Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Death and Joy

Two blogs in one day!!!!  That must be a record.  There's a reason for this though.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go visit an old friend - Bill Howitt.  
Bill was one of those truly amazing individuals from my past.  Garrison Keillor talks about Norwegian bachelor farmers.  Well Bill was not Norwegian, but he was a bachelor farmer.

I met Bill as a young Pastor...First Congregational Church in Randolph had all of 30 people in it when I began...Bill was one of them. 
He was a quiet man...I never heard him once raise his voice beyond normal conversation.  He was a gentle man...when gentlemen seem to be lost in our world today.  
I never did figure out why he didn't marry; except for the fact that he didn't ask people for anything, so perhaps, he just couldn't ask a woman to go out?  
We met together for several years one on one - at his country house, for breakfast...he would cook it for me.  Coffee, eggs, toast, bacon, juice, was always bountiful.
We would talk...or should I say I would ask Bill questions...about life, about anything I could get him to talk about...I saw him as a Father figure, a spiritual mentor...someone who walked the talk and I wanted what he had.

Recently, I was told that he was in hospice care at the Manor in I drove over, and I got the opportunity to stop by and visit.  He was verbally unresponsive; but not in his body and soul.  He had had a stroke recently and it left him largely immobile and without the ability to speak.

I saw a couple of hints of a smile and he more than once he tried to move his hand/arm as I held onto his hand.  There was a man and woman there who I didn't know, but who were relatives and had been taking turns keeping vigil over him, so they prompted me to just talk to him...I did.

I told him that I had pleasant memories of breakfasts with him at his home.  That he had been a quiet faithful friend and support to me as a young Pastor.  

I told him that it looked like he was going to make to heaven before me, and that I would look forward to seeing him someday soon.  

I got those faint smiles and hand tugs during all of this.

I prayed for him...for grace in dying, for peace and rest in his body, for the love of Christ to envelope him...and I left, telling him I'd stop by again today.

No need to do so.  Bill went home to Jesus at 3 a.m. this morning.  He was 92!

Dance away my friend, dance away in the freedom of Christ!

"Don't we know our lives are but a vapor, here for a minute and then vanishing away".


Sorrow, Loss

Psalm 90:10 (NIV)
10 The length of our days is seventy years-- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Hang around people long enough and you cannot help but feel the pain of sorrow and loss.  Pastors are suppose to be people who know how to enter into someone's sorrow and help them find their way out....that seldom happens in my experience.  The risk, and danger, of pastoral guidance is that it is often too "soon", and the person is not ready to make the changes necessary to go on.

Life at times is like walking through a marshy bog.  Every step lends itself to the possibility that the boots will get stuck in the ground and trying to pick up one's foot will only result in a wet, boggy foot!

How to do forward?  How to get one foot in front of the other.
Reading Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he writes about things that are important in the area of sorrow and loss.

2 Corinthians 7:1-11 (NIV)
1 Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 

The goal must be clear...what do I want from this all?  Purity of heart, purity in the soul, purity in the Spirit...all for the clear sense of a holy desire to honor God...that must be our only goal.

2 Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one.
3 I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. 

I had a friend who walked through a long period of sorrow and loss...a lot longer than I thought it should take.  I kept coming back to my judgments.  I made lots of judgments.  "You should move on"..."You should not stay stuck"...  I made lots of judgments trying to help this person get unstuck.  I realize now that I let my judgments become more important than the relationship needs.

There's a story from the Desert Fathers that speaks volumes about this:  "There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault.  So they invited Abba (which means "teacher") Moses.  He refused to go.  The priest sent someone to say to him.  'They're all waiting for you.'  So Moses got up and set off;  he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him.  The others came out to meet him and said, 'What is this Father?'  The old man said to them, 'My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of someone else?  When they heard this, they called the meeting off."

 As Paul walks the Corinthians through this place of sorrow and loss he makes it has actually helped much in bringing about an awareness of God.

8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it--I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while--
9 yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.
10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

The nature of sorrow, loss, is that given time to incubate in the soul  - in a manner that is consistent with someone seeking God's will over all other things - the sorrow can lead us to a correction, a place of awareness of the will of God over all other things.  This is the discover God...not to get our way.

I visited a man who is close to my heart and who is dying yesterday.  It is both sad to see his life coming to an end; and it is joyous to know that nothing in life means anything now...all he has and waits for is Jesus.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Eat the Book - Some More

Psalm 115:1-8 (NIV)
1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.
2 Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?"
3 Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.
4 But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see;
6 they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell;
7 they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

Eugene Peterson is one of those unusual writers that makes each word count.  Some writers are like people who love to hear their own words - an endless litany of words upon words, none of it leading to anything worth thinking about.

One commentary on reading:  "If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?...A book must be like an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us."

I'm a believer in reading scripture.  I strongly believe in it.  It is the source of truth for our lives...the anchor of our souls in a storm-tossed sea of life.  I learned a long time ago that as a Pastor you cannot force feed scripture.  The pastoral appeal is simple:  God is the author of truth and his word is a light for us to open up the way through our often darkened world.

So, how do we read?
I'd suggest it's a lot like a depends on whether you have time to sit and enjoy, taking it in morsel by morsel, chewing, savoring, enjoying...or whether it's gulped down on the run.  Both will feed, but one is more enjoyable.  Grabbing the food and gulping it down will get you energy, and stop the need to eat, but it won't appeal to all that goes into great food:  "what was in that?", "wow, this is fantastic", "I loved that"...and more.

When we take in the word as a fine food we see the words, we can reflect, ponder, stop and enjoy.  Put down the fork, savor it.  Stop in mid-sentence, think, pray, imagine, worship.  We're ready to eat some more.
Reading scripture is a gift regardless of how we do it, but it's so much more enjoyable when it's unhurried.

The words from the Psalm above had little to do with "reading".  The Psalmist is reflecting on the difference between worshiping idols - made up of gold, silver...precious metals so to speak, and worshiping the true God.  What strikes me and made me stop, pause, and reflect is the last verse - which isn't the last verse in the Psalm, but it's worth stopping at and thinking, praying our way through it.

"Those who make them will be like them, and so will all you trust in them."

The psalmist contrasts:
Mockers and scoffers say "Where is there God?" because their faith is limited to their eyesight, and their short term "give me what I want" approach.  So our world is full of those who reject and place contempt on those who believe.
What is their answer?  I'll trust in that which is silver and gold...made by hands of men.  The fruit of this labor cannot speak, cannot see, cannot hear, cannot smell, cannot walk, cannot utter a word...but I'll trust in that which I have made.

"Those who make them will be like them, and so will all you trust in them."  

In a world filled with information technology, and the sexy appeals of advertisers who want to sell us the next gold or silver "look what we've made" - the words bear thinking.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Receiving the Word

It's not too often that I blog on a passage of scripture I'm soon teaching.  I suppose it's my way of making sure I don't use the blog site as a preaching site.  Still, there are times when it seems worth it to "muse" a bit about what I'm also preparing to teach.  Here's one, and it's sort of a continuation of what I began yesterday to say in that post about "Eating the book".

Luke 8:4-15 (NIV)
4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
5 "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.
6 Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown." When he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, "'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'
11 "This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

First of all, I'd invite your's one of the more familiar passages, or stories, Jesus told.  Living in farm country affords me a nice mental picture of what is going on.  Farmers this time of the year are busy in their fields.  I've even seen some taking first crop hay, which I know is earlier than usual...a testimony to the warm winter/spring we're enjoying.
It seems very obvious that the story is not about seeds, or much as it is about soils...various types of soil.
  • Hardened pathway soil, 
  • rocky soil (I remember picking rocks in fields as a young boy - the worst job in the world I think), 
  • soil that was full of thorns, thistles, weeds.  Someone once said, "A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows."
  • And finally, good soil.
There's reasons why each exist, but the point Jesus makes is that in three out of the four possibilities the seed cannot take root - "he who has ears to hear, let him hear"'s Jesus' way of saying, "take note, ask yourself the question about the garden called your heart.

The prophet Jeremiah may have been the original source of Jesus' story.  He said some 600 years before Jesus, 
3 This is what the LORD says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem: "Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns.  Jeremiah 4:3 (NIV) 

Soil is hardened as it is left alone.  It gets full of weeds, and becomes a place of "no useful growth".  Breaking up the ground is something that is happening right now in my part of the world.  Tractors pull tillers and diggers out in the fields.  I don't see much plowing these days, but those other instruments do the job.  It's important to "tear" up the ground a bit, open it up, make it tender to receive the seed.  After the seed is sown in tender earth, open, ready to receive it, it will grow.
Still, thorns and thistles, weeds, will also...the ground once prepared takes on the need of tending.  

It's all hard are hard workers.  The growth will come with a little effort... Jesus said it this way.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. 
  • hear the word
  • retain it
  • persevere
Those are the means to growth.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Eat The Book?

Reading through Ezekial is a chore.  He received a lot of his messages before and during Israel's exile to Babylon, around 580 b.c.
Ezekiel 3:1-3 (NIV)
1 And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel."
2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.
3 Then he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it." So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. 

Interestingly, this same thing happened later at the close of the bible in the book of Revelation.

Revelation 10:1-2 (NIV)
1 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.
2 He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land,

Revelation 10:8-10 (NIV)
8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: "Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land."
9 So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, "Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey."
10 I took the little scroll from the angel's hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.

Now, what is it about "eating the scroll"...a book?
I have been in this business of reading the Bible for over 40 years now.  I've been teaching it almost as long.  It's a regular habit of mine to begin my day with reading scripture.  I have probably read through the entire scripture for almost 30 straight years.  I'm not saying any of that to impress anyone because frankly it's not that impressive.  The challenge of any "reading" of any book is not that it's been done, but rather that it's been done in order to allow scripture to be formative - to read in order to constantly re-orient our lives to what it's saying.

Paul writing to the Romans said it this way:  Romans 12:2 (NIV) 
2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

It's an admission that something is "forming" us at all times.  We are being "pressed" by all sorts of forces.  The "world", as Paul says, has a "pattern"..."suschematizo" - you can see the word "scheme" in that word.  It's that particular "way", or "scheme" that seeks to influence thought and push us towards something.
For example, commercials on TV are particularly adept at putting images in front of us to "woo" us towards buying their product.  Politicians, and those who support them, use images to convey either vote for, or vote against, based on their appeal.

What I want to quickly say is that "eating the book" is that art of taking up the scriptures and reading it in such a way that we allow the words to come into us, take authority in our thinking, our motives, our attitudes, and we read therefore, not to be spiritually superior in terms of "knowing" things about scripture, but rather to to live the words out, assimilating the reading to our own life.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hope in the painful times

I have never quite understood what to do - as a pastor - when people are in pain.  It is times like that when you want to come alongside, say something encouraging, pray, even see the healing occur and the pain go away.  That is what I want to have happen.  Yet that is not my experience.  For the most part I walk away feeling quite useless.  I pray...and I know that this is good to do.  But the pain still remains.

Reading through Jeremiah I find a man of God who "lived" in a place of pain.  His country was falling into ruin.  The captivity was soon coming...Jeremiah saw it on the horizon, and warned of it - only to have his fellow Jews deride him for being a traitor.  He was living in the pain of rejection while knowing that God's judgement was soon to fall...
SO, where does hope appear in times of pain and suffering?
I ran across these words in Jeremiah this morning.

Jeremiah 33:1-3 (NIV)
1 While Jeremiah was still confined in the courtyard of the guard, the word of the LORD came to him a second time:
2 "This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it--the LORD is his name:
3 'Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know...'

Notice the paradox of faith...Jeremiah is "confined", imprisoned...and God's word comes to him "again".  Then God speaks of first his majesty...He formed the earth, not just Israel the nation...and then God speaks of the invitation to Jeremiah - "call to me..."  In the midst of his suffering, God reminds him of his majesty, and asks him to call out to's a faith invitation.  Not an invitation to answers, or solutions, or even to collaborate with God as to what to do next.  It's simply an invitation to turn towards the only one who really knows what is going on.

A few verses later God speaks into Jeremiah's situation.

Jeremiah 33:14-16 (NIV)
14 "'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.
15 "'In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.'

The answer is yet in the future for Jeremiah.  God doesn't even say Jeremiah will still be alive (he won't) when the answer will come.  The answer isn't found in a political, or military solution.  The answer is found in God's person - the righteous branch from David's line - Jesus.
The Kingdom of God is announced in Jesus' messages...the Kingdom of God is the future answer to all the pain and the suffering...and there really is no answer beyond that.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Context, Context, Context

One of the first rules of Biblical interpretation is "what did the text mean in it's original setting".  It's all too easy to take passages of scripture out of their context.  For example, I recently received a note from someone where they quoted from Jeremiah, and the wonderful words:

Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

What is to not like about those words.  They are hopeful promises that seem to say "hang in there, God will make it all ok...he's on your side."  Now, it's not as if I believe God is against's just that this is not the main purpose of those words in their context.

Jeremiah was writing to a group of people who had been taken into captivity by the Babylonian armies - date, around 590 b.c.  What's interesting is that Jeremiah is writing to these people because he had previously written to them that they were going to go into captivity because of their disobedience.  Reading a passage in context is never optional to good fact, it's absolutely necessary!

Here's the context of those words in vs it all and notice the purpose of what he's saying.

Jeremiah 29:1-19 (NIV)
1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.)
3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.
9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them," declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.
11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.
13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
14 I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."
15 You may say, "The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,"
16 but this is what the LORD says about the king who sits on David's throne and all the people who remain in this city, your countrymen who did not go with you into exile--
17 yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: "I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like poor figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.
18 I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth and an object of cursing and horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them.
19 For they have not listened to my words," declares the LORD, "words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either," declares the LORD.

In the middle of the exile realities, God speaks to both explain the reasons, rebuke the false prophets who are saying 'this will all be over with soon', and make it clear that the time of exile will be kept.

Does God know the times?  Certainly.  But the cause of these problems clearly is the result of the nation's disobedience...not because God was arbitrary in purposing judgment.
Does God have plans for us?  Certainly.  Yet we are the ones who either cooperate with those plans or work against's our choice.

Context, Context, Context...always absolutely necessary.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Sabbaths - More Needed

It's been a couple of weeks since I've blogged (April 19)...not an excuse, nor an apology...just a fact.
There's been a lot happening of late and so life has been fairly packed full and busy.  We arrived back home from our trip to England with a flurry of activity.  Linda keeps child-care for our granddaughter, Iris.  Which is a pure delight to see and have around two days a week.  Along with that we kept our grandkids, Jack and Leo for the last weekend...again, a great delight; but I bless all of you parents out there - I forgot how tired one can get in a normal day of children.

Along with these things life in our church fellowship is never dull.  Our church - New Life Fellowship - is to me a joy, and even though pastoring is a job, I enjoy the people I get to see week in and week out.  As I currently teach through the Gospel of Luke, I get to dive into the scripture with them and be honest about what works for me and what doesn't.  The level of grace that allows anyone to be them-self has to be high and this place has that.

My other "job" in life is to serve as Academic Dean of Christian Life College in Madison.  This small Christian college is spiritually, intellectually, a great challenge.  I was blessed with a great class last semester - and part of the busy life I've been living has come from the end of the semester projects I needed to grade and the final grades I needed to get posted.

I've been busy...lots of good things.
Yesterday I was cleaning up some things and I started realizing that I've been doing lots of "Martha" things of late...not many "Mary" things.

Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Don't get me wrong, I love fact, I relate to her a lot!  I love being busy, and I love the projects, the working, the doing, the completing satisfaction part of, my confession:  I love those things a whole lot more than the sitting still at the Lord's feet.

This morning I awoke with a thought from the book of Hebrews.
Hebrews 4:4 (NIV)
4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work."
and again, a few verses later:  Hebrews 4:9-11 (NIV) 
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God;
10 for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.
11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

Does it strike you as it does me that we are to "make every effort to enter that rest"....
Who says entering into rest is easy?
Like all of God's things we are called to "enter" be intentional, and to make the effort.
Resting is a part of our life - and not just in sleep.
Resting is God's antidote to a "presumptive belief of our own importance".

We need more Sabbaths not less.