Snake Bites

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.                                     Numbers 21:4–9 (NIV)

So let me see if I have this correct: God leads the people out of slavery in Egypt, away from a miserable life and feeds them manna in the wilderness when they can find no food. They get tired of travelling and tired of eating the same thing every day so they begin to blame God and blame Moses for leading them out of slavery in the first place. The people turn their backs on God. The Lord sent snakes (sounds like the infamous Garden of Eden story all over again where snakes get a bad rap as if they are really the problem). The snakes (let’s call them evil in general) bite the people. Evil kills some of the people. The people are now scared and come running back to Moses and ask him to pray to God to take away their sin and the result of their sin so they don’t have to deal with the evil any more. God tells Moses to sculpt a snake, put it on a pole where the people can see it and when they are bit by a snake, as long as they look at the snake on the pole, they will not die.

There’s more to chew on here than I can fit in one post, but one of the first things that captures my imagination about the story is that even today the snakes are still around, evil is still around; the temptation to sin (to turn our backs on God) is still around. God does not take the snakes out of the world, or remove the possibility of being bit or tripped up by evil from us, but sends us a way to defeat the evil, to avoid death. We don’t look at a sculpture on a stick, we look to another who God sent to show us the way, Jesus. Being a person of faith does not mean we don’t have to deal with evil in our world; it does not mean we don’t have temptations or trials. Being a person of faith means understanding that we have been given an amazing resource to help us as we confront the evil in our world, as we confront the sin in our lives.

So the next time I am tempted to complain, I want to remember this story because I think it will help me get my bearings and set my priorities in the right place. Oh yeah, and it might just remind me to look where I am going and where I want to head.

Wondering in the Wilderness

The word “wilderness” appears 166 times in the bible and it is usually translated as a desert, a wasteland, or a barren pasture. The wilderness is often described as a dangerous place, a place where wild beasts and the enemies of God dwell. I am thinking about the wilderness because at the beginning of his ministry, immediately following his baptism, Jesus found himself sent or driven to the wilderness to struggle with the power of evil. Now, to be honest, you and I would not normally find ourselves in this kind of wilderness, but I got to thinking about the kinds of wildernesses we find ourselves in. What does the wilderness look like in our lives?

Not too long ago a friend of mine lost her job. She saw it coming, but the blow was still heavy and heard to bear none the less. She was the family provider of health care and benefits, she was the provider stability and with a few months to prepare, she found herself in the unemployment wilderness. This  is a wilderness that is often filled with the hard edges and sharp stones of depression, grief and loss. It is a wilderness of self-questioning. It is a wilderness that often includes the process of having to formulate a new sense of self and new goals in life. It is a wilderness that sometimes drives us to make new priorities in life. It is a wilderness that often involves struggle and a sense of the absence of God’s leading in our lives.

I spent a fair amount of time in another wilderness this past week, the wilderness of the Cardiac Intensive Care waiting room. This is not a physically uncomfortable wilderness, but it is an emotionally draining wilderness in which to find oneself. To be in this wilderness means to wrestle with a combination of love and fear for loved ones who are lying on a bed on the other side of large tan double doors. If one is a patient, it is a wilderness that literally involves a life and death struggle. It is a wilderness where hope battles despair and where the anguished question of “why” is often hurled heavenward. This wilderness is often a place of wondering about God’s presence and whether or not God “has left the building.”

Yet another wilderness some of us find ourselves in is what I want to call the relationship wilderness. It is a place where there is turmoil, strain and stress between ourselves and a loved one, or loved ones. This is a tricky wilderness and a particularly devastating one in which to roam around. Dependent as we are on those we love for contributing to our sense of self, when we are at odds, or when a relationship is broken, we lose a part of ourselves and have to go in search of that piece of us as well as going in search of peace of mind. Sometimes there is reconciliation in the wilderness and sometimes brokenness remains and when it does, we sometimes look to others to help us through the wilderness.

Recently I have found myself part of several conversations that people are finding the events of our world, particularly the atrocities committed by the group commonly referred to as ISIS and the senseless murders in our own Lehigh Valley as contributors to a sense of despair and a serious challenge to their faith. This might be called the wilderness of questions or the wilderness of doubt. That age old question of how a “good God” could allow these atrocities to happen seems ever before us. Is God a God of justice or not, when will the evil enemies of God and humanity get what is coming to them as been asked of me. How can we even talk about a loving God when the world seems devoid of ethics and moral behavior, let alone a place where people care for others? This wilderness is a dark place as it has the power to rock and challenge the very foundations of our faith.

There are more wildernesses that are a part of our daily lives, but hopefully we get the sense that living in the wilderness is no easier for us than it was in the folks who lived in Jesus day. The wilderness is a place of challenge, of despair, of struggle and of searching. So isn’t it just a bit odd that immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent our or driven out to the wilderness? Wouldn’t you think that God would protect us from the wilderness, from the wastelands, trials and hardships in life? Wouldn’t you think that being a Christian would make the wilderness into an oasis, a place of healing, rejoicing and laughter? Mark, out of all the gospels, suggests that the angels (as well as the wild beasts) were with Jesus the whole time that he was in the wilderness. Now the wild beasts are the symbol, we understand, they are the enemies of God. There are also angels, or messengers. Jesus was not alone!

The first lesson we might want to consider today is that we are not alone; even if the normal life is a life spent in the wilderness, and even if God seems absent, we are not left alone. The reality is that no matter what wilderness we find ourselves in, God sends us messengers, angels, companions to journey with us. Do you often stop to consider who the angels, the messengers in your life are or might be? Do we recognize the great company God surrounds us with, or are we so busy battling our way through the wilderness that we don’t even think to look for or to be ministered to by the messengers, the angels God sends our way? No matter what wilderness we might find ourselves in, a wilderness of under or unemployment, a wilderness of relationships, a wilderness of health challenges, a wilderness of fear, doubt and questions, a wilderness of alienation or a wilderness of incredible temptation to give in to the siren calls of an easier life, I am convinced that not only is God with us, God sends us countless angels. he wilderness is the place where we are the farthest from God and yet even when we are going through the wilderness times, this story reminds us that Jesus has been there before us. Our strength for living these days comes from knowing that no matter where we journey in life, God has already been there before us. No matter what our short comings, God is able to transform them. No matter how hard life gets, Jesus understands what it means and offers us a way through.

There is another side of the story I want us to consider as well; who are the messengers of God, who are the angels? Who are the people who will bring a word of comfort, a cup of water, a word of hope, a touch of healing to those who are trapped in the wilderness? So often we like to view ourselves as consumers of faith and of spiritual resources. Jesus gives me the hope and strength I need to go on. What if we looked at ourselves not merely as consumers, but as those charged with bringing the message to the wilderness? What if we are the messengers that God is sending to the world? What if God is sending us to people who are saying they don’t have enough faith to survive the wilderness, to tell them, that’s all right, I have enough faith for both of us. What if God is transforming the wilderness through us? If this is the case, it strikes me that it isn’t just about going through the wilderness, but recognizing that even though it might feel like it, even though we might believe it, even though we can see no other being around, God is with us all the time. It might just be that we need to walk into the wilderness of our own lives, our families, our work environment, our community and our world and minister to those who are in distress, to those who have lost hope, to those who believe violence is the only answer. What if God is urging us to join a movement, to say no to terror and violence, to shout no to escalating retaliation for wrongs inflicted on the people of the world? What if God wants us to seriously explore ways of peace that address grievances and hurts? What if God wants us to give up the role of judging others and to assume the role of ministering to them? What if we are the angels, the messengers of God? The wilderness might indeed be a place where people experience the absence of God, but our journey into the wilderness as messengers is to be agents of transformation and change. Our job in the wilderness is to bring light, comfort and strength, to be company for those who journey through the wilderness. We are the company and we are in good company.

Good Bread!

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.[1]

Mom, my mother-in-law, is living with us while she waits for an apartment to become available in the complex she decided to move to once her home was sold. While I knew that mom loves good bread, I had no idea how much she really loves good bread. I do the majority of our grocery shopping and so I bought some pumpernickel bread as a treat. As soon as she saw it, “Ooooh, What have we here?” escaped her lips and she was one very happy lady. The pumpernickel bread did not last long. A few days later I brought home some garlic cheese sandwich rolls for dinner and almost as soon as dinner was over, she announced that she would be more than happy to take the left-overs for her lunch the next day. When she came home from work the next night, she commented how one of her co-workers was checking out her sandwich roll. Needless to say, the pre-sliced, mass-produced bread was left untouched in the bread drawer for a while. Why would anyone eat that kind of bread when there is good bread to be had?

Yesterday was a “snow day” at our house. Since the schools were closed, Lisa had the day off from teaching and therefore had the time and motivation to try to bake something she has wanted to bake for years; sticky buns. Am I lucky or what?! Fabulous! Independent of her, I had decided that I wanted to make bake some Rye bread. So yesterday was a bread baking day at our house. I am happy to report that both projects were successful. The recipe that Lisa was following instructed the baker to knead the dough for eight minutes. As I watched her knead the dough I found myself thinking about how much work was involved in making this good bread and the above verses from the gospel according to John popped into my mind. Following that thought was a mental picture of mom’s joy in eating some of the “good bread.” Why waste our lives indeed chasing after bread (food, stuff, etc.) that does not satisfy?

Beyond that, as good as home made bread and sticky buns are, there is a type of bread that is even better. It is the spiritual food that sustains us every day of our lives and beyond.The bread of life offered to us by Christ. As much effort as it takes to make delicious home made bread, I think it takes even more effort to live the life of a disciple. Truly desiring the bread of life that Jesus offers us, living out our faith requires a commitment of more than a couple of hours, or even a day; it requires a life time. It is through living this life of faith that we become aware of and can truly taste the bread which Jesus is talking about, the bread of life. Seeking this bread is so much more satisfying than living in the world of temporary happiness promised by the market, by acquisitions of stuff and by fleeting relationships. Then again, this bread offers us a depth of living that is unavailable for purchase.

Perhaps the next time you eat some really good bread, this will pop into your mind as well. Dare to live for the food (the bread of life) that truly satisfies us.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 6:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Ch, Cha, Cha, Changes

In 1980, Dr. William Bridges wrote a book entitled, Making Sense of Life’s Transitions; Strategies for Coping With the Difficult, Painful, and Confusing Times in your life. In 2004, the 25th anniversary edition of the book came out. Together, both editions have sold over a million copies. For people in the midst of change and transition, it is a helpful book to get a perspective on one’s new life that is emerging. Some days I just want to lay down until all the change passes, but we all know that change never goes away, because life is change. From our first breath until our last one, our bodies are changing. According to UCSB Science Line, “No one really knows the exact number of cells that die in our bodies every day, but we can approximate to about 10-50 trillion. Cells are always created and destroyed in the human body. About 300 million cells die every minute in our bodies! Now granted that is on a microscopic level, but the point is pretty clear, by the time you finish reading this, you will have lived through an incredible amount of physical change.

So how do we cope with it all? How do we make sense of all the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the failures; the expected and the unexpected events that seem to hunt us down no matter where we are in life? How do we make our way through transition and change and still retain our sanity? Bridges book is a good resource. It seems to me that we have a couple of options. The first is the lay down until it passes approach – this is avoidance by another name. It won’t really do anything to stop change, but it may give us a tiny space to catch our breath until we are ready to face a new reality. Another possibility is that we try to do those things that have worked in the past, only we try harder, run faster, work longer, plead more and hope the change is really a new and unwelcome fad that goes away (another form of avoidance). We could pray; we could wait on God and trust that even in the midst of the most unwelcome change, God is with us and will not let us slip from his grasp. We could pray for strength. Finally, we could celebrate change, yes, I said celebrate! We could approach change with curiosity and wonder and marvel at how life is dynamic and often surprising. Personally, I find that when I am able to celebrate, when I look for something, no matter how small or minute, to celebrate in the changes that are happening in the world around me and in my own life, the change or transition seems easier to cope with and live through. So in the midst of my transitions and the transitions of my family, let me celebrate and say: to all those who have or who will graduate this year – congratulations and best wishes! To all those who have or will get married this year – congratulations and best wishes! For all buying their first car this year – congratulations and best wishes! To all those who have found or will find a job this year – congratulations and best wishes! To all the rest of us who are coping, or trying to – congratulations and best wishes!

When it comes down to it, isn’t change an opportunity to try something new, to do something in a new way? Even those traditions and practices that we hold most dear can fill us with a sense of new purpose and meaning. If we look at change as neither good nor bad, but certain, then we are given the opportunity to embrace the change in our lives as meaningful opportunities to begin again.

Now you may think that I am using the, “don’t worry, be happy,” approach to life. I’m not. I understand full well that not all change is welcome and especially those changes associated with loss or our most cherished traditions are often the most difficult to journey through. Even those changes might be opportunities to take a fresh look at who we are, who we have become and offer us the opportunity to redefine ourselves in a fresh way. Change is. The question becomes what will we do with it, how will we react to it. It will make all the difference.

When the Box is Empty

The box to which I am referring is a figurative box; it might be a building, it might be a cherished activity or program, it might be a certain way or pattern of approaching difficulties or challenges in life. We often fret when the box is empty or when it proves of little value to others. The box is empty when people don’t come to the building, when no one seems interested in your cherished activity or program, or when that “go to” method of dealing with the complexities of life no longer seems to work. What are we to do when the box is empty?

I have participated in more than one conversation about the box known as the church. Many of those conversations have to do with age groups or generations that are missing from our Mainline congregations these days. Usually the conversation is a desperate one where we ask with growing frustration and urgency, what do we have to do to get people back in the box. I find myself wondering if we ever consider that the box just might be empty because it no longer is a comfortable fit for those we are trying to put back in the box? It occurs to me that when the box is empty, we have no choice but to think outside the box, or to get a different box. If traditional ways of being the church are not resonating with folks, maybe we need to think outside that nice standard definition we have of being the church, maybe we have to think outside of the way we have always done it in order to begin a conversation with the very people we are trying to understand.

I love that old definition of insanity that runs: Insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.I guess another way of saying this is that we often seem to try harder and harder, to do what we have always done more efficiently as if that will get people to come flocking back to the box. If we truly believe that God is Still Speaking and that God is still living, might we not be better stewards of our time if we engage the very people we are missing in a conversation about their understandings and practices of faith before we try to fill up that empty box? Could it be that God is encouraging us to find new or at least more meaningful ways of being faithful together?

Value and Worth

I find myself thinking about “value” and “worth” these days. How do we determine the value of things, how do we decide what is of worth to us? Recently my mother-in-law sold her home. The process took longer than she would have liked and she received less money for her home than she anticipated. When she listed it, her Realtor and my wife both shared the same advice with her: “your house is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.” We have only to go to a garage sale to see this principle demonstrated even more clearly. Most often we have garage sales when we get rid of stuff we no longer want or value at a profit. Typically we price things at what they might be worth to us, based on what we may have paid for them when we first acquired them and quite often, they sell for less than that price. The worth of things, from homes to stuff depends on what someone else is willing to pay for them.
What about the worth and value of people? Do we value people based on their productivity? Do we value them based on what they can do for us or what they can give to us? Do we de-value them when we are afraid that they will take something from us or get an unfair advantage that we won’t get? Do we de-value a person when our perception is that they are “takers” from society rather than “givers or contributors?” Is immigration such a divisive issue because on some level we feel that others will take something away from us, something we deserve and therefore we should de-value those people? Do we tell people who we believe are benefiting by the hard work of others to “get a job,” because we feel they are taking something from us?
I wonder if we start our perception of someone’s worth when we compare them to ourselves. How do we value ourselves, what standards do we use to determine our worth? Do we tend to define ourselves by the prevailing standards of society; do we make judgments of our worth based on what we can produce, what kind of car we can afford, how big of a house we can live in, or how we look physically? Do we value ourselves to the extent that we are contributing to society, paying our taxes and doing what we can to make the world a better place? What are the guidelines you use when it comes to you? Incidentally, is it easier for you to believe all the negative things that people say to you about you than it is to believe all the positive things? Is your sense of self-worth based on the perceptions of others? Since High School one of my favorite passages of Scripture has been the 6th chapter of the gospel according to Matthew. In it we find these verses:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Matthew 6:25-26 (NIV2011)
In addition to addressing other concerns, this passage gives us a hint about how God counts our worth. If we are to take Matthew seriously, the answer is not based on our productivity, it is not based on how much we accumulate, nor is it based on the amount of stuff we are able to store up for ourselves. God values us with different standards. This particular passage does not go into the specific calculations as to how God does this, but leaves that for further exploration. My hope for all of us this year is that we can take a fresh look at ourselves and truly come to grasp how much we are loved and valued by God. God went to great lengths to offer us Salvation and resurrection through our faith in Jesus Christ. God loves us so much! When we truly understand how much we are loved, when we truly understand that our worth to God is not based on whether or not we are productive, beautiful contributing to the wealth of the world, we might just be able to look at others in a different light. If God loves me just because God created me and not because of what I do for God, then what must I conclude about how God values the rest of the people in the world? When I begin to understand my worth and my value have nothing to do societal standards and values, I can begin to look at others through a different lens as well. The fact of the matter is that when I can embrace my own worth in God’s eyes, I am freed to see the worth of others in a different light as well. I am freed to see them as people for whom God also has incredible love.
Imagine, if you dare, what the world would be like if all people were valued. Imagine what it would be like if all people lived with the certainty that they were loved and cherished. Could it be that this is what God wants us to share, this news of love? Could it be that our actions as disciples are supposed to point to the fact that God is a God of love? What can you and I do this year to help add value to the world? I think it might begin with knowing we are valued and our helping others to know that they are valued as well. May the year of our Lord, 2015 be a year when we can show the world how incredibly valuable it is to God.

Thoughts on Good Friday

How often do we hear calls for someone to be crucified? Maybe we don’t hear exactly that language, but we are no strangers to crucifixions – justified or not. This past Sunday evening there were candle light vigils for Trevon Martin who was killed very recently in Sanford, Florida. He was killed by George Zimmerman, who claims self defense, yet there are many who do not believe him and there seems to be mounting cries of “Crucify him” by outraged citizens around the country. I am not suggesting his guilt or innocence; I am merely commenting on one particular instance where blood lust is still very much a part of our daily lives. In another area of life, let us consider the political primary seasons, when depending on who is in the oval office and on which party is trying to figure out how to replace the president with their own candidate, both Democrats and Republicans do their best to crucify, discredit or destroy one another in the press as they seek the nomination. On an international level, we do our best to crucify foreign leaders and it seems like we are doing more and more to oust those who we decide are not leading their people properly. In our personal lives, it is not uncommon when we have a disagreement with someone these days to kill the relationship rather than try to iron out our differences. We are no strangers to either blood lust or crucifixions.

Of course, just because we are not strangers to crucifixions, does not mean they do not disgust us. Back in Jesus’ day, crucifixions were reserved for the worst of the worst and they were used in order to make a public example of what would happen to those who dared defy the power of Rome. So why is it the story of Jesus is still so shocking to us? Why is it that a man the state thought innocent was put to death anyway in a manner befitting a murderer? Poor Pilate, what pressure he must have been under! On the one hand, he has a group of religious leaders who bring him a man that some refer to as a rabbi, some as a prophet, some as a healer and others as a Messiah. On the other hand, he has examined the man and can find neither threat nor any real fault with him. He does his best to make Jesus their problem. He tries several times to give him back to them, but they keep refusing. Pilate even went so far as to go to the people’s court, literally to let the people decide which of the prisoners scheduled to die, will be given amnesty, will be set free. The people, whether incited by the chief priests or of their own accord want Barabbas freed. Jesus is sentenced to die. Pilate tries for a third time to return Jesus to the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin, but the religious leaders are adamant. “Do you want me to crucify your king, he asks them. They answer; we have no king but the emperor.” They insist that Pilate crucify him and in a desperate attempt to convince him, they go beyond the claim of sedition, to the claim Jesus made that he is the Son of God.  Pilate is finally out of options, he hands Jesus over to be crucified.

Crucify him! Crucify him! And they did. We know the story, we have heard it time and again. As we gather this night, it strikes me that it is worth asking ourselves why we are here. Are we here to remember the story? Sometimes we come to this night and we darken the sanctuary as the service progresses so that the physical environment we are in reflects the story we are hearing, reflects the approaching darkness of death. Sometimes when we gather here we read the whole passion narrative and we hold nails or hear sounds of symbols or try to use dramatic representations to help us feel the anguish and the torment of Jesus suffering. Remembering the story helps us to put our believing in perspective.

We might be here for different reasons though. We might be here to wrestle with some personal stuff, or because it is tradition for us to be here, or perhaps other reasons. Tonight, I am struck by the fact that by and large we live our lives, denying our sin, well any really serious sense of sin. We deny it and tell ourselves that it was other people a long time ago who put Jesus on the cross. It strikes me that we find some comfort in being let of the hook for not being part of the crowd that yelled crucify him or even the people who came before them and apparently messed up things so bad that Jesus had to come in the first place.

It strikes me tonight that it is good we are here, because we need to be. Jesus was on the cross just as much for you and for me as he was for anybody else. There is more than enough guilt to go around. There is more than enough selfish life-style choices made by the people in this room and around the world; more than enough self-serving as opposed to God-serving behavior in our lives to put Jesus on the cross. I guess what I’m trying to say, that although it is hard for us to imagine or admit or perhaps even understand, Jesus death is as much a result of behavior today as it was all those years ago. So we come to this night and we plead with God to forgive our self interested choices and we plead with God to help us again choose the right path. We come this night to mourn that which continues to make forgiveness necessary. While Pilate may have been the one to give the final order for Jesus’ crucifixion, the people’s court still calls for crucifixion today. Lord, have mercy on us. As we gather this night to remember the one who suffered in our place and on our behalf, may we resolve to live lives of grace, mercy and forgiveness and end our personal calls for crucifixion – no matter what arena in life the supposed culprit shows up in.