Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
Luke 18:9-14 NIV (New International Version)

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' 

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

The Parable of the Phari-Sing and the Probably-Can 
(Loosely based on) Luke 18:9-14 and I Corinthians 13:1

To some who were confident of their own artistic pedigree and overall superiority in all things artsy-fartsy and who looked down on everybody else, a parable was told: “Two men went up to the temple to sing, one an arrogant musician and the other a simple mirth-maker. The Phari-sing stood up and prayed about himself:

 'God (actually GAWD), I thank thee that I am not like other people—you know, the little people, the “no-counts,” the ones I must endure sitting next to in choir—those of untrained ear, those whose vowels bespeak a dialect formed in southern Georgia or, perhaps, Arkansas; men and women who mistake a Coda for a common illness and a crescendo for a large butter roll; those of squeaky voice, shallow air supply and ill-placed diphthongs—or even like this lowly choir wannabe, who sings through the repeat signs and believes fine is an editorial comment on his performance thus far. 

Unlike him, I attend every rehearsal (including the monthly fellowship meals), arrive having vocalized in my car for the twenty minute drive to church, then carefully arrange my music in its proper order, scan any new music or worship materials for repeats, alternate endings, editor’s comments or anything else which might give me a “leg up” when the actual rehearsal begins.  I remain properly hydrated throughout the entire rehearsal or worship service, keep my sharpened number two pencil at the ready and vigorously mark my score as directed by the conductor, making sure to press lightly in the unlikely, but occasional, event of his changing his mind.

I stay seated in an “upright and locked position” throughout the duration of the rehearsal (even, and most importantly, during the ritualistic prayer time so as to leave no doubt as to just how upright and Godly I am); I never forget my music and encourage others to do the same. I do this by refusing to share my score with them or, God forbid, my plethora of musical knowledge.  As we enter the sanctuary prior to the Sunday service, I always make sure to place my offering in one of the little boxes located in the lobby. Inside my clearly marked envelope is a check for at least a tenth of all I get (gross, not net).’

But the lowly Probably-Can sat slumped in his chair at a distance. He did not have proper singing posture.  He had no water bottle, and had left some of his music in his car.  What music he had remembered to bring had coffee stains on it and pages stuck together from an encounter with a jelly donut he was eating in the car on the way to practice.

He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'It’s me again, God, HELP!  I admit it, Lord, I love to sing and I love to worship, but after all these years I still don’t know the difference between a descant and a dischord, D. S. al fine or day-old linguine.  I am tired and don’t bring much to this choir, but what I have, I give to you.  With enough patience and a supportive, safe environment, I’d like to hang in there and try to make a difference in some small way.  With Your help, I probably can encourage someone else.  Please use me.'

I tell you that the prayer of the simple Probably-Can was like music to God’s ears, while the ramblings of the Phari-Sing were like fingernails on a chalkboard—audible but not very edifying. The moral of the story: "Though I [sing] with the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Moving beyond our own little world…

The famed confessional booth.  If you haven’t experienced it as a Roman Catholic, you have certainly seen it in a myriad of movies, TV shows, or read about it in the print media.  In this tight little space designed to protect one’s privacy, the priest sits on one side and the confessor on the other, separated only by a screen.  This allows the particular confession and words of pardon to be shared back and forth without the awkward aspect of face to face dialogue or direct eye contact.  The liturgy of this interaction usually begins with the congregant saying, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” The first confession is generally an admission of how many days (weeks, months) it has been since one’s last confession.  This is then followed by a list of transgressions, including remembered sins of thought, word, and deed. 

I recently was reacquainted with songwriter Matthew West’s incredible sung confession articulated in the song “My Own Little World”  I wondered how often priests hear admissions like this:

In my own little world it hardly ever rains
I've never gone hungry, always felt safe 
I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
 In my own little world: population -- ME

I try to stay awake during Sunday morning church
I throw a twenty in the plate but I never give 'til it hurts
 And I turn off the news when I don't like what I see
 It's easy to do when its population -- ME

What if there's a bigger picture? What if I'm missing out?
What if there's a greater purpose I could be living right now
Outside my own little world?

Stopped at a red light, looked out my window I saw a cardboard sign said, 
 "Help this homeless widow"
 And just above that sign was the face of a human I thought to myself,
 "God, what have I been doing?"

So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye
Oh, how many times have I just passed her by? 
 I gave her some money then I drove on through
 And my own little world reached population TWO

What if there's a bigger picture? What if I'm missing out?
What if there's a greater purpose I could be living right now
Outside my own little world?

Father, break my heart for what breaks Yours
Give me open hands and open doors
 Put Your light in my eyes and let me see
That my own little world is not about me.

Speaking for myself, when my prayers include confession, I often lead with what the church calls sins of commission, that is, things I’ve done wrong—at least if memory serves.  Remembering what I have omitted or neglected to do is usually further down the list, if at all.  That’s why I think a lyric like West’s can be helpful.  It reminds me that while God wants me to be on the watch for sin in my life, He is equally if not more concerned, that people who don’t yet know Him are on my radar.  Perhaps God is trying to reorient our thinking.  If we are to allow God to “break our heart for what breaks His“, we have to know that as much as our doing bad things hurts Him (and us), so does ignoring or overlooking people He died to save.  And like Jesus himself, we must be willing to enter their world by embracing them where they are, as they are.

This is a clearly taught value throughout scripture, both for us individually and as local communities of faith.  The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the church at Corinth that “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I become like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law, I become like one under the law, so as to win those under the law.”  (1 Cor. 9:19, 20)

Twenty years ago, your idea of how to introduce a lost person to Christ might have been to share the “four spiritual laws” with anyone and everyone who would give you the time.  Or maybe you were encouraged to ask a couple of probing questions, like “If you died tonight, where do you think you would go?” and “If God were to ask you, ’why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say?” With our post modern culture becoming more and more secularized and increasingly skeptical of authority, biblical or otherwise, we followers are being forced to look at different entry points to the discussion. 

Rather than the approach of “I know something you don’t” being the opening salvo to a total stranger, Paul suggests we start by identifying empathetically with the culture in which we find ourselves.  For some that could be your work culture, your neighborhood, your family, even your recreational buddies.  But the bottom line—start with something you share in common, NOT what separates you.  Jesus did it constantly in his ministry.  He hung out with sinners, told stories to which they could easily relate, asked lots of questions, and demonstrated that he understood their inner longings before trying to meet them. 

A perfect example was his conversation with the woman at the well in John 4.  He could have begun with, “What’s a (bad) girl like you doing in a place like this? Don’t you know that you’re talking to the holy Son of God?”  My guess is the temple scribes were not into publishing religious tracts back then, but even so I doubt that would have been Jesus’ method of choice in this encounter either.  Instead, He found the common ground.  Not of ethnicity, not of age, not even of religious pedigree. He started with what unites us all—we get thirsty.  “Will you give me a drink?”  He started by admitting He needed something from her!  Simple, but it provided Him entry into her world.  And he took time to listen.

When the word confession among Jesus followers refers as much to telling others of God’s goodness as it does us telling Him of our badness, we just may be getting somewhere.  Beyond our own little world. 


Thursday, September 4, 2014

A New Spin on an Old Sonnet

In her Sonnet 43, famed poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned these immortal words.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
 my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight 
for the ends of being and ideal grace. 
I love thee to the level of every day’s 
 most quiet need, by sun and candlelight. 
I love thee freely, as men strive for right. 
 I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
 I love thee with the passion put to use
 in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
 I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
with my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
 smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
 I shall but love thee better after death.

I’ve always been intrigued by the first line: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”  Call it “a love inventory,” the writer finds it helpful to make a list of the “hows” of the relationship, rather than the “whys”.   She chooses not to focus on the qualities of the object of her love, but rather the many ways she expresses her devotion.  I find that interesting.  If I’ve learned anything in 40 plus years of marriage to the same person, it’s that what really matters is if she feels loved, not merely that I’ve made an attempt. 

To put it into the context of the Body of Christ, it is vastly more important that our love languages toward one another be both understood and mutually appreciated.  For me to think I’ve loved you by giving you a hug or a handshake instead of a listening ear might allow me to check a box for connection with you, but can leave you feeling unheard or uncared for.  So where do we start? 

How about me being a bit self-disclosing with you about how you can love me?  Call it good old fashioned 21st century narcissism or, hopefully, more accurately a genuine attempt to begin the discussion of how we can, as Peter writes in the New Testament, “love each other deeply.” Since I can’t speak for you, let me initiate the deepening of our relationship by letting you know how best to communicate that I matter to you.  In my own spin on Ms. Browning’s famous sonnet (14 line poem, remember), here’s a quick list off the top of my head. Hopefully, some of my ideas may have universal resonance, but others may just be what is helpful to me.  I like to call it, “How do you love me?”  Here goes:
You know my name. 
 You are present in my life.
You are for me. 
You want me to succeed.
You care about what is going on in the world behind my public presentation. 
 You listen to me. 
 You look for Jesus in me. 
You seek to protect me (physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, even my reputation). 
You really care. 
You point me to Christ. 
You speak truth into my life.
You forgive me when I’m wrong—even if it takes me awhile to figure it out. 
What you say about me to others (in my absence) enlarges their view of me rather than diminishing it. 
You pray for me.

Not exactly “sonnet quality” to be sure, but I think you get the point.  To love each other deeply in the body of Christ sometimes expresses itself in encouragement, in really listening to each other, or in seeking to genuinely empathize with another’s situation or journey.  At other times, though, it moves beyond just trying to make someone feel better for a moment and actually requires speaking hard words or expressing tough love.  Proverbs 27: 6 says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” 

As a community, let’s resolve to discovering what best communicates love and affection for one another, using as our model and source of power the’ Friend who sticks closer than a brother.’  Jesus was the quintessential friend and could only love one way—deeply and to the uttermost.  Let’s follow Him.  Let others count the ways.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Parent's Prayer

Lord, today I thank you for parenting me;
 for far surpassing every expectation,
  fairly or unfairly,
placed upon the shoulders of my earthly parents.

You really have been my perfect Father,
 yes, my perfect Mother.

Your Word tells me that you are the father to the fatherless
and that we can call you Abba, or Papa.
You have described yourself as the One who will comfort us
 like a mother comforts. 

As we were made in your image—male and female you created us— 
I am thankful that the very best traits of the ones we call Mom and Dad
are all wrapped up in who you are.

Long before my parents’ love for each other conceived me,
You had ordained that I should live and grow up before You,
to show forth, in some faint way, the very glory and loveliness of You.                                                                            
I think of You today as the perfect parent
(though no one aspect of your character begins to define who You really are),
 because today I feel like a most imperfect parent.

I struggle with helping my children to rely less on me and more on You, 
with encouraging them to make wise choices
flowing out of a sure and secure relationship with you,
their Master and Designer.                                                                                                                                      
You who are the flawless One, full of grace and truth,
Direct me as their “interim parent,” in whatever stage they may be,
 to know when Truth is best applied, and, perhaps more often,
when Grace just fits.

Remind me today, Lord, of the wondrous fact that as You rule the universe,
Your thoughts toward me—toward my issues—
 are as countless as the sands of the sea?
And that my precious ones are no less precious to You
 than anyone else’s in all the world,
for You, indeed, parent us all.

I trust You today, Lord…
and await further instructions.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Waiting for Strength to Arrive

The popular contemporary Christian song Everlasting God contains the phrase, “strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.”  This is a biblical notion for sure, but how foreign it is to our modern American approach to life.  We get stronger by waiting? We draw energy from inertia? By our seemingly obsessive activity, one would think that our weariness is not a result of insufficient passivity, but rather too little time.  Why?  Because we really could do less…we just choose not to.  If you polled most people on why they seem stressed or exhausted, one of the main complaints would be something like this:  There are just not enough hours in the day for me to accomplish everything I need to do.  But is that, in fact, the issue?  Do we just need more time?

A few years ago, a Hollywood movie addressed the issue of time as the new currency in a thriller entitled In Time, starring Justin Timberlake.  What intrigued me was the premise: a future society where the ultimate commodity is not money, not land, but time.  Imagine, in the not-too-distant future, that scientists have discovered a way to turn off the aging gene. As the threat of overpopulation looms over society, money becomes a thing of the past. Now, assets are measured in time; those with the most time also possess the most power. Meanwhile, the lower classes are forced to barter with the new elite if they want to live forever.
The concept is compelling.  And it rings true.  What we all wish we had more of—is time.  Time to get stuff done.  Time to go here and there.  Time to get and stay busy.  And certainly, more time to relax. What appears to be elusive for many of us is not acquiring more time, even for relaxation, but really learning how to rest. Not just a yoga, hmmmm-type relaxation, but what God’s Word refers to as stillness, the ceasing of striving.  Rest.  And there is much in the Word to establish the importance of resting, of finding rest…of actually pursuing rest. In his best seller Too Busy Not to Pray, well-known pastor, teacher, and author Bill Hybels suggests that our real need is not more time for more activity, but more time communing with the One who made us…and then Himself rested.

Genesis 2:2 begins “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

Psalm 46:10 reminds us to “Be still and know that I am God.”

Psalm 62 says “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken."

Luke 10:38-42 illustrates the restful posture of Mary, as compared to the busy, but un-peaceful, attitude of sister Martha.

Hebrews 4: 9-11 cautions: “There remains, then a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His.  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their examples of disobedience.”

These are but a few of the references that are the basis for a contemporary poem, ‘Til They Rest in You, written by songwriter Tony Wood.

Comes an honest moment when each heart looks inside
Finding nothing here on earth truly satisfies 
Some choose to ignore the ache, some confess it’s true  
God, our hearts will have no peace ‘til they rest in You

Every pleasure, every thrill never is enough 
Every trophy, even gold, simply turns to dust 
Most still search to find real joy yet they never do 
God, our hearts will have no peace ‘til they rest in You

We yearn, we thirst, we stumble in the dark 
Discontent, for You’ve set eternity within each heart.

Thank You for my desperate days, feeling incomplete
Thank You for Your loving ways, leading me to see
 Jesus, You are all I need, nothing else will do 
God, our hearts will have no peace ‘til they rest in You 

Resting in God is less about relaxing and more about relinquishing.  The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His.”  As we jump into yet another school year and, as God’s people, embark on another cycle in the church calendar, take some time to reflect on how often you think or are caught commenting on your current or anticipated weariness.  Why not take an inventory of your “rest to work ratio” and see if it even comes close to the 1 in 7 standard set by the Creator of the universe.  He worked six days and rested the seventh, even thereby institutionalizing a Sabbath rest for His people.

Tired of striving?  Tired of working for fulfillment, acceptance, significance?  How about waving the white flag of surrender?  Take time.  Make time. Put intentional space into your day or week to meet with God and consciously give Him your stress and weariness. And then take Jesus at his word in this busy season:  "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)


Monday, August 11, 2014

In Remembrance

Our church celebrates communion once a month.  Some call it The Lord’s Supper.  For others, it’s the Holy Eucharist.  In some church cultures, a worship service is incomplete without this special meal.  Others view it as something to be treasured, and fear its losing some of its special-ness by it being a part of every gathered community. 

Coming from a very traditional, ritualistic even, church background, I understand this concern.  There is a commonly held axiom in communication that to the extent that something is familiar, it loses its impact.  Said another way, the more we know what’s coming, the less intently or expectantly we receive or anticipate it.  I still recall singing portions of the liturgy (the repetitious and routine parts of the worship service) as a child while, at the same time, looking around the room, waving to late-comers, or wondering why I had worn one brown shoe and one black.  Imagine the impact of the words, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, on my heart, while I am simultaneously winking at the cute girl across the aisle.  Talk about your multi-tasker!

Wherever you land with the frequency and significance of communion in the worship life of the church, know this.  Observing it was a big deal to the one who instituted it—Jesus himself.  For all the ways the church loves to celebrate/commemorate the birth of Christ, Jesus really didn’t say much if anything about remembering the beginning of his earthly life.  What he did not want us to forget, though, was how (and why) he died.

Every four or five weeks, our church hauls out this special table and uses it as the centerpiece of our stage as a visual reminder that during this gathering, we are going to intentionally look back.  In fact, the table has the words “Do this in remembrance of me” etched right on the front of it. The words are from Jesus himself, spoken on the night he poured his heart out to his dearest friends, broke bread, and washed their feet.  He seemed to be saying that what is about to happen, as critical and destiny-changing as it might be, can actually be lost or forgotten if you don’t treasure it, memorialize it, even, in a sense, institutionalize it.  Imagine the passion in his voice at that moment.  He was pleading with them to let the sacrificial act this meal represents be burned into their memory like a brand that can never fade away. Why?  Because we forget.

What was that first “last supper” like?  It was a night filled with drama and profound implications.  If you saw “The Passion of the Christ,” you will recall the opening seen in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus faced the Enemy head on and prayed the prayer, “not my will, but Yours be done.”  What you might have not remembered was that scene historically came immediately after the upper room meal.  So on the night called Maundy Thursday, Jesus loves on His disciples in a final special meal, endures unbelievable spiritual warfare as He prays alone in the garden, suffers the humiliation of betrayal at the hands of one of his own inner circle, and is arrested.  Might it be worth a tradition to recognize those events?  Many still do.

While Jesus warns us against vain repetition (Matthew 6:7), he does not advocate never repeating anything.  Indeed, that is what traditions are: determining those events, occurrences, and corporate experiences which are repeated, whether it is weekly, monthly, annually or otherwise.  This is suggested in the Old Testament in the book of Numbers: “Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God.” (Numbers 10:10)  This wasn’t just a Hebrew thing, it was a people of God thing, suggesting that part of trusting God for our future was remembering our past.  And part of retaining the identity as a unique work of God’s hand was to replay, occasionally, our unique story. Doing certain things in remembrance helps keep us, as the transforming people of God, anchored in our spiritual and cultural roots.

If, in this contemporary American culture which seems addicted to the new, we find that nothing we do seems worthy of repeating, then maybe it wasn’t worth doing in the first place.  Conversely, God forbid that we ever allow the priority of our fellowship to become the mere perpetuation of traditions.  But recognizing our propensity as fallen creatures to forget even the things that should matter most, let’s agree on this: some things are still worth doing in remembrance…lest we forget.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Proverbs 2.0

During these lazy, crazy days of summer, yours truly is choosing to exercise his right to take a break himself (call it literary laziness).  But rather than leaving you with nothing to read, I am opting instead for a selection of random quotes from folks wiser and, in some cases, more humorous than I.  Included in this blog are just scattered thoughts and life observations which should remind us not to take ourselves too seriously, but always to be pursuing God-likeness.  I like to call lists like these:  Proverbs 2.0. 

Don't let your worries get the best of you; remember, Moses started out as a basket case.

Many folks want to serve God, but only as advisers.

The good Lord didn't create anything without a purpose, but mosquitoes come close.

Opportunity may knock once, but temptation bangs on your front door forever.

If the church wants a better pastor, it only needs to pray for the one it has.

A lot of church members who are singing "Standing on the Promises" are just sitting on the premises.

Be fishers of men. You catch them. He'll clean them.

Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.

Don't put a question mark where God put a period.

Don't wait for six strong men to take you to church.

Forbidden fruits create many jams.

God doesn't call the qualified. He qualifies the called.

If God is your copilot - swap seats!

A bird in the hand is safer than one overhead.

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

If you are willing to admit faults, you have one less fault to admit.

You cannot get to the top by sitting on your bottom.

Rather than asking God to bless what you’re doing, find out what God is doing, because it’s already blessed.

Love one another.  No, really.  Love one another.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            tad