Thursday, January 19, 2006

Every which way

Today is a day in which I'm pulled every which way. Sounds like the beginning of a Dr. Seuss book, but it's how I feel. A Greek exam looming, two sermons next week, not to mention the beginning of a new church year with new leaders...oh yeah, and a baby coming soon too and so much to get ready for! It's just one of those days.

In times like this, I need to pray more than ever--because I need to remember what I do is not who I am. During calmer times, I can succeed at lots of things and it becomes tempting to identify myself with my achievements. But during the busiest of times, when I'm quite sure I will not fulfill every expectation flawlessly, I need to remember that I am not the sum total of my successes and failures. I am more than that--I am a child of God.

And I only remember that when I take time to center in and pray. I actually stand a better chance of doing all that stuff well when I remember who I am and have a secure identity with which to reach out in love to the world.

The funny thing is that I will find any excuse in the world--but especially busy-ness--to push prayer to the margins of life if not off the page completely. May it not be so in this busiest of times.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Old pictures

My brother-in-law Aaron e-mailed a picture to me today, a picture of Jill and I sitting on some rocks on the Maine coast. Aaron took the picture when we were together this past summer at a family reunion in Maine. My parents, my two brothers, my sister, and two of their spouses got together in a big house and had a wonderful week together near Bar Harbor.

I was glad to get the picture because it was quite a good one, especially of Jill who as usual was looking pretty. And as I looked at it, I found myself longing for that moment again: I wished it were the summer, I wished it were warm, I wished the Greek exam I'm facing next Friday wasn't coming so soon, I wished I was right close to those I love again. I go through this a lot when I get pictures; I get kind of melancholy, wishing that the occasion of the picture was here again: the vacation, the birthday, the reunion. I look forward to those times coming again.

But then I looked closer at the smiling eyes and realized what was behind them, and it wasn't as idyllic as it looked to me today. There was hurt there, a dissatisfaction with life on that day; there was no special pain exactly, just a dull ache that most of us feel from time to time. And I realized I wasn't happy in that moment either. I smiled for the camera, but I wasn't happy. Even then, on that marvelous vacation, I was longing for the past and for the future--anything except the present.

We live in a culture that realizes that only the past and the future can make you spend money. We nostalgically long to re-create a past that didn't exist, a simpler time that was really more complex than we admit; and to bring it back, we spend money. We desire to create a fantasy future for ourselves and our families, living the good life, enjoying the best the culture has to offer. To create that future, we spend money. So the advertisers like to bring us face-to-face with the past and the future at all times. The result of all this focus on the past and on the future makes us disregard the present, which is after all, the most consistent gift God gives us. The ironic result is that we are working so hard to re-create our past and secure our future that we are completely unaware of what God is doing in the present.

We long so much for endings and beginnings that we forget that most of life is "middle time," and God made it that way. We long so much for the past and the future that we categorically reject God's precious gift of the present.

I put the picture up on my computer anyway. I love it. And in time, I will learn to love it rightly: as a precious gift to be honored but not idealized, celebrated but not worshiped, remembered but not imprisoning me.

Worship on Sunday, January 22

This week's scripture is Jonah 1:17 - 2:10, the prayer Jonah offered when he was in the belly of the whale. It is a prayer of thanksgiving—Jonah thanks God for saving him out of the deep sea. But it is also a prayer of looking forward, knowing that there is something better than this that God is calling him to.

The worship service Sunday is designed to help us enter into this prayer and make it our own. We do this by singing song and reading Scripture that emphasize thanking God for saving us and also looking forward to the life we have together. We will sing four songs. From the 12th century, we will sing this text by Bernard of Clairvaux: “Jesus, the very thought of thee/with sweetness fills my breast/But greater far thy face to see/and in thy presence rest.” This text emphasizes the joy of life in Christ here but the desire for full communion with God. From the 16th century, we’ll sing William Kethe’s O Worship the King which praises God for his marvelous works. From the 19th century, Fanny Crosby, a prolific hymnwriter, lends us To God Be the Glory which, like Bernard’s hymn, invites us to consider how sweet life with God is here and how much sweeter it will be when we see Christ face to face. We also will be singing a 20th century prayer song which uses Scriptural language to remember that we are God’s called people, and in response we worship him.

We also will be reading excerpts from Psalm 42, which form part of the basis for Jonah's prayer. This psalm as well expresses thankfulness for what God has done and longing for what God will do.

I pray that Sunday’s service is meaningful for you as we worship together, turning our hearts toward thanking God!

Sermon from January 15

Hi all--Just getting back in the office after a weekend in the Poconos with our youth group. All were safe and I think it was a great retreat. The kids really wrestled with and grew from our discussions about fasting, study and worship--heavy fare for a youth group and they handled it with aplomb. Will post on this week's worship just as soon as I get it planned. Here's the sermon from last week.

If you're interested in commenting, I will try to get it so that comments can be offered through the page (still figuring this thing out). You can also join a sermon discussion group through our church: e-mail me at for details.

The sermon:

Ron Arena, in his sermon two weeks ago, said something like “Nothing is so over as Christmas when it’s over.” He’s right, you know; Christmas comes and goes so fast. But there is a celebration that dates back even further in the church than Christmas, and that is the day we call Epiphany. The word epiphany means “revelation” (think of the phrase “I just had an epiphany”–it means “something was just revealed to me”). The holiday of Epiphany refers to the time Jesus was visited by the wise men, and it is called Epiphany because it was here that Jesus was “revealed” as God to the whole world and not to Israel only. In the church today, Epiphany and the Sundays after Epiphany are often a time to remember the miracles of the Lord, the way Jesus revealed himself as God to the whole world. But I thought we could take the beginning of the Epiphany season to look at a revelation of a different sort.

What is important to remember about the Bible is that it is often intended to be shocking. When Jesus says, for instance, “Love your enemies,” it sounds like a cliche to us now but there was a time when it was shocking. Indeed, it would shock us again if we were truly listening to it. When he says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, don’t strike back, but turn to him the other cheek as well,” we know there was a time when this was truly shocking. Again, if we were really listening to what Jesus was saying, it would shock us again today, because this is not the world where people turn the other cheek, this is the world where people defend their rights! But instead, “turn the other cheek” has become a cliche robbed of its rightful power.

Realizing this about the Bible can be its own kind of epiphany, its own kind of revelation. When we realize just how profound and revolutionary the Bible is, when we see how it invites us into a truly upside-down way of thinking and living, we have our own epiphany today; God’s glory is revealed to us in a new way that it never has been before.

With that in mind, we turn our mind for the next four weeks to the book of Jonah. If some of Jesus’ sayings have become cliche, how much more the book of Jonah? The story of Jonah has become a cliche to most of us; man runs away from God and winds up getting eaten by a whale. That really teaches him a lesson. End of story.

Or is it? Is there not something in the book of Jonah that could shock us, that could turn us upside down, if we would listen to it anew and afresh? Is there something there that could completely change our way of thinking if we would let it? We generally like to keep things cliche because that keeps them manageable. As long as it’s just a story about a guy and a whale, it can’t touch us and we can control it. But if we realize that Jonah is us and that there’s a lot here for us to see and learn, then all of the sudden, the story has the power to change our life. If we look to Jonah for an Epiphany, for a revelation, for something different, we just might find it. Look with me for the next few weeks.

We read that the word of the Lord came to Jonah, the son of Amittai. Many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament start this way: “The word of the Lord came to (so and so)...” You know, sometimes we miss it but there is a tremendous gift here; the great God of the universe saw fit to come and give his word to a mere mortal. God, who could get his message across in any way he saw fit, has chosen to partner with a person to share God’s word in the world. Indeed, a profound gift for Jonah to have–and it is a profound gift for us as well, for each of us also is a partner with God in the work God is doing in the world. The word of the Lord comes to each of us and this is a gift.

And God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrians, the people who would one day conquer Israel. God says that he has seen how wicked they are and he wants Jonah to go and cry out against the city, to warn it that if Nineveh doesn’t change their ways, God will punish them for their wickedness. Again, what an honor Jonah has! God has asked Jonah to be his ambassador; God has chosen Jonah to be the one to speak God’s message to this great city.

But you know how Jonah reacted to the word of the Lord coming. Jonah didn’t see it as a gift at all–Jonah saw it only as trouble. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh, didn’t want to go to that great and terrifying city; he didn’t want to speak this news to 120,000 people who might get angry with him. Deep down, of course, the issue is one of trust; Jonah does not trust that God will keep him safe as the bearer of bad news, nor does Jonah trust God’s plan as being very good for Jonah. He wants an easier job, perhaps a more respectable job, as a country preacher living out his days speaking good news to good people in peace; and he cannot see how God’s plan is at all good for him, nor does he trust God at all. Frankly, the fact God cares at all about Nineveh is shocking; in the Old Testament, we often get a picture of God as being uniquely concerned with the people of Israel, but here it is obvious that God longs for reconciliation with the people of Nineveh. Maybe this is why Jonah reacts the way that he does, disgusted that God would care so much for the people Jonah obviously didn’t care for.

And so you know what Jonah does. He goes the other way. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah ends up going to Tarshish. Who knows why he goes to Tarshish? No one knows for sure. Many people around here say they have two favorite football teams–the Eagles and whoever is playing against the Cowboys. I don’t care who it is as long as they’re out to beat the Cowboys. Likely, Jonah felt the same way–I don’t care where I go as long as it’s not Nineveh. And so he sets out to go the opposite direction.

And you probably even know what happens next in the story. As Jonah sleeps soundly below deck, a storm rises up. And the sailors are scared to death–and this isn’t like me sailing, me who doesn’t like water any bigger than a bathtub. These are grizzled old sailors, sailors who live on the open sea and love the life, sailors who know what they’re doing in a storm, and they’re scared to death while Jonah sleeps below deck.

I can’t help but reflect a bit on how this Jonah is like you and I. Does it strike you how thoroughly wrong Jonah is throughout this story? What Jonah thinks is right is just not ever right. The word of the Lord comes to him, this great gift, and he doesn’t even recognize it’s a gift. God calls him to go to a great city and speak a word that will change the world and he doesn’t even recognize that it will be a good thing for him. Instead, he goes in the exact opposite direction. He’s screwed up; whatever is right, Jonah thinks and does the opposite.

And the result of this is that Jonah has no idea of the danger he’s in. The sailors are up on deck, desperately trying to keep this thing afloat, and Jonah is sound asleep! They are all crying out to their own foreign gods, doing anything they can do to get some god to help them, throwing the cargo overboard, and Jonah is just sleeping away like he’s at home in bed. He is completely unaware about how much danger he is in! When we make a habit of resisting God, we generally don’t know the danger we set ourselves up for. When we reject the call of God on our lives, even in the little things, we begin to create a self-destructive character in ourselves without even knowing it. And having a self-destructive character puts us in serious danger and we don’t even know it.

I’m always moved by the 12-step groups that meet at our church. In a way, they are more completely the church than we are. Members of the group that I have met have this tremendous humility because they realize they survived a time when they were in real danger and didn’t know how much danger they were in. As children, they didn’t think, “Gee, I’d like to be an alcoholic when I grow up. That looks like fun, being uncontrollably addicted to an expensive and harmful substance.” Of course they didn’t think that way–but the choices they made in their lives turned them around to a point where they could not tell right from wrong and put themselves and others in danger. A series of individual choices to use alcohol to cope with depression or rejection or as a requirement for a good time–this led them to a point of being in more danger than they bargained for. So it is with Jonah–he didn’t think, “Gee, I’d really like to wind up at the point of death by drowning.” But his life of wrong decision after wrong decision ended up having real consequences for him, a danger he couldn’t even see until it was almost too late.

So it is with us, if we’re honest. When we make a habit of resisting God’s nudges in our lives, we place ourselves in the very real danger of becoming spiritually numb. For example, when we resist the urge to pray, it becomes easier to resist the urge to pray next time. And if we resist the urge to pray consistently enough, our spirit becomes so corrupt that we begin to view prayer as a burden rather than a precious sustaining gift of life. Why? Not because we woke up and decided to be dead wrong about prayer, but because we consistently made the wrong choices and we ended up in danger. It is the same with many other disciplines. If we resist the urge to read the Bible, it becomes easier to resist the urge to read the Bible next time; and if we resist the urge enough, our spirit becomes corrupt enough that we stop seeing the Bible as a precious gift to give shape to our lives and more as a burden to be tolerated or deconstructed. It is the same with fasting–if we reject it enough, we forget that self-denial is a gift to make us more like Christ, and it becomes a curiosity or something we declare our independence from. It is the same with giving–if we reject it enough, we forget that giving is a way to lead us to a well-ordered, truly happy life and we think it’s a superstition or something we must do in order to appease God.

Jonah made such a habit of disobeying God, of rebelling against God, that his spirit became so corrupt that he thought what was right was wrong, and what was wrong was right. And so he thought the world was peaceful when in fact he was at the point of death. This is an important lesson for us to learn–and re-learn–if we are to grow spiritually. Not everything that feels right is right. Not everything that feels wrong is wrong. You may believe that right now, spiritually, you are on a peaceful bed, when you could be in mortal danger. When we are not rooted in relationship with Christ, when we are not rooted in the community of saints both here and throughout the ages, when we are not rooted in public worship which challenges and comforts us, when we are not rooted in a life of intentional spiritual and personal discipline, we are indeed root-less and it is very easy for the Rush Limbaughs or the Michael Moores to push us whichever way they want to.

Well, you know what happens next to Jonah. He wakes up and suddenly, he is afraid for his life, as he should be. And everyone draws lots, figuring that the gods will assign the shortest straw to the guilty one–and Jonah draws the shortest straw. And suddenly people are asking him questions–who are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What is your occupation?” And Jonah suddenly realizes who he is and who he belongs to, how great and sovereign his God is. And he says, “I belong to God’s people, the great God who created the sea and the dry land.” And they say, “Why did you do this? Why did you upset such a great and powerful God who may now bring death on all of us? What should we do now? How can we make this stop?

And Jonah responds, “Throw me overboard; I know it’s my fault that all this trouble has come upon you.” Two seconds ago, Jonah was fast asleep and everything was right with the world. Now the world is falling apart and Jonah seems to understand that it’s all his fault. Jonah seems to realize, as we all do when we hit rock bottom, that there is nothing left for him to do but to cast himself on God. And so he does that, allowing himself to be thrown into the deep where there is nothing to say he will not die, allowing himself to experience the fear and uncertainty of not being in charge but relying completely on God to save him or to let him drown. And as the sailors say, “Please let this guy be telling the truth, God, because we don’t want to be responsible for the death of an innocent man,” they throw him overboard and Jonah’s adventure truly begins. I don’t want to give away the next part of the story because I’ll preach on it next week, but let me encourage you that Jonah doesn’t die, but God cares for him in a unique and amazing way–with a whale, or more technically a big fish.

Surely there are many here who are asleep on the boat with Jonah, fully convinced that things are hunky-dory when they’re really not. But just as surely there are also many here who are like this Jonah, who sees full well just how bad things have become, who sees that a lifetime of bad choices have gotten him into a pretty rough spot. This Jonah, and perhaps many of us, are experiencing a rock bottom moment, a moment when we feel abandoned from God, like things can never be right in our lives again. A moment like a divorce, a moment like a hateful word spoken, a moment when we realize that our own decisions have had disastrous consequences for our spirits and the well-being of others. A moment when we realize that our stubborn refusal to live God’s way has put everyone around us in peril. Those moments are so painful–Jonah had them and we do too.

If this is you, let me speak a word of encouragement. As surely as God wants us to wake up and realize the danger we’re in, God also never abandons us when we are in that danger. We may have made wrong decision after wrong decision that have made a train wreck of our lives, but God never abandons us in the midst of that. Instead, God goes with us, all the way to the bottom of the ocean, where there just might be a whale waiting, to save us in a way we never thought possible.