Saturday, December 12, 2009

Can These Bones Live?

I had planned for this Sunday, Dec. 13, to be the height of our Advent worship, on this penultimate Advent Sunday. My goal this season was to emphasize the ways we wait and the way we are prophets, drawing on images from the song "These Are the Days of Elijah." I arrived in my study on Saturday morning to write the sermon that I had planned for months. I arrived to a room full of people wrapping gifts for children of poor families in our community. Another group was working hard on planning the distribution of poinsettia plants for our shut-ins. I was trying to be an encourager to the many people hard at work, but my sermon writing kept getting pushed back. While the clock was ticking, I was not worried that there would be enough time to finish this message that I thought the Spirit had given me for the third Sunday in Advent.

I had just sent off the last of the poinsettia crew with a warning that one of our members was nearing death, so they may not be able to get into his room with the plant. Just after they left another member came into my study to tell me that this parishioner and friend had died earlier in the morning. No plant would be needed this day in his room. After the bearer of the news left I tried to start writing my message. But, instead, I was surprised to find myself reduced to a time of weeping, as I grieved the loss of this saint. This, the third death in our congregation in six weeks, was not unexpected. My emotion was unexpected. I think I am at the beginning of understanding what it means to pastor a pilgrim community.

I started to write again on the prophecy of Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The phone rang and it was another elderly congregant living in a nursing home who thought he was calling his wife. He wasn't sure what day it was, so I told him, and we chatted. As I returned to my computer to start writing, the poinsettia crew returned with the "extra" plant. What should they do with it, they wondered, now that this brother had died? We talked, and I called another member who had recently suffered a stroke and was now confined to her home. Would she like a plant, I inquired. We talked about the life of a stroke victim. She wasn't a shut in just yet, she told me. So, I took the poinsettia and placed it in the sanctuary for a reminder of our departed brother in Sunday's worship.

It was then I remembered I needed to write a prayer and interview for a young man leaving for active duty this week. I wanted to talk and pray with him during worship. So, I gave up on writing the sermon. I went home to shovel snow and put down salt in the driveway so the people coming to our open house tomorrow could walk safely to our door.

Finally, this afternoon, I sat down to write my message. Craddock's book, "Preaching", makes the point that the power of a sermon is found as it connects with the congregation which will hear it. The recent book, "This Odd and Wonderous Calling", makes many similar points about the uncertainty and joy, an odd and wonderous mix, found in serving a faith community. "These are the days of Ezekiel." The title of the sermon I had planned to write is still the same. The substance? Well, it is an entirely different message than the one I had carefully constructed in my head and planned to write when I awoke today.

There is no doubt in my mind, as I contemplate delivering the prophetic word on Sunday, that the message now in my computer memory is much better than the one I had planned. It may not be one that would get an "A" in any preaching class. But, it is the one that our congregation needs to hear, or at least that is what I think the Spirit is telling me tonight.

The word of Hope is found in wrapping gifts for poor children; in delivering poinsettia plants to the lonely; in comforting a confused man and a stroke victim; in assuring a family that, yes, the drying bones of their father, these bones can live.

Advent Hope. It is found in the simplest acts; in the most profound and simple acts of being the presence of the Christ who promised He would come again. God keeps giving Hope in the valley full of dry bones. God keeps putting flesh on the bones, restoring communities and soothing broken hearts.

Odd? Indeed. Wonderous? Certainly. Prophesy to the bones. Wait for the sound of the rattling. God is moving. Still.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why I Do This Work

This week I preached on Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). As I was preparing the message the text kept taking me back to the critical idea that God's goal for us is to know God as the One and Only. God is offended by syncretism, the merging of competing ideas. The origin of syncretism goes back to the Cretans, and it is a good word study to do. But, the point is simple. God made it in his list of essential rules for grateful living: Have no other gods but the LORD. Make no idols to false gods. How hard can that be?

Well, it is pretty clear that this was a major problem for the people of Israel. They just kept doing what God explicitly told them not to do. I don't see a lot of idols around today, but I see plenty of evidence of syncretism. Is there any reason to think that God is less offended by such acts today than God was when Elijah was at work?

I had written a line that seemed right when I wrote it. But then, I was worried about saying it on such an upbeat day as Advent I. I got almost through the whole message, but then I left my notes and let the Spirit take over. Here is how I concluded the message:

"If this Jesus, who came to us as an infant and who is coming again, if this Jesus is just one of several options for knowing God, then I quit. This is not what I signed up for. If Jesus is just one of several good options for eternal joy, then I quit. That's not the message of Elijah, nor is it my message. "These are the days of Elijah." That is our theme this Advent. We are the prophets telling forth the message that the LORD, the LORD is God. The One. The Only. The All-Sufficient."

That's the God I am preparing the way for this Advent season, in expectant prayer that God will send the Son again, now and not yet, to invade this world and our hearts.

Elijah's question to the people hit me hard: "How long will you dance between two masters? Either serve the LORD, or serve the gods of this world." If the manger has meaning; if the Cross served any purpose; then the LORD must be hailed as the One who deserves my loyalty.

That is not popular speech in these days of relativism...which is really just a new word for syncretism. I think the choice is clear and real. I choose the God of the Water and the Fire.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Announcing the Kingdom as Preacher and Pastor

I recently was scheduled to preach on Mark 10:13-16, the story of Jesus demanding that the disciples let the "little children" be brought to him so he could bless them with his touch of love. The setting for this sermon was a baptism celebration, my first as pastor of Hope. I was focused and ready on the Saturday before, so I took some time to do some pastoral visits. My first visit took me to an assisted living facility, where an elderly couple from our congregation resides. One of their concerns was that we don't have a system for getting them an audio version of each week's message. (While we do have an audio link on the church website, that isn't practical for this couple. So, there is a ministry idea for us to pursue.)
Anyway, I offered to read the scripture and to give them a Reader's Digest version of the sermon. I wasn't sure how this would go, given that the couple was quite elderly and the message was about parents and children. But, I made the offer, they accepted, so I started. As I read the Scripture I was overwhelmed by the Spirit's presence. The passage took on a whole new meaning for all three of us. As I tried my best to read through my emotions the words took on a life of their own. I talked about how Jesus was trying to teach us that people who are entirely dependent on others, like little children, have the right attitude for receiving the Kingdom. Looking this now dependent elderly couple, we all sensed the new application of this idea. The second point Jesus made is that we need to receive the gift without a child receives a gift. For this long-time faith-filled couple, they receive the gift of Christ's grace freely and without question. It is just a part of their lives.
This couple...they were a living example of people who received the Kingdom like children, and even on this day they received the "now" of the Kingdom of Christ. When I was finished speaking we all sat silently, soaking in the reality of their condition, and the joy of their knowing themselves as children of the King.
From there I went to a nursing home to visit with a person in the last stages of life. It wasn't possible for us to say much to each other, so I just reached out my hand and placed it on this person's forehead. I announced the Numbers 6 Benediction, placing a touch and blessing on this child of God.
I entered this role as Hope's pastor thinking that delivering sermons would be the best part of ministry. I am now thinking that is only half right. Pastoral care...being with people who need the touch of Jesus...this is the ministry of Christ at its best.
I wouldn't give up either role...preacher and pastor. They inform each other and each task is richer when they are lived together.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Joy of Vocation

Labor Day Weekend 2009
When I was young I wondered, but not too much, about why a Monday "off" was called Labor Day. When I was in politics, and being a Democrat who had a heart for "laborers", I learned full well the history and significance of this holiday. Now, as a minister of the Word I am faced with the challenge of bringing theological significance to a strictly secular holiday. I think it is an important day, but how to connect this day with the church calendar?

What I was led to this year is a restatement of our understanding of "work" in the Reformed theological tradition. "Work" was taught by Calvin to be understood as the ordained duty of each person...a calling from God to "vocation." Vocation is not to be understood as only the work of the clergy or professional ministry (although it is certainly inclusive of our work), but it to be much more broadly understood as the work of all "lawful" occupations. (Spurgeon).

How do we redeem the idea of "work" for ourselves this weekend? Frederick Buechner directs our attention to the place where our greatest joy interesects with the world's greatest need. Others suggest that our call is found at the place where our spiritual gifts meet our happiness or joy in using them. So, perhaps we can think of a three way intersection as the picture where our understanding of God's call to us is found. God's call is certainly first that we love God and to seek to know God and be God's loved child. But, secondarily, we are to find a way to join Jesus Christ's work of inaugurating the Kingdom (Os Guinness, "The Call.")

Down one lane we seek to find our greatest joy: serving God...being the presence of Christ to the searching children of God. Down a second lane we see how God has given us gifts to serve in the Kingdom. Down a third lane we discover the world's greatest need. When we get in the middle of that three-way intersection we are in the place God has called us; we have found our true vocation.

This vocation may be at our "day job"...the job at which we earn our bread and shelter. And certainly God calls us to work at these jobs in a way which glorifies God. But our vocation may be found in volunteer work...or in a "hidden life" (Nouwen, "Bread for the Journey"), of solitary service.

We will gain a glimpse of the happiness toward which our future hope compels us when we find out true vocation. It may not be anything great or any act which will transform the world. It may touch only one other life...or perhaps it will transform only our solitary relationship with the God who calls us. As one writer puts it, when it comes to work, God is likely more concerned about quality than quantity.

So, off we go, looking for that special intersection. But be careful when you enter that intersection for you are likely to meet the Holy Spirit head on...and you will never be the same.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Today I had the opportunity to minister with a pastor from the Kenya (Africa) area, whose name is Pastor Simon. We talked during worship about the needs of his people, the Massai. They live as nomads, travelling great distances for clean water. The response of the R.C.A. has been to offer to help build 5 deep wells. This will reduce the need to travel, allowing the people to remain stationary for longer periods of time so that they can be educated, attend churches, and so forth.
His story reminded me so much of how God provided for the people of Israel as they travelled for 40 years in the desert. They came to be totally dependent upon God. And then Jesus comes to this world as the one who can satisfy thirst forever!
So, we in today's churches, those who support this well-drilling effort, are God's hands to the Massai. We in the U.S. take so much for granted. We certainly don't think twice about running water. Yet, in Africa, God's children still become overwhelmed with gratitude for the chance to get a cool, fresh cup of water.
If we can help them get physical water which changes their physical lives, we can follow that with opening their hearts to receiving Spirit-Water, which will satisfy their thirst forever. But the door to earning their trust is opened by helping them build wells.
Our future hope is in life-giving bread and water. Jesus is the true source of both. Read John 6:35.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Meaning of Life?

I had a great lunch experience today. If you want a way to stimulate your thinking cap on a summer Monday, have lunch with a bright college student. They have great questions! My lunch guest and I talked about faith and truth and life. In particular, we talked about what gives life meaning. Indeed, does life have meaning? My friend suggested that life is given meaning by what each person does...we give our own lives meaning. But, after we explored that idea we came to see that there needs to be some objective, outside source which gives our lives value and meaning. If we each give our own lives meaning, then I cannot judge the actions of a person as good or bad. But, we concluded, there must be some objective way of knowing good and evil; of judging whether some conduct, e.g. murder, is bad, and other conduct, e.g. saving a life, is good.

In the end, surprisingly, we came to see that the meaning of life comes in helping others see the value in their own lives, and in directing ourselves and others to "good living." This reminded me of Jesus' command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." This Truth is heard so often that it risks being tuned out by its hearers. But, when you engage in an hour long discussion that wanders through all kinds of questions about life, it feels good to come back home to the Truth that Jesus teaches.

How do we know life has meaning? By seeing the Good that is brought when we practice God's love toward our neighbor. What will give my life meaning? Serving God by loving God and my neighbor.So simple it seems almost trite to write it. So profound that it took an hour of lively discussion to find it.

Our discussion went on to explore how we know we are God's child; how we are drawn by God's love as he chases us until we are captured by God's grace; why I treasure our Reformed theology. In the end, we settled little. But we decided it would be good to meet again, and to this time invite some other questioners. It will be great! But I had better carve out more time for lunch that day!Go talk to a young person today, and let them ask lots of questions. Help them live the questions.

Don't worry about having the right answers....because sometimes that is not the point. People searching the faith need lots of space to ask live questions. Be sure to leave room for the Holy Spirit to give direction. And then enjoy the searching of young minds. You will be blessed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Holiness of God

God is Holy. We are called to be Holy. And of course, we cannot be fully Holy...yet. We can be set apart, if that is one definition of holiness. We can be sanctified, a process of becoming Holy. But how can it be that we can be in the presence of a Holy God? This has been a quest for understanding for the earliest of human beings until today, and so it will be until Jesus the Christ returns.

I am not worthy of being in God's presence, and yet He draws me there. And it is in His presence that I know I am a child of God.

This religion we practice can only be understood as Mystery. And in the midst of the Mystery, in the depths of our longing, God reaches out with His Spirit to draw us into His inacessible Light. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

How shall I come to understand God and my relationship to Him? By being. By being in His Light. Remove these coals from my lips. Here am I, send me.