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Not sure how much I’ll be posting on WordPress for a while. I’ve been using Tumblr a lot. I’ll probably keep WordPress for longer pieces. You’re welcome to follow me over at Tumblr. My site address is easy enough to remember: wordslessspoken.org.

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Water, Wind, & Fire

Sermon
Pentecost, June 12, 2011
John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21

In the text we read that Jesus promised the Spirit would come after Him. The outpouring of the Spirit happened on what is known as the Day of Pentecost, some 50 days after the resurrection, which we observe this Sunday. Sadly, this day often goes unnoticed in many churches. To be sure there is plenty of bad theology out there regarding the Holy Spirit and the whole subject can be confusing, but the knee jerk reaction not to talk about it is just as bad if not worse. We need to understand what the Bible actually says about it. As simply as I can put it, the Spirit is the living Christ at work in our lives. There are three symbols of the Spirit in these texts that reveal the work of the living Christ in us.


First we read that the Spirit is like water.

We should not overlook that Jesus stood up and said these words on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Given the terrible drought that we are experiencing across the South, we might consider holding a Feast of Tabernacles ourselves.

You see, it was tradition during this feast that they would put up booths or tents as a reminder of their journey through the wilderness during the exodus and how God was faithful to deliver them from Egypt. As part of that observance they would gather palm branches and make a leaf canopy over the altar. Every day of the feast the priest would gather water from the pool of Siloam and carry it to the altar in procession with trumpets blowing then pour the water in a bowl next to the altar and pour wine in an another bowl on the other side. Thanksgiving prayers were offered for the water God gave Moses when he struck the rock and for the rain that has sustained them since. They also prayed for rain for the next year and a fruitful harvest. This was the biggest feast of the Jewish year and this was the culmination of that feast on the last day when people are praying for rain that Jesus stands up and says, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, whoever believes in Me.”

In dry desert communities water is life. Likewise, the Spirit gives life and sustains us through the desert places in our lives. For those worshippers at the feast they knew all too well the struggles of survival, finding water, drawing it several times a day to keep your family and livestock alive, like the Samaritan woman at the well. They reacted much like she did at first when she He heard the offer of this “living water.” A lot of Christians think grace must be too good to be true, because they keep trying to do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness. It seems like the cross just wasn’t enough. They need to feel as though they’ve earned it. Jesus is offering living water to quench our spiritual thrists, yet so many feel compelled to attach strings to this offer that Jesus never did.

Specifically, it is “living water” that gives life. There are places like the ocean or the Dead Sea that cannot sustain us because they are full of “dead water.” Meaning, fresh water flows into them, but it does not flow out.

“Dead water” is synonymous with “dead churches” and “dead Christians.” That sounds like an oxymoron, an impossibility. How can churches and Christians be dead? They are dead because they do not have the living water of the Spirit flowing in and out of their lives. We cannot soak up the grace of God continually and not share it with others. At the wedding at Cana and on the hillside feeding the multitudes the wine, the bread, and the fish did not run out as long as it was being given away. Jesus said that “streams of living water flow from within Him.” It is an inexhaustible supply of grace. If we want to experience the life-giving Spirit of the Christ, we have to give our lives away to the thirsty among us, sharing God’s love and grace with others. If we don’t, our well will run dry, our waters will stagnate, and we will wither.


In Acts 2 we find that the Spirit is like wind.

When the day had come for the promise of the Spirit to be realized, the disciples and other followers of Jesus were in Jerusalem gathered together in one place when, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting,” Acts 2:2.

It’s really hard to try to explain the Holy Spirit to someone. How does all this work? What does it mean? Those can be hard questions to answer sometime, but the Spirit is like the wind. We don’t see the wind, but we see what the wind blows. We can tell where it’s coming from and feel where it’s going. When Jesus was trying to explain spiritual things to Nicodemus, a highly educated man, He said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” John 3:8.

Still, you have to wonder why it’s not easier at times. There are times when you just wish God would write on the wall what you should do, because you just don’t know anymore. David Lose wrote:

The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, “Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.” Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option.

The Spirit is also the rushing wind that comes into our lives and shakes them up, moves us out of our comfort zones, and calls us to the great adventure of walking by faith and not by sight. It’s worth noting that the wind “filled the whole house.” That means that there is no place where it is not. That’s exactly like God. God isn’t impossible to find. God is impossible to avoid. God is everywhere. There is no place that God is not. So no matter wherever we are, God is with us. There is no place or no situation we may find ourselves in where God is not with us and able to see us through it.


Lastly, the Spirit is like fire.

Just like God provided a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness, the Spirit is the fire that lights our way.

It can be hard to understand what God is doing in our lives a lot of times, even on the good days. I’ve often told people that the hardest choices we have to make in life are not the choices between good and bad. Those are easy. We may not always want to the right thing, but if we know this is good and the other is bad, we know what we should do even if we don’t want to do it. The really hard choices in life are between good and better. Those are the choices we have to pray hard about. We ask God to show us what He wants for our lives, because often we don’t know which way is best. In those moments we “lean not on our own understanding.” We trust God, seek His direction. What we are doing is asking for the Spirit to show us what to do, to help us find peace in the middle of a difficult time in our lives.

The Spirit is also like the “consuming fire” that burned on the mountain with Moses. It consumes everything in us that pollutes our character and dilutes our message. It convicts us, grips our hearts and turns them to God and to the least, the lost, and the lonely among us. Were it not for the conviction of the Spirit we might withdraw into ourselves and spend our lives only on our pleasures, but the Spirit of God compels us, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It moves us out of selfishness and into selflessness. On the Day of Pentecost the tongues of fire consumed the pride and prejudice that threatened the first church and brought unity and peace between everyone gathered there.

Lastly, just as a fire burned over the tabernacle in the wilderness to remind the Israelites of God’s presence with them, the Spirit burns within us assuring us that God is with us. Church membership is no guarantee of a person’s character. There are just as many rascals inside the church as there are outside it. The one and only evidence that someone is following the living Christ is the Spirit that shines through their life.

The greatest evidence of the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was unity among all the different Christians that were gathered there. When we are all following the Spirit, seeking God’s will and our neighbor’s interests above our own, there will be peace and unity in the fellowship. That’s the Church the world needs to see. One that is alive, healthy, and full of grace.

May the Spirit of the living Christ fill us with living water overflowing with His grace. May the Spirit of the resurrected Christ blow a fresh wind into our lives wakening us to His call. May the Spirit of the coming Christ light a fire within our hearts that may burn brightly with His love. Amen.

Last Requests

Sermon
Easter 7A, June 5, 2011
John 17:1-11


This is a prayer of last requests. While not a death bed prayer, it might as well be. Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane knowing that He will soon be arrested and be put be death.

“He’s in the middle of an eleventh hour crash course on “everything you need to know before everything goes berserk between Good Friday and Easter.” It’s crunch time, and in this moment Jesus offers up a prayer for his followers, mindful of what they will have to endure (and with an eye toward all of us who will come long after them).” Danielle Shroyer

It’s a very hard text to dissect into pieces and force into a sermon. We should hear it and feel the heart of the one who prayed these words. It’s deeply personal. You can hear the anguish in the prayer of Jesus knowing everything that awaits Him. You can hear of His deep love for His Father, for His disciples, and for those who were yet to come to know Him.

Last words carry a special weight to them that lingers in the air when we hear them. This prayer reveals the heart of Jesus and the burdens that weighed on Him most in His final hours. There are three themes that run all the way through the prayer that we must pay attention to. May we listen carefully for God’s good word to us.


God May Be Glorified

First and foremost, Jesus prays that God will be glorified in His life and through what will soon took place. Even as He prays for God to glorify Him, He asks only so that He may in turn glorify His Father. God the Father and God the Son are mirror reflections of each other.

Specifically, Jesus prays that God may glorify Him the way He was before the world began. As much as He is divine, Jesus is every bit human. This was going to be almost too much to bear. Because of His love for His Father and His love for us He endured the cross that He would have to bear. He prayed that God would be glorified even in His death.

Jesus’ signs and miracles reveal God’s glory by displaying divine power, the crucifixion reveals God’s glory by conveying divine love. The crucifixion completes Jesus’ work of glorifying God on earth, for by laying down his life he gives himself so completely that the world may know of Jesus’ love for God and God’s love for the world.

Everything that God gives to us, our talents, our time, and our treasures should be used to bring glory to God. Even Jesus looked at His power, His time on Earth, and His disciples as gifts from God, (vs.6-10). He was faithful with all that God had given Him up until the end. He prays for all of us that we may also be faithful and that God would protect us (vs.11,15) so that others would come to know Christ through our message (vs.20).

Jesus glorified God on earth by finishing the work God gave him to do (v.4) and by revealing God’s power. We can glorify God by finishing the work He has given us to do, to use our lives as instruments of His grace, to share His love with others. As we love others the way Christ loved us, we make the invisible God visible in the flesh through our lives.


We May Have Eternal Life

“Christ does not pray that they might be rich and great in the world, but that they might be kept from sin, strengthened for their duty, and brought safe to heaven.” Matthew Henry

It’s interesting to realize all the things that Jesus didn’t pray for in this moment. No, He didn’t pray for us to all be rich, powerful, and have everything we want, but He did pray for us to have the one thing we needed above all else… He prayed that we would know God, specifically to know God the way He knows God.

Jesus prayed that we may have eternal life, (v.3). He prayed that God would bring us to be with Him where He is going, (v.24). He wanted us to have that assurance of reunion with God and His Son, but He also said something else about what eternal life really is, (v.3).

He said that eternal life is “knowing you, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent,” (vs.3). “According to John’s gospel, eternal life comes from a relationship with the eternal God,” Craig Koester. Eternal life is now. This is part of eternity right now. The kind of life that God wants for us doesn’t start when we die. It begins now as we follow Christ and come to know the eternal God. Jesus didn’t pray for God to take us out of this world but that He would protect us and use us for His glory in this world, (v.15).

We can experience the full measure of God’s love and His grace here and now in this life. We don’t wait till we die to know God.


We May Be One

The blessing Jesus prays for is: That we may be one as Jesus and God are one. That’s a very important distinction in the kind of unity that Jesus wants for us. He doesn’t just want us to get along and not kill each other. He actually wants us to love one another selflessly the way He loves His Father and the Father loves Him.

We don’t have to get to Martin Luther, or even to the East/West schism of 1054, to know that Christian unity hasn’t lived up to Jesus’ prayer for us. Peter bailed on Jesus and his friends just a chapter later. Paul and Barnabas parted ways halfway through the Book of Acts. And us? If you checked the blogosphere right now, you’d find thousands of examples of Christians arguing over the fine print of our faith. We aren’t one as Jesus and the Father are one. We spend most of our time competing with one another, finding scapegoat enemies on whom to blame the world’s problems, and yelling.  We’re running a repetitive grinder of anxiety in our collective stomachs.

If Jesus is praying on our behalf for us to attain a higher, more lofty sense of togetherness, we sure haven’t listened. So what does that say about us?

What does that say about Jesus’ prayer? For all those who were taught that their heartfelt prayers would be heard and answered, it is quite problematic to see the Son of God’s unanswered prayer staring us in the face.  What does it mean when even Jesus’ prayer isn’t answered?

– Danielle Shroyer

We believe that there is nothing that God cannot do, but why hasn’t Jesus’ prayer been answered? We know that God doesn’t force us to do anything. He leads us, prompts us, convicts us, challenges us, but if we don’t listen, if we don’t follow Him, a part of God’s good plan for us remains unfulfilled. I believe that “God gets what God wants.” He will accomplish His purposes, but the frightening thing is that we may miss out on what He is doing. We may miss the blessing that could have been ours when we fight and argue rather than love and serve. Worse yet than missing out is that we may be a stumbling block for others. Rather than being a conduit for God’s love to be shown to a hurting world, we may actually drive people away from God and His Son by the way we claim to represent Him.

Jesus isn’t just asking God for something. He’s asking us for something. He’s praying to us, pleading with us also… “be one with each other, as We are one.” Unity and love in the body of Christ is far more important than being right. It seems for the last century the major thrust of Christendom is about who’s right and has the answers. We’ve lost something when we fail to love one another and love others who may be difficult to love. Can we really call ourselves Christians just because we believe certain things and go to special places, if we don’t truly love people. As the old hymn reminds us, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

I read somewhere that “people may not always remember what you say, but they will always remember how it made them feel.” I pray that we make people feel loved, wanted, believed in, and hoped for. May we bring out the best in one another rather than the worst in each other.

As we come to the close of Jesus’ prayer, we must turn our focus to our own prayers. How shall we pray? “What if we spent less time praying about being right and more time praying about being one?” Danielle Shroyer. What if we spent more time praying for the grace to love those who may be difficult to love? What if we spent more time praying for opportunities to show God’s love to others, whether or not we have the chance to explain it.

May God be glorified in us. May we experience life eternal and the love of an eternal God. May we be one as the Father and the Son are one. May Christ’s prayer be answered in our own. Amen.

The Evolution of Evangelicalism

“When we die, I don’t think God is going to ask us how He created the earth, but He will ask us what we did with what He created.” – Richard Cizik

“Speaking of Faith” with Krista Tippett has become my new favorite podcast. It’s a weekly broadcast of American Public Media. I was listening to an older broadcast today on “The Evolution of American Evangelicalism” featuring an interview with Richard Cizik, former Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In 2006 Richard caused quite an uproar for expressing his concerns over climate change and torture, which many evangelicals believed drew attention away from issues like abortion and gay marriage. Last year Richard resigned from his position after 28 years with the organization following further controversy after voicing support for civil unions on NPR.

Had there been more evangelicals like Richard speaking up several years ago I probably would not have been so quick to distance myself from them. Surprisingly, the controversy over his comments drew out the support of many like-minded Christians. Several years later, a new breed of evangelicals, like Brian McLaren, are voicing similar concerns about broader social issues that don’t line up neatly with the GOP platform. It’s past time the church separate itself from one particular political party and examine closely for itself the teachings of Jesus, which remain radical even in today’s culture.

Living with Chronic Idiopathic Urticaria

If you have Chronic Idiopathic Urticaria, I doubt I have to explain what it is, or you wouldn’t be searching the internet for relief. There are links galore on symptoms and possible causes, but idiopathic means the cause is unknown and so is the cure. I don’t know my “triggers.” I don’t think there are any. 99% of all urticaria is auto-immune related and unrelated to an allergy, but I do know that Aspirin, Ibuprofen, or Naproxen is like throwing gasoline on a fire for me. Steroids are NOT a long term solution. If you’re on them, talk to your doctor and get off them ASAP. They can do more damage than they can help. I have read several articles that cite studies saying that the anxiety experienced by chronic idiopathic urticaria is similar to patients recovering from triple heart bypass surgery. I believe it. I don’t like writing about this. It’s embarrassing and extremely frustrating. Even more frustrating is trying to find relief. Read more…

Making time

  • Meditate
  • exercise
  • write
  • read
  • cut my hair

… all things I’ve been meaning to “make time” to do. Lol. That’s a joke. We don’t “make” time. We spend it, use it, waste it, cherish it, but we don’t make it. We have a limited allotment and are only allowed withdrawals. It’s easy to go into auto-pilot or damage-control, doing only what must be done to get through to another day. I’m burnt out on things that waste my time. I’m going to have to start spending time on those things that bring the most fulfillment and make the biggest difference… but there are soooo many distractions. I’m going to have to work on those. Maybe I’ll start tomorrow…

Touching Jesus

I haven’t given up on reading the Bible. It’s just not the only thing I read anymore. It’s been a lifelong challenge to study the Bible and bang my head against the pages until I see something I didn’t see before. It’s never been more challenging to wrestle with those words than it is now. I see life differently. Everything is not as black and white as we’ve been lead to believe. Life is full of nuance and mystery that refuses to be explained away easily. Science has taught us so much, but so much remains a mystery. It’s the stuff of religion, romance, imagination, and fate.

I’m reading the Gospel lesson for tomorrow curious as to what approach a preacher friend would take on it but also scratching my head and wondering what, if anything, this means to me. Go ahead and read it if you like, Mark 5:21-43. I’ll wait…

So if you’d like to think that Jesus was just a prophet, a revolutionary figure, a reformer, or even a charlatan, here comes these passages that declare without pretense that he was more than what you take him for. We can debate whether these things happened literally or were the embellishments of people writing to make a theological statement, but we would miss the point of what these passages are supposed to teach us about who Jesus was and who we are.

There are plenty of people making money selling the latest greatest whatever in religion. Miracle handkerchiefs, annointed oil, holy water, seeds of faith, multi-millon dollar sanctuaries, fantastic programs, mega-star personalities, and on and on. In this passage both Jairus and the woman believed that touching Jesus was enough to heal. Touch is a powerful human experience in and of itself without any special magic.

In college I learned what to do and what not to do when it comes to caring for the ill and dying. In what was supposed to be a practical how-to of pastoral care, the only thing I remember from that class was the professor said when making pastoral visits to the sick 1) never sit on the bed, 2) read a scripture, 3) have prayer, and 4) never stay more than a few minutes. Seriously. While I was job shadowing a hospice chaplain the next semester, I learned that he broke every rule. He told me how important it was to touch people, especially the dying. So many terminally ill and shut ins, go days and weeks without anyone touching them in a meaningful and compassionate way. I watched him sit on the bedside and hold hands, rub shoulders, kiss foreheads, even cry and pray with people, and we almost always stayed until the time was right to leave.

There was nothing magical, super spiritual, or clinically effective about what he did, but it made such a difference in those lives. I never saw one of them jump out of bed miraculously healed either. They all died. Everyone of them, but I like to think their spirits were healed, which was so much more effective than a ceremonial pastoral blessing.

Before we write sermons and build churches around the “touch of Jesus,” he said in the passage that it wasn’t touching him that made them whole. Lots of people were touching him and pushing him around, but none of them were miraculously healed. He told the woman who touched him that it was her faith that made her whole. When Jairus found out his daughter had died, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; only believe.”

I don’t know how to adequately describe faith. It’s not about “believing” the right things. It’s about hope and trust in what can be. I readily admit that there are people in my life who have much more faith than I do. I’m a skeptic by default. I reason everything out and try to figure things out for myself, but there are people I know who just hope against hope for no other reason than it’s all they have. I need people like that around me, because all too often we encounter situations and crises that are beyond our ability to cope with or fix. We have to make a choice. Either we resign ourselves to be victims of circumstance, lie down, and take it, or we declare with every ounce of our being that we refuse to accept reality as it’s presented to us. We hold onto faith.

The law of odds says that more times than not miracles are rare. If they happened routinely, they wouldn’t be considered miraculous. It’s the exception for a devestating illness to suddenly disappear… for young girls on death’s door to get up and walk. Even for those who experience miraculous turns of fate, they too eventually died. All of them. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t have faith.

I’ve never been so angry as to visit terminally ill people who were visited by a faith healer or a preacher selling indulgences. It makes my blood boil to think of the people who’ve been told, “if you only had faith, God would heal you.” I’ve buried plenty of men and women of great faith. Life happens and so does death. No snake oil salesmen can change that.

I take away from these encounters with Jesus that there is something in us that we have the abilitiy to tap into that allows us to transcend our circumstances. There is divinity in us. It’s in our cosmic DNA. There are traces of timelessness in us that defies death, disease, and adversity. I do believe that people can discover faith that enables them to tap into the incredible potential of our bodies to heal themselves, but more importantly they can realize that they are more than flesh and blood and bones. They are spirit, and death and disease can never kill them.

50.

People who look
for the secret of long life
wind up dead.

Their bodies are the focus of their lives
and the source of their death,
because they think a healthy body
is all there is to life.

Lao Tzu used to say
a man who truly understood life
could walk through the jungle
without fear
or across a battlefield
without armor, totally unarmed.
Wild animals and weapons couldn’t kill him.

I know, I know:
what the hell does that mean?
“Well, he couldn’t be killed,”
Lao Tzu said,
“because his body
wasn’t where he kept his death.”

~ Tao Te Ching, adapted by Ron Hogan