This afternoon I returned from a refreshing two days in the woods a little south west of Raleigh, where I had the privilege of helping to lead a retreat for some Presbyterian ministers.
I plan to write a more detailed blog tomorrow, but I wanted to post this short reflection today – both as a word of gratitude to God, and a testimony of encouragement for those who don’t quite understand how deeply spiritual, thoughtful, and faithful these clergy are.
They are good men and women, serving God and God’s people with creativity and imagination while recognizing their own need for a deeper spiritual walk. You don’t get to be a Presbyterian minister without cultivating a practical, undeniable faith, investing in several years of graduate study, engaging a rigorous discernment process, jumping through a lot of hoops, talking with many people about the clarity of your calling, and demonstrating an unusual level of commitment.
Consequently the sincerity of the conversations, the depth of prayer, the clarity of insight, and the authenticity of spiritual sensitivity was inspirational to me as a leader. These pastors are rooted in God’s word and they take their faith and their ministry very seriously.
The bottom line is that teaching is an interactive experience, and if I managed to achieve anything at all during my lectures and (more importantly) the frequent and meaningful one-on-one conversations, then it’s because the participants in the retreat were 100% receptive.
Jesus told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?” – Matthew 26:38-40
Jerusalem is an amazing place. On one hand it’s a truly modern international city, teeming with people from all over the world – and on the other it’s easy to wander into an ancient quarter and find yourself transported in time to the First Century, Roman occupation, and the life of Jesus.
It’s not just the sites, the archaeology, the artifacts, and the museums, but the spirit of the place that speaks so clearly. The evidence of The Greatest Story Ever Told goes deeper than the excavations, Hezekiah’s tunnel, David’s palace, the Wailing Wall, walking on the same paved surface Jesus and the disciples walked outside the temple, the Pool of Bethesda, the Mount of Olives, the Via Dolorosa, or even The Garden Tomb.
The effect is cumulative, a kind of density, the weight of all the stories. Whatever it is, you can feel it, and maybe nowhere more profoundly than Gethsemane; the garden where Jesus went to pray after that last dinner party with his closest friends; the sanctuary where The Prince of Peace was arrested by the religious police; the place where Christ’s anguish, and commitment, and love came together in a prayer that still resonates today: “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
The garden where Jesus went to pray after that last dinner party with his closest friends;
The sanctuary where The Prince of Peace was arrested by the religious police;
The place where Christ’s anguish, and commitment, and love came together in a prayer that still resonates today: “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Scientists have dated some of the ancient olive trees at well over two thousand years. And there, across from the old city of Jerusalem, I was able to sit on the stony ground and lean against a tree that Jesus himself may have leaned against on that awful, blessed night.
I imagine that – deep in the heart of that particular tree and resonating in the prehistoric stones – are the literal echoes of the Teacher’s courageous words. Words addressed to all who listened then and who listen still, to every person willing to grasp the timelessness of God’s intention and the integrity of Jesus’ willing sacrifice…
Jesus was flesh and blood, human being – faced with the horror of torment, shame, and painful death. Jesus was and is God made flesh so that he could bear the burden of our shortcomings. And he did this voluntarily, with his eyes wide open, of his own free will… (Excerpt from Reaching Toward Easter, pp 124-125)
And so on this day, Thursday of Holy Week, my mind always wanders back to Gethsemane, to the Mount of Olives, to that wondrous view of the old city from the place where Jesus thought of me, loved me, and chose to die in order that I might live.
Today those ancient trees are fenced off from the touch of casual tourists, and I am grateful to have been there at a time when I could literally sit on the ground and lean into the ancient wood.
But we all can lean into the ancient arms, the everlasting arms, and feel the embrace of pure goodness and unselfish love. That’s what I’ll be doing this evening when I meet with my church family for communion. Leaning on the everlasting arms.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. – John 1:14
Today, late in a year that’s been racing along at a giddying rate, marks the first Sunday in Advent. In other words, the traditional season of expectation – or preparation for Christmas – is under way.
(I love this time of the year so much I wrote a whole book about it – In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent. If you’re looking for a devotional book to read, day by day, a gift, or something to read with friends, I recommend the updated 2016 edition, just $11.99 at Amazon.)
Telling the Story:
Regardless of how Rebekah feels physically, Saturday afternoon we simply had to begin the process of decorating. So we cleaned like crazy, dusted every reachable surface, and pulled just a enough seasonal accenting down from the attic to get the ball rolling.
We’re keeping it simple this year, eschewing the usual tidal wave of Christmas bling in favor of more subtle reminders that point to the story. Because the story is all that really counts in the final analysis, and if I achieve anything over the next four weeks I want it to be a consistent and compelling rendition of the narrative, so that more people will be encouraged to enter into the story themselves.
You see it’s a story that’s also an invitation. It’s an invitation to live into God’s initiative as a participant, rather than stand on the outside looking in. Oh, it’s a beautiful tableau all right, but it’s not meant for pressing out noses up against the glass and moving on, it’s intended to be interactive; it’s intended for living.
The Greatest Story Ever Told presents a truth it’s all too easy to race past without even considering, in our frenetic compulsion to shop, decorate, shop, party, and shop some more between now and the helter-skelter countdown to Christmas Eve. And besides, if we have the Prince of Peace, if we understand the extent of God’s love, then we have everything – nothing else even begins to come close….
So welcome to this the first day of Advent. I’d like to invite you on a journey, a walk through December, a walk to Bethlehem, one hesitant footfall at a time till at last we reach the inn together, and enter into the courtyard to discover a manger, and there meet Jesus. Not to look into the scene from the outside, but to fall on our knees before the newborn King.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. – Isaiah 61:3-4
I love trees. Given the choice between a nice, sunny expanse of lawn, and lots of trees, I’ll take the trees any time. I really appreciate living in the middle of a heavily wooded area like Wake Forest, where the house is shaded and the view is constantly changing with the seasons.
I still remember the feeling of awe my first time in Northern California, standing in front of the Giant Redwoods and the Giant Sequoias. It’s almost as if they communicate deep truths just by being. Something about them speaks – whispers really – of the timelessness of creation, of the stature of God’s amazing work, and of the simple privilege of being a part of such a wondrous world.
So I hate it when a tree in our garden has to come down. Yesterday we had two large pine trees removed, one because it was dead (better for us to chose the timing and the direction of its inevitable fall) – and the other because it’s lifting our driveway to the extent that people fall down and car undercarriages are scraped.
Sad, yes, but also very interesting to watch the tree experts do their work. Mr. Nelson took down one tree standing in a cherry-picker, and climbed the largest one like it was a ladder. The trees came down a section at a time, each log shaking the ground as it hit.
I took several photographs, and I’ll include the best ones here because they’re really cool….
…But the real reason I’m sharing this story is because it made me think of the Isaiah passage above. No, we didn’t lose any oak trees, but the idea of being a solid witness to God’s justice and righteousness has already been on my mind – ever since our big anniversary celebration at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church.
You see, the body of Christ has this constant opportunity to stand witness to God’s reconciling initiatives of love and grace – oaks of righteousness with a mission to put right the devastations… Alternatively – and too often – The Christian Church tells another story, a story that discourages, alienates, and builds walls between people and the wide-open love of Jesus.
I want to be – as the prophet writes – a repairer of ruined cities, and one who helps to put right the devastations of many generations.
This is what we are up to as followers of the living Way of Jesus. Let us be oaks of justice and righteousness, truth-tellers who point the way to the kingdom, a church that stands as an invitation and a community of joy!
Fragmented thoughts today, I know, but it’s been a very difficult week, and I need to be engaging the bigger picture, the story we have been chosen for, and called to live – DEREK
And the servant said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the servant, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” – Luke 14:22-23
I have a lot of stuff I could write about this afternoon. John’s excellent message at church, the helpful discussion we had around Christ’s Transfiguration in my discipleship class, or some important thoughts I’ve been exploring regarding the relationship of freedom to trust.
Those are all worthwhile, but the most important piece of reporting I can offer comes from the poignant sense of frustration and disappointment Rebekah is feeling today because she wasn’t able to be in church with the community she loves so deeply.
PAIN HURTS: This is important for several reasons. First, because it comments on the extent to which severe pain can impact every detail of life. We often discount the cost of pain because it is difficult to imagine in someone else, because it is so personal. Pain is not something you can see on an MRI – even though I looked at Rebekah’s imaging, and I could see exactly where her disk is, how it impacts her spine, and what it is doing.
Pain beyond a tolerable threshold is completely debilitating. Pain arrests movement, it demolishes rest, it alters metabolism, it affects thinking. This is not me being morose, or gloomy, so much as it is a PSA (public service announcement). We likely see people in pain every day – both physical and emotional – and yet we tend to evaluate every interaction through the perspective of our own demands, or own wants, our own agenda, our own self focus.
Recognizing the reality of other people’s pain can go a long way toward contributing to their healing.
COMMUNITY: Then, Rebekah’s reaction to missing worship today reminds me of how wonderful it is to be in a vibrant community of faith. According to recent Gallup reports, less than twenty percent of Americans attend church with any regularity. People don’t believe or understand that they’re missing out, because they don’t have any reference point to compare with! “Oh, they’ll come back to church when they start to miss it,” is irrelevant for 80% of the population!
Being a committed part of a worshiping, loving, serving community of believers is a beautiful and nourishing experience. But people who haven’t experienced this kind of community won’t miss it when they don’t come! Therefore it is incumbent on those of us who know enough to miss church like crazy when we’re not there, to do all we can to share this richness, this joy, this connection with God with all the creative imagination we can muster.
If you have more than enough food and there are people starving, then you invite them in to eat; it’s a no-brainer. There are people starving for meaning, and purpose, and joy – a restored relationship with God – and we have the words of eternal life…
Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life….” – John 6:66-68
I pray all people understand that a beautiful expression of God’s nurturing love is waiting for them in their local church. Fact is, it will be that much better because you are there.
You don’t have to wait until you first believe, you simply have to come home.
He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. – 1 Peter 1:20-21
A couple of days ago I got home from my early morning Bible study, parked my VW, hung up the keys, then dumped what I’d been carrying on the counter before pouring a cup of coffee and taking it to Rebekah.
When I came back into the kitchen a little later I noticed the pile, and it grabbed my attention. What I’d been carrying around had been my iPhone, my wallet, my iPad, and my Bible.
The Bible was holding everything else up. Not only that, but it was nicely reflected in the granite counter-top. God’s word literally inhabiting the stone.
So I thought about the concept of Christ the solid rock – “On Christ the solid rock I stand – all other ground is sinking sand” – and the fact that so many of the biblical metaphors (and, yes dear literalists, there is a lot of metaphor in the Bible) use rock, ground, foundation, cornerstone, and more; the gravitational pull of truth, the immovable and irrevocable certainty of God’s great love for us.
But then I remembered a passage that demonstrates the fact that Jesus taught well beyond the limits of even the most solid earth-bound metaphors, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The words of The Living Word hold truth that is more solid and more durable than absolutely anything we can see, touch, smell, taste, or feel.
My iPhone is a piece of technology that can be rendered completely useless in a heartbeat; I use the iPad mostly for reading things that disappear when some digital anomaly strikes; even my wallet now has RFID blocker technology built in…
And then there’s my Bible. Smarter than the smartest smartphone; more complete than all the Amazon libraries my iPad taps into; more secure than the digitally loaded cards I carry in my wallet – and it keeps me (ultimately) secure from identity theft, because God knows me, uniquely and completely.
It’s important to understand that the truth about God may be rock solid, but it stands outside and beyond earth, time, and space. Before the words that make up our Bible were written, The Living Word – aka Jesus – existed as part of the Godhead – “Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
I like the way the rock metaphor is modified in Psalm 46, verses 2-4:
…Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…
Even solid rocks can crumble. Even mountains fall into the sea. Everything we rely on outside of God has the potential to fail us, fall apart, disintegrate, vanish, vaporize… But, there is a river. And this river is another metaphor, a metaphor for the constancy of God, and God’s love, God’s fluidity – even beyond the confines of this broken world.
That’s what is reflected in the granite counter-top. Not even the physical Bible, the pages and the printed words – but the transcending fact of God, and the truth that Jesus promises us full lives in himself, The Living Word; a truth not merely chiseled into granite, but more foundational still.
If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. Save me, for I am yours… – Psalm 119:92-94
I’d like to pick up on a position I advanced in yesterday’s post (“Speaking Up“), and invest a little thought in some counterpoint. Not so much in opposition to my thinking, but as a way to expand the conversation and make sense of the tension that exists between reformation and tradition; between the New Testament and the Old; between freedom in Christ and devotion to religious code; between – ultimately – grace and the law.
I may be guilty of being cavalier sometimes in my dismissive approach to the religious right, political evangelicalism, and fundamentalism, but I also recognize the importance and the beauty of laws and principles.
I quoted from Psalm 119 because the entire poem stands as a deeply moving representation of love and respect for God’s law. But – and by way of clarification – so does Matthew 15:
Jesus said: “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”
My point here is that I believe we easily misread the purpose, the intention, and the true nature of what we understand as God’s Law. Let me explain: God purposes to restore an authentic relationship with each one of us; reconciliation is written into the heart of every divine initiative recorded in scripture. The reason the law exists, then, is not to create a chasm of separation between the Creator and the creation, but to navigate the road back.
But the law did not achieve this end. In fact, the law became an end to itself, enslaving people in its details and becoming a legalistic exercise in futility.
One thing the law did achieve, however, was to illustrate the impossibility of building a tower of rules and regulations high enough that we could climb it, pat ourselves on the back, and step into God’s Kingdom. Instead, and as Paul so clearly quoted Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Or, in the words of Romans 8:1-3a,“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son…”
The purpose of the Bible – both testaments – is to tell the story of how a people wrestled with God’s call to redemption, and how a person, finally, became our redemption.
Jesus – just like the law – invites us into relationship with God;
Jesus – unlike the law – offers an elegant solution: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:9-10).
This is an invitation absolutely anyone can accept. Any person – without exception and without demonstrable credentials in law-keeping – is welcome to walk with Jesus.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. – Psalm 23
A walk in the park:
Monday morning, our grandson David – the newly minted five-year-old – marched happily into school while the rest of us made our way to Maymont Park in Richmond. It was a warm, sun-soaked day, and the pictures (captured by my Nikon DSLR) look entirely different from the iPhone 5 images taken on the September excursion with my aunt and uncle (click here for those photos).
The beginnings of fall color only offered a hint of the glory to come (I’ll have to return in November); but the trees were beautiful, the Japanese gardens were delightful, and Naomi’s family is, as always, photogenic.
For me, wandering slowly through these beautiful gardens was a kind of spiritual meditation. I didn’t formally engage in prayer or contemplation, but serenity accompanied me as a constant undercurrent, integrating God’s presence through the experience as an unstated truth.
Of course, one could argue that the fact of God is always an integral part of any experience, acknowledged or not, believer, agnostic, or atheist. But I have come to appreciate the fact that it is different when we have chosen faith, when we learn to consciously rest in God, when we intentionally walk with God, when we cultivate that relationship. Then, even when we are not necessarily thinking spiritually, we are living spiritually, and the apprehension of divinity resides so close to the surface that it colors everything we experience.
So God was speaking to me as I watched Beks walk along, holding her grandmother’s hand; God was nurturing me when I looked through the lens of my camera and caught a moment of natural harmony; God was filling my heart with love when I focused my telephoto on Craig, Naomi, and Beks, crossing the stepping stones; God was smiling, God was refreshing me, God was reminding me – is reminding me – that life is fundamentally good.
Be Still and Know:
This is a constant refrain I tend to sing, but we still forget so easily – so willfully. God wants us to cultivate stillness as a routine part of our lives of faith.
How can we pray if we have not first quieted our minds? How can we grow in the knowledge of God if we fail to take the time to listen? How can we be renewed, refreshed, and restored if we constantly immerse ourselves in noise, and rush, and clutter?
Quiet your souls, friends. Stop. Stop wherever you are, and repeat these words slowly and deliberately:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me…– Psalm 23
Quiet your souls. Be still, and know that God is God. Allow yourself to be filled up with the peace that passes human understanding. Give God the space and the time to refresh your soul….
Last week I posted a story about “live-streaming” 9:00 worship at our church. There was a large response, and a lot of enthusiasm. Rebekah’s opening message on The fruit of the Spirit touched a lot of people on a deep level, including hundreds who were unable to attend WFPC that day. So, of course, nobody did the live stream the next Sunday!
However, the audio version is very clear and already available. Rebekah’s second message in the series,Fruit of the Spirit – Joy and Peace, was just posted, and it communicates beautifully. If you missed the first, on love, you can listen to both:
First, this was a communion service. Our church practices “open communion,” where all are welcome at the table. This mirrors the invitational and non-exclusive thrust of the Gospel of Love. As a church we feel challenged not just to welcome without judgment, but to live an invitational witness to love in every place and circumstance,
Then, I’m encouraging readers to listen to these messages for the exact same reason Rebekah is preaching them. We live in a world that is crying out for help, but is – at the same time – deeply confused about the message of the Christian faith.
This twenty-first century is in turmoil, both internationally and domestically; so our opportunity, as followers of the Way – our responsibility, is to live an authentic witness to the saving grace of Jesus.
The pain, the angst, the confusion, and the dysfunction; the general “lostness” of people addicted to possessions, pleasure, and power; the disillusion of finding that satisfaction and joy are always out of reach – all this demand a response from people of faith.
“We definitely need to respond,” Rebekah said; “not cynically, but spiritually… if in fact this is the world in which we strive to have abundant lives in Christ. Where is the evidence?… where is the fruit of the Spirit?… Where and how is the transformational power of Christ being made manifest through us?”
And that is the crux of the challenge. So many of us respond cynically instead of spiritually. If being disciples of Jesus sets up a transformational dynamic, then where is the evidence!
Being the church is about transformation:
This conversation carried over into the monthly men’s leadership phone conversation I’m a part of, Tuesday evening. “How does our faith in Christ translate into real change in the people and the systems we live with and in?” Jack asked us.
Jesus did not invite us to build faith communities designed to keep us comfortable, smug, and protected from the world around us. Jesus invited us to “be the church!”
Being the church is all about transforming the world by living in the world as redeemed, forgiven, motivated, passionate, equipped-by-Jesus, agents of change.
You’ve gotta love the way this is parsed in the letter to the Colossians. I’ll leave you with this today: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” – Colossians 2:20
(Don’t miss either of the messages – click here. Then come to church next Sunday to enjoy the next one in person….)
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. – John 16:33
I understand there’s going to be a lot written today in response to the fifteenth anniversary of Nine-Eleven. So I don’t want to clutter up the blogosphere with anything lengthy or irrelevant.
Instead, I’m sharing these few words about the only possible solution we have to a situation that – in many respects – remains an active, ongoing crisis.
Listen to the words of Jesus from John’s account of The Last Supper.“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
There has been a lot of purposeful activity since Nine-Eleven, designed to defeat evil and to facilitate peace in this world. Wars have been started, nations occupied, rebellions facilitated, revolutions financed, towns and villages bombed, invasions sanctioned, killings ordered, torture justified, and more….
Revenge and violence leads only to more revenge and violence. Additionally, our attempts at diplomacy have been stymied at every turn. The world has no solution for this.
Let me repeat that statement: The world has no solution for this.
But listen again to Jesus; just a few minutes after he made his “peace not as the world gives” statement, he followed up with this: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
“Take heart, I have overcome the world.” – Jesus
We can continue to beat our heads against a wall returning evil for evil, violence for violence, and war for war… or we can become the kind of people who follow the Living Way of Jesus; and – if enough of us allow ourselves to be transformed – ultimately the kind of nation…
There is nothing that the Jesus kind of peace cannot heal; nothing the Jesus kind of love cannot overcome. “Take heart! I have overcome the world!”
(Note: I found the image I used to create the meme using a Google image search; I don’t know who took the photograph)