Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lessons From The Lobster

One of the most often-asked questions I get asked as a pastor has to do with pain and suffering. In my experience,  people who are going through difficult seasons almost always want to ascribe some kind of meaning to what is happening to them.  

But sometimes, there doesn't seem to be any meaning to ascribe.  

"It seems so pointless sometimes," a church member, who was going through a very rough patch of life told me once.  "I am fine with accepting God's will, and I get that sometimes stuff just happens, but this just feels meaningless to me.  It's like God's cruel joke."  

In the past I have been guilty of answering these kinds of questions with platitudes.  "If God brought you to it, then God will get you through it," comes to mind.  

There's truth in platitudes, don't get me wrong.  But it seems to me that what we need most in our valley-of-the-shadow seasons is to be able reframe our suffering and hardships in a way that leads us to a deeper connection to God.   

I read recently that in the first year of it's life, a lobster will shed it's shell up to fourteen times.   Shedding it's shell takes the lobster about ten days, and during that time when it's naked, vulnerable and without any armor it will grow seven percent.  

When we go through seasons of loss, hardship, tough times, pain and suffering we often find that the "armor" we've constructed on our own (a false sense of safety, security coupled with our own strength) falls apart. I know that feeling all too well.  

But, almost every moment of spiritual growth in my life came after a season of shadow.  After I've experienced hardship and suffering, I have discovered a deeper sense of God's presence.  I've drawn closer to God and stronger in my faith after I've known vulnerability and seen my self-constructed armor disintegrate.

May you find in the midst of your hard times a sense of God's real presence in your life.  May you find that the meaning you seek within the season of shadow is the strength you gain through your full and complete reliance on God in the midst of it.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

It's Your Move

 "Unless you move the place where you are is the place where you will always be."  
- Ashleigh Brilliant 

I'm moving again.  

I calculated the other day that Merideth and I have now moved 22 times in 25 years of marriage.  Within the last year, we moved three times, including one that took us across the country.  

This particular move is across the street, though.  Literally, the house I am moving into is right across the street, and one house down.  It's a miracle how we got that house--the house where our entire family, including my parents will be living.   

I'm thinking that this move I am making now needs to be the last move I make for a very long time.  I am also thinking that I need to rent a huge dumpster and get rid of a bunch of stuff.  

Additionally,  I am realizing that I've been wearing the same work clothes for two days straight. This is not a good trend.  

All this moving caused me to recall a book by Reggie Joiner that I read some time ago.  In his book, Joiner talked about how (even though we make lots of moves in our lifetime) we were created to make one primary move: a move toward God.  

Joiner writes, "When you move toward God, it has a ripple effect on every other aspect of your life."  

I have known this to be so true for me.  Every single time I have sought God's will and God's way... Every time I have first moved toward God before all else... it's made an incredible difference in every aspect of my life--particularly in my relationships with the people around me.  

This is why Jesus declared that the "first and greatest" commandment was to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."  

This first move toward God opens your life up to the second part of the commandment, which is a move (Joiner's ripple effect) toward others.  Jesus outlined this by saying: "The second is like it.  Love your neighbor as yourself."  

May you move toward God today before you make any other moves.  Dedicate yourself to pursuing God first and foremost in your life, and then prepare yourself for the incredible ripple effects that will happen next, and the people you'll be moving toward as well.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Parable of the Sower

Today we're going to continue the sermon series  "The Divine Storyteller."  This series is focused on a rethinking of some of the more challenging parables or stories that Jesus told.  

Whether it was a city high on a hill, two women grinding grain or---as we'll see today--a man planting seeds in a field, Jesus knew how to draw his audience in to his stories by using everyday, common and ordinary things that he could see around him to teach deep and abiding spiritual truths about the kingdom of God.  

This week we're going to be exploring a parable that is fairly well-known but in many ways underestimated in common Christian culture: The Parable of The Sower.  This parable truly causes us to have to confront the truth about who we really are.  

In fact, before we dig into the text today, let me ask you a question.  How would you want to be remembered after you die?  As you think you are or as you really are?  

Last week I read this fascinating story about a guy named, Leslie Ray “Popeye” Charping, who died Jan. 30 of cancer.  He was 74, a veteran and a former Navy boxing champion who lived in south Texas--Harris County.  

Charping lived, the obit reads, “29 years longer than expected and much longer than he deserved.” It then notes that the man left behind “two relieved children and countless other victims.”

The punching continues.

“At a young age, Leslie quickly became a model example of bad parenting combined with mental illness and a complete commitment to drinking, drugs, womanizing and being generally offensive,” according to the obit.

Charping was arrested several times during his life, according to Harris County court records. His first conviction came in 1979 when he pleaded guilty to assault.

He also pleaded guilty in 2008 to assaulting a family member by pouring hot liquid on his then-wife of 40 years. The next year he pleaded guilty to violating the resulting restraining order by calling another family member and threatening to kill her, the Chronicle reported.

“Leslie's hobbies included being abusive to his family, expediting trips to heaven for the beloved family pets and fishing, which he was less skilled with than the previously mentioned," the obituary read. "Leslie's life served no other obvious purpose, he did not contribute to society or serve his community and he possessed no redeeming qualities.”

And finally, the knockout punch to eternity as the family applies a final burn.

“With Leslie's passing he will be missed only for what he never did; being a loving husband, father and good friend.  No services will be held, there will be no prayers for eternal peace and no apologies to the family he tortured. 'Leslie's remains will be cremated and kept in the barn until the family donkey's wood shavings run out.

"Leslie's passing proves that evil does in fact die and hopefully marks a time of healing and safety for all."

Again, how would you want to be remembered?  As you are?  Or as you should be?

You see most of Jesus' stories had to do with the kingdom of God---demonstrating not just how the world is, but more importantly the way the world ought to be and will be when God ultimately gets what God wants.  

Jesus asked his followers to step into a life following him that would embody the kingdom and reveal the shalom of God to the world.  And his request to his followers was a simple one--he only asked three basic things of them:  Hear. Understand.  Do.  

Jesus taught time and time again that it's not enough to hear his words---it's not even enough to hear and understand his words.  Only when you hear and understand Jesus' words, and then do what Jesus' words compel you to do will you be living into the hope of the kingdom of God, right here and now on this side of eternity.  

So you can live your life as you ought to--as you were meant to live it--in abundance and fullness and joy.  

But for so many of us, our hearts are not fertile ground to receive the words of Jesus.  We want to pick and choose which words, to begin with and even then we struggle to do what Jesus bids us do if we are to follow him. 

We can even proclaim our faith all day long, seemingly pledging our loyalty to Christ, but not ever show that Christ's words have shaken us up, turned our lives upside down and transformed us forever.  

I want us to hold on to this one very important idea today:  The Parable of the Sower teaches us that the kingdom of God grows best in soil that is soaked in transformation. 

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 

The Sower in this story is not so subtly Christ himself.  He comes as a sower of seeds, not a warrior on a horse.  He comes gently spreading his Gospel, not with might and worldly power.  And his words fall on everyone.  Listen to this:  

4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Seed in the first century Near East would have been cast by hand, or spread from a special bag that had holes thrown over the back of a donkey.  Sometimes it would have been sown on unplowed land to be plowed under later. 

Jesus says that the good soil produced a bumper crop because an average yield would have been ten-fifteen fold.  

Later Jesus explains the parable in detail to his disciples: 

So, there's four types of people: 

1.  Those whose lives are rocky places on the path where birds come and eat it up.  These are the people who hear the words of Jesus, but don't really think they're for them at all.  They don't really care to understand in other words.  

2.  Those whose lives are in thin soil, who hear the word and understand it, but lack the depth to do anything about it.  They end up doing nothing with their faith so it dies on the vine, shrivels into non-existence.  

3.  Those whose lives are choked with thorns.  These are people who hear and understand, but end up doing the wrong things.  They charge off in the wrong direction, most-often pursuing self-serving ways of living and being.  They get choked by the cares of this world, the distractions around them. 

4. Finally, there are the people whose lives are filled with good earth.  These are the people who hear, understand and do the right things.  

Hear. Understand. Do. 

Basically, Jesus is saying "Obedience and perseverance will lead to true transformation."  It's not just a head thing--it's a heart thing.  Your inside needs to match your outside when it comes to following Jesus.  He's looking for followers, not fans.  

And the words of Jesus---the seed that he is sowing--they are falling on us all of the time.  Every single day, the words of Jesus land upon us to grow us, and move us--provided the soil of our life is transformed and ready to receive them.   

I've got four pots of soil here.  And I have a question.  What kind of soil are you?

Are you the person in the rocky path?  The kind of person who shows up here and hears this stuff, but thinks it's for other people?  Every time you hear a challenging sermon from the words of Christ, you're thinking of all the people in your life who should be hearing it.  Except you.  

Maybe, for whatever reason, you've got it in your head that you aren't good enough to get this whole Christian thing, but you're glad it gives other people some joy.  Or maybe you think you've already got it all figured out---even though you don't.  

Are you the kind of person who has some shallow dirt?  You used to be excited about following Jesus.  You used to be fired up about your faith.  And then you got your feelings hurt in church.  Or you had something bad happen in your life--you experienced a tragedy and everything you thought you knew was called into question. Or you're just stuck in a rut, not really feeling the joy of your salvation.  

Are you the kind of person who finds yourself in the weeds?  You know all this stuff, you get it.  You've been doing this Christian thing long enough to know how things ought to be, but you've gotten busy, you're career has come first, you find yourself chasing success, or security.  Maybe you've gotten lost in addiction and it's winning.  You're living your life on your terms--the weeds are flourishing, but no much else.  

Jesus' message here divides people sharply.  Most of us don't like hearing it.  We don't like to hear Jesus lay out the ground rules about what it takes to be a disciple.  And some people want to discount this passage of Scripture because they don't care for the way it seems to delineate who's "in" and who's "out" when it comes to God's good graces. 

What we need to know, however, is that Jesus' message here is about so much more than just life in the hereafter, which is what most people tend to focus on when they study this passage.  In this passage, Jesus is focused on the here and now as well as the hereafter.  

Jesus' words are constantly falling upon us.  

"The first will be last and the last will be first..."
"If you want to save your life, you need to lose it..." 
"Love one another as I have loved you."  
"Turn the other cheek... go the extra mile... give your needy neighbor the clothes off your back..." 
"Have faith like a child."  
"Take up your cross and follow me." 
"Care for widows and orphans..." 
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself."  
"Forgive as you have been forgiven..."  
"Give to everyone who begs from you..." 
"Love your enemies... pray for those who persecute you." 
"Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven..."  

The words of Jesus---these incredible seeds of faith, life, light and truth---they are landing on the soil of your life.  

Has the soil of your life been transformed?  Has it been readied to grow?  Have you heard, and understood... and are now ready to do?    

Wherever you are today---wherever you find yourself... the rocky path... shallow dirt... choked with weeds...  You can be made new.  Your heart can become fertile ground right now, today.  

Because the kingdom of God grows best in soil that is soaked in transformation.  

Today---everyone is going to get a little packet of seeds to remind you of how the words of Jesus are constantly falling on the soil of your life.  It's up to you to tend that soil, and have it ready for planting.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

God In The Middle of It All

I've been thinking a lot lately about transitions.  Check that.  I've been thinking a lot about transitions because I've been immersed in one transition or another for almost six months.  

When you're in the middle of a transition, it's hard to put your finger on exactly how it feels, or how it's going to look on the other side of it.  

I used to wonder if people who lived through the great moments in history paused to reflect, and say things like: "This Great Depression sure is something!"  or "How about this World War II?"  or even further back, "Man, this Protestant Reformation thing seems to be really changing some stuff."

It's only when you look back that you can see all the changes and transformations a bit more clearly.  It's only with hindsight that you can see how it all fit together to get you where you were going--even though you had no idea exactly how it would all turn out. 

And when we look back, we can also see more clearly how God was at work in the midst of our transitions all along.  

Even though we don't have the benefit of hindsight in the middle of our transitional moments, we can clearly feel the presence of God in them.  That's what I long for the most when I'm going through changes.  I want to feel God's presence.  I want to experience God in very real and personal ways.  

And I think it's a deep desire for God that gives us better vision and better hearing.  Jesus often exhorted those who listened to him teach to have "eyes to see and ears to hear."  In other words, he wanted them to be alert, to be waiting and watching for the moments where God's glory was revealed.  

My wife Merideth often prays a prayer that inspires me.  She will pray, "God I am actively listening to you."  This prayer has helped her to focus more intently on her awareness of God, and to discover God's ever-presence even in the middle of the most challenging times of change.

As you go through the many transitions in your life, remember that it's not just hindsight that offers 20/20 vision.  May you not only see where God has been at work in your life, may you also see clearly where God is at work even now. May you actively listen for God's voice, speaking words of hope, love and purpose.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 



Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Days Are Long & The Years Are Short

Today I recalled something I heard a couple of years ago about the busy times when you're parenting (or grand-parenting) and hustling through life.  It went something like this:  "The days are long, but the years are short."  

That's one of the truest things I've ever heard, and some days it's truer than truest.  Right now Merideth and I are in the midst of the blur of moving three times in just under a year, kids' school and social activities, work and everything else in life.  

We have gone from one big decision to another more times than I can count this past year.  It's easy to look back and wonder where the time went, how we got here, and to focus only on those big moments, the huge things that marked our time. 

But sometimes we can miss out on the glory of God, the beauty of God's will and the joy and peace that comes from simply being fully present in the every day moments, the ordinary times---when we practice being still and know that God is God, and we are not.  

Recently, I read something Frederick Buechener wrote about those kinds of ordinary moments of glory when he reflected on the busy years of his life.  He said, "...it was the unmemorable, the apparently random and everyday ones that turned out to be the key moments."   

The other day--right in the middle of the week---we took our whole family to a park near our house where there is a wonderful little creek--just deep enough to wade in, throw rocks into or fall in fully clothed (which happened to at least one of us).  

We sat by the water, talking, laughing and then stretched out in the sun.  Merideth and I happily dozed there to the sound of the water trickling and the two littlest boys splashing and playing, our dog right in the middle of things, and our oldest boy giving warnings and brotherly advice.    

It was a random, spur-of-the-moment decision to go there that day; wedging it in between obligations to make it happen.  But, it was a so blessed and full of glory.  It was a moment when we were still, and allowed God to renew us and draw us together.  

May you seek God's glory and beauty in the ordinary moments of your day today.  May you push back against the busy-ness, noise and distractions and discover that you have more than enough time to be still and allow God to fill you with God's Spirit.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.