Friday, August 30, 2013

Tough Trust

Friday August 30, 2013

O LORD, hear my plea for justice.  Listen to my cry for help.  Pay attention to my prayer, for it comes from honest lips.  Declare me innocent, for you see those who do right.  You have tested my thoughts and examined my heart in the night.  You have scrutinized me and found nothing wrong.  I am determined not to sin in what I say.  I have followed your commands, which keep me from following cruel and evil people.  My steps have stayed on your path; I have not wavered from following you.  I am praying to you because I know you will answer, O God.  Bend down and listen as I pray.  Show me your unfailing love in wonderful ways.  By your mighty power you rescue those who seek refuge from their enemies.  Guard me as you would guard your own eyes.  Hide me in the shadow of your wings.  Protect me from wicked people who attack me, from murderous enemies who surround me.  They are without pity.  Listen to their boasting!  They track me down and surround me, watching for the chance to throw me to the ground.  They are like hungry lions, eager to tear me apart— like young lions hiding in ambush.  Arise, O LORD! Stand against them, and bring them to their knees!  Rescue me from the wicked with your sword!  By the power of your hand, O LORD, destroy those who look to this world for their reward.  But satisfy the hunger of your treasured ones.  May their children have plenty, leaving an inheritance for their descendants.  Because I am righteous, I will see you.  When I awake, I will see you face to face and be satisfied.
Psalms 17:1 - 15 (NLT)
This is the confident prayer of one who has assurance that God will answer.  But who can pray such a prayer?  Did you see the next-to-last sentence?
Because I am righteous, I will see you.
Ahem….excuse me….declaring yourself righteous?  You’ve been good?  I mean, like, really, really good?  Perfect?
From a traditional (doctrinal) Christian vantage point this borders on boasting.  In Ephesians the Apostle Paul reminds us that being really, really good is not God’s measuring stick.  Grace is for sinners…people who are really, really NOT perfect:
8God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.   Ephesians 2:8-9  (NLT)
So…was the Psalmist boasting?  Was he taking credit?
Who can pray that prayer, claiming he or she has walked the walk, and knows God will answer; the bad guys will be handled and the good guy (me) will ride off into the sunset with the girl and live happily ever after?

Tough Trust

The term “tough love” hit the American scene in the 60’s.  Its common usage suggests a parent making choices that seem rough on the child, but beneficial in the long run to develop the child’s character.
Tough trust is like that, but it’s self-inflicted.  If you are faced with a hard choice between following God’s ways without wavering, or taking the easy, more culturally-accepted, but morally-stilted way out – you do the tough thing.  You swim upstream, become counter-culture.  In other words, you live like a Christian no matter who’s looking.  You trust God.  It’s “tough trust”.
This is what the Psalmist did – and his confidence in God wasn’t a reward for how good, or how trusting he managed to act.  That would be performance-based “love” on God’s part.  But, the determination (choice) of the Psalmist to live trusting God is the very thing that places us in God’s care – the care that is ultimate and unfailing.  The Psalmist wasn’t expressing confidence in his own performance; he was expressing his confidence in God.
I lost a friend this past Monday.  Melvin was as good a man as you’d want for a friend.  His 74 years was a model of simple trust that God is good.  He was faithful to his family, faithfully supported and worked in his faith community, and enjoyed life with a smile.  Melvin wasn’t perfect, but his trust in God’s Word to lead him through this maze of earthly existence was well-placed in a God who IS perfect.

It may be tough to trust God some days, but tough trust is never disappointed.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is That Enough?

Thursday August 29, 2013

I really don’t recommend it – telling God you need a little more proof that He’s calling you, and that He’s got your back!  Moses questioned his calling.  “Who am I?” he asked Jehovah at the burning bush.  God had heard the great cries of all Israelites in captivity in Egypt.  This was the one hope of Moses, that God would release the captives.  Now, when God was about to answer by sending Moses back to Pharaoh, Moses’ faith had a hiccup…. “Uh, God….ME?  Would you give me some kind of sign here?  Suppose they don’t believe?  I don’t speak so well.  Why don’t you just go down there…..?”
Fast-forward about 3700 years.  Elizabeth and Russell are living in a little Gulf Coast Florida town, and Russell is struggling with a call to ministry. 
Russell:  “Umm…me?  I know you spoke to my heart, and I’ve been encouraged in all this, but…well, I’ve got a wife, three kids, a mortgage, car payment.  God, I just don’t see any way.”
God:  You don’t remember that part about “walking by faith not sight, do you?”
Russell:  “It’s a really big mortgage”.
God:  Bigger than the cost of Solomon’s temple?
Russell:  “Sometimes it seems that way”.
That’s the fictional part of my prayer life (at least the part where God answers in English).  Here’s the rest of the story:
I asked God if He would help us find a way to sell our house and settle our debts, so we’d have that off our back during seminary.  A few weeks later a couple from Michigan decided that our little town would be a perfect place to retire.  Sold! 
But that wasn’t all.
They paid cash – up front!  They gave us the full asking price, half-again what we’d paid for the place only three years prior.  And they couldn’t move in for several months, so we were able to still live in our home and finish the kids’ school year before the move.
But that wasn’t all.
The rent they asked was only half of what we’d been paying on Solomon’s mortgage!

Is That Enough?

Mortgage gone, debts paid-off, extra money in the bank, pathway cleared.  Yet there were “heel marks” in the sand all the way, when the way got scary.  
And, at times, even to this day when the road looks a little bumpy, the sky a little foggy and I can’t see where He’s leading, I have a “Moses faith hiccup”.  Sometimes the threadbare condition of my “faith” is astounding!  
Sometimes, when your faith is puny and threadbare, God is gracious and patient; He will give you a sign you asked for.  But, the question afterwards is always the same:  “Is that enough, child?  Are you ready to follow NOW?”
When it comes to “walking by faith and not sight” there will never be a time when every doubt, debt or disturbance disappears completely.  Life always has a few curve balls to throw at you.
But His promises are true and trustworthy.
Stay with that…(even when there’s no burning bush or migrating Michigan home buyers).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Walk With Integrity

Wednesday August 28, 2013

A walk (or life) of integrity is a life that works.  Life lived without integrity falls apart – literally!
The word “integrity” is usually associated with adherence to a strong code of moral values and principles.  The concept is as old as the Garden of Eden, and as fresh as the computer chip that’s allowing you to read this devotion.  Integrated circuits work to produce the memory/workings of that iPhone™ or PC.  Circuits that tell each other the truth work; circuits that give false information to the rest of the device are what we call a “virus”; a big problem! 
To be “integrated” is to be whole, meaning put-together and functioning in cooperation.  In human relationships integrity means thoughts, words and actions are all the same.  Opposites of the word include “lying, cheating, stealing, broken promises….” And the list goes on, painfully long.
If living a life of integrity means always telling the truth, how, according to the Psalmist, does that make you “joyful”?  Especially considering that sometimes telling the truth involves more pain (in the short run) than telling a small lie!  Where’s the harm?

Painful Truth

The smallest deviation from truth is prevarication (a lie).  When President Richard Nixon resigned from office, it was the last act of a failed presidency.  The trail led back to a lack of integrity – playing loose with the rules of walking in truth.
Each year theology students at Duke Divinity School attend a required seminar on what kind of integrity is expected in the student concerning their studies and work turned-in.  Plagiarism, taking someone else’s words and submitting them as your own, without giving credit to the author, is cause for immediate course failure and dismissal from school. 
Isn’t that drastic?  Whatever happened to second chances, grace?  If a divinity student will lie about the source to his professor, he will lie to a congregation.

It’s that important

Presidents and preachers aside, what about you?
In a marriage, or relationships between cousins and sisters, down to dealings with the neighborhood butcher….every transaction of speech and action is subject to truth.  Without it, the integrity of the community begins to break apart like a china cup dropped on a hardwood floor.
This is why Paul wrote:  
…we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.      Ephesians 4: 15b (NLT)

A life of integrity demands speaking the truth; it’s the joyful, loving way to live.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Taking the Shock Value Out of Sin

Tuesday August 26, 2013

Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin!  Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer.  James 1:13 (TMSG)
In 1973 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote the classic “Whatever Became of Sin”.  In a recent article Dr. James Emery White wrote about Menninger’s message:
Menninger detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning when it was relegated to the psychological category of sickness.[1]
“Sliding” is a great way to understand how we lose the shocking value of something which can do us harm.  James used the birth process to describe how sin works.  It begins like a pregnancy, births into actions, and, in the end, brings death (always!).
These slippery slides often proceed quite innocently. 
When our youngest, Carrie, was about five, I was painting the kitchen in the house we’d just moved into.  As our little one walked past me on the ladder, she casually remarked about the uncovered electrical outlets, “I know what happens when you put your finger in there, Daddy.”
Well – she had opened the topic, so I bit, “What happens, punkin’?”
“You get allergic.”

allergic is a far cry from electrocuted!

Allergic, indeed!
In our culture, the shock-effect of sin has devolved to the point where any sense of moral wrong, or its accompanying penalties, have not only been pushed aside as irrelevant, but obliterated from memory as if the shame and consequences of wrong only existed in some cartoon caricature of ancient and regrettable Puritanism.  We have succeeded at taking the killing power of sin and turning it into a minor allergy.
In my role as “Daddy-in-residence” it was my duty to help my daughter understand the difference between electrocution and a rash.  (I must have done well; both my daughters married guys who play with wires for a living).
As a pastor it’s also my job to help us remember to always speak the truth about how our actions have real consequences.  And it’s not just “choices” as if we are somehow morally-isolated from the One who gave us life and the privilege to make those choices. 
When we choose against what God said is right and/or permissible, no amount of “word-dance” (calling sin by a less-shocking title) will take sin’s consequences out of the birth canal.  Once conceived, sin will always go full term; the birth of death – always.
Our culture has disconnected the wires from the power source…don’t fall for that trap.  Make it a point in your prayer life, beginning right now, to name your sin.  Call it what it is, and ask the Father’s forgiveness.  Then, count on what He has promised:
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 1 John 1:9 (NLT)
Don’t confess the “allergy of poor choices” – confess your sins; the Faithful One will cleanse every bit of it.  He said so!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Words Chiseled in Stone

Some things happen which cause words to be chiseled in stone.  On April 20, 1896 at 6:30 in the evening in the small Austrian village of Braunau Am Inn, just across the border from German Bavaria, Klara gave birth to a son.  She was married to Alois.  Alois was a widower and Klara was quite pregnant at the time; he was twice her age, as well as technically her uncle.  At age 39 Alois was running for public office and on the advice of his uncle Johann Hiedler, was going to change his name from Schicklgruber (the name of his unwed mother) to Alois Hiedler. 
When he wrote it at the magistrate’s office he wrote “Hitler” instead of Hiedler.  That Easter Sunday evening, the mother of this newborn, named her baby boy “Adolph”.

Adolph Hitler has been called the worst madman monster of the 20th century, responsible for the persecution, torture and execution of more people than almost anyone in history.

Today the three story house in which he was born that Easter evening is not marked in any way by his name. There is simply a marker in front which declares the voice of Hitler’s victims…For peace, freedom and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead admonish.  The phrase “never again fascism” is chiseled in stone…something that must never be forgotten, a reminder that we must always refuse and rebuke the kind of hate for which Hitler stood.
There are other (better) words chiseled in stone, words which stand for love and not hate.  Jesus told his disciples to "remember me" by participating in the supper of grace.


We are just two days from celebrating the 50th anniversary of the famous "March on Washington" led by Dr. Martin Luther King.  It is a time for remembering important steps toward freedom and equality for all.  This was a march against everything which people like Hitler believed and for which they brutally marched through history.  
But as you remember the 1963 march for freedom, remember where freedom was born, and that which Dr. King preached; it was Jesus who led the march for true freedom.  So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.  John 8:36 (NLT) 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Which Sickness Was It?

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’   But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’  When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  (NRSV)
It seems whenever Jesus came to town something always got stirred up; and generally it was the religious leaders who took exception to the stirring.  The account of the woman being healed on the Sabbath is no exception.  A question that we will explore today is:  Which sickness got cured….her physical health, or spiritual?
In that story there is little room or sympathy for the religious leaders – they’re jerks!  I know that doesn’t sound very pastoral or kindly…but, let’s face it, how can you love the rules more than the healing of a woman who has been so crippled that she can’t even look up the past two decades?  They were jerks!
The real question is:  what made them jerks?  We really want to know this, so we don’t act like that.  Correct me if I’m wrong here, but would you want somebody to write the story of “our synagogue” and two-thousand years from now have some upstart call your pastor a jerk?  So….what made them act like jerks?  Short answer:  they were so obsessed with keeping the rules and making sure everyone else kept the rules they lost all sense of compassion for people.
Rules do things to people.  You can get so immersed in rules, and being a rules-keeper, that you can do some pretty silly stuff. 
I read about some Odd Laws Still on the Books:
·     In Blackwater, Kentucky, tickling a woman under her chin with a feather duster while she’s in church service carries a penalty of $10.00 and one day in jail.  (maybe that would be worth it?)
·     No one can eat unshelled, roasted peanuts while attending church in Idanha, Oregon.
·     In Honey Creek, Iowa, no one is permitted to carry a slingshot to church except a policeman.
·     No citizen in Leecreek, Arkansas, is allowed to attend church in any red-colored garment.[1]
Those are some pretty silly laws…however, they’re no less grotesque than the rulers of the synagogue were in Jesus’ day.  Their rules-keeping, legalistic mentality had so clouded their minds they couldn’t see the needs of the most needy person among them.

Consider the Contrast of the Woman and the Rulers

The Woman
This Jewish woman was one of their own.  She was so bent-over, and had been for such a long time that, for the rulers at least, she probably just faded into the background.  This was among the most powerless of people…not a mover and shaker in the community.
The text suggests she must have suffered from a curved spinal column. 
That was the physical reality; the spiritual reality was that Satan had “bound” her.  She was bent and bound! 
There was a lady like that in a church I served years ago.  Ms. Peggy had crippling arthritis; her hands were gnarled and twisted and she walked stooped-over as the woman in our Bible passage.  And just like the crippled woman, Ms. Peggy was a fixture at the North Main Street Church.  She didn’t let her physical condition get in the way of her spiritual nourishment.
The Rulers
The rulers or leaders of the synagogue were quite a different matter.  The woman was powerless and faithful; the rulers of the synagogue were powerful and faithless.  As previously noted, they had responsibility for the widows, the powerless.  Yet the chief ruler could only bring criticism for Jesus healing her.  They kept their bylaws, but ignored the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor.
When Jesus saw the pitiful condition of this woman he had compassion on her – the kind of compassion that must do something.  He initiated the healing.  The woman didn’t even ask; Jesus reached out and touched her.  And when the rulers objected, Jesus put them to open shame by using the lesser to greater logic of pointing-out how they would’ve done that and more even for the animals of their household.  Certainly a woman of their own flock deserved care on the Sabbath

Consider the Contrast of Reactions to the Woman’s Healing

The woman had been crippled for 18 years.  When Jesus healed her there was no doubt that it was that same woman they’d seen each week at synagogue.  When this woman stood up straight for the first time in 18 years it must have been quite a sight! 
Luke says that she glorified God.  Can’t you see it?  Like days gone by when you’d see someone running down a church aisle because they’d been tapped on the shoulder by the Holy Spirit, this woman lifted up un-crippled hands and straight arms without pain for the first time in two decades!  She didn’t care who was looking!  She sang hallelujah, off-key or on…it made no difference!
The people rejoiced
I can imagine that; if Ms. Peggy had suddenly gotten healed it would’ve caused a revival at North Main Street Church!
The rulers got ticked
What a contrast!  It just proves that control is power-vested.  These men, in charge of everything, with the legal right to discipline and punish wrong-doers, were so threatened by the popularity of Jesus..all they could think of was the fact that he was breaking the rules.  They brought no worship, offered up no praise to God because Jesus healed this poor sister of theirs.  They could only think of how Jesus’ popularity was growing, and theirs was shrinking!  Matthew’s gospel (chap. 12) tells us that it was after this that they started to plot how to kill Jesus.
If you follow the timeline of Jesus’ movements, this was the very last time Jesus entered a synagogue before going to the cross.  It kind of makes the point about crossing the line once too often with God.  There is a time when He finally says, “OK, your will be done”…and God finally washes His hands of trying to save you.

To Remember

So this woman was healed on the Sabbath…some big crime, eh? 
A young child drew a wonderful picture of a church.  The stick people figures going in the front door were bent and dejected. 
Emerging out the back door were other, larger, straighter stick people.  The child’s Mom asked what the meaning was.  The little girl replied That’s how it is to go to see Jesus; when you go in you’re all broken-down…He straightens you up and you feel much better!
The woman needed more than physical healing.  And she needed more than spiritual healing.  And when she met Jesus, both happened!
There are abused and powerless people all around us in this community.  Our job is to look for them, find them, and heal them.  They are crying out in their hearts a phrase that is often repeated in the Scripture; it is the phrase/question which is frequently on the lips of a sufferer:  How long, O Lord?
Our job is to speak for those who cannot speak, to seek those who cannot help themselves, to minister where the hands and loving touch of Jesus are needed.  That is what describes the ministry of a church.
How many bound and bent people do you know?  And, this week, will they see in you the One who can make them straight?

[1] Robert W. Pelton in The Door. Christian Reader, Vol. 33, no. 5.