Thursday, December 26, 2013

The True Nativity Scene

The following was one of the readings I wrote for the Christmas Eve Service

The Prince of Peace was not born in a palace. He had no soft blankets against his skin. There were no relatives cooing and demanding that they be the next one to hold him. 

We understand that he was born to a poor family, but perhaps we don’t realize how poor. Most of us imagine the nativity scene like this:  

Look again at Luke’s account of Christ’s birth and you’ll see there is no mention of a barn or a stable. There were no cute animals lying sedately in sweet smelling straw.  There’s not even mention of the donkey for Mary to ride.

Mary and Joseph were far from home, away from any family or friends. When it says there was no room in the inn, it means they were outside in the cold night. There was no emergency shelter, no public housing, no hospital constrained by law to accept her, even if she had no money. 

They simply found a vacant place on the ground for her to deliver her baby. And because she would have been too weak to hold him, they put him in the nearest container—one of those feed troughs to which we have assigned the quaint name, manger.  And they found some old rags to wrap around the child to protect him from exposure.  


It’s a miracle anyone survives such conditions, but some do. On this night, they did. 

This was the scene that made the angels sing. This was what the shepherds found when they searched for him.  This is the baby who grew up to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and speak powerful words that still move our hearts.    

This is the birth we celebrate. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Way of the Disciple

When we think of being disciples for Christ, we think of going to church more often and making a sincere effort to act nicer.  Additionally, we are to make other disciples who will come to our church. 

That’s all good, but it’s missing the point of discipleship. 

When Jesus sent his people out to do his work, he didn’t talk about church attendance or looking respectable.  Instead he told them to focus on helping people get better. Take another look at the first few verses of Matthew 10 and consider the ambition behind his instruction:

*Heal the sick.

*Make them clean (touch the lepers and heal them).

*Give them peace

*Raise people from the dead--make them alive again.

*Give generously—throw yourself into the task.

*Don’t worry about where you’ll get the money—just do it. 

“Tell them the kingdom of heaven is near,” he said.  In other words, there is a new way to live and a new world to live in, where people can have enough to eat, and to be healed, and feel alive again. Tell them that we can have a world where love has transcended laws, and we can reach out to touch God. 

I believe Jesus meant for those things to happen right now, not sometime later in the next life. He has not given up on this world. He intends for things to be made better now, and he means for us to help him make it that way.

Discipleship is not about living a quiet decent life. It’s not about being a good example by showing how often you go to church. It’s about looking squarely in the face of the suffering of this world and throwing ourselves in the task of making it better. 

Then one day, we will stand before Jesus and he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  

Team Jesus

Jesus enlisted the aid of his disciples in his work. When he performed the miracle of feeding the crowds, he had the disciples go out and find what food there was, and then he had them pass it out. I marvel that they got to be part of the miracle of where a few loaves and fish became more than enough to feed five thousand.

There were other things.  Jesus wanted them to pray with him. He also had them preach, heal, and cast out demons with him. 

You could say that discipleship is being part of “Team Jesus” where he is the captain, but everyone participates.  Everyone gives valuable effort to bring positive results.

Disciples don’t just work for Jesus, they work with him.  In effect, Jesus, the Son of God, was saying, “I couldn’t do it without you,” which is a huge honor, but it carries with it responsibility for which we should have a sense of duty.   

When a church focuses on keeping itself alive, it is for the purpose of continuing to participate in Christ’s work. It is not to preserve our memories. It is not so we can continue to keep our friendships. It is not to have a place where we can go to feel good.  It is to reach out with our hands and our hearts and help those who are suffering, unhappy, scared, sick, and lost.

Any church that does not keep the mission of Christ firmly in mind will end up closing its doors. But if we exist to serve Christ’s purpose, we will continue to be vital.

How about it? Want to be a part of Team Jesus?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Unity and Disagreement

One of our Sunday school classes recently studied parts of the United Methodist Book of Resolutions, which articulates the UMC’s position on various political and social issues pertaining to our faith.  In class, there was often disagreement expressed about some of the UMC’s positions.  And that’s okay.  Many decisions are made in the general conference with a thin margin on the majority’s side. Afterward, people are welcome to continue to voice their dissent and hopefully the discussion continues with civility. Some decisions are revisited every four years.

When there is a heated disagreement where sizable portion of the membership differ with the majority, it is tempting for the “winning side” to say, “This is what we voted on. Now be a good Methodist and go along with it.” 

This is a mistake. We don’t tell people what to think. We don’t tell them to be quiet. We can’t force them to cooperate. And we won’t say, “If you don’t like it, there’s the road.”

Making resolutions gives us direction and enables us to act. But the discussion is ongoing, especially in the areas of controversy, such as ecology, poverty, human sexuality, involvement in government, etc. 

When I first considered joining the UMC, one of the things that made me want to join is how they are willing to grapple with the hard topics, often before anyone else will. Methodists were some of the first ones to call for slavery to be abolished. Methodists recognized how alcoholism was causing so much havoc in families, and they called for action.

So of course there is going to be sharp disagreement at times.

I like it. In many churches, people are required to have only one set of thoughts where no diversity is allowed. But in Methodism, there’s true unity, where you get to have your thoughts and you get to express them and be heard, even if you’re in the minority.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Come to the Party

In the parable of the prodigal son, the story ends with the older brother standing outside the house seething as the people have their party.  He’s mad at the people, his little brother, and his father.
This is the end of a series of parables that Jesus used to address Pharisees and teachers who resented his going to parties with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Usually, when I read about that older brother, I find myself contemptuous of him. But Jesus was not trying to lead us to contempt. Look at the story again, and you see the father begging his son to come in, to be a part of the celebration.
Likewise, Jesus was not condemning the onlookers. He was asking them to join the party.  This is an interesting concept. He’s not angry with the self righteous. He’s not telling them to shut up and go away. He wants them come be a part of the joy.
It was hard for them. They wanted to shut the party down which was not going to happen. However, they could join if they wanted.
Question: Do I want to make my world a highly controlled (and joyless) place or can I lay aside my selfish desires and join the party that’s already in progress?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Which Mountain Are You Climbing?

Which Mountain Are You Climbing? 

In Hebrews 12:18-24, the writer summons images of two different mountains for the reader to consider.  

First, there is Sinai, the dark forbidding mountain on which the Ten Commandments were written. Remember how there was thunder and lightning, how the ground shook at the sound of God’s voice? The people were afraid and they knew if they touched even the foot of the mountain, they would die.

And yet that fear and dread did not keep the Israelites from straying. Right there in the shadow of the dark mountain, they made a golden calf--something smaller, prettier,  less frightening to worship.

Anxiety over an angry God and fear of punishment--these things do not  inspire virtue. They never have.  Yet, many of us still see the God of Mt. Sinai and we try to scare ourselves and others into living right. How well is that working for us?

Check around the house to see if you have anything equivalent to a golden calf.  

The writer told us to put aside the image of Sinai and focus on Zion, the beautiful city of Jerusalem set on a hill.  The Jews thought of Zion and it made them think of home, a place where they could reside fully with each other and with God.  Rather than avoiding it, they went to it, singing joyous hymns along the way, celebrating that they could go home and be free.  

Zion became our metaphor for heaven, the home we are headed for, where all will be made right, and we’ll be with the God who is lovely and healing.   

Zion is the image that allows us to endure difficulties and avoid temptation. Zion inspires us to persevere. Zion cheers us when we’re weary. It’s what puts a song of praise in our hearts as we make our journey.  

Which mountain are you climbing?  

The Touching Spirit

The city I visited was very nice. Beautiful scenery. The helping staff at the hotel and the restaurants were nice and went out of their way to be helpful and polite.  But the customers were a different matter. I saw people scream at staff members on two occasion, simply, I assume because they could get away with it.  Not cool.

I went walking every morning in perfect weather amidst beautiful landscaping with tall fir trees and lovely flowers of every hue.  Lots of other people did too.  But none of them looked at me, much less said hello like we do here in Oklahoma.  I’m glad to be back.

Around here, when I encounter someone who looks down and stays quiet, I assume something might be wrong, so I make sure to catch their eye and say, “Hi, how are you?” Because I really want to know.  

At church, I hug, pat shoulders, or shake hands with everyone I encounter. It’s partly me. I’m a toucher.  It’s also them--most people need a touch. Sometimes a person doesn’t want to be touched. It’s not hard to tell, and I respect that, but most people like the contact.  

Jesus was a toucher. He could have healed every sick person he encountered with a word, or a blink, or even a thought. But usually he touched them, even the lepers. Especially the lepers.  

We come to church for the contact with each other as well as with God.  We could stay home to worship. We can turn on the TV to hear some preaching and listen to music, and for some, by necessity, that has to suffice.  But there’s something healing about the physical company of others. It’s allows for a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence.   

Everywhere we go, we have the chance to heal or to harm. We can bless or we can curse.  I opt for blessing when I can. I try to avoid hurting others and I hope others do to.  But I hate being ignored and I hate ignoring anyone who crosses my path, whether it be on a walk, at the hotel, or on a plane.  

Or at church.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

To Bless and To Heal

A couple years ago, at the OKC Art Museum, we saw an exhibit of works done by artists commissioned by the WPA during the days of the Great Depression. I was surprised at their quality and moved by the stories they told.  

There was one piece that I found quite unpleasant but now I can’t forget of an old woman peeling potatoes. It was a dark image, almost silhouetted, but I could see her hands were covered with wounds she had sustained over the years from her arduous work. The artist showed them as if the wounds had never healed but stayed fresh, with more added each year.  Her face was the same way.  

The artist wanted us to remember that period of history and not get over it quickly because the people of our past suffered in part to give us our present and future.

I get the message. It’s important.  But I’m a minister and I want people to get better.

I wanted to reach into the canvass to take the wounded hands of that woman. I wanted to place my palms on her cheeks and kiss her scarred forehead. I wanted to tell her she was not alone, that she was loved, and that her work and life was important.  

It’s impossible to do that to the woman in the picture. It’s pretty hard to convey a blessing of worth to each other in the present time. But surely it’s not impossible.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Time With Jesus

“A woman named Martha welcomed him (Jesus) into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted about many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42). 

Time with Jesus. Essentially, when Jesus spoke to Martha, he said, “this is what Mary wants so this is what she gets, and no one will be taking it away from her.” 

When I read this story, the questions I take away are, “What exactly was this gift? Can I have it too? And what would it look like? 

Is it only his words in the Bible? That’s good and more people ought to do that, but is that all? Isn't there some way I can actually spend time with the actual presence of Christ?

You know, I have a list of people that I want to simply spend time with. Not do something with, just BE with. Special ones—family and friends, and those I would like to get to know. And since I’m dreaming I think of people in the past. And then people of the future—generations of children who have yet to arrive on the scene.

I want to sit and talk. Ask questions. Share thoughts. I want to give and receive encouragement. I want to talk about my dreams and hear theirs. And I want to put my arms around them—if they’d let me. 

That’s what I wish for when I think of spending time with Jesus. I don’t want just words on a page. I want the real thing, to sit near him, hear his words to me, have him listen to me, to hear that he loves me, to exchange hugs with him. You know, actually BE with Jesus. 

Is Jesus saying I could have this and be secure that it would not be taken away? And how do I claim it? Is it really a matter to setting aside my other concerns and focusing on him? That’s not so easy, but it’s not impossible. Could it be… simple? 

I guess we could work on it and see. But to be honest, it hasn't seemed all that simple.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fish, Bread, and Honey

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)

What do you expect of God?

Tell the truth. Haven’t many of us expected God to withhold pleasant gifts because we think HE thinks it would be bad for us?  And don’t many of us think that God puts us through unpleasant, even awful things, and expects us to thank Him for loving us enough to discipline us?

We expect snakes and stones, and force ourselves say we’re thankful for them. We hate to say it but we think God is mean and expects us to be grateful about it.  

I wonder how life would be if we saw God as the Good Shepherd, who lets us lie in green pastures by still waters.  How would we pray to a God who delights in our company and longs to give us the desires of our hearts? 

I know. All this sounds good, but how do we explain all those awful things that happen to us? If God is so sweet, why is life so bitter? 

I think of how God once provided honey on the ground to sustain Israel’s army, but King Saul ordered them not to eat any until they had done their jobs.  (1 Samuel 14:24-25).

Perhaps instead of explaining why bad things happen to good people, we could look for the honey on the ground that we are denying ourselves. There are hard tasks to be done, but good things to be enjoyed along the way.  Don’t miss them.

Ask for bread. Eat the fish. Look for honey.  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

How People See Me

Not long ago, I crossed paths with a man I didn’t know, but he recognized that I was a local minister, so he hurriedly threw his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. 

“Did you put that out to show respect for me?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said, looking like he thought he might be in trouble anyway. 

“That was nice of you,” I said. “But next time you don’t have to do that.”   

I don’t like the look of apprehension that comes over someone’s face when he first sees the preacher—like I’m looking to find something wrong with him and scold him over it.

I want each of you who read this to consider two things. First, when people duck their heads and show fear at the sight of me it makes me feel very lonely, although I understand why they do it. 

Second, if you see me as a representative of Jesus, remember that like Him, I’m glad to see you—you’re a pleasure to know. 

A friend once came to visit me in a town where the people had had enough time to get to know me. He walked with me through the local shopping center and watched as I greeted the many people I knew.

“These people all have a similar look when they cross your path,” he observed. “They don’t just look glad to see you—they look relieved to see you.”

I can’t think of a nicer compliment for a minister to receive. And it’s something I aspire to, wherever I go.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The World Needs You to Grow

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. 

You need milk, not solid food! Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. (Hebrews 5:12; 6:1-3). 

The world needs you to grow. However, many of us have stayed at the same level of spirituality that we were on when we were children. In fact, we insist on it.  

Sometimes we’re jolted out of our torpor and forced into a growth cycle by a crisis, such as an illness, or powerful loss, or even the threat of illness or loss. But as soon as life evens out, we’ll scurry right back to our childhood set of beliefs and no real growth will have lasted, and then we’ll leave our “religion” in the back of a drawer somewhere that we can take out to look at when there’s time.

Meanwhile, the world slides further into gloomy, confused chaos. If only there were some new insight. If only there were deeper wisdom to share.

It’s there but most of us haven’t found it because we quit growing. We repeat the same litany of thoughts that we heard in church when we were five years old.

There’s so much more to Christ that we could claim for ourselves and then share. There are deeper levels of joy, hope, peace, beauty, wonder, power, love, healing, and wisdom that people could find if we led them through our own personal growth.

When you signed on follow Christ, you signed on to be one of his helpers. You signed on to make things better in this world. Jesus pointed to the people and said, “They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” And then he prayed for God to send forth reapers for the harvest. (Matthew 9:35-38).

You and I, we are supposed to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer. But to do it, we need to keep growing.

The world needs you to grow. 

Let’s get more specific. Your children need you to grow. So do your grandchildren. And your friends, neighbors, and your colleagues. They need you to grow so that you can help them grow.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Who Knows What?

“Whoooaa!” I hollered to the little boy who careened around the corner and tried to be-bop past me.  I reached out and scooped him into my arms. It was VBS and I was patrolling the hallways, alert for opportunities just like this.  

“Where are you supposed to be?” I asked.  

He looked at me like I was a typical grownup asking one of those typical crazy questions.  

“I don’t know,” he explained. “You’re supposed to know that.”

He was right. So I helped him find his place.  

Kids are smart and they know more than we give them credit for, but they also need to be told stuff, shown stuff, and helped down life’s pathway (or the church hallway).  They need to hear our stories, feel our love, and be fed, clothed and sheltered.  

And if we’re the grownups, we’re supposed to know how to do that.

I know it sounds pretty basic, but grownups can get pretty rattled and unsure of themselves. And we find out we’re not off the hook once our own kids are grown. Next are the grandkids.  But not only that, I believe we adults need to address ourselves to the needs of all children.  

The little boy said it plainly:    

“You’re supposed to know that.” 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Personality Profile--Sort Of.

According to the Myers-Briggs Personality profiles, I’m probably an ENFP, which sounds like a sports radio station to me. But in actuality the letters stand for traits that are especially strong in me. 

This personality type is bit of a performer, loyal and places extremely high value in relationships, is interested in many things, willing to negotiate, focuses on ideas, concepts, and possibilities, improvises, cares about people, get bored easily, gets annoyed with details—I’d list more, but I’m losing interest….

Somebody said Mark Twain was one. He once said—and this tickles me: "I have been told that Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

He also said, "Who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?" It’s an out-of-the-box thought, and my personality profile suggests I like those kinds of things.  So I’m thinking it over.

It is further stated that Oscar Wilde had a similar personality type. He once wrote, "A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." 

That last statement? I kinda love that one. 

This is not really a formalized essay. I just felt chatty.  My profile says I’m like that.  :)  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Hell Factor

What if the threat of hell no longer existed?  Would there be any point of spreading the message of Christ?

It’s a question worth asking because frankly, hell just doesn’t scare people anymore. And maybe that’s okay, because sustained fear is not a great motivator.  Oh it’s good for the short term urgent stuff, like running from wild rhinos, but on a daily basis it doesn’t work so well. In fact it makes us crazy and if it gets bad enough we go to the doctor for medication. 

It certainly doesn’t inspire nobility. 

Think about it. Do the following statements really make any sense?

I’m going to feed the hungry, tend the sick, and love my neighbor because I don’t want to go to hell. 

I sing joyful hymns to God because I don’t want to go to hell.

In prayer, I share the depths of my soul with God because I don’t want to go to hell. 

It doesn't surprise me that our society turns a deaf ear to a fear-based religious message. And that’s a problem because avoiding hell has always been our big selling point. If people aren’t motivated by fear anymore, why become a Christian?

“Okay Pastor. If there is no fear of hell, what motivates people?”

Great question. Glad you asked. Consider the following as a partial reply:

How about finding wholeness where you experience the full activation of your being? How about trading self-indulgent misery for adventurous living for the sake of goodness?  How about finding a strength that sustains you even when you feel your weakest?   How about finding hope and values that guide you? How about living in a Presence that completes us, unites us, and heals us?

Is all this laid at your feet the moment you accept Christ into your heart? Well, no. But the path is set before you. And you can leave certain baggage behind, one of which is fear of hell.   

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Without Ceasing

“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17)

If this is a command, it's impossible to obey—one more thing that makes us feel shame--without ceasing.   

But what if we turned this around and concentrated on how God is present without ceasing, going beyond conversation to deep communion with our spirit?

Think of the God who is always in touch with the deepest part of us, guiding us, healing us, whispering to our hearts his word of affection and wisdom.

This isn’t a command. It’s a gift without ceasing.

The psalmist said it this way:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

                                                                              --Psalm 139:1-10

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dreams and Visions

The prophet Joel predicted it. The church experienced it. The disciples acted by its power. I’m talking about the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out onto the church. The wind blew, the fire burned, and people could really talk to each other. 

I have yet to attend a worship service like that first one.  Oh, I’ve seen bells and whistles, and I’ve heard some mighty fine music and occasionally an interesting sermon.  But I’ve witnessed nothing with the power described in Acts 2.

In fact, for all the energy we pour into our churches, we are rather anemic. 

So what’s going on?

Was it a singular event to celebrate the entrance of the church into the world? Possibly, but I’m going to assume that God still pours his Presence into the church and into our hearts, whether I feel it or not.  So how do we see it? How can we work in concert with this mysterious Spirit, so we can benefit from its power?

As I read through Acts 2 again, I note Joel’s words about young men having visions and old men having dreams.  What dreams? What visions?

I believe people actually get what they envision. Does the church have dream of a great performance team? They can have that. Want a bigger building? That’s possible. A hotshot, spellbinding, fireball of a speaker? They’re out there.  But these are not necessarily vessels of the Spirit.

What if we dream with the Spirit of a God who longs to heal and minister to others? What if we see ourselves as vessels of compassion, mercy, and love? What if the church envisions itself helping a dark and crooked world to become bright and happy? We could have that.

Perhaps these visions can open our eyes to the same Spirit whose presence was poured out on the people at Pentecost. And we’ll see it has always been right there.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Awareness of God

In the Gospel of John, the author emphasized the deity of Christ, where Jesus existed before the creation of the world and took part in that creation. He wanted us to see the Jesus who maintained the full authority of God, and knew what would happen before it happened. 

I think about how Jesus walked this earth as a human and at the same time was fully conscious of the entire cosmos. Could he hear angels singing while eating dinner with the disciples? When he traveled across the Sea of Galilee, could he also see the Crystal Sea of heaven? When he walked into a house, could he see heaven’s mansions at the same time?

When he looked to the heavens, did he see all the stars and galaxies and planets that are not visible to the human eye? When he worked with wood, could he see even the sub-atomic particles in its structure?

And what was it like to one with the Father? “I in thee, and thee in me.”(John 17:21).To know God’s thoughts and for God to know his? To share feelings and enjoy each Other’s presence?

Did he have a difficult time managing the limitations of a physical body while being aware of all of heaven? What was it like to know the fullness of heaven and at the same time endure the emptiness of hunger? Was it harder or easier to be aware of heaven when he was tired and hurting?

The reason I wonder these things is that this heavenly awareness is accessible to all of us, through the Holy Spirit.  He “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Eph. 1:3).

As I work and pray, how aware am I of the larger spiritual world around me, where the eternal qualities of love, joy, and hope supersede the impotent qualities of greed, rage, and power?  And how would that change my behavior?

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” (Eph 1:17).