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making straight paths for Messiah

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For Sunday, December 7, 2014
2nd Sunday of Advent

In introducing his gospel and the coming of Messiah the Apostle Mark says, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (v.3).  I’ve read this many times but never appreciated the full significance of the straight paths until now.  Subconsciously I’ve thought, “Well, yeah, I guess a straight path is better than a crooked path.  Jesus must like orderly paths.”  You too?  Thought so … This totally misses the point!  Mark is quoting Isaiah 40:3.  Look at this quotation in Isaiah’s original context:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah isn’t just talking about building a straight path. He’s talking about building a highway.  The Romans did just what we did.  They built the highway straight: mountains were leveled, valleys were filled, and obstacles removed.  The commitment and power contained in such a project is a metaphor for the commitment and power God has to accomplish his redemptive purpose.

This is very good news for us, for we, like the early church, find ourselves in exile.  We’ve lost cultural pre-eminence.  We’re increasingly outsiders.  Yet we can be assured that God has neither lost us nor this world.  He is going to accomplish his purpose.  What this means for us is that we can prosecute our daily callings with confidence and joy because we’re walking on the highway of God’s greater purpose.

Points to ponder:

  • How have you experienced being a member of a people in exile?
  • Where do you see God at work building the highway that Isaiah and Mark are so excited about?
  • How is God calling you to prosecute your calling with confidence this week?

The First Thanksgiving

My friend Fred Beuttler has a wonderful tribute to Thanksgiving here.  President Washington said in his original proclamation:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Hard to stop there.  Read Fred’s post (link above) for the full text of President Washington’s proclamation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

buying a stairway to heaven? … it makes me wonder

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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?

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.  

Join the RCL 10 Minutes a Day Club

Would the quality of your life be improved if you would commit at least 10 minutes a day to reading the Bible? Would you like to be part of a virtual community of others who have made the same commitment? Then I invite you to join RCL-10, a community of people committed to spending 10 minutes a day reading the Bible via the Revised Common Lectionary.

Finding our way

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Children of the Sea“, Jozeph Izraels

Col. 2:6-15
For Sunday July 28, 2013
Proper 12

Do you ever find yourself yearning for more clarity, focus, and peace? I love technology and social networking yet there are times I find myself asking, “What’s the point of all this? How do I live successfully to the glory of God amidst such myriad opportunity? Col. 2:11-15 can help because it’s all about finding our way.

The Colossians were struggling to find there way due to some false teaching that seemed very attractive on the surface. It must have been some kind of precursor to the Oprah Winfrey Network. In these verses Paul gives us three keys to finding our way.

The first key is to walk in Christ (vv. 6-7). This means sinking our soul roots deep into him, allowing the gospel to reform us into His image, standing firm in all seasons, and doing all of this with the same joy with which we came to Christ in the first place.

The second key is to avoid being taken captive (vv. 8-14) by anything that is not grounded in Christ. Any advice about the good life that doesn’t have it’s foundation in Christ and the transforming work he started when we received him is baseless and groundless. When we believed he made us new people and it is only in continuing to follow him without reserve or regret that we will thrive as he intends.

The third and final key is to own our victory (vv. 13-14). When Christ died for us on the cross he both forgave all of our sin and demonstrated complete domination over all the enemies of this world. We are now free to pursue his redemptive purpose with complete freedom and abandon, fearing nothing that may cross our path.

Amidst all of the opportunity afforded to us by the modern world let’s remember that Christ and his kingdom mark the way toward lasting peace and joy.

Points to ponder:
Where in your life do you tend to wander into the weeds of life? How might a renewed focus on Christ and the gospel of the kingdom help you find your way back out of the weeds?

experiencing the image of the invisible God

Church on the Spilt Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church on the Spilt Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Col. 1:15-28
For Sunday, July 21, 2013
Year C, Proper 11

For me, the best way to appreciate this passage is not to outline it (despite it’s richness), nor to read a commentary (despite the insights available), but rather to remember standing under the dome of the Church on the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia.  This is my favorite cathedral in all of Russia.  To stand within it is to be encompassed by the supremacy of Christ as portrayed in these verses.  “He is the image of the invisible God … ” (Col. 1:15).

We in the West, whether Catholic or Protestant (much less evangelical) have much to learn from our Eastern brethren regarding the supremacy of Christ, the significance of the church as his gathered people (v. 18, greek ‘ekklesia’) and of the mystery of the gospel (v. 27).

When ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’ is mentioned in the West, what may first to mind are the phrases “vain repetition”, “idol worship”, or “dysfunctional ethnicity”.  Just like in our own Western theological communities, there are warts to be found.  Yet there is also a deep beauty, glory, and joy available to those who will inquire appreciatively.  This beauty, glory, and joy is something we desperately need in our own expressions of faith both personally and corporately.   These same qualities are also what secular people around us may be most drawn to.

Read this passage.  Study it.  Pray through it.  Journal on it.  Your heart will be lightened and your eyes brightened. Yet do something else this week.  See if there is an Eastern Orthodox place of worship near you.  Stop in, even for 10 minutes.  Sit quietly before the Lord, and then offer a blessing to the priest or deacon you may find therein.  I think Jesus would be very pleased if we did more of this for one another’s communities, despite the differences that distinguish us.

If you have a chance to do so might you briefly report back and share with the rest of us what you experienced?

Rex Lex?

vineyard

1 Kings 21
For Sunday, June 16, 2013
Proper 6

As a college student at Indiana University (Bloomington) I read Francis Schaefer voraciously.  I was trying to reconcile what I believed with the secular worldview framing most of the education I was receiving.  Schaefer wrote of  the difference between Rex Lex (“The King is the law”) and Lex Rex (“The Law is King”).  Lex Rex is what the story of Naboth’s Vineyard in 1 Kings 21 is about.

King Ahab lives in a beautiful and expansive palace, but like most of us, he wanted more.  What he wanted was his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard so that he could plant a vegetable garden.  Naboth declined.  I don’t blame him.  What kind of idiot would destroy a beautiful vineyard for a vegetable garden?  Put your little cucumbers in your own blasted yard!

Amazingly this little episode throws Ahab into a massive depression.  His wife Jezebel decides she has to do something so she calls Ahab’s therapist.  Oops, rather, she decides to exercise eminent domain over Naboth’s vineyard.  Yet even in Ahab’s kingdom one couldn’t just do this on a whim.  The property had to be condemned first.  Okay, how do I get it condemned, Jezebel asks herself?  Well, remove the current owner from the picture.  How do I do that, Jezebel reasons further.  Well, have him condemned and then stoned.  This requires the testimony of two witnesses.  Well, two witnesses then there shall be.  Problem solved.

Fortunately for us, this isn’t the end of the story.  After poor Naboth is stoned to death, Ahab goes down to repurpose the vineyard.  While standing in that very spot he is confronted by the prophet Elijah who says to him, “Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood” (1 Kings 21:19).  Ahab repented, so God spared him for a season (1 Kings 21:29).  Yet at the end of the story, just as dogs licked up the blood of Naboth outside Jezreel, so did dogs lick up the blood of Ahab outside Samaria (New Bible Commentary, 1 Kings 22:29-40).

The point is that as much as it might appear to be the case, whether one is Attorney General protecting government secrets, or Secretary of State managing the response to a slain Ambassador, or a Business Consultant at a major insurance company (this last one being me), none of us is a law unto ourselves.  God knows who we are, where we are, and what we are doing.  He possesses data collection and analytics capabilities that in comparison make the National Security Agency look like nothing more than an Echo Sketch.  Yet rather than abusing this power for his own end God is committed in steadfast love, righteousness, and justice, to reconciling the world to himself.  He brings justice to those whose vineyards have been trampled upon.

So personally, are you living Rex Lex, or Lex Rex?  How about professionally?  Are you working in your organization, your church, and your community to do the right thing?  Or have you like so many others capitulated to the Lie of self-interest and personal autonomy?    May these words bring clarity, courage, and commitment to follow the Spirit’s lead that things on earth might hasten to become as they are in heaven.

One Nation Under Chuck

Last night at the Wisconsin Academic Decathlon Banquet we were invited to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When we arrived at “One Nation Under God” the speaker said instead, “One Nation Under Chuck”. My wife Heather asked one of our table mates, “Didn’t that seem inappropriate?” The answer was, “Well, ‘God’ was only added to the Pledge in 1959.”

I think the underlying message of the speaker was, “You can put whatever symbol you want in charge. It’s just an exercise of power.”

My initial thought was, “I’m offended”. Then I thought, “Well… not everyone in our country believes in God, and I certainly can’t force them to, nor would I want to.” Then I thought, “Could we take ‘under God’ out of the cultural contract, and still maintain liberty and justice for all?” If there isn’t a higher law to which we’re all accountable, then indeed is not any appeal to authority just an exercise of power?

Interested in others’ thoughts if you would like to comment.

what’s your story? secular naturalism

Each of us lives within at least one of a number of stories about where we’ve come from, what’s gone wrong, how we fix it, and where we are going.  I’ve just finished reading Glenn Sunshine’s Portals: Entering Your Neighbor’s World, which lays out the prominent stories guiding peoples’ lives today.

One option, for example, is the story of Secular Naturalism, which goes something like this.  Where we’ve come from is a result of natural selection at work within a larger process of evolution.  What went wrong has to do with either genetics, societal dysfunction, or both.  The solution to this problem is to pursue a utopia in which humanity can work together to overcome the deficiencies caused by genetics and social dysfunction.   Where we are going is nowhere in particular, which means the best we can do is seek to maximize our own self-fulfillment.

This story leaves me with some key questions.  First, what evidence is there to justify a belief in natural selection in particular and evolution in general?  For example, if evolution were true, why is it that complex life exists on earth but apparently nowhere else in our solar system?  Shouldn’t natural selection be as operative on those planets as it is on our own?

Second, can all of our problems really be attributed to either genetics or societal dysfunction?  Is there not a moral conscience that each of us possesses?  Is evil not a reality in the world?

Third, if genetics and social dysfunction really were the core problems, then wouldn’t we all be happy communists or Nazis by now?

Fourth, is self-fulfillment really possible in pursuit of a utopia that is seeking to rule out both genetic and societal defects?  Ask any Russian about the “Paradise of the Soviets” and they will chuckle.

Does the above seem like a reasonable portrayal of the secular naturalist story?  To what extent do you find this story persuasive and to what extent do you find it wanting?