Saturday, May 31, 2014

Without a Clue

Monday, June 2, 2014
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?  Put away your wine.”  But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.  Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”  And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.”  Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.  1 Samuel 1:12-18 (NRSV)

When I read the opening story of Samuel’s life, Eli strikes me as Secret Agent Maxwell Smart.  Don Adams played the inept spy on the TV comedy series “Get Smart”.  He was a satirical combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau.
Smart was an American spy trying to thwart all the evil efforts of the world-takeover organization “KAOS”.  The bumbling Maxwell Smart, known as “Agent 86” would always save the day, but he hardly had a clue how he did it.

Eli was priest at the temple, but he had some severe blind spots.  Hannah was crying out at the temple altar to God because she had no children and desperately wanted a son; Eli thought she was drunk.  Talk about a preacher in need of some sensitivity training! 

I empathize with Eli, I’ve made my share of hasty misjudgments; I daresay Eli and I have company there, lots of company!

But even when Hannah protests to the priest that she is not drunk, merely in prayer over her deep soul-distress, Eli still rushes to judgment, this time in the opposite direction – offering a may God grant your petition.  She never told Eli exactly what she was praying for; she could have been praying for a new Cadillac, or a way to assassinate the king.

Rushing to judgment without a clue, can be damaging in so many ways.  Who among us hasn’t offended a friend or co-worker by speaking before we have all the facts?  Parents can speak too quickly when a child brings home a poor test grade.  Marriage can be a shouting match when a spouse assumes before knowing.  Remember the old saying, looks can be deceiving?

In Eli’s case he judged Hannah’s spiritual condition with a glance, that she was desecrating God’s Temple with drunkenness.  He hadn’t so much as taken a stab at understanding.  Then, without knowing what he was supporting, he threw his prayer in with Hannah.  What a careless way to handle his spiritual calling and vocation.

Today there are plenty of opportunities to make rash judgments, and literally throw away our opportunities to be of real service to God. 

The conclusion of the matter is fairly simple – spend time with God silently so you don’t offend God publicly!

For You, Today

Like the old hymn has it – take time to be holy.  When you give God plenty of time to speak to your heart and mind, the chances are you will not be a Maxwell Smart kind of Christian, without a clue.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind Forgive Our Foolish Ways

Friday, May 30, 2014
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’  But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’   Acts 2:1-4, 12-13 (NRSV)
In 1872 John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem entitled “The Brewing of Soma”.  Whittier was disturbed by the early Methodists, and their “noisy and hysterical camp meetings and revivals.  The first 11 (of 17) stanzas …describe in vivid images and compelling metaphors the rites of the priests of Indra [who] had brewed from honey and milk a ‘drink of the gods’ which when drunk by the worshipers produced a frenzy, a sacred madness, and ecstatic storm of drunken joy, the beginning of a ‘new, glad life’.[1]  

Some would describe that as shameful behavior, public group inebriation, something of a fraternity or sorority back to school orgy/party.  Some might describe it as Pentecost.

While Whittier may have been appalled by the early Methodists’ enthusiastic, ecstatic worship, the latter verses of his poem became one of Christendom’s most revered (and currently ignored) hymns. 

It is also good theology for our times…(no wonder it’s ignored):

    Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
    Forgive our foolish ways;
    Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
    In purer lives Thy service find,
    In deeper reverence, praise.

    Breathe through the heats of our desire
    Thy coolness and Thy balm;
    Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
    Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
    O still, small voice of calm. 
    O still, small voice of calm.

“Reclothe us in our rightful mind….Still, small voice of calm” – we could use some cool heads and faithful hearts in government, families and religious organizations/pulpits.
For You, Today…

Try to get some moments today when you’re apart from the buzz and frenzy of life in the fast lane. 

Listen for the still small voice; it (He) has been known to save many a believer from foolish ways.

[1] Carlton R. Young, Companion To the United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993), p.317

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Smarter Than Google

Thursday, May 29, 2014
Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise.  Proverbs 6:6 (NRSV)
We are used to comparisons of how industrious an ant can be.  But a new study published two days ago by the National Academy of Sciences holds that ants are smarter than Google.  Co-author of the article, Professor Jurgen Kurths told The Independent, transition between chaos and order is an important mechanism and I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search.

I love professor Kurths’ terminology…transition between chaos and order.  That’s exactly what God did in the Genesis creation account; the universe was in chaos and God brought form, meaning, purpose and order to make a paradise.
Back to the smart ant and less-smart Google
Google uses algorithms, complex mathematical formulas to find information on the ever-expanding Internet chaos.  Ants tell each other where the food is located.  Why, then, are ants considered more sophisticated and organized than Google?  Well, the scientists are still learning, but they hold that the ants cooperate to such an extent that the intelligence and organization of the group (as opposed to the single ant) is mind-boggling.

Here’s how:

A single ant will do what it can to find food for the whole colony.  As it pushes out in (what seems to be) random patterns, searching for food sources, it leaves pheromone traces, little “scents” of itself.  When it finds, say, a half-eaten biscuit leftover from your picnic, the little guy will bring it back to the nest.  A group of workers will be dispatched to the site, following the pheromone tracks like a trail of breadcrumbs.  As they walk the phero-trail, information about location is stored, indexed and shared with all the other ant-workers so that the journey to the half-biscuit becomes the best possible route.  That’s when the whole group begins to travel in single file directly to the target, expending the least amount of energy to retrieve that Hardee’s ham biscuit.
It’s community cooperation for the good of all.
I think Christians of all stripes can learn a lesson from that.
For You, Today…

Do you isolate yourself?  Are you a hyper-individualist?

Go to the ant….learn how community is God’s design.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paradox; Illusion of the Heart

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
You’ve probably seen a movie or TV show that included someone in the desert, trudging along, weary and thirsty.  Suddenly there is an oasis, a bright hope of water and cool refreshment.  But it’s a mirage; it’s only an illusion.

In yesterday’s post we looked at Chuck Colson’s life of chasing mirages by the truckload, only to have it all fold back-in on him when he was convicted for his part in the Watergate political scandal.

He was sent to prison where you have a lot of time to examine the paradox which is life’s mystery.  Here’s how Colson described how what he thought was the “Good Life” turned out to be the cancer of a false oasis:

Prison turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, which is why, on the 60 Minutes program marking the twentieth anniversary of Watergate, I told a startled Mike Wallace, ‘I thank God for Watergate.’  Not only did prison radically transform my view of life, but the experience also gave me the one thing I thought I would never have again – an opportunity to serve others in significant ways.  In my case that service has been a ministry to prisoners around the world.
My experience vividly illustrates that paradox lies at the very heart of life’s mystery:  What we strive for can often be what we least need.  What we fear most can turn out to be our greatest blessing. [1]
For Chuck Colson, who rose to the lofty heights of political power, only to be trampled by life’s less-than-gentle reminder that self-serving rulers and their kingdoms have only an illusion in their hands – it was a great awakening that the God who is really in charge loves you in spite of your arrogance.

Ever been run-over by that kind of cold shower?

Has life sent mixed-messages, luring you to grab for the brass ring, only to cut off your fingers in the process?

Paul’s message to the Corinthian church – a great group, but a little puffed up; legends in their own minds, so to speak – was to stop the pushing and shoving for the highest honors and control.  They needed to seek the best gift – love.

This message was not lost on Chuck Colson.  He was released from prison and spent the next 30+ years working to significantly change the prison system.  Charles Colson left prison, but returned in real power.  He came not by human wisdom and power, but in the power of God’s Spirit to lift and heal broken lives.  He got the message of love; he lived into that message by loving the least of these, his brethren in prison.

For You, Today…

Jesus said:  seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33) and my kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36)
What is it that you’re seeking?  What kingdom are you looking to build?
Think hard and continually on that, because in your prayerful consideration of that is the answer to the heart’s paradox:  a life well-lived is a life given away in Jesus’ name.

[1] Colson, Charles, The Good Life, (Carol Stream, Ill, Tyndale House, 2005), page 23

Monday, May 26, 2014

Workspace as Altar

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, Ephesians 4:1 (NRSV)
Lately I’ve been reading Charles Colson’s The Good Life.  It is a wonderful read, published just a few years before he passed away; so the wisdom he shares is from a lifetime of accumulated learning and experience. 

And what a life that was, from pre-teen, fervent World War II era schoolboy raising funds to buy jeeps for the military, to serving in the Marines - later an Ivy League educated lawyer and Special Counsel to the President of the United States who became a Watergate scandal convicted felon!  When all was said and done, I believe he will be remembered as one who returned to the prisons, this time to minister as an advocate for the inmates.  You learn a lot from all sides of the fence.

Colson writes:
Living a life of significance does not depend on the prerogatives that belong to high position; it depends even less on others’ esteem and praise.  Living a meaningful life consists simply in embracing the responsibilities and work given to us, whatever they are.  The nature of work itself connects us with the moral order (and the God who created it…).  The workbench, the kitchen counter, the computer station, or any other workspace is an altar.  There is intrinsic meaning to work well done – and when we fail to grasp this, we become hollow persons. [1]

Colson went from advisor in the Oval Office to washing sweaty inmate’s clothes in the prison laundry.  The former was work of which everyone in the world took note; the latter was despised by even the prisoners.

What could make prison laundry detail a holy thing on a level with being a highly placed government official?  The same thing that can make them both useless and burdensome – why you do what you do.

Colson came to believe that his “workspace is an altar.  Whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.  This is (in the Apostle Paul’s words) living a life worthy of that to which God has called you.  Are you a plumber?  Make those joints secure.  A mother?  Change those diapers with reverence.  Banker, lawyer, school custodian, athlete, student, homeless or retired?  Do all for and to the glory of Almighty God.  

In the end the only (true) significance to whatever you do is your joyful, reverent, 100%-given-stab-at-excellence kind of obedience a faithful servant gives in the name of the Master who gives the order.

Remember this?  Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

Today…for you

You’ve got stuff to do today; so GO…hit that rocky road and give it everything you’ve got, with a smile on your face, uplifted hands of praise to the Lord, and confidence in your heart that God will reward your faithfulness.
That’s living a life of significance; a life where your workspace is an altar!

[1] Colson, Charles, The Good Life, (Carol Stream, Ill, Tyndale House, 2005), page 83

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Undivided God - Part 2

Monday, May 26, 2014
“…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.”  Jacob to Esau - Genesis 33:10b
I am schism-prone. 

As an introvert who despises conflict and confrontation, and avoids it like the plague, it’s easier for me to separate than debate, or worse. 

For United Methodists embroiled in this seeming no-win tug of war over homosexuality, the “easy way” of dividing so we can all take our ball and go home, is tempting – but hardly Christ-like.  (That was settled at Calvary when Jesus refused to take the bait about coming off that cross if he was truly God.)  Considering Jesus wouldn’t bail, there’s a message for us somewhere in that!

In the first post on this subject I alluded to Paul and Barnabas’ dilemma concerning John Mark, who had failed to go the distance with them on their previous missionary journey.  Paul gave JM a failing grade; Barnabas agreed, but wanted to take him along on the next trip in spite of his shortcomings.  A sharp division ensued, causing Paul to partner up with a more suitable companion – Silas – while Barnabas and John Mark went another way. 

Many would point to this as evidence that the “split” doubled the work-effectiveness – twice as many church visits!

But is that really so?

Do you suppose Paul, Barnabas or John Mark were clear-headed as they travelled and did the work of God? 

Do you suppose they were not heavy-hearted at the rift between them?

Did it not haunt their dreams?

Who is to say how much the division interfered with their work?  But this we do know – Paul and John Mark eventually reconciled.  JM was included in Paul’s salutation to the Colossian believers (4:10).  And at the end of his earthly life, stuck in a Roman prison, Paul had his friend Luke with him, but he asked Timothy to bring John Mark to him because (Paul said) John Mark would be helpful to him in his ministry there. 

Paul was a hard-driving, no nonsense kind of guy.  He probably could hold a grudge with the best; but here we see his underbelly – tender, exposed and ready to receive a brother. 

I can’t be totally certain Paul ever really liked John Mark; but he received him for the sake of Christ.

Both sides of the current UMC crisis can insert their own names in this story in every character.  Can you see yourself as:

          ·        Paul the stubborn one?
          ·        Barnabas the peacemaker?
          ·        John Mark the rejected one?
          ·        Luke putting up with Paul the grouchy one?

If you can’t see yourself, at least in some way, or at some times in each of these roles, you’re not working hard enough!

Going back to the Old Testament – remember Jacob sneaking out of town in the middle of the night because he stole Esau’s birthright?  (Ooooh…couldn’t we could draw some neat analogies from this in the current crisis?)  But God allowed Jacob 20 years of exile to get his head right; Esau got a 20 year cool-down for his temper.  And in the end, when the brothers are finally reunited, the (now) mature Jacob tells Esau, his former arch rival and enemy, seeing you is like seeing the face of God.

Reconciliation doesn’t get any better than that!

And, one final example; how about the schism of Acts 15 over whether Gentiles belong in the church?  There was nothing more odious to Jews than uncircumcised Gentiles.  Yet, the outcome, after much General Conference debate was to accept those Gentiles who were turning to Christ, and simply ask that they refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols and fornication.  This was a via media (Wesleyan middle way) solution if I’ve ever seen one!

Main Question

Can we not take these examples as our game plan to “follow Jesus, make disciples and transform the world”?

We have a real (but dwindling) opportunity in these “pre-schism” moments to display for the world how genuine believers act under pressure, and in the face of an angry temptation to divide like contemporary culture lives.  We have the opportunity to show the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace instead of anger, rancor and judgment. 

We have the opportunity to be the face of God for an unbelieving world caught in a very dark culture.  We don’t have to add to the darkness; we can bring the light of an undivided God to a divided world.

Wouldn’t you call that mission?

Today…for you

United Methodists are simply a microcosm of the bitterness and contention which seethe and boil as the creation groans for redemption.
Today I’m praying for God to make my heart open for the via media a middle way to choose, and help others choose to accept the ministry of reconciliation in a way that clearly speaks the love of God.

Join me?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Undivided God

Friday, May 23, 2014
Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One, Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee, While we own the mystery.
And adoring bend the knee, While we own the mystery.[1]
One of my favorite contemporary songs was written 20 years ago, and was born out of a response to the very trying times in which we live.  The song begins with the line:  These are the days of Elijah…[2]
Today Methodists are singing a new song:  These are the days of our schism…. 
Day after day for the past several months my email inbox has been flooded with new blog posts about the impending division of the United Methodist Church.  Of course it’s no secret that the Methodist brethren on the extreme left favor “full inclusion” of LGBT persons, while those on the extreme right want the status to remain “quo” (i.e., no same-sex marriage or LGBT members in leadership).
The reports and their respective outlooks are dismal, no matter which blog you read.  Talk of separation is everywhere, with imminent predictions of a church splintered and divided into two or more denominations.  
It’s so odd to sing the older song (above)…One, Undivided God we claim Thee, and at the same time blistering the Internet with hacking-up God’s bride like chopped barbeque. 
It’s odd; but not new.
Schism is as old as Paul and Barnabas dividing over whether John Mark had repented enough to be included on the next missionary journey (see Acts 15:36-40).
There are people holding to the Methodist “middle way” – the via media, pleading with the extremes to give one another their hands, in the same manner they claim their hearts “be”.
I have little voice in this debate.  But what tiny splinter I may lay on the fire of “holy warmth” comes down on the side of holding together – in prayer, because, in spite of our many opinions, we are baptized with One Spirit. 
Schism usually settles little.  Doing the (sometimes) agonizing work of reconciliation portends great benefit for the church.  But, it will take swallowing a whole lot of pride on both sides of the aisle to do this.  But that’s not only difficult, it is Christ-like, and the only right thing to do.  Without that holy gulp of unselfishness the only face we present to the world is shame!
So, I return to the “old song” and its final verse:
Spare Thy people, Lord, we pray, 
By a thousand snares surrounded:
Keep us without sin today, 
Never let us be confounded.
Lo, I put my trust in Thee; 
Never, Lord, abandon me.
Surrounded we are; and the lion roars as he wanders, seeking those whom he may devour.  Opinions are easy to have; faith is in short supply.  Can we not tarry with our Lord in this Gethsemane just an hour?  Can we not tarry together until our undivided God gives wisdom and light from above?

Today…for you

Join me in praying and fasting for our Methodist brothers and sisters?  And the Presbyterians?  And the Baptists?  And the Catholics?  And…?

[1] Ignaz Franz, German Catholic priest, 1771
[2] ©Robin Mark 1994