the power of the gospel and prayer

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, Joseph Ritter Von Fuhrich, 1836. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

For Sunday, July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12)

My intention is to use this blog to share what God is working into my own life in the hopes that it will encourage the work of God in others and bind us together bind us together for the cause of the kingdom.  This week, amidst so many remarkable insights and encouragements, the most important thing to share is the power of the gospel and prayer.

The power of the gospel (the good news of Jesus) is that it so aptly and completely captures our sinful condition while also providing an exit from it.  This week we see Jacob attempting to execute on the scheme of stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, only to be out-schemed by his Uncle Laban (2).  The message?  We’re all a bunch of schemers but God is on to us!  Yet at the same time he loves us deeply: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39).  Amidst the painful brokenness of my scheming he invites me to draw on his strength: “Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually” (Psalm 105:4).

This is a great reminder as we see brokenness not only in ourselves but throughout our world.  In recent days a Malaysian plane was shot down errantly over the Ukraine and there has been desecration of the human remains.  Awful and abhorrent.  Elsewhere Hamas has been lobbing rockets into Israel, Israel has invaded Gaza, and protests against Israel have sprung up in London and Paris.  Israelis and Palestinians are fighting  over tunnels dug under Israel’s security wall.  Brokenness, horror, suffering, pain.

How do we go about addressing much less solving problems such as these?  The gospel invites us to start with prayer and to remember that the Holy Spirit himself is praying right alongside us:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26, 27).  As we are forced to acknowledge the strife in ourselves, in our families, in our cities, in our nations, and in our world, this is very good news indeed.

Point to ponder:  
How could prayer be a key weapon in our ministry arsenals this week?

(2)  See Expositors Bible Commentary on Gen. 29:14b-30.

buying a stairway to heaven? … it makes me wonder


For Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

In Gen. 28, one of this week’s readings, Jacob has a dream of a stairway to heaven.  Having grown up in the 1970’s my mind immediately goes to Led Zeppelin’s song of the same name.  Are you still here?  Figure I probably lost a few people there, but think about it: why would Led Zeppelin draw upon the biblical imagery of this story in this song?  It’s because they are speaking to a spiritual problem.  The song’s lyrics begin:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

As one interpreter puts it insightfully, the song is about a woman who has based her life entirely on the pursuit of material things.  She’s sure that “all that glitters is gold” and that she can buy her way to heaven.  In actual fact when she arrives at heaven’s gates there is a sign saying that she cannot enter because “her life lacks a spiritual base.”  So continue the lyrics:

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Ooh, it makes me wonder

The end of the song brings the dilemma to a point of decision:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last. . .

We “wind down the road, our shadows taller than our soul” because our souls are so shrunken spiritually by our material world.  What then is the remedy?  The words of this week’s second reading, Psalm 139 (vv. 23, 24), is the tune we’ve been listening for:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

I certainly know the lady in the song because I see how often, as my friend Gary Gregg puts it, that I “believe the lie embedded in the offer”.  I don’t want my life to be about the chase for material more.  I want it to be about Jesus, forgiveness, repentance, grace, and peace.  One way I can do this is by not letting other interests crowd out a daily devotional time with God.  Another way is to keep the gospel in the forefront and let any purchasing serve that greater purpose.

We cannot buy the stairway to heaven for the price of entry is far beyond our ability to pay.  Fortunately, the stair’s builder has made a way for us through the death of his son, if we will only repent and believe.

Points to ponder:

  • To what extent do you know the lady in the song?  How is God calling you this week to build up the stature of your soul?
  • What other thoughts or questions do the lyrics of this song bring to mind for you?

this is a football

Vince Lombardi, Eponymous Coach of the Green Bay Packers

Vince Lombardi, renowned Coach of the Green Bay Packers

Matt. 28:16-20
For Sunday, June 15, 2014
Trinity Sunday

Vince Lombardi was famous for starting every Green Bay Packer season by holding up a football and saying, “Gentleman, this is a football.”  The point was to get back to the very basics of the game to provide a sure foundation for everything that would follow.  Jesus conversation with his disciples on the mountain of Galilee was his “this is the football” speech.

The text says, “They worshipped him but some doubted.”  Jesus wanted them to be crystal clear on who he was, what he was calling them to do, and where he would be while they did it.

Who Jesus was:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Think about this.  The one we follow has been invested with all authority, not only on earth but also in heaven.  This ought to give us confidence as we represent him to a broken world.   We don’t need authority to be conveyed on us by the media, by elites, or by anyone or anything else, for all authority has already been vested in him.

What he was calling them to do:  He was calling them (and is calling us) to make disciples.   We know this is the focus of v. 28 because in the original language this is the only finite verb in the sentence.  The other actions are all subsidiary being denoted as participles (going, baptizing, and teaching).  What is a ‘disciple’?  A follower.   As Christians, at the very foundation, we are followers of Jesus.  And we are to make other followers.

But how do we do that?  The participles have already made this clear.  First, we go to them.  This is what Jesus himself did.  He went to others and invited them to follow.  Second, we baptize them.  To baptize to call to a symbolic and public proclamation of burying an old life and rising to a new one.  It is to say, “I am all in.”  How today’s church desperately needs leaders who will call others to commitment, especially men.  Third, we teach them to obey.  To teach to obey is not to impart information but rather to train for action.  Navy Seals do not sit in a classroom.  They train for action; so do Christian disciples.

Where he would be while they did it:  Where would Jesus be?  What does the text say?  “I will be with you.”   Now wait a minute.  After Jesus ascended doesn’t the Bible say he sat down at the right hand of the Father in heaven?  So if he’s there, how can he also be here?   He is there in the person of Jesus, yet he is also here, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  How easily we allow ourselves discouragement.  We say to ourselves, “I can’t really follow Christ wholeheartedly.  It’s too hard.  It’s too uncomfortable.  It’s too inconvenient.”  Too hard?  Too uncomfortable?  Too inconvenient?!  With God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit in residence in our own souls?!  

Brothers and sisters, this is our mission.  Time to get into the game.

perspective (Acts 1:6-14)


For Sunday, June 1, 2014
Year A, Seventh Sunday of Easter

How easy to get caught up in the vagaries of the weekly news cycle.  We read the daily news and think, “God, are you asleep at the switch?”  Jesus’ disciples didn’t have the Drudge Report but were nevertheless very much like us.  Just before Jesus’ ascension they asked him, “So Lord, now that you’ve been resurrected, is this (finally?…) the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Jesus response is telling: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”  What?!  But we’ve been working so hard to chart this out.  We want to know the plan, Jesus.  What’s the plan?!  (Exasperated sighs).

“Here is the plan,” Jesus responds.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Perplexed disciples’ faces …. So … how does that answer our question about restoring the kingdom to Israel?  Answer: you are thinking far too narrowly.  God’s plan involves far more than wresting political control of 1st Century Palestine from the Romans.  God’s larger plan is actually to restore all of creation to himself and everything that has happened from then until know is in the unfolding.

So put away the charts, stop assuming you have it all figured out, and in the power the Holy Spirit, tell everyone you can what you are witnessing in our midst.  Hallelujah.

Points to ponder:

  • How is the Spirit moving in your life to live out the gospel story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration?
  • Who would you most like to share this with?
  • How could you make this happen this week?

making the case

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, Raphael, 1515, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Acts 17:22-31
For Sunday, May 25, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter, Year A

What would be a compelling case for the gospel in our culture?

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed.  There are however problems with this approach.  First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs).  Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subsoncious level).  As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in  isolation from the wider culture.  Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

Apostolic wisdom approach the problem differently.  First, get out there.  The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.  In this case, The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Areopagus, a council of city leaders.  This would be like speaking to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) here in Milwaukee.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry.  Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16).  What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)?  Paul spent time conversing with his audiences, which included pagans in the marketplace and God-fearers in the synagogues (v. 17).   The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.  What if we said to ourselves, “Ministry, at least in this stage, is not about getting my message out, but rather letting their questions sink in?”

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic.   Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly.   He knew that a primary value in Athens was knowledge.  Yet they had an altar “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  This was a cultural admission that there was something missing.  Paul said to himself, “Aha, that’s my opening.”  He proclaims to them that the God they do not yet know is there and wanting a relationship with them (v. 24, ff.).

If Paul were giving a similar speech today to the MMAC, where would he start culturally, and where would he finish in terms of an invitation to follow Christ?   Where would he start and finish where you live?  The path to the answer involves getting out there, engaging in appreciative inquiry, and constructing a persuasive apology.  May we have the courage to bring apostolic wisdom to bear on the opportunity before us for the glory of Christ and the gospel.

mental illness on Mother’s Day (Part 2: a surprising turn)

Mother’s Day Morning, on the anniversary of my Mom’s death in my own home, my phone rang about 8:00 am.  A good friend called in crisis saying he found his wife dead on the floor of their bedroom.  It was good to go to his home and help him through the initial shock.  But what a coincidence.  Or was it?   While his situation was different, I could understand.  How often does God use our own losses to help comfort others with similar ones?  He’s asked me to conduct the funeral which will take place next Monday evening.  

Life is so short for each of us.  Let’s treasure each day we have, love those around us while we can, and trust God with the rest.  

mental illness on Mother’s Day

Janice Van Wormer Godfrey R.I.P.

Janice Van Wormer Godfrey R.I.P.

This is going to be visceral.  Normally I write in relation to one or more of the Revised Common Lectionary passages for the week, but what I’m writing about today connects to almost every passage I’ve ever read.

Realized this morning that this week’s post needs to be about my Mom.  You will be reading this just after Mother’s Day but I’m writing the day before.  My Mom died on Mother’s Day right here in my own home.  She choked on a meatball and then died in our guest bathroom as I was attempting to give her CPR.  Your immediate reaction might be to think, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, actually, it was traumatic, but also a great relief.  The awful part actually  had more to do with the seven years prior.  “How can you say that about your Mother?!”   If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll try to unpack it.  I’m still unpacking it for myself…  Seven years prior to Mom’s death (so 2006) was when we lost Dad and also started to lose Mom.

The story starts the very year I was born, 1964, when my Mom’s Dad committed suicide.  He was the owner of a funeral home business, built big, became overextended, and decided the best way to bridge the gap was to shoot himself in the head (in the casket room no less).  His family would then receive the death benefit on his life insurance policy (no suicide exclusion on the policy).

My Mom was in graduate school at the time at Marquette University.  She was incredibly bright and was double majoring in French and Spanish.  Yet her Dad’s suicide threw her into an emotional tailspin.  She tried to take her own life by cutting her wrists.  I still remember the little yellow paraffin bars she used to treat her scars.  She would put them on the coffee table across from the couch.  I used to have nightmares in which I was sitting on the floor between the couch and coffee table and a large snake-like monster would come and swallow me up.  Maybe that’s why to this day I don’t like snakes?

Mom was hospitalized down at the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex.  We went to see her one day.  I might have been as young as five years old.  She was so drugged up that she didn’t know who I was.  Really scary for a little guy.  It has taken a lot of counseling to work through the abandonment and trauma.  I’m still working through layers of it now at 50 years old.  It’s been a great and redemptive journey, but difficult.

It’s important though for me to tell this story for all those who have encountered mental illness in their own lives, or among their family, friends, or co-workers.  I can’t do it justice in just this one post, so I think I’ll continue with some additional posts through the week.

My Mom’s illness created some of the greatest holes in my life.  Yet as my friend Jerome Iverson says, “It’s the holes that make the music.”   The good news for all of us is that God offers to heal our wounds and use the very healing process to enable us to be a blessing to others.

He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul” (Psalm 23).  Stay tuned…