Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

February 23, 2009 Defiled

READ: Matthew 15:10-20
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, Hear and understand:
11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.
12 Then the disciples came and said to him, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?
13 He answered, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.
14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.
15 But Peter said to him, Explain the parable to us.
16 And he said, Are you also still without understanding?
17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?
18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.
19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.

One of the hardest things I've ever had to face has been taming my own tongue. I've been a believer over 30 years now and I'd have to say I'm just now grappling with all the things I've said. The really dangerous stuff has all been things I thought and then put voice to. The worst part, I guess, is that when you are defiled in mind -- dirtied by your own mental dirt -- just like any other sin you justify it. Well, I'm done with that. In these last months I have found myself for the first time able to rest in the repentance that always eluded me. I think it may be a combination of being older and of receiving a call to a new place. Mostly I think it is simply God in his grace and glory telling me now is the time. Now is the day of Salvation, as the Scripture says.

Wow. Praise God for HIS inexpressible gift!


February 21, 2009 Traditions

READ: Matthew 15:1-9
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
2 Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.
3 He answered them, And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
4 For God commanded, Honor your father and your mother, and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.
5 But you say, If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God,
6 he need not honor his father. So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Psalm 108 begins with these words:
1 My heart is steadfast, O God!
I will sing and make melody with all my being!
2 Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
3 I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
4 For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
5 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

As a pastor, the thing I fear above all else is that I will find myself in the pulpit or in front of God's people teaching as coming from God what is really just the musings of my own heart. I am a musician by training. I have stood on stages in all capacities. I have performed drama, opera, oratorio, sung in church and secular settings alike. And like all who enjoy the art of performance my goal is to erase the line between script and reality, between the spots on a page and the heart of the music. There is a level of musicianship and a level of dramatic training where the audience has a hard time telling whether the person on stage is acting or not. But the best performances are the unrepeatable ones. The best performances are the ones where the performer has become his own audience and is experiencing what the character is experiencing and yet is still in full command. In faith, and especially in the leadership of worship, that last level of acting is the greatest hypocrisy. The things the leader is doing have become real, from a certain angle. But they are not real because the leader is still acting, is still in control, and has not let the Lord really own him. He has convinced the audience and even himself (on a certain level) that what he is portraying is real, and it is not. Real, by definition, is unselfconscious.

Oh God. I am self-conscious and I know that I am self-conscious. I find it hard to relax in front of your people and just be with you. I find it just as hard when I am alone. And here I am, writing this piece... for whom? Lord, be my Lord today and take away my awareness of the audience that I feel is watching me and not you.


February 20, 2009 Faith

READ: Matthew 14:22-36
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.
23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,
24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.
25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.
26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, It is a ghost! and they cried out in fear.
27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.

28 And Peter answered him, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.
29 He said, Come. So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, Lord, save me.
31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?
32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick
36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

The text says that immediately after Jesus fed the 5000 he sent the disciples away in the boat. Now, in those days “immediately” could mean just about anything from “right away” to “later that day”. Jesus came walking on the water during the "fourth watch" of the night. The ancient Hebrews only divided their night into three parts (evening, midnight, morning). Once Rome took over the fourth watch was apparently added as a division, based on their military practice of changing guards four times a night to keep them sharp in the middle of the night. The fourth watch was the time just before dawn.

I’d like to imply something here and see if it makes sense. We know from yesterday’s reading that it was late in the day when Jesus dismissed the crowd. Since you’d be pretty much of a fool to set off in a boat at night, it can’t have been the disciples’ intention to be out there at night. My guess is they were figuring on a relatively short run back to the safe harbor of Capernaum. They were sailing toward the sunset that day, and may have figured they could make it by dark. (Text message from Peter to wife: “I should be home for dinner”)

So now it is five in the morning and the wind has been against you all night. You’ve been rowing when you should have been able to just have a pleasure sail across the short end of the lake. You are wet, cold, and really, really tired. That’s when you see… a ghost. What is your natural response?

I think the disciples were about to do what the crew of the boat Jonah was in did: they were about to revert to the pagan beliefs of the day and ask the question “who has sinned here that we are about to drown? We need to throw someone overboard to appease the gods.” Peter is doing quite a brave thing here by offering to be the sacrifice to the god of the sea. I don’t know how much confidence Peter had when he stepped out of the boat that this really was Jesus, but I think he reasoned that if someone didn’t go whatever the apparition was would come and get them all.

Peter steps out of the boat, and for a moment everything is great. That’s when Peter looks down and actually realizes he’s walking on water.

So here’s the thing I find really amazing that I hadn’t seen until this reading: Peter starts by saying to Jesus, “IF it is you… command me to come to you on the water.” Contrast that statement with Peter, after the resurrection, in a boat, seeing the risen Christ on the shore and saying to John, “It is the Lord…”

Peter didn’t know, know, KNOW that this was Jesus when he stepped out of the boat. This was one of those moments anyone has with Jesus when they think he’s asking them to do something, but aren’t quite sure it is he. We reason that nothing is gained if nothing is ventured. It isn’t until Peter is out on the water that faith comes into play. It isn’t even in Peter WALKING on the water that faith is exercised, since he’s merely obeying what the Jesus he can see right in front of him asked him to do. The faith comes in when Peter realizes he’s walking on water and then, despite the evidence of his own eyes, he begins to sink.

“This isn’t how this is supposed to go,” Peter reasons. “Jesus called me to walk to him. I’m merely obeying what I was asked to do. The water should hold me up all the way until I’m safe in his arms and can VERIFY that this is Jesus.”

Why then is he sinking? Because, as Jesus says to the disciples later on, Peter is a man of little faith indeed. Peter really wants things to operate according to the way he expects they will. The moment he begins to exercise faith is the moment he sinks and cries out, “Lord, save me!” without any verification that this really is Jesus.


February 19, 2009 Provision

READ: Matthew 14:13-21
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.
16 But Jesus said, They need not go away; you give them something to eat.
17 They said to him, We have only five loaves here and two fish.
18 And he said, Bring them here to me.
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.
21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Whenever I read passages like this one I find myself fighting not to cast the scene in some sort of Salvador Dali print. What I mean by this is the sort of representational picture that Dali's Last Supper is. We've all seen the picture: Jesus stands at table not in any way in contact with the elements of communion. He points heavenward with his right hand. His left hand is against his chest, indicating he is in the middle of saying something about himself. The eleven disciples (Judas has already left) have their heads bowed in prayer. Above is the shadow of Jesus' naked upper torso, his hands spread wide presumably signifying some sort of universal salvation of the come-all-ye variety. The effect of the whole is entirely etherial and other-worldly. This is not just an upper room in First Century Jerusalem, this is a room in heaven itself. (Do take the time to call the print up on Google Images, it is worth meditating on it)

In my mind's eye, my Dali-esque version of the feeding of the 5,000 is a scene on a meadowed hill with Jesus sitting on some sort of furniture indicating his importance in the picture. The disciples each hold half-a-loaf and a piece of trout (pan seared, cajun, of course) and stand in a perfect semi-circle just below Jesus on the hillside. While there definitely are crowds there, they haven't made it into the picture because, as I said, this is representational art. Floating in the sky overhead there is either a shepherd's crook or perhaps a cross of some sort to complete the again other-worldly scene.

All of this museum-going guards me from having to come in contact with the realities of the situation:

This was a desolate place. That word "desolate" is really interesting. Here's a survey of what the word "eramos" (desolate) means in the Bible:

1) solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited
a) used of places
1) a desert, wilderness
2) deserted places, lonely regions
3) an uncultivated region fit for pasturage
b) used of persons
1) deserted by others
2) deprived of the aid and protection of others, especially of friends and kindred
3) bereft
a) of a flock deserted by the shepherd
b) of a woman neglected by her husband, from whom the husband withholds

In 2006 I traveled with my son Tim and two of his friends to Rachel, NV, which is about 120 miles north of Las Vegas. We went there because that is as close as you can get to a military installation at Groom Lake, a dry lake-bed, presumably where Area 51 is located. It was all great fun inspired by Tim's boyhood interest in all things Alien. About 60 miles above Las Vegas there is a gas station/convenience mart. Just past the station is a sign that warns you not to go any further without a full tank of gas, water, and provisions. From that point all the way to Rachel (which does NOT have a gas station) we did not pass a single car, house, electric wire, or anything else that might indicate civilization. "Downtown Rachel" is populated by 36 people who all live in portable trailers. THIS is a desolate place, and the few people we met there were definitely desolated people. I'm sure there are more remote places on the planet, but I doubt I'll ever see them.

The thing to note about Rachel, NV is that it isn't pretty. It isn't clean. It isn't etherial. It isn't heavenly. This is an all-too-real place that is kind of scary for how far out from civilization it is. Jesus sat down in the middle of just such a desolate place and ministered to 5,000 desolated people who would have gladly gone to sleep hungry and cold that night just for the chance to see Jesus. They had literally dropped everything and gone running out into a place of relative danger just to hear the rabbi speak and to be near enough to perhaps be healed by him.

When the disciples brought the fish and bread to Jesus it was ALL they had. Remember that these men were crossing the top of the Sea of Galilee in a boat and hadn't intended to stop for a camping expedition. That's why they didn't have the proper amount of food with them. The trip across the top of the lake shouldn't have been more than a few hours and so they had packed nothing.

I don't know what YOU see when you look at this story, but I see very real human need being provided for by a very natural source supernaturally supplied by a very real human being who was also very really God.