Thursday, February 26, 2009

Temptation - A Lenten Devotional

This devotional was first given a couple of years ago at a community wide Lenten service. I hope it speaks to you today.

Luke 11:37-44

37While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

42‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

As human beings, we pride ourselves on the fact that of all the animals we are the only ones who understand the concept of risk. Yet Jeffrey Kluger points out in an article entitled, “Why We Worry About the Things We Shouldn’t,” we humans have a perplexing habit of worrying about those things which are only mere possibilities while ignoring those things which are real dangers. As examples, he notes:
  • We agonize over the avian flue which has killed precisely no one in the U.S. but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu which kills 36,000 Americans each year.
  • Many of us have an absolute phobia of flying which kills at most a few hundred people a year. Our chosen mode of transportation? Driving, which kills 44,000 in motor-vehicle accidents each year.
  • We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but probably isn’t) in our burger, yet worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.
  • Shoppers still look with suspicion upon that bag of spinach for fear of E. coli while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos.
  • We put filters on our faucets, install air ionizers in our homes, and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap, and at the same time, 20 percent of adults still smoke, 20 percent of drivers don’t wear seatbelts, and two-thirds of us are overweight or obese.

Kluger concludes, “shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we’d get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong.”[i]

We are today, as perhaps people in every age have been, “shadowed by peril.” As Christians, we know that these perils go well beyond physical dangers. Spiritual dangers, which we call “temptations,” seem to lurk behind every corner. And yet I wonder, “Are we any better at analyzing spiritual risks than we are physical ones?” I don’t think so. The Pharisees, who were much like us, clearly struggled to figure out which temptations where the most dangerous. Take this story, for instance. Jesus had gone over to one of their houses for supper and, get this, Jesus didn’t wash his hands (gasp!). Now, outside of a few of our eight year old boys thinking “Score! WWJD – Jesus doesn’t wash his hands – I can’t wait to use that one on mom,” most of us don’t have a problem with Jesus not washing his hands. He’s Jesus after all; the microbes probably are bowing down in worship and not about to infect the Son of the living God with a cold. We obviously miss the point. More is at stake for the Pharisees than hygiene. The washing of hands before a meal was akin to a blessing, a ritual of faith, an important part of the Pharisees’ religious observance. It would be as if we all gathered around the table for Sunday dinner, and low and behold, Jesus showed up. Naturally, we’re inclined to let him say grace. However, as we all bow our heads, we’re startled by the sound of Jesus already scarfing down the potatoes. What’s up? Jesus is making a point – you’re worried about the wrong stuff. You’re worried about looking clean instead of actually being clean. And in doing so, you’ve become more condemned than the worst “sinners” who never worry about even looking clean. Jesus calls the Pharisees unmarked graves – they are dead men walking but don’t even know it.

Admittedly, I don’t like these passages. Doesn’t Jesus seem a little harsh? For as much as the Pharisees get a bad rap, they were not bad people. In fact, they spent their whole lives trying not to be bad people – you know, the kind of people who do really bad things like stealing or getting drunk or lusting after other people’s spouses. The Pharisees, rightly, didn’t want to be like that. They didn’t want to fall into those temptations. They didn’t even want to be mistaken for a person who might fall into those temptations, so they set up all sorts of rules and barricades that helped keep them far away from the kinds of people who might lead them astray. It doesn’t sound so bad when you put it that way. It sounds a lot like us.

We have all sorts of rules that keep us from being like them, from being the sorts of people who give into temptation. In my tradition (at least in the past) that involved no dancing, no drinking, wearing nice clothes to church, etc. I imagine in your tradition the rules might be a little different but the point is the same – to differentiate us from them. Where’s the danger in that? Well, Jesus says there’s plenty. First, we tend to pick the rules we like to keep, the rules that are easy for us to keep – so that we do indeed look different from “sinners” (at least on the outside, on the inside we have a way of looking a lot like them). And we create these little systems by which we reward one another for keeping the rules that are easy for us to keep. We puff ourselves up and put others down. And that’s why Jesus gets so upset. He’s upset with our self-deception. He’s upset with our self righteousness. He’s upset with the fact that we think we’ve arrived without his help. He’s upset, because he loves us and he knows that our game of self-righteousness is mortally dangerous. Unlike the grosser sins where our distance from God is fairly obvious, we’ve whitewashed our tombs so that no one, at times not even ourselves, knows the deadness inside. This is dangerous because we tend not do anything about the sins we are unaware of. It’s like undiagnosed high blood pressure. Self-righteousness is the silent killer of a life of faith.

In his delightful little book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of two demons attempting to lead astray a new believer. The young demon, Wormwood, wants to tempt his man with all sorts of heinous sins – murder, etc. But Screwtape admonishes him to try a more subtle approach, after all, he says, “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”[ii] When we think temptation, we always think big sins – but cards will often do the trick. Of course, so can not playing cards, if not playing cards becomes the end all test for faithfulness so that a person never gets around to the business of repenting of the sins of the heart.

Lent, at least for a Baptist who has just recently come around to the practice, is a constant reminder that we are not self-sufficient, that we have not arrived, that we are all tempted. I’ve found I have trouble giving things up even for the purpose of doing something worthwhile. And at least for the moment, I’m glad I’m not good at it. You see, I’ve been a Baptist for a long time. I’m pretty good at being a Baptist. I know all the ins and outs of keeping the outside of my Baptist cup pretty clean, as I’m sure you know how to keep the outside of your Methodist or Episcopalian or Catholic cup pretty clean as well. But I’m not so good at Lent. I’ve already messed up plenty this year in trying to remember to not partake in what I’ve given up and to actually pray during times I’ve committed to prayer. And remarkably, like I said, I’ve found that failure to be a gift – a reminder that I too am a sinner in need of grace, a dead man on the inside apart from Christ. But in Christ, I’m a dead man who knows he’s dead and who eagerly awaits a resurrection.

[i] Jeffrey Kluger, “Why we worry about the things we shouldn’t,” Time (04 December 2006), 65-67.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1990) in A C.S. Lewis Treasury (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co), 250.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Old or young - it's a matter of perspective

Today is my 31st birthday. As Alyson put it, “You’re no longer just thirty. You’re in your thirties.” Thanks, Alyson. Truth be told, I’m pretty grateful to be right where I am. Being a pastor and connecting with so many different people helps keep things in perspective. Just last week, shortly before her death, I had the joy of visiting with Mrs. Flora Atkerson. At 97, she was still driving, still mall-walking, and still loving life. Just a few weeks ago, I had the great joy of welcoming a couple of brand new baby girls into the Southland family. My kids are young, but it’s amazing how quickly you forget about how tiny we all start out. On the one hand, I’m less than one-third the age of Mrs. Atkerson. On the other, I’m 372 times older than these two one month old little girls. Old or young? It really is a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

In my 372 months on this planet (or if you like, 11,322 days or 271,728 hours or 16,303,680 minutes or 978,220,800 seconds), I have lived long enough to experience unspeakable joys and gut-wrenching sorrows. I don’t have many answers for why either happen. Nevertheless, I have learned, and am continuing to learn, that God is with me every step of the way. The writer, Katherine Marshall, tells a story about her friend Marge who was traveling on a plane headed to Cleveland. As Marge waited for takeoff, she noticed out of one set of windows a glorious sunset that transformed the sky into a canvas of colors. However, out of the window just next to Marge (a window located on the other side of the plane), all she could see was a dark, menacing sky with no trace of the encouraging light of the sun. As she took off, she heard a quiet voice speak within her:

“You have noticed the windows. Your life, too, will contain some happy, beautiful times, but also some dark shadows. Here’s a lesson I want to teach you to save you much heartache and allow you to ‘abide in Me’ with continual peace and joy.

“You see, it doesn’t matter which window you look through; this plane is still going to Cleveland. So it is in your life. You have a choice. You can dwell on the gloomy picture. Or you can focus on the bright things and leave the dark, ominous situations to me. I alone can handle them anyway. The final destination is not influenced by what you see and hear along the way” (Katherine Marshall , "Touching the Heart of God,"
Christianity Today, (5-15-95)).

However many months you’ve been alive, it’s my prayer, today, that God will bless you this week with the ability to trust him in the storms and to rejoice in the bright gifts he gives.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age – Jesus, in Matthew 27:66.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not all bad news

Last week’s sermon on practicing justice and mercy seems to have little to do with this week’s sermon on Renewing the Baptist Witness. In fact, at first glance they can seem to be polar opposites. To those who have followed the headlines of Baptist denominational life over the last thirty years, Isaiah’s condemnation of those who play at religion while ignoring the least of these seems to be a fairly accurate description of denominational life. While we are all well aware of the stories that have generated these headlines (and know that there are sins to be confessed), we must also remember that during these last thirty years there have also been countless untold stories in which the ministry and mission of Baptist denominational life have been at the forefront of letting justice and mercy role down like a mighty river.

Just in Texas, Baptist hospitals have cared for the sick and the dying providing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of indigent care. Baptist children’s homes have provided food and shelter and love to thousands of orphans and other children in need. Baptist retirement homes, like our own city’s Baptist Memorials, have cared for the elderly with the spirit of Christian love. Our Baptist universities have helped thousands of students discover their calling as ministers and missionaries, but they have also trained thousands more how to be teachers, doctors, social workers, lawyers, etc. who perform their own jobs with justice and mercy in the name of Christ. The Christian Life Commission of the BGCT has been a constant champion of justice and mercy in the halls of the Texas legislature fighting for right-to-life issues, literacy issues, health care for children, and much more.

Yes, over the last thirty years the Baptist name has taken a beating due to our own squabbles and sins. It’s a shame that it’s the fighting that has received all the attention. But behind the headlines, faithful Baptists (like faithful Methodist or Presbyterians or Episcopalians – obviously we don’t have a monopoly on faithfulness or troubles) have continued to be the bearers of good news through their efforts to bring about justice and mercy in their communities and around the world. As you attempt to flesh out what it means to care for the least of these in your own life, don’t miss the opportunities right in front of you through Baptist ministries like Buckner, South Texas Children’s Home, Baptist Memorials, etc. Every time you give an offering to Southland you participate in these ministries, but you can do more than just give. You can pray for these ministries. You can purposefully learn their stories. You can participate in their ministries through mission trips, mission projects, and simply showing up and asking, “how can I help?” To help at Baptist Memorials, the best place to start is probably with Kevin McSpadden, the chaplain (and Southland member). He can be reached at 325-481-7503.

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world – James 1:27

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ethiopia Video

Here is a video I put together of our trip to Ethiopia. As you'll see, it really was a beautiful place with even more beautiful people.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Incarnational Ministry

It’s been almost a week since my return to San Angelo from Ethiopia. I’m almost back to regular sleeping patterns. I’d like to say I’ve reached some great insight or had some great revelation about life or humanity or God, but I’m pretty sure I’d be lying – such moments have been rare in my life even during moments of great significance. I tend to draw near to God in tiny steps. What I do have is a tremendous new appreciation for Terry and Kathy’s ministry and for Joe and Rob, and Sarah and Jeremy who’ve committed their lives (at least for the near future) to ministering to the least of these around the world. We at Southland should be very proud of their ministry and their commitment to the gospel. We should also do more than say we’re going to pray for them regularly – we should really pray.

Terry and I had some great conversations while together in Ethiopia. One conversation that kept occurring was about how difficult it is to actually minister among and with the people we feel called to take the gospel to. In my line of work that takes the form of being so caught up in the administration of the church’s affairs that I don’t ever interact with those who actually make up the church – you. In Ethiopia it can take a similar form. There are lots of people employed by mission agencies and non-government aid organizations in Ethiopia – many of them there to bring clean water to those without. But very few of those folks ever make it to places where they need the water the most – at least for any extended period of time. Oh, you’ll see great big water wells all over the countryside of Ethiopia. Beautiful wells, expensive wells (but also, often, broken wells). What you won’t see are the people who helped install these wells, still there, still living among the people, still sharing with them the water that quenches our eternal thirsts. This struggle comes from a simple truth that applies to every ministry no matter the place – it’s always easier to perform projects for people than it is to love people where they are.

Now, Terry and I weren’t knocking the works of these other groups or their efforts. There’s a place for all sorts of work. But as Christians, we were simply acknowledging that the call of Christ always beckons us beyond the projects (however good they might be) to the people he came to save. The example of Christ is that the mission of God involves going and living among a people so that they may know and experience the love of Christ through the presence of an actual person. That is what Christ did for us when he left the heavens and became a man like you and me. It’s what he calls us to do in the lives of others. Terry and Kathy have done this in Bolivia; Joe and Rob are doing this in Ethiopia; Sarah and Jeremy are seeking God’s will as to where he’ll send them. We should do everything in our power to help them live incarnationally in those places. We ourselves should commit to being present in the lives of the least of these in our own community – not just present through projects and programs, but present in the day to day affairs of other people’s lives so that all who we encounter may know there is a God who is also present in their lives and loves them more than they could ever dream or imagine.

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn't just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sing it like Isaiah

This Sunday's sermon text is found in Isaiah 1. The text itself is disturbing. Even so, seeing as it's poetry, I'm sure we lose something in translation - you know, the tone, the feeling, the mood. What's lost might be found in Jon Foreman's song, "Instead of a show," a simple recasting of Isaiah's words. The song haunts me every time I hear it. It makes me want to go hide under a rock and confess my sins (for who could be more guilty of showy worship than those of us who get paid to lead said worship). Somehow this week, I've got to figure out how to climb out from that rock and preach a sermon from this text. I'll do so, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, by squirming beneath the text along with you. Until Sunday, listen to Jon's version. He captures the text so well a sermon doesn't even seem necessary. If only I could sing.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ethiopia Pics

Hi friends, sorry for the two week delay in blogging but I've been in Ethiopia on a mission trip with my church's ministry, Water for All. While I had some limited computer access I quickly discovered that for reasons unknown Ethiopian authorities don't allow access to blogs, hence the two week vacation. There's obviously much to tell about the trip, but I'll simply start with my favorite photos from the journey. Enjoy.

(This last photo was taken by Norvell Holveck after our church service with local believers. All other photos I took with Norvell's very nice camera)