Sunday, March 27, 2016

"It Gets Better...It Gets Better"

I love my pastor friend Jim. He is so full of funny stories. There's not a Wednesday morning clergy breakfast that passes by without Jim lifting our spirits with some funny story of some unusual thing that happened to him. If you listen to Jim's stories long enough, you might think that he has more weird experiences than anyone in the world. But I don't think that's the case. I think he has mostly normal experiences like the rest of us, with a few unusual things mixed in. But it is his weird attitude and perspective, rather than the actual experiences, that makes everything seem comical. Jim can take an everyday occurrence and make something special out if it. He can take an unusual experiences and make a stand-up comedy routine. His catch phrase, as he rubs his hands together in delight is, "It gets better... It gets better!"

Mark's gospel is the same way, when the writer gives the narrative of Jesus' victory over death. Now, the resurrection of Jesus was far from an everyday occurrence. Jesus had resuscitated people as a regular part of His miraculous ministry, but resuscitation and resurrection are very different things. Resuscitation is breathing life into an inert body, restarting the heart, getting the blood pumping again. As remarkable as that is, with modern medicine, it's also commonplace to us. Resurrection is something entirely different. Resurrection is not just reanimation. It's transformation. It's the energy of God so filling a dead person that they are completely changed into a glorified and eternal form. This is what happened on Easter Sunday. It was as if God was taking the disciples' despair and saying, "It gets gets better!"

This is what God does in the dark places of our lives. When death seems to rule and destruction tries to reign, God speaks life to our souls and whispers, "It gets gets better!" Just as God through Jesus brings life out of death, so the Lord speaks rejuvenation to those tomb-like spaces in our lives, whispering reassurance and resurrection. Yet, sometimes, even when God works a miracle of renewal in our hearts, we don't even know what to do with it. Like the disciples in Mark 16:8, we experience a miracle and then, instead of beginning to operate in a new way, we run and hide, overwhelmed and afraid. This is when God, like my friend Jim, leans in and repeats, "It gets better, it gets better!"

Originally The Book of Mark ended with verse 8 (NLT): "The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened." Although true, this story lacked a good ending. It didn't have the punch that Jim's stories have, much less the impact that the first gospel ever written ought to have. So later writers came behind Mark and added a longer ending, one that proclaims that it gets better than running away and hiding in fear. The second ending of the book of Mark (v. 8b, NLT) reads:  "Then they briefly reported all this to Peter and his companions. Afterward Jesus himself sent them out from east to west with the sacred and unfailing message of salvation that gives eternal life. Amen."

Of course, this is a better ending than the first. It ends with obedient disciples rather than fearful ones. But still it lacks any true resurrection appearances of the Lord. So a third, more lengthy, ending was later added to the Gospel of Mark. Verses 9-20 describe Jesus appearing to Mary Magdelene, and again to the two disciples walking in the country. Finally he appears to the eleven disciples, upbraids them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, but then commissions them to go out and preach the good news. The book ends with the Ascension, and the disciples obediently doing what Jesus commands. "See--it gets better, it gets better!"

Sometimes your life doesn't go the way you want. The story of your life falls short of what it ought to be. The good news for you is that your tale isn't done yet. There's still time to write a different ending. God's message for you is one of resurrection and not defeat. The message of Easter is one of ultimate victory, and the reassurance that "it gets better, it gets better!"

Extravagant Worship

On Palm Sunday, the church celebrates the day when Jesus entered into Jerusalem in festal procession. Riding on a donkey, Jesus was hailed by crowds who declared him Messiah and King. They cut palm branches from the trees, waving them in their and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest![i] They spread these branches in the road, and their cloaks as well, so that the animal Jesus was riding on could walk on top—kind of like an ancient “red carpet” welcome. Their praise of Jesus was extravagant. It could even have been risky. To call a man their Messiah was to commit high treason, and the people knew it. But they how could they keep from singing His praise? Extravagant praise takes a risk. It pays a high price. But it is worth it, to show the extremity of your love.

When the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem, King David danced before the procession. He was so caught up in worship that he discarded his outer clothes so he could move about more freely. His wife, who didn’t understand his enthusiasm or appreciate his immodesty, chided him for the exhibition in his underwear. David paid a high price, in receiving his wife’s derision. But his response was, “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes.”[ii] David’s desire to worship and please God far outpaced any self-consciousness he may have had. He didn’t care what other people thought his worship looked like. That was between him and God, not between him and the onlookers. Rather than recanting his extravagant actions, David insisted that, if given half a chance, he’d do it again, and be even more undignified the next time.

Often when we come to worship, we can be more aware of the people sitting in the pew next to us than we are aware of God. Even though joy may be overflowing in our hearts, we self-consciously hold back on our expression of worship, for fear that others may think us strange. I’ve seen this in so many churches, where the Spirit of God is moving and people want to raise their hands or dance a little in worship—but they hold back because such worship is too risky. Extravagant worship just might be too costly for them, if their neighbors think they’re strange. So an upraised hand turns into a quietly upturned palm, or would-be dancing settles down to simple toe tapping. But I ask you: What are we afraid of? Are we glorifying God, or fearful of our own friends? Exuberant praise is costly—and it should be. Because a gift that costs you nothing isn’t a gift at all. Extravagant praise is risky—and it should be. Because giving yourself to God should never feel safe!

Six days before the Passover—just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He stopped by at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. He knew he had a horrible ordeal ahead of him, and he needed the encouragement of friends. Mary (the much more emotional and spiritual of the two sisters) took a jar of perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. This was no cheap Dollar Store knockoff brand. The bottle itself was made expensive alabaster. It was sealed so perfectly that the only way to open it was to break the neck of the bottle. In other words, part of the value of it was that in order to use it, you had to devalue it. Like a collector’s item that retains its value if it’s never used and kept in its original packaging, just breaking open the bottle itself was an extravagance. Then the perfume, made of pure nard, was also costly. This jar of perfume, by today’s standards and US wages, would have been valued at about $51,168.[iii] At these prices, you’d think she would have just put a dab on Jesus—but she poured out the whole bottle! When’s the last time you used a whole bottle of perfume all at once? I’m sure you never have—and especially not at such a price! But Mary was willing to give Jesus this costly gift as an expression of her love. She was also willing to bear derision for her seemingly over-generous gift. John 12:4-5, 7-8 says:
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus was saying that her gift was a blessing because it was her natural response to His overwhelming goodness to her family. Remember—Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead not long ago. Her extravagance was welcome because Jesus was worthy to receive the very best she had to offer. Her use of her own hair indicated her absolute love, and even her openness to multisensory worship. She wanted to hold nothing back, in her adoration of her Lord.

Today, I wonder—does your worship reflect an extravagant love for God? Or does it hold back, afraid of what people might say? Does your giving to God reflect a generosity in your own spirit, born out of true gratitude for what God has done for you? Or does it miserably hoard its resources for fear of future want? Exuberant worship ought to cost you something. Extravagant worship should be risky. I pray that when you worship the Lord, when you give to God, that you hold nothing back, realizing that God is worthy of all our praise, all our worship, all our lavish love.

[i] Matthew 21:9.  All scriptures taken from the ESV.
[ii] 2 Samuel 6:22

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Yielding for a Moment"

Lent is a season in which people lay down various aspects of their lives which they don’t need, so that they can focus on building up their spirits and their relationship with God, which they do need.  During Lent, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us, and ask ourselves what sacrifices we are willing to make for Him.    Jesus gave His very life so that we might be saved.  In John 10, Jesus talked about being the Good Shepherd, who would willingly lay down his life for His sheep.  But when He lays down His life, He does so with the hope of resurrection, and the promise of power and authority from God.  Jesus said:

…For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father (John 10:17-18)."  

 Jesus was able to lay down His life because He was filled with abundant life. Had He not been so filled, He would not have been able to hold onto His life so loosely or give it so freely. But the resurrection says that even death submits to the power of ultimate love.

As you consider your own sacrifices during Lent, think about giving up things that are more than chocolate or swearing or smoking.  Consider the deeper things that you need to lay down for God.  You might reword Jesus’ words for your own life in the following way:  "For this reason I enjoy the blessed Way of Christ, because I relinquish my power, ego, and agenda for a time. No one has taken these things away from me, but I lay them down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay them down, and I have authority to take them up again. This teaching I have received from My father.”

When I truly see that I have the authority to lay down my life in a difficult relationship, I don't feel violated when I allow another to dominate the conversation. It takes great strength to restrain myself when I'm irritated or to listen when I'd rather speak--but through Christ in me, I have access to that strength. Stepping back is not weakness, but an exercise of self-control and inner power. Because I have the ability to lay down my life and also have the authority to take it up again, I know that I'm not giving up, but only yielding for a moment.

We're all afraid of losing status, equilibrium, and control.  But yielding for a moment isn't losing.  It's allowing the Spirit room to breathe His peace into our hearts.  When I yield, I allow the other person space to be themselves, and to express their hearts in a different way than I express mine.  Yielding for a moment is showing God's love.  Because Jesus yielded, so can we.  So must we, if we are to love each other.

Old Order, New Covenant

Throughout the history of the Church, religious orders have been founded as a means for like-minded Christians to unify under a similar code of behavior and belief.  The Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Augustinians, and the Dominicans followed monastic rules of life and faith.  Not all the priestly orders founded were for men.  Women, too, felt a calling from God, and turned away from secular life to take up the cross.  Following the religious rules of their male counterparts, these women lived lives of holiness and chastity, serving God, helping the poor, and ministering the name of Christ to all they met.  St. Clare formed one such order known as the Poor Ladies at St. Damian.  Other convents and orders were formed by women of like faith who burned with a desire to serve God.

Not all the orders were peaceful, either.  Some priests transformed themselves into warriors, yet continued to live according to a priestly rule.  Under orders with names like Knights of the Sword, Order of the Dragon, and Hospitallers, they found a way to combine the bloodshed of battle with the banner of the cross.   They wore fearsome uniforms and vestments, so all would know who they were in battle.

Christianity has had many different kinds of priests over the centuries.  With the advent of Protestantism, many churches today have rejected the term “priest” in favor of “pastor” or “minister.”  We have done this because we believe Jesus to be our great High Priest (Hebrews 4).  Yet, I want to look more carefully at the priestly orders we have seen in our past.  I want to do this because the Bible says that we are kings and priests before God (1 Corinthians 4:8; Revelation 1:6).  If we are to be priests, then we need to decide what order in which we belong.

Of course, priesthood in the Bible is much older than the Templars or Carmelite or Benedictines.  The Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant had the duty to handle the sacred things of worship—to perform the sacrifices, to prepare the shewbread, to trim the lampstands—all the things that had to be done in order to make sure the Holy Place was holy.  This Aaronic priesthood is also called the Levitical priesthood, because it was the Levites who followed in Aaron’s rule and order.  Yet there was a priesthood older than that of Aaron.

Before the Aaronic priesthood was the priesthood of Midian.  Moses learned of God from his father-in-law Jethro, who was a fellow descendant of Abraham and the high priest of Midian.  When Moses fled from Egypt and married a Midianite woman, he spent forty years learning of God from this Midianite high priest.  No doubt the priesthood of Midian played an important role in Moses’ understanding of the God of Creation.

But there is a priesthood still older than that of Midian.  The first holy priesthood mentioned in the Bible is the priesthood of Melchizedek.  In Genesis 14 we read how Melchizedek blessed Abram as he was returning from battle.  In return, the patriarch gave the high priest one-tenth of all the spoils he brought back.  The author of the Book of Hebrews makes a great deal of the fact that the Levitical priesthood is subservient to the priesthood of Melchizedek’s order, because the Levites were (conceptually) still in Abram’s loins when Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek.  It is as if the Levites themselves were paying homage to this great high priest of antiquity.  

So, if we are going to try to find out what kinds of priests we are, we need to understand what kind of high priest this Melchizedek was.  Because he is the very first priest ever mentioned in the Bible, he is our primary example of what a priest should be.  

The first thing the Bible tells us is that he is king of Salem.  This word Salem is the word from which we get the Arabic word Salam, and the Hebrew word Shalom, which both mean peace.  So Melchizedek was the king of a place called peace.  

The second thing we know about him is that he was high priest of El Elyon, which means “God Most High.”  This is the first time we see this name for God in the Bible.  It is a different name than what has been used before.  So Melchizedek was a priest who made people think of God in a new and different way.

The third thing we know about him is that he was a priest, not by virtue of a Levitical bloodline or special training, but because of the relationship he had with God Most High.  His religion was not one of regulation, but of relationship.

These three things lead the author of Hebrews to a radical statement: “So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek (5:5-6).’”  Jesus, the Prince of Peace, gives us a new relationship with God Most High, not based on regulation, but based on relationship. For this reason, he is our High Priest.  What order is he in?  The Cistercian order?  The Benedictine order?  No—the Order of Melchizedek.  And if that’s the order Jesus is in, that’s the order I want to be in too.  The Levitical priesthood showed us that nobody is capable of keeping all the rules and regulations—that’s why they offered daily sacrifices to God for their sins.  But since Jesus became our Great High Priest, the only thing we need to come to God is relationship.  

The Jewish people based their initial covenant with God on the Ten Commandments.  Instead of relationship with God, they trusted in regulations.  These were expanded into 613 commandments before it was all said and done.  But Jeremiah 31:31-34 says, 

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The Melchizedekian priesthood is an old order.  Under the old order, Jesus gives us a new covenant—one where the laws of God are written on the heart, not on tablets of stone.  Where is God’s law written for you?  Is it alive with every beat of your heart, or is it cold as granite, entombed in the pages of your Bible?  Jesus calls us to an old order with a new covenant where we become priests of peace, willing to think about God in new ways, and interacting with God and others on the basis of relationship, not regulation.  Are you willing to be that kind of priest?  Are you ready to be part of that old order, and that new covenant?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Bruised Reeds"

Are you good at fixing things that are broken? I’m sure not! It seems like every time I try to repair the car by myself, I break itself worse than it was before. I remember years ago when the starter went bad on my car and I tried to fix it alone. I bought the new starter and referenced a book that told me exactly what to do by using terminology that could only be understood by someone who already knew what to do. So, following directions that I did not clearly understand, I attempted to replace my starter. Only I didn’t get the teethy things aligned properly aligned with the geary gizmo. So when I started the car, both the new starter and the gizmo broke! Of course, I threw my tools, screamed a lot, and hired a mechanic to fix it.

One man I knew lived by the motto, “If you can’t fix it with a little hammer, get a bigger hammer.” But some things can be fixed only with know-how and finesse, rather than brute strength or force of will. Angrily trying to hammer a screw into a piece of wood doesn’t work, and neither does trying to fix a broken world with the wrong tools. The problem is that people have been trying to use tools like politics and brutality and force and coercion for thousands of years, and we just haven’t learned that there has to be a better way.

God’s better way is the way of love. In the forty-second chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks on God’s behalf, saying:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
(Isaiah 42:1-4 NRSV)

Many have identified this “servant” as the Messiah. Certainly, Jesus fits the bill. Full of tenderness and compassion, Jesus followed the way of love, and taught the way of love to everyone who would listen. Unlike me when I threw my tools, Jesus didn’t raise his voice in anger for all to hear. He exercised a gentle spirit in order to bring healing to those who needed it.

Isaiah says, “A bruised reed he will not break.” Sometimes when you have a tomato plant, the weight of the tomatoes or the wind will cause the branch to partially break. Instead of breaking off the damaged piece, you can splint the plant to strengthen the weak place and encourage growth and healing. Isaiah continues, “A dimly burning wick he will not quench.” If you have a fire that has mostly gone out, you might decide to snuff it out entirely or you could choose to treat that smoldering wick with TLC and fan it back into flame. The “servant” in Isaiah is the kind of person who would rather bring healing and restoration than to destroy that which is weak and struggling. Maybe you have people in your life who are just so damaged that they make relationships difficult. They are like bruised reeds or smoldering wicks. You can choose what to do with them—to write them off completely or to be like Jesus and treat them with some TLC and bring healing.

While some identify the “servant” as the Messiah, many say this is not one person at all, but all of God’s people. In verses 6-7 (NRSV), God says:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

This is not just the job description of Jesus. It is the task of every believer to follow the way of love and to bring healing and restoration to the bruised reeds of the world. This means the poor and prisoners, the outsiders and the oppressed, the damaged and distressed. You might think these people in your life are just too broken to make them worth fixing, but to call yourself a Christian means to be like Jesus and do the things that He did. It means that you (and not just He) are the light of the world. The bruised reeds and smoldering wicks take gentleness, but that is one of the fruit of the spirit that Jesus gives to us.

Recently I had a conversation with a self-righteous Christian who was so morally outraged at another person’s sin that they advocated the church treating them with condemnation and contempt rather than gently assisting them to make better choices and to improve their life. This person reminds me of myself trying to fix the broken starter on my car—angrily trying to force things together rather than simply approaching the situation with know-how, finesse, and love. In their righteous conviction, this person ends up throwing their tools, raising their voice, and being about as unchristlike as they can be, all the while breaking things worse than they were before. But those with a servant’s heart won’t break bruised reeds or snuff out smoldering wicks. Instead, they’ll bind up the brokenhearted and set the prisoners free. I pray that you’ll be such a servant, and that God will use you to bring light to the world.