As Jesus followers we are called into the Kingdom Life. This blog will help us converse and learn what that means. It will contain thoughts on Scripture, Sermon Reflection, Leadership Training and interesting reads. -Pastor Jeff

Friday, March 20, 2015

Unforgiveness is a Short Leash

Read Luke 23:32-34
"Father forgive them for they know not what they do." vs. 34

Unforgiveness is a leash with a very short chain. 
When we refuse to forgive we bind ourselves to the sin of another. Someone injures us physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually and immediately we are shackled to that injury.  A portion of our past is overshadowed by the offense, our present is determined by the offense, and our future is limited because of the offense. There are moments when we attempt to ignore it, but just about the time you think you've gotten beyond it, you feel the yank of the leash and you are back in the mess.

All the more frustrating is the truth that often the one who has hurt you has moved on.  

Rarely do they lose much sleep. They bust into our lives like a bull in a china shop, shatter our well being, and then they ride off without even looking back. So there we are trapped in the shards of glass, left trying to piece together the mess. They have crippled us and skip off without so much as a limp.

Unforgiveness never leaves the mess behind. It returns over and over again. 

We retell the same story, highlighting the ways we've been betrayed, abused, deceived, and wounded. We construct conversations in our heads that will never come to pass. We look at every possible relationship through the lens of our injury. We build walls around ourselves. We end up guarding our broken glass, refusing the help of anyone that might want to come by and give us a hand cleaning things up. There is just no getting beyond our pain when we fail to forgive.

Forgiveness, however, is the key to those shackles. It is the unbinding of our lives from where we've been and what we've been through. 

When we forgive, we let go of someone else's sin so that we can move forward into the life that God has for us. When we forgive, the story of our lives is no longer limited to one chapter, instead it opens up chapters that have yet to be written. Our past is no longer defined by the wounds, but by the grace of God that brought us through our wounds. The present is no longer determined by the injury but by the grace of God that renews us each and every day and uses us and all we've been through for the benefit of someone else. The future is no longer limited by the offense. Now God has opened up the future, to experience life beyond the binding, beyond the china shop. It is a life filled with the possibility of new things, new relationships, and new days. 

It is a life no longer predictably pulled back into the mess.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Forgiveness is Gift

Read Luke 7:36-50
"Now which of them will love him more?"
Simon replied, "I suppose the one that had the bigger debt forgiven."  vs. 43

We bristle under the thought of least sometimes. When someone has hurt you badly, when their actions have pierced your soul, when the wounds they inflicted upon you have shaped your identity, the thought of forgiving is beyond difficult. It could be seen as irresponsible or enabling. "If I let them off for what they have done, what keeps them from doing it to again, or to someone else," you think. "NO! I will make them pay for what they have done. 

They will not get off that easily." There are no free passes in life.

Tomorrow, I will take a look at how holding onto this unforgiveness actually binds us to the sin of another. But today, I want to be sure we are talking about the same word. I am afraid that when we start talking about forgiveness that we start feeling like we are condoning someone's sinful/hurtful actions. To condone means making an excuse for, overlooking, never really dealing with. Condoning is the easy way of dealing with injury. Condoning fails to come face to face with injury, refuses to acknowledge the depth of pain, and glosses over consequences. Forgiveness on the other hand is opposed to this form of coping. Forgiveness emerges from truthfulness. It names the offense for what it is. It owns the pain and the attitudes, actions, and thoughts that result from the pain. Forgiveness recognizes the consequences of sinful action and reminds us how readily we are shaped by our pain. And yet...having stood in the face of these truths, forgiveness refuses to be bound to the offense or the offender. It refuses to bind others to the offense or injury. 

Instead, forgiveness lets go of the pain and injury after having carried it to the cross of Jesus, the place where all sin goes to die.

Likewise, to forgive is not to justify someone's sinful actions. We don't stand as defense attorney. We don't calculate reasons or attempt to make sense of sin. Sin is sin. Certainly, there are underlying reasons why people do what they do. Perhaps it was the way they were raised, the result of some pain they suffered. Perhaps it was a failure to understand that what they were doing brought injury. But in the end, an act of injury still leaves an inexplicable wound. In the end the only sense is that it is sin. If there is any empathy, it is because we too sometimes are caught up in non-sensical sin. But the movement of forgiveness refuses the need to explain away. To do so negates the heart forgiveness which is gift.

Forgiveness is at its core a gift.

When you offer forgiveness, you plum the depths of pain, brokenness and sin. You refuse the side alleys of condoning and justifying. You move right through into the confusion and the chaos. You enter in the darkness. You feel the weight. You name the offense. You become aware of its lingering effects. In the end, in the face of what can't be explained, you emerge from the darkness to offer gift. You give to another the gift of freedom. You free people from your hate, your animosity and your desire for revenge. You free them from a cycle of "returning evil for evil." 

In the end it is a gift, the possibility of life beyond sin. After carrying the sin to the cross, it is the new life that comes after the cross. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Forgiveness is be with

Read Colossians 3:12-15
"Forgive as the Lord forgave you, and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."  vs. 14

The Tom Hanks' movie Castaway captures brilliantly something intrinsic to the human condition.  Isolation is maddening.  For Hanks' character trapped on an uninhabited island, it drives Hanks to create a companion out of a volleyball and name him Wilson.  One can only live so long shut off from others before we lose ourselves.

The journey toward forgiveness keeps this intrinsic condition front and center.

There is no doubt that forgiveness can be a very freeing experience. When we are hurt and wounded, a weight is loaded on to our shoulders, a weight so heavy at times that it threatens to crush us. The heaviness exhausts us physically, it depletes our emotional resources, it bends us toward bitterness (remember "I DIDN'T ask for this weight), it depresses, it robs us of sleep, it suffocates us. Some simply learn to cope with the weight, often finding ways to medicate the pain. Others set out on the journey of forgiveness. Their hopes aren't to cope, but to find healing and freedom. 

Forgiveness IS the possibility of such healing and freedom.

However, this freedom mustn't simply be to lighten the load on me personally. It is a freedom that points us beyond ourselves. We are by nature human only as we live and share life together with others in mutual love and reciprocal relationships.  Isolation is dehumanizing. When we are wounded, when unforgiveness settles into our hearts, we pull back.  We isolate and exclude. This is our defense mechanism that we deploy to protect us from future hurt.  Unfortunately, the longer we draw back from others, the less and less human we become. We aren't able to be who we are truly supposed to be because we hold everyone at arm's length. There is no getting close.

Forgiveness frees us to open our arms once again. It breaks free from the posture of alienation and distance. It invites others back into our lives. Forgiveness is the freedom to experience relationships once again. It makes space for love, togetherness, intimacy and vulnerability. It is risky...because the wounds may yet come. However, the more forgiveness is practiced, the more readily we refuse to be isolated. We refuse to let the injury of another bind us to ourselves, bind us to a life "less human" than that which we have been created for. Forgiveness is the freedom to be with others once again. 

What impact has unforgiveness had on your relationships with others?

Who are you currently keeping at arm's length because of the hurt of another person?  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unexpected Cancellation

Read Romans 6:15-23
"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." vs. 23

A few years back, I had been receiving a bill from a company that had made error after error. I had sent in paperwork, talked to management, exhausted every avenue I could to get this account settled. They had been demanding $500 on a bill that I had received no services for. I was at my wits end. Out of frustration, I called the company one more time and was in the process of very calmly describing my issue with one of the customer service representatives. In a very unhelpful manner she told me, "There is nothing I can do, you will have to pay the bill or we are taking you to collections."

Now what happened next, many of you won't believe, but I am telling you the truth...

I sunk back in my chair and whispered the prayer, "Father, could you do something about this." Then a moment later I hear on the other end of the line..."Uhhh, wait a minute. Sir, I am going to have to put you on hold." I sat there for what seemed like forever. Then the voice on the other end of the line returned. "Ummm, uhhh, sir, I don't know what to tell you. As we were talking my screen flashed, crashed, and died. When I brought it back up, I looked up your account and it was gone. Sir, there is absolutely no record of you having ever done business with us. I couldn't so much as pull up your phone number if I wanted to." "Oh, Ok," I said grinning from ear to ear.

I got off the phone, turned to my wife and said, "It's a God thing when your debt is unexpectedly cancelled."

You know that is sort of the picture of what happens in our relationship with God. Before we can understand forgiveness with one another, we have to catch a glimpse of the forgiveness of God - and its magnitude.  When the gift of conviction settles in, we become painfully aware of our sin, the damage it has caused, and the ways in which it has destroyed relationships with God and neighbor. So there we sit, frustrated by the debt our sin has racked up.  Knowing something must be done, but recognizing our own bankruptcy.  Looking at a bill we can't pay. Wondering if there is anything we can do to make it go away...knowing full well we are stuck with the payment. 

And we pray, "God is there anything you can do about this?" - our confession of need

Then all of a sudden, enter stage right-the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the tally that we'd amassed is dealt with.  The screen flashes, it crashes and aphiemi.  Aphiemi is the Greek word for the cancellation of debt (Forgiveness). When the screen comes back up...our sin is gone. Our debt is gone...there is no record of it.

In the forgiveness of God...all that we have ever done is wiped clean. We no longer have to pay on the has been taken care of.  In fact, it is so thorough that God keeps no record of it (remember 1 Cor. 13-love keeps no record of wrongs).  Grace is the unexpected cancellation of that which we could have never afforded to pay. Grace is the gift of wiping away our tab.  Grace is God going beyond what should have been done, to ensure the bill is taken care of for us.  Grace is a cross nailed full of our bills, carrying them to death. Grace is the fresh start we have through new life after debt! Grace is the gift of "forgiveness."

Remember...God was forced to do none of this.  It was purely an act of grace.  Forgiveness is a gift that often refuses to ask the question of "who deserves this."  

As we move forward throughout this week...the forgiveness of God in our lives must always be at work in our hearts an minds.  It's the bedrock for our forgiveness with others.  Take some time today to reflect upon its meaning and its importance in your life.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Through the Darkness - the Forgiveness Path

Read Matthew 6:12-15
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. v.s. 14-15

Today we turn a new corner in our journey through Lent.  The portion of this journey will carry us throughout the entire coming week.  The path for this portion of the journey is uncertain, at times dark, formidable, scary, and filled with turns we can't see coming.  It's the path toward forgiveness.  

There is no easy fix, no magic, no presto-chango, no sure fire methods to forgiveness. It is a sloppy, messy, dirty and painful journey. It drudges up emotions we have worked hard to forget. It often looms larger than our capabilities. It taxes our emotional resources and tempts us to run and hide. It is for some the "impossible task." Truth be told, in some cases it might even be thought to be irresponsible, unnecessary, or even enabling by some. 

There is no smooth, easy path for moving through forgiveness and into the land of God's peace.

And followers of Jesus, his words beckon us beyond our resistance.  Even that may be too subtle.  His words seem to command us to tear down the barriers and walls of resistance.  Reading the above portions of Matthew, we are struck with the seriousness of this command.  This word has a sharp and prickly edge to it. Such statements are not meant to tickle the ears of the masses.  He draws the line in the sand and suggests that the faithful will cross that line.  In fact, if you read further into the next chapter...we come to discover that the crossing of this line and stepping into this difficult journey becomes the point where many exercise their opt out clause.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Forgiveness for the Jesus-follower is a non-negotiable. 

It is requisite to the on-going experience of God's grace. Again, that doesn't make it easy. It is an art to be learned, a discipline to be practiced, and an act of grace-filled courage. Forgiveness looks different in each situation.  It requires us to take God's lead and muddle through the rough, curvy paths of woundedness and betrayal, broken trust and physical torment. It plums the depths of our suffering and anguish in hopes that on the other side is peace and reconciliation which are God's gifts of faithfulness to those that hazard the journey.

Throughout the next few days, we will take God's lead. For many of us, this week is the primer to a longer more involved journey, but every journey must start somewhere.  I make this promise to you that I will not run dismissively over your pain. 

My prayer is that you would allow God to unlock the hidden pain in your life.  That you might let the healing light of God's grace shine in those dark places. I pray also that emerging from this journey that you would again make yourself available to others, trusting, embracing, and loving those around you without the pain of past wounds overshadowing the hope of what lay ahead

Friday, March 13, 2015

Digging Deep - Reflecting Beyond the Surface

Read 1 John 1:5-2:2
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." vs.9

No great man/woman of God is without his/her flaws.  Every great man/woman is a product of their time who inwardly wrestles with their own demons, decisions, and disappointments.  Though John Wesley has continued throughout the last 15 years of my life to serve as an example of the Faithful Christ-Following journey, he isn't by any means exempt from such a statement.  His marriage was a wreck.  He often offended others with the boldness of his theological doctrine, including a close friend by the name of George Whitfield.  He often leaned a bit toward what we might call "legalism."  He was by no means "perfect."  However, he was faithful.

Coming out the background that my wife and I emerged from, a lifestyle of addiction and broken living, we were seeking in the Christian tradition someone or somewhere that took this journey seriously.  We recognized our weaknesses and had witnessed first hand our propensity to make disastrous choices.  We needed to be a part of a community that would take us deeper.  We yearned for friends that would lovingly and encouragingly hold us accountable.  We found that among those rooted in the theological and practical heritage of John Wesley.

For all Wesley's quirks, following Christ was an urgent matter.  It was a matter that ought to consume every part of our lives.  The journey of faith was one of complete and constant submission to the Spirit of God and the Lordship of Christ.  There were no compartments in the life of Wesley's followers.  One didn't have a faith compartment that sat alongside other compartments like work, family, leisure, money.  It was the whole of life, every nook and cranny of our existence, brought before the Lord for his glory that constituted the pursuit of the Holy Life.  It was a life that loved deeply, God and neighbors, that added the practical meat to the theological bones of Wesley's ways.

This wasn't a private matter.

Wesley recognized the necessity of community for the faithfulness of the Christian journey.  We need others that will push us beyond the surface.  Consequently, he organized his followers into small bands that would gather weekly for deep and probing questions that sought to consistently reorient lives to the will and work of God.  Because this journey of Lent is a probing "beyond the surface" journey, I have included several of the questions that these men and women would ask one another weekly.

Read through these questions.  Reflect on their impact.  Consider what the result might be of negotiating these questions weekly with other brothers and sisters in Christ.  Take note of the deep seriousness invested in this journey by Wesley and his followers.  Allow their urgency to infect your life.

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than anyone? In other words, am I hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts or words, or do I exaggerate.
3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what was told me in confidence?
4. Am I slave to dress, friends, work or habit?
5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
6. Did the Bible live in me today?
7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
8. Am I enjoying prayer?
9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
12. Do I disobey God in anything?
13. Do I insist on doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
16. How do I spend my spare time?
17. Am I proud?
18. Do I thank God I am not as other people, much like the Pharisee and Publican?
19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard, if so, what am I going to do about it?
20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
21. Is Christ real to me?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Practicing Holy Irresponsibility - Peace-Making as Active (Part 2)

Read Matthew 5:1-12
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."

Those committed to an ethic of peace-making are often accused as idealistic, weak, or passive.  It's been my experience, however, that those committed to "making" peace are for more active, creative, and engaged, then those that passively sit by and cheer on conflict and violence.  Too many of us have simply accepted that conflict is just the way things are.  Therefore, we passively await its arrival in our lives and then react to its onslaught.

Peacemaking is not reactionary.  Peacemaking it the proactive, preemptive work of consistent faithful living.  Yesterday, I challenged you to consider the call to peacemaking but left you with the question, "What does it look like?"  The following eight practices are by no means an exhaustive list.  However, as we continue to lean into our Lenten journey, the following practices are those that you can consider for your own life.

  1. Confrontation:  Peacemaking begins in the heart.  To become a peacemaker, you must first confront the hate in your own heart, before you can confront those that hate with love.  Each of us have deep places in our souls where the rotten seeds of anger, malice, prejudice, and hate reside.  Only when we come to terms with those places are we equipped to encounter those with similar seeds in their souls in a way that offers grace and love.  
  2. Escalation Refusal:  Conflict like I stated above is born out of reaction.  In a very practical way, our day to day conflicts are often the result of escalation.  You see this in marriages all the time.  One spouse offends the other, but to gain the upper hand, the offended spouse "one-ups" the other with a more wounding insult.  The game of returning evil for evil is on.  However, peacemakers have through the Spirit gained a discerning patient spirit that refuses this process of escalation.  They refuse to be driven by hurt feelings and instead breathe sanity into a powder keg of explosive potential.
  3. Preemptive Kindness/Bridge Building:  How much conflict is the result of misunderstanding or a failure to really "know" those that threaten us.  I have found that one of the greatest ways to avoid the possibility of conflict and violence is through crossing bridges, engaging people with kindness.  Does my tone, my body language, my attitude invite conflict?  Do I live in such a way that others I come into contact with feel better having been in my presence?     
  4. Critical Self-Awareness:  Those that make peace are often very aware of their role in the creation of conflict and violence.  They understand the limitations of their own righteousness and rightness.  They recognize that the brash arrogance of my agendas and opinions invite the hostility of others.  Those committed to making peace seek humility.   
  5. Angled Vision:  Conflict is often the result of our inability to see things from multiple perspectives.  We see an issue or a person from only one angle.  Once that angle has recognized them as a threat or enemy, we move into justifying our violence, anger, or hate towards them.  However, peacemakers move around.  They opt to stand in multiple angles, looking at the lives of others from different places, trying to get a fuller picture of who they are, why they choose to do what they do, and why their actions cause me such anger.  
  6. Prayer:  Peacemakers don't trust their power to make things right but invest themselves fully in the power, grace, and Spirit of God that is the result of a faithful prayer life.  Prayer is the means through which I am able to see more clearly what God sees, through which my heartbeat for others aligns with God's heart beat for the world, and through which I divest myself of self-preservation and instead opt for God's faithful will.  Prayer is the means through which I am sensitized to the struggles of others.  As I pray God grants the discernment to see beyond and behind those issues that others seem to see so clearly.  
  7. Forgiveness:  Peace cannot be maintained where forgiveness is refused.  When a situation is wrapped in the hurt feelings and bitterness of prior offenses, our actions will be determined by a desire for revenge or wall-building.  Only as the history of wrong doings is taken up into the grace-filled, mercy-offering life of God through forgiveness can those at odds with one another come to a place of  understanding and reconciliation.
  8. Baptism:  I can't emphasize this enough.  Baptism signifies a change, a new allegiance, a throwing off of old ways and old practices for ways and practices renewed in Christ, and a citizenship in a global-historical community that crosses all ethnic, racial, national, economic, and political divides.  Baptism isn't a sentimental moment of private faith.  It is a public proclamation that I no longer belong to this world and it's methods of behaving.  I am new in Christ.  As Paul claims, "I have been crucified in Christ and no longer live." 
Peacemaking isn't a good idea, it is the result of heeding the call to a New Lord...who comes as Prince of Peace.

Which of these practices might you work on in your own life throughout this season of Lent?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Holy Irresponsibility - Peace-Making is Ridiculous

Read Isaiah 11:6-9, Hebrews 12:14-15
"And the wolf will live with the lamb..." Is. 11:6
"Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord." Heb. 12:14

In a world hell-bent on conflict, the prospect of making peace is a ludicrous venture.  One might wonder if the words of Jesus have any place in a world that has come to adopt so fully the idea that the only way to preserve and protect one's life, security, and future is by striking first.  His promise, "Blessed are the peacemakers..." falls on deaf ears, as we fill our minds with thoughts of anger, malice, vengeance, bitterness, and retaliation.  Not only does such admonition seem irrelevant, it can even be considered irresponsible.

We live in a real world...Jesus.

It's a world where we speak softly and carry a big stick.  It's a world where the one that shouts the loudest wins.  It's a world where there are only two sides, "my side and the wrong side" and anyone not on "my side" is an enemy.  It's a world where churches wrap themselves in the flags of their nations rather than in sackcloth with ashes.  It's a world where children are taught that fists and insults are the best ways to deal with a trouble-maker.  It's a world where spouses increasingly have difficulty communicating outside of hate-filled words, blame, condescension, and sarcasm.  It's a world where we stand poised for the next threat, the next attack, the next conflict, the next battle, the next moment when we will be forced to still our soft voices and unload the crushing power of our big sticks.

In such a world, peace-making is irresponsible.  It fails to see the importance of standing ready to swing back or swing first to protect and preserve our futures.  That appears the only option in a world when everyone stands carrying a "big stick."

But I wonder...

What if we as followers of Christ have been called to holy irresponsibility?  What if peace-making isn't idealistic but the suffering faithful response to a God who has made peace with the world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  What if Jesus wasn't joking or drinking the hippie kool-aid when he said, "Blessed are those that give peace a chance?"

You can't escape it.  The vision is there throughout the Scriptures.  It's a vision of a Peaceful Kingdom.  It appears as the promise of God and the command of his people.  I know, I know...what about the commands of war in the Old Testament.  You know why we run to those passages?  We do so because we are naturally inclined to conflict and seek justification for our violence.  To us, those passages make sense.  But what do you do with the visions in Isaiah of swords being beaten into plowshares (Is. 2:4)?  What do you do with the promise that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb (Is. 11:6)?  What do you do with a Savior who refused to return evil for evil but who "himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility..." (Eph. 2:14)?  What do you do with the vision that comes to dominate the whole of Revelation, where "on each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit in every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Rev. 22:3)?

But Jeff...those moments are somewhere out "there" in a better distant eternity.  "Here" big sticks win.

What if Jesus' call to the peacemakers is a call to live in ludicrous faith and holy irresponsibility, living now as though we are giving witness to what is to come?  What if living as peacemakers is putting into practice our prayer, "May your Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven?  Acting as peacemakers is a way to remind the world, our schools, our homes, and our communities that the "big stick" option isn't the only way.  If one is willing to live and look ridiculous in this world, jesters and fools for Jesus, then there is another way.

But is this possible?  You will have to tune in tomorrow for that...But today...

I want you to spend today of your journey in Lent asking the question, how much of my life is wrapped up conflict?  Have I come to assume that "big sticks" are the only way?  Does peace-making seem ridiculous, foolish, and weak to me...and why?  How does the life of Jesus challenge my assumptions that striking back and striking first is the only "real" way to live in this world...especially when He seems to assume that He is the "way the truth and the life?"  Survey the landscape of your life and might the practices of peacemaking change my surroundings?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Holy Responsibility - Justice-making and Courage

Read Nehemiah 5:1-19
"When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.  I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials."

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic events in Civil Rights/American history.  On March 7th, nearly 600 demonstrators, emboldened by a desire to seek justice and voting rights for Blacks in Selma, Alabama began a march on a cool Sunday morning with the hopes that march would carry them the fifty miles from Selma to Montgomery.  Under intense threat, these marchers displayed immense courage as men, women, and children peacefully walked across the bridge in hopes of securing a better future.  No one could have predicted what would come next.  As they crested the hill of the bridge, waiting for them was a mass of police officers and state troopers who'd been issued the order to prevent them from finishing their march.  Quickly, this cool Sunday Morning would become infamously known at "Bloody Sunday."  The unarmed, peaceful demonstrators were brutally attacked by those with power, covering the bridge with the blood of the innocent.  A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.  I wasn't there as a tourist or a sight-seer.  I was there as one deeply curious as to what compels some to risk so much for the cause of justice in this world.  As I walked across that bridge, I asked myself if I would have had the courage to cross that bridge knowing the violence and hate that awaited me on the other side, in hopes of securing a better tomorrow.  Honestly, I don't know.

A consistent theme we are met with throughout the Scriptures is God's passion for justice.  God speaks through the mouth of Amos and says, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"(5:24)  In a world corrupted by sin, those with power have the capacity to utilize that power in perverted, selfish, exploitive, violent, horrific, and ultimately destructive ways.  It can be the large scale economic or political practices that marginalize certain groups of people based on some arbitrary measurement of worth.  It can be the smaller scale practices of bullying, alienation, or hate crime.  Regardless, justice is called into question anytime the powers of this world, our towns, or communities misuse power to the detriment of the vulnerable.  Such misuse of power breaks the heart of God and arouses Him to anger.

In a Bible Study a couple of years back, an attendee once asked me, "Jeff you speak a lot about the grace and love of God, about a love that knows no limits.  Does God ever get mad."  I thought for a moment and responded quickly, "Yes, when we are unjust."  Unfortunately, God's anger is lost on us as we live indifferent to the suffering and struggle of those around us.  Indifference is the safe guard that allows us to ignore those issues that don't immediately affect us.  We are able to go about our daily affairs with our heads in the sand about the plight of the most vulnerable in our communities.  Indifference is the safe guard that keeps us on the safe side of the bridge, paralyzed by the fear of what a pursuit of justice might entail.

Our indifference is the means through which evil in this world continues to prevail.

Justice-making is a courageous act.  It is the means through which those that have some form of individual or collective power or creative potential stand with and on behalf of those that do not have that power.  Justice-making is the courageous Kingdom act that calls the "powers-that-be" into account for their action and offers creative counter-acts through which the marginalized can find freedom, hope, and a future.

Nehemiah was committed to the work of justice-making.  Having returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the wall surrounding their community, Nehemiah was embroiled in the lives of his vulnerable people.  They faced threats daily from those outside their ranks.  However, the intensity hit a new level when he discovered the injustice within his own ranks.  Several of the financial leaders within the community were taking advantage of the poor farmers who had little to secure their lives and families.  The powerful were taking advantage of the vulnerable and calling it "good business."  When Nehemiah was informed, he was angry and responded.  This was a courageous act that would have made him unpopular with the power brokers in his community.  The responsibility of justice-making will make you unpopular with both those that prefer safe, non-boat-rocking indifference and those with much to lose if their power is challenged.

For those of participating in the journey of Lent, the call to reorienting ourselves to God's purposes lands front and center.  We are met with the holy responsibility to be justice-makers in the establishment of God's peaceful Kingdom in this world.  We are called to courage.  We are called to recognize the responsibility to use whatever resources we have at our disposal to stand on behalf of those that can't stand for themselves.  This might be writing your congressman/women in defense of those that need political support and voices.  It may be joining a movement that takes seriously the suffering of those victimized by human trafficking, racism/bigotry, or financial marginalization.  It may be as simple as signing a petition to stay an execution.  Or, it could be as simple as befriending the person in your community that no one makes space for, involving yourself in an English as a Second Language tutoring course for adults, or supporting a Pregnancy Advocacy Program.  Justice-making is a creative act that compels us into our communities to stand alongside those who are regularly forgotten and neglected.

This week I heard of a member of our congregation who had been volunteering at a school for children who were facing their final chance in the system.  They are quickly moving toward becoming a statistic.  However, she intercedes.  She stands with those children and alongside of them to make a difference.  Justice-making is a courageous act that says, "I will give myself away on your behalf to ensure that you get a chance for a better future."  She lives that out in a very real way.

That's the courage to cross the bridge.

1.)  Do I opt for safety and indifference or does God's passion for justice-making burden my heart?

2.)  What is some area in my community that I might involve myself for the purposes of making justice?

3.)  Who is someone or some group that I can engage courageously attempting to join God in the making of a better future?  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

More than Getting to Heaven - Really Good News!

Read Mark 1:14-15 and Luke 4:14-19
"The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!"

Today is a bit sticky and sets me up to be all kinds of misunderstood.  So let me clarify on the front end.  Do I believe in heaven?  Yes!  Do I believe that heaven is a place where we will be met by God in his fullness and be reunited with those that have journeyed before us in the faith?  Yes!  Do I believe that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives grants us the gift of salvation?  Yes!


Don't you hate when a pastor says but?  It usually means he/she can't leave well enough alone.  Well, you are right.  I can't.  See, I often wonder if we haven't made the goal of this journey about getting us out of here and into heaven at the expense of the "Good News" that Jesus preached.  Not that Jesus wasn't concerned with our eternal salvation.  It's just, well...He seems to be really consumed with the Kingdom of God that He can't stop talking about.  He was obsessed, almost as if it was really important.  In fact in both Mark and Luke, his initial sermon is about Kingdom.  For Mark the Kingdom was at get ready!  For Luke, Jesus, taking up the scroll of Isaiah, announces a time has come when the world and its categories are turned on their heads.  In both cases it's almost as if to say that when the power of God punches through and into this world, it has dramatic effects on the here and now.

Jesus appears to be announcing a new reign, a new era, a new reality, that has subverted and undermined the old ways of power, violence, greed, exclusion, injustice, indifference, hate, and all the ism's that seem to dominate our conversations.  He seems to be preaching a Kingdom that threatens the power structures of this world that have gone astray and done their own thing, leaving in their wake a path of destruction and broken bodies.  He's totally obsessed.  Even to the point that when he teaches us to pray, He doesn't teach us to pray, "Get me up out of here!"  Instead, he teaches us to pray..."Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

What if our infatuation with heaven is a putting of the cart before the horse?  What if Jesus is inviting us into a New Kingdom, a Kingdom that both straddles "here" and "what will be?"  What if in being consumed about our place in heaven, what we do is turn heaven into a place of "holy selfishness?"  What if instead, it's this Kingdom and our allegiance to this Kingdom, by faith and in Christ, that sets us up for Heaven?

How might that change the way we live...HERE?

Early Christians weren't tossed to lions, drowned, burned at the stake, and crucified, for proclaiming an escape hatch.  They were persecuted because they were informing the there was a New Lord, and New Kingdom, that their time was limited.  When Kingdom becomes the message, then how we live as participants in that Kingdom...the love we share, the justice we demand, the compassion we offer, the friendships we form, the mercy we afford, the hungry we feed, the naked we clothe, the sick and in prison we visit somehow reflects our Kingdom allegiance.

This was the good news Jesus preached.  It wasn't a "wait until you get somewhere else" good news.  It was "give yourselves away now as I am busy reforming this world to more accurately give witness to my created intent."  It was a message that as the power of God punches through the here and now, good news will reach the ears of the poor, freedom will be granted the prisoners, those unable to see will be given a new vision, and those bound to the oppressions of this world will be set free.  The Kingdom affects here and now as we now await it's coming fully.  

And yes, those found in Christ will be granted eternal salvation, reunited by grace with those others who've participated in the Kingdom, who've embraced really "Good News."

Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news!"  Repent, reorient yourself, casting off all that hinders from giving yourself fully to the Kingdom.  Take your place in a Kingdom that has punched through and is punching through into this world!  Let your lives be evidence of the hope of Jesus' Kingdom here and your hope of what is yet to come.

Let us Pray...
 “This, then, is how you should pray: Matthew 6:9  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11  Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Friday, March 6, 2015

You Can't Handle the Truth - The Art of Deniability

Read Genesis 18:1-15
“But Sarah denied saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid.  He said, ‘Oh yes you did laugh.’” v. 15

It's an epic moment in movie history, the showdown in the courtroom.  After months of dodging and weaving, of cover-ups and dishonesty, of altered records and off-the-record orders, it all comes down to this moment.  Lt. Daniel Caffee (Tom Cruise), the reluctant hero, stands poised to take on the world in pursuit of truth.  Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), bristling under the offensiveness of being forced to defend his leadership.  The argument reaches a crescendo, a fevered pitch, when Lt. Caffee demands, "I want the TRUTH!"  Jessep quickly responds, "You can't handle the truth."  

Perhaps he's right.  It's not that we don't want the truth.  It's just that we are ill-equipped to know it when we see it.  

Unfortunatley, we are in ways wrapped up in never-ending cycles of exaggeration and white lies.  Who wants to admit that?  We embellish and strategically leave out details to ensure our self-preservation.  Many of us, when feeling cornered for a wrong we've done, have responded with an out right denial of our involvement.  That denial forces us to cover our tracks through an ever expanding web of lies and deceit.  

What bondage, what weight that is to carry.

Did you know that deceit is an "abomination" to the Lord?  Check this out, in contemporary culture we are quick to throw out that word "abomination" in reference to specific sins.  Did you know the Hebrew word for abomination is used dozens of times in the Old Testament, one of them in Proverbs 6:16-19 when the writer enumerates those seven things that are an abomination to the Lord.  On that list we find a "lying tongue."  Ooohhhh...if that isn't a plank in the eye.

That seems harsh...right?  Why?  Deceit wreaks havoc on God's intended purposes for the world that he's created.  1.)  He is (T)ruth.  When we lie we wander further and further from him.  2.)  It dismantles and destroys relationships, unraveling the fabric of trust that is to hold us together.  3.)  It gives space for darkness in this world as we work to remain hidden and safe behind the black sheet of our dishonesty.  

The devil is often referred to as the Father of lies.  

In today's story, Sarah uses deceit for self-preservation in the face of fear and disbelief.  Given a promise of God and unable to see how that promise is possible, she doubts God and laughs.  When called on it, she blatantly denies.  God had promised her a child (despite her barrenness) and that promise was too good for her to accept.  Denial is deceit and a powerful obstruction to our walk with God and those around us.  It is the replication of the hiding that Adam and Eve do in the garden.  

One of the greatest marks of maturity as a follower of Jesus is the practice of honesty.  Truth-telling is a difficult virtue of faith for most.  Learning to move from lying to truth-telling is the movement from giving space for the power of the "evil one" to the courageous confession of Jesus as Lord of our whole lives.  It is the courage of trust.  It is the dedicated movement toward the light.  It is the passion to avoid all dark shadows.  It is commitment to integrity over and above self-preservation.  It is the recognition that only the truth has the power to set us free.  It reclaims the distance between us and God and seeks to heal the tears of our relationships with others.   Truth-telling is a mark of Jesus following-faith.    

1.)  Name a time when like Sarah, you lied to protect yourself.

2.)  What is one situation right now when you know you have not been honest with someone close to you?  

3.)  What is keeping you from telling the truth.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

This Seat is Taken - Unholy Exclusion

Read Galatians 2:11-14
"Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back..."

There's a part in the movie Forrest Gump that has always remained with me.  On the first day of school, Forrest is making his way through the bus, attempting to find a seat.  As he walked down the aisle, each child slid to the edge of their seat and declared, "This seat is taken."  Forrest was unlike the rest of the children, which in their minds gave them permission to exclude him.

We've all witnessed this play itself out.  It carries over from the bus to the lunch room.  Certain children sit in certain sections.  There are certain tables that if you are different from others, unique, not easily placed in a clique or a mold, that you come to realize that no matter how many chairs are available, for you...those seats are taken.

Don't you wish that was something we grew out of?

But unfortunately it seems to get worse as we get older.  We are keenly aware of whom we keep company with and how that is perceived by others.  We find new and more complex ways to exclude those that might be considered different, those we might not understand, those that might reflect poorly on our image, from our presence.

Today's story speaks of adult lunchroom exclusion.  To a Jew, meals were sacred times of fellowship.  Who you ate a meal with said a lot about who you were.  For Jews throughout much of history, they were not to share a meal with a Gentile (a non-Jew) in the Gentile's home.  However, according to the story, faith in Jesus is supposed to erase all that.  All humanity is made one in Christ.  Unfortunately, old habits die hard.  Paul had spent the better part of ministry sharing life with Gentiles  When Peter, one of the pillars of the church, arrives in a Gentile Community, at first he has no problem sharing meals with Gentiles.  It was safe.  No one from the cool table was watching.  However, when the in-crowd showed up, Peter abandoned the inclusivity of the Gospel for the exclusivity of prejudice and bias.  According to Paul, he had to put Peter in his place.  (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall.)

Our prejudices and biases are witnessed in the moments when we are hesitant to truly share space with others different from ourselves.  You can still tell a lot about a person by whom they are willing to share a table with and for whom they are prone to scoot over and say, "Sorry this seat is taken."  I wonder who you might be willing to leave standing in the aisle looking for a seat.

Lent is a time when we are reminded of the radical inclusivity of the Gospel.  According to Paul, "You are all sons (and daughters) of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:26-28)

It is during Lent that we are reminded that we have found our place at the table precisely because Jesus slid over and made room for us, for those of us radically different from himself.  Actually, as the Son of God he gave up His seat that we might have one.  We'd do well to be careful not to deny others a seat at Christ's table.

Time to Reflect
1.)  Who are you most likely to deny a seat at the table?

2.)  Take time today and reflect upon the gift of Christ inviting you to the table and the ways in which that should impact your willingness to share a table with others.  

"We know in part." --the Quest for (T)ruth

Read 1 Corinthians 13:9-13
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." vs.12

Only about a year into my journey as a follower of Jesus and I had convinced myself that I'd pretty much figured it all out.  I'd read the right books, listened to the right sermons, bought into the right theology and was very confident in my ability to speak (T)ruth.  So that's what I did.  Sitting at the YMCA next to an older gentleman, he made the mistake of asking me what I was reading in the bible and what I thought about it.  So I laid into to it.  I told him everything I knew for sure about God.  After listening to my arrogance for about half an hour, he reached his hand across the table, placed it on mine and said, "Son I'm a retired Methodist preacher of 50 years and if there is one thing I've learned in that time is that it is Ok to not have all the sometimes say, I don't know."  There are moments when God uses random strangers to put us in our place, and that was one of those moments for me.

I was reminded that no matter how much I think I know and understand there is still so much more that remains unseen.

I am afraid that Christians often suffer from over-confidence in how much they understand the (T)ruth.  Now wait, before you write me off as someone who doesn't believe in Truth, let me explain.  In the Christian faith, we believe that Jesus is (T)ruth with a capital T.  He is not only source and origin of Truth but the One to whom all Truth points.  However, we aren't Jesus.  Our understanding is constrained by our humanity.  The lenses we wear to interpret Truth are clouded by our biases, our environment, our background, our location, history, which theology we've chosen, our struggles, etc.  Paul says that no matter how much we think we know, we "know in part."

If Jesus is (T)ruth, then the very best that you and I can do is (t)ruth (with a lower case t) when we make sense of Him.

Think of it this way.  When we get out of a really hot shower, the mirror is all steamed up.  At first, we can see a form, a featureless form.  As time goes on, the image begins to clarify.  In a hurry, we rush to wipe off a spot so we can see, and leave the mirror all streaked up.  We know it's best to let the steam dissipate so we can see more clearly.  The same could be said of our journey of faith.  When we become followers of Jesus, we step in front of a steamy mirror and for the rest of our lives the image clarifies, but never fully.

So where does that leave us?

1.)  Intellectual Humility:  The church does not have to overshoot its mark in how much (T)ruth it understands.  Instead in humility, the church lives in absolute dependence to Jesus, embracing the (t)ruth that's accessible to us.  It is bold yes, recognizing that in my boldness that there is possibility we might get somethings wrong.  I don't believe any of us will one day arrive in the presence of God and hear, "You nailed that!  You got me completely right!  In fact, why don't you sit up here on this throne with me."  No, instead I think we will hear, "Well done good and faithful servant, you did the best you could with what you had.  You spoke with humble confidence.  You lived in humble submission."  Perhaps the best we can do.

2.)  In Pursuit of Love:  Paul seems to think that when our clarity fails us, there is always love.  That maybe the most important part of that passage.  Though our intellectual clarity might be foggy.  Though our spiritual clarity might be a bit hazy.  The best thing we can do is live a life of love based on what we know of the Love of Christ.  I wonder if the difference we make has more to do with how close we come to knowing clearly (T)ruth or the impact that our lives of love have on others.

Paul is in an interesting character to caution us toward humility in what we know.  Reading through his letters in the New Testament, you come to discover that he's pretty convinced of a lot.  However, his prayer in Romans 11 tempers his gusto.

May this be your prayer and your praise today!
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Verbal Safety Measures

Read James 3:2-12
"We all stumble in many ways.  If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check."

I can't start my Weed Eater by accident.  In fact, I can't really start any of my dangerous tools by accident.  They all have safety measures to prevent me from wounding myself, which if you've ever seen me around tools is probably a good thing.  Whether it's my table saw, circular saw, chain saw, etc., I have to make a conscious decision and take deliberate action to get these items started.  With my Weed Eater, there's a button you have to hold in order to pull the trigger, at the same time you are adjusting the choke and priming the gas...and pulling the cord.  It's really quite an event just to get the contraption going.  I can appreciate that.  The manufacturers have done the best they can to minimize the probability that I will injure myself or others around me by the unintentional use (or misuse) of dangerous tools.

I just wish someone could put safety measures like that on my mouth.

Don't you?

Just like a circular saw or a Weed Eater, our mouths can be dangerous tools.  Yet, they are easy to get going.  In fact, most of us are prone to "running off at the mouth."  We aren't nearly as deliberate as we are with a chain saw.  We simply say what we are thinking, when we are thinking it, often lacking the forethought to consider how the use (or misuse) of our mouths will wound those around us.

In today's Scripture, James writes about the issues surrounding how we use our mouths.  James seems to be suggesting that we do more damage with what we say than nearly any other part of our lives.  Our tongues deploy the weapons of sarcasm, condescension, insults, deceit, betrayal, gossip, prejudice, hate, bullying, and manipulation.  We keep a range of options always at our disposal.  We are armed to dismantle, abuse, destroy, demean and diminish, whenever our emotions get the best of us.  We often speak first and consider the consequences later.  The result...we regularly live in regret having said things we wished we could take back.  We damage relationships.  We leave the wrong impression in the minds of those that hear us spouting off.

Wouldn't it be great if there were safety measures for our mouths?

Good news...there is!  That safety measure is called the Holy Spirit.  When God's Spirit invades our lives, the Spirit becomes in us our early warning system, warning us that what we are about say might not be faithful and could do a lot of damage.  I mean...if we pay attention to the Spirit.  See, that's key.  We have to learn how submit and surrender more and more of our lives to the Spirit.  We begin to grow by asking God to bring all our actions, our attitudes, and our words under the leadership of the Spirit.  God begins to cultivate in us self-control and patience.  God helps us to weigh our words in light of the damage they might cause.  Understand, this doesn't mean we don't speak "truth" (hard words at times).  It just means that through the Spirit we learn to speak truth in love.

As we surrender to God's Spirit, our mouths are transformed from dangerous weapons to God's tool of blessing to others.  Wouldn't that be nice?  Then we do a lot less apologizing!

1.)  What are some of the dangerous ways that you use your mouth?

2.)  Would the people around you say that you speak in ways that harm or bless?  What about those closest to you?

I challenge you to pray a prayer today asking God to help you bring your words and speech under the leadership of God's Holy Spirit.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Rediscovering Joy...and Smiles...and Laughter

Nehemiah 8:1-12
"for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

Unbridled joy in the midst of some of life's most grueling circumstances, that's the only way I can describe the story of the Kimbanguist Symphony.  A few years back, 60 minutes did a story on a group of musicians from Kinshasa Congo.  This story gripped me in ways that few stories do.  I was mesmerized by the sheer joy on the faces of men and women who lived in one of the most financially depressed, poverty-stricken, and in years past, violent areas in Africa.  Yet, their smiles filled the screen.  These men and women, beginning with only makeshift and broken instruments, have assembled the first all-black symphony.  There are no world renowned musicians who are educated in the best schools.  They are men and women that have very little, except hard work, a love of music, and a joy that many of us miss.

Lent can be a very difficult season.  It pushes us into the depths of our journey with Jesus.  It calls into question many of our actions and attitudes.  It can get really heavy very quickly.  However, Lent must also be a balanced endeavor.  According to Ecclesiastes 3, there is a "time to weep and time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance."  This is life's balance.  Lent is often about finding balance once again.  For those of us that make a habit of taking life too seriously all the time, Lent may be a time of rediscovering joy.

If we aren't careful we can become a bunch of sourpusses...

Without a doubt, life is serious.  We have bills to pay, jobs to work, kids to raise.  We are locked into the latest terrorism threats.  We are embroiled in bad news, bad test results, loss, and financial distress.  We are lonely, struggling, and broken.  But...what about joy?

In today's story, the people of Jerusalem had lived in squalor for years after their city was destroyed.  For years they's been taken advantage of by their neighbors.  For years they wandered if there was any hope for a future.  In recent days, they'd worked tirelessly to build a wall around their community.  They'd lived on the leftovers of their religious faith.  Life had been stale.  What I love about this story, however, is that in the midst of all that serious stuff, the Priest, Ezra called the people to joy.  After reading the Law, God's compass for their lives, he saw the weight and called the people to take the day and rejoice, celebrate, have fun...and LAUGH!

Dealing in all our serious stuff...we often forget that joy is a gift from God.  Laughter is a gift from God.  Sharing space with those we can smile is a gift from God.  There is something profoundly spiritual about learning to laugh at yourself, not taking yourself so seriously.  Laughter is therapeutic in a holy way!  During this season of Lent, take time to goof off!  Make some memories with your children!  Find something that gives you joy and go do it!  Don't feel bad about it either.

It is deeply convicting in watching the Kimbanguist Symphony, surrounded by poverty and despair, to experience such unbridled joy in the Lord.  Here I stand, comparatively, in pretty easy way and I spend most of my time worrying, complaining, brooding, and stuck in cynicism.  Lord grant me the grace to rediscover the power of joy, laughter and smiles.

Time to Reflect
1.)  What are some things that bring you joy and make you laugh?

2.)   Who can you spend time with that will bring a smile to your face?

3.)  What is an immediate plan you can make today to goof off and rediscover joy?