Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 31, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Ecclesiastes chapter 2 verses 24 through 26:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

H.L. Mencken once famously defined Puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, my be happy."  Go back and read the sermons from that time in our nation's past and you'll see that was hardly an exaggeration.

Happiness is not a sin. To enjoy our work and the fruits of our labor is not a sign of having too easy or pleasing a life.  Health, wealth, and success are no sins; and no one ought to be made to feel guilty for them.  They are blessings to be enjoyed, not curses to be weighed down with.

But the writer of Ecclesiastes is right about something. Apart from a life in God no one can eat or find enjoyment. All blessings turn to curses and there is never ever any sense of accomplishment or satisfaction. It's simply never enough or it's always too much.  In the words of Ecclesiastes it's all "vanity, vanity -- a striving after wind."

If our lives seem to be all vanity and vexation and meaningless toil without any sense of joy or happiness then it's time we ask ourselves a Jesus question, "What good is it if a man gains the whole world, yet loses his own soul?"

I'd say we know the answer to that is no good at all.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 30, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson is in honor of Memorial Day and comes from Walt Whitman's Civil War-inspired poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Last night Second Baptist hosted our fourth annual Memorial Day Service.  Memorial Day is a time for remembering the cost of war and for honoring those who have paid its terrible price -- either with their own lives or the life of someone they love. Each year several Gold Star families come and share the stories of their sons and daughters. At the conclusion of last night's service I was approached by two Gold Star parents -- a mother of a daughter lost in Kuwait 2014 and the father of a son killed in Baghdad in 2008.  Each of them broke down in tears, one almost collapsing into my arms.

There is still so much pain for these families. While there is nothing we can do to take that pain away, they tell me that others being willing to be present helps them to bear it. Remembrance helps them to bear it. The knowledge that somebody cares helps them to bear it.

Whitman's words are fitting. Those who have given their lives in service of our country are now at rest. They no longer suffer. But the mothers and fathers and children and musing comrades still suffer.  The armies which remain still suffer.

If there is one thing we can do to appropriately honor this Memorial Day it would be to pledge ourselves to get to know one Gold Star family this year. It would be to get to know their names, see their pictures, and hear their story. To come and be near to their pain.

We remember the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This year it would be good if we would make he unknown soldier known, and his or her family known, and their suffering known.

We cannot take away the wounds; but we can touch them, and we can tend them, and we can wash them with the ancient healing balms we call compassion and remembrance.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 27, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Matthew chapter 13 verse 33:

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Some years ago our church had Tony Campolo as our adult retreat leader and he preached on this text and what he called the subversive nature of the kingdom of heaven. He spoke of leaven and how it was always portrayed negatively in the Scriptures -- a metaphor for something to be done away with like a bad apple.  Yet here Jesus is speaking of the kingdom being like a woman sneaking it into the flour.  In a small group afterward, a perceptive seminary student in church says to us, "So let me get this straight.  Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a passive aggressive cook?"

The kingdom of God is subversively hidden. It is snuck in in surprising and even unsettling ways. That's why the status quo is so resolutely on guard against -- because just a little of its leaven has the power to leaven the whole loaf.

Here's just a few moments I know of when just a pinch of the kingdom's leaven was first snuck in and then rose to leaven the whole loaf:

-- when two women were ticketed for feeding the homeless in a city park and then the next thing we knew the mayor and about 100 others were down at the park making friends and hotdogs with the homeless

-- when one negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama was a arrested for refusing to give her seat up to a white person and a year later the whole bus system was integrated

-- when a small group of political dissidents in East Germany began sneaking audio-recorded cassettes into West Germany and then broadcasting them back over the wall on a subversive citizen's movement program called Radio Glasnost, meaning "Open Radio".

The kingdom of heaven is small.  It is subversive.  And it is being hidden in all kinds of ways.

Look for it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 26, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Matthew 13:24-30 and Psalm 37 verse 20:

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

A few months back, the morning after yet another horrific terrorist attack in Paris I did what I often do when I get worried about the world. I called my great Aunt Opal, who as one of the first women accepted into in the military during World War II.  Her job as a NAVY WAVE (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) was to process the death information for sailors lost and killed at sea.  For a time she and the rest of her department in Cleveland were busy  both night and day, the death toll was so great and the files so numerous.  Now in her nineties and the last living member of the Greatest Generation in our family, she is for me the personification of History in all its meaning.

I called her after the attack. "Well, what do you think about France?" I asked.

"Well," she said in a chastened yet resolved tone, "I think God is still in control."

Every evil has its day and it's season in the sun.  The weeds of destruction grow up. They flourish for awhile, they seem even to begin to take over. But in the end, at the harvest, their fate is foretold.

At ninety Aunt Opal has seen a lot of harvests.  Weeds have taken seed over and over again, some mightily strong and destructive. Nazism, totalitarianism, Soviet communism, Khmer Rouge, Taliban, now ISIS.  These are all terrifying regimes, and indeed we would perhaps be paralyzed with foreboding of what is to come next, if we did not believe that in the end the harvest finally does come.

While my Aunt Opal was busy processing all those sailors' death records, my grandfather Bill was on a troop transport somewhere out in the Pacific. He told me he thought surely his name would wind up in one of Aunt Opal's files.  He said he didn't believe the War would ever and he didn't think he'd ever come home.

But the War did end; and he did come home and he married my grandmother Betty, Opal's sister.

And at the end of the day it was made clear, God really was still in control.

That's a good thing to remember the next time these troubling times make us afraid.  God was, and is, still in control.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 25, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Proverbs chapter 17 verse 3:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
and the Lord tests hearts.

Times of testing come. They are not pleasant or enjoyable but are in fact always discomfortingly tense and sometimes even excruciatingly painful.  We would avoid the pain if we could and indeed we try. In fact, in Buddhist tradition the elimination of suffering is one of the noblest virtues of a life well lived. But honestly, who has done it?  And today's Lesson should make us ask who would wish to?

Paula D'Arcy says, "God comes to us disguised as our lives."  In other words, pain, suffering, and the struggle of life are how God gets at us. These are how God tempers and purifies us.

When a metal is purified its base property is separated and extracted from the ore by intense heat. It is the same with us. Holiness is not possible without heat -- white, searing heat. This process of purification is never something we would chose for ourselves and is always something we doubt we can endure. But there we are; and we do endure.

God comes to us disguised as our lives.  And sometimes the disguise is a fiery, fiery furnace.  From the refiner's fire there really is no escape.
But what is left when the fire has done its work and we have been made is something even more precious than even gold or silver, something we call "soul".

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Daily Lesson for May 24, 2016

Today's Daily Lesson comes from 1 Timothy chapter 2 verses 1 through 6:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

As we continue in this election year and the mud slinging and finger pointing will no doubt sadly worsen, it is very easy for us to get sucked into the vortex of negativity.  We need to remember that there are very powerful influences on all sides of the political spectrum intent on our buying into the absolute vilification of certain political candidates. When one of those vilified candidates is elected president -- as one surely will be -- then the result is the other 4 out of 10 voters who did not vote for him or her then are left with 4 years of fear and foreboding at what is to come of our beloved country.

What are they to do?  What are we all to do in this time of great political dis-ease?

I see signs in front yards as I drive through my neighborhood: "Prayer: America's Only Hope".  I don't know who put the signs out, but it's true. In today's Lesson Paul writes to Timothy in a time of great social and political turmoil -- a time when the empire and its leaders seemed really to be beyond control. And Paul's counsel was to pray.  Pray for the leaders, and for the nation, and for the world.

Paul reminds us that we do not have to like a leader to pray for them. We may indeed buy into their vilification.  They may in fact be villains.  But Paul tells us to pray for them anyways, and he reminds us that Christ died for all people -- even political and military villains. And it is God's desire that they and all the world be saved.

We are to pray for all kings and leaders Paul says so that "we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way."  In other words, we are to pray so that we can become more like God who sent his son to die -- not only for 6/10 of the people or 4/10 of them, but for all.

And that puts things into perspective when it comes to our own candidate also. Only one person died for all the world, only one then is worthy to be called Savior -- and he had neither a D nor an R behind his name.

It's party primary election runoff today and many will be headed to the polls.  I hope we'll also be headed to our knees -- to pray for all the leaders who will be elected so that no matter how uncertain and foreboding things may look outside we may inside ourselves still be at peace and be witness to our peace.

This really is our only hope.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Daily Lesson for Monday, May 23

Today's Daily Lesson comes from Proverbs chapter 10 verse 3:

The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.

There is a deep contentment in all that we have have and all that we are that can come only from a life found in God.  The one who knows the love and grace of God and responds to this love with love and grace in turn is deeply at peace with all things as they turn out.  This is what Paul -- writing from a death row prison cell - calls the "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) and the "secret of being content in all circumstances -- whether in plenty or in want," (Philippians 4:13).

For those who have not yet found this secret nothing is ever really enough. No accomplishment can ever really gratify, no experience can live up to billing.  No achievement can last the day and the night. There is always a deeper hunger and desire to be more than they are -- to live up to some unseen yet ever rising bar.  The end result of not being able to live up to that bar is frustration, bitterness, and a spirit of victimization. The soul who dies stuck in this place dies with a sense of the whole world having had it out for him.

Without doubt, much of the identity and class politics we see today on both the Left and Right plays on this deep sense of hunger and frustration. But the authentically spiritual person knows no politician or platform, no matter how promising, can satiate the deepest hunger we as human beings have. That can never come from bread alone.

After Jesus fed the 5,000 the people came once again to him. The Bible says they wanted to make them their King. But Jesus refused the Kingship and he refused to feed them also. As today's lesson says, he thwarted their craving.  He did so because He wanted them to see that no bread could satisfy their deepest hunger save spiritual bread -- or what Jesus called the Bread of Life.