Thursday, May 31, 2012

Faith and Culture

Summer is upon us whether we are ready or not. Before we know it we’ll be in the midst of all our summer activities, which at our church includes Vacation Bible School (June 18-22). This year’s Vacation Bible School theme is Babylon: Daniel’s Courage in Captivity. Of all the books in the Bible, Daniel has to be one of the tops for VBS material. There’s the story of the Hebrew children turning their noses up at the king’s food, the story of those same boys getting thrown into danger of the fiery furnace, and, of course, who can forget Daniel and the lions’ den. What kid doesn’t like these stories?!

Because these stories make such good VBS material we sometimes miss an important fact, the book of Daniel wasn’t written just for children. In fact, its primary audience was to Jewish adults who found themselves living in a foreign land generations after the exile had begun. These people were struggling to know how to live out faithful lives in a culture that encouraged them to do anything but that. Was it ok to compromise one’s faith in order to get along at work? At school? Down at City Hall? How much should one engage their culture? How much of one’s culture should one resist?

In that sense, Daniel is one of the most modern of books in the Bible. Who of doesn’t struggle with figuring out how to live a life of faith in a culture that often pushes us in the opposite direction? So we’re not going to just study the book of Daniel in VBS this year. We’re going to study it in worship the entire month of June that, like Daniel, we might learn to be a people who learn to have courage in a world that is often dismissive or even hostile to our faith.

In order to get the discussion started, I wonder would be willing to share, where do you find it most difficult to live out your faith? 

“The world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” – 1 John 2:17.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Working hard at the wrong things.

Last summer, my youth minister, Matt, was wanting to get a head start on his doctoral work before all his youth activities got going. The only problem was that the school hadn’t issued a syllabus for his first class yet. Knowing I had taken that same class the summer before, he came and asked me what the assignments had been. I showed him the list of books and papers we had been assigned but warned him that they had told us that they may change up some of the readings. We pondered which books they might keep on the list. We both thought that the book authored by one of the professors teaching the class was the most likely to remain on the syllabus. I think I remember telling Matt he should e-mail the professor to make sure. I’m not sure that Matt remembers me saying that. Anyway, he didn’t. He did set out reading the book, taking copious notes, and writing a seven page paper – all just in time to get the actual syllabus and realize – that book was not on the list! All that work for naught.

All of us have had moments like that, moments when our best efforts prove to be misguided and end up having been done in vain. It’s bad enough when that happens to us at work or in school, but the potential is there for us to waste an entire life’s effort on things that matter not. We can work diligently all our days, only to find out at the end that we were working hard at the wrong things. The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “A life is measured by its telos. The question of how a person lived is important, but the how is subordinate to for what a person lived." For Neuhaus, as for us, the for what is actually a for whom. Unless our lives are given over to the purposes of God, our work is done in vain, no matter how well we worked at it. As Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and yet, lose his soul?”

 Maybe we should pause and ask, “What have you been hard at work upon today?” Or better yet, “For whom have you been working?”

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters – Colossians 3:23

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Looking Good

Last Saturday my family had the fortune of celebrating my sister-in-law’s wedding. One of my jobs was to get John Curtis in his tuxedo. We weren’t quite sure how he’d take to wearing a tux so we’d been talking up the occasion. We’d explained how the whole family had special clothes picked out for that day. We highlighted the fact that his tux was extra special because only he and the groom had a white vest. Apparently, all the build-up worked. By Saturday morning, John Curtis was itching to get into his tuxedo. He asked about every part of his ensemble. Why are the shoes so shiny? Why do the pants have these stripes? Why do we have to wear cufflinks? I just kept telling him that these are things that help make these clothes special for this special day. When we finally got him all dressed, John Curtis looked in the mirror and with an unpolluted kind of pride said, “I look good, Dad, don’t I?”

He did. In fact, the whole day looked good. Everyone looked striking in their wedding clothes. The decorations underlined the care that had gone into this day. Lindsey and Brian made for an exceptionally beautiful couple. The gardens where the wedding took place highlighted the fact that we serve a God who delights in beauty, who, like John Curtis, can look down upon what he has made and declare it not only good, but very good.

The beauty of that day extended well beyond the appearance of things. Family and friends gathered to celebrate two people who have committed their lives to God’s work and were now committing to serve God together as husband and wife. From God’s word, we were reminded that for the Christian, every day is worthy of special clothes, because every day is a gift from God. Oh, we don’t have to put on a tuxedo each morning, but we are encouraged as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” and “over all these virtues [to] put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

When we get dressed up in such things, we can also look in the mirror and say, “I look good, Dad, don’t I?” And our Father in heaven smiles and says, “Yes, you do. You look very good.”
“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the peace of God will be with you” – Philippians 4:8-9.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mom is home base!

This past winter, my family took advantage of a warm day and headed out to a nearby park. Sophie, John Curtis, and I were running around playing tag-your-it. We were having a grand ol' time running and jumping. John Curtis started to get winded and yelled out, "Mom's home base." He ran over to Alyson who was sitting on a bench. He placed his hand on her shoulder and leaned into her. He took deep breaths and found rest. Sophie quickly did the same. I smiled. One, I needed a break from the running as much as they did. Two, I realized that there was probably not a better truth spoken that day for our family, “Mom is home base.” Nor was there a better picture of God’s love.

Jesus once said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Who of us hasn’t been weary and burdened at one time or another? Many of us feel that way today. We wonder in this world of push and shove whether or not there is a place where we can lean into someone stronger than ourselves and find rest. God is that place. We can trust that his love for us is unconditional. We can trust that he is stronger than whatever circumstances we face. We can come to him and find rest.

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. 
- Psalm 61:1-3

Dry Spells

Every life has them. Valleys. Dry spells. Seasons of doubt. Times when we don’t feel God’s presence. Times when it’s difficult to tell if our lives are bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Times when we wonder if God’s kingdom exists at all. Sometimes we find ourselves in these desert places because of our own sins. Remember Moses in the desert? Not the Moses leading the Hebrew children through the wilderness – we’ll get to that. No, before that Moses had another desert experience. After he’d killed the Egyptian, what did he do? Exodus 3 tells us that out of fear for his life, he went for a self-prescribed exile to the far side of the desert. Other times, it’s not our sins that bring us low, but life’s circumstances. Like Hannah, our barrenness knocks us to the ground so that even our cries for help are mistaken for drunkenness.

In both cases, such seasons of doubt can be debilitating. But while the pain is great, we usually understand the reason for our desert experience – whether it be our own sins or the result of living in a sinful, fallen world. There are still other desert experiences for which there are less clear cut reasons. For instance, the desert we are least prepared for, is the desert that comes as a result of faith. We assume that if we follow God in faith, our experiences with God will be fresh, intimate, and rewarding. And yet, throughout the scriptures, there they are – places where obedience leads individuals or even whole peoples out into the desert.

Which takes us back to Moses and the Hebrew children. We often think that their wilderness wonderings were the result of sin. And to a degree, we’re right. They did wonder in the desert for forty years because of their sin, but friends, it’s the length of the wondering that was affected by their sin – not the crossing of the desert in the first place. Even if they’d trusted God completely, the journey from the bondage of Egypt to the promise of the Holy Land required a desert crossing.

The more I read the scriptures, the more I study the lives of the saints, the more I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that obedience rarely takes us straight into the promise land for there almost always seems to be a desert between the Egypt of our bondage and the Israel of God’s promise. Think about it. Obedience is what landed Joseph in jail after he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Obedience and faith got Daniel in the Lion’s den before it got him out. As we’ll see this week, obedience led Philip down a desert road when common sense told him to go in the opposite direction. Obedience led the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, across the seas. But instead of a ministry of fruitfulness, he found a life of despair. First his wife died in child birth, and then only a few months later, the baby, Maria, died as well. Swamped with waves of spiritual despair, he lamented, “God is to me the great Unknown. I believe in him but I find him not.” In a similar fashion, Mother Teresa, late in her ministry confessed to her spiritual mentor, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing.” These great saints are in good company. For obedience likewise led Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, out into the wilderness to be tempted and then down the lonely road to a barren cross to be crucified. It was there he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If Jesus experienced times in the desert, should we, his followers, expect anything less? Can we, because of the great testimony of the scriptures, learn to trust that far from being a sign of failure, the desert may just be evidence that we are obeying the call of Christ?

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water – Psalm 63:1