Sunday, March 31, 2019

Have Patience

At this time, there are two young women in my life who are expecting babies.  My daughter Lydia is looking forward to the birth of her first child in April.  Christina's one-time foster daughter Bri is due any time now.  As we eagerly await the birth of these two little ones, it's easy to get impatient.  Maybe you can identify, because you've been waiting for something good to be "birthed" in your life as well.

This morning, for no reason at all, Christina started to sing this song that she remembered from her childhood:

Then, as I sat down to have my quiet time, the assigned scriptures in my devotion were:

Hebrews 6:13-15For example, there was God’s promise to Abraham. Since there was no one greater to swear by, God took an oath in his own name, saying:
“I will certainly bless you,    and I will multiply your descendants beyond number.”
Then Abraham waited patiently, and he received what God had promised.

Psalm 27:14Wait patiently for the Lord.    Be brave and courageous.    Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

Hmmm...with all these things hitting at once, maybe God is trying to tell me something.  Do you have trouble with patience, like I do?  Has God been bombarding you with a message, through life events, through scripture, through music?  Maybe if we take time to wait patiently, we'll hear what God has to say.

Comment below if you'd like to share how God has been speaking to you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Fix Your Thoughts

Today in a case managers' meeting, we took turns standing up and sharing uplifting stories about people we had gotten housed, or positive things about our coworkers.  Each of these things was represented by a house sticker or a "thumbs-up."  These are just a few of the reminders that good things are happening around here.  I was especially blessed because one of those thumbs you're looking at represented the inspirational quote board that I keep at my desk, and change daily.  It made me smile to know that something I've been doing has made a difference for others.  

This got me thinking about all the times that I'm having a hard day, finding it difficult to find something positive.  Inevitably, God puts someone in my path who says something encouraging.  Or maybe there's a sunrise that I find uplifting, or a scripture I read in my quiet time that inspires me.  I'll be it's the same for you.  Even on the worst days, there's something to lift you up.  It's a matter of choosing where your focus is going to be.  Are you going to choose the things that bring you down, or choose the things that make you rise above the circumstance?  The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:8 (NLT)

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

In this translation, Paul says, "Fix your thoughts."  This probably means "keep your thoughts," but I'd suggest that if your thoughts are broken, fix them.  The truth is, life doesn't bring us down.  We bring ourselves down when we decide to focus on our troubles rather than focusing on positive things.  Keep your mind on things that build you up, and build others up.  And maybe, while you're at it, share those good things with others to brighten their day.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Don't Kill the Messenger

We've all heard the expression, "Don't kill the messenger."  Usually it's said by someone who is bringing you bad news, and they don't want you to take your anger out on them.  Of course, this comes from a long tradition of king doing just that--venting their frustration about bad news on the person who brought it.

If I'm honest with myself, there are probably times in my life when I have done just that.  No, I didn't pull a trigger or swing a sword, but I've definitely taken my frustrations out on those who didn't deserve it, just because they were telling me something I didn't want to hear.  Haven't you?  

Image result for head of john the baptistIn Luke's Gospel, King Herod did just that--he killed the messenger.  John the Baptizer was a prophet who not only foretold the coming of the anointed one who might threaten Herod's reign (Herod was a puppet king under Roman authority), but John also criticized Herod's decision to marry his own brother's wife.  Long story short, John's critical message ended up costing him his head.  Luke 9:7-9 (NLT) says:

When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about everything Jesus was doing, he was puzzled. Some were saying that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead. “I beheaded John,” Herod said, “so who is this man about whom I hear such stories?” And he kept trying to see him.
When I read this, I've got to ask the question--if Herod thought Jesus was John raised from the dead, why would he keep trying to see him?  Maybe he realized that he'd loosed his anger on the one person who was being the most honest with him, and he regretted it.  Maybe, after realizing his mistake, he wanted to hear more of what this messenger had to say.

When God speaks to us, we often stop our ears, not wanting to hear what's being said.  When others are critical of us, we want to kill the messenger.  But maybe the people who are the most difficult are also the people God has sent into our lives in order to teach us the lessons we don't want to learn.  You can kick a person out of your life for telling you a hard truth, but chances are that if it's something God is trying to tell you, another messenger will pop up and give you the same message.  That's what happened to Herod.  And maybe, just maybe, when he was seeking out Jesus, it's because he had enough sense to seek out the source of his frustration instead of running from it.

What message has God given you, that you didn't want to hear?  How have you avoided, ignored, or even been nasty to the people that God used to convey that message?  Here's a hint:  If you don't like the message you're hearing, learn from it so God won't have to keep repeating the lesson.  

Here's a secret not everybody knows:  I took Algebra 1 four times.  I passed it with a D the first time in high school, but figured I couldn't build on that kind of poor foundation.  So I took it a second time and passed with a C.  Then, my freshman year in college I tested into Algebra 1.  I decided to take a self-paced, self-taught class, and (wouldn't ya know), because I didn't like it, I didn't do well.  So I had to take it a fourth time.  Maybe if I'd paid attention to what Mrs. Hodges taught me the first time I took it, I'd have learned and moved on. Instead, I made excuses.  I killed the messenger, saying, "This teacher is terrible!  She's confusing!  She doesn't care if I learn or not!"  But I was wrong.  Not only was she my teacher, but she was also my friend's mother and cared about me very much.  She took time out of her own schedule to help me after class.  But I didn't listen.  Instead, if I'd focused on what I needed to learn, I'd have had much better success.

Do you find you're getting the same lesson over and over again, just from different teachers?  Maybe it's time to crack open your textbook, turn on your listening ears, and learn.  Don't kill the messenger who brings a hard truth in life--they might just be your greatest teacher.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Only Thing That Matters

What do the following things have in common?

  • Eating certain kinds of meat
  • Not eating meat at all
  • Drinking wine
  • Not drinking wine
  • Being circumcised
  • Not being circumcised
  • Touching blood
  • Not touching blood
  • Spanking your children
  • Not spanking your children
  • Having children
  • Not having children
  • Getting married
  • Not getting married

The Answer:  At some point in history, ALL OF THESE things have been seen as religiously wrong by some people, and for some people.  For example, the early church debated on whether it was wrong to eat meat if the animal had been sacrificed to an idol.  Some said it was participating in idol worship, and others said, "No--it's just meat."  For Nazirites (those who had taken a holiness vow), it was wrong to drink wine.  But some rituals for both Jews and Christians require the consumption of wine.  In the Bible, certain religious workers were required to touch blood, and they were considered holy.  Yet, other people were deemed unholy if they came in contact with blood.  These kinds of things leave a religious person in a complete quandry.  It seems that good and faithful people disagree on what ought to be basic rules of the faith.

Some Christians say that acting like Jesus means being nonviolent, especially towards children.  Others say, "Spare the rod, and spoil the child."  In the history of the church, some believers insisted that being circumcised was the only way for a man to be holy, yet others insisted it was of no value, and even that the practice should be abandoned.  For two thousand years, the church encouraged most people to get married and have children, yet there were two groups of people expected to live a celibate life: those who were ordained, and those who were gay (But you'd better not be both of those things!).

All of this leaves religious people scratching their heads, wondering what they should do.  It seems we've become very good at double standards.  Jesus had the right answer when he said that there are two rules we need to follow: love God and love your neighbor (Luke 8:27).  All the rest is details.  The apostle Paul put it this way, "If you are a follower of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference whether you are circumcised or not. All that matters is your faith that makes you love others (Galatians 5:6 CEV)."  

If you really want to be daring, you can insert your favorite religious squabble by saying, "It makes no difference whether you are _______ or not.  All that matters is your faith that makes you love others."  I had some horrified religious people when I taught a class on the book of Galatians, because it's one of the most irreligious of New Testament books.  They were upset because religion is all about following rules, keeping quotas, and making God happy by what we do or what we refrain from doing.  But radical spirituality says that the only thing that matters is not rules.  It's your faith that makes you love others.

Are you a religious person?  Are you a spiritual person?  Are you hung up on rules, or do you want a relationship with God that works itself out by loving people?  That's the only thing that matters.  And Jesus said if you love God and people, you've kept the entire Law.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Abandoned Camps

A couple of days ago, while riding with the Homeless Outreach Team, we came across a couple of abandoned camps.  There are several reasons why a person might abandon their camp.  They might have been arrested.  They could have teamed up with someone who has better equipment, and abandoned their old tent.  Unfortunately, they could have died or disappeared altogether.  Or, they could have gotten housing, and left behind the gear that they no longer needed. In this last case, an abandoned camp could be a reason to celebrate, rather than a cause for fear, alarm, or sadness.

Not to be morbid, but this makes me think of my own death.  There will come a time when I will give up this tent I'm living in, because there's a better house waiting for me.  When I'm ready to occupy that mansion, I'll have no reason to stay behind, or even hang onto this used up frame.  So I'll kiss it goodbye and fly to my new home.

In 2 Peter 1:13-14 (NIV), the apostle Paul writes:

 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,  because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 

He also says in 2 Corinthians 5:1 (NIV):

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

When it comes to those I love who have passed from this life to the next, I have a choice.  I can look at their earthly tents and grieve that they aren't here anymore.  Or I can thank God that they've found a new home that is far better than the encampment they left behind.  Instead of sorrow, I choose joy.  And I hope it's not too morbid for you to think about the day when your tent wears out.  One of these days, we'll all abandon camp.  I hope that when you do, it's because you've gone to a better home.  

Thursday, March 14, 2019

I Love You More Than Ice Cream

Today when I got home, I got this in the mail:

Since I moved from Virginia to Washington State in December, I have talked with my grandchildren on the phone, and I have Skyped with them.  Today, I received the letter pictured above in the mail.  If I've got this right, the group of three on the right is (right to left) Daddy (Joe), Eli, and Jonah.  Then the group in the middle is the girls in the nuclear family, Mommy (Emily) and Josie.  Then the group on the left is me (Papa) and Nina (Christina).  Looks like everybody's smiling and waving.  At the top, Eli (almost 6) wrote, "Dear Papa, I love you more than ice cream."

What a sweetheart!  He made my heart melt, just like ice cream!  I'm going to put this picture on my wall and when I get down, I'm going to look at it, breathe, and smile.  I'm going to reflect on the boy who loves me--on fishing and playing and snuggling and reading and laughing together.  And I'm going to let that warmth seep from my soul to my bones and energize not only my spirit but my body as well. 

See, I believe that the body and soul are connected, and when I nurture my spirit it's good for every cell in every system of my physical being.  I believe I'm made to love and to be loved--and that love sustains me.  Letters and pictures and gifts and mementos are like batteries that store love energy, to be used at a later time.  But the great thing is that those batteries never run down.  So I like to fill my space with things that remind me of those who love me, and those I love.  These things energize me.

You probably do the same.  But you might not think of it in quite the same terms.  I invite you to think of each bit of memorabilia, each note in scrawled handwriting, each photograph of a family member, as a meaningful connection to love.  If you feel down, negative, discouraged, attacked, confused, depressed, lonely, frustrated, or any of these negative emotions that can wreck your thoughts and emotions--surround yourself with reminders of love's presence in your life.  Then let love fill you like electricity.  Let it energize you, and bring you into the presence of Peace.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.(Philippians 4:8 NLT)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Sense of Entitlement

Have you lately encountered anybody who feels entitled?  Entitlement is a feeling that you deserve good things because of something special that you have done or because of something special that you are.  I've heard older people complaining that "young people today" have a sense of entitlement.  I've heard those who have plenty accusing those who have less of feeling entitled to a handout.  It seems that "entitlement" is a buzz word these days.  But I find it's also the people who are in a position of privilege who resent it when those who aren't in power begin to feel that they deserve something.  I want to ask, "What about the entitlement of the elite--those who feel that they're better, simply because they have position and power--and that because they're better, they deserve even more?"

In Luke's Gospel, a foreign officer came to Jesus the Masger to heal his servant.  He was was well-off, powerful, and carried the authority of the sword and Roman eagle.

When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his slave. So they earnestly begged Jesus to help the man. “If anyone deserves your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us (Luke 7:3-5 NLT).”

This officer was wealthy enough that he funded the building of a synagogue.  The people felt he was entitled to a miracle because of his wealth, which had resulted in his prominent and public gift.

Over the decades that I pastored churches, I encountered people who had a sense of entitlement when it came to God's favor.  They felt that they deserved God's blessing because they'd given generously to the church.  Maybe they'd put a steeple on the building, paved the parking lot, or built an extension to the campus.  Others felt entitled because they'd served the church faithfully and selflessly through the years.  Some felt they deserved blessing.  Others felt they deserved recognition and power.  But God prefers humility and a tender spirit.

It turns out Jesus did heal the centurion's servant--not because he was good, but because Jesus was good.  And that's a point to remember, the next time you feel a sense of entitlement creeping up in your own spirit.  Humans operate on a principle of what we earn and what we deserve.  God operates on a principle of grace.  Grace means God gives because of the overflow of God's generosity and love.  To be a person of grace means that I receive God's blessing knowing that I haven't earned it.  And then I care for people not because they deserve it, but because they are children of God.

Entitlement grasps to gain and hold.  Grace holds loosely, with open hands because it trusts in the goodness of a bountiful Love.  Today, I choose to remember my place.  I choose to be humble.  And I choose to receive and give God's blessing to others, which is a free gift, and never earned.  I hope you'll choose the same.

"I think I might not die now."

Nick (not his real name) was homeless until recently, when he moved into his new apartment.  He's been living in his vehicle and barely surviving for years.  Medically fragile, Nick describes himself as likely to die due to lack of housing.  And his doctors agree.  For people who rely on livable temperatures, shelter from the elements, and medical equipment that uses electricity, housing can mean life.  I am blessed to work for an organization that believes in "housing first."  What that means is, once a person's housing is taken care of, suddenly their medical needs and expenses and expenses go down.  Their mental health improves as they find themselves less vulnerable to attack.  They become less of a candidate for the emergency room or for the back of a police car.  When we help put people into livable housing, life gets better.

Today as Nick sat at my desk, I asked him how he was doing.  "Great!" he said with a smile.  "I think I might not die now."  It feels good to know that I'm working with a group of people that has helped save Nick's life.  That one sentence from his lips made my day!

In the New Testament, Jesus' brother James writes: 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17 NIV).

Whether you see homeless people on a regular basis or not, you probably have the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life every day.  What you do with those opportunities will reveal what's in your heart.  Do you claim to be a person of faith?  Then put some action behind your claims.  Don't just give lip service--give a piece of yourself to make another person's day better.  You may discover that you've saved a life without knowing it.  Maybe, because of some small gesture you've made, someone will say to you, "I think I might not die now."

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Communion Crosses Borders

Today, during Communion (Lord's Supper, Eucharist), the pastor made the point that when we take the body and the blood of Christ, we are connecting not only to God, but to all the saints.  In churches around the world, one of the things that unifies believers is this regular observance of Communion.  Throughout church history, Christians have shared this simple meal of bread and wine (or grape juice) as a sacrament or ordinance.  No wonder that since I moved 3,000 miles away from home, Communion has been a powerful moment for me. 

I've felt God's power dramatically for the past three months, worshiping and sharing the Lord's Supper at a church in Canada.  I've been brought to tears, remembering the church of my childhood.  I've felt nostalgic for the churches I've served as pastor.  But at the same time, those simple taste memories have brought a sense of community and family here in this new place.  I've heard God's gentle whisper, even across the border, saying, "These are my people."  

What's true for me is true for you as well.  If you're a Christian, then when you share Eucharist, you are not just observing a sacrament with your local congregation.  You're connecting with all believers in every nation.  You're touching all Jesus' followers of all time.  For the past two thousand years, this tradition and act of mystical union have been passed down to us.  So when you take the bread and wine, I hope it's more than a powerful taste memory for you (as it is for me).  I hope it's a connection with something greater, and with Someone greater.  Who knows--maybe the next time I take the bread and cup, I'll be sharing it with you, even from miles away.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Setting Up a Sacred Place

Here's a picture of the space where I work.  It can get pretty hectic around here, dealing with clients who are at the most stressful point in their lives.  That's why it's important for me to create some breathing space where I work.  One of the things I've done is post motivational phrases, as well as pictures of my family, on my walls, and at my desk.  I also have a message board that I can change every day, right in the entrance to my work space.  I change the message every day, with a different inspirational line or few.  My desk is at an intersection in the office, so the area gets a lot of traffic, and the message board gets a lot of people who stop and read it.  It's kind of a small sacred place that I've set up, right in the office.

In Genesis 35, right in the middle of chaotic events, Jacob has an experience with God.  To mark that sacred place, Jacob sets us a pillar and anoints it with oil.  This became a marker where generations who came after him could stop and remember that God was still speaking, and that God still cared.  It was a stone at an intersection, a message board at a crossroads in Jacob's life and in the lives of those who went to that place for inspiration.

What sacred places do you have in your life?  Do you have a place of worship, or a trout stream, or a mountain, or a favorite chair in your living room, where you can go to meet with God?  Do you have a way of marking your own private space as holy, to remind you that even in the middle of chaos, God is still speaking, and God still cares?  I encourage you to take some time to create some sacred space in your life where you can find peace, and share that peace with others.

"Breathing Space"

When I was a kid, my brother and I were always wrestling with each other.  We didn't actually fight much--our goal was to see who could pin the other down and dominate the other.  Being the youngest, I generally lost.  To this day, I can't stand to watch professional wrestlers put each other in choke holds, or pin their opponents in ways where they don't have room to breathe.  Sometimes, when life seems like it closes in or gets oppressive, I feel stifled, choked, like I just need some breathing space.  That's when I try to step away from the situation and just breathe.

Working with people in crisis, I often find that clients come into my office filled with anxiety and fear.  Much of that is, honestly, merited, given the traumas they have gone through.  But nothing can be accomplished when stress remains at such a high level.  Often, I ask clients to pause and breathe with me.  They find that this helps--not only because their body needs oxygen, but because returning to their breath means focusing on that which is most basic.

Your breath is the most basic thing in life.  It's what makes you alive.  Genesis 2:7 says that God breathed into Adam the breath of life, and he became a living being.  That same God is breathing on you today, filling you with energy, filling you with Spirit, inviting you to inhale the goodness of God's presence.  When life stresses you out, don't forget to breathe.  And in that breath, find your peace.