, so we scream at the top of our lungs that we are right.

What kind of amazing revelation of grace could we begin if we let go of our fears and embraced the blessings that God always wants to provide through the frightening moment?