Thursday, March 31, 2011

We think we see better than we do

Sight. It’s a funny thing. We so often think we see better than we do, a lesson reinforced in my life a few weeks ago when I put on glasses for the first time. I thought my eyes were fine. I was functioning in life. I could read. I was getting lots of headaches, but hey, that goes with being a dad and a pastor, doesn’t it? Apparently, it doesn’t always. Two weeks with glasses and no headaches. That’s been nice.

It’s also been nice to see people’s faces while I preach. Faces all the way in the back row. Technically, I knew that I couldn’t see people’s faces in the back of the church when I preached, but I just assumed, nobody could see that far, especially while doing something like preaching. People would ask me if I had noticed so-in-so in church. Usually, I hadn’t. I assumed it was because I was busy preaching. Apparently, it was because I just couldn’t see their face. Now, I can, and I’m thrilled.

I’ve heard stories like mine a hundred times from other people who went from blurred vision to focused sight just by putting on a pair of glasses. “The leaves on the trees . . . the mortar between the bricks . . . street signs – I never knew I wasn’t seeing them,” they’d say. I’d laugh and thank God that I wasn’t like those folks, thank him that unlike them I could see. Only I couldn’t see – not everything, at least.

I’d say most of the stories in the gospels are about people who not only have trouble seeing but are in denial about the quality of their own vision: A man who thinks his overflowing barns are a security against death; a rich young man who’s convinced that his wealth is a sign of God’s approval; a Pharisee who’s confident in his own righteousness and thankful that he wasn’t like that poor, rotten sinner praying next to him in Temple. Sight. It is a funny thing. We so often think we see better than we do.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday morning prayer

Almighty God,
maker of heaven and earth,
maker of Mondays.

Remind me that today is as sacred as
yesterday . . . maybe more so.
After all, once upon a time, Sunday
was the first day of the work week.

So let me work.
For you.
For others.
With joy and grace, and
all the goodness of your kingdom come.

May my work bear fruit.
May my work relationships be honorable.
May my rest tonight be without regret.
Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of Missiles, Missionaries, Mesquites and Mustard Seeds


I've lived in west Texas for almost five years now. I have come to love the people tremendously. I've learned to treasure the sunsets and the starry nights that remind me of the grandeur of God's creation and the smallness of my place within it. I've even grown accustomed to the low humidity to the point that the air from I-35 east feels as if it's suffocating me. The one thing I have not come to appreciate are the mesquite trees. That is, until today.

Prior to today, I considered mesquites nothing better than weeds, overgrown shrubs that don't really deserved to be called trees. But this morning I headed out to Paint Rock, Texas, and huddled beneath the twisted branches of these stubborn plants and found something I wasn’t expecting . . . a sanctuary. I eavesdropped as eight men and women listened to my dear brother in the faith, Terry Waller, go over the final instructions of how to dig, and teach others to dig, low-cost water wells for the poor. Details. Technicalities. Tips. And then . . . prayer. A prayer for grace and blessing and courage and ultimately God’s kingdom to come here on earth as it is in heaven. The most sacred of prayers right there in a sanctuary of mesquites.

In a word of catastrophes whose costs run into the billions (not to mention the cost in human lives, as well) and of wars where battleships fire off missiles at the price of a million dollars apiece (not to mention the cost in human lives, as well) it’s difficult to imagine that teaching eight missionaries how to dig $100 water wells is going to make much a difference in this rough and tumble world of ours. And yet there beneath those scraggly trees I couldn’t help but be filled with hope remembering Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). Personally, I’ve never seen a mustard tree, but my guess is, it’s got nothing on a mesquite, a tree, that despite the odds can grow in the least likely of places. In that way, it’s as beautiful image of the kingdom of God as any other I’ve ever seen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The ever surprising, unpredictable Christ


During Lent, I make it a practice to read through one of the gospels. This year, I'm reading through John's account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. No matter how many times I do this, Jesus always catches me off guard. I'm always subconsciously making him easier to follow than he actually is. Jesus is never as polite or nice as I expect him to be. He talks to his mother harshly. He makes a mess of the Temple. Nor is he as articulate as I'd hope. He rarely answers a question directly. Just when I think he should come out and declare himself Lord of lords and King of kings, he slips away into the night. Such declarations must wait until after the cross.

The cross. I know it's there, an integral part of his story. Its presence in the narrative doesn't catch me off guard, so much as I'm caught off guard by my place in this narrative of the cross.

"Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be [even if that's on a cross!]" (John 12:25-26)

"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first . . . A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me" (John 15:18, 20-21).

It's no wonder John 6 reports that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." And yet, I can't turn away. I'm compelled to stay with this story that defies my expectations at the very same moment that it exposes the truth of my own heart.

"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asks (John 6:67).

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69) . . . even if you constantly surprise us, offend us, and keep us on our toes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Giving up something for Lent

This weekend I read a short little work by the late Henri Nouwen entitled In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Nouwen uses the temptation of Christ to explore three temptations that all leaders face: the temptation to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful. In each instance, he suggests giving up the pursuit of these things for something far more difficult, the pursuit of Christ.

He puts it best in the section on power: "Power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, 'Do you love me?' We ask, 'Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in the Kingdom?' (Matthew 20:21)."

We often speak of giving something up for Lent, a practice that has a rich tradition in the greater Christian community. But let us never forget, we give something up not just to give something up, but for the distinct purpose of taking an even more difficult something up - the pursuit of Christ and his way of love.

If you give something up this Lent, let it be something that strikes to the heart of our self-centered pursuits of relevancy, fame, and power, that you may more freely seek Christ.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Sunday Prayer

Almighty Father, maker of heaven and earth,
To you we owe our very lives.

Remind us that we are but the dust of the earth,
Dead as dirt without the breath of your Spirit.

Remind us that we are dead in our sins,
Without the redeeming power of your grace.

Breathe on us, breathe on us, that we may live once more.

In the name of the Feather who made us,
In the name of the Son who saved us,
In the name of the Spirit who guides us still,

Amen.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Get Low: A Lenten Review



OK. So this isn't really a review. I'll leave that to other people. It is a recommendation. Make watching Get Low a part of your Lenten practice this year before Easter arrives. The list of actors involved in this movie are a reason enough to rent/download/even buy this movie. Robert Duvall, Bill Muray, and Sissy Spacek are in top form. I also enjoyed Lucas Black as Buddy. But the actors, as good actors always do, give way to the story.

This is a story of a recluse who decides it's time for him to "Get low," time to die, and he decides to not only organize but actually have his funeral before he dies. Recruiting the rather unorthodox funeral director (Murray) and his assistant (Black) to help him gather a crowd, this at times humorous story turns quite profound. The themes of sin, mortality, forgiveness, alienation/community, and ultimately redemption resonate with one another in the most beautiful way.

By the end of the movie I was left pondering the state of one's own soul. Am I ready to Get Low?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Seasons

Yesterday, the pear blossoms caught me off guard. I wasn’t ready for them. I’d seen the buds a few days early, but I wasn’t prepared for their wide open petals drinking in the sun. Not for the hum of the bees that danced among the flowers sounding like a choir warming up their voices for some great anthem. “Spring has arrived!” they seem poised to sing. Shouldn’t it still be winter? Isn’t it still winter? I know the fickleness of a Texas spring. We may, yet, have snow on Easter. But the signs have arrived. If winter makes any more appearances it will be as a last gasp. The seasons have changed.

Yesterday, the calendar caught me off guard. I wasn’t ready for it – Ash Wednesday. As certain as buds on the fruit trees, the arrival of this day marks a changing of seasons. While our church doesn’t officially mark the beginning of Lent with any special services, I have at least for the last decade of my life observed these forty days leading up to Easter as a special season of introspection, meditation, and commitment. As often as I feel unprepared for Spring with its cleanings and its preparations, I fell ill prepared for Lent. Who’s ever ready to lay bare their soul before the Spirit’s eye? Who’s ever ready to walk with Christ once more through his sufferings knowing it was for my sins that he died?

And yet, whether I’m ready or not, the seasons change. My yard and my house and most definitely my soul are in need of some care. So, I’ll take stock of the land, place it under the master’s scrutiny. There will be sweeping and pruning and tilling. It won’t all be fun or easy or pain free. But through it all I’ll keep trusting that just beyond the work will be the greatest surprise of all - new life!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Thought and Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While more and more Baptist churches are learning the benefits of observing the season of Lent, some still wonder if this isn't too Catholic for we Protestants to bother with. "You know, pastor" a concerned church member will say, "I can't find Lent or Ash Wednesday anywhere in the Bible." I always find such objections a little weak. In my tradition we gladly celebrate Mothers Day, the Forth of July, and a number of other secular holidays with out batting an eye or caring that they aren't in the Bible. But we've had objections to observing a holy day that had 1500 years or so of church history behind it. That just doesn't seem right.

Whether we officially observe Ash Wednesday or not, the themes of this day are essential to any person's life of faith. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That exact phrase is not in the Bible, but it is thoroughly biblical. Job, in the midst of his suffering laments, "I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more." We are mortals - though we spend a life time trying to forget that fact. As a preacher, I've attended more funerals than most, and yet, I admit, it takes a conscious effort to remember as I leave a cemetery, "One day they'll lower me down in this ground, too."

Remembering one's mortality is important for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps things in proper perspective. On those rare moments when my mortality sneaks up and slaps me in the face, like after the death of a friend, I find myself taking better stock of life. What matters? What am I after? Who do I love? Do they know I love them? Stuff and stats cease to be as important. Also, facing one's mortality sharpens the realization that one needs a Savior. I can do lots of things. I can't escape death. I've lived long enough to realize, I can't even get ready for death without some major intervention. My sins are too great, my will too weak. I need a Savior. And there it is. That's why I need days like Ash Wednesday. Because too often, I forget that I'm going to die (one thing I am good at is self deception!). When I forget that, I forget almost everthing that matters.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man of dust and doubt and
deceit - of others and myself.
a man of sin in my core
and in my deeds.
a man of limited days.
a man who'll die.
a man who's dying.

Dear God of life and love,
Remind me of who I am -

a man who's been found, forgiven, and
restored - to you and to others.
a man who's been bathed in grace
and raised to life.
life with you, today,
and forevermore.
a man who, yes, will die.
but also a man who will live!
a man who lives!