Category Archives: Religion

What is this thing called life?

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Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
For Sunday, March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent

Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is one of the great jazz standards. This week’s readings address an even deeper question: “What is this thing called life?”

There are several common answers flowing through contemporary culture. The first and most prominent in the Secular West is this: “This thing called life is whatever you want it to be. Ultimately, we’re cosmic accidents, but we can enjoy our self-awareness while we have it.” A second answer is the Islamic one. We’re created by God but will only find peace when we submit to him both personally and culturally”. A third answer is the Bhuddist one. We’re asleep at the wheel and need to be awakened into the universal consciousness of which we are a part. A fourth answer is the Hindu one. We are spiritual beings on a journeys through this world in order to move our souls toward Nirvana.

The Christian answer is that we are made in God’s image but fatally flawed because of our sin. God offers to redeem us through faith in his Son, and those who accept the offer will be restored and start restoring everything around them. This week’s readings tell this story from Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, and Romans.

So what is this thing called life? It comes down to which of the above (or other) answers best aligns with reality. What so you see in your own life? What do you see around you? Let your conscience be your guide.

What got me going in this direction is that very first verse in Genesis 2. “God put the man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” What we’re all designed for is to create a beautiful garden that honors Him while also blessing us.” Based on what I see in myself and in this world, this makes sense.

How about for you? This week we move from The season of Epiphany (revelation) to Lent (springtime). The purpose of Lent is not to serve as a killjoy but rather to refocus us on the great question, “What IS this thing called life?”


now THIS … is something new

church sign

Matthew 5:21-31
For Sunday, February 16, 2014
6th Sunday After Epiphany

I have a side interest in church signs.  There are a couple I drive by regularly.  More often than not while the sign maker is trying to come up with something clever what I’m left with is a groan and roll of the eyes.  If you want to share in the fun check out Ed Stetzer’s weekly “Church Signs of the Week“.

Normal fare is just that … normal.  Yet every once in a while a plate is put down in front of us that contains something different and new.  I remember sitting down in Chicago for my first ever Persian dinner.  The waitress brought the plate, and as I looked down at the colorful sauces I said to myself, “Now this … is something new.

This feeling of excited discovery is what we’re intended to experience in Matt. 5:21-31.  Each of the three sections within starts the same way.  “You have heard it said … but I say to you.”  The topics themselves are breathtaking in scope: Murder, Adultery, and Divorce.  Can you imagine driving past a church sign that said, “This Week at Glen Cove: Murder, Adultery, and Divorce”?   Yet in each case Jesus stands conventional wisdom on it’s head.  Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at it’s core.  Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately adultery, but the lust in our hearts.  Our real problem, he says, is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of our relationships.

This strikingly new type of teaching goes on for another two chapters.  At the end of it all Matthew says this: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28).

Following Jesus was never supposed to be about a bad church sign.  What it’s supposed to be about is seeing God pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and form them into something new and something wonderful.  Keep your eyes open as you are driving down the road this week because you will drive by Jesus (and more than once).  When you do, pull over, because you’ll be amazed at the authority with which he speaks new life into your soul.


a bruised reed he will not break

Gerard David, "Baptism of Christ", 1502 - 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Gerard David, “Baptism of Christ”, 1502 – 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matt. 3:13-17
For Sunday, January 14, 2014
Epiphany, Year A, Baptism of the Lord

When I first read this week’s readings this phrase immediately jumped out:  “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3).  The reason it jumped out (and I’m only sharing this with you)  is because I know I’m a bruised reed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How can a reed get a bruise?  This is where my wife would say, “You are so literal.”  Well, sorry, but that’s what the text says… literally.  Anyway, the picture is of a reed that has broken so that the top is dangling down.  Have you ever walked passed one of those?  There is an almost irresistible urge to snap it off.  That thing just shouldn’t sit there dangling!  It’s not right.  It actually feels good to snap it off, right?  Snap.  Ahhh….  All is right with the world.

Now, for you fellow literalists, the Prophet Isaiah is using this as a metaphor, which is a future of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not …. wait for it …. literally applicable.  Ohhhh….  okay then.  So what is the object or action here?  It’s weak or oppressed people.  Isaiah is saying this: “Even though it might seem the world is a harsh place that would be better off without you, there is a servant of God coming who not only does not concur, but when he comes is going to put you and your world right.  In other words, whatever your hurt, don’t despair, because hope is coming.  

My hurt is trauma from my childhood due to a mentally ill Mom.  Like a soldier who dives in the bushes every time he hears a loud noise, I am prone to similar subconscious emotional reactions.  I’ve been working through layers of this trauma my entire adult life.  It’s actually become a joy to see how deep this goes, how the Holy Spirit is at work doing healing within me, and how he’s using all of this to enable me to be a blessing to others, as a business consultant no less.  In fact, over the holidays I launched my own consulting practice called Quiet Waters Consulting.  The big idea is to lead others into the restoration that I’m presently enjoying as a result of the Spirit’s work within me.  As Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

The truth is we are all reeds and we all have our bruises.  We are all broken, we are all oppressed, because we live in a world alienated from it’s Creator.  Yet hope has come in Jesus, God’s beloved Son, so take heart.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

 

Point to ponder:
Where have you or are you seeing the Holy Spirit at work within you to strengthen the reed that has been bruised?


preserve this our city

"Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel", Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above).  It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris.  His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena.  The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).

The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”).   It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images.  The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ.  The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster.  If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes.  Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’.  It’s only 18″ tall and 34″ wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work.  When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first.  Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity.  Mind altering, to be sure.

Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right.  Each is holding a scroll.  On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14).   Right… , that certainly makes good sense.

On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed  ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]‘, for “I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (Ezekial 44:2).   Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected.   Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).

The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311.  Here is how one participant described the event:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.

Wow!  After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.  And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself.  What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people  such as us?

I love the last part of the description above.  “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.”  My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.

Merry Christmas.


“Are you ready for Christmas?”

Adoration of the Magi (detail)
Quentin Metsys, 1526,
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.)

 

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matt. 3:1-12
For Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent

“Are you ready for Christmas?”  This is the question inevitably asked by friends and colleagues. The orientation of the question is of course around shopping.  It’s really, “Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”  Wouldn’t it be interesting to respond this way: “Well, my shopping is done, so now I’m focused on getting ready for Christmas spiritually.”

Somewhere between Santa Claus and Rudolph all of us know that there is supposed to be a spiritual component to Christmas.  That word advent bobs to the surface at this point.  “Advent” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming”.  Who is coming?  The long awaited Messiah, the one who would save us from ourselves.  He came to a lowly stable in an insignificant little hamlet called Bethlehem and the world was changed forever.

As a kid, I loved the cardboard advent calendar my Mom put on the refrigerator.  Every day we could open another little square and every revealed image brought us one step closer to the big day.  The big day for our young minds was “time to open presents!”  Yet the big day from a biblical perspective is when Messiah, the one who would save us from ourselves, is revealed to the world: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse …. the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:1-2).

So Messiah is coming.  That’s what Christmas is about.  Are we ready?  Ah… obviously… NOT.  So how do we get ready?  Simple.  Repent.  As John the Baptist says in this week’s reading in Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  To repent means to “turn around”.  We need to stop walking away from God and start walking toward him.  What if instead of constantly forcing Jesus to the periphery of our Christmas experience we made him the destination?  Wouldn’t that be a Christmas to remember?

Points to ponder:
What is your favorite childhood memory of Christmas?  Is there something in that memory that points to the joy of being given Jesus by your Heavenly Father?
What would it look like for you to get ready Christmas spiritually?


Wisdom for a church in exile

The city of Babylon

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
For Sunday, October 13, 2013

The church of the West is a church in exile.  In Europe this has long been understood; in America the church is still coming to recognition. Where once the cultural consensus was based on a Christian worldview it is no longer.  A world governed by the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God”, as the Declaration of Independence put it, has become a world of “diversity and inclusion”.  In this new land tolerance lays moral claim to rule and is to be extended to everyone except those who would advocate for any other moral claim.  The late Chuck Colson puts it this way in his book, The Faith:

Tolerance once meant listening respectfully to all points of view, freely discussed in our common search for the truth.  But the creed for the new god of tolerance is that knowing truth is impossible.  So everyone is free to think and act as he likes, with one exception: those who have the audacity to believe that they know the truth, particularly if they think God has revealed it to them, are not tolerated.  The result is that those who crowned the new god of tolerance have become the absolute arbiters of culture.  The new god of tolerance becomes, in the guise of tolerance, an absolute tyrant.  (p.  68).

What is a church in exile to do?  In these verses the prophet Jeremiah counseled Israel in exile in Babylon as follows: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).  “Welfare” is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’.  Shalom means peace and prosperity, or human flourishing.  There is some good news for us here: even in exile, the church itself can flourish and can have a positive impact on the surrounding culture.

What would this look like?  First, it would involve strong marriages and strong families.  This is why Jeremiah mentions marriage, family and homes in the preceding two verses.  Our greatest witness are our own marriages and families.  Each of our families are little embassies that desperately need to see forgiveness, love, and peace in action.

Second, it would involve prayer.    As Jeremiah says in the verse above we are not only to seek shalom but we are also to pray for the cities in which we live (… “and pray to the Lord on its behalf).  For me, this is Milwaukee.  What’s the state of my city?   56% African American unemployment; one of the most segregated cities in the country; and with the fourth worst poverty problem in the country.  What profound opportunities for prayer.

Third, it would involve work.  Jeremiah says, “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.”  What kind of work is he talking about?  Are we all to leave the trades and professions and become pastors?  No.  If we did, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fund the nonprofit work, nor would there be a redemptive influence in the trades and professions themselves.  What this does mean is that each of us should work to contribute to the common good.   It’s moving from, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,” to “how can I work today in a way that contributes to the shalom of everyone around me?”

Do you agree that the church in the West is a church in exile?  Why or why not?  If you agree, what does it mean for your local church and your own ministry as a member of it?


navigating depression

"Angel of Grief", William Wetmore Story, 1894, Cimitero degli stranieri acattolici al Testaccio, Rome, Italy.

“Angel of Grief”, William Wetmore Story, 1894,
Cimitero degli stranieri acattolici al Testaccio, Rome, Italy.

Lamentations 3:19-26
For Sunday, October 6, 2013

As someone who has managed low-grade depression for 31 years of his adult life these are words that encourage profoundly.    They don’t minimize or avoid the issue:  “I remember my affliction and my wandering … and my soul is downcast within me” (v. 3:19).  The prophet Jeremiah, their author, was no stranger to despair.  Consider how he opens: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lam. 1:1).  Jerusalem has been ransacked by the Babylonians and left for dead.   It seemed God’s very purpose and people had been abandoned.

Yet from this side of the cross we know God did no such thing.  The Babylonian Exile was merely a chapter in a much greater drama.   From the depths of his despair Jeremiah turns to something he has come to know well, the loyal love of God.  The Hebrew word used here, hesed, is a constant theme throughout the Old Testament.  It is sometimes translated “steadfast love” or “faithful lovingkindness”.   It’s impossible to capture in a single English word or phrase what it really means, which is something like this:  “I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I love you perfectly, consistently, and unconditionally.  I am going to redeem your life.”

Just as Jeremiah did, I find tremendous comfort in the promise of hesed made by a loving Heavenly Father to those who believe.   Jeremiah puts it this way: “Because of the Lord’s great love (hesed) we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”  (Lam. 3:22-23).

These words don’t mean that Christians should never get depressed.  The Prophet Jeremiah got depressed and I’ll put his character up against depression deniers any day of the week!  The beauty of the gospel is that it embraces both anguish and hope.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh; low-grade depression is mine.  By God’s grace I manage it through diet, exercise, medication, and counseling.   It’s something I inherited through genetics, and that’s okay.  I said to my counselor recently, “One thing that helps so much is that even when I’m down I know I’m going to be okay.”  He responded, “I know and that’s why you do so well.”  Those were tremendous words of affirmation and encouragement.

If you are among those to whom God has called to navigate the emotional shadow-lands, know this: your Heavenly Father is with you every step of the way.  He is going to accomplish his purpose in your life.  In fact, he already has in crucifying his one and only son Jesus and then raising him back to life.  You were raised back to life with him.  

You can do this.


finding what moves you

harley 110th

A reflection on the Harley 110th
For Sunday, Sept 8th, 2013

Harley Davidson, one of our cities icons, celebrated it’s 110th anniversary last weekend.  Riders came from around the world.  The other day I pulled up behind a group of Canadian riders.  I asked, “So you are from Canada?”  They responded, “Well, actually, we’re South African, but living in Dubai, and we rode here with this group of Canadians from Seattle.”

Why are so many people so passionate about Harley Davidson?  Harley tries to capture it on their website with the phrase “find what moves you.”  Being on the bike is an opportunity to enjoy the moment, to connect with what revs your soul, and to do this with others who are experiencing the same.  My wife Heather and I were riding home yesterday afternoon alongside just one other bike.  As we roared up a hill on Highway 164 our two V-Twins sang in joyful harmony.   That rumble moves me.

As passionate as I am about riding Harley there is something I’m more passionate about – most passionate about – that I want to share with my fellow riders on the human journey.   It is my commitment to being a follower of Christ.  Why?  Following makes my heart sing just as those V-Twin were singing up the hill yesterday.  In him I can acknowledge what I really am – a profoundly flawed human being – yet at the same time know that I’m now forgiven and free to be the person I was intended to be from the beginning.

Contemporary secular culture gives Christianity a cold shoulder.   Christians are commonly portrayed as narrow minded, judgmental, and hypocritical.  Unfortunately, some of this is accurate.  Yet ironically the heart of Christianity is not judgment, but redemption.  As the Gospel of John says, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world should be saved (i.e. redeemed) through him” (John 3:17).  

If you know me personally, and any of this raises even an inkling in your heart, could we sit down together and talk it through?  No pressure, no judgment, just a chance to step back together and ask, “Hey, what really does move me, what ought to move me, and why?”  We may come away from the conversation with different answers.  I’m okay with that.  But let’s at least enjoy a conversation.  If you don’t know me, I’d be happy to correspond by email. Or there is probably someone in your circle of influence that would be safe to approach.

Life is too rich to miss finding what moves us from deep in our souls.   Peace and joy to each of you in the rumble.


The earthly good of the heavenly mind

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Sunday Morning,” Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1877

Col. 3:1-11
For Sunday, August 4, 2013
Year C, Proper 13

“Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good,” goes the popular expression. Yet as my good friend Dick Gorski puts it, this passage retorts: “It’s only in becoming more heavenly minded that you will be of any earthly good.” The former expression is grounded in a secularism that sees religious belief as separate and distinct from life in the real world. The latter expression is grounded in a Christian worldview which posits that only in bringing the kingdom of heaven into our secular experience will we find what we are looking for.

My own experience bears this out. When I set my mind on pursuing earthly things I’m never left satisfied. My personal favorites have been lust, sloth, and gluttony. Yet these earthly strivings have never come through for me. Which earthly things are your favorites and how have they worked out for you?

So how then do we turn our hearts and minds to the the things above? One key for me has been a daily quiet time with God. It’s just me and him. I read some Scripture (the weekly lectionary readings), I journal on these readings, and I pray. When I pray, I P.R.A.Y., meaning Praise, Repentance, Asking for Others, and then Yourself. Simple, really, yet profound in cultivating new heavenly habit to wage war against my persistent earthly inclinations.

I’ve been thinking about things above this week as we’ve worked to clean out my Mom’s apartment. She passed away May 10th. All through her apartment were tokens of her heavenly mindedness. Toward the end her mind wasn’t working very well, but the heavenly deposit she had cultivated endured and sustained her. I endeavor forward such that when I’m pushing the walker that the same might be said of me.


who is my neighbor?

20130707-101102.jpg
“Good Samaritan”, Ferdinand Holder, 1853-1915, Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland

Luke 10
For Sunday, July 14, 2013
Proper 10

What struck me about this familiar story is not that it was the Samaritan who helped the Jew but rather the extent to which the Samaritan helped him. Our Samaritan exemplar was not only willing to pull over, see what had really happened, and then engage. He went well beyond. He took his charge to a nearby inn and gave the innkeeper what amounted to a blank check to do whatever made sense. “The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’” (v. 35). Mr. Samaritan could have ended his involvement there but committed to returning after fulfilling another commitment.

This Samaritan was a man who knew the blessing of grounding one’s life in faithful lovingkindness to others. The lawyer whose original question prompted Jesus to tell this story could not have missed this. The issue for our lawyer was not to understand the limit of his responsibility but rather the extent of his opportunity.

So it is for us. Where do my gifts, vocation, and avocation create opportunities to bless the lives of others with the steadfast lovingkindness of the gospel of the kingdom of God? Where does my church’s time, talent, and treasure offer corporate opportunities for the same? Where these answers lead is where we can validate God’s steadfast love to us by extending it to others.

Image credit: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54698


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