Friday, November 25, 2011

Post from 4th United Bible Blog about Celebrating Advent

As we begin celebrating Advent this year, I want to wish everyone the peace and purpose of God’s Coming in Jesus, the Christ. The people of Israel labored long and hard in the hope for the coming of the Christ of God, who would save his people from their sins and from their worldly oppressors. On the eighth day of his life, the Christ child was brought to the old Jewish prophet, Simeon, and the old prophet who held the child in his arms rejoiced: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of salvation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people, Israel!” Luke 2:29-32. It is in this spirit of celebration of the gift of God for all people that I enter into this Advent season.

As we celebrate Advent, I ask that we understand ourselves in a holy relationship to both the universal Church and to all humanity, those who affirm Christian faith and those who do not. Our identity as Christians and as humans arises from the same source: Jesus, the revealer of God’s self: the source of our faith and the source of our true humanity. It is good to remind ourselves at this time of year that Jesus came in the will of God to restore all of us to our true humanity, our God-intended humanity. The Church is a means to that end, just as Israel was meant to be a means to the end of blessing all the earth with God’s glory and redemption. Being a Christian is not the goal, it is the means towards the greater goal of being a true human and thus honoring the One who created us to this high purpose and for unity with God and each other.

Jesus’ way is truly God’s way. Jesus’ truth is God’s truth. Jesus came in the will and the love of God to save, not to condemn the earth and all its creatures. The Church was given birth by the outpouring of God’s Spirit in this way that Jesus had pioneered on earth: a way of obedience to God, a way of love of God and neighbor that was stronger than all powers of evil that twist and destroy human beings and the created order. But, the path of life, the holy way of God is always Jesus’ way, under Jesus’ lordship, and so long as the Church follows in this way of Jesus, the way of the Church is holy, and good and life-giving. But, when the Church, or wings of the Church begin to honor creeds and traditions and human-centered salvation formulas and secular authority and ecclesiastical hierarchies above God’s way in Jesus, then the Church does not become the means to salvation, but can even become a hindrance to receiving the truth of the Gospel.

As a church, we must resist the temptation to substitute our ways for God’s ways. We must resist the temptation to become another self-serving religious institution. We want to break through sin to become witnesses to the Living God of Jesus, the Christ of all the world. We want to break through sin to become brothers and sisters with all human beings, not just friendly with those we are comfortable with. Yes, we are in a deep and holy relationship with all the churches of the world who raise the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost in praise, but we are also in a deep and holy relationship with all human beings whom God has claimed as his own through the death of Jesus, the Christ. We join ourselves with the churches of this world seeking to be a means for the salvation of all people. The goal is that the true humanity revealed in Jesus become the inheritance of all people. As we see human beings reflecting that true humanity that we have come to know in Jesus, we rejoice and thank God. Sometimes, we see that true humanity reflected in the lives of people who have never become part of the Church, but seem to us to be walking in the way of the Lord of the Church, Jesus. And, we remember that our primary allegiance is to God and his way in Jesus, not to the Church. We remember that the Church stands under God’s judgment, seeking to resist those sins of arrogance and selfishness and cowardice that have so crippled the ministries of the Church through the centuries. We remember that the repentant Church has always received forgiveness and healing and courage and joy to love the world as God loves the world, to help the world with a courage and an integrity and a persistence that is beyond our imagination.

It is in this hope that I celebrate the Coming of our Lord, and anticipate the fulfillment of the great hope of all the ages: the Coming of God’s Kingdom, that day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Hope Deferred, Desire Fulfilled

In Proverbs, it says:

"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life."

Just because a desire is good doesn't mean it will be fulfilled. Just because a desire is bad doesn't mean it won't be fulfilled. We would like for our good desires to find fulfillment, and our bad desires to be frustrated and fade away.

About the most important thing for a human being is to have good desires. And, then to be able to endure the disappointment of not having some of these fulfilled and not get so obsessed with those things that don't come to us that we miss pursuing those good desires that do have a good chance of being realized.

I also think it is very important not to underrate daily life, and the small joys of daily life. The cup of coffee, the good music, the sunrise, the good food, a walk, some time to sit and read and talk with another. Finding fulfillment in the small joys and rhythms of daily life forms a foundation and the necessary life-energy for pursuing deeper desires.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

From Christoph Blumhardt's Letters to His Son-In-Law, Missionary in China

The following is taken from "The Hidden Christ," a collection of letters sent in the early 20th century from Christoph Blumhardt, a German pastor, to his son-in-law, who was a missionary in China. These letters are a remarkable witness to the true gospel of God, which is free from the dictates of Church and State.

"God's love tears down old divisions. No longer religion against religion, Christians against non-Christians, but justice against sin, life against death. His love embraces everyone. Therefore, every person you encounter should be your concern. Do not settle for less. The whole world must see the glory of God. I long to see you free to share in the gifts God gives the Chinese. This is our hope, but its fulfillment will have to be fought for.

"God protects the oppressed. He will see to it that they receive his blessing. Today his spirit moves the upright hearts everywhere, without asking what kind of religion they cling to. Our task is to spread the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Christians. Christ does not want separation. This is difficult for us to keep in mind. It is not easy to interact with sinners without yielding to the pressure of either compromising or distancing oneself. I hope, however, that we - you in China and I in Europe - will experience the all-embracing, creative power of Christ.

"This is why I choose to stand on the side of the humble, the working class. Tragically, the church has abandoned them to darkness. Yet this same church lives with this darkness, and in so doing absorbs the very same sinful principles that rule the world. Christians should serve, not rule. Their acts of violence make them worse than the so-called heathen.

"The chief thing is to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, not an apostle of the European Christian world. Have patience, and whatever you do, stay clear of forming a party. Your work must embrace the whole, then your integrity will win you everyone's trust.

-reprinted from Copyright 2002 by the Bruderhof Foundation, Inc. Used with permission

Commit Your Life

Commit your life to God. Do not commit your life to the church or your country. Commit your life to the Lord of all creation. You cannot commit your life to the church (or synagogue or mosque) and to God. You certainly cannot commit your life to your country or your country's ideology (or your church/synagogue/mosque's ideology) and God. As hard as it is to say, you cannot even commit your life to your family and to God. "You shall have no other gods before me" is the first commandment. Commit your life to God, God alone, and God will order the commitments in God's mercy and justice and love. After committing above all and unreservedly to God, I see my commitments falling in the following order: family, church, and my country's issues of justice. But, all commitments that are holy run together. When we commit unreservedly to God, it does not limit, but frees us. When we give our hearts to God in faith, our hearts become open to all God's causes in the world, often causes that are carried on by human beings who have nothing to do with religion.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"I Believe, Help Thou My Unbelief:" Another Thought

I believe with my heart; I undermine my belief with my mind. I can live a divided life, jumping back and forth between deep intuition or logical process of thought. Or, I can allow my logical, rational process of thought to grind all deep intuition up into a residue of doubt.

Or, I can allow my deep intuition to steer the ship, and command the logical, rational thought to lower or raise the mast, bail water - to be a hand on deck and help the ship makes its way pasts rocks and storms. But, deep intuition, belief, is the only one fit to captain the ship.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Believe, Help Thou My Unbelief

There was a man who had a son who was suffering terrible seizures or something like that. The boy was believed to be possessed by an evil spirit that was tormenting him. And, his father was desperate for help. The father brought the boy to Jesus' disciples and asked them to pray and help him. They could do nothing. Jesus looked on.

The man said: "do something for him, if it is possible!" Jesus said: "If it is possible!" Jesus says: "Bring the boy here. All things are possible if you believe." And, the father says: "I believe; help thou my unbelief!" Immediately, Jesus casts out the evil spirit, and the boy is calm and in his right mind, and free from the torment.

In our trouble, our hearts get burdened and sometimes broken. And, our hope and our faith seem almost gone. If we have any belief left, it is the kind that man had out there on that day desperately seeking help for his little boy. It is the kind of belief that is just plain love and nothing else. It is despair that won't give into despair, because of love. It is not confident trust or unshakeable faith - it is just raw love that won't give up. I think God will answer that. He did that day through Jesus.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

God's Love Trumps All

Another minister wrote to me: "I cannot imagine . . . that God’s love trumps the requirement of the gospel for sinners to repent in order to become God’s children."

This is my response:

God’s love does trump the requirement for sinners to repent in order to become God’s children. That is the heart of the Gospel. That is it. That is the core. We do not become God’s children by our choice, but by God’s choice, and he chooses us all, and claims us all through the saving death of Christ. If we do not agree on that, then I am not sure we are talking about the same Spirit, the same Gospel, the same God. Jesus said: “You tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weighter matters of the law: justice, mercy and love.” Paul says: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet the enemies of God, he sent his Son to die for us.” Jesus says: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And, Jesus tells the story of the gracious father of the prodigal son; and, the point of that story is not the repentance of the prodigal, but the love of the father that trumps all. Before the beaten and battered sinful son can even get down and repent before his father, his father embraces him and weeps tears of joy and celebrates. Before Jacob can tell Esau he is sorry, Esau embraces him and weeps. Jacob says: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God!” This is the Gospel. Before Joseph can stand to put his brothers to the test down in Egypt, he breaks down and cries and discloses who he is. He won’t even hear their cries of repentance. We love because God first loved us. God doesn’t wait for us to repent. God takes the first step, he reaches out and claims us all in Christ. That is grace. That is the Gospel. And, hell yes, God’s love trumps every other requirement in all creation, especially the church’s requirement that sinners repent first before being offered the free grace of God. Until we are loved of God, we don’t know how to repent. So long as you preach a gospel that sets up a gate and has requirements on the front end, you’ve not preached the gospel, but a human distortion of it. And, the sinful woman who wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her tears. He says: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much.” Jesus didn’t say: “because she repented, but because she loved.” Jesus didn’t want people’s sacrificial repentance, but their love. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus forgave the paralyzed man’s sins, and healed him – not because he saw the man’s repentance, but because he saw the man’s friends “faith,” which was also their love for him. In fact, the scripture doesn’t tell us one thing the paralyzed man did, but be claimed by the love of God in Jesus and saved, body and soul by it.

I think we need to get first things first.

I also think you have a view of a God who serves the Bible, not a Bible that serves God. Your one-to-one correspondence between the written canon and the Word of God cannot be sustained by any reasonable reading of the Bible itself or church history. Jesus takes the very words of scripture, such as: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you . . . Jesus overrules the previous written code by separating the wheat from the chaff, and by flatly claiming an authority above that of the written scripture. And, regarding the Reformers view of scripture. Luther’s view cannot possibly be the view you espouse in equating the written scriptures with the Word of God. If so, why did Luther and Calvin actually take books out of the canon (books that Paul had in his scriptures! And that the church had had for 1500 years!). Further, Luther flatly criticized Revelation and James, and at times, wanted them taken out of the canon as well. Everyone knows in how high a regard Luther held the witness of scriptures, calling it the ruler over the church and “the Word of God,” but, even Luther didn’t have the mechanistic view of equating written canon with Word of God as a simple one-to-one correspondence. If he did, he would never have removed some books from the O.T., and so harshly questioned James and Revelation. And, he would not have made his famous statement: “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ-child.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

sermon notes from the sermon I did preach today, Sept. 18

I remember reading this passage for the first time when I was a senior in high school. I don’t think I had ever heard it read before or heard it preached on. THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IS WITH PEOPLE. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, HE WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES.
These words struck me so deeply, it was like they went to fill this big empty place in my heart that had been aching to be filled. I was a high school senior and was really going through a spiritual re-awakening that fall of my senior year. I was spending a good bit of my free time reading the Bible, not running around on the edge of trouble like I had the previous year. And, the words of the Bible were beginning to catch fire in my heart and mind. I have never looked at life the same since these words from Revelation became part of my soul and my view of life.
As I remember that fall back in 1977, I remember it had begun to sink into my awareness that life was a pretty serious matter. I was beginning to realize the tragedy of life too. I was beginning to really feel that some real heartbrokenness was just a part of life, that unfairness was a part of life, that there was some real evil and cruelty and suffering that were going to be around so long as I lived. And, that losing those we love so deeply is also a part of living in this world.
I guess we all come at different points in our lives to these times of growing up in our outlook on life. Some of us have to face adult responsibilities and tragic losses earlier than others, but for all of us, there is a time when some of the trouble of life begins to trouble our mind and our faith.
I began to realize that life could change with a phone call that someone you love had been in a wreck, or that the lab report from the doctor revealed that there was a cancerous lump or that your mother you love so much was in ICU after a heart attack as a phone call did one night when I was 18.
As we grow up, the gravity of life, the weight of its sorrow, starts to hit home in a new way. The losses and pain of childhood are terribly real, but it is in a sense closed up inside so that the child can live on. In adolescence and adulthood, it seems we start opening up to the experiences we have had and to the trouble in the world around us. And, we face ourselves and our world in a new way. Frederick Beuchner writes that as an adolescent and as an adult, we begin to realize that pain, some real pain and loss, is here to stay, and we begin to try to make some sense of it or at least reach a truce with it; we realize it is a part of life that we will have to figure out how to live with.
As a child, bad things come, but somehow the child lives on. As we get older, we not only live on but we have to choose to live on. . . we realize that bad things are not simply disruptions in a life otherwise immune from pain, but that pain and trouble are right there in the center of life, even mixed real closely with joy and hope. As we grow up, we have to will to live in a world where there is going to disruption and struggle with sorrow as a part of life.
And, as I look back to that time when I was just turning 17 years old that fall, I think that my re-awakening to God brought along with it an awakening to the real brokenness and pain of life in this world – my own and others. It dawned on me that my family had really absorbed some losses along the way. Every family has many things to bear over the course of a life.
As I looked out at the world around me, whether it had to do with my family or with others, I saw and felt so much fragility, so much that was precious, but so much that could be lost in a moment. Although I experienced love and security with my family in my house, I saw that so many others were living in horrible insecurity and in the midst of hate and exploitation and violence. I only had to look to my extended family members another city over, another county over, and insecurity and trouble were regular there. Or, I only had to walk into my friends house to see trouble. And, then around the world, children dying of starvation and disease before they have even spoken their first word or taken their first step. And, well, you know, there is a lot of trouble if you open your eyes and hearts to see it.
Good things were going on in my life and in the world around me, but somehow I couldn’t ignore the suffering and the pain in the world anymore.
And, it was when all of this started to come to me, as I was starting to grow into adulthood, that I heard these words. AND, HE WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES. THERE WILL BE NO MORE SORROW, OR SICKNESS OR PAIN OR DEATH . . . Because my heart was starting to protest all of this pain and suffering and death in the world. My heart and mind were beginning to look out at life, and to look towards God, and my response was not: “Well, God all is as you will it. Everything is o.k. because you are in control.” No, that is not what I felt at all. My awakening in faith brought with it a deep protest against all the pain and suffering and unfairness and cruelty in life, Because as I came to know God more deeply, I came to protest and be upset by a world that was clearly not going in accordance with what God’s ultimate will is for human life.
And, all the religious answers and sermons I heard didn’t give me any assurance or answers that seemed true or that helped at all. But, these words from Revelation, they came to me as a word straight from God, like a grace I am still thankful for receiving.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: AND I TRULY HEARD THOSE WORDS AS SPOKEN LOUDLY FROM THE THRONE OF GOD. I did not feel I was reading. I felt I was listening and an angel of God was speaking:
BEHOLD THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IS WITH PEOPLE. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD, THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, GOD WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES (from the eyes of mothers who have just buried their children, from the eyes of children who have been left alone; from the eyes of children who have been beaten or sexually abused days without number, from the eyes of husbands who have lost their wives, and wives who have lost their husbands, from the eyes of mothers whose children have died from drug overdoses, from the fathers of children who have wasted their lives away in prison, from the eyes of inmates who just wish they could go back and start life over again, from the eyes of this and that person who has born the pains of this life. From the eyes of parents who have prayed and prayed and worried and prayed, worked and tried to keep hope alive even as they see their children devoured by mental illness or by cancer or other some disease. YES, GOD, GOD HIMSELF, WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES, FROM OUR EYES. From my eyes and your eyes.
I had begun to be seriously troubled that fall of 1977 by the way things are in this world – troubled in a way that I just couldn’t look away from and forget in my soul. The Word of the Lord came to me and let me know: “you ought to be troubled by the way things are. God is troubled. God cares about the pain of human beings. God gathers it up in his heart. And, God will come to wipe the pain away. One day, God will come and wipe it away.” But, know this: “The Lord is taking all this trouble into his heart, and he gathers up all of the pain and suffering of human beings into his heart, and he will come in his fullness. He helps us bear it now in his love, and he is beginning to reveal his redeeming power among us day by day.” The assurance that all this horror and sorrow is not God’s desire for humanity and that God’s Spirit is completely committed to healing and help and relief and justice, that was enough for me. Because God’s will will be done – on that day completely, but even now day by day, that will of God presses into our broken reality. God’s will has its effect even now. As John Donne once said: “The assurance of future mercy is present mercy.”
There will come a day, when the heavens will open, and God’s glory will fill the earth, and all that has been wrong will be made right, all that has been wounded will be healed, all that has been taken will be restored, when what we have lost will be restored to us again. And, that day is a reality in our hearts that cannot be taken from us. It is sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. But, we carry this treasure in earthen vessels. At times, that day seems so remote, so far away; but, then in faith, we begin to see that that Great Day is at hand, that Great Day is a reality we can grasp in hope even now.
But, the reality of God is not just to be experienced in that future day. Looking to that future day, we are reminded of just what God’s will is, and that gives us hope for today. And, it gives us the courage to say that all is not well in this world, to be honest and protest against all that is broken and opposed to God’s justice and God’s peace and God’s love in this world. It gives us the strength to endure all that is broken in us and in those we love and in those we are learning to love. Because that good will of God to meet our sorrow with his love, to replace our despair with his life-giving presence, that good will of God is being enacted now. God works in hiddenness, but it will be made plain in the end. Paul expresses our present experience of faith very well in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:
For we bear this treasure (this hope) in earthen vessels . . .
We seein a mirror dimly, but then face to face; but then FACE TO FACE.
We receive the goodness of each day as the gift of God. We keep our eyes open in faith, and our hearts open to what is joyful in life, and we keep our eyes open and our hearts open to what is sorrowful in life, bearing all things in faith. So long as the trouble of life doesn’t break our spirit, we remain open to the goodness and joy of life,and there is plenty of that. There is really plenty of that, if we can open our minds and hearts to see it.
But,we bear this treasure, this hope for the redemption of all of life, we bear this hope in earthen vessels, and earthen vessels get cracked and leak at times, sometimes our hope leaks out through the cracks, and we need a little repair work on these old earthen vessels. Maybe one of the best things we can do to refill our vessels with hope and repair the cracks is to focus our hearts upon the Great Day of the Lord, that hope of all hopes. To remind ourselves and each other of this promise and this hope of our scripture today. This is a treasure. I HEARD A LOUD VOICE FROM THE THRONE SAYING: THE DWELLIN PLACE OF GOD IS WITH HUMAN BEINGS. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD AND THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, GOD, GOD HIMSELF, WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES. THERE WILL BE NO MORE GRIEVING, OR SICKNESS OR PAIN OR DEATH, FOR THE OLD AGE HAS PASSED AWAY.
This treasure is the hope we bear for all humanity, a hope that glows in our hearts, a hope in God for that time when there will be no more pain, nor sorrow, nor sickness, nor death, because the old things have passed away. Carry this hope in your hearts today, as God works in the present to bring the reality of his salvation nearer to us and to our world each day.
I close with the words from the Hymn: O Day of Peace:
O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God's grace our warring world
shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.

sermon notes from sermon I didn't preach this week

I Samuel Chapter 8
The prophet Samuel was the greatest prophet in Israel since Moses. Between Moses and Samuel, there were prophets but none of them had that sense of being the one through whom God guided his people of Israel.
We hear that Samuel was born after the prayer of his mother, Hannah, was answered. Hannah, who was one of two wives of Samuel’s father, had never been able to have children. But, she prayed and prayed, even weeping as she was praying at the temple one day. And, the head priest Eli saw her and thought she was drunk. He said: “Woman,put away your wine.” Then, she said: “I am not drunk. I am praying with all my heart because my heart is deeply wounded.” Then, Eli felt pretty awful I think about what he had said to her because he was deep down a good priest. And, he said, “Woman, whatever your prayer is, may it be granted by God.” And, the answer to that prayer was a little boy born to Hannah. Hannah promised God that she would dedicate him to serve as a priest of the Lord with Eli. And, after the boy was weaned – probably not til 4 or 5 years old, she may have delayed the weaning a bit too. But, eventually she took the little fellow to Eli, with a little priest’s robe she had made and left him there. And, so Eli trained him up to be a priest.
Eli had two grown sons, but they were rotten, taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes at the temple, etc. I always feel like Eli saw in Samuel a chance to amend his mistakes in raising his own sons. And, apparently, Eli did a great job with Samuel, because he grew up to be a great judge and priest over Israel.
But, now we pick up in our history towards the end of Samuel’s life. It says:
The elders called a meeting, because Samuel was old, he had appointed his sons to serve as prients, and his sons did not walk in his ways. They said: “appoint us a king, so we can be like the other nations.” This struck a nerve deep in Samuel, who had been raised on the prophecies of Moses. Moses had warned against having a king, because a king would oppress his own people.
And, according to our scripture, this desire to have a king among the people of Israel, struck a nerve deep in the heart of God. But, God says to Samuel: “They have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being their king.” But, go, do what they want you to do, but first warn them about what having a king will be like.”
The first time I really read this passage, I did a double-take. What? God doesn’t want them to have a king, but God is going to give them a king? And, Samuel seems to have felt that way too.
I think we see here some of the mystery of God’s relationship to human beings. God’s will was that Israel be led by a prophet, one who listened for and spoke the Word of God. Before Samuel the Word of the Lord was said to be rare in Israel, but with Samuel, the Word of God came to Israel again. The real crisis involved in Samuel being near death was that the Word of the Lord would have no one to receive it and pass it on. Israel would be without a prophet, without one to receive the Word for them and speak it to them. They would be without the Word of the Lord.
If Samuel’s sons were all they had as priests over Israel, the Word of the Lord would depart from the worship and governance of Israel, at least in so far as it was presided over by Joel and Abijah. But, if a king was appointed, it would reveal Israel’s rebellion against the Word of the Lord, because the Word of the Lord comes to prophets, not kings.
I imagine this conversation between God and Samuel:
“Look, Samuel, you have been just as bad a father as Eli was to his sons. But, he was a good father to you. Could you not have learned something from all this?” Now, you put me in a hard place as you have left Israel in a hard place, because your sons are rotten – really rotten to the core. Do you have any replacements to suggest? Is there a true prophet hiding out somewhere that you haven’t told me about?”
Samuel just says: “O Lord, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
God replies: “The answer is ‘no.’ You are the true prophet of Israel, but your days are numbered.”
Go and appoint them a king.
Samuel: “This is not exactly how I envisioned my life coming to an end. Having to appoint a king that will oppress the people, and leaving Israel without a man of God to hear and speak the Word of the Lord.”
God: “Well, Samuel, this is not exactly how I envisioned the history of my people, but I do thank you for your service. You have been a good prophet. So, finish your task. Your task is not to dictate to me, but to obey me, even when it is unpleasant. I have shared with you that this is unpleasant to me as well. That should be enough for you. And, who knows what will happen in Israel before you die. I always think of something good.”
Samuel: “Yes, you do, Lord. You never give up. I don’t know why, but you never give up. Thank you, Lord. I will go and do as you have asked me.”
And, Samuel in obedience to God appointed Saul as king over Israel, and Saul led them in their battles and for most of his reign Israel got the upper hand over their enemies, but Saul had trouble knowing how to obey the Word of the Lord that came through Samuel, the prophet. Saul would seem to do pretty well, but then he just couldn’t get things right with God or with the prophet, Samuel. In time, God rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel had a hard time accepting this as well, but he spoke the Word of the Lord. And, after Samuel grieved Saul’s rejection, God called Samuel to get up and anoint a king of God’s own choosing – a king who would follow God with his heart. And, Samuel went and anointed David, a young shepherd, the seventh son of Jesse.
The prophet Samuel was near to the doings of God. He was involved in the working out of God’s plans and responses to human beings in those days of Israel. It was a great and sacred task to partake in holy things like this. But, it was very difficult on Samuel, who had to take actions he didn’t really want to take: anoint Saul as king when the prophet knew God had never wanted a king but was simply allowing this rebellion in Israel. And, it was hard on Samuel to then pronounce and carry out the rejection of Saul as king when it was time for that. God had led him to anoint Saul, but that action was now put into question by God telling Samuel that Saul was rejected as king.
None of us have been where Samuel was. None of us has shared a conversation quite like that with God, or at least not at that level.
But, then again, maybe we have been where Samuel was in some ways. If you have been in thought or prayer before God, you may have wondered as Samuel wondered: “Why does this go on that is against your ways, O God? Why does this horrible situation or condition or injustice or suffering continue when it is not really what you want for human beings? O,God why do you allow a person to just throw their life away when you have created them to live fully and to rejoice in you?”
Samuel wondered why God would let Israel become like other nations and have a king to rule over them. Samuel may have also wondered how God could let Samuel’s sons become so corrupt, even as Samuel begged in many prayers that they would turn around and walk in his ways.
God may have wondered why Samuel didn’t take more time to prepare his sons, and why Samuel was so ineffective in training them to be priests. Of course, God didn’t have to wonder. He knew. Because God knows that we human beings fall short of the glory of God, which is to say most all of us are really underachievers in a profoundly tragic sense.
And, then we turn around and blame our sorry state of affairs on God, not realizing we have put God in an almost impossible position as we are generally proud of what we should be ashamed of and ashamed of what we should be proud of. Yes, God has had a difficult time dealing with a mixed up human race: so much good about us all, and then so much that is twisted and destructive. But, God has never given up. God has continued to come up with a new plan of saving again and again.
But, it is hard to save someone who is bent on their own self-destruction. That was God’s struggle with Israel. The Israelites so often bought into the success strategies of the Canaanite culture. They tried to get along and worship the gods of the Canaanites. They tried to fit in and not stand out, so they could go along and get along with other peoples. But, the Israelites were always putting themselves in the hands of other rulers, other religions, and being abused and oppressed. Only God would protect them – in a sense and most importantly, only God could protect them from themselves.
But, God’s ways are not our ways. He comes over our way a long way to understand and help us understand. If it had been a human ruler in charge, when Israel asked for a king, the human ruler would have just said no and punished those who asked. But, God was in charge who understands things that are very deeply a part of human life and understands things too deep for us to grasp about how the Divine works out his will in history. God basically said: “I don’t want you to have a king, but I’ll let you have a king. I am warning you of the problems of having a king.” And, God did not give up on redeeming his people. God goes farther than we are willing to go with people; God gets dirty in the mess of history and rules from within it. And, God, sometimes sooner, and sometimes later, comes out with the victory – a victory God can share to bless others.
God could have had a victory immediately back then, I suppose, if he were a different kind of God. If God was really like a human king, he could have just made the rules and punished those who disobeyed. But, history shows that though God has brought punishments, that is not God’s chosen way of governing humans in this world. If God was not really after a victory he could share with us, then his course would be an easy one in life. But, God will not be victorious and let the world fall into destruction. God has always wanted a victory for humanity,not one against humanity. And,this takes wisdom, and perserverence, and a love that cannot be defeated by all the forces of resistance and evil among us and among creation itself.
Scripture presents God as a Warrior often in the Old Testament, and at a few points in the New Testament as well. This is a powerful and important image of God. For, God is a warrior for the body and soul of every human being on this earth. And, God goes to battle again and again against the powers of evil that twist and destroy human life; he goes to battle to save the bodies and souls of human beings. And, God gets bloodied in the process. Isn’t that the meaning of the cross? God will go so far to save that he will not spare his own Son, his own Being from being beaten and mocked and executed on a cross of wood?
Remember our God whom we love: he is the God who leaves behind the safety of heaven and comes down to do battle for the lives of human beings right here on earth. And, our Dear and Holy and Good God suffers in the process. We know this from that cross of wood that once stood on Golgatha, with the Son of God hanging on it. We know this from the thanksgiving that wells up in our hearts. And, we know that the suffering of God is a redemptive suffering. When God suffers, redemption and salvation come into the world, into our lives, into those places in which God suffers.
O, God, how can you have allowed yourself to get so drawn into and mixed up in the affairs of humanity? How can you who are holy have taken on the burdens of human beings like us, who are unholy? We have put you in so many difficult situations again and again. You could have given us up. It seems to us you should have given us up. How can we be worth all the struggle it takes to redeem?
Your Love remains the only answer we can find, and Your Love is a mystery far beyond our imagining and greatest hopes. Whatever we seem to ourselves and others, O Lord, we are above all loved by you. Whatever our neighbor seems to us or herself, she is above all loved by you.
Why have you become so involved and burdened with human affairs? Because of your love. Because of your love. Because of your love, we live and move and have our being. Because of your love, we stand up as we hear your pardon. Because of your love, we live on when we feel no reason for living. Because of your love, we love even when hated by others. Because of your love, you chose a king after your own heart, even if having a king wasn’t your idea in the first place. Because of your love, the world exists. Because of your love, Samuel kept on speaking your Word of Truth. Because of your love, we got up this morning. Because of your love. Because of your love. As loveless as we are at times, we love, yes, we love, because of your love. Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2011

To Be AND Not to Be

Each of us is a potential self. We are always becoming someone, whether we know it or not. Sometimes the self we are becoming is a stranger to the selves we have been, and so we stop and reflect and gather up our memories of who we have been, trying to find that hidden strand of the "who we were meant to be" in all those previous becoming selves; and, then with a power deep within but not of ourselves we will to be someone we have always been but will never quite become - "this side of Jordan."

Maybe Shakespeare's Hamlet just missed when he said: "To be or not to be - that is the question." The reality of human life seems "to be and not to be." That is the existence we must live with, celebrate, and sometimes endure in faith. We are those creatures who are born to live with ambiguity within our own selves. If we can make peace with that, we can live some pretty decent lives and accept the ambiguity in others.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A God Who is Really Involved in Creation

If God has a real relationship in time with this creation, including human beings, then not only does God act to affect events in the world, but God is acted upon and affected by events in the world.

The Old Testament's so-called "anthropocentric" way of presenting God in a simple dramatic relationship with human beings and the created order at times may be the only "realistic" way to express how God is related to the created order.

God is not presented in the Old Testament as if everytime God says: "jump," the created order comes into complete line with God's will. God is presented as ruler over creation, but not a ruler whose actions have a one-to-one correspondence with events in the world. God acts upon the forces of the world and gives shape to them, but there are other agents in the animal world, particular human agents, who act from their side as well giving shape to the created order and perhaps influencing God, working to effectuate God's purposes or working in some real sense to hinder or frustrate God's purposes.

Whether one understands God to be in a real, dramatic relationship with this creation and its creatures, or whether one understands God to simply sit at the switchboard and order all that takes place is very important in theology and faith and life.

If a person thinks deep down that God has simply designed everything beforehand and willed each thing to take place that does take place, then the death of Jesus is not part of God's dramatic and passionate efforts to save a rebellious humanity and a broken creation. Because if God has simply set it all out beforehand, and the death of Jesus is simply the unfolding of the irresistible, set-in-stone will of God, and not part of the dramatic back and forth between God and the created order, then it is as if God willed to have humans rebel and Jesus' death was God's affirmative will as well.

If it is all understood this way with God planning it all out like the script of a play before hand, then God is not really in relationship with humanity and creation; we are just actors inevitably acting out a drama we have not part in shaping; and then Jesus is simply the same kind of actor in the inevitable history dictated by God.

There used to be two concepts that were used in theology to try to hold onto the truth that God is in complete control over creation, while acknowledging that there is much rebellion against God's ways in creation. These concepts were the affirmative will of God and the permissive will of God.

The affirmative will of God is that all human beings obey God's law by loving God and neighbor. The permissive will of God allows (while still not losing control or the ability to mold) humans to both obey and rebel and cause good and evil on earth. In fact, as God remains involved in creation, God works at bringing the "out of control" under control at every moment. This is a way of saying God is in relationship with that which is anti-God, and does not lose control of it ultimately. Jesus seems to have represented this type of view as he prays: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done - on earth as it is in heaven."

This way of speaking is at least much better than the common way of simply saying that "nothing happens that God doesn't want to happen." As if God affirmatively wills all that happens or else it would not happen. This, to me, seems very wrong unless you believe in God as some operative concept and not as a real Being who can be in relationship to other personal beings and other forces in the world.

All of these thoughts become very, very important as we turn to understand what happened when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. How was God involved in that? It is accepted as "God's will" by almost all Christians, but was Jesus' death God's affirmative will or God's permissive will? I believe that it was part of God's permissive will as the deepest desire of God was not humanity's rejection of God in human flesh, but the deepest desire of God was to save all human flesh. God's affirmative will was to save humanity from the self-destruction that comes of rejecting God's authority and truth and grace. In order to accomplish his affirmative will, God must in a sense get in the mix with other forces in creation - act and be acted upon by them - in order to shape that creation in a real way. I believe that God did exactly that in Jesus in the most dramatic way possible. He actually allowed his very Being to be affected by human response and rejection, and took that rejection into himself and in an act of creation out of nothing just as grand as the original creative act took the hatred and rebellion of humanity and transformed it into a life-giving,saving presence for humanity.

It is in this area of the permissive will of God that the real action of history takes place. The concept of "the affirmative will of God" is how we perceive that God had wanted to be in relation with the world. But, in this thinking about "the permissive will of God" we really come into touch with the real world of God and humanity and all creation, and begin to have some chance to touch on the real, dramatic relationship within which God works out the salvation of the world. But, God is in the midst creating out nothing, actually creating good out of less than nothing.

Jesus is often presented in conservative Protestant theology as simply an answer to the problem of how sinful humans can be forgiven by a God who cannot accept sin. That is, Jesus' death is presented as the solving of a problem that was God's problem,not our problem. I understand Jesus' death as God's response to the ultimate rejection of God by humanity, as a response to the deepest problem of humanity: a will that was opposed to the great Will of God to save and bless humanity - a human will that was bent on self-destruction. The problem was on the side of humanity,not on God's side. Jesus' death didn't convince God to give humanity another chance; Jesus died because God just couldn't help but reach out to save even if it cost him the one human who was closest and dearest to his heart.

So, in simple terms that a child can understand, I ask: "Did God want Jesus to die?" No, that is the last thing God wanted. But, how can something happen that God does not want to happen?

"Did God allow Jesus to die?" Yes, because God is in a real relationship with this world. Did Jesus death affect God? So deeply that it shook all things, even the heart of God. And, what poured forth from the heart of God was not vengeance against humanity for killing Jesus, but love for humanity and the resurrection of Jesus. God could have raised up Jesus to conquer and destroy humanity,but he raised up Jesus as the first-born of a new creation from within humanity to save humanity and all creation.

I guess it begins to become abstract at this point. But, then the dramatic relationship of God with this world and especially with humanity is a story about real events, and about real choices and responses that have shaped reality at its depths.

But, the history of Christianity carries within it two distinct and very different strands of belief: on one side there is the belief in an abstract concept of God from which one can deduce all sorts of theories about life and salvation; and on the other side there is a devotion and commitment to a Real Creator who is dramatically involved with the created order and with human beings and who, though God of all, can be felt to be struggling, working, fashioning a new world, not from some throne up on high, but through a real presence in a real world and real events that sometimes almost break the very heart of God.

The first strand of belief in the abstract concept of God carries with it a rigid view of Jesus' death that actually doesn't have God involved in the death itself. This is the strict substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus' death. It goes like this: God has all humanity under judgment for sin. Jesus serves as a sacrificial lamb to cleanse humans of sin and make them acceptable to God. Those who believe this receive the benefits of Jesus' sacrifice and are acceptable before God. Those who don't believe this remain under God's judgment and rejection for being sinners. In this view of things, God was unable to reach out to humanity because he couldn't accept that which is unholy. But, the sacrifice of Jesus in dying, makes humans acceptable (so long as they come under this acceptance through faith).

The second strand of commitment and devotion to the dramatically involved Being, God, believes that it is the very nature of God to accept the unacceptable and that God's love is precisely that which "justifies the ungodly." The first strand of belief contends that only that which is holy may approach God. The second strand believes that the holiest of all shows his holiness by approaching that which is unholy and transforming it through his will to save and heal and reconcile. What is so shaking about the death of Jesus is what Luther caught on to: God is in the very center of it - not as the one who sacrifices Jesus, but as the one who is in a real sense subject and harmed by the sacrifice.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Thinking Out Loud for the First Time in a Long Time on this Blog

As I finish another week of work at the Public Defender's Office, and move into the weekend. And, as I begin to prepare for Sunday worship, and consider all that is going on in my family's life and in life around me in this world, I am moved to say:

"The way we boil it all down real nice and simple in our churches is simply false, and is not the true Gospel of God."

My prayers last night as I was awake in the middle of the night had nothing in common with the confident affirmations of faith we make in worship, nor did it have much in common with the great majority of our hymns in the Presbyterian Hymnal.

But, my prayers last night had a real resonance with some of the Psalms and with Ecclesiates. And, I got a certain feeling of resolution in all of this. And, it is the resolution that may not make many religious people happy. What I came to last night was that God is very, very good, completely and utterly on the side of all that supports and helps life, and against all that twists and destroys life. But, at the same time, I got a strong feeling that God cannot affect things so simply as we have often imagined in the church. I got the feeling that maybe God cannot prevent some suffering and pain in this world, but that God suffers some of this with us. I didn't say I believe that God can do nothing about suffering and pain, but that I am coming to believe that the way God is in relation to his creation, there is much in creation that is simply not really under God's control. But, I believe that God's Spirit continues to work to create and bring that which is against life under God's rule. At the present time, it seems to be the case that much in this world, even in our personal lives, is simply not under our good Creator's rule.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The last part of the sermon for Sunday

I have been preparing a sermon based on Romans 11, which is where the Apostle Paul reflects on the troubling question of whether God has rejected the Jews whom God had previously chosen as a special people destined for God's blessings and redemption. Paul's answer is a resounding: "No, God is faithful and true even if no one else is; and God will keep his promise to Israel and save this special people of God." Read Romans 11 and then marvel at how the Church through the centuries has ignored this very plain affirmation of the Jewish people by the leading voice of early Christianity. Somehow as I was reflecting on this, I was realizing how Paul's experience as a Jew, as a persecutor of Christians and then as one who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah from God and joined Christians as a leader/Apostle - I was realizing how all of this must have opened Paul's heart up in a remarkable way. This letter to the Romans shows just how big Paul's heart got, just how big his Gospel was, just how universal his hope was. This was one of his latest letters, it seems. Well, all of this raised my hopes for us all and below is what I have written as the concluding portion of the sermon for Sunday, August 7:

"Paul understood so well just how easy it was as a human being to be deluded about oneself and life in general. Paul understood very well how terribly easy it was for a human being to fall into a false way of living and lose all touch with the reality of God. And, Paul knows the God of Jesus and has experienced that God’s will to save is so much greater than our will to reject life from God. Paul’s life is a life of hope. His preaching is preaching filled with hope, not just hope in general, but hope in the living God who is at work reconciling the world and every human being in it to himself. Paul sees this and feels this at every turn in life, and as he proclaims it, he awakens this hope in others. And, I proclaim this same truth today to you and among you.

'God was in Christ reconciling the world and all of us in it to himself. God’s Spirit is working right now to bring reconciliation to your life: reconciliation with God, reconciliation with others, reconciliation of your broken and divided self. God’s Spirit is at work right now to bring reconciliation between groups of people who have been hostile towards each other. I tell you this is a reality in our world. And, this reality of God’s reconciling Spirit is the most important reality there is. And, it is a reality that you can experience, and participate in because in truth it is the reality by which you live. In this reality, “we live and move and have our being” whether we are aware of it or not.

"You do not have to live out your life stuck in the ruts of despair and meaninglessness and hopelessness. You are a child of God. That is what Jesus came to reveal by the way he treated people, by the way he cared for the sick, by the way that he upheld the dignity of the poor, by the way he respected authorities enough to tell them the truth even if it hurt their sense of importance and even when it threatened their sense of power and control in life.

"You do not have to live out your life cut off and alienated from the life-giving Spirit of God. As Paul once said: “In God, we live and move and have our being.” The Spirit of God is closer to you than you are to yourself, but somehow you and I are keeping this life-giving and gracious power at arms length. Somehow we are living like strangers when we need to realize we are at home in this world. You are a child of the living God, made to live at peace with God on this earth, made to be at home on this earth, with other human beings, and at home in your own life, at peace in your own body and with who you are in God’s will.

"Although many of us gathered today have experienced the gracious presence of God at many times in our lives, still so often we live as if God’s Spirit is not at work in the world and in our lives. Although many of us gathered today have sung praises that we really mean this morning, when we turn to face the realities of our lives, we will begin to lose touch with the reality of God in our lives and in our world. But, we don’t have to. We don’t have to. A few of you in here today really know this – you know it better than I do. You know that there is a way to live close to God’s Spirit and consistently be at peace with God and others – I didn’t say live perfectly, but consistently at peace with God and others in the Spirit of God. There is a way to walk into the world and not lose touch with the Holy presence of God. At times, I have experienced this, and at times it slips away. But, there is a way to stay nearer this reality that is more basic and essential than all the other realities we deal with. To stay nearer, it takes some real devotion to God, and openness to learning how God is present not just in the time of worship but in the time of leisure and the time of work and the time of anger and in the time of humor. It takes an openness to the Spirit of God in all of life to learn that God is a God of reality; God is present in our world in all aspects of life. God does not abide in houses made of human hands, but in all the living beings he has made.

Jesus revealed the way of living near to God in all of life. He was at home on the sea, fishing with his disciples; he was at home in the desert surrounded by wilderness and wild animals; he was at home with tax collectors and sinners, even at the parties they held; he was at home eating and drinking wine with common people or religious leaders; he was at home in his own body; he was at home reading the scriptures in holy worship; he was at home alone in prayer with his God; he was at home in times of celebration, and he was at home in times of sorrow and grief. Jesus knew what is was to live on this earth as a child of God, near to God, living close to the reality of God and so living fully in the reality of life in this world.

"And, God’s Spirit remains free to move with or without us; God’s Spirit continues to create good out of evil, love out of hate, order out of chaos, chaos and then new order out of unjust and oppressive order. If we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand and experience – then, we can experience and be near this reality of God throughout our lives. To be near God is everything. It gives life purpose and hope and renews our strength when we feel we have nothing left to life for, nothing left to live on, nothing left at all. To be near God is everything in life. I am convinced we can remain a lot nearer to God a lot more often than we have ever imagined before. I am convinced that it is more natural to do so, than not to do so. It is how we are made in our depths. And, if we will start living from the depths of our lives, and quit living out of the shallows of our lives, we will come to a more natural, less fabricated, way of living, and then one day we may say very simply what a lot of sane, genuine people who love life have said for centuries:

“For me, it is good to be near to God. . . ."

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I remember the words of John Donne: "There are light hours enough in each day for a man to complete his whole journey intended by Thee."

It makes me think of expectations. The expectations we have of ourselves, the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we think others have of us, and the expectations others think we have of them. And, that makes John Donne's words seem so wonderful, because these words reveal a way of freedom from all these expectations and anticipations of what is expected and suggest that there is an ultimately gracious expectation that overcomes all else - the expectation of God that we live within the gracious provisions and bounds set out for us that happen to be not what we expected or what others expected of us, but just what we need and desire in the depths of our being.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thinking About Preaching

Sunday after Sunday for most every Sunday for the past 22 years I have led or helped lead worship and preached a sermon to a group of people gathered for worship in a church. Since July of 2006, I have shared the preaching/worship leading with two other pastors, so that one time a month and sometimes two times a month I would not preach. But, preaching sermons is something that is just a part of my life.

Now that I am not going to be preaching this coming Sunday, I am stopping to think about preaching on this day when I would normally start thinking about what I would be preaching this coming Sunday.

Preaching has become for me the end of a process that I go through each week in which I engage in a reflection on different parts of the Scripture as these scriptures relate to my experience in life: both experiences I have had and experiences that are being formed in the present. But, it gets beyond the text of scriptures, or usually it does. At some point, I begin to feel some sense of engaging with a power beyond me; at some point, I begin to feel that I am finding some freedom from my own ideas, though I always must rely on my ideas to express what I am finding in this experience of the spirit.

At some point, if the process produces something that gives hope and begins to open a path of trsnformation in life, I end up finding that I am prone to assert my ideas, and in a strong sense, most every sermon on the first run or two simply has too much self-assertion in it. It is through working through this first one or two versions that I am working through my self towards something more than self. What I mean is that in the first round or two of writing sermons, I seem to usually have this desire to put forward a really sharp idea of mine or demonstrate something about a peculiar view I have or throw out a criticism or two of other's views. In the second round, I begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, if I really come to a sermon worth preaching, it is usually after I feel my self fading towards the end of the week in the sermon preparation process because I get so interested in communicating something about seeking a real transformation of our selves in faith that I lose a desire to assert or put forward my self and my ideas.

As I write these words, I realize that I usually don't get to "stage 3" of sermon preparations. Most of my sermons get preached somewhere in stage 2 and many have gotten preached while still in stage 1. But, these days, I am working harder until I get some freedom from self in this process. Last week, I worked hard but didn't quite get to clarity between two different messages from the passage in 2 Corinthians. I posted one sermon I had written out beforehand, but I had another one prepared as well. And, I couldn't find the one message that brought them together and I didn't feel like just preaching one or the other. So, I just stood up and tried to bring it together in my talking. I was doing well at first, but then I got off track by not letting the message I had started with carry on. I switched gears to the second message. Well, someone might have heard something worth hearing in the somewhat disjointed talk that highlighted two distinct parts of Paul's words without being able to find that powerful way of expressing the one message waiting to be preached.

So, did I fail on Sunday in the sermon? I don't think so. Because even though it lacked coherence, and certainly could have had a better movement and clearer theme, I did have my focus on communicating something to others that could really help us awaken to God's transforming reality in this world and in our lives. I think I am going to rewrite and repreach from that passage in the next Sunday I preach. Because I was on the way to somewhere and didn't arrive. I didn't break through to what I was getting a glimpse of. I am going to go back, work my way through the two different messages I had prepared and then revisit that passage, and see if I can get a clearer sense in my spirit what I kept being inspired by but could never quite express. There is a liberating word that I have just about seen and just about heard, but it slipped away right as I tried to grasp it, express it. Maybe I need to quit trying so hard and relax my spirit.

We Have This Treasure in Earthen Vessels: 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

“But, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Right before this passage, Paul has been celebrating the ministry God has given him and his co-workers. He writes in 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, vv. 5 & 6:
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said: “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

But, Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the truth of the Gospel is God’s truth and God’s possession, not Paul’s truth or something Paul can claim control over. So, Paul makes a point of clarifying who he is as a preacher of the Gospel.
He says: “But, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to the show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul was not called to preach his own ideas, or to simply preach about his own life or to put on display his personal talents. He was called to proclaim Christ, the Son of God, to the glory of God.
Paul says, as for me and my fellow ministers, we are just barely getting by; there is nothing terribly impressive about our lives, and certainly I don’t think many of you would want to go through what we are going through.

“For we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal flesh.”

With these words Paul is speaking of the history of his ministry – he was afflicted in every way. We know from other parts of scripture that he had to be passed over a city wall in a basket to escape being killed by authorities; other times, he was flogged with whips and put in prison; another time, he was stoned, and left for dead, and he speaks at the beginning of this letter of 2 Cors of having been close to death in Asia. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul speaks of some of these hardships. Now, maybe in our day, speaking of going through so much trouble might be seen as bragging about one’s endurance and wanting attention for how much suffering one had gone through. But, back in those days, that was not how you improved your reputation as an apostle and minister of the Gospel. In fact, all of these sufferings of Paul were reasons that he was criticized. The common view at that time was that any minister who had the real anointing of God would have the blessings of God in his physical and material life as well (and that view may still exist in our culture). A true apostle, it was said, would have been victorious and strong in body, because God’s Spirit would be with him at all times. Well, Paul got beaten, arrested, almost executed, and on top of that he apparently had a sickness that caused him to be very unimpressive in physical appearance. No, Paul wasn’t the impressive looking and sounding religious leader they longed for. He wasn’t living “the good life;” he wasn’t walking 10 feet above the ground untouched by the troubles and struggles of human life.

And, in this holy letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes the time to make one point very clearly:

And, I’ll circle back around with a second point: WHAT GOD DOES FOR ME COMES AS A BY-PRODUCT OF WHAT GOD DOES THROUGH ME.

The false religion that Paul is opposing was teaching that the Gospel was all about what God can do for me and you. The false religion was ashamed of human frailty; and preached that human beings that were struggling with confusion and ailments and all sorts of weaknesses and tragedies were not faithful to God. False religion takes success as a sure sign of God’s favor, and defeat and struggle as a sure sign of God’s rejection. Sometimes defeat does come to us because of our sin; and sometimes success comes to us because of our faithfulness; but so often good things don’t necessarily come to the holy; and bad things often come to the holy as well as to the unholy. Jesus gave a strong reminder of this when he spoke of God’s blessings come to the evil as well as to the good.

But, Paul takes us a lot deeper than we are able to go with thoughts from our culture. Because he avoids talking about why good things come to bad people; or why bad things come to good people and all that. Paul takes us to a deeper level and silences all these questions.

Because, all the sudden, if you follow Paul’s words here, you become concerned with God’s will and what you can do to serve that will on earth. All the sudden, I am not worrying about whether I can have this or that, because the point of life is not what I can get but what God can do through me.

But, this is not an easy step from moving from concerns over my personal happiness to moving from concerns over God’s ministry being accomplished through me for others. CAN YOU AND I REALLY MAKE THIS MOVEMENT IN OUR LIVES – IN OUR MINDS, HEARTS AND ACTIONS. CAN I COME TO UNDERSTAND MYSELF FIRST OF ALL AS A CHANNEL OF GOD’S GIFTS TO OTHERS MORE THAN AS A RECIPIENT OF GOD’S GIFTS FOR ME?

But, some of us might wonder: “What about me? When am I going to be taken care of? When am I going to be blessed?” Today, we are going to put that question off, because of the way our passage goes. That’s the second point, that I speak of at the end.

Listen to Paul’s language here about a light of God that has shined in his heart, a light that he is saving and healing that he is letting shine through him to others.
But, as I tend to do more these days, I want to know how it is going to work. How can we hear these words and take them into our hearts and lives and really experience this transformation from seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s gifts to seeing ourselves as channels of Gods’ gifts to others.

Maybe a simple story will help. As a child, I remember the excitement of expecting gifts at Christmas time. My overwhelming viewpoint as a child at Christmas was the viewpoint of the recipient – the one who was expecting and excited about getting some good things. As an adult, my viewpoint at Christmas changed very much on gifts, especially when I had children. Because, I began seeing myself as a provider of gifts and the real excitement was about the giving and joy in seeing my little children receiving.

I think about all of us can relate to that and understand that transformation. And, I think this helps us understand what this transformation of faith is all about in our lives. There is certainly a time to be the recipient of gifts and to enjoy them fully. But, the main role of our lives in faith is to be channels of grace and good things to others. There is a time for an emphasis on self and self-understanding, especially in the younger years; but, the main emphasis of our adult lives in faith is to be on others and understanding others. There is a time when we have to look after ourselves and sustain ourselves, but the main focus in our lives of faith is to be upon looking out for others and sustaining others.

For the Apostle Paul, his commitment to being a channel of God’s grace seems so complete that it might make us say: “Well, that’s because he was an apostle; I am just some regular human being struggling to make it day by day.” If we take Paul’s words that way, he would be very disappointed. Because, what he is really getting at in this passage is that he, like us, is full of weakness and struggle and subject to disruptions and sickness and worries, but that God’s Gospel continues to shine through him and sustain him because of the surpassing power of God in Jesus Christ. Paul’s point in this letter is that his sicknesses, his weaknesses, his lack of impressiveness as compared to other preachers, is no hindrance to God working through him. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 that he has learned that ‘God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.’

I know that we all need to receive some gifts and blessings – some good things in life. I know we all yearn for some fulfillment of our good desires in life. I wish all of that for you as well. But, our identity, our worth, our deepest satisfaction in life will never be in these experiences of receiving or in these experiences of getting good things. Paul is passing onto us the holiest of secrets – the real secret of life if we have hearts and minds to hear it and to understand. I am hearing it like a song in my ear that I like the sound of, but I just can’t seem to learn to sing it.

Maybe one other story might help. I had a big disappointment once in college, And, I was debating this in prayer to God – I guess I was really complaining in my sorrow. And, I heard a voice within that was very strong – that didn’t seem like it came from me at all and it said: YOU ARE NOT HERE TO BE SATISFIED, BUT TO OBEY ME. And, that flat ended the complaining, the praying and the pity party. It was like a jolt of reality. I haven’t had many things happen that clearly to me in my life, but that one has stuck with me.

Maybe the way of faith that Paul is speaking of is not so hard to understand. How often have you experienced in life that you can only really help another person if you can get that other person interested in helping others? If you can help them focus with you on a good work that gets them to look outside self and become part of something with others. That is one way of understanding what God’s Spirit is doing for us.

And, that brings me to the second point I mentioned above. What about our happiness? What about you and me? Sure, this sounds wonderful about being a channel of God’s grace to others. And, yes, being in the role of giving gifts is a very inviting role. But, I know myself. I know that I have some real needs and desires. I know they aren’t going away. But, the best I know at this point in my life, our genuine needs get met on the other side of becoming a channel of grace and perhaps in some different ways than we would have expected and without us even trying to get these things. And, there is probably a good reason for this. My guess is that we do not understand our real needs until we are on the other side of commitment to God. Jesus did say to his disciples: “You father knows you need all these things; but seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” Again, Jesus said: “He who gives up his life for my sake will find it.” The only way I know to be happy is to give up seeking happiness and seek to serve God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. When obeying God becomes our first commitment, things start falling into place a little at a time..Like I say, it’s a song I can hear playing in my ear that I can’t sing, but I can’t help listening. It’s a beautiful song. Someday, I am going to learn to sing it; Someday we are all going to learn to sing it in our living fully for the glory of God. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

By Faith: Sermon on Clifford Ross Scholarship Sunday

Hebrews 11:23-28

“By Faith”

The Egyptians became threatened by the growing minority population of Hebrew people. It was a cruel time long ago in Egypt when Pharoah, king of Egypt, ordered that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed. They didn’t have sonograms back then; they didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl until the little one came out of the mother’s womb. So,every birth among the Hebrews of that time was surrounded with more than the usual worries and fears of child birth. There was a death sentence if you were a Hebrew baby boy or if you were someone hiding a Hebrew baby boy – that would get you the death sentence as well.

It was a cruel time. And, one day in that time over 3,000 years ago in Egypt, a Hebrew woman gave birth to a son, and she and the father of the child vowed that they would do everything in their power to save the life of this beautiful baby boy. The scriptures say: “By faith the parents of Moses hid the child for three months; seeing the child was beautiful, they were not afraid of the edict of the king.”

They hid him out as long as they could, but the authorities were always coming around trying to find baby boys among the Hebrews – to kill them. And, one day, they knew they were about to be found out, and so the parents waterproofed a basket the best they could, placed the little baby boy in the basket and hid the basket along the shallows of the Nile River among the plants. They hid him in the bulrushes.

But, they didn’t just leave him there alone. His grown sister sat a distance away to keep watch. And, when she saw Pharoah’s daughter coming to bathe, she saw that Pharoah’s daughter had compassion on her baby brother. And, then she walked forward and Pharoah’s daughter said: “Please find me a nurse among the Hebrew women; I am going to save this boy and raise this boy in my house when he is weaned.”

And, she named the baby boy, Moses, meaning “drawn out of the water.” Moses’ family defied the king’s edict to save the child’s life. By faith, they acted. And, they used their minds to form a plan that would work. They hid him out precisely in the place where Pharoah’s daughter bathed. They must have known she was as kind as her father was cruel.

It was a cruel bondage in those days. It was such a struggle just to preserve your life and the life of your children if you were a Hebrew slave. And, God heard the cries of his people, and God came down to deliver them from their bondage in Egypt bringing them out across the Red Sea to freedom. Our scripture says: “By faith, Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to share the illtreatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Through Moses’ faithfulness, God delivered the Hebrew people.

And, the first thing God did for his people when they were free is that he began to educate them by giving them instructions about how to honor God and show respect for each other. Liberation and education. They go hand in hand. You have to educate to liberate; you have to liberate to educate. God knew that if his people didn’t learn how to live together, their freedom would once again turn into a type of bondage.

For a people to be free they have to be free on the outside and on the inside.
Bob Marley used to sing: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”

God spoke through Moses teaching his people, opening their minds to a clear way of thinking about life. He began to teach them how to understand the culture they lived in, how to understand themselves and each other; God taught the people a holy way to live in the world. You shall have no other gods before me. Don’t bow down to idols. Don’t take the holy name of God in vain. Keep the Sabbath rest. Honor your parents. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t tell lies about each other. Don’t envy your neighbor.

The Hebrew people had been in bondage. Now they were to learn what free people must learn – how to use their own minds to comprehend and shape their own destiny on earth.

At the heart of the faith of Israel were the written and spoken words of the prophets and the words of the law. The people of Israel were to learn these words by heart so that their minds would be awakened and able to understand the challenges of life. God liberated them from their external bondage, and God was educating them to liberate themselves from their internal bondage (from a mind that was asleep and could be fooled, to a mind that was awake and coming to wisdom).

At the heart of every social revolution that brings justice and freedom is education, and the awakening of the mind. Because education brings self-respect and with knowledge also comes power. In the Reformation in Europe, the words of scripture were translated into the language the people could understand so that they could comprehend the Biblical message in their own minds. So that the people would not be kept in the dark but come into the light. Jesus had once said: “they will know the truth and the truth will set them free.”

In the Civil Rights Movement, leaders emerged, and among those leaders none was greater than M.L. King, Jr. He was an intellectual, received his Ph.D in philosophy from Boston University. He studied modern theories of Biblical Interpretation and understood philosophies of social change from Marx to Ghandi’s non-violent revolution in India. And, though many people don’t know as much about Malcolm X’s intellectual training, he also was one who loved to learn and awakened to the power of knowledge. Malcolm X educated himself while serving a prison term as a young man. You don’t have to be in college to learn. Books are everywhere and accessible. Malcolm X said his alma mater was “Books.” But, he didn’t become deeply interested in learning until some religious men in prison taught him that he was a child of God, cared for and valued by God. M.L. King Jr. was raised in a household that reminded him daily that he was a child of Almighty God and that no one could ever take that from him.

It is this first great lesson that is the foundation of life, and the foundation of learning. Once a child experiences in his or her heart that he or she is truly a child of God, cared for and valued by God – once that living faith takes root, then a child can truly discover his abilities, gifts, dreams in life. Then a child can awaken to the desire to learn and engage in life in a positive and creative way.
So long as young people don’t know that they have ultimate worth because God values them, then young people can come to feel worthless in this world. And, when a young person feels worthless then they can be manipulated and fooled, and when you feel worthless, you just don’t appreciate your abilities or respect the importance of learning and education.

When you feel worthless you do worthless things, are interested in worthless pursuits, and hang out with people who share that sense of worthlessness.
So, as a young person comes to have a true belief that they are loved and valued by God, he becomes able or she becomes able to see that they can do many things. But first of all, a person needs to understand that they are able to learn, and we all are. And, to be able to learn as human beings are able is a truly amazing thing. Until this respect and love of learning is awakened a person doesn’t truly come alive.

Moses knew he was a child of God. And, God taught Moses that his fellow Hebrews were children of God. Moses was called to awaken his fellow Hebrews to this knowledge. And, God called Moses to take action in the world on the basis of this knowledge. And, Moses did. He knew who he was, and he learned what he was to do in life. That is what every human being needs. To know who he or she is, and to discover what he or she can do well in life. This is the goal of real learning and using the mind. The human ability to learn is an amazing thing.

It is this appreciation of God’s gift of learning and education that brings us to emphasize the work of the Clifford Ross Scholarship which is given each year to support and encourage learning among college bound male senior basketball players at Austin-East. Mr. Ross had a concern that young people truly become strong and good citizens, and he knew that a commitment to education was one of the most important things in developing into a good and capable person. And, Mr. Ross knew that these young men he taught and coached needed some encouragement and support to get over the internal and external barriers to achievement in our society. He had grown up and faced these barriers that were very heavy at times for black youth, and perhaps continue to be heavy for different reasons in our time especially for young black men.

Howard Thurman said that there are two basic questions that a human being needs to be able to answer deep down in his or her soul:
1) Who am I?
2) What am I?

The first question is about a sense of belonging in the world. And, Thurman says Jesus great answer for all human beings is: “You are a child of God, cared for and valued by God.”

The second question is about a sense of achievement and accomplishment in life. What am I? What am I able to do? And, Thurman says that unless a person finds a way to achieve and accomplish something in life, he or she is likely to begin to doubt whether he or she really belongs in this world, whether she or he really has worth as a person. We have spoken a good word to our youth, saying , “You are loved by God and us; you belong.” But, it seems we are not doing enough to help our youth realize their value as we don’t seem to be helping them get over those barriers to achievement and purpose in society. And, those barriers are a less visible than in former days, but still strong.

Erik Erikson was a famous psychologist that had a theory of human development. He teaches that the first two stages of human development are Trust v. Mistrust (that is when a child learns to either trust his environment or distrust it by virtue of how he is treated by those who care for him); and Autonomy v. Shame and Doubt (that is when a child learns whether his will is valued by others or not). And then the third stage is Industry v. Inferiority (that is when a child begins to learn tasks and skills and achieves a certain sense of competency or comes to a feeling of incompetency/inferiority). There is really some wisdom in this analysis of Erikson. A child learns a sense of belonging and value through those who care for him and how they care for him. A child learns a sense of industry or inferiority based on how he or she is able to perform certain meaningful tasks, how he or she is able to learn or not learn.

These are some basic points about human development. We would do well to get back to basics in the way we care for and teach and support our young people.
What human beings need is a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. A family and friends can certainly give a sense of belonging. But, a sense of accomplishment can’t be given to you by someone else. It can be encouraged and supported by someone else. But, it has to be achieved by you. And, the foundation of a strong sense of accomplishment in life is to develop the mind, to learn and come to understand how to learn and how to live. If you cultivate your ability to learn, your ability to learn will grow and bless your life and the life of others. Because you can learn what others have done; you can learn what others have thought, and then you begin to do and think on your own and teach others as well.

If you go through life without awakening to the powers of learning that you have been given, you are like a plane without a pilot. The pilot of a human life is the mind. If your mind is the captain, the one to direct your movements in life – if that pilot is asleep or not wise, well, you are in trouble. To fail to learn what you are able to learn is to devalue your own life, and to in a sense doom yourself to underachievement. Now, we are all called to learn what we are able to learn, and if we do, that will be enough knowledge to be what we are to be in God’s good will for our lives.

We can do better in our society and in our churches and even in our homes with our children. Our children have these minds that are so capable. But, are they developing these minds? That is a question I send you away with. If our children aren’t reading books or aren’t interested in reading books, then how will they develop their minds? (a short educational video or a short blip on the internet about something are not a substitute for reading books – whole books, but any reading is better than none). It takes a confidence that you can understand, and it takes a desire to understand to read books. And, it takes an imagination. If our children aren’t learning what we feel they should be learning in school, why aren’t they? If our youth don’t think it is a good thing to be a good student, why don’t they? These are questions not just about young people but about us, those who are responsible for encouraging and educating young people.

Malcolm X writes in his autobiography:

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened up to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

pp. 206-207, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s own liberation came on the inside – in his own mind - before he was released from prison. And, he never went back to prison. When he got out, he was a new man. He had a new life. He had a mind awakened. From a man who could barely read and write, he came to be a man who debated with Harvard professors and more than held his own. Education is one of the greatest ways to freedom. For all of us, those words of Bob Marley bear repeating: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” A mind asleep is a mind enslaved. True education, the awakening of the mind, is a glorious freedom.

By faith, we learn who we are. We are children of God. By faith, we learn what we can do in life. One thing we can surely do as human beings is keep learning until the day we die.

Glory be to God who has created humanity in God’s own image and has blessed us with the ability to learn and to think and plan and discuss and create. May we honor this gift of God in the way that we live and learn and teach others, and especially as we encourage our young people.

By faith, Moses’ parents risked everything that he might survive. By their wisdom which came of faith, they figured out a way that he might not just survive but thrive. By faith, let us give of our time and energy to protect the young. And, let us learn so that in our wisdom we can teach them, not only how to survive, but how to thrive.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 73: Wrestling with Envy

Psalm 73: “Wrestling with Envy”

The Psalm writer remembers a time when he was worn out with the unfairness of life. He remembers a time when his mind was riddled with doubt. He says: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart, but as for me, my feet had nearly slipped, I had almost tripped and fallen . . .”

But, what had happened to cause this holy man to fall into a place of doubt and trouble? What happens in our lives to make us fall into a place of spiritual struggle?

For this man who surely spoke for many men and women of Israel, it was a painful struggle with envy and a painful struggle with the unfairness of life.

Have you ever looked around and noticed that there are a good number of people that seem to get many of the good things of life even though they continue to do a lot of bad things towards other people? There was a book written about 20 years ago entitled: “Why bad things happen to good people.” This Psalm is concerned about that, but the title of these complaints would be: “Why Do Such Good Things Happen to Such Bad People?” That’s what really filled the Psalmist soul in his time of trouble. “Why Do The Best Things Seem to Happen to Some of the Worst People?”
And, then he takes us back into that time of trouble. His mind goes back to that time of bitterness and he begins speaking like he did back in that past time of trouble. Here is what he was talking like back then:

“These proud and wicked people suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound; they don’t have to share in the misfortunes that the rest of us bear in life. They wear their pride and arrogance like a necklace for all to see. They wrap their violence around them like a cloak. Their sins arise from corrupt minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts. They make fun of others and enjoy hurting others with the way they talk. They are conceited and they make plans to exclude and deprive others of their rights.”

This holy man gets all worked up again recalling this state of mind and soul when he was so overwhelmed with complaining and so sick of the evil people getting the good things in life while the righteous were struggling to just get by.

Truth was, he was complaining to God, and angry in his soul. The Psalms contain many complaints showing that true prayer often contains complaints as part of the song of faith. Of course, as the Psalm writer shows us, if the complaining spirit continues to turn to the Holy God, something more happens in the heart and in the soul. Something more than just complaining.

And, though we are going to be involved in complaining in our hearts and minds and conversations and even prayers at times, we get tired when we get to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT. Because once that complaining spirit takes over within us, it alienates others from us. Now, we know everybody has got to complain some in life. And, if someone never complains, we may think they are putting on an act in life. But, we do get tired of being around someone who complains all the time about things being unfair to that person. And, we start complaining about our friend complaining so much, who may in turn be complaining about someone else who complains so much. But, surely we all do have some serious complaints in our hearts and minds, whether we speak them or not.

Because we can’t help but wonder at times in life why one person is given so many advantages and another person is not; why it is such a struggle for one child to get a decent education while an education just seems to come as a matter of course for other children. We may wonder why some seem to find a good man or good woman so easily while that is something we can’t ever seem to find. We may wonder why some of our good desires in life don’t ever seem to get fulfilled. We may wonder why someone we love and care about so much just has such a struggle to get by in life while others just breeze by as if living was the easiest thing in the world to do.
And, when those complaints reach a point of deep bitterness, it gets hard for us to do anything positive in life. When we fall to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT, it gets for us like it was for the Psalmist. He says: “I had reached a breaking point. I turned to God and said: ‘In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence. I have been troubled all day long and beat down each morning as if I had done evil.”

I remember conversations over the years with parents who had children, small children, who were suffering from debilitating, irreversable diseases. I remember these parents talking about their struggle to keep their will to live and work and stay strong for their child and families in the face of such a tragic reality.

I think of these parents as I think on this Psalm. Who knows, our Psalm writer might have had a child like that. And, I think of all of us who deal with our own disappointment and worries and struggles in life and are tempted to just give up and give up caring as much because life seems unfair. And, then I remember what happened to the Psalmist one day. He says: “Had I gone on in this complaining spirit, I should have betrayed the generation of your children.” He knew he had to pass on more than a complaining/bitter spirit to his children. He says: “When I tried to understand it all – why things like this continue to happen – it was too much for me to understand

UNTIL . . .


He says: “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart . . . (I was hurt by the disappointment and worry and sorrow of life) . . . it was as if my mind and heart were numb . . ..”

But, when he went into the sanctuary, something happened to his mind and heart. He experienced the reality of God, the presence of God. It is a mystery what happened when he went into worship.

But, he came out saying TO GOD: “Yet, however low I had sunk in my heart, I am always with you; you hold my right hand. You will guide me by your counsel, and afterwards receive me with glory. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

What happened? How was this holy man who had about lost his way transformed from having a complaining, bitter spirit to having a greatful, trusting spirit?

When he was alone, he surely had the chance to pray and read the scripture. Why was it so important to him to go to the sanctuary of God? Certainly, he could have had a transforming experience of God when he was alone or with one or two others. But, for this man, his transformation came in worshipping God with others in the sanctuary.

And, I can only begin to guess what happened. I am thinking today that it has something to do with looking around and seeing and feeling other human beings coming before God and really praising God. Maybe the real antidote to a bitter and envious spirit is to experience the truth that there are a good number of human beings who do want something better for this world, who are sorry for hurting others when they do, and who really yearn for God’s justice on earth. To hear other human voices raised in praise OR to see other human heads bowed in confession is sometimes to experience the presence of God in human flesh. It is a mystery of grace in human community.

Or, it may have been something he observed as he walked into the sanctuary one day. He may have walked in and seen the devotion and commitment of those who kept things going in the temple. . . like I did last week. I came into the sanctuary on Friday evening – day 5 of Vacation Bible School – and I was tired from the work day in court. And, I was frustrated by it, and angry about some of it, in a complaining spirit. And, I look over and noticed two women from our church, both of them in their 80’s who were cheerfully working their fifth evening in a row of Vacation Bible School, caring enough about passing on something to the children to do what it takes. And, that hopeful determination and belief in the next generation lifted my spirit, encouraged me.

It is my guess that something like that happened to the Psalmist that day he went to worship. Maybe some other human being looked him in the eyes and showed him love. He may have experienced reconciliation with someone he was estranged from. He heard some other people singing God’s praises with a pure heart; repenting of sin with a broken spirit; and felt embraced by something greater than them. Yes, we can experience the presence of God powerfully when we are alone, but for those of us who have well nigh slipped and fallen as we so often do, there is something powerful and mysterious about coming together to worship with other human beings – human beings who are struggling just as we are but who continue to find a way to praise the living God. And, then we can say together: “MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.“ It is my hope that whatever struggles you have, that you are able to find these words in the depths of your heart – MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.