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Religious

Where to Begin

“Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Acts 1:8 (Common English Bible)

When the king in Alice in Wonderland was asked where to begin, he said gravely, “Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Begin at the beginning. Naturally, that guidance seems reasonable. That is, until you have to actually open your mouth, and speak. With thoughts racing from one place to another, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many fine places to begin. Jesus tells his disciples, here in Acts, “you will be my witnesses.” Where do the disciples begin? Where are we to begin? Sharing our faith in Jesus seems reasonable until we actually confront that moment – that moment when we are asked, “Who is Jesus?”

That moment came to me one Easter morning. I was enjoying breakfast in a Doylestown, PA diner, looking over the message I would preach in just a few hours. Mary, the waitress assigned to the table where I was seated, approached with coffee and said, “I guess this is your big day, pastor!” “I guess so,” I remarked. Then Mary asked, “What is Easter all about anyway?” Initially, I dismissed her question, not thinking she was serious. But I was mistaken; Mary was very serious. It was then I took the time to really notice her, to look into her eyes and really see her. I will not forget those eyes – eyes that betrayed her silence; silence of considerable pain. “Where do I begin?” I thought. I began with her pain. “Easter means that you can stop beating yourself up. Whatever guilt you may have now, whatever mistakes you have made in life, Easter means that you are to stop immediately from beating yourself up. God has removed it all.”

“But there is more,” I said to Mary. “Easter is an invitation to pay attention to Jesus.” I shared with Mary that as she paid attention to Jesus, by reading of him in the Bible, she will discover that she will want to be more than she is now. “Pay attention long enough to Jesus and you will experience a compulsion to be something more; you will begin to live differently.”  Mary needed to hear that Jesus doesn’t leave a life unchanged. Any significant time spent with Jesus always results in a desire to be made new. “Your whole world will appear different. You will want to be different.”

“Finally, Mary, begin to follow Jesus as you learn about him.” I shared with her that what that means is to “do what he asks in his teaching.” Imagine Jesus as a mentor in life and do everything that is asked of you. Something inexplicable happens when someone commits to doing all that Jesus’ asks: they receive an uncommon power to do so. People who obey all that they understand of Jesus’ teachings receive a power from outside of themselves; a power that actually makes them something so much more than what they were. Mary began to cry and asked how to begin. That is when I knew I had come to the end. And there, in a diner in Doylestown, PA, Mary gave her life to Jesus.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

When It Is Difficult to Love Yourself

“… and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Luke 10:27 (Common English Bible)

Nothing runs deeper in human nature than the desire to be loved. It is seen in people of every age. Children craving attention and approval, teenagers eager to be acceptable and affable to their peers and adults longing to be welcomed and valued. In every age there is present the widespread desire to be liked and loved. There is nothing wrong with this. Approval, acceptance, and appreciation are yearnings of nearly every normal person. Each of us wants to be loved.

It is upon this healthy quality of the human condition that Jesus constructs his Great Commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, for numbers of people there is present a practical difficulty – they have trouble loving themselves. And this is where the Great Commandment comes apart for them. Perhaps because of some physical defect, lack of general attractiveness, or problems with personality or temperament, they have experienced avoidance or blatant rejection. The consequence is pain. Unpopular and unwanted, it is difficult to give to God or neighbor a love they have not known personally.

Desperate for acceptance and community – or simply a friend – lonely people will compromise nearly anything. They will become anyone others want them to be, value what others demand, and behave as others do, even if that behavior is wrong and hurts others. They willingly put to death the person they are. Being authentic only brought loneliness. Peer pressure is the common label used in such circumstances. And it is a powerful weapon by those who would manipulate others to conformity.

Jesus offers an alternative. This very commandment – The Great Commandment – demonstrates Jesus’ reverence for people. Jesus assumes that people love themselves because he found them worthy of being loved! This is demonstrated again and again in the ministry of Jesus. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, dishonest and loathed by the people, a woman caught in moral failure, and a man who lived alone in a graveyard, Jesus loved those others ignored. And there is Christ’s power. By personal influence he brought out in them what was the finest in them. He gave them a new self-respect and that became the basis of their recovery and transformation. Jesus did this for them. He continues the same today for those who receive him.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Christmas Begins with Wonder

“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”

Luke 2:7 (Common English Bible)

My wife, Grace, and I collect nativity sets. Over the course of our marriage we have collected over thirty, each beautiful and unique in their own way. Several have come from Congo, Africa, where my wife was born and raised by missionary parents. Others are from Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Israel. There are also beautiful sets from Alaska and from Native American reservations in the west. Two are whimsical sets from North Carolina – one that depicts every character of the nativity as black bears and another as red cardinals. They have been fashioned from metal, stone, clay, wax and wood. Each represents a cherished memory and all stir the wonder of that first Christmas.

Christmas begins with wonder. It is a story whereby we are reminded that God has come into the world for every generation and for every person. It is a story that defies reasonableness. God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is them, comes to earth as a vulnerable baby, to parents of little material possessions, in the non-descript town of Bethlehem. The parents have no stature, no power and no capacity to provide anything more than a manger to place their first child. Absent is any hint of privilege, any suggestion that this family will ever attract the notice of others. Yet, shepherds are drawn to the nativity, leaders of great nations travel considerable distances to bring gifts of substantial value and angels sing from the heavens of the birth of Jesus. The story is astounding, incredible, and outside the parameters of credible story-telling. Serious engagement with the Christmas story begins with wonder.

Wonder is not doubt. For those who doubt, they are unable to see. Their eyes are clouded by a determined focus on what they understand. Wonder exists where there is hope in inexplicable love, and uncommon generosity. Wonder springs from believing that there is more in life than can ever be explained and the deep desire to be surprised. Christian wonder arises from the ancient promise of a God who cares deeply for us, clinging to that promise tenaciously, particularly at those times when there seems to be so little evidence for it, and paying attention, recognizing that God may surprise at any moment. The shepherds and the magi arrived at the nativity not because of incontrovertible proof that the Holy Son of God was born but because they were paying attention to a God that surprises.

For Christmas to be more today than a nostalgic glance backward there must be a recovery of wonder. We cannot rejoice at Christmas unless we rejoice that this is a season where images of the nativity – in our homes and churches, on Christmas cards and wrapping paper – remind us that God comes to us in unexpected moments, in a surprising fashion, and always in a manner that is beyond our ability to understand. We live in a world that doesn’t know what to make of the love of God; a love that is free of ulterior motives. God baffles us and mystery and wonder permeate God’s presence and activity in the world, including the Christmas story. The Christian faith has never asked that we dismiss our questions. But its promises are realized only when we permit ourselves to experience expectant wonder once again.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Happy People

“Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

1 Peter 2:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Happy People, penned by songwriters, Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters and performed by Little Big Town, is a feel-good track that sparkles with uncommon wisdom about what it takes to be happy people: “Happy people don’t cheat. Happy people don’t lie. They don’t judge or hold a grudge. They don’t criticize. Happy people don’t hate. Happy people don’t steal.” These are the opening lyrics of a song that capture the sentiment of what’s going on in a world threatened with a deadly virus and torn by hurtful political rhetoric. As Fred Craddock, a widely popular preacher and thinker of the Christian faith, observes, “Christian growth involves, among other things, getting rid of those attitudes, ways of speaking, and behavior patterns that attack the central fabric of the community: mutual love.”[i]

As each one of us, approach a new day the one constant factor we all share is a decision: the feelings and attitudes that will shape our response to others. Implicit in these words from 1 Peter is an old life that was before knowing Christ and the new after our encounter with the Gospel. Whenever we face a situation, we now have a choice: the habitual response of ill will, deceit, pretense, envy, and slander that was the character of the old life or a response that is shaped by love. This moment of decision is one point of conflict we must negotiate between our old and our new life. A conscious decision is called for. Will we surrender to our old impulses, our normal response to other people, or will we choose the new way taught by, “the pure milk of the word”?

First Peter calls us to clean the slate of our lives – to face up to our old, destructive nature and wipe away specific attitudes and behavior that tear at the fabric of relationships with one another. Craddock wrote, “Malice, envy, and slander do not drop off like old clothes; these demons must be fought to the end.”[ii]  If they are not wiped away – by an intentional decision each day – these behaviors sour and spoil our lives and rob us of the happiness we desire. As Happy People reminds us in a lyric, “Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel.” A rich and rewarding life is the promise of the Gospel, a salvation from the decay brought by destructive speech and behavior. In Jesus Christ, we have “tasted” the promise of that salvation and know that it is good.

The refrain of Happy People announces, “If you wanna know the secret (of happiness). Can’t buy it, gotta make it. You ain’t ever gonna be it. By takin’ someone else’s away.” An excellent place to begin this “new life in Christ” is with any animosity that we may hold toward another. Letting go of that anger and hatred is like removing a heavy backpack after a long hike up a mountain. The initial relief is immediate and grows, measure by measure, over time. In truth, we may cause little hurt to another by our anger but we do serious harm to ourselves. It shows in our life, in our speech and our behavior. People see it. More, we experience it. It is depilating, often resulting in physical ailments. The closing lyric of Happy People is especially poignant, “Well life is short. And love is rare. And we all deserve to be happy while we’re here.”

Joy,


[i] Fred B. Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 35.

[ii] Craddock, 35.

Categories
Religious

Holy Moments

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.”

Hebrews 12:1, 2 (Common English Bible)

Emerson wrote, “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”[i] Moments that are holy, moments filled with richness, and depth, and mystery are rare for many of us. Yet, they do come, however fleeting they may be. They strike us as a welcomed breeze that brushes our face on an otherwise hot and still day. At one moment, it is felt, and appreciated. The next, it is gone. The difficulty that often challenges any of us is that we live largely in the ordinary. The exceptional holy moment is dismissed for practical matters of meeting the present struggle of simply getting through the day.

The author of Hebrews urges a redirection of our natural impulse to be carried by whatever distracts us from completing the race that Christ has set before us – the race to know God and live richly that life God desires for us. Here in the twelfth chapter of Hebrews we are reminded of, “a great cloud of witness surrounding us.” That is our encouragement when the race becomes difficult. If we are honest, all races become difficult. Any athlete will acknowledge the multiple forces that pull against a resolve to train – to remain with any athletic endeavor that, in one moment, inspires our best effort. When that resolve becomes weak, nothing holds our eyes on the goal quite as well as family and friends who cheer us forward.

I am a runner. The boldness to declare that comes from multiple books and magazines on running. When I look in the mirror, I see considerably more trunk fat than others who run. I see in others lean bodies covering vast distances. I still have weight to lose and I only run two miles, five mornings a week. Yet, the literature I read each evening declares that I am a runner. A runner is not determined by a measure of fitness or the speed of the run or the distance that is covered. A runner is simply someone who runs regularly. So, I am a runner. But I am a distracted runner. Each morning I walk out the door I am creatively engaged with reasons not to run. That is why I subscribe to Runner’s World magazine and read books on running. They are my “great cloud of witnesses” that keeps me in the race.

Hebrews encourages that we remain in the race that has been laid out in front of us – the race to know and live for God. And Hebrews urges that we reorganize our life, to throw off any “extra baggage” and “sin that trips us up” that hinders our run. Like an athlete, Hebrews ask that we get rid of all the extra weight of anything that creatively engages us not to spend time regularly with God – time alone in a quiet moment reading God’s word and listening. We begin by remembering – remembering a grandmother, or a father, or someone we deeply admire who ran the Christian race before us. They will be our cloud of witnesses that pushes us forward. Emerson said: “When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.”[ii]

Joy,


[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays & Lectures (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983), 385

[ii] Emerson, 309