Thursday, June 25, 2009

Singing from the cave

As we follow the story of David on Sunday mornings, it’s easy to think that his ascension to the throne was quick and without trouble – ok, without much trouble. We think of David being anointed, of tackling that giant problem the Israelites were having, and then quickly taking the throne after Saul’s death. All quick and easy, right? Maybe in the Reader’s Digest version of the story. But the story the Bible tells is one of heartache and disappointments of danger and close calls.

Shortly after his glorious victory over Goliath, David is sitting in Saul’s court playing his harp and minding his own business when he hears the whoosh of spear hurled his way. Have the Philistines invaded? Is this a surprise attack? Nope. It’s just King Saul deciding he can’t have someone as popular as David hovering around the throne. From that moment onward David’s reward for killing the giant and saving the day would be a decade of running for his life. Think about that. Ten years of looking over his shoulder, of covering his tracks, of wondering if life would ever return to normal. Some reward for doing what was right.

Most of us think that if we just do what is right, good things will happen to us. And while the principle generally holds – work hard on your homework and you’ll get a good grade – it doesn’t always. One needs to look no further than David or Job or Jesus to see that sometimes all we get for all our good efforts is other people’s enmity. The world doesn’t always make sense.

So what do we do in the midst of the chaos? What did David do? At first, the scriptures tell us, David went and hid in a cave (1 Sam 22:1). Not exactly the height of bravery. But there in the cave, David apparently went back to the one thing that always brought him solace, the worship of God. David would go to writing songs, three of which are recorded in Psalms 142, 57, and 34. In those songs David discovered that God had not abandoned him. God was still at work in David’s life and in the world around him despite the current circumstances. This awareness would give David the strength he needed to press on in the midst of overwhelming trials, the grace he needed to maintain his righteousness in the face of Saul’s evil, and the patience to wait on the LORD’s deliverance for as long as was required.

Are you suffering today for doing what’s right? Do you feel like hiding in a cave? Sing one of David’s songs and find the God who “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed” (Psalm 57:1).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Read it to me again

This Sunday we open our Bibles to one of the most familiar Bible stories of all time – David and Goliath. Almost everyone knows the story of David and Goliath. People who have never even read the Bible somehow still know the story of David and Goliath. Most of us first heard the story when we were very little children. Because of that fact, it’s easy to think this is just a children’s story. It is a children’s story – a wonderful children’s story – but it’s not just a children’s story. That is, it’s not a story that we simply stop needing to hear once we get older. In fact, most of the stories we learned as children are stories that we need to keep on hearing again and again – for stories, unlike other types of information continue to teach new truths long after their first hearings.

Eugene Peterson, a wonderful writer and teller of stories, explains, “Learning stories isn’t the same as learning the multiplication tables. Once we’ve learned that three times four is twelve, we’ve learned it and that’s that. It’s a fact that doesn’t change. The data is stored in our memory for ready access. But stories don’t stay put; they grow and deepen. The meaning doesn’t exactly change, but it matures. Having learned the meaning of love, for instance, we don’t for a moment suppose that we’ve passed that course and can now go on to other things, deciding perhaps to sign up computer science” (from Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, his excellent work on the life of David).

The stories we tell our children tend to teach them (and us) the basics of life. But the basics of life, like what it means to love one another or what it means to trust God are something we never truly master. The basics – faith, hope, and love – are things we must keep learning to put into practice again and again and again. Which is exactly why we need to keep hearing the stories of our faith anew. We need to hear the story of that young boy facing that ugly giant once more, because, frankly, we’ve all encountered new giants since the last time we heard David shout out, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty.” We’ve struggled to internalize that same holy bravado. We’ve grown timid in our old age. We need to hear the story again so that the great truths of the scripture may reach deeper into our hearts and spring afresh into the those moments of our lives when we find ourselves unexpectedly facing an intimidating giant with only a slingshot, a handful of stones, and a prayer.

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” – Matthew 17:20.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Of beginnings and endings

Sunday, we at Southland, start a sermon series, Faith, Failure and the Grace of God, based upon the life of David. As with almost all good and true stories, David’s beginnings overlap someone else’s ending. Namely, those of Saul and Samuel. At the start of 1 Samuel 16 we find Samuel grieving over Saul – a strange fact, since Saul’s not dead yet. What is dead, or at least has been proclaimed dead, is Saul’s kingship. Now, Samuel was no fan of Saul’s, but he was dedicated to Israel, and his grieving may be as much for the nation as it was for the now doomed king. All he held dear, all the nation held dear, seemed to be in jeopardy.

I think we can sympathize with the old man. We’ve all had times when our dreams were dashed, when our leaders disappointed us, when denominations and churches we once counted on and believed in fell apart at the seams. When we identify our own encounters with failure with Samuel’s, we realize that more than grieving Saul’s end, Samuel is grieving the loss of hope. He’s in danger of giving up on what God might do through him, on what God might do through his people. Interestingly, God doesn’t allow Samuel to sit in his puddle of self-pity long. He tells him to stop grieving, to get up, clean himself off, and get ready for a task. God is sending Samuel to anoint a new king.

Give Samuel credit. For a man lost in grief a few verses before, he gets tuned into God’s Spirit in a hurry. He heads off on the task (a dangerous one at that – remember the present king isn’t dead yet!) and soon finds himself searching Jesse’s sons for the next king of Israel. He looks at Eliab, surely this must be the one. “No,” God whispers “he is not the one.” Neither is Abinadab, or Shammah, or any of the other sons of Jesse present that day. Impressively, Samuel doesn’t jump the gun. In his impatience, he doesn’t settle for second best. Patiently, he realizes that God must have something else in store.

Sure enough, there is another son. He’s small. He’s young. But he does exist. They’ll call him in from the fields. Neither Jesse or his other seven sons understands why Samuel would want to see this overlooked boy, but the old prophet insists. In fact, Samuel won’t even let anyone sit down until this young boy gets in from the fields. Talk about a change of heart. Samuel has moved from despair and disappointment to faith and hope. He will not sit down until God shows up. I love that. It’s a posture of expectancy.

We know the rest of the story well – or at least we will know the rest of the story well after spending ten weeks with it in worship. But I wonder, how many of us feel more like Samuel today than David? Are you disappointed, let down, almost done for? Can we hear God’s invitation to turn our eyes from what’s gone wrong to what might be? Can we like Samuel, somehow find the hope and the faith necessary to wait for God’s next move? Can we be bold enough to refuse to sit down until God shows up? Who knows, our current, apparent ending may actually be an adventurous beginning to some grand, new story God is just itching to tell.

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – Ephesians 2:4-5.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rolling Stones


Yes, we’re back from vacation. Lots of thanks to Matt for filling the pulpit last Sunday. Matt always does an excellent job with the sermon which allows me to truly get away on the Sundays I’m not here. Alyson, the kids, and I went to Texarkana for a few days to see my parents. We had a wonderful visit. We even managed to get in that day trip to the diamond mine at Murfreesboro that I’ve written about before. I can’t tell you how excited Sophie was. I know that in her mind she was envisioning a cave with sparkling diamonds embedded in the walls. The reality is a big field of dirt and rock with very little shade. We dug and sifted and searched, but alas, no diamonds. Sophie wasn’t too disappointed. We walked away with a big, blue *diamond* from the gift shop that’s about the size of a golf ball. It also helped that there was a swimming pool.

Although we didn’t find a diamond, we did find plenty of other kinds of rocks. Though unimpressive upon first glance, I told the kids that if we took them home and washed them off and placed them in our rock tumbler they would become as shiny and pretty as the rocks in the gift shop. They were hooked. The first thing Sophie did when we got home was ask about the tumbler. I pulled it out, filled it with rocks, grit, and water, and flipped it on. I told Sophie that she was going to have to be patient – to truly polish these rocks would take almost a month. That’s a long time for a four year old (as well as for a lot of adults). I explained that for as long as a month is, it’s a short time compared to the way God polishes a rock in nature. There it takes thousands of years of rolling around in a river bed. I’m not sure she got the point. It will be interesting to see if her attention span allows her to remain interested in this project for very long.

Of course, she’s not the only person who has trouble being patient as God does his transforming work in the world. We all do. I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, in which he contends that true discipleship requires just what the title indicates. The problem is not the appeal of the gospel. Many find the gospel’s story appealing. The trouble is with our attention spans. He writes, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” We find the promises of the gospel appealing – holiness, wholeness, and the whole bit. But many of us lose interest when we discover this transformation takes more than a couple of days.

The rock tumbler is now in our garage. It makes quite a bit of noise as it rolls and tumbles along. At first, the noise slightly annoyed me. I’ve started to find comfort in it, though. It is reminding me that God is at a similar slow and deliberate work in me – if I’ll be patient and not lose hope.

[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus – Philippians 1:6.