Starword: Singleminded

The Epiphany StarWord I received this year is Singleminded. A good word for me to reflect on for this new year, as I find that it has become increasingly more difficult for me to live a singleminded life-a life that is focused on God’s call and purpose for my life.  The older I get and the more complicated life gets too often obscures who I am, a follower of Jesus Christ, and who I belong to, the living God.

Jesus called us  to serve One Master, a call that Jesus intentionally sent out at the front end of the discipleship journey, before all the implications and ins and outs of life came into the discussion. We need to recover that first foundational call of the gospel if we’re to live out our worship the way the Creator desires.

The single-minded living of the gospel leaves no space for a grab bag faith, a do what feels good right now system of choice-making.  But miraculously, impossibly, somehow in the grace of God it also doesn’t cast aside or assume as unacceptable the weak, imperfect human beings who stumble around as they try to answer God’s call. Single-minded living is not for the disingenuous , but it’s also not for the elite.

Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom with a call to the “poor in spirit,” announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven would be theirs. Jesus regularly explained and demonstrated that He was opening the door of the Kingdom wide enough to allow access for those who had no right to be in the presence of the holy God and those who had no status in the world’s eyes However, while  Jesus opened the doors of the Kingdom wide enough for any human being to enter, He also set the bar high enough so that for anybody coming in, it would cost everything. In a uniquely paradoxical way, the Kingdom of Jesus was to be simple and welcoming enough for a child to enter but more challenging and difficult than anything else in the world. It was to be accessible to the morally bankrupt, but at the same time more demanding than any other moral or religious regime. This is a great tension in the Kingdom; the greatest freedom and the most demanding call ever known to humanity exist side by side in the gospel.

The demanding dimension of life in the Kingdom is precisely it’s emphasis on a single-minded or fully devoted lifestyle, the call to a sole focus on Jesus to the exclusion of all else. In this call to single-minded living is a challenge that any human being from any walk of life, no matter how capable or incapable, strong or weak, religious or rebellious by nature, will find equally difficult to maintain. We all have things we don’t want to give up. We all find it just as difficult as the next person to give our all.

My journey this year will be to ponder, read, and pray for the gift of baby steps toward living at least a moment of a single-minded life each day.  Practicing, if even for a time, giving God my all–my fears, my disappointments, my sickness, my doubts,my yearnings for something more or better or different, than my present.  And, paradoxically, to give God my contentment to bask in what I know, and instead to reach for a God who is bigger than my life, my reality, my comfort place, as well as all that the constantly creating Creator has in store for me.  Single-minded living for me means living more in God’s moment, and less in mine!

Kingdom Bearers

Here is today’s offering

Living on the Edge

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.” ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)

What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

This coming Sunday, I am preaching “off-Lectionary” and have been looking at the verses in Luke 17:20-18:9, and thinking about God’s Kingdom on earth.  My first thought was “where is it??”  In this passage, Jesus 1st century disciples were looking for “signs” of God’s Kingdom.  Much of the time, we’re still looking for signs.  Is God really here, today?  Because, looking at our 21st century world, well, it is not…

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Kingdom Bearers

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. . . . Our task in the present . . . is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.” ( N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope)

What does it mean to live as resurrection people? As agents of hope in a world where hope is in short supply?

This coming Sunday, I am preaching “off-Lectionary” and have been looking at the verses in Luke 17:20-18:9, and thinking about God’s Kingdom on earth.  My first thought was “where is it??”  In this passage, Jesus 1st century disciples were looking for “signs” of God’s Kingdom.  Much of the time, we’re still looking for signs.  Is God really here, today?  Because, looking at our 21st century world, well, it is not easy to isolate the Kingdom of God amongst all of the other kingdoms.

So, what is God’s Kingdom and what does it look like?  As I began making my kingdom list, I kept coming back to Easter.  It is kind of weird to be thinking about Easter in August, but that is where my journey of discovery has taken me.

For most of us, the cross is central in our sanctuaries.  It is suspended from the ceiling or hanging on a wall, it is sitting on a communion table or altar.  Many of us wear crosses around our necks.  Bottom line, we have adopted the cross as the center of our faith. And yet, while the cross is certainly a central theme in the story of how God saves us, it is one aspect of a greater story.

As folks who are followers of Jesus, we believe that Jesus died for our sins. Which is HUGE.  But, there’s more to the Golgotha event than that.  Jesus lived to tell about it.  And he lived—that we might live with Him.  The resurrection was THE moment in history that changed everything—it was the inaugural event of the new creation.  The amazing moment when the incarnate God moved in, and made a home in God’s people.  God’s promised Kingdom was present, on planet earth, forever and ever.

I think that the moment Christ breathed his first post-crucifixion breath, he breathed that Spirit-breath into God’s group of less than perfect, works in progress, followers, and made us bearers of God’s Kingdom.  Bearers of the incarnate God, to a world still broken, still living as if God has left the building.

I’m thinking that be bearings of God’s Kingdom means more than just wearing the membership badge, going to church, and living our lives the way we always have.

The question for me, as not only an image bearer of the Living God, but as a bearer of God’s Kingdom,  how do we demonstrate – in how we live – our confidence that death is no longer the final word?  How do we not only bear but wear and share what it means for every single person on earth that God is here, in person, making all things new?

What does it look like to live so aligned with Jesus, so like him in word, motive, and actions, that people who see us see evidence of resurrection?

What does it look like when God is moving in our world and lives?  The counter-cultural sermon on the mount is the place to start. In Matthew 6, we find the proclamation of the Great Reversal: a new kingdom coming, a new way to live. Jesus says: Look, you do it this way. Turn what the world teaches, upside down.

Blessed are the rich and powerful? No – blessed are the poor and humble.                    You love those who love you? Love those who don’t as well.
You worry? Learn to trust.  Choose to trust.                                                                    You want your own way?  Want my way [Jesus’ way] instead.

If you walk through the gospels, you’ll see that the Great Reversal begins to take shape in small ways, through different people.  The tax collector Zacchaeus, stunned by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, decides to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he’s cheated.

The Samaritan woman at the well starts her story afraid to draw water at the normal times, reluctant to talk with Jesus, a secretive woman burdened by shame. She ends her story sharing the news of Jesus with everyone in town; according to Orthodox tradition, she was renamed Photini, “Equal to the Apostles,” and went on to witness in Africa and Rome before being martyred for her faith.

Were there others whose lives demonstrated a reversal of intent, a radical, visible change? Certainly people were healed. Lives were redirected. The teaching and example of Jesus attracted plenty of attention.

But in the gospels, although Jesus taught about the coming kingdom, it wasn’t really visible in the lives of his followers. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, were still wondering how to maneuver their way to power. Peter, self-focused from the start, was busy with his own off-beat agendas. Mary and Martha bickered about the proper role for a spiritual woman. And, even his twelve closest friends fought amongst themselves, bickering over who was the most important disciple.  And one of the twelve ended up betraying Jesus. All seemed convinced their own ideas, their own plans for the future, would somehow work better than whatever Jesus had in mind.

What did Jesus do with all of this?  He took their agendas, their plans, their self-importance, and shredded them all.  Completely.

Want power? Turn the other cheek. Again.
Want a future? Let your best hopes die.
Want to be an insider? Part of the gang? One of the club? Align yourself with the marginalized, forgotten, despised. Set your reputation with theirs. Claim their abandonment as your own.

The resurrection isn’t some sweet idea of spring and tulips and new clothes, and Easter baskets.

It’s God’s deep song of joy, rising up from the very darkest place of pain and grief: the story isn’t over. The hardest word is not the last. The thing you feared most is the best gift yet. The deepest loss is the avenue to deepest joy.

Beyond that, with the knowledge of that, everything changes.  Or should.

We are bearers of God’s Kingdom.  Bearers.  We are also the Bearers of God, God’s love, and hope, and dreams, and agenda. Where is God’s Kingdom today?  Well, it is present and accounted for, in the people who love with no strings, in those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, walk with the oppressed.  It is present in the people who work to heal and restore God’s land.  It is here in those who wear and share the gospel, in word and deed.

The reason it’s hard to find today, is, in part, because we are aren’t wearing and sharing well.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright suggests

 “The point of the resurrection … is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die … What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.”

Amen and Amen.

 

 

 

 

Persistent prayer: Why bother?

This morning, I sat down to begin thinking about this coming Sunday’s gospel passage, Luke 11:1-13.  It’s the passage where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray like John taught his disciples.  Apparently, John had spent some time teaching his followers about how to pray but Jesus hadn’t done that yet.  So, it sets it down for them:

“Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to [who sins against] us. And don’t bring us to the time of trial.”

Very bare bones, very Jewish.  But then Jesus went on to share a couple of his parables.  And its the parables that get me stuck every time.

First, there’s the neighbor who decides he needs something to eat at midnight.  Apparently, his cupboards are bare, so he heads to his friend’s house next door, and bangs on the door–persistently.  His friend yells down to him to go home and come back at a more godly hour.  But, the guy keeps pounding until finally, at last, his buddy comes downstairs and gives him what he wants–not because they’re friends, but because the bearer of the much desired bread is sick of the banging on his door.  So, he gave up the bread because he was annoyed.  Okaaaay.

Jesus gives them a significant look, with a little bit of a playful smirk, then goes on to his next point.

 “So ask and it will be given; search and
you will find; knock and the door will be opened.”

Okaaaay!

Jesus take a breath, and continues with his third illustration.

If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake; if she asks for an egg, would you giver her a scorpion?  “So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who
ask?”

Okie dokie!  Jesus’ brief lesson in prayer.  Clearly, the operative word here is “ask”.  And ask persistently.  As I have thought about this passage this morning, one thought keeps pounding its way into my thinking: what about all of that unanswered prayer?  The husband or child or friend, who died of cancer, in spite of the multitude of persistent prayers from many many people?  Or the persistent prayers for a job, for a troubled marriage, for an estranged friend?  What about those?  Jesus says, when praying, to ” Ask, and it will be given to you, seek and you will find,  knock and the door will be opened to you”, but sometimes you don’t get or find, and no door opens.  Right?

I have folks who attend my church who have lost so much: children and husbands to cancer and accidents; folks who have been out of work for a year or more; folks who have had to let go of friendships that were very important.  All of these folks, as well as our church, and countless others, have prayed for them, for their loved ones, persistently asking that God would heal and open doors. If you’re human, you know what it feels like to ask, seek, and knock, and feel like you get nothing for the effort.  How does a pastor preach this passage with integrity and not dodge the BIG question of unanswered prayer?  Well, we can’t.

So, here’s my thinking so far.  Jesus told us to pray “Our Father”, translated “Abba” translated “Daddy.”  Now ,we know that most parents deeply  love their kids and want the best for them, so sometimes, when a kid asks for something, and the parent doesn’t feel it is what the kid needs, that it wouldn’t be the best thing for the kid, the parent says “no” or “not yet”. Abba loves us so much more than our earthly parents, and only wants what is the very best for us.  So sometimes Abba God says “no, or not yet”.  True, and very comforting for someone who is job hunting or someone who wants to restore a broken relationship,  but not very comforting for someone who has lost someone significant to death, especially an unexpected death, or the death of someone way too young to die.  Especially for parents who have had to say goodbye to a son or a daughter.  How can that possibly be good for us?  I wish I understand how God thinks or why God makes the choices God makes.  I don’t.

Still, I believe, even in those circumstances, God will give us the very best for us.  And sometimes the best is that God stops the storm, and gives what is asked for,  miraculously. God heals the cancer, the relationship, and gives us the job we’ve been persistently praying for.  Sometimes.  And,  sometimes, God calms the child in the midst of the storm.

I am reminded of something a wonderfully honest and deep writer shared,

Rabbi Harold Kushner  relates a story in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People about a young woman who challenged him about prayer after her husband had died of cancer. 

“She told me that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery,” he says.  “Her parents, her in-laws, and her neighbors all prayed.  A protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of  St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.  Every variety, language, and idiom of prayer was mustered on his behalf, and none of them worked.  He died right on schedule, leaving her and her young children bereft of a husband and father.  After all that, she said to me, how can anyone be expected to take prayer seriously?

“Is it really true, I asked her, that your prayers were not answered?  Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness.  But what did happen?  Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, and Protestant prayed.  At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all.  You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing.  They were trying to tell you that this was not happening to you because you were a bad person.  It was just a rotten, unfair thing that no one could help.  They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too, … and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone.  That is what their prayers were saying, and I suspect that it made a difference.”

“And what about your prayers?, I asked her.  Were they left unanswered?  You faced a situation that could have easily broken your spirit…. [yet] somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken.  You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things….  You faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were.  In your desperation, you opened your heart, to prayer, and what happened?  You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy.  But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy.  I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.” 

 Does God answer prayer?  Yes, however not always the way we expect or hope.  Why does God not always give us what we ask, or open the doors we want open?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that God has a much larger perspective than you and I. Does God always give us what is best for us?  A resounding yes, even though we don’t understand it at the time.

Why bother praying?  Because God asks us to.  Because God wants a relationship with us.  Because God wants to walk with us through everything we’re going through.  Because God really does care about us and loves us, and knows what we need so much better than we ever will.

 

End game?

I’ve been playing Yatzi on my iPad the last couple of weeks and I’ve noticed a disappointing trend…when the game isn’t going my way, I hit the “end game” button, and start a new game. And I do this this until I get two or three good rolls I. A row. It nothing stops me, even in the middle of a game, if the dice rolls go south.

It’s so easy to just end the game and start over.

The thing is, though, the game isn’t as satisfying when I restart like a dozen times. I feel cheated (but I keep ending it anyway) because I don’t Ike to lose.

Yesterday, after a few “end games” I got to thinking about the many times in my life I wished I had had a button to push that would end the misery, the frustration, the seemingly endless cul-de-sacs of life. Wouldn’t it be great to have an “easy button” an “end game” button In life and ministry?

Paul didn’t think so. He says we’re in a race and it’s a long, hard, and hot run, but finishing and finishing well the journey God has put us on, is what living is all about. It is what living in faith is all about.

Persevere. Keep going. And learn God’s trustworthiness on the road. No easy buttons. No end game buttons, but always a fresh new start button. That’s God’s grace, God’s gift to us runners, as we head for that finish line! And, at the end of our journey, we won’t feel cheated, because we’ve lived our life to the fullest, through the rough times as well as the good. We’ve learned, we’ve grown, because we kept going with gusto!

“Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.” Frederick Buechner

Happy Independence Day!

I Am Waiting

By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting” from A Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm.

Source: These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1993)

Funky Rejoicing

Some mornings I just wake up in a funk. This morning was one of those. Not that anything was particularly wrong. I didn’t step on the cat and spill my coffee. The puppy didn’t pee on the floor on his way outside. The parrots weren’t screaming their little beaks off. The sun was out, the birds were feeding at the outside feeders. All seemed well. Except that I woke up in a funk. I have so many blessings, so many good things to be grateful for, so why the funk, and why is it so hard to rejoice when you’re in one?

Why the funk? No idea. Probably hormonal. Last night I was driving home from church and was sweating like crazy. I had the air on, but I was dripping. I thought I was having a, for me, very rare hot flash. But, the issue wasn’t menopause last night, the issue was that I had somehow moved my seat warmer button to the high position. 90 degrees outside, but my hind end was probably 125 degrees. Whew, no hot flash, whew, it was hot!

Funk happens. Just happens. No explanation that I can come up with, other than it’s part of life, and, for me, possibly because I dreamed about another wedding, and I wasn’t the bride. But I woke up in a funk.

So, what happens? I took a peek at my devotion for this morning, and to my horror, the text was from Mr. Happy Face himself, Paul.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:4-9

The funk deepens. Very very amusing, God.

I did not feel like rejoicing. Not one ounce of joy in me this morning to form a foundation for rejoicing. But I read, reflected, prayed, read again, prayed some more and reflected again,  and one thought and one question bubbled up to the surface. I want to rejoice in the Lord, always. How can I rejoice when I am in a funk?

Joy is a bit of a strange thing. Joy and life beyond constant worry do not come to us when we have mastered this or that level of spirituality. “Joy comes to us when we can sense God’s action among us even in the midst of pain and difficulty. Joy is a discipline of perception, not an emotion dependent on circumstances (repeat). For Paul, joy is shared, not individual; a byproduct, not an end in itself; a discipline, not a right; a command not an option. You see, joy is not the goal—it is the outcome and a sign of the risen Christ among us.”[1] Our goal is to live and serve and love in the midst of the Risen Christ among us. Funny thing about joy—it always seems to take root in the midst of adversity. When you think about it that really is true. How can we ever feel true joy if we have not experienced true difficulty or true pain? Joy has to grow from the fertile soil of pain.

I think Paul was teaching his friends in Philippi, and us, how necessary it is to be “centered and balanced so we can bend to whatever life throws at us, but not be destroyed.”[2] This text is a call to remain centered as we journey through this life, a journey that is anything but easy.

There is a very fascinating little preposition in this verse, one that Paul uses a lot in his writing. It is the preposition “in.” Paul says in everything give thanksgiving. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul says, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Notice that these verses do not say be thankful for everything, but in everything.

So, are we just supposed to tune out the destruction and evil going on in the world? Nope! God hates that evil every bit as much as you and I do. God doesn’t say be thankful for cancer, for terrorists, for selfish people, for judgmental people, for greedy people, for abusive people, for war, for injustice. God says be thankful in those things because God is involved, working though all sorts of people, to put things right. God the Creator, Redeemer, Restorer, ‘Renewer’ is in the mess with us! And not just in the mess, but making all things new in that mess. That is certainly something to rejoice about and in. God is in the middle of anything life can throw at us!!! And, this is not just philosophical thankfulness, either. This is joyful confidence that God is at work, and God will never let us down, no matter what our circumstances may be.

Here is one statement that I remember from Obama’s acceptance speech last November: “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”[3]

I would add a little something to his statement, “so long as we remain joyful and faithful in the Lord, awaiting whatever God may bring.” Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you!

Huh! Funk gone!  Happy Wednesday!

[1] Nathan Eddy. Feasting on the Word: Homiletical Perspective of Philippians 4:1-9. Vol. 2, Year A. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). 160
[2] Joretta Marshall. Good Preacher: Back Issues Plus! “Pastoral Implications of Philippians 4:4-7. Page 1.
[3] Barack Obama after his acceptance speech, November 6, 2012.