Manchester, England. The severe famine in South Sudan. Syria. Drug cartels. Gang violence and homelessness. Roughly 10 percent of the population in Pitkin County, Colorado live below the poverty line. Times are beyond tough and as followers of Jesus we have much to do and many actions to take along with surrounding all sources of pain and despair with continual robust prayer.
Yet in the midst of all of this, there are the boundless loving actions people engage in everyday to help out friends, family members, and complete strangers. Indeed life is a complete mixed bag, always has been and will be.
I believe it is essential in the midst of responding to the tough realities that surround us, it is important to keep a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. While humor can be defensive and shield us from pain, it also can be a helpful habit that is not defensive, but rather enables us to continue to respond to the needs around us.
Perhaps for this reason, recently, I have begun to enjoy silly solar powered objects. Like a solar powered Sumo wrestler or a solar powered Einstein. Such objects distract me, lighten my spirit, and foster creative thinking about how to respond to the crises that surround us.
Each of us is unique and therefore what we find funny and humorous will vary between us. That said, I encourage each of us to intentionally seek out and engage humor as a habit of faith. A habit that can energize us to do more each day for those who are hurting. As Mark Twain once said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”
These last few days I have been at a preaching conference listening to some of the best preachers in the country. It has been a blessing to be among so many deeply committed and loving Christian colleagues. I must say that I felt a bit sorry for an outstanding Catholic preacher as he followed a powerful charismatic Pentecostal African-American preacher who was on fire.
Yesterday as I sat alone having a quick breakfast, I could not help but overhear the many conversations going on around me. What struck me was how different each conversation was, not only in terms of content, but the feelings expressed. While my intent was not to eavesdrop and although I spent not more than a second or two hearing each one, I realized that there are always conversations going on all around us.
Conversations can be heard in the news, family living rooms, on sidewalks, in reception lines, magazine articles, churches, during sermons, and in echoes from our past, just to name a few places. Which conversations we choose to listen to impacts us dramatically and affects how we feel, what we think, how we act, the decisions we make, and how we plan for the day and the future.
While this may all be obvious, what is perhaps subtle is that if we only attend to conversations that are in alignment with what we think, believe, and feel, our understanding of ourselves, others and even God are likely to become overly limited as time passes.
I believe it is vital for each of us as we follow Jesus, to be willing to listen to conversations that make us uncomfortable, cause us to ask questions, and lead us to the place in which we might just be willing to begin to see things through the eyes of another person whose life experience is dramatically different. When we do so, we are far more likely to respond to others as Jesus would, with empathy, understanding, compassion, and care. And when that happens, each of us is far more likely to spend more time listening than speaking.
A few days ago, as I was driving, I encountered a familiar scene. At a particular intersection early in the morning stood a large group of men, largely from south of the border. They, like so many at other intersections across America, were standing hoping to be picked up for a day of work. A few hours passed and I drove past the intersection again to head home. This time, however, there were only four men standing at the same place where three hours earlier stood several dozen. Presumably, they were hoping to get at least a few hours of work in for the day.
As I drove by, I immediately thought of the parable of the day laborers in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 20. Here Jesus tells a story about a business owner who went out one morning to hire laborers for the day. The man did so early one morning. However, the business owner continued to hire men to work throughout the day who were standing in the marketplace.
At the end of the day, the men who were hired at 5 in the afternoon were paid first. The business owner paid the men a full day’s wage. Immediately the men who started working early in the morning got excited, believing that if the fellows who only worked an hour or so got paid so well, they would be paid much more than a day’s wage. The business owner, however, much to the frustration of many, paid every worker the exact same amount regardless of the time worked.
This story, which on the surface does not appear to be fair, is used by Jesus to illustrate what the Kingdom of God looks like. The Kingdom of God is something Jesus taught as being present here and now, although not fully realized. Said another way, Jesus teaches us that if God had God’s way, things would look quite differently than they do now.
As human beings, we see other people through the lens of differences, what is fair, categories, stereotypes, socio-economics, gender, and what is deserved, etc. Like the day laborers, however, God sees each human being through one lens, the lens of love and forgiveness. We are all the same in God’s eyes and Jesus reminds us in this parable that this is the way we too need to look at people.
For those of us who realize our own imperfections, the message of God’s grace is great news indeed. We need not earn God’s love, rather God invites us to live each day in response to the fact that God’s standard has nothing to do with what is fair, but what is loving. We are all loved, period. And Jesus reminds us to keep this front and center when we encounter people on any intersection, not just those on street corners.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ if you look at it and live life through it, is a lens that changes the way we see everything. It changes not just how to view death, but how to view each and every day of life.
It is this story, this true story that tells us so much about God.
Jesus’ resurrection tells us that God is a Commitment Keeper.
Jesus, before He was crucified, said to the religious leaders, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Here He was not referring to a building, but to Himself. They did kill Him and He was raised in three days. God kept His word.
Jesus, before He was crucified, told His followers to go to Galilee, as He would meet them there after He had been killed. Jesus did exactly that despite the skeptics. God kept His word.
Jesus brought a dead girl back to life. Quieted a furious storm. Fed thousands with a small amount of food. Called people to follow Him not based on their resumes but their willingness. Jesus did such things and countless others, like dying on the cross, because He keeps his word, despite consequences, hatred, or even doubt.
Aside from being a Commitment Keeper, God is an Assumption Breaker.
Jesus sure looked dead on Friday. The assumption was that His death was a permanent done deal. Wrong assumption. His death was not the end of it all but a glorious truth-shattering new beginning. Yes, Jesus broke assumptions.
People assumed a woman whose life was broken was beyond starting over. Wrong. She met Jesus and her whole life changed. People assumed Mary Magdalene’s mental struggles were insurmountable. Wrong again.
Or that the child who was critically ill could not be healed. Or that a man who had made his living in a dishonest way could not change. Or that enemies should be hated. Or that bad people aren’t capable of profound transformations. Or that 12 people can’t change the world. Wrong, wrong, wrong again.
God is an Assumption Breaker. But God is also a Power Generator.
Listen to what Paul has to say about this in his letter to the people living in Ephesus. “How very great is God’s power at work in us who believe. This power working in us is the same as the mighty strength which God used when He raised Christ from death.”
Talk about power. The same power God used to raise Jesus from the dead is within us. God’s power is within us. We have God given power to overcome adversity. God-given strength to keep pushing on through. God given energy to go on when we want to give up.
This is not magical power. It is not power for self-serving purposes. It is the very presence of God given to us who believe as a gift from God for living right now. When the power of self-help runs out, God says turn to the unlimited well of His power.
God is a power generator, but God is also a Life Giving Healer.
If you look at the life of Jesus, one thing He did was heal people. Not only from physical diseases, but from the crippling effects of mistaken views and ways of looking at things. He healed people from attitudes that were life-diminishing, perspectives that were confining, and outlooks that were limiting.
He healed people in a vast array of ways, and I believe that the passionate healing nature of God continues, even though we sometimes can’t see it. And if God brought about new life for Jesus through his resurrection, God will certainly heal us from the consequences of death in the same way.
This is why Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And why Paul wrote, “Nothing can keep us from the love of God. Death cannot.”
The bottom line. Death is not the end of existence, it is a doorway into a reality that already envelops and surrounds us right now. God is the ultimate life giver. Because of Christ’s death and bodily resurrection, our lives are eternal, even though they will morph and change in wondrous ways when we die.
God is an amazing, passionate healer. But God is also a Bottom Line Clarifier.
Over the last 20 years in ministry, I’ve learned some things that have not been easy to look at. I understand why so many who are not Christian have a problem with Christians. I get why religion is often a root problem in so many conflicts within families, friendships, communities and nations. I grasp why lots of people who go into ministry don’t last long in the vocation. Jesus understood all of this and in part He came among us to remind us of something.
Something not everyone likes to hear. That something. At its core, our walk with Jesus is not about learning to be a better person, or learning to do more things right, or gaining the ability to think properly. Christianity is not about learning to feel good enough, it is about learning to feel loved enough and to live life reciprocating God’s love.
Jesus said, all the scriptures, all the laws, everything every great prophet said, can be summed up with one word. Love. Loving God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls, and loving all other people through action.
Jesus rose from the grave not only to free us from the fear of death, but to free us to risk everything for love. And when we learn our walk with Jesus is about love far more than being right, then we are liberated not just from the grave, but from a world that pushes us into divisive self-serving corners of self-righteousness.
The Jesus movement, of which we are a part, is not a movement of right thinking, but of unbounded loving. And Jesus went to the cross and rose from the dead precisely to show us this truth.
This Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday. There has never been a week like the days between when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a colt through Easter morning. I’ve often thought about what it must have been like to be one of Jesus’ closest followers during that time. I’m confident they experienced every human feeling imaginable.
Central to Jesus’ story is that those who were closest to him were often the most broken. And it was through the imperfection of His followers that the power of God was revealed, the strength of God demonstrated, and the healing and transformation that comes from a relationship with Jesus was shown.
Jesus used the brokenness of his followers to spread the Gospel message and start the church. And the good news for us is that our Lord will use our brokenness too, if we will follow and trust Him.
Being a Christian is not about perfection, it is about openness. It is not about being good enough, it is about letting go. It is not about what we do, but about what God does through us. It is not about how righteous we are, but about how forgiving God is. This is why I am mystified by those who believe our Christian walk is about behavior and rules ahead of the hard work of love.
The invitation of Holy Week is to allow God to take us, bless us, use our brokenness, and to allow Him to give us to the world to do His work.
And the work we are called to do was made clear that first Maundy Thursday during the first Holy Week. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word meaning commandment. The commandment Jesus gave the last night of His earthly life was, “To love one another as He as loved us.”
If we want a glimpse of what such love in action looks like, we only need to see God himself, washing the feet of His broken and imperfect apostles.
It is interesting to me that many churches are named after the apostles, named after those who in the midst of their failures and weaknesses came to Jesus. Churches are named after those who understood that a relationship with Jesus starts not with our fullness, but at the heart of our emptiness.
Given that our churches are named after broken people who found a new life in Jesus, it is pretty clear to me who it is that Jesus seeks. He seeks busted apart and broken people that look a lot like you and me.
While the events of Maundy Thursday, which led to Good Friday point to the forgiveness we receive through Christ’s body and blood, to God using us precisely because we are broken and imperfect, and to the centrality of love and service, they also point to something else.
God wants His church to be the place where there are many ways to get in and where everyone is invited. There is room for all and no one should ever be left out.
When Jesus’ broken and bloodied body hung on the cross, He was doing it so that everyone might come within the reach of His saving embrace. And it is this kind of love, my friends, that we are called to show as we live our days imperfectly following Jesus and serving others.
I’ve found the word stymied to be quite useful in life. The noun stymied means, from one source, “a situation or problem presenting such difficulties as to discourage or defeat any attempt to deal with or resolve it.”
As an aside, what I never knew was where the word came from until recently. This is what I found on-line. “It was in the 19th century that the word stymie entered English as a noun referring to a golfing situation in which one player’s ball lies between another ball and the hole on the putting green, thereby blocking the line of play. Later, stymie came to be used as a verb meaning to bring into the position of, or impede by, a stymie.”
Whether being impeded or encountering difficulties in resolving a situation, certainly most if not all of us have been stymied at one point or another. Times in which we simply don’t know what to do or how to fix something.
Over the years, I’ve been stymied by math problems, chemistry equations, how to get out of a plateau in my tennis skill level, travel cancellations in a foreign country due to labor strikes, and even how to ski down a rocky chute I somehow ended up at the top of. While none of what I’ve just mentioned are big deals, there have been other passages when I’ve been stymied in far more significant ways.
Sometimes I just don’t know what to pray for. When my dear cousin Madeline at age 34 was dying of cervical cancer, as I sat at her bedside and knew she was in pain and not going to survive, I remember the painful feeling of being uncertain what to pray for. It was the same when my dad nearly 18 years ago was in the same shape. Sometimes I’ve felt this way with people I’ve had the privilege of walking along side of as a pastor who were enduring beyond what can be described as catastrophic.
And 20 years ago, while in seminary and I did not know where I’d end up after ordination and was questioning my sense of call to begin with, somehow praying “Thy will be done” did not offer me much comfort.
The other day I was visiting a friend up on Missouri Heights in the mid-valley. It was extremely windy. As we sat and talked, I realized that one reason I’ve always loved the wind is that it reminds me of the Holy Spirit.
I immediately thought of some of the times I’ve been stymied about very significant things in life, like now not knowing what to pray for, for my 94-year-old mom who doesn’t remember I called 3 minutes after I hang up. Or what to pray for, for a teen close to my heart that has been to hell and back.
I’ve learned over the years that when we are stymied by something, it is vital to remember the Holy Spirit. Recalling what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, for me, is where the rubber meets the road with our walk with Jesus when we have either no idea what to do or what to pray for.
Paul wrote in Chapter 8 of Romans, “God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” Another version of the passage says, “The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
In other words when we don’t know what to pray for or even how to pray, it is precisely then that the Holy Spirit prays for us, on our behalf. When we are stymied, God does the praying for us.
This message from scripture is not only immensely comforting in trying times, but foundational to who Jesus is and what he is about, even in those moments in which he feels absent or far away or simply non-responsive to what we’ve been asking for.
Because the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, my friends, indeed we can endure all things through Christ who gives us the strength we need.
Although I typically use a keyboard on my computer or voice writing on my i-phone, I use pens daily. While a pen is much slower than a keyboard, there is something about a pen I prefer. Things slow down and there is more time to think before moving a word from the mind to paper. Perhaps this is why I miss slower attached ski lifts where there was more time for conversation and taking in the scenery with friends. Clearly faster is not always better.
This week we continue in the 40-day season of Lent. The season in which we ponder and pray about the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It certainly is an opportunity to come clean with ourselves and others with regard to things we have done we wish we had not and things we did not do we wish we had. And of course, these 40 days are an invitation to intentionally spend more time with our loving, gracious, and forgiving Creator.
A day or so ago I was putting some ideas down on paper for some upcoming sermons and for a variety of programs we are doing at the Chapel. I was sitting in a comfortable chair with a footstool. Before I fell asleep for a 15-minute nap, I slouched lower and lower in the chair, meaning the paper pad I was writing upon moved from a downward position to an upward position against my knees.
Just before dozing off, I noticed the ink was becoming lighter and lighter as I wrote, not because it was running out of ink, but because the tip of the pen slowly became pointed upward as the paper pad moved in the same direction. Wanting to get some more thoughts down quickly, I stopped writing, adjusted my position, and began to write a bit more.
Stop and adjust. As I think about it, stop and adjust are two great concepts and ideas to act upon during this season of Lent. Perhaps there are ways of being, ongoing conversations, manners of thinking, or methods of approaching situations and people in which we need to simply stop, adjust, and start over again.
Sometimes we have to simply stop to get perspective, to create an opportunity for things to start flowing again in the right direction, and to give ourselves a moment to collect ourselves and make needed adjustments. It can be hard to adjust without stopping sometimes and stopping without making any adjustments can keep us stuck in non-beneficial ways.
Over the days ahead, I invite you to join me in thinking about those situations or relationships in life in which, like a pen pointed toward the sky, things are just not flowing like they should. Think about hitting the pause button and while stopped, think about needed adjustments on your part.
And the idea of stop and adjust is what repentance is all about. It is about stopping and turning ourselves back toward God instead of away from God. The Good News is that God never needs to stop and adjust when it comes to you and to me. God is always in the right position in that regard, which is one of welcome and love.
Lent, which began this last Ash Wednesday, is a 40-day period from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter. Lent excludes Sundays because the focus of every Sunday is the resurrection of Jesus and the hope it brings.
The word Lent comes from a word meaning the lengthening of days. 40 is an important number because of its huge biblical significance. 40 was the number of years the people wandered around the desert after leaving Egypt.
40 days was the length of the rain during the great flood. 40 was the number of days Jonah told the people of Nineveh they had left before God would destroy everything. And of course, 40 is the number of days Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.
The season of Lent offers each of us the opportunity to pay attention to some of the central themes of Lent, which include the following.
Mortality. We are all temporal flesh and blood. Our mortality invites us not only to approach life and others with humility, but with an utter dependence upon God who gave us life to begin with. Such dependence reminds us we are never alone and we are filled with God’s presence regardless of our awareness or strength of our faith.
Justice. Justice is a fundamental biblical theme and the need for justice continues from generation to generation. Our world is broken. Relationships are broken. Suffering abounds and as followers of Jesus we are to seek restoration of what is right and reconciliation wherever we find ourselves.
Repentance. Lent is a season of repentance and repentance simply means to turn around or turn back to putting God at the center of our lives. Repentance is freeing precisely because we can let go of trying to control everything and turn our lives and challenges over to God.
Salvation. Indeed, we each need a Savior, a Savior who will save us from ourselves and our perishable nature. Christ is the doorway to life beyond this one.
Forgiveness. The season of Lent culminates with Jesus dying on the cross. One of the most liberating truths is that through Christ we are forgiven and therefore we can not only release our own guilt, but are free to forgive others and the healing it brings to all.
My prayer for all of us in the weeks ahead is that we will intentionally take time to sit with God and turn all that is within over to God. And my greatest hope is that God’s love will fill each of us so that we will approach each day with hope, joy, service, and the knowledge that indeed, when it is all said and done, all will be well.
The Super Bowl game this last Sunday was special on a number of different levels. While I am heartbroken that the sport can cause life-diminishing and life-ending brain trauma, I remain a fan for a variety of reasons. The sport teaches people, young and old, about teamwork, overcoming challenges, and the value of grit. Sunday’s game certainly highlighted these values and was entertaining to watch for all of us who have grown up loving the sport.
That said, however, there was a standout moment in the game and it happened during the half time show. The immensely successful Lady Gaga took the stage in a superbly choreographed show. But what struck me was when she sang her song, “Million Reasons.”
While I am not a mind reader, I believe it is not a stretch to say the lyrics get into a variety of issues including heartbreak, being let down, frustration, and having faith that is challenged. Lady Gaga, who grew up in the Catholic Church, inserts the following lyrics into her song.
I bow down to pray. I try to make the worse seem better. Lord show me the way…Can’t you give me what I’m needin’, needin’, every heartbreak makes it hard to keep the faith.
These words are those of a person whose faith has been challenged by life, something that happens to each and every one of us. What moved me greatly was to have her sing these lyrics on national television and to observe her willingness to make reference to prayer, faith, and our Lord.
While some may condemn her for her inclusive progressive social values, and a few for her dance moves, my hope and prayer is that she will move people who are otherwise unmoved to begin to think about prayer, faith and God in their own lives.
Jesus was deliberate about the people he chose to serve others and spread his teachings. If you look at their biographies, I believe that each one of them would have been happy to have been on stage with Lady Gaga. Not because they could necessarily dance or sing, but because they understood you have to meet people where they are to reach them. What a great lesson for us all.
I celebrate whenever God shows up in mainstream culture in a non-threatening, inviting way. While a life-long fan of football, I’m a new fan of Lady Gaga and her Gaga expressions of faith. May we all be so bold to lead others to our Lord who loves and forgives us all.
The City by the Bay is a special place and I have left my heart in San Francisco many times. With its distinct neighborhoods, hills, fog, enriching ethnic diversity, food, cable cars, bridges, and much more, the city exudes character and charm.
For a number of years I have enjoyed the Pier 39 area. Yes it is full of tourists and stores that sell things I have no interest in, but it is a blast to spend a few hours among the throngs of people. Since the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, it has also become the place to watch California Sea Lions up close.
For some reason, following the quake, the sea lion population grew tremendously in the Pier 39 location. Now dozens of sea lions flock to floating wood pallets strewn about in an area within the adjacent marina.
It is fascinating to simply sit and watch these creatures and the antics they engage in. From barking sounds to shoving matches, I can watch sea lions for hours. One thing, however, especially intrigues me.
Sea lions seem to like hanging out together on just a few pallets rather than spreading out among the many empty ones that are available. What is interesting is that dominant males spend hours pushing other males off the pallets they happen to be enjoying.
I have to wonder, why on earth don’t the males just spread out and have their own space? Why the fighting and territorial aggression? There is plenty of room and many pallets floating nearby with nothing but a gull or two on top.
Perhaps the sea lions are dealing with the age-old question, “Is there plenty to go around or is there barely enough so I better hold onto what I have and get even more?”
All of this reminds me of the great story in the Book of Exodus, chapter 16. The people are wandering around the desert, totally dependent upon God. God does provide, daily in fact. When the people take just what they need and nothing more, everything is fine. When others, however, try and hoard more than their share, the extras rot and become worm filled.
Although I have no clue why the sea lions behave the way they do, or why some people in the Exodus story had to pick up more than they needed, watching the seals and thinking about the Exodus story causes me to pay attention and ask questions about my own attitude about space and what I am accumulating.
Questions such as, “How much do I really need? Is there room for more than me? Can I take another person into account? How might I see this situation from the other person’s perspective, the one who has no place of his or her own? What might happen if I make room for the other?”
The sea lions, the story in the Book of Exodus, and our journey in faith all compel us, I believe, to explore where we are with possessions, assets, and space when it comes to others. I for one, need to spend some time with Jesus getting a clearer picture of what Jesus would have me do with regard to all of this, especially in a time when “me” is a much louder voice than “we.”