Living As God’s Babies

Yesterday we sang the hymn “Grace Alone,” by Scott Wesley Brown and Jeff Nelson. At the end of this post are two different links to watch two different groups perform it on You Tube. Yesterday, I had chills up and down my spine the whole time we were singing it. Our whole service was focused on how, as children of God, we are incredibly loved. That love is because of Grace Alone. I’ll get to that in a moment. My message was based on 1 John 3:1-7 which, in part, reminds us that we are beloved children of God. I got to reflecting on how many people react when they see a baby cradled in his or her parents’ arms, or when we see a toddler taking what are obviously new steps. We smile, we do the baby talk thing, our faces light up and we can’t help but feel good and young. What is it about a baby that does this; that gives us hope and helps us to see wonder in a world that is filled with more than its share of sadness and pain? I think the older we get, the more we cherish the possibilities babies offer us and then we wonder at what great things they will try to do and even accomplish.

John begins by writing that we are indeed children of God in a world that does not know us because it does not know God. You might be wondering how the world could not know God, but there it is. What if it is because we are not doing a very complete job of loving the world? Anyway, the next thing I found myself pondering was: what if we are God’s babies; that is what if you and I are God’s hope for the future of the world? What if God sends us as babies into the world? What if God is pinning God’s hopes for the world on us? What if the children of God are God’s way of helping the world smile at the possibilities of new life? What if God’s children are the avenue for God to show that love indeed triumphs fear and hate and violence? What if our job as Christians is to help the world know Christ – thorough our innocence, our wonder, our wobbly steps and our brilliant smiles when we recognize a face that is looking at us and smiling? What if we understand that we bring a smile to God’s face when we love the world around us?

How can we, how can you and I possibly help the world to know God? I am convinced we can only do this when we realize that we live by Grace alone. When we are understand that we are unconditionally loved, we can love. When we realize that God takes genuine delight in us, we can delight in others. How much different do you think our world would be if we could remember to live each day remembering that it is by God’s grace and through God’s love that we have life at all? I want so much to happen in my life. I want so much to happen in the lives of those I love. I want so much to happen in the life of the congregation I serve and in the Church of Jesus Christ. I want to do whatever I can to make those things happen. I want to be in charge of the transformation of the world, but you know what? I don’t think it really matters how badly I want it. I am not in charge, God is. I am not the one who can control the outcome of everything. What I can do is accept that what I receive today is grace and what I can do is to share the grace I receive. What I can do is pray for the grace to let God be God and for me to be an instrument of God’s love and grace to the world. What I can do is give God thanks for the grace I receive each day.

The chorus to the song:

Grace alone Which God supplies, Strength unknown He will provide
Christ in us, our cornerstone, We will go forth in grace alone.

I wish I Had A Nickel . . .

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone suggested to me that we need to run the church “like a business.” Come to think of it, I usually hear that comment when folks are trying to figure out more ways for the church to receive more nickels and spend fewer nickels – but that’s a topic for another day. Before I go further, I just want it known that I am committed to using best practices for the church in all that I do as a pastor which includes best business practices as they apply to the church. In my opinion the church still has a thing or two to learn from business notably in the areas of advertising and evaluating its ministry in light of core values, purpose and setting what Jim Collins and Jerry Porrass in Built to Last;  Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials) have called, Big Hairy, Audacious goals. (Also something to explore another day) Granting that up front, allow your imagination to roam a little bit.

If the primary goal of business is to make a profit for the business owners or stake holders, what does that mean for the church?

If the church is a business what product or service does the church sell?

Who produces the product?

Who distributes the product?

Is there a sales force, who in the church is responsible for sales?

Who are the customers or what is the church’s target market? Are members the market, or to put it another way are the products of the church designed primarily for the members to consume?

These kinds of questions lead me to wonder about our understanding of the nature of the church. If we are going to insist that the church is a business then it seems to me that we are assuming that the church is primarily a place where people come to buy/purchase/acquire religious goods and services. If that is the case then we need to make sure we understand the answers to all the above questions – if we want to stay in business.

An alternative model of church is that it is a community of the faithful, led by a vision of the love of God as expressed in Jesus Christ that is engaged in building and extending God’s beloved community in the world. Members of the church in this model are not the target market or consumers of religious goods and services, rather they live with the understanding that we covenant (promise) to live in love, empowering as many people as we can to be the best they can be. Members of the church understand that discipleship is strengthened and practiced in the community of the church so that the church can build the community outside of the church. This is driven by a vision that God’s love and peace are offered to all and our discipleship is the way we extend it to our worlds. It means that we live out and stand for justice, integrity and respect for all people. It means that we encourage each other to practice our faith 24/7. It means that your spiritual growth is just as crucial to me as is my own. It means we are a community of prayer that seeks to be led by God to make a difference for God’s sake in the world. This is the business of the church.

I am not so naive as to think that there is only one way to understand the church, but I do think it worth more than a nickel to pause a moment in our frantic busyness and consider who God is calling us to be and how God is shaping us to build community. The business of the church is not busyness for the sake of saying we are doing something for God. The business of the church is to build God’s beloved community right here in our midst – right now. All of the members of the church are responsible for sharing in the life of this community where God’s love is practiced and lived out in our everyday lives in every corner of our worlds.

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?