Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Lenten Walk - Part 4

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
“If I were you, I would go to God and present my case to him.  He does great things too marvelous to understand.  He performs countless miracles.  He gives rain for the earth and water for the fields.  He gives prosperity to the poor and protects those who suffer.  He frustrates the plans of schemers so the work of their hands will not succeed.  He traps the wise in their own cleverness so their cunning schemes are thwarted.  They find it is dark in the daytime, and they grope at noon as if it were night.  He rescues the poor from the cutting words of the strong, and rescues them from the clutches of the powerful.  And so at last the poor have hope, and the snapping jaws of the wicked are shut.  “But consider the joy of those corrected by God!  Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty when you sin.  For though he wounds, he also bandages.  He strikes, but his hands also heal.  From six disasters he will rescue you; even in the seventh, he will keep you from evil.  
Job 5:8-19(NLT)
Some of the deepest troubles in life offer many of the most useful answers about life.  Elphaz, along with Bildad and Zophar were three of Job’s friends who came to sit with him and try to figure out where his wagon went off the track.  All of Job’s children had been killed in a tragic building collapse.  His livestock and servants had been captured by enemies, and his body was covered with boils.  On top of all this, his wife had lost faith and was urging Job to just curse God and die!  Job’s wagon wasn’t just off the track – it had been recalled by the manufacturer and pronounced dead on arrival.  His wagon lay in charred pieces where the demons danced around a campfire.
Elphaz’s advice to Job – and all sufferers – is to go to God and confess; he urges us to consider that even though it may hurt to be corrected by God, the end result is safer with God than to go it alone, trusting in your own ability to survive.  The “kicker” thrown into this scenario is that Elphaz suggests God may have been at back of Job’s troubles in the first place. 
Although there is much that can be, and has been said about what God causes, and what just happens while God watches, it is important to know that Elphaz has it about as right as we can be from a human perspective.  He is articulating what we know – God is God, and we are not; whatever comes our way is under his watch.  Job’s friend mentions six disasters which overwhelm, yet God rescues.  Then he uses the ancient Eastern idiom of adding a seventh to the mix – to the Hebrew mind seven is a perfect, or complete number – and Elphaz says God is still God over even the unthinkable.
Question:  Does that include Ash Wednesday at a High School in Broward County, Florida?
The fourteen children and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School whose lives were senselessly ended last Wednesday are the point and pain of our prayers this day.  Like Elphaz, Bildad and Zophar, as well as the victim’s families sitting like Job in the midst of their torn clothes and ashes, we weep for the lost and cry-out to God for the sense in that which is without sense.
It is somewhat easy to admit that only God knows why a disgruntled, angry young man could and would use a weapon to such viscious destruction of life.  But the question that is harder to entertain or even acknowledge is…God may know…but does God care?
Like you, I have my doubts sometimes.  And I am always snapped back to reality; His image is stamped on the soul of every one of those victims, as well as the shooter.  Of course God cares…that is the point of faith…if He didn’t care, would the end of Lent be Good Friday?
For You Today
In the middle of searching for answers and sense in the madness, we still have only one thought that makes life livable – we answer along with Job:  God is God; we came into this world naked, and will leave the same way.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road; have a blessed day.

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[1] Title Image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Monday, February 19, 2018

Lenten Walk - Part 3

Monday, February 19, 2018
When the Red Sea saw you, O God, its waters looked and trembled!  The sea quaked to its very depths.  The clouds poured down rain; the thunder rumbled in the sky.  Your arrows of lightning flashed.  Your thunder roared from the whirlwind; the lightning lit up the world!  The earth trembled and shook.  Your road led through the sea, your pathway through the mighty waters—a pathway no one knew was there!  You led your people along that road like a flock of sheep, with Moses and Aaron as their shepherds.  Psalm 77:16-20(NLT)
We’ve been looking at the Lent pathway via some thoughts my friend shared with me about his family’s recent hiking excursion at Hanging Rock.  You’ve got to trust the path to take you to the high places, and you need a steadying stick to help navigate the soft, shifty places. 
Today Lent is five days-in; five of forty.  Mathematically that’s only 12½% of the journey, but let’s go to the top of the rock this morning.  My friend, Richard, shared an insight he gleaned from being at the top that is particularly helpful in pastoral ministry. 
When you climb all the way to the top at Hanging Rock, you must have courage to get the best views!  Hmmm…I thought it was courageous just to get to the top; whatever did my friend have in mind?  Well, he said:  You have to get right out to the edge of the rock if you want to look down…straight-down at the best, most breath-taking views! 
I was afraid he was going there.  I love mountains and the grand, panoramic displays of God’s handiwork…from a safe distance.  Although vertigo is not my idea of a good high, Richard’s explanation made sense; not fun, but sense
Incidentally, speaking of sense, of the common variety, a disclaimer here:  I do NOT recommend you go near the edge of Hanging Rock without someone to hold you back after you’ve visited the psychiatrist following your decision to look a mile or two straight down!  Some people’s courage is other people’s craziness!
That being said, Richard was right…the view from hanging over Hanging Rock is the most breathtaking possibility.  Instead of looking straight-out and seeing nothing but tree tops, you get to look down and see the contours of the land, and all the interesting little details a horizontal view misses.  You get scope and clarity when you’re hanging that close to the edge.  Of course, my friend is a pilot/preacher and he’s used to that kind of thing
I got that perspective on a trip to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe ten years ago.  Way against my better judgment I leaned out, over the edge to get this picture.  My perspective took my breath away; I was certain I was next to heaven, if not on my way TO heaven if my foot slipped.
So what does all this have to do with Lent?  I’m glad you asked.  In pastoral ministry it is important to see the pathway most people would miss.  If you are to be of help to your brother or sister in Christ you must spend time looking and listening from the point that takes courage.  You have to be close and vulnerable, like hanging over a cliff, if you’re going to see the path someone else is travelling.  It’s like dancing, you can’t look at your own feet; if you do, it’s only a mechanical movement, it’s not dancing.  You’ve got to look in your partner’s eyes and feel the music.  You’ve got to trust.
And isn’t that the whole idea of this Lenten season?  You have got to prepare your heart to lean fully out over the edge – to trust the One holding your backpack.  And as you learn to fully place all your weight on He who died for you, you become an incredible value of Christ’s presence to everyone you meet.
For You Today
What will it be…breath-taking leaps in following the Savior…or a safe distance?
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road; have a blessed day.

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[1] Title Image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Building Strength for the Trials - Series #1. BAPTISM

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.  As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”  The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days.  He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.  Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News.  “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced.  “The Kingdom of God is near!  Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”  Mark 1:9-15(NLT)
There is a story about the 41st President, George H. W. Bush.  It seems the senior President Bush was touring a nursing home.  As he walked down the hall with his entourage of aides and reporters, he came upon one old man who was slowly making his way in the opposite direction.  The president reached out, took the patient’s hand, and asked gently, Sir, do you know who I am
The man stared back blankly for a moment; then his eyes focused.  Slowly he shook his head from side to side.  No, he admitted, I don’t know who you are.  But if you ask the nurses, they can tell you.[2]
When the voice from heaven spoke no one had to guess who Jesus might be.  The Holy One of Heaven said MY Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
In this season of Lent we walk with Jesus in preparation, learning to be a disciple, and finding that it isn’t all that easy.  Whoever said that being a Christian is so wonderful because all your problems melt away and people are all so kind to you, also probably said a lot of other stupid stuff.  If you’re considering joining with the Jesus tribe, and you have that kind of thought that it’s a picnic of joy and lightness 24/7, run…do not walk…run away now!
Friends, spiritual warfare is not for the faint-hearted.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.  You need spiritual strength to live like that.  Lent is where we build strength for the tough days ahead.  Here are some of the…
Strength Builders

1. Willingness – obedience to the pull of the water

Because there’s pressure ahead that wants to weaken our resolve.
People join churches every year and eventually drop-out, complaining that Christianity doesn’t work or isn’t worth the effort.  Soldiers understand opposition; they were taught to fight because their main purpose is conflict.  Many people join the church because they’re under the impression it is a safe haven from trouble, and then they find out they’re supposed to be a soldier in the middle of it; they go AWOL.
Obedience is certainly a characteristic of humility, but in Mark’s gospel there is a special significance.  In verse 10 it says that as Jesus came up from the water of his baptism the heavens were torn apart.  The word[3] means a violent rip.  The only other time Mark used the word was the crucifixion scene[4] where the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom at Christ’s death.
When Jesus went into the water, he walked up to his cousin, John the Baptist.  I’ve often wondered if being baptized by his cousin helped Jesus any during his ministry.  I got to wondering so much about it with this text I asked the four members of my family that I personally baptized that question – what, if anything did it mean to have me take you to the water?
Carrie’s take:  In a way I think it helped, especially as a child, because you always want to please your parents (most kids anyway!) so by obeying your parents and striving to stay on the straight and narrow, you were also pleasing God.  
Jesus was certainly all about pleasing His father…and He did!
Samantha’s take:  During the baptism, I remember thinking how special it was to be baptized by you.  Everyone else had the preacher and I had you.  Also, when it came time to be baptized, everything we said seemed more binding or more real.  Kind of like the difference between making a promise with someone you just met and making a promise with your best friend.  I guess it all just felt a little more sacred than if it had been with the pastor of that church.  
Ken's take:  No...not really.  I was just trying to be obedient to God.
Remembering your baptism is something we are pushed to do.  The water calls to us as we remember the where, when, why and what of our baptism.  We remember what Christ suffered, and how sacred it is, and that willingness to live out our baptism call with courage is deepened.

2. Witness – Learning to Trust God with results

Because there’s opposition and loneliness ahead
All you have to do is read a few verses past our text and you find that Jesus is not only tempted in the wilderness – his cousin, John the Baptist is arrested and thrown in prison.  Eventually he is beheaded for preaching his message of repentance – the same message Jesus would later preach.  Opposition and isolation are the twins you will know well if you will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Opposition and loneliness are genuinely part of the Christian life, because that is what Christ experienced.  Jesus said to his disciples…
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; John 15:20 (NRSVA)
John had drawn a huge crowd to the wilderness.  They came in great multitudes to be baptized.  It wasn’t because John was seeking notoriety; in fact he was more a recluse than a publicity hound.  But those people who witnessed Jesus’ baptism that day became an affirmation that John’s baptism offered in a small wilderness didn’t mean a small impact for the Kingdom of God.  Opposition and loneliness can make you feel that way.  Satan understands human feelings and will manipulate you into a pity party in a heartbeat.  But, from that small place with no followers, the baptism of Jesus, and the voice of the Father from above started the most powerful force for good the world has ever seen!

3. Wilderness – Facing life’s temptations

Because developing toughness is needed to overcome temptation
When Jesus came out of the baptismal waters the Spirit led him right into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. 
God instructs us in Scripture to run from temptation the minute we see it.  The reason is that the Lord knows we’re not very good at resisting it. 
You remember the account of the skinflint preacher who reluctantly agreed to let his wife take the credit card shopping.  He warned her over and over to resist the temptation to buy things they couldn’t afford.  She promised, and left for town.  She came back with a red dress by Balenciaga and a charge slip for $2400.  The husband hit the roof.  
He yelled, I told you to resist the temptation; you should have turned and run from that old devil
She replied, Dear, I did just as you said.  I heard Lucifer whispering in my ear how good that Balenciaga looked on me, and I turned and ran!
But you still bought it! whined the preacher.
 I couldn’t help myself! she cried, When I turned around to run he said, ‘sho’nuff looks good from this side too, darlin’!
Baptism always leads to temptation.  Jesus was drawn into the wilderness with wild animals and all the elements necessary for a horror movie.  It would have been easy to give up.
Satan understands common sense, and movement towards God (like baptism) is movement away from Satan and the things of this world.  The devil will truly use any manipulative trick possible to combat a believer’s declaration of love for, and faith in God.  What Satan never seems to learn is that kind of temptation is exactly what God will use to strengthen his children.  Our wilderness experiences are a training ground for spiritual warfare.
Don’t be misled…the battle can be ferocious!  The first year I travelled with the Methodist tribe being a pastor at my first appointment was like a wonderful dream.  Everything we did turned to blessing.  But after a year of substantial growth and joy in the church it came time for the new appointment season, and I got news from the District Superintendent that I was being replaced, and there was no other appointment available.  Not only was hard work and more than a little growth forward to not be rewarded…I was being canned.
The D. S. had a reputation for being stern, hard, demanding and like a general in command.  I assumed it was over…ministry-wise, economically losing our home was a distinct possibility, and everything about being a pastor for 25 years just plain stunk!  Elizabeth and I cried.  Then…out of the blue two weeks later the D.S. called and told me she’d had a heart-to-heart with the Bishop about every good thing happening at the church, and he had said:  well, we had better not mess with this – it sounds like that’s a God- thing going on; leave him there!
Now that’s how we talk about it in Methodist terms…in Scripture it tells us when Jesus resisted the devil it was angels who came and took care of Jesus.  I still call that D.S. my angel!
Willingness, Witness, Wilderness, and…

4. Water-mark

The words ringing in everyone’s ears that day, as they watched Jesus emerge from the water were with you I am well-pleased.  It is the same phrase in the teaching of Jesus’ parable, when he told about the coming kingdom – well done, good and faithful servant.[5]
Jesus encouraged us all in the words of John the Revelator when he told the persecuted church at Smyrna to be faithful right up until death, and there would be a crown of life waiting[6].  In that same book, faithful Christians are promised a new name and a new mark.  I call it the water-mark
Our baptism leaves an indelible sign for all to see…we are His!
I was asked a question by a teacher when I was in grade school.  The question was:  What are you going to do with your life?  Now, like any other boy-child, I began to respond in terms of job or career; most of us men identify ourselves as that which we do, instead of who we’re called to be.  The teacher stopped me dead in my tracks….No…not how you’ll earn a living – what are you going to do with your LIFE?
That question haunted me until I began to understand that a career isn’t life.  The decision to serve God with who you are is what life is all about.  But it’s much more than being baptized; much more than a ceremony.  It’s like marriage.  People get married at a point in time.  The parson says will you?  The couple says, Yup!  And that’s it….right?  Of course not; that was just the marriage ceremony.  After the ceremony is over the marriage then begins to unfold day-to-day, week-to-week into decades (hopefully). 
Marriage is much more than a ceremony on one given day.  Marriage is a journey of faithful living, giving and loving.  There is thoughtfulness and struggle, anger and joy.  If it’s a Biblical marriage there’s servanthood and soldiering.  There are times of plenty and times of scarcity. 
Marriage is the metaphor Jesus chose to identify the relationship we have as baptized believers.  We, the church, are the bride of Christ.  And it isn’t so much that we were baptized, it is more that we are baptized.
With my bride I don’t think in terms of the fact that I got married; after more than fifty-one years it is still:  today I will live-out this covenant called marriage.
So, like the question my teacher posed, what are you going to do with your baptism?  Have you messed it up?  You can re-enlist as a soldier, come home as a servant. 
You can come to this altar and ask God to help you with all that.  That’s what altars are for.  That’s how we build strength for the trials.
Let the church say Amen in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

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[1] Title Image Courtesy Pixabay.com.
[2] Homiletics Online, January 2009, 22
[3] Greek:  schizomai (schiz-o-mai)
[4] Mark 15:38
[5] Matthew 25:23
[6] Revelation 2:10

Friday, February 16, 2018

Lenten Walk - Part 2

Friday, February 16, 2018
Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow.  Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me.  All day long I put my hope in you.  
Psalm 25:4-5(NLT)
We are two days in on a forty day journey.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Holy Saturday.  For those doing the math that’s seven weeks and three days, and just doesn’t add up.  The days you must subtract are the 6 Sundays in that period, which, technically, are mini-Easter resurrection celebrations, and not part of the Lenten emphasis in the Christian year[2].  This is only important as a reminder to keep Sundays joyful and hopeful, even/especially in Lent.
Yesterday we heard from my preacher friend who shared about his family-hike up to the mountain-top at Hanging Rock.  It is important that you trust the pathway in the growing seasons, with all the leaves on the trees concealing the goal of getting to the top.  But during the winter seasons the leaves are on the ground and you see a little bit clearer through the bleak, gray skies.  Colder, grayer, emptier are these times, forcing you to reflect on the pathway to the place of your call!
Today let’s reflect on what you carry with you.  A serious walker carries a stick.  My friend learned that about hiking.  He told me that the stick is so important, and more so for the journey back down the mountain than the climb to the top.  He said that, on the way up your eyes are always pointed up, but when you’ve reached the top and spend time looking around at the top of the mountain, it’s hard to stop.  You want more of those views, and, on the way down your eyes tend to seek out those views; you look straight-out, instead of looking down to the path.  Sometimes you don’t watch where you’re going.  That stick you carry is a connection with the ground upon which you’re walking; it steadies you.  It locates loose rocks and soft ground spots which may cause you to slip and get injured.  When you’re travelling down the mountain, gravity and momentum makes any slip that much more potentially dangerous.
The Psalmist’s prayer is for the LORD to teach/show him the right path, and the stick for leaning-on is truth.  If there is anything a serious walker needs, it’s that stick; the same can be said for a disciple of Jesus Christ…leaning on truth is not important, it is critical to every step you take on this journey.
The truth about the truth is like the importance of the walking stick.  It only takes one loose rock or spongy pathway patch to cause a slip, fall and dangerous injury on a mountain trail.  In the same way, one slip from the truth can destroy so much of the progress you’ve made in following Jesus. 
Many bits of so-called wisdom in life may let you down; that walking-stick of truth is not one of them.
For You Today
Sticking to the truth like it has been welded to your soul may get you in trouble with the world occasionally, because it is hard for some people to deal with absolute truth.  But clinging to the walking stick of truth in your faith journey will NEVER get you in hot water with the Father. 
Lent, my friends, is not at all about pleasing the world…it’s all about picking up a cross.
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road; have a blessed day.

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[1] Title Image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.com
[2] See Article, Too Busy to Pray?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lenten Walk - Part 1

Thursday, February 15, 2018
O Lord, I give my life to you.  I trust in you, my God!  Do not let me be disgraced, or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat.  No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced, but disgrace comes to those who try to deceive others.  Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow.  Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me.  All day long I put my hope in you.  Remember, O Lord, your compassion and unfailing love, which you have shown from long ages past.  Do not remember the rebellious sins of my youth.  Remember me in the light of your unfailing love, for you are merciful, O Lord.  The Lord is good and does what is right; he shows the proper path to those who go astray.  He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way.  The Lord leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all who keep his covenant and obey his demands.  Psalm 25:1-10(NLT)
North Carolina is full of some of God’s really beautiful places to enjoy.  A friend recently shared with a group of preachers how his family had enjoyed a day off hiking the mountain trails at Hanging Rock.  As they left the parking lot and began the trail towards the mountain top, my friend took note of the fact that, while the destination was high and to the left of where they started, the wooded pathway took them down and to the right.  Like most mountain experiences, it was going to be a long, winding pathway to the top!  And…most importantly…the trees, full of leaves, screened their view of the goal.  They had to trust the path to take them there…it was a faith walk!
David’s Psalm was much like my friend’s experience; he prayed for the LORD to show him the right path and help him keep from being defeated or disgraced in life.  David wrote that he was placing his life’s hope in God all day long; he understood that those who trust in the LORD are led to a fulfilled covenant walk, the mountain top of joy.
Now, I have felt lost in the woods before; it’s not a lovely feeling!  I learned that you should always take care to see where you’ve travelled, so you can remember how to get back to safety.  (Incidentally, there’s a good application for that when you leave your car in long numbered rows of a parking lot down at WalMart.  It’s rather embarrassing to walk through the lot using the panic button on your key trying to locate your car.  You look like a doe in the headlights searching, here car; here car!)
This Lenten preparation walk of 40 days is filled with mountain trails…as is life in general.  In seasons of growth you just have to trust the path, because you can hardly see past the foliage. 
But there are seasons like now, when the leaves have taken their leave, and you get glimpses of the high destination through the dense wood of life which surrounds you. 
Winter hardly looks like a blessing sometimes; bare trees, and bleak, gray skies seem to leave me cold and empty.  It looks a little like death.  Indeed, suicide rates go up in bleak mid-winter.  But, as with Lent, this is a time for looking through to the other side…to the promise of God which will be fulfilled.  It is a time for noticing all of last year’s green growth lying brown and decayed on the ground, and remembering the pathway is for moving forward, ever forward.
For You Today
If you are in a season of winter in life, cold, wondering, anguished over losses, perhaps despairing of ever seeing life grow green again…remember the path, look up; the destination hasn’t moved.
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road; have a blessed day.

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[1] Title Image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.com