Monday, March 31, 2008

Peace be with you.

I read, studied, journaled about, and preached on John 20:19-31. Each time I read various passages I am struck by something new, and this is no different. To summarize the passage, the disciples are locked in a room in fear of the Jews, Jesus appears to them and says “peace be with you,” shows them his scars and says again, “peace be with you.” But Thomas wasn’t with them, maybe he was on a food run or a bathroom break, but Thomas wasn’t around. So when the disciples saw Thomas again, they told him what happened. Thomas was not as enthusiastic as the others, “unless I see, I will not believe.” A week later Jesus appears to the disciples, saying again “peace be with you.” Thomas was there this time, and Jesus went over to him and showed Thomas his scars. At which time Thomas believed with a declaration, “my Lord and my God.” We tend to poke fun at Thomas, even calling him names like “doubting Thomas.” Poor Thomas. The other disciples got to see; Thomas wanted to also.

What struck me as I read, studied, journaled and preached is that Jesus never criticized. There was none of the, “oh you of little faith?” There was no condemnation for their abandonment of him at the time of his arrest, or Peter’s denial. There was no work involved to receive the peace Jesus offered, Jesus simply gave it to them because he loved them. With Thomas there was no criticism of his lack of faith or even words which would exclude him because of his stubbornness not to believe unless he has proof, just words of assurance and peace. This is Jesus with those whom he loves. He wanted to bring them comfort in their time of grief and fear.

Why then, have we through various teachings or doctrines created a ‘fear’ of God? Of course, those who would argue against me would correct me immediately saying we should be in ‘awe’ of God, a reverence and a respect – that idea I have no problem with, and also feel that sometimes we treat God waaayyy too casually. What I grew up with and what I still see today is a ‘fear’ of God. Now, I do not see anyone afraid of Jesus, but I do see Jesus being used to instill fear in others. This seems to function regardless of the denomination. Yet, this is not the God I know. The God I know and lives in the person of Jesus wants us to have peace, to not be afraid, and to love.

When I was little and afraid of the dark, I was told that God wanted me to sleep in peace, and the Bible verse read to me was Psalm 4:8, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” God wants us to have true peace; that is what is truly of God. Other teaching to me is erroneous at best and heretical at worst. As followers of Christ we should be about the work of Christ spreading peace in the world of unrest and fear. “‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9

How are you living your faith – in fear, in fear making? Think about the words you use when you talk about your faith, do they really bring a sense of peace? Or do they exclude? My friend, David Mercer, quotes Anne Rice in his blog for Easter Sunday (see Deep Calls to Deep link). Anne Rice says, “My belief is total. And I know that I cannot convince anyone of it by reason, anymore than an atheist can convince me, by reason, that there is no God.” Faith isn’t about proving something, faith is about living it. Live in grace and peace.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Prayer: A Holy Occupation

Mike and I are at a "Renew: Marriage and Leadership Retreat" offered by the Soderquist Center for clergy and spouses. Since I am not taking the time at this point to come up with something brilliant of my own, I would like to share with you a thought by Oswald Chambers that was given to us today.

"The job of every Christian is to pray. Plain and simple. Yet we want to do more than simply pray. We want to do something important for God; we want to be someone important to Him. We want to build; we want to mobilize; we want to show our strength and exert our influence. Prayer seems like such a small thing to do -- next to nothing at all in fact.

But that's not what Jesus said. To Him prayer is everything; it's a duty as well as a priveledge, a right as well as a responsibility.

We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but Jesus wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there's nothing else we can do, but Jesus wants us to pray before we do anything at all. Most of us would prefer, however, to spend time doing something that will get immediate results. We don't want to wait for God to resolve matters in His good time because His idea of 'good time' is seldom in sync with ours.

And so we try to help God along. Many times we even try to answer our own prayers. We have the idea that more people will become Christians if we can make God look better to them. So we try to convice them of God's generosity by proving that He answers prayer. If we can just help God spruce up His image a little, we can get more people on His side. And that's what He wants us to do, right?

Wrong. He wants us to pray. Always and about everything. During times of joy as well as sorrow. He wants us to talk to Him, not about Him. He even wants us to talk to Him about unbelievers before we talk to unbelievers about Him.

Prayer is not just an exercise routine God has us on; it's our business, our only business. Prayer is our holy occupation. Plain and simple."

I believe that we tend to want to be more a people of action than of prayer. Sounds a little Judas Iscariot-ish. If you believe that Judas betrayed Jesus to try to force Jesus into showing his power, then Judas wanted to see Jesus in action, rather than to wait on God's time or to go along with God's plan.

Also, I know many people who are worried about others for a variety of reasons, and although they say they will pray for those people, I think they feel better bringing cassaroles to the troubled, or trying to convince the unbelievers by logic. Oh, how we need prayer!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Holy Week

We come to the end of Lent which is culminated in the various observances of Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.) In our neck of the woods, we observe Holy Week by hosting the ministerial alliance Holy Week lunches, and each day, Monday through Friday, a different church provides the food and their pastor brings a devotion or message. We also have a Wednesday evening prayer service, a Maundy Thursday dramatic portrayal of the last supper and Passover seder meal, a Good Friday drama, an Easter SonRise service and of course, Easter Services. During this week I will be bringing the devotional message at lunch on Thursday, leading the prayer service on Wednesday, telling the story of the passover seder on Thursday night, playing Mary the mother of Jesus Friday night, and bringing both messages at the services on Sunday. Whew! Great stuff right? Did I mention I lost my voice. It is a good thing that I do not have to talk with this blog, because it would not be happenin' right now. I know, I know you probably want to know if I want any cheese to go with that whine, right?

However, it does leave me time to think as shutting your mouth almost always does. And I thought about the responses of Jesus as he is standing before the various powers of his time at an unfair and predetermined trial in which his life hangs in the balance; he said very little. Did he feel helpless or frustrated? Did he feel without a voice in the proceedings? I would imagine, God or not, he did feel helpless and frustrated. How much more frustrated can you feel than to know you have the power to calm the storm and even to stop the injustice of your situation, but to look at the smug faces of those around you who think they have all the power. How he must have felt voiceless in the midst of all the noise coming from others, the lies, the injustice, the hatefulness. What do you say when you turn the other cheek?

So as I sit voiceless, but not without a voice, I remember that I am to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ, reaching out to a hurting world with love and hope. I suppose that St. Francis had it right after all: "preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words."

Blessings for Holy Week.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lessons Learned from Age

I never intended for this to have a theme to it, but it seemed appropriate. Last week, if you read my blog, was about a trip I took with 6-8 grade kids. This past weekend, I took a group of 12 youth (12-20 years old), 12 adults (up to 65), and 3 seniors (older than that) on a trip to Oklahoma City where we worshipped with a Messianic Jewish Congregation, visited the Bombing Memorial and worshipped with the homeless and those who live at or below poverty level in downtown Oklahoma City and after the service we served them dinner and visited with them. I learned things yet again, but this time it was from those who had left their youth behind them, so it is lessons I learned from age (at least I didn't say "the aged!")

First of all, I learned that the youth are well behaved. I was impressed both last week and this week by the way the youth of this congregation and community conduct themselves. They were curteous, reached out to those we worshiped with in both congregations, and were gracious in their service. I also learned that the adults of the group could be rowdier than the kids, get lost more than the kids, and could sass worse than the kids. God love 'em! So I guess my overall lesson is how to deal with grown-ups! Seriously, we had a good time, some of us had a better time than others!

Second, I had a really neat experience at the evening service. I told the people that went with me that we were worshipping with the homeless in their church and that we are the visitors. Later that evening, 0ne of the women in my group told one of the men attending the service (one who obviously lived on the street) that he had a beautiful church. The look of surprise and shock on his face which was slowly replaced with the realization that it was his church and something he could take ownership and pride in. He told her thank you, and walked off with his plate. I was thinking that it was probably the first time in his recent history he could take that kind of ownership. It was a really moving moment for me.

Third, the day was one of celebration (because the worship service in the Messianic Jewish congregation was very lively and one of celebration!) one of remembrance (at the Oklahoma City National Memorial), and one of service (as we served a meal to the homeless). It was also one of happiness, sorrow and healing at all three places. At the first service we are listening to a reading from Exodus talking about the glory of God so intense, Moses couldn't go into the temple. That has got to be an overwhelming feeling of the presence of God. Good yes, but also a time of sorrow when we recognize how much we fall short of that glory. It is also a good feeling knowing that even though we fall pitifully short of the glory of God, we are loved by God, and God keeps working with us.

At the memorial there were stories of tragedy and devastation that happened that day. But there were also signs of hope in the way Oklahomans responded to reach out to their friends and neighbors affected by the bombing, and the way the rest of the world reached out to Oklahomans. Healing happens when people go through the memorial and that brings about peace.

And then there is sorrow in seeing the people who through circumstances either that they brought on themselves or beyond their control have ended up in a situation you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. But there is great joy in being able sit and talk with these people, knowing that they still have so much to offer the world. It gives you hope for what God is and can do in their lives, and that you are priviledge to be a small part of that.

I hope you find experiences that change your life this week. I hope you experience joy and not sorrow, but if it has to be sorrow, I hope that joy is mingled with it. I hope that you allow all experiences to bring grace and draw you closer to God.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Lessons Learned from Youth

This past weekend, I went on a retreat with some youth from my church. I had an opportunity for an interesting learning experience that I would like to share, but first I must give you some background information.

We were in a worship service that was 'a little different' from your traditional styles of worship. I thought that it was a good concept for worship, sometimes we need different. There were some logistical problems when you are dealing with around one hundred 6th - 8th grade youth, but overall the message was really interesting.

The story was the story of the prodigal son (found in Luke 15:11-32 if you would like to read it) which starts out with a man having two sons, a younger son and an older son. The younger son comes to dad and basically tells him, you are as good as dead to me. I don't want to follow your rules anymore. You make me misreable. (Total parental rejection). So, give me the assets I would receive upon your death in cold hard cash and I'll just be on my way. So the father did, and the son went off into the world and squandered all his money doing whatever felt good at the time. After he spent all his money, there was a 'downturn' in the economy and he had to take a job in the corporate pig farms, in fact he was a 'sty tech' in which he had to feed and clean out the sty as best as you can clean out a sty. (Now at this point I am thinking that most of these kids do not really know how pigs live, so they cannot relate to the nasty mess that is a pig sty, except that when their mom calls their room a pig sty. It was, however, pointed out that they wallowed in the mud.)

At this point in the service, the kids were sent to a station that had a mud mixture that they were to put their hands in and write on a big sheet of paper a time in their life when they "wallowed in mud." Maybe a time when they were doing things they knew were wrong, or a time when they felt far away from God, for example. They were told to go back to their seats with muddy hands, having to live for a bit with the mess they made. They were then given some information about how nasty pigs are; they wallow in their own feces even eating it, so it wasn't just mud (at which time there were several shrieks from kids with particularly dirty hands! They were assured that they had played in mud only, no feces added!).

Then the story continued with the son being hungry and seriously thinking about wrestling one of the pigs for dinner, then the story says, "but then he came to himself." Sometimes we have to get in such a low spot to be able to see or reflect clearly on how good of a life we really had when we thought we were so misreable. He recognized that his father treated his hired hands better than he was being treated at the time (and I am sure the thought which wasn't written was "and I was treated like royalty!). So he piled up all his pride into a great big ball and threw it away. He headed back home, the entire time working up what he would say to his father, I am sure trying to get it just right. He would have had to throw his pride away to get his contriteness just right.

But then the story shifts from this young man to his father. Apparently, dad every day watched for his son to return, and one day his diligence paid off. I am sure, he probably rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't just dreaming, but then he didn't just sit there waiting for the penitent child's return thinking about how he could punish him for his rebellion. No, he took off running, and he threw his pride away too, because it was undignified for him to run like he did. He ran down the road, threw his arms around his son, and welcomed him home. The son, began his well rehearsed speech, but the father wouldn't hear it. He called his servants and told them to prepare a party for his son. The son who told his dad he no longer wanted to be his son was welcomed home as a son. He was given clothes befitting an heir, not a slave and a ring was placed on his finger signfying his status.

At this point in the service God's justifying grace was discussed. The youth said a prayer of confession, and then the youth participated in a 'hand washing' service. All the mud they had gotten themselves into was washed off, as they were told, "no matter the mud of life we get ourselves into there is nothing God's grace cannot forgive." It was a poignant time in the service. Then they were given a pipe cleaner and told to make a ring out of it and sent back to their seats.

They were then told the rest of the story. The older brother hearing of the father's immediate forgiveness wasn't so pleased with his brother's return. He expressed this displeasure to his father, but his father explains to him that the brother that was dead is now alive, and they must celebrate this. This is how the story ends. We do not hear how the brother responds indicating that it is left up to us to finish the story.

At this point in the service it was pointed out that often we feel like the older brother, like we do not do anything wrong, that we didn't get into the muddy mess, yet we too need to have the cleansing power of God's grace because the mud we have is in our hearts. The youth said a prayer, and as part of the communion liturgy, they were to give their ring to the person next to them indicating their forgiveness as the older son of those around them. Then we went ahead and had communion, receiving God's grace for our lives to enable us to live our lives as those who have been cleaned by the grace of God and who want to live in God's grace.

I made a few observations as I participated and helped with this service:

1. I knew I had a job in the service later, so I did not participate in the 'mud' part. At this point I identified with the older son who did not choose such a life.

2. I helped with the hand washing, and although my hands (and clothes) were clean up to this point, once I started helping share God's grace through washing their dirty hands, I became really messy! I noted that when we help those who have made a mess out their own lives, we get a little messy ourselves in the process. However, I had the water (symbolic of God's grace) immediately at my disposal.

3. Some of the youth, after getting their hands washed, went back to play in the mud. They were not supposed to do this, so I can only assume they thought they were being funny or some other thought known only to the mischievous. But it struck me that often those who seek out the grace of God also go back to their messy living. If we wrote their story in the prodigal son's it would be like after having returned home and been given 'heir status' again, once you ate and drank your fill at the party you went back to the pig sty for the evening. What a revelation that was for me, for we would consider that insane. But by many of our actions, inactions or other choices we do that very thing. We have returned to God's grace, received the ultimate forgiveness and lavish love only to reject it again.

What observations do you make when you hear or read the story of the prodigal? Where do you see yourself in the story? Are you the younger son living in the mess of your own making, longing for the love found back home? Or are you the older son who holds on to the hurt rather than practicing the freeing forigiveness that you have received, making a mess of your heart if not your life? Or are you the father, longing for your own prodigal to make a good choice so you are given the opportunity to express unconditional love that even then may or may not bring about change? Just something to think about this week.