Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Daily lesson for January 27, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Mark chapter 6 verse 5:

"And he could do no mighty work there."

After a powerful preaching and healing campaign throughout Galilee, Jesus has gone back to Nazareth.  But there, amidst his own people and in his own hometown Jesus could do no powerful miracle. 

I hope you can see the Gospel for your life in that: Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, could do no miracle in his own home.

So many of us want so desperately to try to fix our families. Husbands and wives and sons and daughters or friends we love are lost or broken or screwed up and we are desperate to try to save them.  So desperate that we end up enabling them or pushing them further away or destroying everybody else -- including ourselves. We want so badly to work a miracle but the Gospel -- the Gospel -- says Jesus could work no mighty work.  

We must accept this. As the serenity prayer says, we must  "accept the things we cannot change".

But just because we cannot work a miracle does not mean we can do nothing. Note the Gospel says he could do no "strong" work at home. Sometimes it is not the big things, but the small things -- the writing of a letter, a place at the table, a ride to a first AA meeting, the holding of a hand.

Sometimes we just can't work a mighty miracle. But as Mother Theresa said, "We are not called to do great things, but small things with great love."  Sometimes the small things are enough. Sometimes they are not. We must learn to accept all of this, and receive it as the Gospel truth. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 26, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Paul's words to the church in Galatia found in Galatians chapter 1 verses 13 through 15:

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

Tradition.  Custom. Heritage. Way of life.  From his youth Paul was trained to respect and protect these things with zeal. And because Paul was one of the brightest students of his generation he was also all the more zealous in guarding these things -- even to the point of persecuting the church.  Paul had everything he knew about himself invested in his traditions and their preservation. His whole identity and sense of self was wrapped up in this. So what a struggle it must have been for Paul to begin to let go of these things and ultimately "consider them as rubbish" compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and himself in Christ.

To know oneself in Christ is to know oneself as "before the foundations of time".  It means to begin to see oneself and one's core identity no longer in a particular race, clan, country, or club, but rather in what Paul Tillich called the "Ground of all Being-ness", which is God. In Christ, Paul discovered what it means to no longer live as "Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female" but as a human born from the ground of God's being.

Where do you find your ground of being?  Is it in your culture, its traditions, your people's way of life?  Are these the things you want to spend your life defending?  Or is there something deeper to be found -- something greater, something before and after, something eternal. 

In another letter Paul put it by saying, "Our citizenship is in heaven."  What he meant by this is that our ultimate identity is in heaven. When we think on what that is like and who we shall be when we get there then suddenly so much of what we thought was so important here and now begins to fade in the glory of what will be there and then. And suddenly we discover the meaning of the words from that old hymn, "And the things of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 23, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Mark chapter 4 verses 37 through 41:

37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

What an incredible miracle in this Gospel story. Jesus stands boldly upon the bow of the ship with wind and waves battering the little vessel. And amidst this great and terrible storm he commands the waters and the waves to cease and there is peace and stillness. The imagery is that of Genesis 1 where the creation is formless and topsy turvy and waters cover the face of the deep, but God Himself speaks order into the chaos. The Gospel story then ends with a question, the disciples wondering if this Jesus might be God, for who else could command the waves and the waters to draw back.  What a miracle. 

Except, that's not the incredible miracle I'm talking about. The miracle I'm amazed with is not the one Jesus performed from the bow of this. The miracle which most amazes me the one he did just before, while still in the stern. How in the world, I wonder, was he able to sleep during that storm?  How, while the boat was being rocked and ravaged, was the little Lord Jesus still able to lay down his sweet head?

To take control of what is happening is one thing. To take command and speak authority and abate all wind and waves and chaotic forces --  it's impressive, no doubt.  It's the power of God indeed.  But to sleep, to rest so peacefully and without fear, even while the forces of chaos are turning your little dingy of a boat or a life every which way -- that is quite another. This is the power, not so much of God, but of a man who absolutely trusts in God.  It is the power and strength of a man who, though facing certain death from a perfect storm of all that life can throw at him, does not call upon God to calm the storm, but instead calms himself and prays to his God, "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

The Gospel story ends in questions. We have the question of the disciples wondering who this man with such power is. But that's not really what we are meant to ponder. That's the disciples' question. We are meant to ponder Jesus' questions. "Why are you afraid?" and "Where is your faith?"  See, Jesus knows that if we can figure out why it is that we are afraid and where it is what or who it is that our faith is ultimately in, then we will begin to have the peace which allows us to be at rest in any storm -- even those we cannot or should not drive back.

Storms come. They are intent to rock our little boats. And what a miracle it is to be able to drive back the storms with a commanding word from the bow. But with the storms beating away outside, what an even greater miracle it is to be serenely at peace and at rest and without fear  inside the stern.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 22, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Isaiah 45 verses 9b and 10:

Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

Do me and yourself a favor. Relax for a minute or two. Set your phone down. Close your eyes -- not yet!  After this paragraph, close your eyes and just try to relax. Let your fingers go lose breath deeply, and just think on the word, "Be".  Okay, see you in a couple of minutes!

In my office I have a poem by e.e. cummings titled, "Just Be".  It is reminder to me that by God's creativity I am who I am and it is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that I should give a gift to myself and see it all as such.

That requires acceptance and love of myself. It means loving and accepting my race, my hair color and texture, my skin tone, my size, my shape, my sex, my sexual orientation, my gifts, my graces and my disgraces.  It means accepting and  loving who I am and being okay with who I'm not.  It means playing my part in the great symphony of life with joy and delight and not quibbling with God over why I gotta be a woodwind rather than brass.  Accepting and loving myself and my part means playing the smoothest woodwind music I can possibly play while at the same time delighting in the music of others.

Dr. King used to preach a now famous sermon commonly known as the "Street Sweeper Speech".  In it he said, ‘‘If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say,   ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Whether we're created to be a street sweeper or a the next Michaelangelo really doesn't matter. What matters is that whatever we were created and gifted to be, we be it.  And we don't try to be or wish we were anybody else.  

God delights in who we are; we should too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 21, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Ephesians chapter 4 verse 4:

"Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving."

I love dirty jokes. You probably weren't expecting to hear that from a pastor but it's absolutely the truth. I don't mean raunchy jokes, but something clever and just a tad but illicit will make me roll on the floor and howl.

That's probably why I've always hated today's lesson so much. It's from Paul's letter to the Ephesians and it seems so, well, Paul-like.  "No filthiness."  "No foolish talk."  "No crudeness."  No fun!  I mean, relax Paul; have a little fun. Remember we're saved by grace.

That's what I used to think -- alright still sort of think. But last night something happened that made this morning's lesson feel different. Last night a good friend from church came over. I love this guy and we have fun together -- a lot of fun together. We've got the same bawdy sense of humor and in times past when he's been over my living room has been anything but the holy of holies.

But last night was different. There weren't any risqué or off-color jokes.  Nothing at all that I would be embarrassed about if my mother heard a recording of it. Instead, what we talked about was the meaning of our friendship, other friends we see growing in Christ, and our gratefulness for our church.  At the end of the night we stood out on my front porch and hugged, patted each other on the back, and told each other, "I love you."

And maybe that's why what Paul said so much jumped off the page at me this morning. Because for the first time ever in reading this part of Ephesians, I noticed that Paul doesn't just say,  "No filthiness."  "No foolish talk."  "No crudeness."  He says something also.  He says, "Give thanks."

I've always read this scripture as a moral lesson. But it's not a moral lesson. It's a lesson on friendship. Paul is telling the Ephesians that the world is full enough of crude, bawdy and superficial friendships, where we men use humor like a skunk uses its spray -- because we're afraid of anyone getting close.  Most so-called friendships are like that. But Paul is pointing to a more excellent way. He is pointing to a way of friendship that is truly countercultural because it dares to openhearted and deep. In other words, Paul is telling the Ephesians that when they are together they can have nights like I had last night all the time.

I'm not sure I'm ready to do away with all my bawdy humor. When I get together with friends in the living room I'm still probably going to say a few things that's aren't quite fit for Sunday's pulpit. But this morning I know that whatever unwholesomeness might come out of my mouth comes at the expense of something much, much greater.  And last night, I experienced the greater. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 20, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Ephesians chapter 4 verses 25 through 27:

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.

"Mind the Gap."

Anyone who has ever been to England knows what "Mind the Gap," means.  It's a warning sign on all the British train platforms reminding riders to watch out for the gap between the platform and the train. Though just a small space, it can also be a deadly one.

Minding the gap in our relationships is also important.

Relationships inevitably hurt and disappoint us. As Fred Buechner says in his novel "Godric": "What is friendship after all but the giving and receiving of wounds." But too often we allow our wounds to fester without address. The wound grows larger and larger and pretty soon a poison begins to set in. What started off as a small wound becomes a gaping one.

What is necessary to prevent this is to mind the gap.  When someone hurts or disappoints us we need to find the courage to say so quickly and lovingly.  We can be angry; that's just part of life. But what we should not do is allow our anger to fester and grow.  We need to speak it in love. As the lesson says, "Be angry; but do not sin."

So many relationship problems get out of hand because they aren't addressed early on. Over time small things become big ones. Somebody is hurt by somebody else's words or lack of attention yet says nothing; and before long a friendship is lost.  Expectations to unmet at work and down the road a performance problem becomes a personnel issue.  The sun goes down on a marriage over and over again without one spouse ever telling the other how she or he feels and "suddenly" divorce papers are filed.  

This is the way the enemy seeks to destroy families, churches, communities, and souls. He loves to do it.  But there is something we can do to stop this. It takes courage, but we can do it.  We really can, and should:

"Mind the Gap."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Daily Lesson for January 19, 2015

Today's daily lesson comes from Psalm 25 verse 11:

"For your name's sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great."

The first truths are always the simplest and the most profound, and what we must learn and learn deeper over the course of our lifetime. 

Here is the first truth; we are loved because God is love and we are forgiven because God is a god of grace.

There is nothing we can do to earn grace. The theologians used to say grace is "unmerited favor".  It is never deserved but freely given out of the gracious character of God.

How freeing that is!  

Somewhere in the back of our minds so many of us, even though we might say we believe in grace, still have this nagging sense that if we really were forgiven we would do more of what we know God wants us to do and less of what He doesn't (Romans 7:15). That is ultimately a prescription for depression and despair. It is also very ego-driven. To think that God would not love or forgive us just where we are and as we are is to put ourselves in His judgement seat.  It's all about us!

But God's love and forgiveness really isn't about us.  It is about God and His unmerited gifts to us. We are loved and forgiven not because of who we are but because of who He is. 

"For your name's sake," the psalmist asks, "forgive my sins."  It is for God's sake that we are pardonable and for God's sake that we are pardoned, and once that really gets into the depths of our being we finally understand that though our sins be great, our God is so much greater.

And finally we vacate our judgement seat, and allow Him to assume it as His seat of mercy.