Thursday, September 29, 2016

Inside the Cave of The Apocalypse

This past week I got to do something that I have wanted to do for years--I visited the island of Patmos, and the traditional site where the book of Revelation was born.  In the first chapter of Revelation we find these words from John the Revelator: 
 I, John, with you all the way in the trial and the Kingdom and the passion of patience in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of God’s Word, the witness of Jesus. It was Sunday and I was in the Spirit, praying. I heard a loud voice behind me, trumpet-clear and piercing: “Write what you see into a book. 
Tradition teaches that it was John the Evangelist, the youngest of the disciples of Jesus, who received the Revelation while he was in exile on Patmos.  These traditions teach that he would climb the highest hill on the island to pray inside a cave.  It was in that cave that he saw the vision that would become the Apocalypse or the book of Revelation.  

We visited The Cave of the Apocalypse while we were on Patmos.  The Greek Orthodox Church established a monastery on the site of the sacred cave over 1000 years ago.  The site had been a place of worship for almost a millenia before. 

The sanctuary built around the Cave was dimly lit by candles and a couple of weak electric chandeliers.  The walls were completely covered by paintings, elaborate gold and silver icons and other adornments.  The smell of incense was overpowering.  

The guide told us that we would see two niches in the cave--one where St. John rested his head while he prayed, and another where he would sit.  As I walked by them, I felt something stir inside of me.  My usual skepticism was replaced by the power of reverence--the kind of reverence that comes when you realize that you are just one small part of a much bigger thing.  

For nearly two thousand years faithful Christians have been worshipping on that site--a site where even the most jaded person would have to admit something happened.  When that realization hits you, it isn't easy to shake.  I gazed on the walls of the cave in awe, with my eyes misting over.  

I was overwhelmed by the glorious weight of the "great cloud of witnesses" that had gone before me in the Christian faith, and who I believe are still cheering us all on as we take up the mantle of knowing and showing Jesus in our own lifetimes.  

May you take great comfort in knowing you are part of something incredible--the Church, the Body of Christ, the visible hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  May you find encouragement and joy in the knowledge that those who paved the way are lifting you up even now.  

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Standing Where Paul Preached--Sharing the Story

Yesterday I stood on the Areopagus in the center of Athens, Greece.  

Merideth and I stumbled upon the site after visiting the Parthenon and the ruins of other great temples of ancient Athens, which were built on the highest point in the center of the city.  When you stand on the ruins of the Areopagus (Also known by the Romans as Mars Hill), those temples loom over your shoulder--you can't miss them. 

The Areopagus is the site where the Apostle Paul addressed some of the leading intellectuals of the city, using Athenian cultural references and their own curiosity about religion and new ideas to preach the Gospel to them.  

The Apostle Paul was astounded at the number of gods that were being worshipped in Athens, and he began sharing his "new ideas" with a twist: 
So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with. (Acts 17:22-23)
I can imagine that Paul looked over his shoulder at the temples high above him when he was witnessing to the Athenians.  Then he referenced one of the great poets of Athens, Aratus and said the following: 
[God] doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? 
While we were standing on the Areopagus we met a woman and her daughter from South Africa.  As we began talking, we revealed that we were Christians and she became very excited.  She told us she had a "testimony" and then shared with that twelve years ago her husband died--leaving her with two small girls.

She told us how she believed God had "become her husband" and a father to her daughters.  Her belief in God and her staunch faith as a Christian had sustained her through some terrible times.  

It struck me how incredible it was that nearly 2000 years after the Apostle Paul stood on that very spot, sharing the Good News of how God was redeeming all of Creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ--our new friend from South Africa was doing the same thing.  Paul had no idea of the impact that message would have. He just shared his testimony.  

And when he was done sharing, some of the intellectuals scoffed, others told him, "We would hear more of this," but one of those intellectuals became a believer--a man named Dionysus, who would eventually become the bishop of the church in Athens.  How amazing is that?

May you share your testimony with boldness and grace.  May you tell the story of how God is redeeming all of Creation, but more specifically how God has and continues to redeem you.  The culture around us longs for better news, and a bigger story.  You have that story.  You are that story.  Share your story.  You never know how God will use it.  

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

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mary, Venus & Lessons In Sacrificial Humility

On the outer wall of the Our Lady of Assumption church in medieval town of Erice, Sicily is a whole row of marble crosses that were embedded there in the early 1400’s.  

In the early medieval period, the main church of Erice was at the very highest point of the town, but because people were still practicing pagan rituals to Venus, the Roman goddess of fertility,  in the early 1300’s, the church was built on the site of the ancient temple to erase it from memory. 

Aside from some large foundation stones, the aforementioned marble crosses were the only decorations from Venus’ temple that were included in the construction of the new church. 

I got to thinking about the whole thing after I took a photo of one of the crosses.  The church was dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and this church was built on the site of Venus, the goddess of fertility.  I wondered if there was something deeper at work—even deeper than the intentions of those medieval builders. 

The worship of Venus that took place in that ancient temple in Sicily would have been filled with a great deal of perversity and fleshly indulgence.  Both male and female prostitutes would have worked at the temple, plying their trade and extracting both funds and favors from worshippers who desired fertility and health both for themselves and for their land.  

This kind of worship would have cost these ancient worshippers in more than just coin.  The cult of Venus was demanding and degrading—financially, physically, sexually and psychologically.  Venus had to have her way, or you wouldn’t get yours.  

By contrast, the church of Our Lady of Assumption was dedicated to a teenaged girl, who found favor with God, but was given incredible news.  As we know, Mary was given the unenviable task of a miraculous conception that would have been impossible to explain to anyone else.  She would be the mother of the Savior, the Messiah, but it would cost her more than she would know.  

Mary could have said no, but instead she submitted humbly to the will of God, and took on a burden few would ever comprehend.  Her humility, strength, submission and sacrifice are worthy of our admiration and emulation.   

Mary’s example is in stark contrast to the demands of the pagan goddess that was worshipped on that ancient site in Erice.  It is, in fact, in stark contrast to the many false gods that we have constructed in our own culture—materialism, consumerism, hedonism, and so on—that turn us into selfish and self-indulgent creatures.  

May you seek the same humility and submission to God’s will that Mary exhibited—dedicated to serving others, denying your own desires in favor of what is best and brightest for the Kingdom of God.  May you find purpose and meaning in service, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. 

That Beautiful Moment When Your Faith Comes To Life

We recently visited the island country of Malta which is south of Italy and just north of Tunisia.  Malta is a beautiful country, with a rich history.Wherever we went, we encountered one of the over 300 churches that were dotted throughout the island, many of them large, ornate buildings.  

One of those churches, which I’d visited on a previous trip to Malta is Shipwreck Cathedral—a church built on the traditional site where (as the book of Act relates) the Apostle Paul washed ashore with the passengers and crew of a ship, which crashed into rocks just off Malta’s coast.  

Paul told everyone on board the ship to not be afraid, that God would not allow anyone to lose their life in the wreck, and his prediction came true, of course.  The Maltese people welcomed the survivors and gave them food and supplies.  

As Paul was gathering wood for a fire, a poisonous snake bit him on the hand and refused to let go.  He had to shake the snake off into the fire.  Everyone expected Paul to be dead by morning because the snake (an asp) was one of the most deadly in the region.  But Paul didn’t die because of the snake bite, which caused no end of consternation and wonder among the people who saw the whole thing.  

The thing about visiting a place where something in the Bible happened is that it makes it more real.  When I stand in a church that was founded nearly 1800 years ago on what was believed to be the spot where Paul shook a poisonous snake off of his hand, I get this funny feeling… Although I believe these stories in the book of Acts happened, being in that spot leads me to say to myself, “This was real.  It was actually real.”  

Because there really was an Apostle Paul.  And he really believed everything he preached, taught and wrote down.  And guess what?  Miraculous stuff actually happened to Paul, and not that much longer after they happened, people were building churches on the spot where they happened, and if you’re fortunate (like I was) you might actually get to stand in that spot and feel more connected to your faith. 

I admit that I am frail, and sometimes I need to see, I need to experience, I need some proof that I can feel deep down in my bones that God is real, Jesus is alive, the Bible is true and all of this Christian stuff means something.  

But the thing that’s even more amazing is that there are scores and scores of people who believe and dedicate their lives to following Jesus with less proof and hardly any feelings like the one I’ve described.  

Jesus responded to a statement of faith by Thomas, one of his disciples who saw Jesus risen from the dead by saying, “Blessed are you that you have seen and believed.”  And then Jesus asked, “How much more blessed will those be who have not seen and still believe?”  

May you discover new ways to find your faith renewed that are based on trust and obedience.  May you find your doubts and fears stilled inside of your heart as you simply choose to experience God all around you.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Crazy-Awesome Peace

I've been doing a bit of worrying lately.  I know, I know... pastors shouldn't worry about things.  The sad fact is, even though I am probably considered a "professional" Christian, I am actually more of an amateur when it comes to most of it.  

Take the worrying, for example.  I have known what it's like to feel perfect peace about a decision I've made, a problem that is before me, a crisis that I have to face.  I know that feeling, and it's amazing.  But sometimes in the midst of dealing with decisions, problems and crises, I find myself having a hard time connecting with that feeling of peace.  

And most of the time the reason why I struggle to connect with that feeling of peace (one that should be familiar) is because I am trying too hard to control the outcomes.  When I struggle with God over control of my life, when I am trying to hard to wrestle the wheel away from Jesus... that's when things can go very, very wrong. 

Sometimes, I even start to work against God's purposes by doing dumb and self-destructive things.  I remember when I was fighting God's calling to go into ministry, I walked around morose, miserable, angry, worrying about everything.  I was working on a Master's Degree in History, and having to drag myself to class every day.  Everything in my life became a chore.  

I started seeing a therapist, who made me take a bunch of tests.  He showed me the results and pointed to a graph with his pen. "See that line?  That's the baseline that denotes depression."  I nodded.  "See this other squiggly line? That's you."  I noted that my squiggly line dipped below the baseline.  "Yep," he said to me, "you're depressed."  

I'd like to tell you that my transformation was miraculous, but it took some time for me to figure out I wasn't in control, and that worrying my self sick wasn't going to make my problems, decisions or issues go away.  

The Apostle Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Philippians:  

Do not be anxious about everything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which passes understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)

E. Stanley Jones once wrote, "We are not meant to be reservoirs of worry.  We are instead channels, attached to infinite resources."  I love that quote.  The feeling of peace that I long for when I am in the middle of worry is not far away.  The "infinite resources" that Jones is talking about come from God, who is never far from me.  And all I have to do to access these resources, and the crazy-awesome peace that come with them is to reach out my hand, so to speak.  

You are not a reservoir of worry.  You are attached to infinite resources of peace and hope.  If you are worrying today, pray that God will cover your worry with his peace.  If you are fretting over the future, ask God to give you the crazy-awesome peace that doesn't make any sense.  And then simply be still and know that God is God and you are not.  

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