Sing a Saving Song

Proper 8 / June 29, 2014

Psalm 13 casts a prayerful scenario that is likely familiar to everybody at some time in their life. The writer of this prayer/song is complaining that God is playing “peek-a-boo” with him and he is plenty tired of it. He is ready for God to quit playing games and get back to making his life easy or at least easier. The complaint is that God has forgotten him, has stopped answering prayers, has seemingly withdrawn completely, and left him captive with these thoughts. If God doesn’t hurry up and respond then not only will his personal enemies win, but he in fact is likely to die (v.3).

We too have wondered why faith/life is often this way. Why do we sometimes feel distant from God or why do we sometimes think that God has forgotten all about us? It is probably because we are so focused on “me” that we assume “He” is too. We know that God is focused on us, but His focus is broader than the personal comforts and pleasantries that we feel should come with a membership in the church. God is focused on saving the world – we are focused on saving ourselves. God is focused on healing the sick, feeding the hungry, helping widows and orphans – we honed in our “a pain free, 3 square meals a day, don’t label me experience.” God is building the church for service to the world – we are building our wealth to give us happiness, security, and opportunity.

The Psalmist gains clarity by falling back into trust in God to do and be everything in his life. As he trusts in God he gets a clearer vision of full salvation provided by God and regains perspective about the loneliness, anxiety, and fear that has gripped him. All of these feelings are real and very much a part of being human, but they should not define how we life out our faith in God. For He is bigger than the “boogie man and the monsters on TV” and He is bigger than the emotions that tear at our faith causing us to doubt or accuse our saving God.

Trust is our pivot point from accusing God of things He hasn’t done. This trust compels the writer to sing a song to the Lord that is a declaration of God’s goodness – not God’s deliverance, power, or even availability. He is trusting in the goodness of God in a dark hour in His life for only this good God would care enough to come into the personal conflict swirling around and inside his heart. It is in the goodness of God that we lovingly and faithfully sing “in God we trust.”

He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent. (Augustine)

The World Cup & Christian Faith

2014 world cup

Soccer…The beautiful game… I hate to say is growing on me. (I only pray that Mike Ditka forgives me for saying that!) It’s growing on you too. While it is a long way from nearing the top of our favorite past times, it is on the move upward recently passing cricket and darts on many lists of sports to care about.

The USA versus Portugal match on Sunday had almost 25 million viewers – a record for American viewers for soccer. While the Super Bowl will top 110 million viewers every year, 25 million is a good number for a game without championship implications involved. Ratings will only go up the further Team USA advances. El futbol es vivo y bien!

Still, in order for that sport to capture the attention of our culture and become relevant for the mainstream, there are significant challenges. For starters, Americans like our sports with a little bit of violence and with the exception of the Uruguayan who is biting his opponents, soccer appears void of tough guys. We don’t like rules that are subjective either. There have to be fundamental laws in place, or there is chaos on the field. (How can you just add minutes at the end of a half? Why doesn’t the clock ever stop? How can you just add a rule that allows for a water break because you are playing in the South American heat and the Europeans are tired?) Americans also like clear winners and losers. A tie is a waste of time and ticket money. No game that ends 0-0 will ever matter to me or most of my friends. It just won’t be relevant to our “win at all costs” psyche. And perhaps most importantly, Americans need to be able celebrate individual success so we can properly idolize the champion. Soccer is too team oriented. Even the coaches are given high praise when a team wins. Americans want more than pretty boys to put on poster. Give us a dominator, a humiliator, a SHAQ-a-nator!

Violence. Fundamentalism. Relevance. Individualism. All challenges for soccer to capture the short attention span of the American sports culture.

Those are also challenges for the church. How can the church capture the culture if the values of the culture – violence, fundamentalism, relevance, individualism – are the very things that we are called to confront, cast out, and cut from our spiritual lives? If the church plays the game that the culture is playing we offer believers/seekers/atheists/agnostics/others nothing that changes the empty life that culture has sold them/us.

Soccer may be the beautiful game, but the beautiful news for our world/culture/church is that salvation has come from God, and we can never be the same as we exchange all of the habits/obsessions/sins of our world for wholeness in Christ. May God help us lose our infatuation with violence, fundamentalism, relevance, and individualism so that we may be personally fulfilled through the pursuit of peace, freedom, generosity, and insignificance.

God is waiting to tell the world a beautiful story through the church. When will we show up to play our part?

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

When we sin…

abraham hagar

Proper 7/ June 22, 2014

8The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”   (Genesis 21:8-13)

 

Is it too simple a thing to suggest that Sarah is solely responsible for the millennium long conflict between Christians and Muslims?  Wouldn’t our world be much better off if Sarah had never thought of giving her maiden to Abraham to bear him a child that divided their happy tent?

Of course and of course. It is too simple to just make this a text that fills in the blanks on our Religion 101 test and it is too simple to say Sarah should have never preempted God’s promise to provide a child of promise through her. She did, Abraham participated, Hagar seems to be a total victim here, and a male heir is not only cut out of the will, but is made an outcast. Shame, shame, shame.

Two obvious points for living by faith:

  1. God does not want us to do His work for Him. He is capable of taking care of His business. So let him be God. If He promises a child, He will deliver, but on His terms. Be patient. Trust in Him. Wait with anticipation of what is to come. Only God can make us whole, happy, and assured.
  2. When we sin, there will be consequences so don’t make it worse with a cover up or an attempt to eradicate the act or its memory. It is what it is and we will live with it. But know this. God does not turn His back on the unwanted child. He loves Him and promises to be a provider of the child despite him not being the child or promise.  Neither does he drop the bigger plan of making Abraham and Sarah his people of promise because of their sin. He still loved them and still kept them at the center of the story He is telling. Wow!

I do not believe that this was a part of God’s plan. No way he compels Abraham to father this child so that He can show how benevolent He is by caring for him once the jealous Sarah has him cast out. The good news is that God takes what we have messed up through our sin and attempts to mold it for His good  – even in Abraham’s stupidity and Sarah’s jealousy.  It is up to us to make room in our life for God to work for working in us is His desire. The heart of the gospel is that through Christ sin and death have been conquered both in eternal reality and in practical choosing. We do not have to live in or bound by sin. Through Christ we may be free from active willful sinning AND being  cast as a sinner in this life. None of this is our doing. It is all God’s work who forgives, redeems, restores, and renews us for holy living and fruitful ministry.

Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, Ishmael all walked in the grace of God from this day forward and made their choices to allow Him to be their God or not.  Religious history reveals those choices and the world has never been the same.

What will religious history reveal about the way we walked in the grace of God who calls us to leave the life we know and follow him?

Tim Duncan is my favorite pastor!

duncan 2

I know he is not a pastor in the American evangelical sense or any tradition that I know of.  I’m not even arguing that he is a disciple of Christ (though I hope he is). To my knowledge he is not ordained, did not attend seminary, and has never been to a district assembly, but when I watch him with his team he seems so pastoral to me.  Hear me out for a minute.

What I am struck by is his style as a leader. And let’s face it, if we are discussing pastoral leadership in this day and age we are almost always evaluating a pastor’s style instead of her/his substance, stability, or significance as a faith leader. In the same sense, Tim Duncan is only being appreciated broadly now that he has won another NBA championship, but before long he will be forgotten as the flashier, more famous, and fulgent stars take back their pedestals so we may further deify their narcissistic ways. If he wins 5 more rings he will never be considered the top player because he is in pursuit of the wrong things in the eyes of those evaluating celebrity status.

What I like about Tim Duncan and would love to see more of from the pastoral office is that:

He is not obsessed with being a winner, but committed to excellence as a player and teammate.

He is not motivated by making more money, but moved by being a part of something special.

He is not lured by the flash of the big lights of celebrity, but rewarded by the legacy of being a cornerstone of professional sports’ best organization.

He is more fundamental than flash.

He is interested in his team instead of being infatuated with his individual accolades.

He is more trustworthy to his coach/teammates than TV worthy for public consumption and obsession.

He is focused on keeping the covenant of his team rather than chasing the concept of being considered cool.

All of these traits are difficult to come by. They are neither naturally supported by our inward tendencies nor applauded by culture. He is an exception to the rule for basketball players and bona fide stars of every sport. The actions of Tim Duncan are foreign to most leaders in sports, business, government, and the church as he sacrifices himself for the success of his team and city. It should be easy for everyone to appreciate the way he leads, plays, and lives both on and off the court, but most of us don’t want to be him. The way he leads is a sign of high character and clear conviction about who he is and where he wants to go, but many of us don’t care to pay the price that he pays to be who he is as champion athlete.

Pastoral leaders should/could be very similar in their practice of ministry. Pastors are not to be the center of attention – lest we be mistaken for the messiah.  Pastors are not to be “in it to win it” – lest we invest in only profitable places and programs. Pastors are not to be driven to achieve high personal rewards or recognitions – lest we forget the contributions of others who have brought us to the place of leadership. Pastors are not to buy into their own press – lest we become moved by public opinion over Christlike calling.

Pastoral work is difficult, demanding, and sometimes /often overwhelming. But it is the work that God has given us (all of us!), and it cannot be shaped and reshaped by culture. Being a pastor is much harder than being a professional basketball player (easy for me to say, right?) The call to pastor people should be embraced and practiced with the highest degree of commitment, compassion, and care possible. Pastoring people does not require a pulpit, a robe, a band, or even a certificate. It requires a calling and a response, a vision and a plan, a conviction and a commitment, courage and compassion, strength and sacrfice. Pastoring people will cost us everything, but will include us in the thing that is most important to God – the one true Church. This Church bears His image in a broken, selfish, hedonistic culture and is His way of bringing new life to a dead world as the body of Christ.

 

John the Baptist said “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”   (John 3)

Where was I?

Trinity Sunday / June 15, 2014

oj simspon

I was not born when JFK, MLK and RFK were shot, so I don’t remember.

I was 5 when Elvis died. I remember being in the living room with my mom watching the news coverage and funeral while she cried and cried and cried.

I was at school when President Reagan was shot and when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

I was sitting on the couch watching Tom Brokaw on the evening news when I first heard of AIDS and was in the Trevecca gym when I heard Magic Johnson had been infected with HIV.

And then a few years later…

Two dead bodies. A white bronco and a massive chase. The 405. Mark Furhman. Kato Kaelin. Judge Ito. The trial of the century. Court TV. A glove that didn’t fit. Acquittal. 20 years ago today.

Everything this week has reminded me that 20 years ago OJ Simpson was accused, arrested, tried, and acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. Of course OJ has been in the news every one of those 20 years for various reasons, so I haven’t forgotten about him. Nor have the now 1,000 legal TV shows and channels let me forget that for a period of time in 1994-1995 our country stopped to watch the drama unfold in court with Johnny Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, Carl Douglas and Robert Kardashian center stage. Eleven months after the jury was selected, the verdict came as an acquittal. The “Juice” was once again loose.

So, 20 years ago… where was I? I had just graduated from college and was looking for a job. I believe that I had been on a date and came home to watch the end of the NBA Finals game when the TV was abducted by a police chase. For the next few weeks I watched as closely as everyone else did. Detail after detail came to light, and Orenthal James Simpson looked more guilty each day. The trial messed up my daily Today show routine with legal TV nonsense to the point that I stopped watching the first 10 minutes. With the verdict,the public outcry and then the civil trial began. I went from interested to disinterested to cynical to mad to annoyed to disillusioned to “could care less whatever happens.” For the last 18 ½ years or so I have given very little thought to the matter. After all, I didn’t know either family member and had never been to Brentwood, CA. Not really my problem and nothing I could do about anything going on.

So it really doesn’t matter where I was or what I was doing when the murders occurred or when I saw the police chase. I don’t care where I was when the verdict was read or when OJ was acquitted. It doesn’t matter what I think about the verdict or the way the whole scene further soured most Americans on due process, fair trial, and hot shot lawyers who can get anybody off by raising reasonable doubt to the simplest minded jurors available. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that 20 years have passed and all around me thousands of murders have occurred in the cities where I’ve lived. What does matter is that people I know have been victims of domestic violence who seemed to be a happy family. What does matter is that people I know have been caught in the circus of ridiculous court cases. What does matter is that children have been left orphaned by parents sentenced to jail because of selfish, sinful behavior. For 20 years as a pastor and a community leader I have been a witness, usually without the ability to prevent, alter, or determine the outcome. Just a witness standing by to count the tragedies and consider the harm done to everyone involved. Standing by; watching the social stats sky rocket; wishing things could change; remembering where I was when…

In 2012 (in TX),

Child Abuse-

731,456 reports of abuse
66,398 cases of abuse confirmed
17,022 kids removed from home
6,581 kids waiting to be adopted

Domestic Violence-

Women killed in domestic violence attacks: 114

Family violence incidents: 188,992

Adults sheltered because of family violence: 11,994

Children sheltered: 14,534

Adults and children turned away because of space:  26%

Hunger –
18.4 % of all Texans are considered “food insecure”
1,849,100 children in TX are food insecure
4.8 million Texans live in poverty (under $20k for a family of 4)

Death-
2,891 from suicide
1,144 from homicide
10,322 in drunk driving accidents
41,000 from cancer
Where was I?

Most of these things are out of my hands. I can do little more than remember where I was when I heard the stat or saw the report of the bad news. I can only witness the further deterioration of society and of the human spirit. HOWEVER, there will be an opportunity for me to change SOMETHING at some point. I will be able to rescue a family threatened by domestic violence. I will be able to protect a child from abuse. I will be able to give food to someone desperately hungry. I will be able to listen to and befriend someone desperate enough to consider suicide. I will be able to influence my children so that drugs and alcohol are not their master. I will be able to journey the last months with someone dying of cancer who is scared of dying alone.

I will be able to do something because I will not be obsessed with where I was “when such and such happened” because I will be giving myself to the opportunities that today offers for me to be a kingdom witness to the presence and power of God in our world. Not so I can tell God (or anybody else) where I was. So I can tell myself that when others needed me at the most difficult place of their lives, I was not gawking. I was sharing and serving and saying the things that God has poured into me these years, so that I could pour into others for Him.

It no longer matters to me where I was. I don’t even to know where I am going. I only need to know where I am. From here I can bear witness to the love of God in every event of life and call others to believe with me. A love that is a divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit that invites me/us into the fellowship too. And into that fellowship do we bring all of our hurts, our fears, our pains, our worries, our memories, our losses. And God gives us healing, courage, strength, assurance, hope, and unspeakable gain.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed.  But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect.

(2 Corinthians 13:5-10)

What are you looking at?

d and j - buca

You probably think we are smiling for the picture. We are not. We are smiling at the three most beautiful child faces in TX while they wait patiently for lunch. We are also smiling about the giant plate of spaghetti that was just delivered to our table at Buca Di Beppo that will soon meet a critical need. And we are kinda smiling about this once in a lifetime  opportunity to take a picture with Gene Simmons from KISS (look over our shoulder.) Thanks Gene!

Food, family, friends and love. That is what life is all about and God has given me plenty of all of it.  God has been so good to me/us and I/we want for nothing. It has been almost 24 years since we met and we have hundreds of pics together and thousands of restaurant memories. I am hoping/praying for 50 more years and a few thousand more pictures with us smiling like we are eating opossum. Maybe you can get in the picture next time.  🙂