Thursday, February 27, 2014

To Question or Not To Question? That is the Question! ~ February 27 Bible Study

In our lives, our world, and within God’s Word, terrible things happen.  There is suffering, there is evil, there is injustice.  And why does God permit these terrible things to happen?  What are the reasons?

Anytime we fall into crisis and there is pain, it is the most natural human response to question God and want to know why.  All throughout Scripture, those men and women we would call heroes of the faith questioned God in the face of suffering.  On the cross, Jesus cried “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But should we question God?  Or, should we simply accept the terrible things that happen and trust that God knows what’s best?

We identified two ways to question God—one way that is an act of faith, and one that is not.

We can question God in such a way that we are sitting in judgment of God—namely, blaming God as being 100% responsible for our troubles and the evils and injustices we see in the world.  But is God really responsible?  Is our God intentionally inflicting suffering upon innocent people?  It can be very difficult to love God if we believe that evil and human suffering originate in God.

Though we may struggle to believe that God is loving, faithful, and just (and we all do), God’s love is the one aspect of God that we should not question.  Questioning can drive a wedge between us and God, particularly if we’re insistent on finding answers to questions that are unknown and unknowable.  We must learn to accept that there are some truths that we just cannot know.  There’s no sense in constantly asking “why” if we could never know or understand the answer.  Is it possible that there may not even be a reason why?  Only God knows.

While it is most certainly human to question God, God asks some questions of us: “do you trust me?”  “Do you believe that I love you?”  “Do you believe that I am good?”  If we’re willing to believe (even in spite of struggling to believe) that God is love, we can ask God to show us love in the midst of our greatest hurts and troubles.  It is God’s desire and God’s delight to reveal divine love to us and sustain us with saving grace.  Faith is all about learning to see God’s mercy and God’s provision in the face of pain.  Faith is adjusting our vision to see the big picture of the ways that God is loving and healing the world, instead of dwelling on and constantly thinking about what hurts and what is wrong.  In the same way as we read the Scriptures and ask, “what is God doing that is good,” we look at the big picture of our lives and ask, “what is God doing for me that is good?”  “What is God doing for my community that is good?”  And my world?”

Furthermore, faith is doing what Jesus told the sick, lame, and demon-possessed persons to do during his ministry: “get up and walk!”  We can allow for our lives to be consumed by our troubles, or we can stand up in the grace of God, and commune with Christ as he walks with us through our days. We can live life, witness God's goodness, and participate in Christ's healing and redeeming work by caring for our neighbors, forgiving sins, and testifying to God's goodness.

God speaks these simple words to troubled hearts everywhere: “be still, and know that I am God.”  That’s the best of all possible news—as well as the promise that God’s loving grace will meet our every need. 

Next week, we’ll conclude the story of Adam and Eve and think upon Cain’s murder of his brother Abel.  Is God still good in the face of so much evil?

Given that tonight was the first Bible study in four weeks, we've decided to meet again next Thursday, March 6.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wintertime Spring Cleaning ~ Matthew 5:21-37 ~ Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Six years ago, I was a fool in love…

I needed the perfect gift for Elizabeth in our first Valentine’s Day together.

Unsure of what to do, a friend suggested Bath and Body Works. And I thought this was a great idea.

But you have to understand one thing: in that store I was more out of my element than a monkey at a computer.

As soon as I walk in, I’m met by a sweet, fruity smell so strong you could sit on it. Then came the saleswoman, who probably worked on commission. Once I tell her I’m looking for a Valentine’s gift for my girlfriend, she puts a shopping bag on my arm. "She’ll love this," she kept saying as she filled the bag.

I walked out with enough fruity lotions, body washes and hand sanitizers to keep a small army clean and smelling like a fruit salad for years.

Later that day, I bought Elizabeth a fake plastic rose for fifty cents; something to make her laugh…

Well, let me tell you what happened. She enjoyed the Bath & Body Works gift. But, she loved that fake plastic rose!

In fact, that rose has followed us these last six years. Repeatedly, she’s says, "I love my rose." And that is alright with me.

The lesson to be learned is that there are things in our lives that we could count as valuable and even desirable—but that doesn’t necessarily make them true treasures. Conversely, there exist some incredible treasures that we do not always treat as such.

How many of you have ever bought an expensive gift for a small child—and the he/she seems to be have more fun playing with the box or the bubble wrap it came in—rather than the gift itself?

We never really outgrow this as adults. I daresay we grow even more foolish than children.

Naturally, if we call ourselves Christians, we call Jesus our greatest treasure. And [hopefully], we thank God for the treasures that are our bodies and minds; our loved ones; our homes; and all the daily necessities of life.

However, there are some treasures that we pour our lives into; spending all kinds of time and money both to attain and maintain them: things we gotta have; things we gotta do; things we gotta know; people we gotta please. Our hearts burn with desire for these treasures. We can’t think of life being "good" without them.

But would Jesus call these things treasures? Or would he call them trash?

From God’s perspective, true treasures draw us closer to God. They are tangible expressions of God’s love—and they enable us to obey God’s will and live as disciples. But some things we call treasure do the exact opposite.

Just consider the absolutely jarring words of Jesus in our Gospel today:
"If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your right arm causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away."

Please don’t take this literally, because our eyes and our arms DO cause us to sin—and they always will. But don’t brush his words aside either. One of sin’s devastating consequences is its power to pull us away from God. But so can some things we call "treasure." What God calls trash, we call "my freedom," "my right," even "my responsibility." It’s getting "what I deserve" and "looking out for number one." Feeling safe and secure. Being happy. Being superior. Being "in the right." Yet these things we call "treasures" won’t lead us to God. Some things must go…

Anger is the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of sins. Bitterness can blind you to all the good things God is doing. Grudges keep old wounds open and deprive us of enjoying relationships as gifts of God. We can become so consumed with lust and desire for what is not ours and for what we really don’t need that we don’t enjoy life. If unchecked, it’s another perfect breeding ground for all kinds of sins that can wreak massive destruction upon ourselves and others. Self-centeredness reduces others only to what we can get from them. Pride tempts us to make ourselves like Jesus, thinking we can please everyone; fixing everyone else’s problems and saving them from trouble. It is with pride that we make promises we cannot fulfill.

Think of all the stress and all the misery that we needlessly inflict upon ourselves, trying to build lives outside of our faith and God’s will for the world.

If you believe that Jesus died and was raised, and you are baptized into his death and resurrection; and you believe that God is faithful, then why build your life outside of what God desires for you?

Jesus’ words may be harsh and shocking, but that’s how much he wants you to live in his peace and come into the joy of showing forth his love to the world. This is why he is inviting you to some "wintertime spring cleaning" of your life, so that you may live more deeply in his goodness. The Holy Spirit is going to be "pulling you" to take a look at your life and clean a few things out. Perhaps you’ll be letting go of a prize possession or passing on that something you’ve been wanting to buy for a while. Perhaps you’ll be giving and serving in ways you haven’t done before. Maybe you’re being invited to heal a broken relationship. The Spirit may be even readying you to break free of a sin that’s been dragging you into misery.

Whatever the case, Christ inevitably brings change to our lives. His gift to you is peace and new life—and he will give you the grace and strength you need to make changes and clean the trash out of your life so that you can live the kind of life God intends. So don’t be afraid to cast off and throw away—because Jesus brings an opportunity to be whole and at peace than we would’ve ever known before.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lighting the World ~ Isaiah 58:1-9 ~ Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

I had big plans for the summer between by junior and senior years of college …

My plan was to land a corporate internship which would allow me to step straight into a career after graduation—like what my peers had.

But that didn’t work out—and I was back at my part-time job at a major department store chain, which had been one place where I’d pursued an internship most intently…  My bosses knew I was disappointed, so they frequently brought me in to help them with special projects. 

One such project called for an eight-hour shift on a Saturday on the 4th of July weekend, to help get the store ready for a white-glove inspection by the company’s top executives.

I was a happy to help them tackle their to-do-list, until my boss hands me a putty knife, and asks me to scrape gum off the front sidewalks…

I get outside, and there’s more gum out there than in the Wrigley’s plant…

Now all I could think about as I knelt there on my hands and knees was how embarrassed I’d been to see my peers as they came to the store to spend their internship paychecks, while I was still stuck working part-time.  But I certainly didn’t want them to see me doing this.  What’s worse was that every other person walking in or out of the store was making snide remarks like, “who’d you tick off to get stuck with this job?” or “oops, you missed one.”  Slowly, I began to boil with anger at my bosses—and not from the heat, but from my ego, that kept telling me I deserved better.

So I get up, with the job half-done, and I tell my boss that I don’t scrape gum.  She’s clearly shocked by my words, and she argues that sometimes jobs like these have to be done to succeed in the business.  My response was, “I don’t scrape gum.”

Well, two things happened after that: my shift ended early, and I never heard another word spoken by the bosses about a promotion.  And I had no one to blame but myself.

I was so caught up in my damaged pride, and my anger about things not going my way, that I didn’t see things as they really were.  I missed a great opportunity to help the people trying to help me, doing admittedly humble work. 

When things go wrong, be they minor (like this was) or more life-altering, the negative emotions have a way of getting the best of us.  We get so caught up in fear and frustration that we lose our sense of God because we don’t see God taking the crisis away…

This is what was happening to the Jewish people, roughly 550 years before the birth of Christ …

A little history: the nation of Israel had basically fallen apart under the inept and idolatrous rule of a string of corrupt kings.  The mighty nation of Babylon swept in, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took God’s people into exile.  Fifty years later, Babylon is conquered by the Persians—and the new King permits the Jews to go home and rebuild their city.  Which they do.  But it’s slow-going…  And after decades, Israel is still devastated politically, economically, and spiritually.  The temple is still in ruins; the nation is still ruled by a foreign power.  Constantly, the people pray, they fast, they wait—but nothing changes.  God does not restore his chosen people and his chosen nation to its former glory.  And the people cry, “why, God?”

Why do we fast but you do not see?  We humble ourselves—so why don’t you notice?

Here again, there is so much fear and frustration, that the people forget what is most fundamental to their faith: which is God’s love and faithfulness.  God knows their suffering and pain.  What’s more, God didn’t miraculously preserve them in exile, then miraculously bring them home, to let them flounder and waste away.  They still exist to be a light for the nations and a living sign of God’s love for all the world.  They are God’s people: a city on a hill; a light on a lamp-stand…

This is who they will be as they “loose the bonds of injustice;” “let the oppressed go free;” “share their bread with the hungry;” open their homes to the homeless, and give clothes to the naked…  The saving power of God will come upon them as they serve one another in love.

We too must remember, that when crisis strikes, we cannot let the negative emotions blind us to what is most fundamental to our faith: God is love.  God knows our pain.  As much as it may appear to the contrary, God is acting—just not always according to our plans or our timetables.  God is in the world; loving the world, and caring for its people—including you.

This is why we cannot live the kind Christian life that’s “just me and God.” 

When tough times come, and we’re struggling to feel God’s presence, one of the devil’s tactics will be to isolate us from God’s people.  It’s the devil who tempts us to believe, “now isn’t a good time to follow Jesus.”

But faith cannot flourish if we keep it to ourselves, like it’s our best-kept secret. 

Your faith is a light that shines with the love of Christ.  It is the Holy Spirit who gave you this light on the day of your baptism.  We cannot confine it into our own lives; nor can we confine it in our church building—lest the light be snuffed out.  Faith lives, breathes, and grows, out in the open air of God’s world.  Christ’s presence comes alive in relationships and in communities, where we pray for one another, build up each other’s faith, teach one another God’s Word, and serve one another in love. 

If you want to be connected to God, you must be connected to God’s people.  If you want to see God’s power, you must go where the action is.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: these are dark times we’re living in.  Everywhere, there’s suffering and need; and all along, the churches are emptier than ever.   But God’s call could not be more clear: we are salt and light.  We can get caught up in the fear and frustration of these days, or we can listen as God calls and sends us to be children of light.  We can do this, because it’s God’s will.  This is the key to living a life of joy.  So open up your doors and meet your God in the world God loves.  Open your hearts to the needs your neighbors.  Open yourself so that God’s grace may flow in and out of you. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Walk This Way ~ Luke 2:22-40 ~ Presentation of Our Lord / Liturgy of Healing

As of today, I’ve been married four years, eight months, twenty-six days, and twenty-two hours.

So I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on the making of a successful marriage.  But there’s one piece of advice I have for men everywhere: learn to notice what your wife does for you when you’re not looking…

I always know I’m in trouble when Elizabeth says, “I can’t believe you didn’t notice…”

Granted, there are some things I would notice if she were to do them:

  • I’d notice if she painted the living room red…
  • I’d notice if she was cooking French onion soup for dinner…
  • Being a man, I’d probably notice if she washed and waxed her car…

But sometimes, I miss things:

  • I didn’t notice that she had four inches of her hair off…
  • I didn’t notice the new wreath on the door…
  • I didn’t notice the day she finished all the house-cleaning AND the laundry…
  • And I even didn’t notice when she stocked the fridge full of my favorite foods…

All I can say is it takes practice to be observant.  That being said, when two people love each other-- be it in a marriage, family relationship, or friendship: the one you love will do good for you.  Hopefully you will do the same for them.  Where there's love, it's not unreasonable to expect the loved one to do loving things.

But would you have noticed the baby Jesus being carried into the great Jerusalem temple in the arms of his parents?

Here was a place that was at the center of religious life for the Jewish people.  Dozens of families would have been bringing in their newborn sons to present them before God, as was stipulated in the Law of Moses. There would have been nothing to set Mary, Joseph, and Jesus apart from everyone else; nothing that would say to onlookers “here is the Son of God.”

But a man and a woman, both very old, recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the second they see him.

How did they know?

We’re told that Simeon and Anna were persons of great faith—and they lived what they believed.  They prayed, they fasted; they obeyed God’s will.  They believed that God keeps promises; specifically that God’s Messiah was coming.  So this wasn’t a case of seeing is believing; but rather believing FIRST—and then seeing…

That being said, it is certain that believing wasn’t any easier for them than it is for us.  Deep inside, we all want to believe that God will keep promises, but we never have to look very hard for good reasons to doubt:

  • Two thousand years is an awful long time for us to be waiting for Jesus’ return…
  • God can’t be real with all the suffering and evil in the world…
  • Perhaps God does not love because of all the bad things I’ve done, or because I have so little faith…

We all come to the crossroads of faith and doubt—with no compelling reasons to keep on believing.  And yet, we’ll find no comfort or peace on the way of doubt, either.  Give up faith—and you give up on hope.

Very often, faith means reaching out into the darkness for God’s hand.  We’re persisting in prayer and devotion; holding onto God’s promises even when there’s no good reason to do so.  With all our brokenness and need, we fall on our needs before God who is our only hope.

That’s what we’re doing here today.  We ourselves and so many people we know and love are in places of extreme darkness right now.  So we’re lighting candles.  This is a most simple act of faith—and faith needs to be nothing more than the faintest, weakest belief that God keeps promises…  Just fall at the feet of Jesus, believing that you are loved and that it is God’s will to bless you and keep you, to shine upon you and give you peace.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to give you faith—especially when you believe that you cannot believe.

And as you persist in faith, your eyes will be opened to the reality of God’s presence and God’s answers to our prayers.  One of the biggest mistakes we make as Christians is expecting God to answer prayers instantly, and in dramatic ways.  Most of the time, that won't be the case.  God’s answers come in the ordinary and unremarkable—and the Spirit gives us faith to see that these gifts are from God.  Faith is what sees God in the ordinary—and especially in the face of life’s giants.

Then as faith takes hold within all of you, God’s love and concern for you becomes a love and concern for those in need within you.

God’s ultimate self-revelation of love to the world was Jesus and the life he gives for the sake of all people. God’s second-greatest revelation of love to the world is the Body of Christ; people like you and me.  We become beautiful gifts of God to one other as we intercede for one another in prayer.  One way that God always answers these prayers is by lighting a fire in your heart for those people, and then showing you the gifts you have by which you can heal.

Sometimes, God’s greatest answer to prayer is someone like you.

But no matter where you are, cast yourself today on the one who cares for you and gave his life for your sake.  Believe and you will see Jesus shining in your darkness.  Believe and you will find that there is no trial or tragedy too great that will keep God’s love out of your life.  Believe and you will see Jesus, sometimes in the most ordinary of gifts and blessings.  Believe that you are the answer to the prayers of God’s people—and that our church is an answer to prayer.

Believe that God is faithful—and that God keeps promises.