Monday, December 31, 2012

A simple resolution for the New Year

I recently left a conversation with someone who said she was resolving in the New Year to lose weight.  In the same breath she told me that this was the tenth New Year she’s made the resolution.  She’s made good on all of them, but somewhere in between each one she has grown, as she said it, “less resolved”. 

We all understand what “less resolved” is all about.  It comes about when we place our best intentions against all the other priorities of life.  Something has to give, and usually it’s the latest good idea. 

But would it look any different if instead of resolving to a thing, we resolved to a person? That is, if this New Year’s instead of making a resolution to do something, we resolved instead to follow someone.  To create a new loyalty.  To start a new conversation with someone whose words might redirect our lives into a new and healthy pattern?

Could we resolve to follow Jesus? 

To do so would put us on the path toward trusting him.  You won’t follow someone you don’t trust.  So what if we said tomorrow we are going to start trusting Jesus more?  Accepting that what he says might really be the better way to live. 

Think of the Beatitudes, Jesus opening words in the Sermon on the Mount:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  So many of these ways of life are counterintuitive.  We couldn’t imagine doing them on our own accord.  We need to trust someone that they are actually the right thing to do.

C.S. Lewis in his great essay On Obstinacy in Belief gets to the heart of this when he writes:

In Christianity such faith is demanded of us; but there are situations in which we demand it of others. There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their senses, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out—that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting—that holding on to the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking—that to go higher and on to a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us—a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell.

While there may be a lot of Jesus we don’t understand, there is much more of Jesus that we want to trust.  Instinctively we know that his way is the way, his truth is the truth, his life is the life.  Yet some of the things he asks of us seem to go against what, in the short term, is against our interest.  The only thing left to do is trust.

So let’s make it simple this year.  Let our resolutions be not do anything, but to trust someone.  Trust him for how to live and find the blessedness he’s always had for us. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Miracle and Mystery

I can’t seem to get through an Advent season without sneaking over to my set of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and letting the great Reformed theologian assist me in reflecting upon the great thing God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  In all that our world does to siphon away any miracle and mystery this story has for us, Barth remains the voice of dialectical sanity: “The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognized and acknowledged as the One He is and in the mystery in which He is the One He is.  The mystery does not rest upon the miracle.  The miracle rests upon the mystery.  The miracle bears witness to the mystery, and the mystery is attested by the miracle.”

Miracle and mystery. 

“Behold!” was what the angel said to the shepherds.  It’s King James’ language, and it says so much.  Behold the miracle and the mystery.  Don’t try to explain it.  Don’t try to simplify it.  Don’t try to reduce it to a pithy poem.  Just “behold”.  It is both miracle and mystery.  It requires no additional commentary. Just fall on your knees and behold. And in your beholding maybe the Holy Spirit will have his way with you as he did with the Virgin.  Maybe out if it you will conceive something, or someone, too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pray for the Middle East

For those of us who just returned from 8 days in Israel the escalating violence of the last few days reminds us of how much the "Holy Land" is a study in contrast.  As peace-filled and inspiring as our pilgrimage was, we were aware in the last couple of days that rockets were launching across the borders of Israel and Palestinian territory.  It now grows worse. 

The answers are not easy.  We learned while there that the region is a complex web of passion, rage, belief and yearnings for peace.  It brings to mind the words from Phillips Brooks' great Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 

So as we descended a few days ago down the Mount of Olives and prayed, like Jesus, for the peace of Jerusalem, so we continue in that prayer.  And as Jesus the miracle worker long ago changed the course of history in that land, so we pray for miracles again to occur by God's grace, and through peace see history change again. 



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel: Day 8
We awakened to a brilliant blue sky this morning, perfect for our last day in Israel.  With 36 hours of touring and traveling ahead of us we lingered a bit at breakfast and pushed off at 9:00.  Our first stop was the Garden Tomb.  This is an alternative site for Christians to remember and celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection.  The Golgotha-like hill and first century tomb and beautiful gardens put our hearts in a place of reflection and gratitude. We celebrated communion together and heard the testimony of many of how the risen Christ had appeared to them.

From the Garden Tomb we made our way back to the Old City where we visited the Pool of Bethzatha written about in John 5.  Here Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years.  Next to the Pool stands St. Anne's Church, a Crusader church from the 12th century that features lovely acoustics.  We sang Amazing Grace and the Doxology, pausing to hear the sound of our voices reverberate through the sanctuary.

Then it was off to lunch near the American Consulate and a tour of a diamond manufacturer's museum.  The gift shop below proved too great of a temptation for a few folks. 

We traveled then to Emmaus and to the Crusader church that stands to commemorate the walk to Emmaus by two of Jesus' followers Easter afternoon.  We were greeted by serene gardens, restored frescoes within and a welcoming brother of the monastery who held out hope for us that the world shall someday know peace through the gift of gracious hospitality.  His words were a benediction upon our eight days.  It was a perfect way to end our pilgrimage.

On the way to our farewell dinner we stopped for a moment for some to see the excavations of the 1000 B.C. City of David.

At dinner we laughed and talked and gave thanks for an incredible journey.  The coveted Baby Camel Awards (you'll have to ask one of the pilgrims what that means) were handed out to folks who uniquely distinguished themselves during the trip.  Best of all, we gave loving gifts and ovations to the two men without whom we could not have gone the first mile -- Andre our guide and Wallid our driver.  If any two men ever embodied the gifts of knowledge, navigation and graciousness these men do.  We shall remember them forever.

Off to Ben Gurion airport we fled arriving three hours before our flight.  It took just about every bit of it to get everyone through security and onto the plane.  At 11:22 pm we winged above the lights of the Promised and Holy Land rejoicing that the good Lord had kept us safe and blessed us with encounters that will alter our lives forever. 


Monday, November 12, 2012

Israel: Day 7
Our overnight prayers were not enough to keep the rain clouds away, but a little precipitation could not deter us from a full, full day. 

We began with the traditional pilgrim walk down the Via Dolorosa.  Starting at the site of the Antonio Fortress, where Pontius Pilate held court, we paused in the Chapel of Condemnation and reflected on the journey of Jesus to the cross, the Lamb of God slain forth sins of the world.  We commenced our walk through the Old City with brief stops along the Stations of the Cross.  We ended on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then descended into the church where we took in the sites where Jesus was both crucified and buried.  The church seemed full of people from every nation, causing us to rejoice that the gospel has truly gone to the four corners of the world. 

From the Holy Sepulcher we paused for an early lunch at a small cafe.  After this brief respite, and with bodies fortified, we made our way back to the Temple Mount and waited for the gates to open so we could walk the   grand courtyard where the Temple once stood.  It is now the site of the Dome of the Rock, the most recognized of all Muslim mosques.  While we waited entry we had a front row view of the procession of four or five Bar Mitzvah parades complete with drums, shofars, tambourines, singing and dancing.  A few of our ladies even got recruited for a circle dance celebrating one young man's sacred passage.

After our tour of the Temple Mount, from which we viewed with awe the Mount of Olives, we returned to the bus for a short ride to Mt. Zion. 

At Mt. Zion we climbed the steps to the Upper Room and reflected upon the sacred meal of Jesus that celebrated the Passover and prepared the disciples one last time for the mission ahead of them.

From the Upper Room we walked a short distance to the House of Caiaphas, the High Priest in Jesus' day.  We viewed there a model of sixth century Jerusalem.  Afterward we toured the beautiful church that covers the site of the first century house and the dungeon below where Jesus spent his last night before dying on the cross. We heard a devotion encouraging us to remember that the same grace that was sufficient for Peter, who denied Jesus three times in the high Priest's courtyard, is sufficient for us.  We sang Amazing Grace in response to this good news.

Before we knew it the sun was setting and we were ready for our warm hotel rooms and dinner and one last night in the holiest of all cities.

Tomorrow we commune at the Garden Tomb and reflect upon the resurrection as we prepare for our final dinner together and a late, late departure from Ben Gurion Airport to home. 


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Israel: Day 6 
We title today: Two Rainbows Over Jerusalem.  Of course to have rainbows you have to have rain.  And we had rain.  Fortunately though it occurred in the afternoon after we had already descended the Mount of Olives and visited the "Wailing" Wall. 

The day began with standing atop the Mount of Olives and receiving a lesson from Andre on Jerusalem geography.  Once we got our bearings we pondered the great Pilgrim Psalm, Psalm 122 and prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.  We descended to the place where Jesus paused in his triumphant entry to pray and weep over Jerusalem.  Our devotion encouraged us to consider our own journeys and what Christ was calling us to do as he says, "Follow me."

We proceeded down to the bottom of the Mount to the Garden of Gethsemane.  We paused before the ancient olive trees in the garden and imagined where Jesus may have knelt and prayed for the cup to pass and for God's will to be done. Our devotion challenged us in our own prayer lives and how we might trust God for the strength and guidance we need. 

Then it was on to the Old City of Jerusalem where we visited what some call the Wailing Wall, but what the people of Israel call simply The Wall. Perhaps the holiest of all Jewish sites. Each took their turn before the 2000 year old stones and prayed.  From there we toured the foundations of the original first century Temple through the Western Wall tunnel and saw cut stones 50 million tons big. King Herod knew how to build!!!

As the rain began that was our cue for lunch.  But  on our way we looked behind us to see a rainbow rising in the sky, arching over the Temple Mount reminding us again that God never gives up on us. 

We spread ourselves around the Jewish Quarter for some sandwiches. After lunch and on our way to the bus we saw another rainbow higher in the sky -- as if to say, "Don't forget!"  We loaded up and traveled to the Israel Museum and viewed the Shrine of the Book which contains exhibits of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. Original fragments are on display.

We ended the day with a sobering visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum.  The exhibits are nearly overwhelming with the suffering of so many at the hands of the Nazi's.  Man's inhumanity to man.  The final exhibit was the Children's Memorial, a darkened room with endless points of light.  Each point a reflection from one light.  I couldn't help think of God pointing Abraham to the star filled  sky and assuring him of the countless descendants he would someday have. 1.5 million children of the Holocaust - all points of light and sons and daughters of Abraham. 

Wet and tired we made our way back to the hotel with the abiding sense that the only light that can dispel the darkness is the light of Christ.  And our only hope - the God who made his promise to us in the rainbow. 


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Israel: Day 5
A beautiful day greeted us again this morning at the Dead Sea.  We experienced a little of Israeli Sabbath last night and today with Shabbat elevators (no pushing buttons), and limited food services due to Sabbath restrictions.  We managed fine and were on our way at 8am to Masada.  We took a cable car up the mountain and spent a good portion of time learning about King Herod the Great and his penchant for palaces and security.  We pondered the story of the Jewish Zealots who retreated to this fortress in the face of the 66 A.D. Roman invasion.  The Romans laid siege to the the fortress for three years and finally built a ramp to ascend the heights and ram the walls.  All their effort, however, was met with the remains of the mass suicide of the Zealots who preferred death over captivity.

From Masada we journeyed north a few miles to En Gedi -  the lovely oasis in the midst of the Judean wilderness.  We were met with the bad news that a rock slide had closed the park to entry.  Preparing to return to the bus, we nevertheless stopped to listen to a wonderful devotion on Psalm 23. Immediately at the conclusion of the devotion they announced the reopening of the park!

Most of us hiked back into the cleft of the mountains to see the remarkable springs and waterfalls.  We paused and listened to the story of David sparing Saul in En Gedi and wondered to whom each of us owed mercy.

From En Gedi we journeyed north and west, leaving behind the wilderness and making our way to the big city.  With a swing through Jerusalem we passed through the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem (West Bank from Israel).  We stopped and had lunch at a sandwich shop and then proceeded to a large gift store to satisfy the shopping addiction of many. 

With shopping bags stuffed into our seats, we proceeded to the Church of the Nativity.  Andre explained  the three Christian traditions that maintain claims on the church - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox.  We ended up visiting the cave where Jesus was born beneath the Roman Catholic Chapel.

From the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square we took a short ride to the Shepherd's Fields outside Bethlehem and explored some caves where likely the Bethlehem shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night.  We heard a lovely devotion from two of our group about the witness and worship of the shepherds.

We got to our hotel in Jerusalem after nightfall.  A busy and fulfilling day, to be sure!

Tomorrow: the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Old City. 


Friday, November 9, 2012

Israel: Day 4
We saw a shower of rain outside the window of our dining hall this morning.  It's badly needed for the region.  However, by the time we got to the bus the skies cleared and we were on our way south to the Dead Sea with many stops along the way.

Our first stop was at the Crusader Fort Belvoir.  Belvoir means "good view", and we were not disappointed. The view over the Jordan Valley was breathtaking.  The ruins of this incredible structure revealed a seemingly impenetrable fortress complete with a moat and a double walled interior.  We couldn't imagine any enemy with a chance of being able to storm such ramparts.

From Belvoir we proceeded down the Jordan Valley to the ancient city of Jericho.  We toured the excavation sight of the Canaanite city that Joshua and the Israelites conquered as they entered the Promised Land.  Remnants of the crumbled walls made the Biblical story come alive.  We also recalled how Jesus broke down the walls surrounding a man named Zacchaeus and reclaimed him as a son of Abraham.

Just a few mile east is the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.  We listened to one of our own share a devotional reading there and then we reaffirmed our baptism by reciting together the Apostles' Creed and wading in the waters of the Jordan.  An unforgettable moment.

Then it was off to lunch and some shopping for Dead Sea products.

Andre, our guide, took us on a most informative tour of Qumran - the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.  Over 900 scrolls were found here in 1947.  They date back to the time of Jesus and confirm the accuracy of many of our Old Testament texts. 

Then we drove further south to our hotel along the shores of the Dead Sea.  Most quickly checked into their rooms and made their way to swim, er float, in the buoyant salty waters.  Others enjoyed the pool and spa.  We gathered for a delicious dinner in the dining hall and celebrated with thanksgiving and laughter what a great trip we've enjoyed so far.

Tomorrow we are on our way to Masada, En Gedi, Bethlehem and Jerusalem!!!


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Israel: Day 3
Another beautiful morning greeted us today.  After a hearty breakfast we made our way to the top of the Arbel Cliff overlooking the Gennesaret Valley and the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We took in a spectacular view of the region where Jesus performed most of his ministry.  From there we traveled north to the ancient ruins of the Canaanite city of Hazor.  This was one of the towns the Israelites conquered in their effort to occupy the Promised Land. 

From Hazor we made our way toward the Lebanese border to Tel Dan - a beautiful nature preserve.  Most of us made the hike through the luscious woods along the raging headwaters of the Jordan River.  At the end of the trail we came upon the remains of the altar and high place (Shechem) of the northern tribes of Israel instituted and constructed by the renegade King Jeroboam. 

From there it was on to lunch at a roadside cafe.

The afternoon brought a visit to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took inventory of the disciples with his question, "Who do you say that I am?". It gave Peter the opportunity to answer with the first profession of faith of the disciples, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."

On our way back toward the shores of Galilee we traveled along the Golan Heights, the region captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 War.  We stopped for some pictures of the border, the U.N. Station and the general region where, just last week, Syrian tanks happened into.

Then it was to the edge of the Sea of Galilee where we visited the Church of the Loaves and Fishes wherein is found beautiful mosaic floors including the famous basket of four loaves and two fish (the undepicted fifth loaf is said to be the bread of life, the Body of Christ that is consecrated on the altar above).

We completed our day at St. Peter's Primacy - right on the shore of the Sea.  We read that great story from John 21 and remembered together Jesus asking Peter, "Do you love me more than these?"  Supposing Jesus' question was an attempt to call Peter away from the old life of fishing to the new life of tending Christ's sheep,  we each took time alone to wonder what new life Christ was calling us to. 

From those quiet moments it was back to the active city of Tiberias and dinner.  Hard to believe one day can top another, but they keep seeming to! 


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Israel: Day 2
We are back to our home at the Gai Beach Hotel in Tiberias after a very full day of pilgrimage.  We began in Nazareth with a visit to the beautiful Church of the Annunciation.  We toured the grotto upon which the church is built, which tradition names as the site where Mary received the announcement from the Angel Gabriel that she would bear the Son of God.

From Nazareth we went a short distance to the ancient city of Sepphoris, a Roman city in the time of Jesus that one can imagine that he and his father visited for the purposes of their carpentry trade.

We enjoyed lunch in the town of Magda (from which Mary Magdalene came). Many tried the Galilee fish - Tilapia.  From lunch we sailed upon the Sea of Galilee and pondered the story of Jesus calming the storm on the sea.  Upon our return we ascended the Mount of Beatitudes and reflected upon Jesus' teachings amidst the beautiful grounds there. 

We ended the day with a visit to the ancient town of Capernaum which Jesus used as the home base of his ministry.  The walls of the disciple Peter's house remain there, as well as the foundation of the synagogue where Jesus taught and healed.  We read from Mark 1 and imagined the story coming alive. 

An amazing day full of close encounters with the living and powerful God!

Tomorrow we travel north to Caesarea Philippi and the Golan Heights.

Blessings and Shalom.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Israel: Day 1
We completed the first great day of  our pilgrimage through the Holy Land.  After safely arriving from our overnight transatlantic flight, we slept on the shores of the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv.  A lovely hotel and great food!

Today we stopped at the beautiful seaport of Joppa, south of Tel Aviv.  We meditated upon the story of Peter's vision of the sheet and animals that prompted him to begin spreading the good news to the Gentiles, and the story of Jonah and his effort to flee God's call by boarding a ship at Joppa. 
We then journeyed to Caesarea Maritime and saw the ruins of the great Roman city built by Herod the Great.  This is also where Peter shared the gospel with the Gentile Cornelius.

After lunch we ascended Mount Carmel and reflected upon the story of Elijah and his contest with  the prophets of Baal.  Lastly, we toured the amazing ruins of Tel Meggido and considered the 25 layers of civilization that have dwelt there over the last 7000 years.

Now we take our dinner and rest alongside the Sea of Galilee and prepare to walk the steps of Jesus tomorrow.

Pray for us!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fifty Years to Forgiveness

I had the occasion this week to read again Letters to an American Lady, the compilation of letters that C.S. Lewis wrote to Mary Willis Shelburne, an American widow living in Washington, D.C..  The correspondence began in 1950 and ended shortly before Lewis' death in the fall of 1963.  The letters themselves are remarkable in how they reveal Lewis' steadfastness for this woman who seemed in constant need of encouragement.  Lewis was steadfast to all who corresponded with him.  He committed himself to reply to every letter he received -- children and adult alike.  His collection of letters, published by Harper, stretch to well over 3000 pages with several letters to a page! 

In the last year of his life, four months before dying, Lewis wrote Ms. Shelburne with the glad report that he "at last had forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood."  This was a man who appeared in his life fifty years before and had arbitrarily and maliciously abused his students physically and emotionally.  He was later to be found insane.  Nevertheless, Lewis harbored anger and resentment.  Even after accepting Christ he couldn't bring himself to truly forgive the man.  He would pray forgiveness for the evil schoolmaster, long dead, but in his heart he knew that he couldn't let the pain go.  

But he wouldn't stop trying!  He took the clause in the Lord's Prayer seriously:  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  He realized that the two acts are forever interlinked.  "The forgiving and the being forgiven are really the same thing," he tells the widow Shelburne.  For fifty years he appealed to Christ for help in doing what he himself could not do.  And finally, after a half century of pleading, the Holy Spirit brought about a work of grace. 

It makes me wonder how seriously I take the call to forgive.  How many times have I given a faint wave of grace and yet harbored a lingering resentment.  God cares too much about our enemies to let us get by with the mere lip service of accepting apologies.  He knows it takes more than that for people to truly encounter the sweet mercy of Christ.  It takes our appeal to the Holy Spirit for something to be done IN us, so something can be done FOR them.  All become the better for it. 

Who remains on your "need to be truly forgiven" list?  Fifty years is a long time, but it's worth it in the end. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Love, whether you like it or not

C.S. Lewis always manages to defy simple characterization. Just when you think he fits the customary evangelical model he comes out with something that makes you pause and wonder and reconsider. Try this on for size from The Four Loves:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them.  He creates the universe, already forseeing -- or should we say "seeing"? there ar no tenses in God -- the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath's sake, hitched up.  If I may dare the biological image, God is a "host" who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and "take advantage of" Him.  Herein is love.  This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Lewis in other places writes that God is beyond time.  All things happen in one moment for God.  We see events unfolding sequentially, God sees them happening at once.  And so when God creates, he creates with the cross in mind.  He loves because we won't love back.  This is love -- love unconditioned by our response.  It doesn't matter if you like it, God will love you anyway. 

Karl Barth in his Dogmatics says, What unites God and us men is that He does not will to be God without us, that He creates us rather to share with us and therefore with our being and life and act His own incomparable being and life and act, that He does not allow His history to be His and our ours, but causes them to take place as a common history.  That is the special truth which the Christian message has to proclaim at its very heart. 

Your life, beyond what you may ever know or want, has been taken into the life of God on the cross.  His history is our history.  His love is our love.  Denying it, doesn't make it not so.  What a great message to share. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This might surprise you

C.S. Lewis raises an intriguing point in Mere Christianity that is worth thinking about.  He says this,

"[The invisible Christ] works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences which seem at the time anti-Christian.  When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going -- provided he does it for honesty's sake and not just to annoy his parents -- the spirit of Christ is probably nearest to him then than it ever was before.  But above all, He works on us through each other.
"Men are mirrors, or 'carriers' of Christ to other men.  Sometimes unconscious carriers.  This 'good infection' can be carried by those who have not got it themselves.  People who were not Christians themselves helped me to Christianity.  But usually it is those who know Him that bring Him to others."

Lewis leaves a lot of room for a lot of different folks to be participants in the kingdom of God, doesn't he?  When he imagines that those uninfected by Christ can themselves be contagious with Christ, he seems to suggest that there are countless people in this world unconscious of the fact that they have already been enfolded into the divine plan.  Can you be "of Christ", or can Christ be "in you" without your knowing it?  If an honest turning away from Christianity is something that actually draws you closer to Jesus without your awareness, what might this mean to our fellow human beings who are honestly seeking the truth outside of the church?  Might they be deeper into the kingdom than we think? 

I think of Emeth at the end of The Last Battle whose whole life had been a yearning to honor and follow the false god Tash.  Lewis gives us the surprise ending of Aslan welcoming the young man into Narnia.  He counts his earnest pursuit of truth as enough for the kingdom. 

Might this mean, according to Lewis, that the kingdom life has more to do with the honest pursuit of what is real and true wherever that takes us?  That we are "in Christ" and Christ is "in us" when we share in the honest pursuit of what is true and good and real.  And if that's so, doesn't that change the whole conversation of faith we might have with those who disagree with us?  Christ is already in those who struggle with us to discover what is ultimate. 

It certainly might help us avoid the mistake made by the folks in Matthew 25 who wondered when they had ever seen Jesus.  And Jesus says, "You saw me in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. In all those who were seeking goodness from you.  I was "in" them.  They were contagious with me." 

It sure changes things if I can imagine that with every person that comes into my life there is the real possibility that I am at risk, no matter who they are, of being infected further by Jesus. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The election

I live in one of those states that hang in the electoral college balance:  Florida.  For the next three months we will be subjected to endless and demeaning political ads that don't particularly want to tell us the truth about anything or anyone.  Issues are beside the point and this election will succeed only in making more and more Americans grow more and more cynical and discouraged.  I never thought as a former political science major that I would come to cringe at the mention of the word "election", but I do. 

But then I indulged myself in a little reading of Karl Barth today -- Church Dogmatics II v. 2 -- and there I read about Election.  A great election.  God's unequivocal election of his people.   God in Christ says Yes to us.  He chooses us out of his grace.  "The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel."  God reconciles the world to himself.  The WORLD.  There is nothing we can do to keep God from saying Yes to us.  There is no card we can play to trump it.  God loves us unconditionally.  No strings attached.  No conditions.  No secret code.  No formula of prayer.  God chooses us and invites us to live in response to this election. 

We get to build our lives upon this vote that God casts for us.  We get to live the abundant life of assurance.  We don't have to worry whose on what side.  We're all on God's side.  Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  It's one issue over which polarity does not exist.  And it just happens to be the most important issue of all. 

Finally, an election to be hopeful about. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Penn State and the Presbyterians

In one of my all-time favorite Lake Wobegon pieces by Garrison Keillor he tells the story of a college professor in some Midwestern university who is slowly falling out of love with his wife and quickly growing infatuated with a female colleague. The two of them are scheduled to go to a conference together and he knows that when they do they will begin an affair. He stands out in his front yard waiting for the woman to come pick him up. It is at that moment that this man Jim begins to really think about what he’s doing – and later he describes what happened:

“I looked up the street of my little town which was health to my flesh and blood, where people went to church, and voted in elections, and bought what the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts sold them, rooted for the home team, raised money for the library and tended the parks. And I thought how much we depend on each other. All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them, pollute the drinking water, and send noxious fumes up the ventilators at the elementary school.

“When we scream in senseless anger,” the professor continues ruminating, “a little 8-year-old girl several blocks away we don’t even know spills gravy all over a white tablecloth. And if I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection, and someone’s child will be injured. A 6th-grade teacher will say, ‘What the heck,’ and eliminate South America from geography. The minister will say, ‘What the heck,’ and decide not to give that sermon about feeding the poor. The guy at the grocery store will say, “To heck with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday, it’s just as good today.’ And I decided that we all depend on each other more than we can ever know.”

The story ends with Jim walking back into his house and forgetting the trip.

Keillor beautifully makes an oft-ignored point. No man is an island. We live in a web. We are connected to everything else. Every move sends ripples across the web strings. And it reminds us that everything we do matters because it affects so many, far beyond what we know.

The tragic events at Penn State show clearly how much of a connected system we are in. Boys are violated and the web shakes as a result. And because we are all connected we all have a responsibility when the ripple crosses our part of the web -- whether we are the first to hear and see or the last to hear and see. And we each react and our action or inaction sends further ripples. It’s not just one man who is responsible and it’s not just a few men who are responsible. We’re all responsible because we’re all in the web. Blame lies not just with a team’s culture or with a university’s culture, but with a sport’s culture. I am a part of that. And I am just as vulnerable as the next person to be tempted to do the wrong thing, or to pressure others to do the wrong thing for the sake of my enjoyment. If I behave like I want my team to win at all costs – the team or coach might just do that. I bear responsibility for that.

And yet typically our response to such tragedy is to point fingers at whatever piece of the institution we think is most to blame and say, “There’s the problem.” We attempt to make it an island, dislodge it from the main, cut out the piece of the web that we think is guilty and attempt to leave the rest intact. The problem is that when you cut out a piece of the web, the rest of the web collapses. You have nothing to hang on.

We talk a lot about this on Good Friday. When Jesus hangs on the cross we don’t ask who’s to blame. We don’t point the finger at Pilate or the Romans and say, “It’s your fault.” We bear our own responsibility and rhetorically sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And the answer is yes. We are in the human web, the sinful human web that brings about the death of the Messiah.

I think this is what the apostle Paul was getting at when he talks to the fractured Corinthian church and says, “YOU are the body of Christ. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” We in the Church are connected to each other whether we want to be or not. We can’t disown a part of the body just because we don’t like it or understand it. Paul continues, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

So I find it curious that when the Church finds itself in disagreement there are some whose response is to dislodge themselves from the main and create an island. Disconnect from the web and see if we can go it alone. Become like-minded. Dismember themselves from the body and say, “I have no need of you.” It seems to fly in the face of I Corinthians 12. It’s easy for us to find something that gives us reason to separate because we live in the fantasy that we are stronger on our own.

Our friends in State College, Pennsylvania are known to exclaim on Saturday afternoons, “We are Penn State.” It was true last year and it’s no less true this year. When some suffer, all suffer. When some rejoice, all rejoice. We’re all responsible.

Doesn’t the same go when we sing with our children, “I am the church. You are the
church. We are the church together?” Or when we sing, “Blest be the tie that binds?” Christ has entangled us in his web and there is no letting us go or, for that matter, letting each other go.

Friday, July 6, 2012

God, church and baseball

I'm in Pittsburgh attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. It is the bi-annual gathering of Presbyterians where we go to discover how different we are. For some reason this always seems to surprise us. We lament how little we have in common. We cast aspersions on folks on the other side. Sometimes the divide is razor thin, sometimes a little bigger. There is always dissent. It is as it should be. It's what makes being a Presbyterian such a great thing. It seems though at these things we spend so little time focusing on what we have in common; the core reason for why we're there. While in Pittsburgh I stole away one night to catch a baseball game. The Pirates were in town playing the Astros. I like baseball and I'm a big St. Louis Cardinal fan. I don't follow particularly the two teams that were playing, but the game itself brought me there. Not everybody there was a Pirates fan, nor an Astros fan. But we were all baseball fans. We like the game: the balls and strikes, the pitches and catches, the home runs and strikeouts, the play of the players. Everybody understands what we're there for - to watch, cheer and participate in baseball. What's the "game" that brings us to be the church? In my church back home we do something just about every Sunday - we repeat together the Apostles' Creed. Just about everything else we do is different each Sunday - the music, the scriptures, the prayers, the sermon - but the creed stays the same. And once we leave our variety of actions are even more varied than what we've done "in sanctuary". Still we come back each week to say the creed. It's what we believe, it's what informs our particular paths and it's what brings us together. It's baseball. The Church gets in trouble every time we try to add to it, and when we insist that the rest have to agree to the "add-on". We do this with new confessions, new policy positions, new moral guidelines. And we offer these add-ons not as ideas and points to consider and celebrate, but rather as dictums to be obeyed. And sure enough we gather at the stadium and spend our time fighting in the stands rather enjoying a good game, the best game. There are more U.S. Presbyterian denominations than there are Major League baseball teams. Each seems to want to play a different game. And yet few would disagree over the Apostles' Creed. God in Christ has done an amazing thing. It takes a lifetime to even scratch the surface of how amazing it really is. Every day affords us the chance to respond to it in wide, varied and creative ways. How about a Church of the Apostles' Creed? How about when we gather we take in the game? Celebrate the game? Participate in the game? And not let the rest distract us from what's going on on the field. I know it sounds like a naive suggestion and I know it will fall prey to the sophisticated and the cynical. But wouldn't it be a place to start a conversation - a new conversation about an old game.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.

“We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

In one beautiful sentence Lewis points to a fine line in the spiritual journey that is challenging for any of us to walk. Those of us who are offspring of the Reformation are eager to agree that spirituality is not as much about what we do, but what God does in us. The first project for God is not the world, but the soul. Each soul. It is through recreated souls that God brings about certain actions that shape the world in a certain way.

The challenge though is to read this sentence and not jump to the conclusion that we are the certain sort of people God wants. Doesn’t God have more to do with you? One of the pitfalls of religion is to base the prototype of spirituality on ourselves. How boring and self-righteous! It’s what makes life exciting – to think that God’s not through we me yet! And the more we realize what more God has left to do in us, the less we might be worried about what more God has to do in others. Maybe that’s the sort of person he’s looking for – someone who graces others as much as she or he has been graced by God … to be as gracious with other’s faults as God has been with ours.

In the end, we will know what kind of people we are becoming by what actions we are performing. Is the nature of my behavior changing? Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” Is my fruit pleasing for those around me? That will go to show what tree I’ve become.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

That which I greatly feared has come upon me.

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. Surprised by Joy, p. 228 I was rereading this account of Lewis’s transforming moment today and discovered something I don’t think I ever knew: Lewis when he tells his story tells it to us, partly, through the words of Job: “That which I greatly feared has come upon me.” (Job 3:25) Isn’t it interesting that Lewis quotes the terrifying experience of Job when he tells the story of his own epiphany? It is as if to suggest that truth – in whatever form – can be terrifying. A new reality is destabilizing. It can come in the form that we mostly greatly fear. Do you wonder if there are forms of the truth that we keep at bay because we are simply afraid to face them, or to have them face us? I heard a man recently talk about his decision for sobriety. It came when he had to confront something true about himself – he was causing too many other people pain. His problem was everyone else’s problem. That which he greatly feared had come upon him. He was powerless when it came to alcohol. Sometimes a new idea surfaces in our society and because we have spent so much time convinced of another idea we are afraid to consider something new. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we may have been wrong. And even though shades of the new idea are convincing, we still push it away. The new idea for Lewis was the credibility of God, and that which he greatly feared (being wrong in his atheism) had come upon him. Don’t worry if a new idea pulls you kicking and screaming into a new opinion. You join the ranks of many who have found new life. Lewis continues: I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? If you find yourself kicking and screaming – you might just be on to something. That which you’ve greatly feared has, maybe, come upon you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Past Watchful Dragons

Lewis in his great essay on writing for children talks about the challenge of writing stories that bear the reality of the gospel but without the doctrinal and interpetive baggage that adults want to place on the simple story. Says Lewis, "I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could." There is something about us preachers and teachers that sometimes doesn't want to trust the power of the story itself. Somehow we feel the compulsion to tell people what the story means, instead of letting the story do it. I suppose in a sense that's what preaching is -- explaining the story. But maybe our preaching and teaching become the "watchful dragons" that prevent people from feeling the grasp of the tale. George MacDonald, Lewis's literary mentor, in his great essay The Fantastic Imagination compares these things to the experience of listening to a sonata: "If two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough -- and that little more than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it be expected to impart anything defined, anything notionally recognizable?" Can we trust that the story of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit will rouse in those who read and hear what can and should be roused? Jesus seemed content to tell gospel by simply telling stories. Why must we post watchful dragons of explanation and doctrine at the door?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Playing the Part Well

In C.S. Lewis's great essay, The World's Last Nighthe speaks of what it means to have a healthy appreciation of the doctrine of the Second Coming. Too many, he feels, are worried about the plot and ending that they fail to understand their own role. Writes Lewis, "It is (because of) our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are "on" concerns us much more than to guess aobut the scenes that follow it." Lewis goes on to illustrate by talking about a minor character in King Lear to whom the playwright does not even give a name. In the third act he performs an act of instinctive loyalty and bravery and as a result is killed. His unnamed part is 8 lines long, but, as Lewis puts it: "But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted." The part best to have acted. It's nice not to have to worry about the ending of the play or the plot that leads to it. The key is play your part. When the director points our way, act! This is our contribution not only to the present, but to the ending. As students of the New Testament we may be given a peak at the ending, but there is a whole lot of acting that needs to be done in the meanwhile. Who knows? Maybe the whole play turns on our part.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

There, but for the grace of God, go I

In the middle of 16th century a British cleric, John Bradford, got caught in the ever changing religious and monarchical landscape of England. Bradford was an ardent Protestant preacher and devotee of the Church of England itinerating in Lancashire and Cheshire. When Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic, took the throne it wasn’t long before Bradford was thrown into jail for supposedly stirring a mob. He ended up in the London Tower and would never be released. While there, however, instead of lamenting his condition he gave over his time to the careful study of the New Testament with other churchmen including Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. When Bradford glanced out the window of the tower one day and noticed a set of prisoners being taken to their execution he said aloud: “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” Not realizing that he was coining a phrase used for centuries to come, Bradford was simply reflecting on how life and its goodness had much more to do with the conspiratorial movements of grace, than of his own devices. By the grace of God he was still alive. Later the queen conspired against him and he was burned at the stake. There, but for the grace of God, go I. It’s what we say when we see what good things and bad things life can sometimes throw our way. It’s like what Jack Benny said when once accepting an award: “I don’t deserve this award, but then again I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” There, but for the grace of God, go I. We’ve read in the last couple of days about a young Yale graduate just a few days past her commencement and with a seemingly bright future ahead of her dies suddenly and tragically in an auto accident. It could happen to any of us. There, but for the grace of God, go I. A dear friend of mine, a young father in his late 30’s, having just accepted a new ministry post with great promise, while driving late at night on a country road, gets hit by a teenager asleep at the wheel. It could have happened to any of us. There, but for the grace of God, go I. The creation conspires, doesn’t it? Sometimes it conspires in our favor and sometimes it conspires against us. And there is so little of it we can control. But isn’t this where thanksgiving begins? When I combine the theory of causation with the composition of my genetic code and being knit together in my mother’s womb – the truth is I have very little in this life I can take credit for. It has come from somewhere else. Grace has conspired to give me so much. The psalmist put it this way: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” I didn’t pick my brain. I didn’t pick my family. I didn’t pick my childhood church. They were all chosen for me. And I realize my fortune. Whatever I have done with what I’ve received has far more to do with conspiratorial circumstances than with my own smarts. And even if my smarts were involved, they weren’t my smarts to begin with – they came from someone else!!! In the pool of four sons of which I am a part, all from the same parents, one has a brain that never allowed a word to pass his lips nor to think much past a three year old’s ability. There, but for the grace of God, go I!!! How can you not be thankful?? And in being thankful how can you not want to be a part of conspiratorial grace for others?