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.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Delight in God's Will

Psalm 40:4-8
Blessed is the man who makes 
the Lord his trust,

who does not turn to the proud,

to those who go astray after a lie!

You have multiplied, O Lord my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you!

I will proclaim and tell of them,

yet they are more than can be told.
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,

but you have given me an open ear. 
Burnt offering and sin offering 
you have not required.

Then I said, “Behold, I have come;

in the scroll of the book it is written of me:

I delight to do your will, O my God;

your law is within my heart.”

Yesterday afternoon as I was driving home from an appointment I heard a local public official defending himself on the radio.  He had been accused of taking a bribe of $1000.  He said, "I didn't do anything wrong.  Of course I took the money.  But there wasn't anything wrong with it.  90% of the money went to someone else." Today as I was driving home from the grocery store I heard that the jury had convicted him and that he was facing 30 years in jail. When asked if he would resign from the city council he said, "If they want to vote me out they'll have to do it.  I didn't do anything wrong."

How much pressure does it take for us to admit that we've sinned? Today's lectionary texts included Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm that David wrote after Nathan the Prophet confronted him about his sin against Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.  It also included the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12.  He made huge barns to store his riches in where they'd be safe.  And that very night God told him it was time to hand over his soul.  What would become of his riches?    It also included Revelation 13, where the Beast "was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven." 

"Blessed is the man who makes
the Lord his trust,

who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after a lie!"

Oh, how I want to be that kind of a man!  And yet I know that, far too often I am impressed by proud people and vanities.  Proverbs 31:30 tells us that charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting.  Why do movie stars, models, and politicians impress me so?

You have multiplied, O Lord my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,

yet they are more than can be told.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is quoted as saying that science is, "thinking God's thoughts after him."  But in reality, there is no thought; no idea; no invention; no consideration that any of us can have that God didn't think of first.  If I'm going to be impressed by anyone or anything, shouldn't I be impressed by God first of all?

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear. 
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.

But wait!  Doesn't the Law of God tell us to sacrifice?  What's the deal?  Is the Bible contradicting itself?  No.  The Bible is making it clear. Sacrifice, offering, burnt offering, sin offering: go ahead and do them all, but if your heart is not in them, they are meaningless.

Then I said, “Behold, I have come;

in the scroll of the book it is written of me:

I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

Can you imagine having an epitaph that reads, "This person delighted to do God's will because God's will was in his heart." That's exactly what the Psalmist is saying.  He's not bragging either.  He's just stating a fact.  God has written this about him in the "scroll of the book".  

No matter how deeply most of us believe "what the Bible teaches", the fact remains that what most of are actually doing is trying to earn a place in heaven by our good works in the hope that the pile of our good works will be larger than the pile of our sins in the end.   It doesn't matter that we believe that we are "saved by grace."  We would really much prefer to be able to go on sinning in whatever way we like and take the chance that in the end our balance sheet will put us on the positive side of the line.  Most of us are "hoping" well get to heaven in the end, though we're not particularly sure we've done enough to warrant it.  So we spend our life desperately trying to grease God's palm with a measly $1000, boasting how we've done nothing wrong, while the much greater payoffs are going to our three great supporters: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.  

A sacrifice given in delight is no sacrifice at all.   It is what the Bible calls a sacrifice of praise: to be so taken with God that you gladly give all the old vanities; all the old delights over to him!  

There's only one thing that could possible transform me -- so deeply am I invested in the beauties of my sin -- into the kind of man who would delight in doing God's will.  The Cross. If I would only understand the depth of the riches of God's kindness toward me when Christ endured the shame of the Cross so that I could endlessly proclaim my own pride in what I ought to be ashamed of until one day I recognize that the shame was always mine and that all glory and honor belong to Christ for what he chose to do for me.

When I survey the Wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Forbid it, Lord that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my God
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to his blood.
-- Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

Delight!  If I can just focus for more than the five minutes my ADD (read: sin) warped brain allows me, I will truly delight in the amazement of what Christ has given in order to own me.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Candle Light

Luke 11:33-36
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”

Jama and I were in an antique store over the weekend.  On one shelf was a candle stand.  It was about 2 feet tall altogether, and was in the shape of a cat.  The whole affair was made of wrought iron, which I love.  The candle itself was suspended in the center.  The cat's head was above, and was in the shape of the Sun.  His tail was a crescent Moon, and if you pushed the tail it swung like a pendulum.  As the cat swung back and forth, the cat's eyes shifted left and right.  It was all a piece of very clever 19th century whimsy, and it made me laugh.

The cat.  The candle.  The eyes.  The Sun and Moon.  What was it trying to tell me?  

In a completely dark room, there is no way you would ever find that candle stand.  It was made of black wrought iron!  But light that candle in a dark room and what you would immediately see is not the candle stand.  You would see the white eyes moving back and forth, following the candle.  

Our eyes don't have light of their own.  They are receptors.  They somehow process light; take it in and make sense out of it for our minds.  But all lights are not equally good.  Are you like me?  When you are forced to sit under florescent lights for any period of time, does it make you tired?  I don't much like the new cfl bulbs everyone is hawking these days.  Edison didn't invent electric light.  Neon was around before Edison's invention.  What Edison came up with was a light that was more "natural", and a bulb that would last.  Certain lights actually drain us.  As Tom Hanks observed to his boss in Joe vs. the Volcano, "I can feel (these lights) sucking the juice out of my eyeballs!"  

Some lights just drain the light out of us.  And we really can't say, "Well, I thrive on my kind of light and you thrive on yours."  All is not one.   Some things, no matter how you package them, will never be light giving, because they are darkness and derive from a darkness greater than any light they purport to offer.  They are from that great Outer Darkness that, like the proverbial black hole, draws matter and light and energy into its useless vortex.  

Why is a relationship with God through Christ is so energizing?  Why does knowing God give you vision?   John 1:4-5 tells us, "In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."  (KJV)  Sometimes the insight of the language used in the King James Version really hits the mark in a way most other translations don't: There is ONE light that the darkness -- the consuming, drawing, deepening, encompassing darkness -- cannot comprehend.  And this word comprehend doesn't mean "understand".  It means that the darkness could not envelop the Light Jesus gives.  

What light are you going to let into your eye today?  Take care!  The images will stay with you for a long time after you close your eyes.  I won't give you a list of bad lights.  You know more instinctively than you can verbalize what those are.  Here's a list of some really good lights to get you started: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9)  Start there.  Now take a sheet of paper and build your own list.  Once you've got your list, go and take some snap shots with your eye today.  


Monday, October 25, 2010

Considering the Poor

Psalm 41:1-3
Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; 

he is called blessed in the land;

you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.
The Lord sustains him on his sickbed;

in his illness you restore him to full health.

There is something very foreign to our way of thinking in this psalm.  In 2010 when we say, "blessed is the one who considers the poor..." we mean, "blessed is the one who thinks about the poor and then goes and buys running shoes, a gym membership, and gets a personal trainer."  In the days when this psalm was written the phrase meant "Blessed is the one who does something about the poor."  Faith in those days equaled action.  That's why there are so many movements attached to the idea of worship in the Bible.  When the Word tells us to "bow before the Lord," for instance, it really means we are supposed to do it!

So the promise here is for someone who doesn't just talk about doing something for the poor.  The person God honors by delivering from the day of trouble; by protecting him and keeping him alive; by not giving him up to the will of his enemies; by sustaining him even in sickness and restoring him to health?  It isn't that such a person is any more valuable to God, but frankly, that's a person who is crucifying his own flesh by offering his body to the poor.  If God works in any kind of strategic way, and I'm not saying his strategy looks like ours would, I believe that he does preserve those who offer themselves sacrificially on behalf of the poor and weak in this world.

And let's have no talk about how nice this is to think about and then never do anything about.  It simply isn't enough for us to pray, "O Lord, remember those who are less fortunate than we are," and then dig into our steak and potatoes.  Somewhere in your life God expects you to honor the poor and the weak with your industry.  I'm not saying you have to sell all you have and give to the poor (unless you've made such an idol out of your money that you've become like the Rich Young Ruler Jesus encountered).  What the Word is telling you is that there needs to be a significant interface between your life and that of those who are weak or needy.  

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  A pastor has two options.  He can take a church that is healthy and doing well and get a full-time salary, benefits, and a 401k, or he can take a church that is "on their last legs", that needs a whole lot of TLC.  Oh... and in order to do it, he'll have to work bi-vocationally.  Which should he do?  See, it isn't as clear-cut as you're probably thinking I'm going to suggest.  The teaching in Psalm 41 only comes into play if the pastor in question has been relying on the full-time salary, benefits and 401k to create a zone of comfort in his life... making his "career" an idol.  And only that pastor can parse that out before God.  No outside observer can say, "you're not considering the poor!"  You have to figure that out yourself, wrestling it in prayer.

A teacher has worked for 25 years in the public schools.  Now he/she has the opportunity to retire early and go have a nice time.  But there's a school on an indian reservation two counties over where the teaching has been substandard.  They could really use a great, committed teacher there.  What should our educator do?  Well, it depends.  Have they made an idol of their career or of their retirement plan?  Are they in good health and able to keep teaching for a few years?  

The one thing you can not do is say to God, "I just don't feel moved.  It just isn't my ministry."  Don't forget the message of the Goats in Matthew 25: "Lord, didn't we cast out demons in your name?"  And the Lord's reply:  "I never knew you.  Depart from me."

The Scriptures are so up-front about what kind of people we really are.  The very next verse of Psalm 41 has the psalmist confessing, "As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me;
heal me, for I have sinned against you!”  He knew that he, of all people, had not "considered the poor."  

Lord, be gracious to me.  Cause me to wrestle with how you want me to engage with the poor and weak, and when.  And make me a man of integrity, who doesn't just say he's going to do something about it, but someone who does what he says.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Post It Notes

I have reached the age where I often walk into a room and tell myself that I know I came in here for something.  When I can't remember what it was, I have to go back to where I started and see if I can kick-start the old random access memory.  

Just yesterday I was stacking wood in the yard and thought, "This would go a whole lot more easily if I had some music to keep me motivated.  So I went up to the garage, walked in (right past the radio I keep on a shelf by the entrance) and stood for a full 30 seconds at my workbench looking at the tools and containers of nails.  Nothing on that wall seemed to inspire me, so I walked back out of the garage and asked myself what it was I had come there for.   That's when the word, "music" came back to mind.  

I've been thinking what I really need to do is leave post-it notes around the house in critical spots:

By the front door:  "The keys are in your coat pocket"

On the kitchen counter:  "You took your pills this morning.  Don't do it again."

On the table where I eat breakfast: "Call your mother."

Next to the coffee maker: "Don't forget to put water in before brewing."

Things like that might actually help me get through the day better.  I don't forget the really big things.  I always show up for appointments on time and in the right location.  But it is the more automatic stuff -- the little repetitions of life -- I usually forget.

Psalm 103 is a wonderful series of post-it notes to well-meaning, but slightly addled people of faith.  I'm going to stick them in places where they'll do the most good:

At the top of the stairs, before I see anyone this morning: "Bless the Lord, O my soul" 

Next to my checkbook and on places where I keep my money:  "forget not all his benefits"

On the bathroom mirror:  "who forgives all your iniquity"

On the shelf where I keep my pills:  "who heals all your diseases"

On my computer, before I begin work:  "who redeems your life from the pit"

Near pictures of my family: "who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy"

On the TV; the computer; the refrigerator; the liquor cabinet (in short, any place I might be tempted to try and fill up the empty places:  "who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's"

On every exit to my house, on the door to my car, and on the mailbox: "Bless the Lord, O my soul!"

Have a blessed Lord's Day today.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

What do you need?

The way Luke recalls The Model Prayer (why do we call it The Lord's Prayer... that makes it sound like that was all Jesus ever prayed!) is a bit briefer than the version we're used to reciting in church.  He writes:

Father, hallowed be your name.  
Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread, 
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

And lead us not into temptation.

The way Luke frames it Jesus is giving us a pattern for our whole prayer life that is larger than the five phrases here rendered.  To suggest that Jesus meant us to repeat the prayer as a matter of rote memory is to drain it of all its power.  A few days ago we glanced by the S'hma Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6).  Imagine if the whole extent of God's design for those words was that they should be placed in little Mezuzas on our doorposts so we'd have something to touch to vaguely remind us that God is there!  

The five clauses of The Model Prayer are: Praise, Power, Provision, Peace, and Petition.  The disciples have asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus gives them more a process than specific items.

Praise.  There is no single activity a person can enter into that will change their heart and life as much as the regular practice of praising God does.  A career won't change you this much.  A relationship won't change you this much or this profoundly.  No service to the poor or philanthropy can possibly impact your heart like praise.  The reason is that nothing else puts you in the proper relationship to God better than directly praising him.  One thing I love about this prayer is that in it Jesus is telling us that we don't need to commit to an hour of praise a day in order to be changed.  He only offers just one sentence of praise here.  But without it, none of the rest is worth anything.  And you will find, if you make a habit of praise, that it will snowball on you.  Paul, in writing his final words to the church in Philippi, tells these dear Christians "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."  You can't arrive at a life that exalts these things if you don't begin with praising God as a habit first.  

Power.  Once you have established a life of praise to God, the most natural thing is to recognize and exalt his authority over you.  The codified version of The Model Prayer ends with, "for Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory."  It is the one thing in the prayer that doesn't come off as a petition.  It is simply recognition of what is: God is Sovereign and The Kingdom (that is, all authority in heaven, on the earth, and even to the darkest reaches of hell) belongs to him.  Still, Luke has Jesus framing the clause as a request.  As if God's Kingdom wouldn't come unless we asked it to!  There is something unnatural to us, because of our rebellious hearts, in wanting someone else to have rule over us.  Jesus knows this.  And so, making a joyful, daily, relentless recognition of God's power over me is absolutely vital if I am going to live the life he wants me to.

Provision.  The notes to the ESV Bible make it clear that the translation here could just as easily read, "Give us our bread for tomorrow."  This is a reminder of the provision God made of Manna in the wilderness to keep Israel alive during the forty years they had to wait (because of their own sin) to enter the Land.  Each night when they fell asleep there was no bread left in their larder.  It was promised to fall like dew in such a way that they could harvest it in the morning.  They were told not to take any more than they absolutely needed for that single day and not to try to keep any over to the next day.  That's because God's provision is always for one day.  To try and hang onto what God did yesterday and live based on that is to stop trusting in the God who is here now.  That old provision spoils very quickly and turns rancid.  He wants us to go to bed every night expecting him to act again tomorrow in a dramatic way.  It may not be the same way as yesterday.  But he will provide.

Peace.  Nothing stands in the way of my being able to sleep at night more than the feeling that I am out of sync with either God or my neighbor.  And the closer the neighbor, the worse my sense of unrest is.  Ever try to sleep after a fight with your spouse?  If you have, you know how difficult it is to get any real rest.  Forgiveness is absolutely necessary to my being able to relax.  The more I hang onto the hurt or the anger or the bitterness I feel, the more impossible it will be for me to truly be at peace.  Since we live in the era self-first living, I really should point out here that there is nowhere in the clause that Jesus instructs us to forgive ourselves.  That is a distinctly twentieth century thought, and really is a useless goal.  It is much better for me to acknowledge my sin, ask for forgiveness from God, and then agree with God that it is over.  Will I tend to feel guilty even after that's been done?  Sure.  But that kind of guilt is also an effect of sin -- me focusing on my self and my own failings rather than focusing on God and his greatness.  If you want peace with God you are going to have to practice a life of forgiveness the way Jesus taught it, with as little emphasis on yourself as possible.

Petition.  Jesus finally gets to the one true petition in the prayer.  Everything else in The Model Prayer is there either to acknowledge something that already is (God's praise and sovereign power) or to help us get in the right place before him (provision and peace).  Having done all that, what does he tell us to ask for?  At first glance, it looks like we're to ask God to keep us safe from the tricks of that old liar, Satan.  The devil is, of course, the source of all temptation.  But there's something deeper he's really telling us to ask for, and Jesus takes the next whole paragraph in Luke 11 to help us understand.  If you have the time, read verses 5-13.  I'll just shortcut it here and take us directly to Jesus' punchline.  "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  There it is!  That's what I really needed all along.  I don't need enough money or a great relationship or a fulfilling career in order to make it in life.  That's such an American idea!  What I really need is the Holy Spirit in me to control, guide, and empower me.  It is like the old scenario where the genie tells you that you can have three wishes.  The best thing in the world you could ask for is to have a genie around all the time to come to your aid when you need someone strong there on your behalf and to love you when you hurt and to care for you when you're alone.   And this isn't a game.  Praying for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit takes me right back to the beginning of The Model Prayer, because the chief office of the Holy Spirit is to give praise to God in all ways at all times.


Friday, October 22, 2010


I want you to read the whole of Psalm 31 a new way.   I know this isn’t the way the poetry was meant to look, but when I was reading it just now a pattern popped out at me.  This Psalm is such a wonderful dialog between man and God, and I can’t think of any other way to communicate the depth of it.  What I’ve done is highlighted all the places where the write changes his attention.  Read it ourtloud if you will, and just emphasize the first word of each line:

you, O Lord, do
I take refuge; 
me never be put to shame;
your righteousness deliver
your ear to
me speedily!

(You) Be a rock of refuge for

(You be) a strong fortress to save
me! For
you are
my rock and my fortress;
and for
your name's sake you lead
me and guide me;

you take
me out of the net they have hidden for me,
you are
my refuge.
your hand
I commit my spirit;

you have redeemed
me, O Lord, faithful God.  I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in
the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad in
your steadfast love,
because you have seen
my affliction;

you have known the distress of
my soul,
you have not delivered
me into the hand of the enemy;

you have set
my feet in a broad place. 

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye is
wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
my bones waste away. Because of all my adversaries I have become a
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.But I trust in

you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
 My times are in your hand;

rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my
Make your face shine on your servant;
save me in your steadfast  love!
O Lord, let me not be put to shame,
for I call upon you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go silently to Sheol.
Let the lying lips be mute,
which speak insolently against the righteous
in pride and contempt.
Oh, how abundant is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you
and worked for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of the children of mankind!
 In the cover of your presence you hide them
from the plots of men;
 you store them in your shelter
from the strife of tongues.

Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to

when I was in a besieged city.
 I had said in my alarm,  “I am cut off from your sight.”
you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
I cried to you for help.

Love the Lord, all you his saints!
 The Lord preserves the faithful
but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord!

Do you see how he keeps shifting his attention from himself to the Lord and back?  About two-thirds of the way through the poet goes off on a self-indulgent jag (beginning with “Be gracious to me…”)  The only thing that snaps him back to reality is the realization that the Lord is God!  Then he balances his rant a bit by focusing again on the Lord, but really only to say how much he wants God to finish off his adversaries. 

This is a man who is really struggling with the whole question of whether God is going to come through for him.  And yet he sandwiches his angst between two great statements: The fist is that he is staking his life on God being what he calls a “Rock of Refuge”.  And the second?  God is more than a rock.  He is the wall around a besieged city. 

I so often feel like this.  I believe God is my Rock.  But I sure do have complaints to offer; I sure do focus on my own petty needs; I sure do bluster about how I want God to do violence on those who hate me.  And yet, in the end, I realize I don’t just need a Rock.  I need (and have) a walled city around me throughout the siege.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Legal Questions

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 

Leviticus 19:18
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am theLord.

Luke 10:25-28
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him,“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

Are there any differences between the versions?

When I think of great lawyers, there is a phrase that often gets repeated: "He/she had a great legal mind."  When the lawyer puts Jesus to the test, Jesus asks the man how he reads the law.   The way people always used to become lawyers was to "read the law".  But reading the law means more than just reading it over.  It means digesting the law and knowing it well enough that you will be competent to interpret the law in a court.  

There are three statements in Deuteronomy 6.  There are five statements in the lawyer's answer to Jesus.  In Deuteronomy they are: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and might.  Now, if we account for a slight difference in translation, those three are in the lawyer's answer for sure.  But he adds mind.   I think that's because the mind is what a lawyer uses to make his money.  If Jesus had asked this question of Peter, for instance, Peter might have answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, might, and fish.  

What the lawyer knew was that it isn't enough to compartmentalize our faith so that our displays of religious affection are mighty when we go to temple or church.  God must be the Lord over all the rest of our life as well.   My wife might answer the question, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, might, and therapy.   A child could answer, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, might, and play," because play is the work of children.  And I suppose I should turn the mirror on myself here.  Because the work I do is related to faith, the answer gets a bit more tricky.  I think my answer would be, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, might, and ministry.  Pastors can get so caught up in helping people to know the Lord and in preparing sermons that they end up leaving God on the sidelines.  The activities of ministry become ends in themselves, and we never really love God IN our ministry.

Of course, the lawyer adds something else to this core passage in the life of Israel.  He adds a bit from Leviticus to the bit from Deuteronomy.  Why?  Because he also knows that it isn't really loving the Lord with ALL the heart, soul, and might even to also love God in the midst of your career.  You also need to love God in the midst of your community.   One of the most loving things you can do for yourself, believe it or not, it to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and might.  I have often heard it said that people who have a consistent time alone with God in the morning are more peaceful, but I never really shoved all the other stuff of life away long enough to establish the habit (thus, why I'm back online writing this blog yet again...).  This time seems different.  I'm allowing myself the grace to experience the peace that knowing him really brings.  Yea, I know that's a cliche.  But I don't have any other words for it.  And if the best way I can love myself is to love God, the best way I can love others is to love them with that same love: to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, and might I need to do for another what God did for me.  HE loved me with all his heart, soul, and might.  As John says, "We love because he first loved us."  

So the lawyer has added well to the core of Israel's teaching.  "Added" really isn't the right word.  The lawyer has interpreted the law well, and Jesus commends him for it.   The telling of the story of the Good Samaritan is how Jesus takes the lawyer from a place where he was testing Jesus to a place where Jesus was testing him.   Since the lawyer added "love your neighbor as yourself," his question, "and who is my neighbor" is that cutting edge moment  where lawyers become Judges.  He has moved from simply interpreting the law in all its cold reality to the heart of the law.  And he really wants to know.  

What is it that you need to add to the reading of the law?  How will you complete the statement, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and..."  And where will it lead you?  Once you figure out how you complete the first statement, it will tell you exactly how to love your neighbor as yourself.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Little Children

Luke 10:21
"he (Jesus) rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'"

Jama and I were musing last night that we used to think we knew all the right answers to all the theological questions.  But now we find ourselves thinking we need to go back and really study to find what is really important.  

I 'grew up' in a time when simple answers were being given to people to explain the deeper questions of God.  I'm sure the intention was right, but having a ready answer to cover every situation is how the rabbis of old ended up relying more on the books of interpretations that they had been handed and less on the Scriptures themselves.   What was funny about those 'pat answers' was that there were so many of them.  They weren't simple at all.  And the effect they had was to teach us the ways of God and not to lead us to know God deeply.

The seventy-two disciples Jesus sent out on mission came back all excited because evil spirits had been subject to them in Jesus' name.  But they were like students who try an experiment in class.  Even though the teacher has given them all the chemicals they need and clear instructions on how to mix them, when the experiment works the students still become self-congratulatory, as if it was their astounding insight that made the reaction happen.  

The disciples came back and said, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!"  The emphasis here is on US.   And here's where the church so often gets it wrong when we try to disciple people.  Our disciples come to us with the emphasis in the wrong place and we give them a big theological treatise on how they should have done it.  Then we walk off all upset because, "I must have done something wrong, that my disciples don't get the formula."

Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit at that moment and revels in the joy that God is showing these amazing things to people who can't possibly understand them.  He takes these disciples from the position of "student" all the way back to "little child".   And isn't it awesome?  God could have made it so that the deeper things of God were only revealed to people after they had studied and worked hard and "gotten an A".  But the real A+ "work" is being done by those who abandon their status as students of Christ and sit at his feet marveling each time he rolls a ball to them so they can capture it.   

G.K. Chesterton puts it best,  "A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough... It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again," to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again," to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we."

So, back the question from last night.  Maybe knowing God isn't so complicated.  Maybe all he really wants from me is wonderment.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Smell the Color 9

I can sniff, I can see
And I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren't getting me
Any close to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps pounding
So I know I'm doin' fine
But sometimes finding you
Is just like trying to smell the color 9
Smell the color 9
-- Chris Rice

Revelation 7:13-14
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

There are not one, but three non-sequiteurs in this passage.  First, one of the Elders speaks to John as he is having his vision of the throne room of Heaven.  The Elder asks John a question.  Either John already knows the answer or he is basically saying, "I haven't got a clue... can you tell me?" (non-sequiteur #1)  Of course, his answer isn't very satisfying.  One would think that people who had just been through a war (the great tribulation) would be in tattered clothes and certainly would be filthy.  You can't live through a war without picking up some of the dirt.  But these who are standing before the throne of God are wearing white robes -- gleaming white.  (non-sequiteur #2)   Finally we learn how the robes got that way: (non-sequiteur #3) They were washed in blood.  

Oh, of course.  That makes total sense.  Here is a group of people who just went through muck and came back to tell about it.  Their robes were filthy, but they got cleaned up by taking a blood bath!  Sure.  Makes total sense.

Very often I think that the way most of us who call ourselves Christians have lived our faith has been to avoid getting mucked-up.  As a child I couldn't stand getting dirty.  It freaked me out!  I pity my poor mother when I think about the times she tried to take us to the beach.  Somehow I equated sand with dirt.  If I had sand on me -- even in the smallest measure -- that meant I was dirty.  I would cry and throw a fit until I was safely back in the car and on the way home.  As you can imagine, this aversion went double for mud.  When it comes to picking up mud from the world, I think we Christians are just like I was as a child.  

The world is full of muck and mud.  Life is full of messy, dirty things and messy, dirty people with messy, dirty lives.  Those are just the facts.  And one of the first verses I ever memorized as a young Christian was under the title, "Separate from the World," as if somehow I could remain unstained.  We can't.  Not just because we love to sin when we have the chance.  That's the muck we throw on ourselves like children playing with their food.  But if we will live authentically the life of the Christ who lives in our hearts we will eat with tax collectors and sinners.  We will hold the hand of a prostitute and call her beloved of God because that is the name he has given her (Hosea 1).  We will reach out, even though it means that at times we end up messing up rather than reaching out.  It is okay.  God is right there by our side and holding our hand -- for we are all prostitutes before him.  All who own the name of Christ are messy, dirty whores in desperate need of cleansing.

I heard about a church today from an old man who lives in Portland, Oregon.  He told me this "new" church had gone out and ministered to the drug-addicted and the prostitutes who hung out at a 1960 vintage welfare motel downtown.  This church started inviting these hard-luck cases in.  Finally, as some of them began to find Christ, the church did something radical: They bought the welfare motel and turned it into a worship center.   Last spring, the motel burned to the ground.  You would think that would have been a great blow to the church that met there.  It hasn't been.  They are now over 300 strong and growing.

The old man's German Lutheran Church has fallen on hard times too.  They're down to 35 people, most of whom are over 70.  But they love and want to honor the Christ who saved them and their fathers and mothers.  So they've decided to do something radical.  They have offered to turn over their building (worth over $5,000,000), and lose their 110 year old church heritage, and merge with that "new" church with the burned-out motel.  

And somehow Jesus is in the business of washing old German Lutherans and young drug-addicts and whores in blood so that they come out white enough to stand before the very throne of God -- clean.  And somehow if Jesus is going to do that work he has to give them a bloodbath together!  It simply won't do for the German Lutherans to be saved and come before the Lord with the dirt of 110 years of struggles and infighting and losing and denying that they were losing and finally to close the doors of the old church and give up.  Oh, they'd be saved alright.  But they would arrive at the Throne of Grace with dirt on.  And the prostitutes and drug-addicts could be saved and have their celebration in the same old motel where they had once paid and been paid for.  And they would also arrive at the Throne with dirt on.  The reason is that Jesus always mixes us together before he brings us home.  And it is in the mixing that the greater part of his grace is experienced.  The Lutherans and the refugees from the motel will just have to learn how to live together so they can be washed together so they can stand at the last day together.

What a privilege it was to talk to that man on the phone today.  What a profound joy it would be to buy a plane ticket and spend money I really can't afford (like the woman pouring expensive ointment on Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair), so that I could be present at the merger celebration.   I want live to see Old German Lutherans hugging prostitutes and drug-addicts.  But it wouldn't be my place to be at that celebration.  I'd be enjoying the fun without doing any of the work.  Jesus won't be satisfied in me until I am safely in the embrace of someone so, so different from me who needs to be safely in the embrace of someone so, so different from them.