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.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lord's Day Message: The Minute (that teaches patience)

Immanuel Community Church
December 12, 2010
The Minute that teaches Patience

I arrived at the University of Connecticut not quite eighteen years old and overwhelmed by the size of the place.  At first I had it in mind that I would become an American History major.  But my first class in history scared me silly.  There I was in a room with about seven hundred other freshmen all about to begin working toward the same degree.  I remember thinking that if there are ten-thousand colleges in the US, and if there are freshmen at each taking American History 105, that means there are something like 700,000 little American History majors out there who will all be competing for jobs… doing what, when we all get out.  Are we all going to go into public service?

The only other real interest I had was music.  I loved to sing.  I played the piano a little.  But singing in choirs was my real love.  Did U-Conn even have a music school?  Within four days I not only had my answer: I had become a music major.   While the numbers were much more favorable, there were only about 400 music majors of all types at the school, I discovered that my choice had a problem attached to it.  My discovery came the day of my first jury. 

A jury is how they grade your progress on your instrument in music school.  It is like a final exam, only you show up in a concert hall instead of a classroom.  The hall is empty, except for a group of about 4 professors seated way in the back.  The lights are on bright – just as if there was a full house out there.   These four professors have your future in their hands.  I stepped out onto the stage, and that’s when I discovered that, while I was great singing in a choir, up there alone stage fright of the most horrible kind took over.

My hands began to shake.  My legs began to shake.  My stomach did butterfly jumps, and I started sweating like a man having a heart attack.  All my confidence fled.  I wanted to run away and hit someone all at the same time.  I forgot where I was and what I was doing.  I was about to be judged.   The next sixty seconds of my life were going to be life-changing, one way or the other.

The really odd thing about stage fright is that the transformation from confident young man to quivering mass of jello also takes exactly 60 seconds.  One minute.  That’s all.  A minute can teach a lot of different things.  In my case, one minute; just 60 seconds, taught me that I was a coward. 

The Problem of the Minute

But a single minute can teach us mighty things as well, though it always starts with what we will call the Problem of the Minute.  As I stepped out onto the stage I encountered a problem.  This morning we’re going to use the picture of a music school jury as we weave together all of the Scriptures the Lectionary has set before us today.  

As people we all have the same problem I did on the jury stage.   The Problem of the Minute comes on us just as quickly as it came upon me.  God says in Isaiah 35, 

Strengthen the weak hands,
                        and make firm the feeble knees.
            Say to those who have an anxious heart,
                        “Be strong; fear not!
            Behold, your God
                        will come with vengeance,
            with the recompense of God.
                        He will come and save you.”
(Isaiah 35:3-4)

We discover our problem just the same way as a student does stepping out on that stage, it comes upon us without warning.  We simply never knew it before.  And then one day, there we are, as The Revelation to John says, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  Every man and woman, boy and girl on the planet is in the same condition.  All of us know, somewhere back, deep inside that we need to be rescued from our condition.  We just have realized it until a critical minute of danger or fear, illness or crisis comes, and there we are standing in front of the jury, and this is the final exam. 

We… I have walked out on the stage under the scrutiny of intense lights.  And those lights reveal that I am wretched.  There is nothing in me or about me that is attractive.  I am an object to be pitied by all for the tragedy I am.  It doesn’t matter how wealthy I think I am.  It doesn’t matter how coordinated or handsome I believe myself to be.  In the penultimate minute; in that particular 60 seconds, when I step onto this particular stage, I am a pitiable mess.  By comparison with the wealth and power and beauty and glory of the jury, I am the poorest of beings.  And, like the dream we all have had at one time or another, on top of everything, I find that I am as naked; naked as the day I was born.  And this has happened in just 60 seconds.  This has come upon me in a minute.

 The Sign of the Minute

There is something that happens to people when placed on such a revealing stage as I have just described.  God makes me aware of my infirmity and he also offers me healing.  THAT is the Sign of the Minute.    Again, it happens in a minute’s time.   Isaiah goes on to say,

            Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
                        and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
            then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
                        and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
            For waters break forth in the wilderness,
                        and streams in the desert;
 (Isaiah 35:5-6 ESV)

My infirmity is represented in John’s Revelation as blindness.  Up until this very minute; until the past 60 seconds, I had no idea that I was also blind.  I had so many images in my mind’s eye.  All of them were phantoms, of course.  I wasn’t really seeing anything.  I just thought I was seeing.  And the darkness of my heart was there to convince me I was brave.   If I had really seen before stepping before the jury for my final exam I would never have gone.  I would have fled at the horror that was about to be revealed, or I would have come prepared to fight. 

But thankfully, there is a Sign of the Minute.  Yes, it was revealed to me that I was wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  But the Sign of the Minute is an offer of healing for the exact things that have robbed me of my courage in the minute. 

The Sign of the Minute is itself healing.  It is not without pain, for that is a terrible 60 seconds.  But in that minute I do see truly for the first time. And I hear things as they are, not as I imagined them. 

What happens in that awful, terrible minute is that I realize my utter helplessness; my complete hopelessness.  And in that helpless, hopeless sixty seconds The Sign of the Minute himself comes on stage.   He is dressed in the finest tuxedo, clean and pressed, and his shoes shine like the Sun under those lights.  By comparison to him, I am even more wretched than before.

I gasp, because The Sign tells the judge that he wants to sing for the jury in my place.  And in that awful, awesome minute, everything is changed and I see that the judge has granted his request, and now he is wretched.  Now he is naked – this glorious singer.  Now he is pitiable.  Now he is judged, and I am standing out of the spotlight, dressed in the finest tuxedo, and I don’t know where it came from.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
                        and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
            then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
                        and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
            For waters break forth in the wilderness,
                        and streams in the desert;

The Crisis of the Minute

What I was afraid of was that my gift wouldn’t be accepted.  What I was afraid of was that I wouldn’t be accepted.  The crisis was real because like I said, there was nothing acceptable about in me.  In this 60 seconds before the jury I will either flee or fight because I do not know if my offering will be accepted.. 

Even though a sign was placed before me; even though I saw clearly in that minute, I still didn’t believe there was hope for me.  My wretched condition was revealed to me, my eyes were restored, the singer had taken the judgement of the jury on my behalf and it wasn’t good enough for me.   And now a voice comes from the other side of the bright lights. 

            “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
                        who will prepare your way before you.’

Someone had gone onto the stage already and explained to the jury what The Sign – the glorious singer – was going to do.   That person went there ahead of me and ahead of him. 

“Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

But for me the crisis is still real, even though I have seen and have heard.  For me the crisis is real because I have seen others healed and dance and leap for joy; but I do not believe that could ever happen for me, even though I have now seen and heard.  So, my response is either to run or to lash out.  Even now I am in the pain of disbelief.  “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”    I believe against belief.   Until this minute, I believed that if salvation was ever going to be mine, I must take it for myself and somehow bypass the jury.

The Blessing of the Minute
But I cannot bypass the jury.  Just as in college there must be a final exam, and in music school, each semester there was a jury, running away – fleeing the minute – won’t do, nor will attacking the jury and trying to take the kingdom by violence, as Matthew puts it. 

The only way to make it through this jury is to exercise something I didn’t have when I walked onto the stage.  What I need is something I don’t have.  What I need is something only the The Sign – the glorious singer himself can give me.  Patience.

James says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient.”

When I stepped out on the stage, all I was promised was this 60 seconds.  I can’t count on the next.  If I flee from the presence of the Lord, like Jonah did, I may be lost.  If I try to stand up to the presence of the Lord and proclaim that I do not need him, I may end up like King Ahaz.  God said to him in Isaiah 7, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” 

Ahaz refused to see his need before God.  He challenged God to a fight.   And God replied to him, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  Neither Jonah nor Ahaz had the patience to wait for the coming of the Lord.

The blessing of the minute comes accept what has been done for me.  But it is so unnatural.  I want to be judged.  I prepared for this moment, no matter how shabby the preparation was.  That’s why I want to fight.  But the horror of my condition now displayed in the singer before me is too much for me.    And understand: I would never realize this on my own.  What does Romans 3 say?  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  That’s why he also invites me in Revelation 3 to buy from him so that I may “clothe myself that the shame of my nakedness may not be seen, and [buy] salve to anoint my eyes, so that I may see.  

The Blessing of the Minute comes when I neither flee nor fight.  It comes when I simply stand there and trust… and discover that I am not judged.  And then, remarkably, God gives me another minute, and in that minute I am not judged.  He says, establish your heart, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.  

And now I realize that the judge is seated in the audience, and has not judged me.  Then I turn and see that the judge is also standing at the door, blocking the way.  And another minute goes by, and I have not been judged.   I’m still unsure.  My instinct tells me to find someone to blame for my condition, for my nakedness, for the embarrassment, for the exposure.  Of course, the one on the stage with me has already taken that away from me.  I still think about passing the buck.  I think about grumbling that it is actually someone else’s fault that I’m in this situation.  But God has told me not to grumble, because there is no one else to blame.  But something strange has happened to my heart.  There is no place to run to.  There is no one to fight.  There is no one to blame.  And another minute goes by, and and I have not been judged.   In the one-minute at a time of it all, God is taking my heart to a new place of patience before him and then a place where my heart is established before him.  Part of the root of that word “establish” is stable. 

And what has made the difference?  Christ saw the Problem of the Minute; Christ provided a Sign in the Minute; Christ saw me through the Crisis of the Minute; Christ substituted himself for me when all I could do was stand there and shake.  Christ sang the piece for me and the song was beautiful because he learned it in his suffering and now he can sing it for me.  Christ created the Blessing of the Minute out of the brokenness of my loss. 

Now minute after minute after minute has passed because in each minute he asked me to trust him and he gave himself to make it possible.  And now my established heart has become a steadfast heart, like that of Job, because I have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

And now the minute of the jury has passed, and I am in the presence of God.  I am still standing here, and I am no longer wretched.  I am still standing here, and I am no longer pitiable.  I am still standing here, and I am no longer poor.  I am still standing here and I am no longer blind.  I am still standing here and I am no longer naked.  And I didn’t do a thing.  Christ has done it all.  And Christ has come as Immanuel – God is with me, not as a judge out beyond the lights, but here on the stage pleading my case and singing the song I was afraid to sing.   And now the stage fright is gone, and now here with Christ is where I want to be.

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