Thursday, October 30, 2008

The limits of can-do

Americans tend to be a can-do people. Rarely do we face a problem and deem it insurmountable. Instead, we quickly set to work looking for an answer through economics, or politics, or the military, or through technology, or by better educational opportunities. It’s a part of our national ethos to believe that if we just think hard enough or work long enough we’ll figure out almost anything life can throw at us. Just look at the language of both political parties as they address today’s greatest challenges. They may disagree with one another on what the answer to those challenges may be, but both boldly assert that there is a political solution to every crisis we face as a nation – from the slowing economy to the threat of terrorism.

In many, many ways, this can-do attitude is a product of what we call the Protestant work ethic. It is the idea that work is essentially good and that our work can be fruitful. It’s true – work need not be seen as drudgery or obligation. Work can be done for the glory of God. After all, God gave us six days to do what? Work. But what keeps our work and our understanding of work’s potential from tipping over into idolatry (that is, the misguided belief that our work has no limit to its potential)? The Sabbath. God may have given us six days to work, but he has also given us a day to rest, to worship, and to wonder.

William Willimon put it this way, “Sabbath keeping is a publically enacted sign of our trust that God keeps the world, therefore we do not have to. God welcomes our labors, but our contributions to the world have their limits. If even God trusted creation enough to be confident that the world would continue while God rested, so should we”[1]. As we shall see in this week’s sermon text, some challenges in life defy our own ability to overcome them. Some rivers are just too big to cross on our own. In such cases, the solution comes not from doing so much as it comes from waiting. For our God is poised to do “amazing things among you” if we’ll just be still long enough to hear his voice and see him move. How do we practice stillness? By keeping the Sabbath.

Be still and know that I am God – Psalm 46:10

[1] William Willimon, The Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashvile: Abingdon, 2000), 329.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Aaaah!!! Attack of the killer dust bunnies!

It’s moving day at the office. I’m still sitting at my old desk in my old office typing this devotional, but I’m looking out towards where my couch used to be. Javier and Louis just took it out and moved it to my new office across the way. You know what I notice? Dirt. It’s amazing what type of dirt resides beneath our furniture. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed many times before. In college, I can remember at the end of the semester being forced to move all the furniture out of the dorm room and discovering dust bunnies the size of well, bunnies.

Every time I find myself moving furniture and being confronted with dirt and dust and crumbs that are in danger of taking on a life of their own I think to myself – how do I live this way? It’s so gross. Well, I live this way, not because I never clean (OK – Alyson will say I never clean, she does. But since we are one flesh, we are collectively clean people). No, I live this way because it’s easy not to notice the dirt that piles up under furniture that never moves. It takes change to expose the areas in desperate need of cleaning.

Life can be much the same way. Most of us do a good job of cleaning up the areas of our lives that are exposed to view. At least we discover ways to make those areas seem clean. But what about the places in our lives that reside in the unnoticed corners of our hearts? Heartaches that have been pushed under the furniture so that they’re out of sight; unresolved anger that’s been slid behind the dresser; sin that’s been swept under the rug. It’s amazing how long we’ll put up with such things. We think we’ve created clean lives until something happens that shuffles the furniture of our heart around. Maybe an illness or a job loss or the surprise of our own mortality shakes things up and we notice for the first time in a long time there are places in our lives that still need cleaning. When that happens we have a couple of choices – quickly push the furniture back in place or seize the moment as an opportunity for a deeper cleaning from God’s hand. One choice protects our comfort and our self-esteem. Once choice saves our soul.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting. – Psalm 139:23-24

Thursday, October 16, 2008

To vote or not vote

As the political race draws to a close (it will close won’t it?), I’ve found politics entering the conversation almost everywhere I go. Now, I think there’s been some misunderstanding about my view of politics based on previous posts or comments I’ve made from the pulpit. I’m not anti-political or even apolitical. I’m simply against pastors being partisan from the pulpit. I have political opinions. I will vote for one of the two candidates nominated for president. I’m just not going to let you know who that is. Even if I don’t tell you to vote for that candidate from the pulpit, my de facto endorsement of the candidate may cause some people to think that I believe that all Christians should vote for my candidate of choice. I don’t, but I don’t even want to give that impression. When a pastor starts preaching or implying that one party or one candidate is the only “Christian” choice all sorts of bad things start happening both for government and for the church. That being said, I’m all for Christians engaging in the political discussions of our day and voicing their opinions.

I recently had a conversation with someone who said they weren’t going to vote because so many people mistakenly think that voting for this candidate or the other is going to save the world. He rightly noted, “Only Jesus is going to save the world.” While I agree with his theology, I disagree with his choice not to vote. We as humans often attempt to correct other people’s mistakes by making the opposite mistake. That is, we don’t like some of the things liberals do so we become ultra conservative (or we don’t like what conservatives do so we become ultra liberal). In this instance, we rightly recognize that far too many Christians worship America and think that if they just get the right person to run the country everything will be perfect. We rightly reject that type of thinking. No country, no political party, and no politician will prove to be the savior of the world. But we shouldn’t then fall off the track on the other side by saying, “Well, since some people make idolatry of this country or of politics I’m not going to participate.” Someone’s misuse of something shouldn’t cause us not to use it. The proper response to the misuse of one of God’s gifts is not to stop using the gift, but rather to receive the gift and use it properly.

Think about so many of God’s gifts (food, love, sex). Lot’s of people make an idol of these things. They misuse one or more of God’s gifts. Does that mean I’m going to stop participating in those gifts just because other people misuse them? Of course not. Out of thankfulness to God and as a signpost pointing towards his coming kingdom, I’m going to do my best to make proper use of his gifts for his glory. Having a voice in our government at every level is a wonderful gift. Should we worship the gift? No. But should we fail to receive it? In my opinion, equally, no.

To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. – 2 Peter 3:18.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The cost of our confession

Often in our Bible study each Sunday, we encounter as we did this week, the New Testament's confession that "Jesus Christ is Lord." We usually spend some time, as we did this week, discussing about the cost of that confession for early Christains. In a world that declared "Caesar is Lord" standing on the confession that "Jesus Christ is Lord" could cost you your relationship with your family, your job, your possessions, even your very life. It's easy for us to think that those days have passed. They have not.

"Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee."

"Violence in Mosul Forces Iraqi Christians to Flee"

Let us pray for our brothers and sisters in both Iraq and India. Let us stand firm with them resisting the temptation to bow to false lords.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Going for a nature walk on a city bus

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, invites believers to fill their minds with things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable . . . you get the picture. When I hear his admonition I think of getting away from the hustle and bustle of life. I think of soul-exposing art or music, or perhaps to a soul-humbling vista in the Rockies or at the Grand Canyon, or even to the soul-lifting stars that blanket a crisp, clear west Texas night. I don't think of people. At least not everday people. And yet, if I listen closely to the testimony of scripture I discover that even people, regular, ordinary people – the kind we bump up against and become aggravated with everyday – display the glory of God’s hand if we’ll just look for it there.

Eugene Peterson tells the story in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places about one of his students who took a crowded bus to school each day. One day, he looked at his wife as he was walking out the door and said, “I’m just going to go out and immerse myself in God’s creation today.”

She thought that was pretty weird but let it pass. Maybe he was stressed out and needed a break from school. Maybe a day in the park would do him some good. Only, the next day, as he headed out the door for class, he said the same thing. She let it pass once more, but was growing worried. On the third day, when he again told her he was going to immerse himself in God's creation, she stopped him and said, “Don’t you think you ought to go to class today? A couple of days of walking in the woods or on the beach is okay, but don’t you think enough is enough?”

He answered, “Oh, I’ve been going to class every day.”

“Then what,” she said, “is all this business about immersing yourself in creation?”

“Well, I spend forty minutes on the bus each morning and afternoon. Can you think of a setting more thick with creation than that – all these people created, created in the image of God, created male and female?”

“I never thought of that,” she said.

“You mean you’ve never read Genesis?”[1]

Very often, when we think of things that are noble or lovely we think of anything but people. But the scriptures tell us that we, humanity, with all our foibles and missteps, are nevertheless the culmination of God’s creation. So, your neighbor who always wears her pants up too high – nobility in the pantheon of God’s creation. Your coworker who’s so shy it’s almost painful – a lovely work of God’s hand. The homeless man standing at the intersection asking for change – as true a part of God’s creation as the most beautiful flower – and so are you - if we’ll look and see.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set into place, what is man that you are mindful of him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor – Psalm 8:3-5.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 82.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Digging for Diamonds

A few weeks ago, Sophie, Alyson, and I were having one of those random conversations that can only happen with young children. We jumped from one topic to another until somehow we centered into talking about diamonds – about how they’re formed and where they come from. Using my best Dad-knows-all-things voice, I explained, “Your Dad’s even been digging for diamonds.” I made it sound quite adventurous as I told her about a place in Arkansas not too far from where I grew up where anyone can pay a small fee and go dig for diamonds. Her eyes got really big and she asked if she could go dig for diamonds someday. I said that sounded like something we could do when we visited her grandparents – or better yet, something she and her grandparents could do while mom and dad do something else.

Sophie is now convinced that she is going to find a diamond and a big one at that. Her enthusiasm makes me laugh, because I remember my own eagerness as a child as either my family or scout troop would make a trip up to Murfreesboro to camp and to dig for diamonds. I dreamed of bringing home a big one. Unfortunately, all I ever brought home was some quartz I purchased in the gift shop. Needless to say, I’ve grown a little skeptical of finding a diamond in Arkansas. The diamond fields have become a little picked over. Oh, we’ll take the kids someday. It’s a fun family outing, but my expectations have definitely changed.


My mother called last week knowing that we had been talking about this and said, “You’ll never guess, but the newspaper is reporting that a man discovered a four carat diamond up at Murfreesboro this week. Be sure to tell Sophie.” I will, but she’s not the one who needs the encouragement. I’ll tell myself. I still don’t think it’s probable that we’ll find a diamond in Arkansas, but I’m reminded not to give up hope on things so quickly. How many times in life do we write someone or something off because it fails to meet our expectations? How often do we leave our bibles closed thinking we’ve tilled those soils before to no avail? How frequently do we give up on church because we think we’ve heard it all before? All the while, great treasures await if we will believe and persevere.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened – Matthew 7:7-8.