Friday, February 28, 2014

The Presence Helps Us Be Present

If you have ever seen the March of the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel, you have experienced a rare, even unique event. It's fun to watch, and you are amazed at how the ducks march single file to the music, take a dip in the fountain in the lobby, and then return. It's a simple scene, but no one can explain it adequately to another person. You just have to be there, or it loses something.

The Transfiguration of the Lord is in that same category. You can share the gospel with others. You can tell them how great it is to believe in Jesus and the power of his resurrection. You can share how wonderful it is to have the Holy Spirit living in your life. But you can't explain it adequately. Only when the other person has that experience do they really begin to understand the power, majesty, and glory of God.

When we have those mountian top experiences, we want to stop time. We want to hold onto those moments forever. I am convinced that the only way we can bask in God's glory is to serve him faithfully, going where God calls, and eagerly being his hands and feet in our world. I know the scripture says Jesus returned to normal, and they came down the mountain. But it was a new normal for Peter, James, and John. They would never forget that first glimpse of true glory.

The cloud rolled away. The radiance dimmed. The road down the mountain was slow and reluctant, I'm sure. Nevertheless, I'm also sure they saw glory again many times. They saw glory in the eyes of those to whom they ministered. They saw glory in the steadfastness of Christ before the Sanhedrin and Pilate. They saw glory in the work they did long after the Savior had ascended to heaven. And I know they saw glory when their own lives ended, and they were welcomed into Jesus' glorious presence.

I can tell you about his glory, but have you seen it? Do you want to see it? Then say YES to Jesus. Follow him up the mountain and into the valley. Do what he would do. Say what he would say. Be what he would be. Then you, too, will behold his glory in faithfully serving at the feet of those who need him.

We are privileged to experience God's glory and are called to share it because the world needs it so desperately. Most conversations we hear today are critical, destructive, and even hateful. And these come from all levels of our society. Anger management specialists must be having field day. Jesus has revealed a more excellent way. He calls us to live by the law of love, and the hate and darkness will fade away in the presence of his glory.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lingering Thoughts on Ice and Snow

I know the weather is more spring-like now, but there are some enduring lessons we should have learned from the ice and snow of the winter of 2014. I learned one from the pine trees. As we travelled south on I-75 above Macon, I noticed that many of the trees along the interstate were broken off or completely uprooted from the weight of the ice and snow. I thought how sad that these young growth pines had seen their demise so early in life. They would not come back. Their circumstances had done them in.

Then I realized that the trees that were not by the road were standing tall and straight and wondered how that could be. As I looked more closely, I saw s few branches that had been stripped away, but the trees were mostly intact. I then realized that they had other trees around them to support them and prevent them from falling. Every tree out there was subjected to the same ice and snow storm, but as long as each supported the others, the damage was minimal.

 We need each other. We need the support that comes from being together even if we are all experienceing the same adversity. God did not intend us to be alone. No one can stand alone if the going gets too difficult. But when we have the support of of others, the outcome is so remarkably different. Unlike the pine trees, we don’t need each other just in the icy cold of winter. We need each other all the time. I hope I can remember the lesson of the pines even when the winter is long gone. It is an enduring truth.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Time Outs Here

The year 2011 is gone, and we greet a new year. What will be different about 2012 other than its designation? As we look around our world things are in chaos. That statement could refer to international affairs or the disarray in our closet or file cabinet. Chaos is what ensues when order is not maintained, whether in a garden patch or in a person's life.

We try to bring order out of chaos at Christmas time. The Christmas season continues until Epiphany on January 6. Our efforts to make this the most wonderful time of the year often have the opposite result, and we just get stressed out and miss the whole point of Christmas - Peace on Earth and Peace in our spirits. We then try to compensate by making new years resolutions, thinking that somehow we can make that process the redemption of both the holiday stress and the unrealized goals of the year just passed.

There is a problem with making resolutions that sets us up for failure. They are our resolutions. They reflect what we say we want to be different about the new year. Further, the effort that we brought to bear on these issues in 2011 is the same effort we will make in an attempt to bring a different result in 2012. I remember a characterization about doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different result, but it was not very complimentary. When the same effort fails again, we want more time and make a multitude of excuses about how others can do it, but we cannot. If we just had more time, we could do it, too.

"Life is like football," the late Coach Vince Lombardi said. "It is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport." In life we collide with our circumstances and call time out. But there are no time outs in life. If we withdraw from life to lick our wounds, there is a high probability that we will miss a valuable opportunity. Unlike football, in life we have to play every minute, because every minute is important to the outcome. Spend time on things that count, that have eternal significance. Look forward more than you look back.

It's fine to make new years resolutions - after you seek God's will for your life. Then your plans will be God's plans. It's fine to pursue these annual resolves but not in your own strength. That's why they might not have worked out too well last year. The power of God present in the Holy Spirit can bring your promises to remembrance. But more importantly, the Holy Spirit can bring you clarity of vision and an abundance of personal strength that will enable you to keep the commitments worth keeping.

Friday, September 2, 2011

But I Can Explain...!

There is a lot of talk these days about talk - the gist of it being that we tend to be people who talk a lot about our problems but do little to solve them. Oh, we certainly want our problems solved, and most of us are not opposed to being a part of the solution, but maybe later. It's easy to see in the work of churches and other volunteer organizations. People want good programs and good work, but they want it to be provided by someone else. Even in response to something as simple as teaching a Bible study class, we often get a litany of reasons why the persons being asked cannot do it now. But they might be able to do it later. The persons saying no have "reasons." We might call them "excuses." What's the difference? Often very little except in the perspective of the one who is speaking.

We have similar circumstances on the national stage now. The economy created no new jobs in August for the first time since February 1945 - the month my parents married! Everyone knows our economic situation is very serious. Many have ideas to help lift us from this downward spiral, but nothing is being done with these ideas. Everyone is awaiting the President's address next week to see if there are new ideas people can agree upon. So far, we have heard a lot of excuses from each side as to why the ideas the other side espouses will not work. We observe from the sidelines and are compelled to scream: "Try something!" And preferably something that has not already been proven to be ineffective.

Moses found himself in a spot like this in Exodus 3 and 4. You will recall he had grown up in the court of the Pharoah and held the title Prince of Egypt. We find him in Exodus 3 tending the flocks of his faither-in-law, Jethro. God visited Moses and spoke to him through a burning bush commanding him to go back to Egypt and tell Pharoah to let his posple go. Moses did not want to do it, so he came up with a host of excuses. He was not eloquent. He stuttered. He would not know what to say. No one would listen to him. I don't even know your name, Lord! Every excuse Moses came up with was dispensed with quickly by God. Finally, Moses said, "Lord, please send someone else!?"

That is what it usually boils down to. Solving problems is hard work. Creating that which will make differences in the lives of others takes time and effort. The fact is that most of our excuses are masks covering up the reality that we just do not want to be bothered. We do not want to join the controversy. We do not want to risk the displeasure of others. We would rather be comfortable that productive. We would rather see mediocrity than invest the time and energy necessary to do great things. The problem is that God never calls us to mediocrity, and God never settles for it. Churches, governments, and individuals struggle because we are content with half-baked plans that really don't work. And they don't work because we don't want to leave our comfort zone to be part of the solution.

Problem solving is easy to talk about but is usually difficult to do. We start by agreeing to find and identify those areas where there is little disagreement. When there are ideological and theological divides, it is more difficult to identify those areas of commonality. But what excuse do we have for talking at one another rather than with one another? It may be that we will not agree, but in many areas, we have never tried. Moses went as the Lord commanded after he ran out of exucses. Most of us do better than Moses when it comes to making up excuses. Yes, most are made up, so we don't have to take time to do what we don't want to do. We deceive ourselves, our follow citizens, and often try to deceive God as well. But God knows our hearts, our motives, and our end game.

Excuses are dishonest whether they come from the President of your Sunday morning Class or the President of the United States. If we spent as much time, effort, and resources on solving the problems of life as we spend on our excuses, the world would look different and so would the Kingdom of God. Examine the excuses you are giving for not being involved. Be honest with yourself. Put aside your excuses, and realize that there are some things upon which all of us can agree. We can work from there to build a new understanding. Or we can do as Moses wanted to do: We can stay with the sheep and just make noise.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling - An UnGodly Mess

He paid a debt he did not owe, because we owe a debt we cannot pay. That's often the description of the debt Jesus paid on our behalf to atone for our sins. It may seem strange to talk about debt in the theological sense when all we hear is debt in a political context on every news outlet. There is a deadline (August 2) when calamity presumably will befall the world financial order if America's debt limit is not increased. The debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since March 1962, usually with little fanfare or notice. This time it is different. This time there is a fundamental battle about the purpose and role of government under girding this debate. The philosophical differences are deep seated and show little signs of being resolved - even with only 6 days remaining at this writing.

Debt by definition is a specific agreed upon amount or commodity that is promised to be paid back in the future, usually with interest, in consideration for some immediate gain or favor. An obvious example is the use of credit cards. We promise to pay the purchase amount plus any accrued interest to the credit card issuer in exchange for obtaining an item or service immediately. 'Immediately' is the problematic word here. We have become people who are willing to promise almost anything to get what we want NOW. We don't want to save for it, and we don't want to deprive ourselves. We want it now! And we are willing to do what it takes to get it NOW.

In many ways our government is reflective of its people. I know. Your initial reaction is, "No way!" Yes, way. Most of those 74 raises in the debt limit were the result of wars and various social programs designed to improve the quality of life for those who lacked the advantages of full participation in society. Even the Social Security Trust Fund was used in addition to these debt limit raises. Real money in the Social Security Trust Fund was replaced with government securities promising to pay that money back. Yes, we borrowed from ourselves in that way and many others and have never paid it back.

We deplore the scene being played out in Washington these days between those who believe that government is the answer to our economic problems and those who believe we have too much government already. Those who think government is the answer truly believe we can spend our way to prosperity. I know we tried that in 2009 with the Stimulus Bill, but these proponents would argue that it was not enough. Another spending measure like that one would turn things around by putting more money in the economy. Those who believe we already have too much government argue that cutting the size of government and government spending does two things: (1) It allows people to keep more of the money they earn thereby creating new jobs, more commerce, and as a result, more revenue, and (2) It cuts down on government intrusion into people's lives through regulations that often have unintended adverse consequences. The debate we are seeing is not about just a debt ceiling, but it is a struggle for the soul of America. What do we believe, and how will we govern ourselves going forward?

God's word is not kind on the subject of debt. Jesus' own words tell us that, if we focus too much on money, we will lose site of the Kingdom of God. The love of possessions and the love of the means to obtain more stuff is at the root of all evil according to scripture. That sounds like we are out of focus as a nation. Money begets power, and power corrupts our very souls, if we do not guard them. The rich should not be hated. I know some very affluent people who are both humble and generous in the good they do with the treasure God has entrusted to them. But when we love the money and the power rather than the good things that can be done with both, we are toying with destruction as individuals and as a nation.

One more observation: Financial chaos creates almost unbearable uncertainty. We don't know what to do, because we don't know what will happen. So we do nothing. We are a stressed out people being led by a stressed out government. That's no way to live according to Jesus. His told us not to worry but rather to cast our burdens upon him. I've heard a lot of ideas from people in Washington - some of whom were once friends and colleagues. But I have heard no one call us to prayer for the nation. I have heard no one talk about the morality of allowing debt to accumulate that we may never be able to repay. The financial mess we are witnessing must have practical and apolitical minds working on it. But it also needs the wisdom and power of God brought to bear. "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7:14. Maybe that's the deal we all need to be working on.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Important Stuff!

Almost every week, I receive a piece or two of unsolicited mail from companies who have found secret caches of silver or gold that went down in some ship from the 1700s or a stash of uncirculated money that is suddenly available to the general public. The appeal is that you can own a part of this "unique" piece of history, but hurry, because time is running out. I get a chuckle out of that kind of urgent appeal when the coins have been "lost" for 300 years. But I know the appeal is to the nature of humankind that we want what others do not have; we want more of it than anyone else has; and we are willing to spend our treasure to achieve the desire of our hearts. Maybe I should say that we are willing to spend our treasure on what we perceive to be a greater treasure. The glitter of those ads and the lure of owning something so unique can easily cause us to pull out a credit card. (Don't worry. My collection budget prohibits participation in these promotions.)

Why do I care whether people buy rare coins or spend their treasure on dust collectors for the already crowded home? Because it is a spiritual problem. We are a society with 9.1 percent unemployment, yet we have more stuff than we can use or find places for. If you question that, count the number of self-storage facilities that have popped up in our area in recent years. I even have people seeking financial assistance from the church to store their belongings. While that is not a good use of our limited resources, it probably is a better reason than some of us have. Think about it: You store things you don't use and don't have room for so you can go out an buy more stuff you won't use and don't have room for that you will put in the new, larger storage unit next year. And we think our leaders are making bad decisions?!

The answer to the world's economic - indeed all of our problems is in the condition of the heart. In our scripture for this Sunday, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. (Luke 12:34). That sounds so wrong! My heart is not in those old coins nor is it in stored away goods that I never see and therefore never use! But that's what Jesus said. Ouch. How many hungry people could be fed with what we spend on the false desires of our hearts? How many mosquito nets could be bought at $10 or less each to save the children of Africa from Malaria if we did not spend so much so foolishly on ourselves?

We remember the alleged words of Queen Marie Antoinette who reputedly said, "Let them eat cake." A telling reminder that the royals in France had no clue how the common people lived nor did they care to find out. We never put ourselves in the same sentence with those who are so arrogant, unconcerned, and so unfeeling, but I must ask, "How are we different?" I'm not talking about formal outreach programs where everyone gives a token amount or product; our conscience is eased; and we go back to our habits of spending far more than we should to give glory to ourselves, our homes, our yards - while families who have really tried go to bed hungry every night with no way to explain to their hungry children why no one cares.

My heart hurts at the pain we inflict on others by our indifference. Now, you are about to get me a crying towel and shake me back to reality. Right? Jim, there are those who are just trying to abuse our good nature and generous spirit. Sometimes, without a doubt that is true, and nothing makes me more angry. But that is also the dark side of our nature giving us a convenient excuse for disobeying the words of Jesus. I'm talking about the real suffering of the world that we won't look at on the way to work; The real depravity in our community that we are content to lock the front door and ignore. Our response reveals the condition of the heart. Sometimes I worry that the hearts of those calling themselves Christian is as bankrupt as the US Treasury. The interest rate in our hearts is not high enough to change lives, and it needs to be.

Old coins or new, they must not be hoarded. The treasures in the Kingdom of God are the people. People are precious. They are precious to God and should be precious to us. We need a heart for God's people and a desire to use the treasures and riches God uses to bless us to enrich the lives of others in substantial ways. Dear Lord, let it be so.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

There Goes the Sign - Again!

To those of you familiar with the ongoing construction to widen the road by East Cobb United Methodist Church, some of this is not news. Others who read from around the world will wonder  why I'm writing about our sign on Maundy Thursday. Well, read on. I hope there is something both groups can take from my ponderings on this holy day.

We had an old, big monument sign that was in place for many years, until the highway department said it must come down to make way for the wider, better road. So they destroyed it, and we had a temporary sign made heralding who we are and our worship times. Since then, I have lost track of the number of times that temporary sign has been flattened - several times by severe weather and several times by the highway department, accidentally or on purpose. Recently, they closed our exit for construciton, and today they built a traffic island at our only open entrance. (They assure us we will have the exit open for Easter.) It seems odd that the routine work to improve the world is interfering with the celebration of the holiest of time of the year. No, it was not calculated this time, but it is not the first time the world has tried to stop Easter.

On a night like this, Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover. He washed the disciples' feet himself, as there we no servants there to do so. When they were appalled that he would do such things, he gave them a "new commandment" or mandate (mandatum  in Latin from which we derive "Maundy," the name for this day. "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos." ("A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you" - John 13:34), Near the end of that meal, he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you." After the meal, he took the third cup of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption, gave thanks to God, gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take, drink, this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me." With that, everything changed. They were no longer curious followers, but they had become commissioned ambassadors for a cause they did not yet fully understand.

I'm still disturbed about our pitiful sign. It is not up and may never be again. Who cares? Because I now know I have it all wrong. I have been focused on what the world is doing to us and why that is so wrong instead of what Christ has done for me and what that means. If I add up every pressure the world puts on us, it could become overwhelming. We should be overwhelmed by the grace and wonder of God's love for us - that he would endure humiliation and the most awful death imaginable to take care of my shortcomings. Because we don't love like that, we can't understand that kind of love. Then it dawns on me: That's why the sign is destroyed over and over! The commandment was not to put up signs or even to build a church building. The command was to love! Maybe our preoccupation with our space in the world is interfering with finding our place in the world. Maybe we are the only signs God needs. After all, there is no message of love on any if those old beat up signs - just a statement of who we are - East Cobb United Methodist Church. Maybe who we really are and who God really wants us to be cannot be put on a sign. Just maybe it has to be lived out wherever the church is tonight - and tomorrow- and... well, you get he idea. So that wherever we go, there goes the sign!