Preacher’s Post: It’s A Small World



Loving Our Enemies

I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s poignant statement: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” What I understand is forgiveness and reconciliation are not only at the center of what Jesus taught—they are the keystone of what he taught and what he did when nailed to a cross to die:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. (Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus reframing Exodus 21:23-25, known as “ex Talionis”: The law of retaliation.)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’  But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that!  And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that!  You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)  

When they came to the place called “The Skull,” they crucified Jesus there, and the two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left.  Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:33-34) 

I don’t know about you, but unfortunately that seems pretty clear to me. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. I’m a product of my culture. I generate distinctions. Friend? Or Foe? Are you part of my “tribe” or are you someone suspect—someone who is likely to harm me or take what I consider “my people”? That’s not new. It’s the tribal tradition that has and still defines us.  It’s “us” against “them,” whoever “them” is.

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Jesus the Rabbi


Being mindful and thinking is hard work. It’s just so much easier to go on autopilot and let whatever habits I’ve developed take over. Habits are laborsaving actions that save a great deal of brain energy, but the greater danger is that I mindlessly let my habits take over. It’s been said that while Jesus’ words spoken from the cross spoke of forgiveness, hope, connection, and surrender—the seven last words of the church declare laziness: “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Jesus challenged the assumptions of his day. His teaching astonished his listeners. While the other Rabbis were content to hash and rehash the interpretations of prior commentaries on the law, Jesus boldly declared, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” I’m going to humbly admit I had an unexpected “ah-haw” moment this week. It had never been so clearly pointed out to me that Jesus took the liberty of adding to what may be the most definitive verses in all of Judaism. These words are known as “The Shema: “Israel, remember this! The LORD—and the LORD alone—is our God.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was in Judaism, he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

Jesus added “mind” to the Shema. The Greek word used by Matthew is “diania” which points to imagination, critical thinking, and understanding. Then another “ah-hah” moment—Jesus’ interaction with the disciples over parents bringing their children to be blessed. Mark’s account goes like this:

Some people brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples scolded the people.  When Jesus noticed this, he was angry and said to his disciples, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on each of them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

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Who is this man?

Who is Jesus? People have been trying to answer that question for two thousand years. He died an obscure death on a Roman cross, with just a handful of followers hovering nearby. But then came reports of his resurrection, and the timidity of his followers was replaced by a fierce loyalty and faith that declared he was and is “the Christ,” “The Son of God.” But what in the world does that mean? I could probably conduct a survey of one thousand declared Christians, and if pressed for details as to what that meant, get one thousand unique answers. Jesus is the pivotal figure whose influence continues to move individual lives and entire civilizations. His teachings remain the most challenging imaginable, and if and how he meditates God’s presence in our ordinary lives remains a mystery.

I’m sixty-four years old, have been a declared follower of Jesus my entire life and I’m still trying to figure out what that means and how that changes my daily life. I chose to pursue a professional life, first as a chaplain, then reluctantly as a pastor. People have sought my counsel on the widest possible issues life can present. All I can share is my story—the same story John Newton told in the hymn “Amazing Grace”: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” But what do I see? Only dimly do I see the grace of God unfolding in my life. I have remained clean and sober for nearly twenty-two years, something I could not do on my own, so I count it as a gift that has been given. And for me, Jesus had something to do with that gift. When I stop what I’m doing and seek the presence of God, breathing in God’s Spirit and breathing out my self-will and fear—it is for me the Spirit of Christ I breathe.

Jesus embraced humility in a Roman civilization and culture that celebrated power. He took the law of the Old Testament and reimagined it in the most disturbing ways. “Love your enemies; pray for those who curse you.” (Matthew 5:46) He wrote no book himself, but the Bible can be found in just about every hotel, and is known simply as “the Good Book.”

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Valentine’s Day: All You Need Is Love

I was surprised to discover that no, Hallmark did not invent Valentine’s Day. Its roots actually go way back to Roman times, and the celebration of the holiday Lupercalia, which both sought to avert evil spirits and promote health and fertility. Like so many of our holidays, the early church didn’t try and stamp it out, but rather took the approach “if you can’t beat them—join them.” Thus was born Valentine’s Day, and celebrates a Christian martyr who promoted marriage among the Roman soldiers who were forbidden from marrying and helping other Christians who were persecuted.

When the Beatles sang, “All you need is love,” they were making a theological statement. All of Brené Brown’s research underscores the assertion we are hard-wired for love and connection. Love isn’t tangential to who we are—it is the core of who we are. For me, that points to the biblical declaration in Genesis that human beings are created in God’s image—created to love and be loved.

For as 1 John 4:12,16 says, “No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love! We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God. God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us.”

Oh, so easy to say—so hard to do. Love requires risk. Love always entails disappointment, hurt and sometimes failure. We never get our way when it comes to love, but love is where real life is lived. Love will break our hearts, yet that is the space where God is. The arenas of love are everywhere—marriages—children—parents—friends—neighbors—even the stranger.

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Hope that leads to…

Hope changes our hearts so that rather than fear driving our lives, we can choose courage over fear. Choosing courage means being vulnerable, which means fear is always lurking nearby ready to jump back into being in charge. It is for me a choice that needs to be made not only on a daily basis, but often more once a day. Hope connects with God’s presence and plan, not mine. God’s plan is for me to live a life connected deeply with God through the Spirit, and to connect with the people around me. The great commandment is not a “do it or else” proposition, it’s an invitation to live the lives we were created to live.

Matthew 22:37-39 (TEV) Jesus answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’

It strikes me as so silly that there’s something in me that says to God, “You can’t tell me what to do,” and lives a life contrary to love, or sees the great commandment as something I have to do or else. Or else what? Live a life disconnected from love? I’m created to love and be loved. My hope is God can do for me what I can’t do for myself: I need to overcome my fear that love is just too hard, risks too much exposure, and carries with it the real possibility of failure and rejection. I’m just not buying Tennyson’s proverb, “Tis better to have loved and lost: Than never to have loved at all.” Nope. Better to protect and hide. Reach for anything that promises some comfort without the risk of loss and/or rejection.

While it is in many ways easier to organize our lives around fear and even hatred, love demands us to live from the inside out—from our hearts, not our heads. When I first heard Brené Brown’s definition of courage, it rang true. I had that deep sense, “That’s it!”


Leave The Results To God

We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. (Hebrews 6:19 TEV)

Years ago I was advised the longer I lived the more losses I’d experience. When you’re young you suspect things like that are true, but with every passing year, that truth becomes more and more real. My body shows the inevitable signs of aging and there’s no sign that’s going to change. I conduct and attend more and more funerals/memorial services for family and friends I dearly miss. We’re “dog” people and I think God made a big mistake giving dogs only fifteen or so years. There have been disagreements and hurt that have lead to estranged relationships. I sometimes remember Mark Twain’s wisdom with sorrow: “Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate.” “Enemies” may be too strong a word, but his point is well taken. Live in the same town for thirty-four years and you’ll run into people who used to be close to the center of my life who now live at the distant edges.

With every loss, comes the critical choice as to how to respond. I’m going to state the obvious: my response needs to be proportional to the loss. Some of the little losses I do need to shrug off and keep moving. But for the big losses, I need to first grieve the loss before I regroup and reorganize around the new reality. Faith is willing to grieve, but it is grief tempered by hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

What is known as the Babylonian captivity is the period in Jewish history when the Babylonian empire crushed Judah, destroying Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple. The prophesies of Jeremiah and Isaiah make clear it was a time when the people of god strayed off course ethically and made some bad strategic blunders that resulted in the full destructive force of Nebuchadnezzar’s army being unleashed. Key leaders were executed, and many of Judah’s political and religious elite were carried off captivity. Psalm 137:1 is a cry of grief: By the rivers of Babylon we sat down; there we wept when we remembered Zion.

It was in the midst of grief that words of hope stirred as God speaks through Isaiah:

“Comfort my people,” says our God. “Comfort them! Encourage the people of Jerusalem. Tell them they have suffered long enough and their sins are now forgiven. I have punished them in full for all their sins.” A voice cries out, “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the LORD! Clear the way in the desert for our God! “ (Isaiah 40:1-3 TEV)

“Israel, why then do you complain that the LORD doesn’t know your troubles or care if you suffer injustice? Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God; he created all the world. He never grows tired or weary. No one understands his thoughts. He strengthens those who are weak and tired. Even those who are young grow weak; young people can fall exhausted. But those who trust in the LORD for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary; they will walk and not grow weak. (Isaiah 40:27-31 TEV)

Life was not working out the way anyone planned or wanted, but God was in the mix and when God is the mix, all things are possible. The exiles didn’t just pine away. Like Joseph, who ended up a slave in Egypt, the people got to work and made their contribution. They bloomed where they were planted—they did the next right thing. I know these can sound like corny slogans, but they represent the truths of those who have gone before us.

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God’s Perspective

We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. (Hebrews 6:19 TEV)

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.” (Jürgen Moltmann)

Christmas is back in the storage boxes until next year. There’s always a certain sense of let down I experience when the trees go out for recycling and the Christmas lights on people’s houses and trees no longer shine in the darkness. It’s January and it’s cold and dark.

I thank God for the moments in my life when I deeply experience and know God’s presence and activity in my life. But those times can become a little bit like our Christmas celebrations in the sense we pack them up in boxes and put them in storage, then sit waiting for the next season when I feel the “spiritual” high. The challenge for me is to live my life of faith in the “between” times so that those spiritual moments become part of my life’s fabric and guide me on a daily basis. Faith and love, hope and courage, all have shelf lives. If not renewed on a regular basis, we will without realizing it succumb to fear, anxiety, shame, and all the other gremlins in our lives waiting to sabotage our lives.

One of the ways I assess if I’m on the right track is to monitor my thoughts and actions in comparison to Paul’s identification of the characteristics we can expect when we’re living God’s way. I particularly appreciate Eugene Peterson’s translation of Galatians 5:22-23:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23 MSG)

What is required for me is to get God’s perspective on my life and the dance of life that’s happening all around me in this world. If I’m not living God’s way today, and I’m letting my agenda and bad habits run the show so that the gremlins are loose in my life, I need to stop and pray for God’s view of my life. There are a number of ways people talk about this: the 30,000-foot view or getting up on the balcony. It is much more difficult than one would think it is, and it takes courage, faith, and above all hope to do it. Lacking one or all of these, this is yet another time when I need God to do for me what I can’t do for myself, and that is to get me out of myself so that I can see the BIG picture of God’s plan for me and this world.

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Hope Sings

from Brian Mayo…

Acts 16:16-25

“And once it happened when we were going to the place of prayer, a female slave who had the spirit of divination, came to meet us. She earned much to provide for her masters, by her prophecy and fortune-telling.   She was following Paul and the rest of us calling out and saying: “These men are servants of the Most High God, men declaring to us the way of salvation.” She kept this up for many days, finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around to the spirit and he said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her,” and the spirit came out from her in that very hour.

But when the owners of the slave girl saw that their hope of profit was gone, they grabbed Paul and Silas and they dragged them into the marketplace, to the authorities.   And they brought them forward to the magistrates, saying, “These men are Jews and they are causing trouble for us in this city, advocating customs which are not lawful for us Roman citizens to accept or practice.  

And the crowds rose together against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them stripped of their clothes and beaten. After many blows had been inflicted on them, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was ordered to guard them securely. The jailer having received such an order, sent them into the inner part of the jail, and he fastened their feet into the stocks.

Towards midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

Wow! What an interesting story.   These two men, Paul and Silas, were on a missionary journey which started in Antioch, in modern day Turkey, but by that day they had reached all the way to Greece, in the city of Phillipi.   Obviously they were not very well received in Phillipi, Paul helped a demon-possessed and exploited young woman, and for his trouble, he and Silas were arrested, beaten, jailed, with their feet even put in stocks.   It reminds me of the old adage: No good deed shall go unpunished! But, this terrible and unjust treatment did not faze either Paul or Silas.   Beaten, imprisoned and bound, they were singing hymns to God, at midnight!   What a great testimony to their faith.

But, the question is, why would Paul and Silas take on such a duty?   Why would they go from town-to-town in areas where there were no Christians, tell people about God’s great saving act in Jesus’ death and resurrection, only to risk ridicule, shame, imprisonment and torture? That is a very good question.

And I think the answer lies a little further back in this same book of Acts. The book of Acts tells us that the Christian church was founded in Jerusalem a little over a month after Jesus’s resurrection. The church began with only 120 members, but over 3000 joined on the day of Pentecost alone. One of those in the early church was a man named Stephen and he became one of the first deacons–one of those who assisted widows and orphans. Stephen was able to help people in a special way, because he had the gift of healing, but for his trouble, he also was arrested by a mob and ultimately he was stoned to death, for his belief in Jesus Christ. On the day that Stephen was stoned to death by an unruly mob, the book of Acts records this:

“Meanwhile the witnessed laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”   Acts 7:58

And it says: “And Saul was there, giving approval to his (Stephen’s) death.”   Acts 8:1

My question to you is, who is this man Saul? Who is this man who is part of the group which is against the fledgling Christian church?

That man is none other than the Apostle Paul.   None other than the man who strode into Phillipi, telling people about Jesus Christ and who was arrested for his love of other people.

How is it that Paul, had a different name?

How is it that Paul, the greatest missionary and theologian of the early church, was also an enemy of the early church?

Well, Paul, as you might know, persecuted the church in Jerusalem and while he was traveling north to Damascus, to root out Christian “cells” in that city, Jesus himself confronted Saul and said: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)

To make a long story short, Saul, saw the light, put away his hatred of Christianity, he became a Christian, changed his name to Paul, and he went on to start many churches and he risked his life in doing so.

So, my earlier question comes up again.   Why did Paul and Silas risk their lives to tell people about Jesus?   We don’t know why Silas did, but it seems pretty clear that Paul was a cruel and difficult person prior to becoming a Christian, and he felt so blessed by Jesus’ interference in his life, that arrest and torture were small prices to pay for the new person he had become, a person who truly loved other people and enjoyed each day of his blessed life.

In a word, Paul had hope and even in the worst of situations, bound and beaten and jailed, he was singing, not crying.

What about you? Is your life full of hope and generosity toward others, or do you ever find yourself acting like the old Paul–Saul?

I know that I have had my Saul moments in the past, actually, not moments, but years. I, like the old Paul, use to be envious of people who were different than me and I often did not treat them as well as I should have. I, like the old Paul, felt that there was one right way to live and those who weren’t doing it, I thought, were off-base. I was jealous and judgmental. Do you have any of these character traits?   I hope not, but if so, don’t fear. As Paul found out, Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected for our salvation. Paul learned this first hand and he left his old jealous and unkind life behind him and he put his faith in Jesus. I did also, you can too.

There is a spot now available for a midnight singer, will you take it?

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Real Hope for Real Life

We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. (Hebrews 6:19 TEV)

May God, the source of hope, fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him, so that your hope will continue to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 TEV)

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.” (Jürgen Moltmann)

Alvin Toffler wrote his book “Future Shock” way back in 1970. We all appreciate change has always been a part of life, but Toffler observed the rate of change picking up speed so there was too much change in too short a time for people to adapt. They would shut down. Prescient. We’re shutting down. We’re disengaging at an increasing rate from our institutions, including the church, and giving up hope for any resolution of the challenges facing us as a world community.

Christian hope refuses to give into despair. Jürgen Moltmann wrote his first book Theology of Hope saying that Christian faith today must start with our Christian hope. While our culture runs faster and faster, fueled by despair and scarcity (not enough so I must run faster for mine), our faith challenges us to live lives of hope. Rather than conforming to our culture, we’re called to renew our lives in Christ:

So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

This next sermon series is meant to do just that. Take a fresh look at the real world around us and ask whether the hope we have in Christ is up to the challenge. I’m convinced it is. You will hear me quote a great deal from the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann who wrote his first book, Theology of Hope. He was deeply influenced by the tragic experience of World War II, especially in Germany. For him, hope was anchored in God’s future so Christian theology needs to start with the end in mind. The biblical declaration is God wins—Love wins. Christian hope knows the twin truths of 1John 4:

  • You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4 NIV)
  • There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 John 4:18 TEV)

I’ve taught that hope is quite different from wishful thinking. Frederick Buechner doesn’t think so, and I’m thinking now he is right when he wrote: ”Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about Judgment and Hell reflects the wish that somewhere score is being kept. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.”

I don’t know about you, but as I start 2016, I have to get my bearings so I can stay focused on Jesus and His way, not the fear and ways of the world around me. That’s exactly what I propose we all do for the next seven weeks. God’s hope is big enough for real life!

Hebrews 6:1-3; 13-20 (MSG)

So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment.  God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!

When God made his promise to Abraham, he backed it to the hilt, putting his own reputation on the line. He said, “I promise that I’ll bless you with everything I have—bless and bless and bless!”  Abraham stuck it out and got everything that had been promised to him.  When people make promises, they guarantee them by appeal to some authority above them so that if there is any question that they’ll make good on the promise, the authority will back them up. When God wanted to guarantee his promises, he gave his word, a rock-solid guarantee—God can’t break his word. And because his word cannot change, the promise is likewise unchangeable. We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go. It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God where Jesus, running on ahead of us, has taken up his permanent post as high priest for us, in the order of Melchizedek.

Hope to see you Sunday.

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They would be joining in the battle of good (Aslan) against evil (the witch). The tools were…

  • Juice of the fire flower with healing powers.
  • The bow and arrow that would shoot straight.
  • A horn which would summon help.
  • And finally a sword and shield.

Each tool played a part in the battle that ended victoriously, with the witch vanquished and winter’s frozen grip broken.

Part of growing up in my faith is to realize God is with me, but that doesn’t mean life is going to be easy or God is going to fix everything for me. My participation is required. As I said last week, I’m learning I have to suit up and show up. Life is difficult. But I am not alone. The One with me and in me is greater than the “devil” of this world. But that doesn’t mean evil isn’t very dangerous and I need to be armed and prepared. Not with fear, as so many Christians are arming themselves with right now, but with the armor of God’s Spirit. And with that armor comes the gifts of the Spirit, which are meant to be used to serve others.

The children became part of a great effort to push back against the evil spell which held Narnia in its grip. So we, as followers of Jesus, are called up to join the Holy Spirit to push back against the powers of this world. It is easy to get discouraged and los

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The Christmas Conspiracy

Marshall Brickman: “I have learned one thing. As Woody (Allen) says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.”

!2 Step Saying: Suit up—Show up.

Reason given by a young man for signing the Barmen Declaration in 1934: “I’m not particularly devout—I only tried to be obedient to the word of God from one experience to the next.”

It’s easy for me to forget the Christmas event was and is part of God’s BIG plan to save and restore broken people and this broken world. We look back to Jesus’ birth so we can remember this world of ours is, in the story by J.B. Phillips, The Visited Planet. This is how Phillips put it:

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”

“That,” replied his senior solemnly, “is the Visited Planet.”

“Visited?” said the little one. “you don’t mean visited by ——–?

“Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.” And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

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The Renovated Heart

Advent is a season pregnant with the hope of change—real change. The words of the Angel in Joseph’s dream are words of hope and promise: “Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary to be your wife. For it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived. She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus—because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21 TEV) For me to be saved from sin is to be changed, for as Max Dupree so accurately said, “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”

The first key to real change is awareness that change is even necessary. The definition of insanity the twelve-step programs uses is we’re insane when we do the same thing over and over again, only this time hoping for a different result. What I have to acknowledge over and over again is how resistant I am to admitting there is a problem. I don’t think I’m alone. Most of us have a remarkable capacity to try the same broken behavior just one more time. While we can easily see this in others, it is far more difficult to see it in ourselves. Richard Rohr identifies three things that need to happen which will open the necessary space for healing to take place: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.

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Food for the Journey

Living the Daring Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about connectedness, maybe because I’ve stumbled through life the last few weeks feeling disconnected at times.  For me, that’s always an indication I’m trying to do too much on my own and not paying attention to the truly important people and activities because I’m distracted by the urgent and usually far less important life issues.

I need to remember the Daring Life is the life Jesus called me to live rather than the life I’m often living which is driven by the fears, shame, and hustle for worthiness.  The best way I know which life I’m choosing each day is the level of chaos and anxiety on the inside.  I can at times fool myself into thinking I’m fooling all of you with my ability to create an aura of worthiness and belonging, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and sooner or later that will become apparent to you.  The question is if it will be apparent to me.  I continue to be amazed by the human ability for self-deception and rationalization.  But by hustling for my worthiness I’m not living a life rooted in trust of God’s presence, love, grace, and purpose for my life, so I end up missing the life Jesus wants to restore within me through the divine connection of God, neighbor, and self.

So the being “who” I’m created to be in Christ needs to come before the doing, and that’s where I notice I’m not the only one who gets it all backwards and upside down.  It’s tending to the inside stuff first and foremost, then not ignoring the work of my life, but going about living the work of my life from a different “center.”  It’s what Paul was pointing to when he said his surrender to God was so complete at times:

Galatians 2:20: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me.

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Daring Life – Empathy

To be created in the image of God is to be created for connection—to love and be loved.  We remind ourselves over and over again what counts:  To love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  (Mark 12:30-31)  So easy to say—so hard to practice.  I’ve come to the conclusion I am utterly incapable of fulfilling that commandment on my own.  I am constantly living the contradiction Paul identified in Romans 7:15-16:  “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.  So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself, and then do it.”  Driven by my need to protect the little boy inside me who is wounded and scared to death, literally, that I’m not enough and therefore not worthy of connection, I either disappear from my life and hide, or my “warrior” is more than eager to jump into the fray and push against those around me who might be a threat.  Those who are a threat are the people whose connection I value most.

But just as I sink into despair, Paul turns and pivots toward the one who can do for me what I can’t do for myself.  Romans 8:1-2:  With the arrival of Jesus, the Christ, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud.  A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.   What I need is to surrender and turn my life over to God’s Spirit.  Hence the prayer of surrender I shared last Sunday:

God, I offer myself to You — to build with me and to do with me as You desire. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your Power, Your Love, and Your Way of life. May I do Your will always!

Surrender puts me in a state of being where I can connect first with God, and then with my neighbor.  Rather than standing apart, I’m open and available for connection because rather than armoring up, my heart is open—yea even vulnerable.  Since my connections are God’s doing and not powered by my efforts, something amazing happens, and the result is extraordinary.  God goes to work connecting us, one to another.  We are able to bless people we would have at one time cursed.  There is patience and toleration where there was judgment and frustration.  The Holy Spirit makes whole that which was broken.

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Healing the Pain Within

“All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.  If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity.  If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive; all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?”  (Richard Rohr)

I will give away what I have because I can’t give away what I don’t have.  That is a sobering truth.  Shame and comparison are two demons which create destructive self-talk which will inevitably result in shaming behaviors whether we think so or not.  Young parents will hope to never talk to their kids the way they talk to themselves, and some create the comforting illusion they’re hiding the negative and toxic self-talk from their kids.  But we fool nobody, and whether we like it or not we pass on our toxicity unless our faith is truly redemptive and is trusting God’s Spirit of grace and restoration to be at work deep within us and finding appropriate ways to share that process with the people around us, including our children.

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Daring Life: Comparison to Service

Comparison is the thief of joy.
(Theodore Roosevelt)

“Too many people are buying things they can’t afford, with money that they don’t have… to impress people that they don’t like!”
(Will Smith)

It was a classic moment last Sunday morning when Tracy gave each child who’d come to the front of the church a piece of candy.  Everybody was happy—and everything changed when she gave one child a second piece and didn’t do the same for the others.  The look on the faces of those who didn’t get a second piece told the whole story.  Their happiness had vaporized in an instant.

If my strategy for assuaging that nagging sense I’m “I’m not enough,” is to be enough by doing more, having more, and ultimately being more, I’m doomed to failure.  Period.  I’ll never find my sense of enough “out there,” but that’s where we’re told we have to compete.  And, it’s killing us—both figuratively and literally.  It is no longer enough to live an ordinary life.  It’s not enough to have a family to love and who loves us.  A simple house is not enough.  The honor of a simple job done well has been lost.  As Garrison Keillor says, we have to live in a mythical place, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Comparison led to the first recorded murder when Cain killed his brother Abel.  (Genesis 4:1-16)  Violence has been with us since the beginning, and is so deeply rooted in our soul’s struggle to connect.  We’re really not told why God favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s offering.  But rather than dealing with simply doing whatever that next right thing was, Cain’s anger led to premeditated murder.   In this case, comparison caused Cain to “puff” up and get big and violent.

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Daring Life: In A World of Scarcity

The “not enoughs” are contagious.  Not enough time so we run faster and faster.  Not enough money so we get more credit cards.  Not enough room for our stuff so we build bigger houses.  Bigger houses need to be filled with stuff so we get more stuff.  We look with a critical eye at our spouses because they’re not quite enough. We obsessively worry if we’re “enough” as we are, so we hustle for validation we’re enough, and when the feeling of not enough just won’t go away, our heads are buried in the refrigerator where there’s not enough food in the world nor drink in the bottles to fill us.  Then we look at our children and know there won’t be enough for them if they don’t claw and scratch their way to the top in this world so we signal our fears and by the time they’re in high school they’re running faster than we are to get enough.  Scarcity is the “practice” of “not enough.”  And there isn’t enough in this world to fill the void in our souls because that emptiness is meant to be filled by God and nothing else will do.

When the echo of our emptiness becomes so deafening we give up the frantic striving for enough in defeat is when God has us right where the God who loves us wants us.  Jesus said, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”  (Matthew 5:3)

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Daring Life: Shame and Sin–two sides of the same coin.

When my daughter Julie was a little girl and it was my turn to read the bedtime story, the one I wanted to read over and over was, “There’s A Nightmare In My Closet.”  It’s the story of a little boy who dares to open his bedroom closet and confront the nightmare lurking there.  He’s armed and ready for battle with his helmet and “pop” gun, but when he shoots the big and ugly nightmare, the nightmare begins to cry.  The story ends with the little boy tucking his nightmare into bed with him while another nightmare pokes its head out of the closet, but there’s no more room in bed for another nightmare.

I wish it was all that simple.  There is a nightmare in my closet, and despite my best efforts to keep it locked there, it gets out and wreaks havoc in my life.  I’m talking about “shame,” as defined by Brené Brown, that deep sense in the core of my being that I’m not worthy of connection.  It’s the fear I’ll be exposed as a fraud in my work.  That I’m an inadequate husband. Mediocre father.  The fear that I’ll be “dropped” from my bike group because I’m not fast enough to keep up, and therefore can’t be part of the group I want to be part of.  It’s the embarrassment of seeing how messy I can be and comparing my shop with those of you who keep everything neat and tidy.  My alcoholism was and is rooted in my shame, providing a magic elixir to “fix” me until it just didn’t work anymore and broke me.

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Daring Greatly

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt delivered what has become known as “The Man in the Arena” speech at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 3, 1910.  Brené Brown introduced me to the speech, and when I heard it read, I knew I wanted to stay committed the rest of my life daring to live in the “arena.”  When I choose words that define my deepest held values, courage and truth are always at the top of the list.  Thank goodness for God’s grace!  For I strive for courage and truth, yet so often fall short.  But I want it to be said of me when my life is done that I was in the arena of life seeking to live a daring life as Jesus’ follower.

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The Kingdom of Heaven

(* This week we have a guest contributor to the Preacher’s Post–Brian Mayo.  Brian is a seminary intern at St. Andrew as he continues his Master of Divinity studies through Fuller Theological Seminary.  I hope we’ll all come out Sunday to encourage and be encouraged by Brian.  Rich)

“The kingdom of heaven is similar to treasure, hidden in a field, which a man, having found, hid and then in his joy he goes and he sells everything, as much as he has, and he buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

This verse, from the book of Matthew, is the text for my sermon this week.   I have always been intrigued by this verse for what it does not say, as well as for what it says.  This verse does not tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like, nor does it tell us what the treasure is that the man found.   So, we have no basis to know what the kingdom of heaven is really like, yet, Jesus does say that the man who found this treasure was extremely joyful and Jesus does say that the man who found this treasure, raced out and immediately bought the field he found it in.

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Popcorn Parables: UP

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)

We’re going to close out this year’s edition of the Popcorn Parables with Pixar’s “Up,”, the story of Carl Fredricksen and an earnest young Wilderness Explorer named Russell and their adventure in an old house carried to South America by thousands of balloons.  The seed that sprouted into the script for “Up” started with the common fantasy of escaping life when it becomes too irritating and difficult.  Carl had married his childhood sweetheart Ellie who was the adventurer who pushed Carl out of his comfort zone.  But things didn’t work out as they had planned.  First there was the bitter news that they would be a childless couple.  Then Ellie got sick and died.  I’ll say it again, kids love Pixar movies, but they’re for us adults!  They deal with real life issues and themes.

Carl ends up a bitter old man living in a house surrounded by a huge high-rise development.  His bitterness spills over into him bopping a workmen with his cane, and his great adventure starts with his attempt to escape and go to the South America destination he and Ellie had dreamed of exploring, Paradise Falls.  Russell accidently becomes part of the undertaking, and whether Carl likes it or not, he’s on an adventure, which includes meeting his childhood hero, Charles Muntz.  Muntz turns out to have become paranoid, and turns violent when he thinks Carl is trying to steal his glory by capturing a giant bird Muntz had been searching for.  The key moment comes when Muntz has captured the bird and Carl sits dejectedly in his old house in his old chair, perched on the precipice of Paradise Falls.  Carl is turning pages of the adventure scrapbook Ellie had created, and what he discovers is while things had not worked out the way Ellie had planned, her life with Carl had filled her with joy and gratitude.  I’ll show the scene where Carl turns the page, and Ellie tells him to go have his “next” adventure.

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Popcorn Parables: The Straight Story

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)

What is something you know God wants you to do, but you’re either putting it off or coming up with a lot of excuses why you can’t get started doing it today?  The Straight Story is a movie based on the 1994 journey Alvin Straight took to visit his bother Henry after Henry had a stroke.  Here’s the thing—these two brothers hadn’t spoken to each other for over ten years.  Why?  A disagreement led to anger, which caused a rift, which the stubbornness of pride continued to fuel.  Then Henry had a stroke and Alvin knew he had to see his brother.  Pretty routine stuff so far.  Siblings do get sideways with each other.

But how could he get there?  That’s when the story gets interesting and worthy of a movie.  Alvin can’t get a driver’s license because his eyes are shot, and his legs don’t hold him up very well.  But he has to get there, and being a stubborn man, he decides to get there on his own terms using his old riding lawnmower.  His first attempt ends in failure, but his second attempt begins on a new John Deere riding mower that boasted a top speed of five miles per hour.  Pulling a makeshift trailer that would be his “home” for the journey, Alvin set from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, a distance of 240 miles.

The critics loved the movie that stared Richard Farnsworth as Alvin—the general public not so much.  Richard Ebert compared the realistic dialogue to that of the work of Ernest Hemingway and Farnsworth was nominated for Best Actor in 1999.  I get why audiences didn’t rush to see the film.  Much of it is a real depiction of Alvin’s long journey past one field of corn, another of wheat, through one small town after another.  Through scene after scene, Alvin is shown sitting on his mower chugging along, punctuated by the occasional interaction with people along the way.  So while not providing a lot of action, I was deeply moved by the time Alvin got to Henry’s broken down shack.  This old guy had resolved to reconnect with his brother and he did so, making a journey that took weeks to navigate.

That’s when the question I asked of you at the beginning confronted me:  What is something I know God wants me to do, but I’m either putting it off or coming up with a lot of excuses why I can’t get started doing it today?” I was thinking about Alvin and his determination to put what was wrong right, and I remembered what Jesus had to say about mending relationships:

Matthew 5:21-24

“You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell.  So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.

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Popcorn Parables: Toy Story 3

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)

The Toy Story trilogy starts with the drama of Andy’s birthday party, and Buzz Lightyear, the newest toy action figure threatening Woody’s status as the number one toy.  Woody’s jealousy ignites a madcap adventure as time is ticking for everyone to make the move with Andy’s family to their new home.  On Toy Story 2, Andy is going to cowboy camp, but leaves Woody behind because Woody’s arm is torn and hasn’t been repaired yet.  That sets off another adventure involving Al as the sinister collectible toy dealer and nasty Stinky Pete, the toy who doesn’t want to play with children anymore.

Toy Story 3 opens with Andy getting ready to go to college.  It is the end of an era, and as Andy cleans his room and sorts between storage and garbage, all the toys, with the exception of Woody, are accidently tossed on the curb as garbage.  Apparently rejected by Andy, the toys decide they needed to take matters into their own hands and get themselves to someplace where they’d find a new home.  Unfortunately, the Sunnyside preschool wasn’t what they had in mind.  Controlled by the bitter and evil Lotso and his gang, Sunnyside turned out to be a nightmare.  The plan to escape goes sideways, and everyone narrowly escapes the incinerator.  Lotso ends up on the grill of a garbage truck, while Andy’s gang of toys prepare themselves for life in a box stored in the attic.  But at the last minute, Woody writes a note to Andy planting the idea that he should take them to a new home with Bonnie, a little girl who loves to play with her toys just like Andy did when he was a boy.  In the end, rather than opting to go to college with Andy, Woody stays with his “family” of friends and new life begins at Bonnie’s.

As usual, kids love Pixar movies, but it’s the older kids like me that get the message.  Life, like these three amazing animated movies, is one thing after another.  Our relational circles are always shifting; we are prone to “breaking” and new repair; and our circumstances do change radically, pushing us into new adventures whether we want them or not.

Life never stands still.  It is always moving forward, presenting us new adventures, but at the same time causing us pain and anguish.  Toy Story 3 is, for me, about the necessary losses of life.  Family relationships change as we move from childhood into adulthood; our roles change as both children and parents; friendships are always shifting; our physical and mental abilities peak, then wane.  The list could go on and on.  Everything, and I mean everything is always changing, and whatever plans we have get trampled and tossed aside.

Joseph Campbell said:  “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses pushed God to reveal the divine name.  The answer was, “I am who I am.”  “Yahweh.”  (Exodus 3:14)  We’re often fond of reminding ourselves God doesn’t change, forgetting that God is the God on the move in salvation history, and whose thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

What are the necessary losses I need to accept so I can embrace the life God has for me in the future?  That is the question I’m wrestling with this week.  How am I getting in the way of God’s plan for me?  Am I taking matters into my own hands when I need to be trusting God in this moment, or am I failing to take the step he has for me today?  Argh.  Living this life as it is, not as I want it, is a daily challenge that requires me to leave behind what needs to be left behind, that I might live forward into my faith journey following Jesus.

This was Paul’s words of wisdom to the Philippians (3:5-11)

I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee,  and I was so zealous that I persecuted the church. As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault.

But all those things that I might count as profit I now reckon as loss for Christ’s sake.  Not only those things; I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere garbage, so that I may gain Christ and be completely united with him. I no longer have a righteousness of my own, the kind that is gained by obeying the Law. I now have the righteousness that is given through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is based on faith.

All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life.

More Sunday…

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POPCORN PARABLES: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Those are wise words, and the older I get, the more I know they’re true.  And they’re especially true when it comes to addressing our societal tendency to outsource things we don’t want to do or want done cheaper, and the role of our elders in our culture.  It is a complex challenge and there are no easy answers.  But there are biblical values we can apply and we can point ourselves in a direction God wants us to be moving.

I’m going to use one of the wonderful movies of the last few years, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” as an entry point into a conversation we have been having as a congregation and will continue to have as an intergenerational faith community.  The two questions which are part of the larger conversation around aging are:  How do we honor and benefit from the contributions of one and all, especially our older friends whose physical ability is waning, when as a culture, we want to remove aging and death from our everyday experience?  And, for those of us getting up there in years, how do we stay connected and continue to experience renewal as God’s Spirit continues to grow and use us until the day we die and enter glory?  Big questions.  No simple answers.

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“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)

Helen Keller is someone who knew adversity.  For the first nineteen months of her life she lived the life we’d expect of a child.  Then something described as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” (possibly scarlet fever or meningitis) robbed her of both sight and hearing.  Lou Holtz, who some of you football fans know from his coaching and work as a commentator, said something worth paying attention to about life off the field:  “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”  I don’t think he was thinking of Helen Keller as an example, but who knows.  She said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”

“Second Hand Lions” is one of my favorite movies.  Granted, it’s not on the critic’s list of all-time best movies, but it had something to say to my life both from the perspective of Walter (Haley Joel Osment), the fourteen year-old boy that gets dropped off by his irresponsible mother, and the perspective of his two aging, reclusive great uncles, Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine).  Somehow life brought the three of them together and everyone learned and benefitted from each other.  It wasn’t something any of the three chose, but that’s how life is, and we can either get busy living the life we’ve been given or futilely chase the life we think we want or somehow believe we deserve.  That’s not to say we don’t strive, but we don’t strive to be someone else—we strive to be who God created us to be and trust God’s Spirit to weave our circumstances into that life.

The surprise for Hub and Garth is they thought their adventure was over.  Their best days were in the past and aside from taking shots at traveling salesmen who hoped to get the old geezers to spend some of their rumored fortune on the product they were peddling, their adventure was over.  Then Walter showed up.  Garth embraced the opportunity to be part of Walter’s life.  Hub wanted nothing to do with it.  But in the end, the surprise was their adventure wasn’t over until the two brothers tried to fly the old biplane through the barn.  Life is not over until it’s over and every stage of life presents us with opportunities for adventure.  Whether it’s the adventure of us as children showing up for our first day of school or the adventure of life’s changes as we age, we are presented with the choice of applying our values and trusting God’s work in our lives.

The scene I’m showing Sunday is the one with Hub waking up from one of his sleep walking episodes to find Walter begging for the “man” speech Hub gives to young men as they come of age.  Hub agrees to give part of the speech, and it has to do with truth and belief, saying, “Sometimes the things which may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most.”  He then states his core beliefs:

  • People are basically good.
  • Honor, courage, and virtue mean everything.
  • Money and power—power and money mean nothing.
  • Good always triumphs over evil.
  • True love never dies.

The question for me is not whether I agree or disagree with Hub’s list, but do I know what I believe and am I willing to live a life consistent with what I say I believe?  As I say at all memorial services, none of us gets it 100% right.  But are we headed in the right direction?   And has our experience resulted in the wisdom that guides us with the conviction that when push comes to shove—we know and are living what counts?

Part of Paul’s speech on how to live life can be found in Philippians 4:4-7:  May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice!  Show a gentle attitude toward everyone. The Lord is coming soon.  Don’t worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart.  And God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.

Several years ago we worked on what we called our “elevator” speech.  The challenge is whether we can tell someone our “story” in the time it takes for an elevator to go from the first to the tenth floor—no stops along the way.  Sunday, I’m going to push us to begin working on what has been called our six-word memoir.  Six-word memoirs are a snapshot in time of what counts in this moment.  Their value is the exercise of creating our memoir and pushes us to be mindful of our circumstances and our response.  I’m finding it is a powerful way to tap into God’s presence and work in my life this moment, and helps me to connect with the people around me.

More Sunday…

These are the things I found on my desk you might want to know…

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“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:  A time to be born, And a time to die…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2)

Ever want to be someone else?  That “someone” else can be the desire to trade places with someone you think has a better life, or it can be you at a different time in your life.  Learning to be who we are, when we are, where we are is one of the challenges of life.  Comparison is one of the prime culprits that rob us of gratitude and serenity.  It starts when we are young as we begin to realize life is difficult, and we begin to think the solution for the struggle we feel is being more like someone who seems to be smarter, faster, stronger, or better looking.

I remember starting high school as a lowly freshman and looking at the seniors as kids who had “it all.”  They’d mastered this crazy high school stuff.  They were grown up.  The girls were more beautiful and it seemed to me all the guys had the “golden ring” of my day—the letterman jacket.  If I could just be older and grow up faster my problems wouldn’t be so daunting.  Then I got to be a senior and discovered the real key was to be a far more sophisticated college student.  And it just kept going.  If only I could not be who I am where I am, but be older with more money and less angst.  Then at some point, I emotionally threw the brakes on as I shot through my forties, and realized it wasn’t getting better and nostalgia for life when I was younger began to hatch in my thoughts.  Finally, it dawned on me that I am who I am where I am and the key to life was to do the work this season of my life presented.  Acceptance, gratitude and living this day, not tomorrow or yesterday, is the key to life God has given me.  Slowly, and imperfectly, the mantra to live today, this twenty-four hour day, has reshaped my life most of the time.  I’m a work in progress, and comparison can pop up to wreak havoc at any time, day or night.

The Popcorn Parable movies I’ve selected all address the “seasons of life” issue and in one way or another challenge us to do the work of our season of life right now.  It means letting ourselves be the age we are.  That’s the challenge faced in the movie “Big” which featured Tom Hanks in the leading role as Josh Baskin.

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One of the defining books of my life came as a result of a conversation with my pastor John Nazarian when I was a student at Portland State University and attending First Baptist Church.  John challenged me to read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  It’s a book we have on the bookshelf at  St. Andrew.  It’s an old book by today’s standards, written in 1946, but as it is still being printed always indicates to me it’s a book of high value.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl tells the story of his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II.  He describes his experience and the observation that survival of his fellow prisoners often correlated with whether he or she had a compelling reason to live that was stronger than the incredible suffering and deprivations inflicted by the Nazis.  Frankl concluded that the meaning of life can be found in every moment of living, and that life never ceases to have meaning, even in the midst of suffering and death.  The synthesis of his thought was offered at a group meeting of prisoners during a mass fast inflicted on the camp because the inmates were protecting one of their own from what would be fatal retribution.  Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in dire straits, there is someone “looking down” that offered connection and meaning, and who would expect not to be disappointed.  That someone could be God, a family member, or friend.

I believe what Frankl discovered is what is laid out over and over again in the Bible.  Whether it was Abraham, Joseph, Moses, or even Esther, when the chips were down it was their hope and connection with a greater purpose that kept them centered and focused.  One of the great stories of the Bible is the story of the Jewish woman Esther finding herself in the harem of the Persian king Xerxes 1.  When a plot was hatched by one of Xerxes’ key advisors to find a reason to confiscate Jewish property and exterminate the Jews in Persia, Esther’s uncle Mordecai came to Esther and challenged her to use her extraordinary privilege and access to Xerxes to plead her people’s case.  Mordecai sent her this message: “Don’t think that just because you live in the king’s house you’re the one Jew who will get out of this alive.  If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.”  (Esther 4:13-14 MSG)  OK.  It was a pretty blunt message.  What I take away from it is Esther not only might have been made “queen”, but even born for such a “time as this.”

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We all want to live as value-based people. And we do. The question is whether or not the values we actually live by reflect the values we truly aspire too. Integrity and consistency are a lot easier to talk about than to live on a daily basis. For me it is a matter of paying attention to the main thing—because keeping the main thing is the main thing. That means breaking my life down into the twenty-four hour cycle of each day, then accepting every day as a gift to be lived and an opportunity to live in the direction God’s values are taking me. That means rejecting other values that can sometimes creep into my life and start throwing me off course.

Grace and the flow of the Holy Spirit in our lives is always the context for Paul’s teaching on values and behavior. We often forget that. As I pointed out last week, Paul is more than willing to borrow from the popular wisdom of his day, point to the “rules” as something good to live by, but it is always from the perspective of God doing what we can’t do for ourselves in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Paul is not a self-help advocate. The lifestyle he advocates is a faith-based experience in which the Spirit flows through us as we surrender to God’s presence and way of living.

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Monday morning, bright and early, a father with two scouts showed up at my house, placed a flag in the pole holder they’d previously inserted, saluted the flag, then sped off to repeat the same drill at another house.  Near dusk last night, the procedure was reversed.  The dad and two scouts saluted the flag, removed it, rolled it up, and carefully placed it in the van.  What a “win-win.”  I support the scouts with a donation, and five times a year on the appropriate holidays, they raise and lower a flag.  But at a deeper level, the scouts are being mentored.  What that dad had received, he was passing along, and I know there were other dads and scouts out all over Sonoma.

I’m going to argue in as many ways as I possibly can that as a church community we can choose hope or we can choose despair.  To choose hope is to trust the God who has been intimately involved with human beings since the beginning—the God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit—the God who has guided generations in the past—is with us now—and will be faithful tomorrow.  Hope isn’t always a feeling, in fact more times than not, I find hope to be a “practice.”  Hope is something I practice in response to what God the Father has done in Jesus Christ and is doing in the Spirit today.  The way that gets expressed is to pass along whatever I’ve received to my family, faith community, and the larger community around me, and trust the results to God.

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There are lots of reasons to live as a cynic.  Among the many reasons provided by our Facebook friends:

  • Cynicism protects you from hurt and disappointment.  If you expect the worst, you’re less vulnerable.  But when something good happens you wonder what the “catch” is.
  • To live as a cynic is easier than to find a solution
  • Cynicism is rooted in past hurts and disappointments, not future hope.
  • Cynicism detaches and stands outside life and it’s messiness.
  • “Why try?  It won’t make any difference,” is the voice of the cynic.
  • Insecurities and fears drive cynicism.  (How true!)

Hope, as described by the respondents, was not a vague emotion.  Hope was a decision, and while rooted in faith, it was expressed through an attitude of action and participation.  Rather than standing on the sidelines of life, hope was expressed as that which gets one in and keeps one in the game of life.  Hope takes seriously the challenges, disappointments, and tragedies of life, but responds with engagement rather than cynical disengagement

The Apostle Paul’s life, after his breakdown/conversion experience was anything but easy.  I know there exists in the Christian community the false hope that if we’re living our faith right, bad things won’t happen to us.  On the contrary, the promise is God’s constant presence in our lives, not that life will all of a sudden get easy.  But in all the challenges he faced, Paul was tenacious when it came to hope.  I love his testimony of his resiliency in the midst of trouble.  Life is dishing it out, but Paul is keeping his balance and perspective:

2 Corinthians 4:7-9 (TEV) Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us.  We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed.

It is easy to get cynical about not only the personal stuff in my life, but the state of the world.  I am appalled by the many Christians who have abandoned the world and focus on creating fortress communities and consoling one another with visions of heaven.  I trust my future is in God’s capable hands.  I want to live hopefully, engaged in doing the next right thing whether that next right thing seems to make a difference or not.  That’s not the point.  The point is to make my contribution and leave the results to God.  It won’t be easy, and there will be times when nothing seems to be happening, but I want to do the right thing anyway.

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We want certainty, but what we get in life is uncertainty and lots of it. The rate of change continues to accelerate, creating more uncertainty, which carries with it more anxiety, stress, and fear. Alvin Toffler penned “Future Shock” way back in 1970, but he could see it coming. The tidal wave of change was forming and has now crashed down upon us. It’s not that there wasn’t change in years past, what Toffler identified as so disorienting is the rate of change. Toffler’s shortest definition for the term “Future Shock” was a personal perception of “too much change in too short a period of time”.

For me, it’s like the dizziness that comes from a carnival ride that spins just a bit too much or the queasiness I can get in the arcade driving game. My solution? Find a fixed point and focus on that as a way of centering me and reestablishing my balance. That’s what my faith, and the instructions Jesus left us (me), does for me. Keeps me oriented to what counts—what matters—what is real. It is as we’ve so often said, “Keeping the main thing the main thing, is the main thing.”

Jesus appeared to many of his followers during the forty days after his resurrection. He would appear and disappear, seemingly “at will,” talking to them about the Kingdom of God. The events surrounding his death had completely blindsided them. Even the resurrection did little to move them off their expectation that the Kingdom of God Jesus talked about, was one of political power. Many of the followers were still anticipating they would get the upper hand, and continued to harbor thoughts of being given seats of power. (Mark 10:35-45) Since it didn’t happen as they expected, their number one question was “When? When is this going to happen?” Jesus’ response was that it was His Father’s call, and way above their pay grade. What they needed to do was stay put until the Spirit came upon them, then they would become his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.

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I’m still tingling from seeing my friends step up in front of all of us assembled for Easter at St. Andrew, and silently, with just a piece of cardboard, testify to what God has done in their lives.  Fear, shame, control is giving way to recovery, hope, new life.  The evidence of Easter resurrection is in our midst.  It occurs in us as individuals when we get to the end of our rope, so that we give up and “die” to our way of doing things, and in that awful moment of surrender, God’s Spirit begins to lift us up and we begin living a new life that is bursting from within us.

But here’s the thing I’ll bet too many failed to realize Sunday morning:  The promised resurrected life happens in community.  We may have what feels like personal spiritual awakenings, but if one looks more closely, I’ve always found that the context for what happens to us personally is always a faith community.  The resurrection life of Easter is my hope as Rich Gantenbein, but that hope is always initiated, nurtured, and sustained in the community of faith that bears witness to the power of God over death and in favor of life.

Descartes was and is one of the most influential shapers of modern western thought.  He lived in a time of great chaos as the old institutions of faith and political power were crumbling.  It was in that context that he sought to find somewhere firm to “stand,” and he found confidence in his own “being.”  His famous statement, “I think—therefore I am,” opened the door to the individual being the basis of reality.  So much good can be traced to this thought, including democracy.  But as so often happens, there have been unintended consequences.  “I”, “Me”, “Mine” have become the defining basis of our lives, instead of “We”, “Our”, and “Us.”  To understand the biblical narrative we have to wear both lenses in our glasses…it is both “me” and “we.”

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Part of my story is working in a Portland, Oregon hospital while going to Portland State University, thinking I was going to be a doctor.  Death is a real part of hospital life, and on one particular night, a woman who died as a result of an aortic aneurism changed my life.  Her family was gathered in the Emergency room waiting area, knowing the worst news was coming.  But they were not alone—a hospital chaplain came in and sat with them in their fear and grief.  Watching that scene unfold made me realize that if my faith as a young man meant anything, it had to mean something in times like that.

As they say, “the rest is history.”  I have sat with families in emergency rooms.  I’ve sat with people in their homes as their lives slipped away.  We’ve all been rocked to our core by the recent, tragic, horrendous crash of the Germanwings jet into the side of the mountain.

Fear is at the core of our human experience—fear of death being the primary fear that drives all others.  The fear of death is the ultimate fear of disconnection.  There are the little fears of disconnection along the way, all rooted in the deep sense we’re not enough and will never be enough.  We struggle with the sense there has to be more than being born, slogging through life for as many years as we get to slog, and then dying.  Easter is God’s answer to the fear and the sense there has to be more, and the answer is, there is more.

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Most of us are familiar with the opening scene of the drama that unfolded in “the upper room” where Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover.  It was the night Judas would betray Jesus, and the religious powers would conspire with the political powers to crucify him the next day.  The problem with familiarity is over time we become desensitized to the full impact of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and then telling them (and us) we are to do the same thing for one another, and that somehow this is the door to the blessed life.

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“I do have faith, but not enough. Help me have more!” is one of the most profound prayers in the Bible.  It was uttered by a father whose son suffered from what is described as an “evil spirit,” but which could very well have been epilepsy.  The boy would suddenly crash to the ground foaming at the mouth, gritting his teeth, and stiff all over.  If he was near water or fire when a fit hit him, his life was in danger.  The disciples had tried to cast the “evil spirit” out of him, but were unsuccessful.  Jesus lamented the lack of faith, then asked that the boy be brought to him.  When the father asked if Jesus could do anything, Jesus replied with an emphatic “yes,” with the proviso that everything is possible for the person who has faith.  That’s when the father said, “I do have faith, but not enough. Help me have more!”

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Healing The Blind Man

To live is to suffer.  There’s just no way of getting around it.  And because of that, Scott Peck’s poignant opening lines to his classic, THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, is so true:  “Life is difficult.”  The temptation is to buy into the notion that suffering is deserved, so those who seem to suffer more than others have brought it upon themselves.  In Jesus’ day, that was a prevailing explanation.  As with so many things in life, it’s just not that simple.  H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an explanation that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

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Adulterous Woman

Does the story of the adulterous woman told in John 8:1-11belong in the Bible?  If you get your Bible out and look up the story you’ll see that it is “asterisked” as being included in only one of the key early manuscripts of the gospel textual scholars used to gauge the authenticity of a particular passage.  Indications are, it probably wasn’t part of John’s original gospel.  But does that mean we toss it?  No.  The material in the gospels came from bits and pieces of written material the gospel writers took and wove into their account.  It almost feels like someone guided by the Holy Spirit found this story on a scrap of parchment lying under some other stuff on John’s desk and realized it needed to be included and fit it in between the growing confrontation with the Jewish authorities and Jesus declaring himself as the “light of the world.”  The reason it fits is it has the “ring” of truth.  It is so consistent with all the other gospel evidence of who Jesus is and what he does.

[Note: men and women read this passage differently.  The first thing women notice is while the law condemned both the man and woman caught in adultery, it was only the woman who was accused and hauled before Jesus for judgment and sentencing.  Leviticus 20:10:  If a man commits adultery with the wife of an Israelite, both he and the woman shall be put to death.  Don’t we still have a double standard today?]

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The Paralytic: Do you want to get well?

One of the strangest questions Jesus asked in the gospels is the question he asked the paralytic man lying by the pool of Bethzatha:  “Do you want to be get well?” (Or “Be made whole?”)  On the surface of things, that would seem like a no-brainer.  If you can’t walk and you’re relegated to life as an invalid, why wouldn’t you want to be made well?  Turns out in similar situations where there is something paralyzing us from truly living our lives, there are a host of reasons we don’t want to be made well.  Being sick (if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually) is sufficiently familiar and oddly comfortable. We resist the changes that being made whole would introduce into our lives.

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Awakenings: Nicodemus

It seems like a just a few weeks ago we gathered on Christmas Eve, and during our celebration we turned all the lights out and extinguished all the candles save one:  the Christ candle.  I then quoted from the prologue of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (John 1:5)  As we enter the season of Lent next week (Ash Wednesday is April 18) I’m starting a new series of messages entitled “Awakenings.”

Awakenings is the 1973 memoir written by British neurologist Oliver Sacks who discovered the beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa.  He administered the drug to catatonic patients who survived the 1917-1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness).  These patients were tragically literally trapped inside bodies that could not respond to the world around them.  The L-Dopa were dramatically awakened after decades of catatonic existence and had to deal with a new life in a whole new time.  (The book was made into a movie in 1990 and starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.)

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Living The Sabbath Lifestyle

We make choices—then those choices make us.  I don’t get to choose what is going to happen to me, but I can choose how to respond to what life presents.  I can’t control what is going to happen tomorrow, nor can I change what happened yesterday and how I reacted.  What I can do is live in the present, trust God with each moment, and make choices that reflect my commitment to love God—love my neighbor.  What will emerge from the kind of choices that reflect God’s priorities rather than my priorities is a life that flows from loving relationships.  That life starts with a growing connection with God’s Spirit, and like the flow of the wind, the Spirit reaches all the cracks and crevices of my life.

The thing I’ve noticed in myself and many others is when we get ourselves into some sort of very painful situation or something catastrophic happens, we will do anything that will help us reconnect and deal with the pain.  We show up at church.  We connect with a twelve-step group.  We reach out to others.  We pray regularly.  We do what others have told us helps when life is very difficult.  But once we’re feeling better, it’s human nature to go back to whatever was “normal,” even though by so doing we will gradually stop doing the things that brought healing into our lives.

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Changing Our Minds About God

It all happens so subtly, one hardly notices.  Things are going ok.  Rather than living life from my knees, I don’t realize I’m getting a little puffed up and thinking I can run the show.  Of course the Spirit is riding shot gun, but I’m the one driving my life.  I can do it until suddenly I can’t.  The same old sin-nature which Keith Miller talks about in A HUNGER FOR HEALING, rears it’s ugly head and the result is the same result I’ve always gotten when that happens:  disruption of my most important and valued connections, shame, remorse…I could go on and on.  And it all seems to happen in a nanosecond, but I’m learning it is a result of not staying so deeply connected with God so that I can say with Paul, “Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it… I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central.”  (Galatians 2:20 from The Message)

Ah yes.  Ego: that part of me that wants to run the show.  And what feeds the ego is pride. I’d never thought about it this way before, but Mark Buchanan argues that pride and despair are two sides of the same coin.  Pride is the one thing that stops God dead in his tracks because God won’t push his way into our lives.  God enters by invitation and invitation only.  Pride usurps God.  Pride causes us to get it all turned upside down, and not in a good way.  He writes, “Pride is the delusion that God, if he exists, is awfully lucky I’ve shown up and should mind his p’s and q’s lest I change my mind.”  That seems a bit over the top, except when I start really looking at the kind of thinking that gets me into trouble and causes me to go off the rails.  Oh oh.  There is some part of me that really doesn’t trust that God is up to the task of managing my day-to-day life, because I sure push him out of the way on a daily basis.

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The Still Voice of God

We all talk about the still, small, voice of God, but how often do we quiet ourselves enough to hear the voice of God? We’re created for connection with God, ourselves, and the people around us (neighbor). But it’s as if we’re our own worst enemy. Instead of creating and living lives that make room for deep connection, we let our worries, anxieties, interminable quest for “more,” along with collected hurts and resentments, drive us to live in ways that sabotage connection. Hurry never delivers the goods. Success, as defined by our culture, never delivers the goods. Loving relationships can’t thrive, and often don’t survive, without slowing down enough for our souls to catch up and connect with the “other;” whether that other is God, ourselves, or the people we love.

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Practicing “Enough”

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” (Christopher McDougal)

I don’t know of a better word picture of how most of us live our lives.  This morning (Tuesday) I didn’t wait for the sun to come up.  The “lion” of many commitments and challenges this week was already up and prowling around at 4:01am.  This isn’t all that unusual, but most often I fall back asleep after just a few minutes, until the alarm at 6am..  Not this morning.  So what to do?  I chose to pray through every person and challenge on my “radar screen.”  I paid attention to my breathing, imagining I was breathing out the anxiety and breathing in God’s presence.  I resisted the temptation to leap out of bed and get to work for one reason and one reason only.  If I’m talking about creating a Sabbath life-style of space for God’s presence and activity in our lives, I’ve got to practice what I preach.  And if this was going to be a day lived on six hours of sleep instead of eight, it was at least going to be a day of trusting God’s care and presence and me not taking control first thing and running as if everything depended on me and my effort to get things done.

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Gift of the Sabbath

When it comes to how we live our lives, I’m realizing the language we use to describe busy lifestyles is the language of addiction.  We know something is very wrong, but we plead powerlessness when it comes to doing anything to change the way things are.  We know we’re too busy and in most cases, our kids are even busier than we are.  We realize we’ve substituted distractions (electronics, TV, etc.) for real rest.  Our significant connections with the people who matter most are suffering.  Meals together are a rarity.  When we do manage to create some “time off,” we often schedule even more “fun.”  The net result is we get back into our routines even more exhausted.  Our answer is to reach for another high octane drink, the kind of drinks that have been created to fuel our insanity (Monster, Red Bull, Rockst*r, etc.)

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Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? 

Philippians 3:12-14:  I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself.  Of course, my friends, I really do not think that I have already won it; the one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead.  So I run straight toward the goal in order to win the prize, which is God’s call through Christ Jesus to the life above

*Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? About half of us do and the ones we make most frequently are:

1.    Lose Weight

2.   Getting Organized

3.   Spend Less, Save More

4.   Enjoy Life to its Fullest

5.   Staying/Getting Fit & Healthy

6.   Learn something exciting

7.   Quit Smoking

8.   Volunteer to Help Others

9.   Fall in Love

10.  Spend More Time with Family **

Why do the same resolutions keep showing year after year? Why do only 8% of the people who make resolutions report that they accomplished their goals? Is it a lack of character? Are the resolutions bad? Maybe, like Calvin, we simply don’t need to make any?

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It’s A Wonder-Filled Life–Trust It

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. (Viktor E. Frankl)

“The wonderful life is the life we plan—the wonder-filled life is the life God gives us.” I know I would have missed my life if my plans had prevailed. The same was true of Joseph. He had plans, but they went awry when Mary turned up pregnant and he knew he wasn’t the father. I’m very sure he was angry, hurt, and feeling all the other emotions betrayal of trust raises in us. But he chose the “high road” and was planning to quietly dissolve the engagement and go on with his life.

That’s when the Holy Spirit showed up with a different plan…

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It’s a Wonder-Filled Life: Hope In It.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.  What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.  (Viktor E. Frankl)

George Bailey’s life was going along OK.  It maybe wasn’t the life he had planned, but it was a wonderful life.  He’d married Mary and together their four children filled the house with laughter, music, and the other delightful sounds of life.  It was true the Savings and Loan business was struggling along, but  George’s life was good—it was manageable.

Then the unimaginable happened.  Uncle Billy lost the critical $8,000 deposit and George’s world collapsed.  The sinister tycoon Potter could not believe his luck at having Billy accidently lose the deposit to him.  For George—all was lost.  For Potter—all was won.  Because of that calamity, we watch George’s life unravel.  He shames Uncle Billy.  He is now the angry, shaming father at home.  When he has to reach out to Potter for help, Potter seizes the opportunity to shame George and take him down from what Potter perceives as George’s self-righteous perch.  Billy’s mistake unleashes the shame that’s always lurking just under the surface, waiting for the opportunity to wreak havoc and tear people apart.  Failures and mistakes are the perfect opportunity, and since everyone makes mistakes, shame usually doesn’t have long to wait for the opportunity.

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It’s a Wonderful Life — Now Live It.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.  What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.  (Viktor E. Frankl)

It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1946 and has become one of the all-time classic American films and a beloved part of the Christmas celebration for many.  Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, It’s A Wonderful Life stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others.  George’s imminent suicide off a bridge into the frigid waters below on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (played by Henry Travers). The intervention involves Clarence showing George all the lives he has touched and how different life in the community of Bedford Falls would have been had he never been born.  (Directed by Frank Capra, the cast also included Donna Reed.)

Films like this resonate with something deep in our hearts.  We hope and pray it’s true—we are connected—our lives matter—what we do counts…

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The BIG Why

“I’m not particularly devout—I only tried to be obedient to the Word of God from one experience to the next.”

I am without a doubt my own worst enemy.  I can engage in the blame game, blaming the people, places, and things of my life.  But that’s all it really is, a game.  It’s a game that hides the fundamental source of pain and disconnection in my life.  Self-righteousness is my personal demon.  I run away from where I am broken as a source of pain and shame.  But in truth, I am at my best running toward where I am broken.  And I will connect at the deepest and most profound level with the people in my life, including those most dear to me, when I am willing to be vulnerable and live with my brokenness instead of fighting it, hiding it, or even attacking you if you point it out.

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First Things First

“I’m not particularly devout—I only tried to be obedient to the Word of God from one experience to the next.”

The ability and willingness to respond to “divine interruptions” in our day flows from a life where, as Stephen Covey says, “First things are First.”  Covey illustrated this principle using rocks, gravel, and sand.  How these are placed in a one-gallon mason jar is crucial.  The rocks have to go in first, then the gravel, and finally sand.  Otherwise you never get the rocks, representing the most important values and priorities, into the jar, i.e. our lives.

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Never Enough Money

“I’m not particularly devout—I only tried to be obedient to the Word of God from one experience to the next.”

I am created for connection.  You are created for connection.  The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is a story of connection with God and each other and reflects the later summary of ALL the commandments:  “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke: 10:27).  But somewhere along the line as children, we experience disconnection.  As Brené Brown interviewed literally thousands of men and women, what people described in their lives was disconnection and a sense of “not enough,” which Brown identified as shame.  Shame is something none of us want to acknowledge or talk about.  But unless we’re willing to deal with shame and the associated “not enoughs” we’re merely treating the symptoms, and not the root causes of what drives us to live lives that are disconnected and dominated by strategies and behaviors that betray who God created us to be.

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The Surrendered Life of Service

“Pusillanimity (withholding the good we are capable of doing) is a greater sin than presumption (relying on our own rather than God’s power).”
(Thomas Aquinas)

When Abram was seventy-five years old, God called him to leave his home and head to a land God would show him.  He was to leave behind everything that was familiar and trust God to lead him to a new land.  Part of the deal God made with Abram (later to become Abraham) was he was to be blessed, and through him God would bless the other nations.  (See Genesis 12:1-3)  The “blessed to be a blessing” is a theme running throughout the Bible, and one Jesus picks up as central to his life and message.  Jesus could have claimed privilege as the Messiah, the anointed one of God almighty, but he chose to empty himself, coming to live a surrendered life of service and ultimately death on a cross as the savior of humanity.

Faith In Action Sunday

“Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building.” (Bono)

The gospel Jesus lived and preached is uncomfortable.  We want to make the gospel about our personal salvation and spend our time fussing about the sins we consider morally reprehensible.  But the folks we look sideways at today were the people Jesus pointed to as examples of faith in action.  How can that be?  Justice.  Mercy.  Humility.  Micah held these attributes up as the things God was committed too.  (See Micah 6:6-8)  The temptation is always to substitute religious rituals and traditions for the surrendered life lived from the inside out in service to others.

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The Hole In Our Gospel

Mark Twain said:  “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

There is a hole in our gospel.  We’ve made the gospel “about” Jesus rather than following Jesus as Master.  I had one of those sudden, but very uncomfortable insights earlier this week.  As you know, I believe Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible known, as “The Message,” is Spirit inspired.  His ability to connect the message of the Bible with our modern English, and capture not only the mere words, but also the force behind the words is extraordinary.  But there was one word he chose to use that I’ve never liked, so I confess in my use of his translation, I’d always change it.

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Popcorn Parables “42”

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

“42” is the docudrama of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the National League as a Brooklyn Dodger.  While it’s true, Jackie was the obvious focus of this defining shift of the racial barrier there would be no Jackie Robinson story without Branch Rickey, the Dodger’s exec who had vowed that if the chance to do something about prejudice came along, he’d do something about it.  Two men from two very different worlds came together to help change the world for the rest of us.  Along the way men like Burt Shotton, Pee Wee Reese and other players got to be more than mere baseball players.  They got to be a part of making right something that was very wrong.

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Popcorn Parable: Quartet

Art Linkletter said “Old age isn’t for sissies.”
  Ain’t that the truth.  Every passage of life has its challenges.  We struggle through childhood and adolescence to grasp the basics of life and discover how we fit in with the scheme of things.  It’s wonderful and painful all at the same time.  Then we take our place as young adults as we start careers, often marry and start a family.  It is a time of acquisition and gaining competence and confidence.  Then at some point about mid-life we realize life is far more difficult than we imagined; most of us aren’t going to accomplish everything we thought we would; our relationships aren’t working the way we thought they were supposed too.  It’s been my observation that this is a time of breakdown when marriages often fall apart and folks caught in addiction either have to seek relief from their bondage or surrender to the despair.

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