Friday, July 3, 2015

At The Movies - Week One: (The Hunger Games) "Hunger For Righteousness"

This week we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled, "At The Movies."  July happens to be one of the leanest months of the year for church attendance.  It's a fact.  I think it's because it's hot.  I hate being hot, so I naturally apply it to most things.  

July also happens to be a month when lots of people go to the movies.  I actually love going to the movies.  It's something you can do in July that isn't hot and won't make you sweat.  Unless you're watching a naughty movie like 50 Shades of Grey, and then you're probably sweating because you're afraid you'll see someone from church in the theater with you.  

Although--if you are both in the theater than...  kind of a stand off.  

Anyway, we thought that it would be awesome to do a sermon series that incorporated movies into the sermons--as inspiration and perhaps illustrations, too.  So over the next few weeks we'll be using some popular films as themes for the various sermons that I'll be preaching.  

This week:  The Hunger Games

Before we dive into the meat of our sermon today, let me ask a question.  Why are movies so meaningful for us?  What is it about movies that speaks to us at what you might describe as a "gut" level?  

The first reason why movies resonate with so many of us has to do with what Psychologists call the "mirror rule."  When you have a huge screen in front of you and an actors face fills that screen, you are more likely to smile when they smile, cringe when they cringe, frown when they frown and when they scream, you feel like screaming even though you may not do it.  

Consequently, you find yourself identifying with characters, feeling their joy, loss, anger, etc.  

There are a host of other reasons why movies are so meaningful that are also connected to Psychology, but are exploited by filmmakers.  Most suspenseful, sad and emotional moments in movies have minor key music in the their background.  Minor key music makes you cry, makes you feel on edge, you name it.  Movies also crank things up to 11--even though the switch only has 10 levels on it.  The emotions are big, the music is loud, the explosions are enormous, everything is overpowering.  

The most important reason that movies are so meaningful to us is because they tap into something universal--a truth, a feeling, passion, conflict, etc.--and we make it specific when we watch. 

Throughout this sermon series we'll be practicing something that I hope you will decide to make a daily part of your life: recognizing that everything is spiritual. More specifically, we'll be learning how to find awesome Bible-based life-lessons in movies that weren't exactly created to deliver awesome Bible-based life-lessons.

Today, as I said earlier, we'll be focusing on the movie, "The Hunger Games."  If you aren't familiar with the Hunger Games, here's an official synopsis of the first movie:  
In what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on its 12 districts by forcing them each to select a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen must watch as the youths fight to the death until only one remains. District 12 Tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has little to rely on, other than her hunting skills and sharp instincts, in an arena where she must weigh survival against love.
You can also watch this quick movie trailer, which gives you a bit more: 

The capitol of the 12 districts in Panem is a thriving, prosperous metropolis. Everyone who lives there has plenty to eat, fine clothes to wear, the best of everything.  It becomes apparent as you watch the first of this series of movies that the 12 districts controlled by the capitol are filled with hungry, poor people who appear to be working their fingers to the bone just to survive.

Hunger is used as a weapon in this movie.  The elite hunger for power--and they are desperate to keep it.  The poor are kept hungry and hopeless.  Things look bad.  

The hero of the story, however, is the person who hungers for something more... Katniss knows that there is a better life beyond the misery and drudgery that is in front of her.  She tries to find small pleasures, little moments of joy in the midst of fear and dread.  And even when she is forced to compete in games of war--games of life and death--she uses her hunger for something more to compete and succeed without losing her soul.  

What Katniss came to understand is that hunger for the right things can make all the difference in how we live, and how we die.  

I thought of it like this:  An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.  

The fact that it rhymes makes it more awesome--you know it does.  

Today we're going to be looking at Matthew chapter 5 verse 6.  I know that it's only one verse, but it's a powerful one.  In fact, it's one among many powerful verses within the Sermon on the Mount, which has been the source for quire a few of my sermons in the last few months.  

This verse is part of what is known as the Beatitudes.  They are typically read like this, Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who mourn... and so on.  But the literal translation of the word "Blessed" is actually "Happy." 

The way we are familiar with hearing Matthew 5:6 is: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled."  

The literal translation is actually:  "Happy are they who hunger to be just."  Which is a lot different, once you start thinking about it.  On the one hand, you have a translation that is a bit more abstract--to "hunger and thirst after righteousness" is an action that seems to be pointed outward toward some ideal.  The literal translation to "hunger to be just" is pointed decidedly inward to very concrete ideas and actions.  

Jesus' words here challenges the idea of a rich and powerful way of delivering a kingdom.  It's subversive.  It doesn't seem to make sense.  What he's challenging his followers to adapt is a new awareness, a new consciousness about what it means to have true happiness.  

This kind of teaching that turned the status quo upside down was frustrating to a lot of people who wanted a different kind of kingdom--a kingdom built on the kind of power that came from money, strength, political sway, charisma and the like.  

But what Jesus says here is such good news for the poor and marginalized people who gathered to hear him.  They would have been drawn to this teaching because it subverted the status quo, not because it preserved it.  

Interestingly, everyone who gathered to hear Jesus speak that day was empty--whether they were rich or poor.  The only difference was that the poor knew they were empty, or at least were able to admit it.  

Empty people long to be filled, but they don't always respond well to their emptiness.  Hunger and thirst are not the issue--we are all created with hunger and thirst.  At a very basic level it's how we survive.  We eat when we are hungry, we drink when we are thirsty.  It's our body's way of telling us what it needs.  

But how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.  

And hunger goes much deeper than just base appetite for food.  Hunger is something we feel deep within our souls.  Hunger for connection to others.  Hunger for meaning and purpose in life.  Hunger to know God and to be known by God.  Hunger for authentic relationships.  And our hunger for those things is also a part of how we are created.  

Again, how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.  

This is difficult stuff to put our arms around.  I get that.  We are exploring some very deep theological and ontological issues here.  Ontology has to do with how we uncover the real meaning of things.  That in itself is enough to make my head hurt.  If we are being honest, a lot of this feels like we are stumbling around in the dark trying to find the light switch.  

Which is why I came up with that little rhyme to illustrate my main point of this sermon:  An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.  

What Jesus wanted us to understand is that it's something that starts within you, and then works its way out.  

First, Jesus said you are happy when you hunger to be just.  People who hunger to be just live illuminating lives.  You can see better next to those kinds of people.  I was sitting in a Starbucks with a friend of mine recently when a homeless man walked in.  He was a young guy--completely disheveled, dirty, carrying a backpack.  My back was to him, but my friend saw him.  Suddenly my friend stood up, interrupted our conversation and went over to the young man, who was digging through his pockets to find enough money for a cup of water.  My friend ended up quietly buying the guy the biggest frappuchino on the menu, and a cup of water.  He sat down a few tables from us and drank his drinks like a boss with a smile on his face.  

I looked down at the young man's leg, and saw that he had written something on it.  I finally figured it out.  It read, "Proud To Be A Christian."  

It made me wonder how many Christians overlooked this man, one of their own. It made me realize that I had done just that.  But not my friend.  He hungered to be just, and because he did--a bunch of us could see better that day.  

Second, I think that Jesus also wanted those who heard him to hunger for God's justice.  It's not enough sometimes to simply want to be a just person--even though that's a great place to begin.  At some point, you need to start thinking about how you can take some justice on the road.  When you begin to live an illuminating life, it helps you to shine that light in the darkness.  

There are things in your own neighborhood that need some justice.  In your community.  In your workplace.  In your school.  

I was reading the story of Charlie Coons the other day and it spoke to me about how hungering for God's justice is like shining light in the darkness.  

In 2008 Charlie Coons’s big brother volunteered at an orphanage in Jordan, and he returned with stories about dirt floors, children who had no shoes, and cold, cold nights. Charlie, 11 at the time, was so affected by this, she immediately decided to send them fleece blankets, creating one from a kit and inviting friends to make some, too. Soon the sixth-graders and other volunteers in her town had crafted 50 blankets to ship. The orphanage sent back a photo of a child with one of the gifts. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I made that blanket and now it’s helping someone,’?” Charlie says.  

Still, she was pumped to do more. Her dad, Ron, a Rotary Club member, lined up speaking engagements in their area for Charlie so she could raise money for her new group, which she called HELP (Hope Encouragement Love Peace). Her goal: to send blankets to orphanages around the world. Ambitious, yes, but just a few years later, HELP has sent some 700 blankets to nine nations with the help of several international children’s groups. Her next goal: to establish HELP chapters in all 50 states (Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California are already members). 

Sometimes all it takes is one person to start shining a light, and then before you know it there's another and another and another...  

Jesus also wanted his followers to not just hunger to be just, or to experience and share God's justice--he wanted them to think bigger.  He wanted them to hunger for a new, just world.  This was the hope that Jesus gave to his followers--that God was doing a new thing, that the kingdom of God was breaking through all around them.  

The thing is, when you hunger to be just, when you hunger for God's justice in your own neighborhood, when your light begins to shine and the darkness gets pushed back just a bit--you start to realize that the darkness doesn't have the power.  The power belongs to the light.  The status quo won't work for you any more once you see the world illuminated by the justice of God.  

At this point many people say, "But what can I do to shine the light to world?  I'm just one person.  I live in Lake County Florida.  What could I possibly do to end poverty, war, racism, hatred, bigotry... What could I do? 

Here's the good news.  God is already doing it.  You just need to join God in what God is already doing.  Maybe what you are being called to join God in doing is incredibly challenging--it could mean that you are being called to go there--wherever there is--in order use your gifts and talents to change the world. 

I know an incredible Christian couple who were successful physicians in Chicago with great practices, making lots of money.  He worked at Northwestern Hospital, teaching young doctors how to be doctors in addition to about a hundred other awesome things. She was a successful pediatrician.  They gave all of it up several years ago to move their family to Africa, where they have spent the last year or so on the front lines fighting Ebola--changing the world. 

The hungered to be just.  They hungered for God's justice and then the realized that if they wanted to be part of God's redemptive work to make a new, just world they needed to go where their light was needed most. 

You might be saying, "Yeah, well I live in Lake County Florida--and quite frankly I am just not feeling the call to Africa to go fight ebola."  I'm with you.  As inspiring as my friends story is, I am kind of glad that they got that call and I didn't.  Although, I strongly believe that when God calls you, the barriers in your heart to accepting that call get weaker and weaker until they come down. 

But maybe it's just as simple as refusing to engage in the same old tired arguments about all of the issues that are plaguing our society.  Or doing your best every day to embody peace, love, joy and hope.   Every single one of us can do that.  Every day.  

There's a line in the Hunger Games movies that is quoted by all of the rich and powerful who send the poor into the games to fight to the death.  They say, "May the odds be ever in your favor."  

I leave you with this bit of wisdom that helps us to reframe that a bit.  For those of us who hunger to be just, who hunger for God's justice around us and all throughout this world--for those of us who believe that the best way to fill that hunger is to live by Jesus' example...  The odds are already in our favor.  

Evil doesn't get to win.  And if you put your faith in trust in Jesus--you've already won.  

Shine your light.  

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Prayer - Week Four: "When Do I Pray?"

When I was a kid I thought that the only way you could really pray properly was if you were kneeling with your eyes closed and had your hands folded in front of you.  I guess I got this impression by watching people in the churches we went to when I was growing up.  Sometimes when we would pray for things at home, my parents and I would kneel in the living room, by our bed or in front of a chair, depending on where the prayer happened to be taking place.  

There's probably something to this that I am totally missing.  Lots of people feel the urge to kneel when they pray, and I am totally supportive of them when they do.  If keeling to pray works for you, then go for it. The problem I have when I kneel to pray is that I tend to fall asleep.  I realize this probably makes me a bad Christian or something, but there you go.  

It's uncanny.  As soon as my knees hit the floor and I place my head upon the bed, couch, chair, pew or whatever... I start to grow weary.  Before you know it whatever I am praying tends to become a mishmash of thoughts.  My mind wanders in those moments and I find myself drifting away.  

This plagued me to no end.  In Proverbs there is a verse that describes what a lazy and feckless person would say--the kind of person who can't stay awake whilst kneeling and praying, I presume.  It says, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep."  Then there's Jesus giving the disciples what for because they couldn't stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane.  I felt like I couldn't win.  

I thought that the way through my issue was to find moments throughout the day to plan for prayer.  I downloaded an app for my iPhone that would remind me periodically throughout the day when it was time to read from what is called the Daily Office---daily, scheduled prayers that I could read right on my phone. I found myself struggling even to do this much.  No sooner than I would start to read the prayers on my phone--I would feel my mind wandering, and would start to get drowsy.  

I felt bad about this for years until I heard a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, John Ortberg.  John Ortberg is the pastor of one of the largest Presbyterian churches in America, he worked at Willow Creek Church, which is one of the largest churches in America, and he's written like ten books that have become bestsellers.  

And he suffers from the same malady that I suffer from:  When he kneels to pray, his mind wanders and he falls asleep.  When I heard this, I actually said out loud: "ThankyouJesus!"  Because for the first time someone who I thought was a better Christian than me, was admitting that they weren't.  Or something like that. 

At this point, you are starting to wonder if I have a screw loose.  Probably.  

Still, there is something inside of me that has always struggled with what to do with prayer--and more specifically, when and how to pray.  

There is a pesky verse that has always given me trouble in this regard.  You can find it in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.  

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

When I was a kid, I memorized verse 17 as "pray without ceasing."  I looked up the Greek word that is translated "continually" and "without ceasing."  It's he word adialeiptos, which literally means incessantly.  

I know lots of people try to parse these words of the Apostle Paul out a bit in order to soften them.  But what if the guy actually meant that we should pray incessantly?  He typically chose his words with care and wisdom, so maybe he meant it.  What if it was more than just having an "attitude" of prayer as my poor Sunday school teachers would try to explain to me when I asked this same question when I was a kid?  What if it was more than simply "being ready to pray" all of the time. 

What if, Paul actually meant that we should pray all of the time?  

My main point for this sermon is actually predicated on this very idea.  You see, I believe that a vibrant prayer life is possible when we learn to pray continuously.  More on that in a moment.  

But first...  Let's spend some time talking about the Science of Breathing. 

You're breathing at the moment, and chances are you didn't think about this fact until I mentioned it.  From a physiological point of view, your breathing is controlled by the respiratory center of your brain, specifically the medulla, which is located closest to your spine, and even more specifically through the pons, which is a part of your medulla.  You don't think about breathing--until you do.  It happens automatically.  You have to think to control it, to stop it, to quicken it--unless your quickening breath is a result of some automatic impulse. 

Interestingly enough, the atmosphere plays a role in your breathing as well.  The atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs, which prompts a response, the kind of response that you experience automatically.  The thinner the atmosphere, the harder it is for you to breathe and get enough oxygen, so your breath tends to quicken a bit if you aren't used to high altitude.  

When you exercise, you experience an increase in carbon dioxide which needs to get flushed and so your body automatically begins to work to do just that through rapid breathing and other things.  

The reason why it's hard to hold your breath, why you have to work at it, is because your body is not only telling you that you need to breathe, the atmosphere around you is pressuring you to breathe as well.  

And here's where we start to tie in prayer with what we know about the Science of Breathing.  Because in the end, everything is spiritual, my friends.  Everything. 

Prayer is like breathing. 

It is the natural, automatic response to the atmospheric pressure of God's presence in the world, and God's very DNA inside of you.  

What would it look like if we lived every waking moment in awareness that God is with us?  I mean really with us.  Present all around us.  In us. Through us. Here. There. Everywhere.  The ancient Hebrew understanding of this was the kavod the "heaviness" of God, the glory of God that is all around us, all of the time--even though we might not be fully aware of it.  

So, what would it look like?  What if we lived every waking moment in awareness of God's presence.  What if we opened up ourselves up to the God-consciousness around us, and allowed ourselves to experience God-surrender, where we just allowed the presence of God to give us breath?  

Would it look like, sound like prayer?  Constant, abiding, never-ending prayer?  Prayer as automatic as ubiquitous as breathing?

At this point some of you might be struggling a bit with this.  I get it.  I still do, to be honest.  

Here's what you need to know to engage in this kind of incessant prayer.  

First, Prayer isn't something I generate--it's something I join in.

Barbara Brown-Taylor, one of my favorite authors, wrote about the story of Jacob and his vision of the ladder that went to heaven.  He was running from home, fearing for his life, and stopped in the middle of nowhere--in the desert, sleeping with a stone for a pillow.  And he has this unbelievable vision of a ladder from heaven with heavenly beings going up and down.  He woke up and said, "Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place and I didn't know it." 

Brown-Taylor asked the question that almost none of us ask when we hear this fantastic story--a question that kind of burns inside of me now that I've heard it.  She asked, "What if God can drop a ladder anywhere?"  Isn't that the point of the story.  It didn't matter where Jacob went to escape his past, or to hide from his future.  God found him.  Because the "conversation" that God is having with us is always happening, everywhere.  

Brown-Taylor describes it like radio waves that are humming invisibly all around us, and only when we are tuned to the right frequency will we be able to hear them.  

Second, Prayer changes things. 

I know that this is one of those trite aphorisms that people like to share on cards, emails and Facebook posts.  Despite the cheesy sort of way it's used in our culture, it happens to be true.  

You see, when we begin to be more aware of the presence of God all around us and the voice of God speaking all of the time in thousands of ways every day, we start to see even the most mundane things we are doing in a different light. 

Anything done in the presence of God is an act of prayer.  

Now before the legalists have their way with me--I need to say that "anything" should mean "anything that is good, pure, lovely, uplifting, beautiful, creative, life-giving..." you get the picture.  

But when we shift our thinking along these lines, even the simple tasks of the day, eating, showering, going to the restroom, driving, working... all of it can become an act of prayer because it's done in the presence of a God who values the material world within which we live.  God has shown us through his willingness to take on human form in Jesus Christ that matter "matters."  

So prayer actually does change things--from ordinary to extraordinary.  

Third, Prayer changes us. 

There's a great story in the book of Genesis where Abraham, the patriarch, is bargaining with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God declares that because of the cities wickedness, he has planned on destroying them.  Contrary to what most people think, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was actually a lack of hospitality and common human decency, but that's a whole other sermon.  

Abraham says to God, "listen if you find 50 righteous people in those cities, will you spare it?"  God says that God will.  But then Abraham decides to hedge is bets a bit.  "Okay, well how about ten righteous people?"  God says that's cool.  

The fact of the matter is that, according to the story, there weren't even ten righteous people to be found. God knew this, of course.  Lots  of people have used this passage to try to prove that you can change God's mind when you pray.  I don't see it that way at all.  God's mind never changed.  What changed was Abraham's way of seeing things.  It wasn't about changing God's mind, it was about changing Abraham's mind to God's.  

The longer we live our lives as though the presence and voice of God are all around us, the more our prayers begin to change as well.  We begin to see ourselves differently.  We realize that all of the things we've been pleading God to fix, might not ever be fixed, or shouldn't be fixed at least in our way of understanding.  

I've had my fair share of bargaining prayers with God.  Sometimes they worked out and sometimes they didn't.  The funny thing is, when they did work out I often didn't keep my end of the bargain.  It's in those moments that I realize what God's grace is all about.  I also realize that my ways are not God's ways, and it would be a whole lot easier for me to just try to see things as God sees them.  

There's probably more to this, but I think we're on to something here.  You see a vibrant prayer life is possible when we learn to pray continuously.  And praying continuously is a lot like remembering to breathe.  

I've taught this before, but it bears repeating.  Some ancient Jewish scholars believed that the name of God was actually derived from the most elemental and fundamental thing that humans do from birth to death.  Breathing.  When we breathe in we say "Yah," and when we breathe out we say, "weh!" "Yahweh!"  Breathe in... breathe out.  You speak the name of God.  Breathe in... breathe out... You pray without ceasing.   Breathe in... breathe out.  All of the time.   Breathe in... breathe out.  Because of the presence of God both within you and without out.  

Breathe in... breathe out.  

Remember to breathe.  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Responding to the Supreme Court Decision on Same-Marriage: A "More Excellent" Way

In an historic decision that was handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States essentially legalized same-sex marriage in America.  

As soon as I saw the news alert of the SCOTUS decision on my iPhone, I immediately thought of my many friends for whom I knew it was incredible, and joyous news.  But I also had friends in mind who I knew would be filled with anxiety and disappointment.  

It didn't take long to start seeing the reactions of both sets on my Facebook feed, text messages and emails.  The fact that I have such a diverse group of friends actually brings me joy.  To quote pastor and worship leader Carlos Whittaker, "if your [Facebook feed] only looks one way, you probably need to go make some new friends. It's better that way."  

All of this was going through my head yesterday when I was asked to be interviewed by one of our local newspapers on the topic.  Not all of the things I said during the interview actually made it into the article, but I was pleased with the bit that did:  

“For me, this is a unique opportunity for Christians and the church to do something different,” he said. “I have a unique opportunity to speak grace and peace into a situation. Typically the reaction from the (Christian community) is swift and judgmental and sometimes hate filled.” Bloder said the LGBT community was fighting so they could have marriage, which he said is taken for granted. In fact, he said the divorce rate for conservative Christians is the same rate or higher than other demographics. “A lot of Christians will say this is an assault on marriage,” he said. “Assault on marriage happened a long time ago.”  (read the entire article HERE)
I'd like to expound a bit on the quotes that made it into the article.  

First, I do see this is a unique opportunity for Christians and the church to embrace grace and peace.  Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgendered people fully expect the "Christian" response to the SCOTUS decision to be negative.  

But what if Christians did something different? What if we put ourselves for a moment in the shoes of people some of us see as "other?" What if we could feel the years of pain, isolation and exclusion that so many GLBT people have felt and continue to feel even now.  

And then what if as Christians we allowed ourselves to love, and to speak words of grace?  What if those of us who struggle with all of this said, "Even though I don't understand, and this goes against all that I have been taught to believe, I will simply love you in the name of Jesus?"   Wouldn't that be a more excellent way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ?  

Second, I also see this as a wonderful moment for Christians to focus on ways to strengthen marriages in our own communities of faith.  As I said in the interview, the divorce rate among Christians is just as high as any other demographic in America.  

The SCOTUS decision isn't an assault on marriage. The assault on marriage began a long time ago when as a society we began to embrace a culture of immediacy and selfishness--a culture that even Christians have found difficult to resist.  

Read what Justice Kennedy said about marriage in his majority opinion: 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. 
Even if you disagree with the SCOTUS decision, you have to admit that such lofty language concerning marriage is inspiring.  The fact that many GLBT citizens of our country have struggled for most of their lives to have what so many of us heterosexuals take for granted should make Christians stop and think. 

Third, I have seen my fair share of posts, and quotes by Christian leaders, pastors, pundits, etc. on the SCOTUS issue that begin with the words, "The Bible says..."  

If we begin any debate about same sex-marriage using the phrase "The Bible says..." as our first words in the debate--it's not a debate, no matter what side of the issue you are arguing.  It's a closed, dead-end, one-way conversation.  The truth of the matter is that the Bible says a lot of things that many of us Christians choose to ignore. 

Take Jesus' teaching on divorce, for example.  When asked if a man could give his wife divorce papers for any reason (which was happening in the first century, with no recourse for women), Jesus replied that anyone who gets divorced for anything other than sexual immorality, and then gets remarried, is guilty of adultery.  

Granted, I have some thoughts about that text and what Jesus was trying to do there, but still--lots of us who claim the Bible as their final authority completely gloss over that passage from the mouth of Jesus himself. Hey, I was divorced from my first wife... so...   

And then there's the strange instructions about women's uncovered hair, bangled jewelry and the like being out of bounds by BOTH the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.  I won't even try to run that one past my wife, dear reader!   

Listen, I love the Bible.  I study the Bible for a living.  In fact, I think the Bible needs to be part of this conversation.  As long as it's a conversation and not a monologue. And I think that all of us who lift the Bible up as authoritative and instructive to our lives should do so with extra humility--ready to listen, and to be formed and informed by the perspectives of our brothers and sisters of all stripes.  

Finally, to all of my friends who celebrated the SCOTUS decision yesterday, I invite you to do so with grace and forbearance for those who grieve it.  Resist the temptation to act out of triumph, which may be difficult for you to do considering how long you waited for this moment.  Still, grace is powerful and as the Proverbs teach us, "A soft answer, turns away anger."  

To all of my friends who grieve the SCOTUS decision, I invite you to also show grace.  Let your speech be seasoned with "salt," as the Apostle Paul urges Christians to speak.  And remember that you don't have to agree with someone to love them.

I love many friends who celebrate this decision, and I rejoice with them.  I love many who grieve it, and I mourn with them.  As a pastor who has the privilege of shepherding people on both sides of this argument, I need to be constantly asking myself how to show Christ in all of these deeply divisive cultural conflicts. I covet your prayers as I seek God's wisdom in my own journey.  

I will pray for you as you are on your own journey, too.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Friday, June 26, 2015

Would Jesus Fly The Confederate Flag?

Some people say that "Hindsight is 20/20." I guess it's true most of the time. When I've actually been honest about what I see in hindsight, I've benefited from it greatly.  When I've ignored it, however, I typically crash and burn.  

If we use hindsight wisely, it enables us to see things not as we would like to remember them, but as they actually are.  It gives us, if we are willing to gaze into it, an unvarnished, unblemished image of the truth.  

Which brings me to the recent debates about the Confederate battle flag, and it's removal from state flags, and from flying over state capitols.  
Here's the truth about the Confederate battle flag: Despite how some people see it as a symbol of heritage and proud Southern-ness, there are many people who see it as a divisive symbol that reminds them of a hurtful past.  
I don't want to re-hash history regarding the Confederate battle flag.  I don't see any merit in engaging in arguments about how the battle flag is about heritage.  I see no benefit in turning this debate into something that it isn't. 

What I am actually more interested in, however, is the surprisingly large number of Christians (if my Facebook feed and internet news feeds are any indication) who are defending the Confederate battle flag, and doing so in very vocal and sometimes overtly nasty ways.  
The symbols we choose to venerate tell the world what we truly value and who we really are.  
I noticed one person, who posted a decidedly angry post on her Facebook feed about how certain people are attacking her Southern heritage by trying to take her flag away. Her feed also included an inspirational Bible verse meme she had posted earlier.  You could see both on her Facebook page simultaneously.  

Like we do in far too many other cultural issues, I think that a lot of us Christians are landing on the wrong side of history on this one because we are engaging in the wrong debates.  

For Christians the issue of the Confederate battle flag shouldn't be about about freedom of speech or expression.  It shouldn't be about the supposed culture wars between progressivism and conservatism.  It shouldn't be about political correctness.  

What it should be about--is the Gospel.  

The Apostle Paul, who wrote a great deal of the New Testament wrote this about Christian freedom and how it should be used:  
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
As Americans we are free to say what we want in support of the Confederate battle flag.  We might even be free to plant one on our front lawn, stick a decal on our car, or tattoo it on our arm.    

But as Christians, we have the obligation to ask this one simple question before we do.  "Would Jesus fly the Confederate flag?"  Or more specifically to my point, "Would Jesus defend the Confederate flag on Facebook?"

For the Apostle Paul, the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was so important that he was quite willing to "become all things to all people" in order to preach it effectively.  He was willing to give up his own freedoms in order to be a more effective witness for Christ.  If he felt like something that he was doing was keeping someone from following Jesus, he would lay it down in a heartbeat. 

You can see where I am going with this. 

Regardless of how we might feel about the Confederate battle flag, the fact is it is a symbol of hate to more than a few people around us.  And as such, defending it, displaying it and venerating it is a hinderance to the Gospel.  

Two weeks ago Dylan Roof, a young, angry, white supremacist, entered Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC on a Wednesday night.  The historically black church was hosting a Bible study that evening with a handful of people in attendance, including the church's pastor.  They welcomed him in, and invited him to join them.  And an hour later, he drew a gun and began shooting.  When it was all over, nine people were dead.  

They welcomed him in.  

It would have been well within the bounds of their Christian freedom to have turned him away, shut the door, kept him outside.  But they believed the Gospel message in the Bible they were studying, and they set aside their freedoms to welcome him to the table.  

You see, the Gospel--the Good News is bigger than all of our debates over freedoms, history and heritage.  The Good News is more powerful than hate and division.  The Good News is what will keep us from wounding our brothers and sisters and tearing one another apart.  

It's time to put down the flag, and lift up the Good News.  

The Good News will save the world.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Prayer - Week 3: "Learning To Pray Like Jesus"

One of the many things I've learned about prayer is that most of us are fairly self-centered about our prayer life.  

When I was a kid we attended a church that held "watch night" services on New Year's Eve.  Basically, it was a fundamentalist Baptist New Year's Eve party spent singing hymns, listening to a really long sermon, maybe watching an evangelistic family film like The Burning Hell, and then spend an hour or so "praying in the New Year."  

I remember hearing people at the watch night service praying for Jesus to return that moment. They begged God to start the Rapture presumably so that they would be discovered in church when Jesus came back.  They would also spend a lot of time praying for friends and family members who weren't saved, and for God to punish the wicked, unrepentant and unchurched masses.  

I sort of prayed that God would wait to start the Rapture until after I had learned to drive and kissed an actual girl.  

I remember attending Wednesday night prayer meetings when I was a kid.  Prayer meetings in the Baptist tradition were basically like Sunday morning, only you didn't have to wear a tie.  

And we would spend about thirty to forty-five minutes actually praying for things.  People would share their prayer requests about things they needed prayer for--health concerns, wayward relatives, job issues and the like.  Sometimes in the ladies prayer circles they would offer prayer for people they wanted to gossip about, but since they were asking for prayer it wasn't really gossip.  

Maybe some of you have similar experiences with prayer and prayer meetings at church.  It can often feel really good to gather with fellow believers and pray about stuff.  

But if we're being honest, our prayer life tends to focus on our priorities--for us and the world.  We kind of see everything through our own lens.  We pray for ourselves, the people we love, the things we care about, the stuff that is important to us.  And on the surface there doesn't seem to be anything at all wrong with that.  

In fact, we teach our kids to pray in the same way.  I remember praying at night with our kids when they were little.  They would list all of the people in their life, and some of the animals, too.  I probably did the same thing with my parents when I was small.  

What we don't realize, though, is that when we were children we were subtly being taught over and over again to place our priorities ahead of God's. And then we teach the same thing to our kids, and so on and so on.  

This is the point in the sermon where you start to say, "Dude, you are seriously the biggest buzz kill of all time.  How could you be hating on praying for things that are personal? What's wrong with you, man?"

Hear me out.  It's a bit more complicated than that. 

Let me ask you a question.  What are your daily conversations with God like?  What type of things do you regularly pray for?  

I think that most of us pray for three different kinds of things.  This sort of fits with the earlier sermon I preached in this series where I talked about the three different kinds of prayers that we pray: Help! Thanks! & Wow!  So this would fall under the "Help!" category of prayer.  

The first category of things we pray for most often is what I call Parking Space Prayers.  These are the kinds of things that most people take for granted.  But some of us pray for these kinds of things.  We pull up to the mall or the supermarket and pray for a parking space, for example.  Or we pray that all of the stoplights on our route to work will be green, since we're running late.  You get the picture. 

The second category of things we pray for are Other People--at least the ones we like.  We have no problem offering prayers for loved ones, friends, extended family, co-workers we care about, the list goes on.  It feels good to offer up prayers for the people who are in our sphere of influence or who are connected to us by less than a couple of degrees of separation. 

The final category of things we pray for are the Big Things That Bother Me.  This could be the conflict in the Middle East, child hunger, poverty, anxiety over the culture wars and so on.  If it bothers me, makes me worry, causes me sadness or anger, then I want to lift that up to God.  

Can you see a pattern here?

For the most part all of the things that we are praying for are centered on... us. 

We need a chance of perspective when it comes to the way we pray.  We need a Jesus-shaped perspective, in fact.  A vibrant prayer life is possible when we learn to pray like Jesus.  

Today our conversation will be guided by Matthew 6:9-13.  Let's read: 

9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,

    but deliver us from the evil one.’

In one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' sharing this prayer with his disciples, he gives them this prayer after they ask him, "Teach us to pray."  What they meant was they wanted him to give them his special "rabbi" prayer. Every rabbi had a particular prayer that he would pray more often than any other.  This prayer was the rabbi's signature, so to speak.  You could always tell the disciples of  particular rabbi by the way the prayed.  So the disciples wanted Jesus to teach them a prayer of their own.  

It was common for 1st century Jews to pray 3 times a day.  They would pray privately, but they would also pray in groups of ten men--called a minyan.  But the end of the first century, Christians had adopted the same kind of schedule.  

Jesus began his signature prayer with "Our Father," which was a popular wayto begin a prayer, most commonly used in a series of prayers known as the 18 Benedictions, which would have been widely disseminated in the Galilee regions where Jesus taught and preached.  

This prayer, which we know as the Lord's Prayer, has a lot in common with an Aramaic Prayer known as the Qaddish, a prayer that was most often prayed as a prayer of mourning for the dead. 

Jesus proclaims at the beginning of the prayer that God's name should be hallowed, or made holy.  The implication here in this prayer as it was in all of the other ancient prayers where it appeared is that God's name is hallowed when you live rightly.  If you don't, then God's name is not hallowed.  

Why am telling you all of this?  Well, I want to make it clear that Jesus wasn't inventing something new when he gave his disciples this prayer.  What he was doing was giving language to the experience of his disciples.  In other words, he was giving them a way to speak that would reflect what they were experiencing as they followed him more completely.  

The structure of this prayer, it's emphasis right off the bat on God, and God's sovereignty, power and glory, it's focus on the kingdom of God... all of these things give us clues as to how Jesus prayed, and wants us to pray.  

This prayer was meant to help us align our priorities with God's.  

Because when our priorities are God's priorities--we begin to see our priorities differently.  And it changes the way we pray.  

Jesus goes on in this chapter to give his followers a bit more information on what it means to put God's priorities at the top of your own list.  He tells his disciples that God knows what they need.  And God wants them to have good things.  "But," he said, "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all [the things you need] will be added to you as well."  

What this means is that if we pray for and seek the things of God, if we are living our lives in such a way that we want to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth, to show the world what it looks like when God gets what God wants, we soon find that all of the things we need, the things we are praying for are in line with God's kingdom, too.  

You could say that when you are constantly seeking the kingdom of God, you find that you might even be the answer to your own prayers.  For example, you find yourself praying for healing, praying for a better job, praying for peace of mind...  

But then you make a shift in your thinking and with your life, your actions, your thoughts you seek to see God in the world, and to help facilitate the in breaking of God's kingdom.  And suddenly those things that you thought were so important, so desperate don't seem to be any longer.  And sometimes you discover new ways to see those issues, those problems--and to find a solution you never thought of before. 

Sometimes letting go of what you think you want, helps you to take hold of what you really need.  When your priorities get realigned to God's priorities, your prayer life can be transformed. 

Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 national championships at UCLA, would always start the first day of practice for a new season in the same way.  He would gather all of his players--even the veterans--in the locker room and he would teach them how to properly tie their shoes.  Every single one of those players came to UCLA because they wanted to win a national title.  Wooden wanted them to put on their shoes the right way first.  

Grantland Rice, a sportswriter and poet, wrote about these Wooden-coached teams in his poem "How To Be A Champion."  He wrote: "You wonder how they do it, You look to see the knack. You watch the foot in action, Or the shoulder of the back. But when you spot the answer, Where the higher glamours lurk, You'll find in moving higher, Up the laurel-covered spire, That most of it is practice, And the rest of it is work."

Wooden knew that in order to win, his players had to realign their priorities.  They needed to learn to focus on the details, the fundamentals of their game.  They needed to rely on one another.  And they needed to put the glamorous stuff out of their heads.  When his teams realigned their priorities with his, they won. 

When you have a kingdom mind set your prayer life reflects it.  You might very well continue to pray for the things that are near and dear to you, but you do so with a different perspective.  You might even still pray for the same things--parking space prayers, other people, big things that bother you---but you do so with a kingdom mindset.  

You might say, "God give me good health, so I can better serve you and your kingdom." or "I pray for my friend who is in pain, O God, give them peace so that they will more clearly see you in their life."  "God, prosper me in my life and work so that I can be more generous and share the love of Christ through my gifts."  

This is the modern equivalent of saying, "THY kingdom come THY will be done ON EARTH as it is in HEAVEN."  

Are you willing to try this?  Are you willing to truly learn to pray with a kingdom mindset?

Because a vibrant life is possible when we learn to pray like Jesus.