Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My Dad on the Sideline

As Father’s Day weekend approaches I have many memories of my dad, but one always comes to the forefront.  It’s when I was a senior in high school.

Growing up I was a good-but-not-great athlete.  I loved playing anything but early on baseball became my passion.  I started organized ball at age 8 and played through high school.  At about 12 I started playing football and actually was pretty good.  As quarterback, I was MVP of my youth teams and the clippings from the local paper made me think pretty highly of myself. As I entered high school there was talk of my ascension to starting quarterback of the varsity squad, but a funny think happened on the way from sophomore year to junior year.  I stopped growing!  My height became a liability and my arm strength hadn’t developed.  Entering my junior year, others soared past me and I was relegated to the backup.  So that year after the agony of summer football camp I chose to bypass football to concentrate on baseball.  It was a painful decision, but I wasn’t eager to put in all that work to ride the pine! 

It was the right decision, but I struggled with feelings of being a quitter.  I felt that others perceived I was not tough enough to play football, and that bothered me.  I didn’t want to be known as a quitter, so I decided to play football my senior year even though I knew there was little chance of getting any meaningful playing time. I was deep on the depth charts but worked as hard as the rest.  I never missed a practice, gave it my all, and cheered from the sidelines on gameday.

Practices were the worst.  As a backup, I’d run the second team offense against the first team defense, and boy did we take a beating. There were two constants from that season. One was me getting my bell rung day after day. The second constant was my dad.

At the end of each practice I could look up and there he was in the distance watching his son. And as he watched I could feel a sense of love and pride he had in me just as if I were the star of the team.  That difficult season of football taught me something about him that I have valued all my life.  That lesson made all the hits worth it.  My father’s love for me was not based on my accomplishments.  He loved me because I was his son.

My dad was an ordinary man. A blue-collar working man born in the 1920’s and served in WWII.  As many men from that generation, he rarely voiced his feelings.  He was not well educated. He was not a theologian.  But my dad on the sideline, proud of his second-string son, taught me a lesson that has shaped my image of God more than any lecture, professor, or upper-level college class.  He taught me that God, my other Father, loves me not based on my accomplishments, but because I am his son!

Your Father really loves you.  And I mean, he really loves you! I pray that this Father’s Day you feel that love and approval not because of what you’ve done or haven’t done, but because you are his child.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
And that is what we are!
1 John 3:1

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

“Whack-a-Mole” Syndrome

Remember the old arcade game “Whack-a-Mole”? If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a brief description.  It’s a table about waist high with five holes where toy moles would randomly pop up and almost immediately pop back down.  The object of the game was to use a padded mallet to whack the mole before he disappeared back into his hole.  It was two minutes of frenzied fun!

The game took on a broader social meaning representing any futile and repetitious action. It became a symbol for the frenzied pace of our lives where one problem pops up, we try to whack it, and, as soon as that one is taken care of, another problem surfaces. Whack-a-Mole became emblematic of our lives - problem after problem consuming our time and energy leaving us exhausted and stressed.

Have you ever found yourself playing a non-stop game of Whack-a-Mole? I have. The pesky mole of family issues pops up, and then the worrisome mole of financial woes appears, and before you know it, the bothersome mole of sickness taunts you, and then the irritating mole of work-place worry surfaces.  Mole after mole after mole.  At the end of the day you stand there exhausted. When you finally get to lay your head on your pillow, the moles of the day continue to pop up in your mind robbing you of the rest you need to play another round the next day.

Whatever the source of our moles, God knows there are so many things that can obsess our minds and deprive us of the rest and joy he wants us to have.  Jesus gives considerable time to this in Matthew 6:25-33 as part of his longest recorded sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. I recommend you read the text itself but allow me to try to summarize a few words of advice from Jesus.
(1) Don’t exaggerate your problems.  Some of the things we worry about may not be as significant as we make them.   Are we able to distinguish between wants and needs? Do we trust that God knows our needs?  An obsession with getting everything you want will never end.  Be satisfied with and thankful for the daily provisions from God.  Develop the discipline of contentment in your life and many of those moles will disappear.
(2) See the futility of worry.  Jesus says, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27) Of course we need to do what we can do to address problems and circumstances in our lives, but incessant worry accomplishes nothing. The English clergyman William Ralph Inge said, “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.” Many of the things we worry about never come to pass.  Take care of what you can today and face the next day when it comes.
(3) Keep spiritual matters at the top of the list.  Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) Ask yourself, “Will the mole that is bothering me so much today have any meaning or significance in my life in 10, 20, or 30 years?” Most importantly, does what's bothering you have any eternal significance? Living from a spiritual/eternal point of view brings today’s problems into perspective and often helps alleviate the grip that passing afflictions have over us.
God doesn’t want us to live in a frenzied state of worry and panic, and he assures us that he will share those burdens with us.  He promises to somehow see us through if we’ll only lean on him and find peace in his presence and his promises. So, put down the mallet and remember the words of Peter, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Sunday After Easter

Easter is over!  What a relief. For those of us in the church business Easter is one of the busiest times of the year. There are Easter egg hunts, passion plays, holy week services, extra weekend services.  It can wear out even the most devout ministers.  Don’t get me wrong – we love all the planning and revel in the full houses we get to preach to on Easter Sunday but come Monday we all breathe a sigh of relief.  We made it through another Easter season.

We’re glad Easter is over. 
Yet, at the same time, we’re sad Easter is over. The Sunday after Easter may be one of the most depressing for ministers. The additional seats are no longer needed.  The gaps in our sanctuaries and worship centers return. We welcomed back some church members on Easter Sunday whom we hadn’t seen in weeks, maybe even months, maybe even since last Easter. And then the Sunday after Easter we look around for them and they’re not there. We’re glad they were here last week and will welcome them back next year with open arms.  But it is sad.  It’s sad that Easter is over. 
I know it’s just a fact of life for us ministers.  We were told to expect such through our training.  We even have become accustomed to it to some degree.  No minister in their right mind expects the same crowds on the Sunday after Easter. It’s a reality of the trade, so to speak.
If you’re one of those who show up for Easter and rarely come any other Sunday, I hope you don’t think I’m mad at you.  I’m really not.  Don’t think that I’m trying to make you feel guilty. That’s not my intent.  I do want you to know that you’re missed.
We loved seeing you Sunday, but we’d love to see you more often.  And it really isn’t all about having full churches.  I admit, we struggle with our egos and having larger crowds feeds that egotism that I suppose every preacher struggles with. But we really do miss you.  We want to see you every Sunday.
Certainly, we ministers are part of the problem.  Maybe we make so much of Easter that somehow we’ve communicated that the other 51 Sundays are not as important.  Maybe you wonder why we haven’t called, emailed, or texted you all those Sundays you’ve missed. Perhaps we’ve said something or have done something that has upset you. We’re sorry. We hope that our weaknesses don’t keep you away. Please forgive us. 
This Sunday may not be as exciting as Easter, but we’ll be here nonetheless.  We’ll have another sermon that we’ve worked hard on.  Our worship may not have as many “bells and whistles” this Sunday, but is God really looking for “bells and whistles”? I don’t think so. I hope that’s not why you came last Sunday.  
The Sunday after Easter is back to business as usual, but we believe it’s an important business.  This resurrection we spoke of Sunday is something to be celebrated every week. We believe that the real power of the resurrection is truly experienced when church is a habit and not just a holiday.  So, we invite you back – again and again.
We minsters will be back at it this Sunday and every Sunday of the year.  We love what we do. So, come to church the Sunday after Easter.  We’ll be looking for you!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Good but gruesome Friday

In February 2004, the film The Passion of the Christ hit theaters to the excitement of most Christians.  The movie was financially backed by Hollywood super-star Mel Gibson, so this was going to be a first-class production. It opened to full houses, but one immediate concern arose – it was so bloody!  The depiction of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion was so gruesome the movie earned an “R” rating.
Was this another example of Hollywood exploiting violence for box office success or was the representation of the passion gruesome because the event itself was gruesome? The consensus was that the movie was horrific because the event itself was horrific.  There was no way you could make the passion of Christ “G” rated.

But I wonder why?  Why did the event have to be so gruesome? Is there anything about how it happened that reveals to us something about the nature of God?

Before I address that question, let’s get two things clear.  First, Jesus could have stopped it anytime he wanted.  During Jesus’ arrest Peter pulls out a sword to which Jesus responds that he has 12 legions of angels at his disposal. All it took was a simple request and all this would come to an end.  Second, the way it happened was the way it was supposed to happen.  Jesus assures the apostles that Scriptures predicted that his death would be messy.  Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 make it clear that his death was going to be ghastly. 

Back to the question at hand – is there anything about the manner of his death that is significant? Here’s something to think about.

(1) His great pain corresponds to his great love. Who has made the greatest sacrifices for you?  Friends, family, and, most likely, parents come to mind.  It’s those people who love us most who are willing to suffer for us.  The cross was for our benefit and if Jesus was wiling to suffer like he did then he must really love us.  Who does something like that unless they deeply love you?  All that pain reminds us of his great love for us.

(2) His pain reminds us of what we have been saved from.  What he experienced should have been our experience.  We should have been the ones who endured all the pain.  We are the sinners.  We are the ones who deserve the punishment. All he went through, we have been spared of.

(3) He never asks us to do something that he wasn’t willing to do.  When Jesus calls us to follow him he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross.  Aren’t you annoyed by people who ask you to do something that they won’t do?  Jesus isn’t one of those people.  When we suffer for our faith we can be assured that he has walked that path.  And in his suffering, he leaves us an example to endure pain with endurance and grace.

(4) His pain assures us that he can empathize with our pain.  In addition to the obvious physical pain, he suffered the emotional pain of being betrayed, denied, and deserted by his friends.  He suffered spiritual pain as he bore the unfamiliar guilt of sin.  He experienced the full spectrum of pain in the passion and can therefore understand the pain we suffer. When we suffer we have a God who understands.

The pain of the passion reminds us the we are loved, that we have been rescued, that we have an example, and that we have a compassionate God. He suffered all that so we would know.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Undercover God

It’s odd that in the ordinary tasks of life God has a way of teaching me about him. 

A while back I was filling up my car at a local gas station when I saw an employee emptying out the trash cans by the pumps.  She was on the other side of the pump I was using, and I noticed her struggling to get the liner out of the trash can.  I reached over and gently held down the trash can to help out.  With just that little assistance she was able to get the bag out and go about her work. 

I expected a “thank you” but there was none.  Then I realized that she had never seen what I had done.  The trash bag she was lifting was blocking her view.  Besides that, I was partially hidden behind a pillar, so she never knew I helped! I guess she just figured that somehow, someway she managed to pull the bag out all by herself.  She didn’t thank me because she didn’t know that I helped. I was tempted to say something but decided the best thing to do was to remain anonymous.

I chalked it up as my “good deed of the day” and then it struck me.  How many times in my life has God helped me and I didn’t thank him?  How many times has God offered a little hand to assist me but remained anonymous? Does God do things like that?  Does God help us out ever so slightly that we don’t even notice?

Of course, there can be no definitive answer to those questions, because if God remains anonymous then how would we know?  Yet, I suspect that He does.  Looking back on my life I can see some curious times when in retrospect I suspect God was at work -- events that at the time I thought were mere coincidences or maybe even incidents that I attributed to my own strength or cunning that lead to a favorable outcome.  Maybe God was reaching around offering that ever so slight hand of assistance to help me out. Maybe there are some times in life when God acts yet remains anonymous.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells a story of a man named Joseph (he of the technicolor dream-coat) whose life has more twists and turns than a downhill slalom. Eventually he ends up in a very favorable position yet all the events that led to that outcome could easily be attributed to coincidence or the normal events of life.  Yet, at the end of the story he credits his good fortune to the hand of God. In a meeting with his devious and betraying brothers who brought a good deal of grief into his life he says this: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good” (Genesis 50:20).  Joseph sensed God’s anonymous hand at work throughout his life.
That little experience at the gas station got me thinking that maybe God is helping me in ways I’ll never know.   It’s reminded me to thank God not just for his obvious and discernable help but for all those times he lends a gentle hand without fanfare.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Maybe with watchful and attentive eyes we can catch God every once in a while.  At the very least, we can give him thanks for those times when he works undercover.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The God Who Bothers

I don’t understand God.  I’m confident he’s working in the world, but I just don’t get why he seems to do some things and doesn’t do others.  I believe in answered prayer.  I believe in providence.  What really throws me for a loop though is the why, when, where, and how of things.  Even so, the fact that I don’t understand God doesn't surprise me.  If fact, if I did understand God then what kind of God  would he be? If God did everything I suggested, that would surprise me. I’m not surprised, but I am bothered.
It bothers me that God doesn’t consult me when he needs advice.  It bothers me when God doesn’t do the things that I think God should do.  It bothers me that God is silent when I think he should speak, and he speaks when I think he should be silent. God is bothersome, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
David, the great king of Israel and author of many Psalms, wrote this: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) He also wrote this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1–2)  And this is the man who was referred to as “a man after God’s own heart!” God bothered David.
The lesser-known but equally-bothered prophet Habakkuk opens his Old Testament book like this: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?“ (Habakkuk 1:2) You can add Moses, Abraham, and Job to the long list of people who have been bothered by God.  I would suppose that your name has appeared on that list at some time in your life.   What are we supposed to do with this bothersome God?
Sadly, some people just quit believing in him.  I guess some would rather have a god who was predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious or have no god at all (if a predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious god could actually exist seems almost as bothersome to me). But many a bothered soul has somehow managed to still believe. The above-mentioned David, Habakkuk, Moses, Abraham, and Job are all members of the bothered-but-still-believing club.  How is this possible?
When I look at these bothered-but-believing souls there seem to be certain qualities they possess.  They seem to acknowledge that they may not always know what is best.  They seem to give God time to work things out knowing his timetable is different than theirs.  They seem to know that running a universe filled with freewill gone amok is a little complicated.  They seem to trust God to such an extent that they refuse to stop believing that he has a long-term plan even if it appears that randomness is the rule. And maybe above all, they possess hope.  They have the unfaltering hope that a good, wise, loving, and all-powerful God has written a beautiful ending that will make all the bother worth it.
Are you bothered by God?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Join the club of the bothered-but still-believing!
(Note to reader: I encourage you to read the endings of Psalm 13, 22, and Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why I’m Glad Jesus was Born

It’s the seasons of lists, so I thought I’d put together a short list of why I’m glad Jesus was born.

(1) Jesus was a great teacher.  Even if you don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, it’s hard to deny the beauty and wisdom of his teaching.  Not only that, Jesus used so many different methods to communicate.  His Sermon on the Mount are some the most powerful words ever spoken.  His parables are some of the most well-loved stories.  His ability to turn a chance encounter into a spiritual conversation is remarkable.  Jesus knew how to communicate to a wide range of people long before educational theory was even thought about.  Not only did he communicate well, but his message is life transforming.  Imagine if everyone lived by his teachings.  What kind of wonderful world would that be?  I’m glad Jesus was born because he teaches me so much.

(2) Jesus made people think. If you think Jesus was the kind of teacher who just bellowed out rules and truths, you’re wrong.  Jesus invited people to discover truth that was already in us, but had just been covered up by years of tradition and assumption.  While he valued tradition, he despised its tendency to blind us to God’s clearly spoken word.  Some of his strongest opponents were religious leaders who were so steeped in tradition they had lost sight of truth.  He challenged them and their followers to see beyond tradition and seek truth above comfort and the status quo. One of Jesus’ often-used teaching methods was asking people open-ended questions.  Other times he would just tell a story and allow the hearers to come to the obvious conclusion.  Sometimes he did simply declare truth, but often he challenged us to think trusting that any honest-thinking person would realize the validity of his teachings.  I’m glad Jesus was born because he challenges me to think.

(3) Jesus showed us what a real human looks like.  From Adam until Jesus and from Jesus to today no human being has fully lived out the will of God in their lives.  Jesus stands alone as THE model of what God had in mind when he made us.  His complete trust in God, his unconditional love for all kinds of people, his resistance to sinful compromise all make him unique among the human race.  In observing Jesus, we can see what we all should aspire to be. I’m glad Jesus was born because he is the perfect example of how I should live.

(4) Jesus’ coming reminds me that God cares. Jesus’ birth is a vivid reminder that God both knows and cares about what is happening here on the planet he created. Jesus’ coming reminds me that God has taken full responsibility for us and, while we were the ones who left Him, He is one who will never desert us. His love is unconditional, unending, and undeterred.  Even though we all have left God he still came to be with us.  In fact, one of the names used of Jesus is Immanuel which means “God with us”. God saw our need and responded.  I’m glad Jesus was born because it reminds me that God really does care about me.

(5) Jesus’ coming ushered in forgiveness.  The very reason Jesus came was to be a sacrifice for us.  He came to pay the price for sin that none of us could afford. His perfection was more than enough to undo what Adam had done in the Garden of Eden.  His sinlessness made up for our sinfulness.  His obedience broke the curse of sin, set us free, and paved the road back to the Father.  I’m glad Jesus was born because in Him I can find forgiveness.

I’m glad Jesus was born.  Where would I be without Him?