Friday, November 27, 2015

Daily Lesson for November 27, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from 1 Peter chapter 3 verses 18 through 20 and chapter 4 verse 6:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The great Christian thinker and essayist G.K. Chesterton once wrote a story about a man who died and went to hell.  His business agent went down to the gates of hell to try to get his release. He pleaded with the devil, "Let him out!" But to no avail.  Then the man's priest came to the gates of hell and did the same, "Let him out!" But, again, to no avail. The gates of hell remained firmly shut.  Finally, the man's mother came to the gates of hell.  But she did not beg for her son's relapse.  "Quietly," Chesterton wrote, "and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan, 'Let me in.' Immediately the great doors swing open upon their hinges -- For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned."

That's not only a good story; it's also a true story.  Today's lesson tells us that Christ went down to hell and preached good news to all those killed by the Great Flood.  Or, as the creed put it, "He descended into hell."  He was willing to go all the way to hell and back that no soul should be lost.

If that's not enough to tell us there's no such thing as a hopeless case, then I don't know what would be. If the very gates of hell can't prevail against Christ, then we dare not write anybody off.  Not the prisoner.  Not the drunk.  Not the "thug".  Not the racist. Nobody's beyond redemption because nobody's beyond Christ's reach.

"For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned."

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Wishing a Happy Thanksgiving To a Syrian-born Imam and Friend

Earlier this week I sent a text with a Thanksgiving message to my friend Samer Altaaba, Lubbock's Syrian-born imam who immigrated to the United States a decade and a half ago. I wanted him to know I was thinking of him and his people during this time.

I first met Samer five years ago.  When the university mosque in Lubbock was defaced with anti-Muslim graffiti some members from the church I pastor who had been meeting weekly with some Muslims in an interfaith dialogue group wanted to do something of goodwill in response. They invited me to come and join them in repainting the mosque, which we agreed just seemed like the right thing to do. As we were  there with buckets and brushes in our hands Imam Samer showed up with baklava pastries in his. That made for a fast friendship as I joked with Samer that I would be willing to work all day for baklava.  Soon he and I were meeting and eating together on a regular basis, mostly talking about the joys and demands of fatherhood, serving as religious leaders, and occasionally world events. (Make the structure parallel)

Samer invited me to speak at the mosque's Eid friendship dinner during Ramadan.  As I shared about Samer's and my friendship and how it was being used to build a bridge I shared a verse from the book of Genesis which I thought was appropriate, "What someone intended for evil, God intended for good."

A few months into Samer's and my friendship the threat of terror came close to Lubbock.  A Muslim student studying at one of our local universities and unaffiliated with Samer's mosque was arrested for plotting to bomb various public utilities and the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush. A member of my church was the lead federal prosecutor in the case and asked if I could arrange a meeting with the imam.  He wanted the imam and the broader Muslim community in town to know the prosecution was sure the student had acted alone and without connection to any other local Muslims.  He also wanted to make it clear that the law would work to protect the Muslim community if there were any act of retaliation against it.  I called Samer and he welcomed the meeting and soon representatives from the Department of Justice and the FBI were meeting with the imam and his mosque during Friday prayer.

What someone intended for evil, God intended for good.

As the war in Syria began, Samer and I would often meet at a local coffee shop and talk about all that was happening in his homeland. He showed me videos extremists were using to recruit young men to take up arms. In particular, I remember Samer telling me the story of one young man from his hometown who was being recruited to become a suicide bomber against the Assad regime. Though the word ISIS was not yet in my vocabulary, the tactics Samer said the recruiters were using were based on religious ideals we have come to associate with ISIS extremist militancy. Because Samer is an imam and knew the young man when he was a boy, someone asked Samer to talk with him.  Though the young man had no clean, running water, he did have Internet access -- a peculiarity of the 21st century war theatre. Samer told me he was emailing the young man, trying to get him to see that both he and his religion were being manipulated.

Whenever I hear people ask where the moderate Muslim voice is amidst all the violence and terror we see in the world I always think of Samer here in America emailing this young man back at home in Syria, trying to save his life.  The moderate Muslim voice is speaking through Samer and so many others like him, but it's hard to hear over the din of wars and rumored wars.

In 2013, things got so bad in Syria that Samer's family decided to come to America.  They were the first displaced Syrians seeking refuge whom I had heard of. Samer's father would come with Samer to coffee occasionally. Samer would give reports on the war and his hopes that it would end soon so that the family could return their home. His father, who speaks very little English, would shake my hand and then sit quietly, smiling graciously at times. I don't know what Samer told him about me, but I'm sure Samer told him about how our friendship began with the repainting of the mosque.  And because of that, I always got the sense that Samer's father was showing me a kind of deep respect which transcended our language barrier. Goodwill always does that; it serves as its own universal translator.

It's been a while now since Samer and I have met for coffee. We each have multiple children and faith communities which keep us both very busy.  But with all that is going on now in the news about Syrian refugees I wanted to reach out to him to tell him I would be thinking of him during this holiday season, and remind him that the original Thanksgiving was a feast shared between two different peoples, one of which had helped the other to survive an extraordinarily difficult time far, far from their homeland.

Samer texted me back.  He is happy with our friendship he says, and though we are both busy he wants to get together after Thanksgiving. I am happy with our friendship too.  I believe it is a small yet meaningful sign of the good God can do even in the midst of evil -- of what God is doing to connect our peoples together and bring peace even as others are trying to tear us apart through war. I am sure Samer and I will talk about that when we meet next.

I think this time I'll bring the baklava.

UPDATE: The day before Thanksgiving Samer's mosque was again vandalized.

Daily Lesson for November 26, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verse 18:

"Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

The kids were out of school this week so I took the opportunity this past weekend to go and pay a visit to a couple of people very special to me, each of which have suffered great heartache this year.

On Saturday, I drove to Ft Worth and had dinner with one of these friends who just lost her husband in a matter of months to a glioblastoma brain tumor. Since I had the kids with me, she graciously met me at Chick Filet and through fits of screaming and telling children, I listened to her tell me about the mercies of the final weeks they had together as a family.  "God is good," she said.  Then on Sunday, I went to her church and sat as she led the congregation and me in the prayer of thanksgiving.  I do not know if I have ever been so moved by a prayer in all my life. Though I don't really remember the words, whether they were eloquent or not, I will always remember that she was there in the pulpit praying and preaching and teaching and embodying thanksgiving in its deepest form.

Then on Monday, I left the kids with a saint at the church and drove down the street to spend time with a friend whose child suffered a terrible accident earlier this year and is now at one of the hospitals in downtown Ft Worth.  To enter the holy ground of that hospital room, and to watch a father loving so tenderly on child was a great gift. Yesterday I texted my friend to wish him Happy Thanksgiving.  I mentioned today's Daily Lesson where Paul says to "Give thanks in all circumstances."  Today my friend will do that, gathering with family and loved ones in the hospital room to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is the small blessings which have revealed themselves in this difficult journey which he and his family will give thanks for. And what I give thanks for is the honor of having entered the holy ground of that hospital room and seen an ever-deepening and special bond of father and child.

It was in November of 1863 that President Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Thanksgiving, calling on all Americans to set and observe the last Thursday as a day of Thanksgiving to the Almighty.  America was in the midst of a Civil War which would ultimately take the lives of 700,000. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were already grieving the losses sons on the battlefield.  Lincoln himself was in the midst of grief after having lost his 11-year-old son Willie to illness just a year in February of 1862. Yet, the harvest of 1863 was plentiful and though the war among brothers within made the United States susceptible to attack from enemies abroad, there was still peace along America's borders. And for these things he thought it "fit and proper" to be "gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people."

2015 has been difficult year for some; but there are still the blessings of a prosperous nation to be acknowledged and the gift of holy ground to be recognized. As my friend said, "God is good."  Indeed.

So, today we give thanks -- in all circumstances.  For we are a thankful people.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Daily Lesson for November 25, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Psalm 130 verses 3 and 4:

  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
 But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached a sermon on judgement, describing how terrifying it would be for us to stand before the judgment seat with all our sinful deeds fully made known. The more salacious things would certainly be of deep, deep embarrassment, but in the end the small peccadilloes might be the most revealing.  What an utter shame it would be for our pettiness, betrayal, and sulking envy to be exposed.  The full implication of such a moment of uncloaking would drive us all to despair. As the Psalmist says, "Who could stand?"

No one of course. Not one single person -- no matter how good we might think they are. They too would be seen to be carriers of the disease of sin just as Noah and his family were revealed to have it when they disembarked from the ark.

And this was just Bonhoeffer's point -- that in the end none of us will be able stand on our own righteousness, and the in the end the desire to insist on doing so is the ultimate act of rebellion against God's graceful way.

As Bonhoeffer said in the sermon, "The good is nothing more than that we ask for his grace and take hold of it.  The evil is nothing other than fear and wanting to stand before God on one's own, wanting to be self-righteous."

Mercy is better than justice in my book. And when the day comes I am going to plea for it. That may put me in the same camp with a lot of other people known to be unrighteous sinners; but the alternative will be to be in a camp with the self-righteous and that's one place which for a variety of reasons I just don't think I'd be able to stand.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Daily Lesson for November 24, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Matthew chapter 19 verses 16 through 22:

 16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, o“All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

In the Apocrypha there is a story about St. Thomas who is said to have brought the Gospel to India.  While there Thomas's great skill as a carpenter was made known, even garnering the attention of King Gundafor.  Impressed, the King gave Thomas a large sum of money and ordered him to build a great temple. After many years passed, the King returned to Thomas expecting to see the temple.  He was incredulous when he saw nothing built at all. Thomas then told the King that he had indeed built a great temple with the King's money and the reason the King could not see the temple was because it was in heaven and had been built by giving money to the poor.

That story makes me uncomfortable too.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Daily Lesson for November 23, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Psalm 107 verses 7 and 8:

7 Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
8 Yet he saved them for his name's sake.

Earlier this year Dr. Gardner Taylor, the great "dean of American preaching" and mentor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. passed away at 97 years of age. Many years ago, just after I was first ordained, I drove down to Georgia to hear him speak for several days at a convocation for pastors.  One thing Dr. Taylor spoke of there in Georgia has remained with me, shaping my prayer life very deeply ever since.  It was Dr. Taylor's reflection upon the psalmist's understanding of being saved for God's name's sake.

I really have no right to claim my own deliverance. I'm a wretch like any man.  God owes me nothing, and what I do deserve I surely don't want!

Nevertheless, I do pray for my own deliverance; but ask for it for God's name's sake and not for my own. As Dr. Taylor put it in his lecture we who were following behind, "For God's name's sake I pray I never do anything to defile or humiliate myself, my family, or my ministry."

I know I really don't deserve to be spared the wilderness or rescued from its trials and temptations. Yet I do pray that I be led not into temptation and delivered from evil. For His is the kingdom and the power and the glory; and for His name's sake we are saved.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Daily Lesson for November 20, 2015

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Matthew chapter 18 verses 10 through 14:

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

When I was in youth ministry, my colleagues and I would often talk about the challenge and the commission of loving the hard to love kid.  This was the kid who just would or could not sit still, be quiet, listen, respect authority, be where they were told to be, stop ridiculing others, or grow up.

I had several talks with Jesus about the hard to love kid.  I expressed my concerns, told him my frustrations, presented some very solid examples, and asked Him to do something about it.

Jesus kept nodding his head while I talked and when I finished he said, "Boy, I hear what you're saying and, like you, I too am really concerned that I could have appointed a shepherd who doesn't have a heart for all the sheep.  I promise I will have a talk with my Father about you."

"Never mind," I said, "I'm sure I can work through it."

"I bet you can," he said.  "But please let me know if you can't."

That was the first and last time I complained to Jesus about a hard to love kid.