The Kingdom

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. ~ Jesus

Why didn’t Jesus put the definition of the Kingdom of God in a single sentence? The fact is Jesus never really defined it. He just tells stories, uses metaphors and likenesses to explain the Kingdom of God.

Flannery O’Connor was once asked to explain one of her stories, “Could you put the meaning of that story into a sentence?” She replied, “If I could put the meaning of the story into a single sentence I wouldn’t have had to write the whole story.”

She was not saying that she couldn’t give the thesis statement of a story. What she was saying was that the biggest things in life. The deepest truths in life cannot be tucked into a neat and tidy definition. One bullet point, one sentence will never impact the imagination and access the deeper parts of the soul like a story.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is so important that it cannot be reduced to a simple definition.

Originally, God dwelt on earth, and we had his presence, his life, his glory, his face. When he dwelt on earth, the world was a garden. A Paradise. There was no death, no disease, no decay. There was no poverty, no injustice, no brokenness of any kind.

Why? Because God’s presence, as it were, was like the soil every created thing had to be planted into if we’re ever going to blossom.

But we human beings wanted to be our own lords and saviors and we got exactly what we wanted. We assumed control of our destinies and thus the presence of God was removed. And Heaven became remote from earth.

So, we live in a broken world. Because when our relationship with God unraveled all relationships unraveled. In some ways, we are like fish flopping and gasping in shallow puddles, able to get enough oxygen to stay alive, but are not able to swim in the blue ocean for which we were designed.

We were not built to live for anything other than God. And yet we turn away from Him and live for our job, our family, recreation, beauty and our causes; and they are all puddles compared to the Pacific Ocean. They are all too small for our souls.

And the world is broken.

The Kingdom of God is the re-introduction of the presence of God into this world in order to turn this world into the home that our hearts most desperately want. A life that is cleansed of disease and decay, and death and brokenness of any kind.

A world that becomes a place where the deepest longings of your body and soul become satiated. A garden again. That is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “I am bringing that.” As John Ortberg has said, “The Kingdom of God is bringing Up There down Here.”

God’s salvation is not only about making me happy, forgiving my sins, giving me strength during difficult circumstances and punching my ticket for heaven.

When you get to the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, you do not see us as individuals escaping this world into heaven; you see heaven coming down and renewing this world. Because the purpose of God’s salvation is to restore this creation. It is not just to heal your alienation with God but also to heal all alienations that arose from the loss of God’s presence on this earth.

His salvation is not just to save souls it also includes righting social injustices. We are to be about trying to save souls…but also to feed the poor…to seek racial reconciliation, and to work towards justice for the voiceless.

The Kingdom of God is not just about me, it is about the world! But not only that, the Kingdom of God is not about me, it is about God.

God is a King. Why would I enter a relationship with a King? Not just to meet my needs. (Though He does that) I don’t enter a relationship with my King to make me happy. (Though it does) I enter a relationship with my King because it is His due.

I’ve had many conversations with folks who are interested in becoming Christians but they almost always ask this question: If I become a Christian what will I have to give up? What will I have to start doing?

But if He is the King of the Universe you can’t come to Him negotiating what you will do or won’t do. How do you come to a King? You bow, you kneel, and you offer your sword, hilt toward Him, blade toward you.

Why? Because when you offer your sword to a King hilt towards Him and blade towards you, you are saying, “I am now radically vulnerable to you and I trust you not to abuse what I am giving you.”

If you will not trust Him that much you are not treating Him as a King. Is He King of the Universe? Then we can’t negotiate the terms of our relationship!

Jesus Christ literally became the smallest of seeds.  He is the Lord of the Universe and became small.  Like a man?  No, before that.  Oh, like a baby?  Before that.  Oh, like a fetus?  Before that.  Oh, he became an embryo?  Before that, the Lord of the Universe became a single cell, the smallest of seeds.  Why would he do that?

He came down to a womb; to a manger; to a peasant family; in a no where town; in a no name nation to reclaim, redeem, and restore His creation.

Which includes you.

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The Loss

The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. ~ Job

Bridge to Terabithia is a story of a special friendship between a young boy and girl. Although from different backgrounds, their hearts were knit together in a secret kingdom of their own creation called Terabithia. Like all of us, they both longed for a friend that “you did everything with and told everything to.” And like a lucky few of us, they found it.

One day, the rope that swung over a creek from their ordinary world to the shores of their enchanted world broke. The eleven-year-old queen of Terabithia drowned—and Jesse, her king, had to learn how to continue growing through his loss.

The story of Terabithia grew out of an event in real life; the author’s eight-year-old son lost his best friend when she was struck by lightning. Katherine Paterson shares about her son’s subsequent struggle to grow through this loss in a later book, Gates of Excellence, saying,

He is not fully healed. Perhaps he never will be, and I am beginning to believe that this is right. How many people in their whole lifetimes have a friend who is to them what Lisa was to David? When you have such a gift, should you ever forget it? Of course he will forget a little. Even now he is making other friendships. His life will go on, though hers could not. And selfishly I want his pain to ease. But how can I say that I want him to “get over it,” as though having loved and been loved were some sort of disease? I want the joy of knowing Lisa and the sorrow of losing her to be a part of him and to shape him into growing levels of caring and understanding, perhaps as an artist, but certainly as a person.

Maybe you, too, know what’s it’s like to have your life molded by the pressure and pain of loss. Often those who mean well inflict pain that is unnecessary.

Joe Bayly in his book, View from A Hearse says that one of the best contributions we can make to a person going through intense suffering and loss is our presence without words, not even verses of Scripture dumped into the ears of the grieving. He said:

Don’t try to “prove” anything to a survivor. An arm about the shoulder, a firm grip of the hand, a kiss: these are the proofs grief needs, not logical reasoning.

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true.

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour or more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

A person reeling from the blow of calamity has a broken heart. The soil of his soul is not ready for the implanting of the heavenly seed. He will be later, but not right away.

We are familiar with the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. Less familiar are the styles of grief. It is best to think of these styles on a continuum.

Styles of Grief

Intuitive Grief [———————————————————] Instrumental Grief

Intuitive Grievers will often—talk about waves of affect and waves of emotion.

When you ask them how that grief was expressed, it’ll mirror those reactions, “I just kind of felt this. I cried. I screamed. I shouted.”

Their expression of grief mirrors their inner experience of grief… they’ll often talk about the fact that it really was helpful for them to find some place, whether in counseling, whether with a confidante, whether in a support group, whether in their own journaling or internal process, to sort of explore their feelings.

On this end of the continuum those that experience loss might be described as “Being Grief.”

Instrumental Grievers often will talk about it in very physical or cognitive ways: “I just kept thinking about the person. I kept running over it in my mind. I felt I was kicked in the stomach. I felt somebody punch me.”

When you ask them how grief was expressed, sometimes they’ll be curious about that question.

They might respond at first “I guess I didn’t express much grief,” but then when you really talk to them about it, they’ll say, “I did talk about the person a lot” or “I was very active in setting up this scholarship fund.” They may not always recognize that as an expression of grief.

On this end of the continuum those that experience loss might be described as “Doing Grief.”

Grieving is part of the normal human experience, a part that even Jesus shared, and shouldn’t be viewed as unspiritual.

So how can we acknowledge our grief, yet move through it with measured steps toward growth and maturity, instead of dissolving into lifelong bitterness and resentment? It’s a matter of perspective.

It is our perspective that will determine whether our reaction to loss will be common or rare. If our perspective is strictly horizontal, focused on the things of this world, then we cannot escape mere hopeless grief.

Stephen Colbert is a comedian.  He took the place of David Letterman as host of The Late Show. Just before he took that position he did and interview about his life and he disclosed that when he was ten years old his father and brother were killed in a plane crash. It devastated him, but it also drove him deeper into faith in Jesus.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

For someone who has been through so much emotional devastation as a young boy, one would not be surprised to see him lash back at the dark clouds of life with a steady flow of comedic cynicism and snark – a common currency for stand-up comedians.

Instead, Colbert responds counterintuitively. “I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry…. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

This is someone who can look at a weak and dark moment and realize that God was there.

If you read the entire book of Job, do you know what you discover? His friends all leave. He never gets his kids back. He never gets an explanation from God why his life fell apart. His wife is still with him. Sure, he gets more kids and he obtains more wealth.

But one thing he gets that is more valuable than kids, wife, possessions, health, and friends—he gets God.

Have you recently suffered a loss? Maybe the wound is still tender; maybe it’s too early to know why. Frankly, you may never know why! But through it all, believe me, God has not left you. He is there. He will never walk away.

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Misunderstood

I say to the Lord, “You are my God;
    give ear, O Lord, to the voice of my supplications.”
O Lord, my Lord, my strong deliverer,
    you have covered my head in the day of battle. Psalm 140:6-7

Few things are more difficult to live with than being misunderstood.  Sometimes it’s downright unbearable.

When you’re misunderstood, you have no defense.  And no matter how hard you try to correct the misunderstanding, it usually gets worse.  You go fully loaded, ready to “set them straight”, and all you do is dig yourself deeper!  The harder you work, the worse it gets and the deeper it hurts.

In his book, Communication: Key to Your Marriage, Norman Wright points out six types of misunderstandings that may enter the bloodstream of any healthy conversation and immediately begin breaking it down.

  • What you mean to say.
  • What you actually say.
  • What the other person hears.
  • What the other person thinks he hears.
  • What the other person says about what you said.
  • What you think the other person said about what you said.

Not exactly encouraging news.

Do you have a “friend” or family member giving you grief?  Tell God on him.  That’s why you have a Savior and a Deliverer.

Learn to bring your misunderstanding to Him.

A young lady named Caitlyn and her mother, Denise, began to attend my last church. They had both come from a toxic and abusive previous church experience. They were so excited to find a safe church with a safe pastor. The younger woman began to do some administrative work for me. The mother began attending a woman’s bible study.

Caitlyn’s husband, David, was agnostic and hated preachers. They asked me to pray for him. After months of prayers, he attended a Christmas Eve service. First time he’d been in church since he was a little boy. They were so excited.

Some time went by and we needed to buy a copier for the church and David said that his company would donate a used copier to us. He and I worked on that transaction and developed a relationship. We had coffee together several times and over time, he began coming to church with his young bride and mother-in-law.

Caitlyn and David had tried and tried to have children, but were not able to. They asked our church to pray, so we gathered around them, anointed them with oil like it teaches in James 5, laid hands on them and prayed.

Soon after they conceived! Our church was elated along with this young couple and the future grandmother. Life was going so well. This whole story was a big win for God, his church, and the restoration of this family’s faith in Church.

On Mother’s Day that year we asked the middle schoolers to hand out single red roses to all the mothers. The place was packed and it was going slower than I would have preferred, so I grabbed a handful of roses and began to hand them out. I gave one to Denise who was seated right behind her daughter, Caitlyn and David, who had begun to come to church every week.

I offered a rose to Caitlyn, then pulled my hand back and with a smile and a wink said, “Nooo. Not yet.” She laughed. He laughed. I turned to walk back to the front of the church, then I turned on my heels and said, “I’m kidding. Here’s two roses.” And I gave one to Caitlyn and the other to David. They smiled and gave me a hug.

As I hugged Caitlyn, I was face-to-face with the mother, Denise, in the row behind her; she was not smiling but for some reason it didn’t register in my brain that anything was wrong.

The next Sunday Denise was a greeter at Church and I said good morning to her and she lit into me with a fury I have rarely encountered in my life. I had to ask a deacon and his wife to take her into a side room to calm her down so that I could begin the worship service.

Over the next two weeks I worked with the deacons, their wives, and Denise to try to make amends. I apologized profusely, but nothing I could say could diffuse the situation. The young couple were not upset at all, but the mother was furious.

One statement she made, with hatred in her eyes, that I’ll never forget was, “Pastor, for all your talk about being a safe place of grace and restoration, you are a cruel man.”

She left the church. Caitlyn and David continued to come but they eventually quit coming to church as well.

I would give anything to have never teased that young expectant mother with that rose on Mother’s Day. I realize that much of that conflict was embedded deeply inside the wounded heart of the mother, but the fact is that the misunderstanding caused a relational breakdown that every effort I tried could not repair.

I hurt for a long time over that one. Although the suffering from that sting is gone, the memory is not. I’d like to tell you that I’ve only gone through that kind of misunderstanding once. But that would be a lie.

To be sure, the mistakes I’ve made as a pastor pile higher than Mt. Princeton; and the times I’ve been misunderstood are about as high. It has happed in every church I’ve pastored. It has happened a few times already at my current one. It goes with the territory of being a pastor. I get that.

Still hurts, though.

I’ve learned something: Wounded hearts can be as fragile as a soap bubble and some relational bridges can never be rebuilt, so learn to grieve and give them to God.

Over the years, I’ve released many wounded church members to the care and control of the Great Physician. It’s the safest place for them.

It’s the safest place for me, too.

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Losing My Religion

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27-28

As a young man, I was steeped in the music of my era. I loved Rock and Roll. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, were some of my favorites. (I’ve matured and grown sophisticated since then and listen mostly to Jazz.)

And you must know that music went deep into my persona. I loved and still love music. I can’t study without it. I can’t cook without it. I can’t go to sleep without it. It is an elixir for my soul.

When I went to Bible college in the 70’s, I took my massive vinyl record collection with me. Why not? I was very proud of it. But what I didn’t know is that there were a group of ministerial students that believed that the devil should have all the good music, and they went around checking to see what music preacher boys listened to and would try to get them to burn all non-Christian albums.

As it turns out, they found me and came to visit me in my dorm room. I guess they could hear the bass and drums pounding through the thin walls. There were three of them that came to save me from my worldly ways.

They said that if I played the albums backward I could hear the devil speaking. Said that The Eagles went out into the desert of California and had a High Priest in the church of Satan cast a spell on the album so that it would be a big seller. They said that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were tools of the devil. They told me that Mick Jagger was the devil.

They told me that by just having the vinyl’s in my dorm room that the demonic spirits could come out of them and enter my body.

I looked at them incredulously. Why hadn’t I heard of this before? Why hadn’t my Southern Baptist preacher father ever told me that my eternal soul was at risk by just having these records in my possession?

I’ll tell you why. Because it is stupid and my father is not a legalist.

I said to these religious ne’er-do-wells, “I listen to these records while I do my daily Bible readings.” They went apoplectic. In fact, I think one of their heads began to rotate 360 degrees and they began to make all kinds of guttural noises; the bed that I was sitting on began to levitate and I could hear dogs howling outside my window. I’m pretty sure the moon turned to blood.

I said, “You boys are welcome to stay, but I’m going to either put a Bill Gaither record on, play it backwards and see if and angel sends me a message or put a scratchy record of Peter Frampton’s live album on and study for my Old Testament survey test that is going to be given at 8:00 tomorrow morning.”

They scurried out of the room like it was on fire. I passed the test with an A, by the way.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Traveling Light, describes legalists well:

There are people who do not want us to be free. They don’t want us to be free before God, accepted just as we are by His grace. They don’t want us to be free to express our faith originally and creatively in the world. They want to control us; they want to use us for their own purposes.

Grace-killers and joy-stealers were always trying to trap Jesus in a religious sting operation to make him look foolish to the people and ensnare him legally so they could stop His ministry.

Shabbat is the original Hebrew word for our English word Sabbath. It means “to cease, to end, to rest.”

Jesus says, “I am the Lord of rest. I am the source of the deep rest you need. I am the Sabbath.”

When you’re sleeping, what do we call the kind of clock that’s supposed to wake you up in the morning? An alarm clock! That’s not a real optimistic name. It would be nice if we called it the opportunity clock or the resurrection clock, but we don’t. The purpose of the buzz—is to wake you up. Once you’re awake, you turn it off.

noon_rest_from_work_-_van_gogh-1

The Sabbath, Vincent van Gogh,

Imagine if a buzzer went off, you woke up—and never turned it off. You carried that buzzing sound with you all day. You go down for breakfast, it’s still going on; you drive to work, you’re not listening to the radio, the alarm is still going on. Moment by moment, hour by hour, all day long that sound does not stop.

That would wear on you. You would want a reprieve–a rest.

There are people who live with chronic anxiety eating away at their heart and soul and it is more toxic by far than it would be to live with that annoying sound all day. It is the nagging sense that they have to do something to gain the favor of God.

They need soul rest.

You might call it the REM rest. There’s a kind of sleep where you don’t get rapid eye movement sleep. You wake up exhausted. I want you to know you could take all the vacations in the world, but if you don’t have the deep REM sleep of the soul, resting in what Jesus did on the cross, where He experienced the restlessness of separation from God so we could have the deep rest of knowing he loves us now, that our sins have been paid for, you will fidget and fight all of your life and all of eternity.

Are you weary in well-doing?

Listen to the words from the Carpenter from Nazareth:

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”  Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)

A man couldn’t sleep and he kept tossing and turning because the cares of this world were swirling in his brain when a voice from the darkness said, “Jim, why don’t you toss those cares up here to Me and get some sleep? No use both of us staying up all night”

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The Healing

“Son, your sins are forgiven.” ~ Jesus

I heard the gravel crunch under big tires in the driveway of my first Church. I went to see who it was. It was Otis. He had a box of fruit in hand and said, “I brought you something, Preacher.”

A kind gesture from a man who owned a fruit deliverer company in that small Oklahoma town. Kind gesture, but there was no smile or softness in his eyes.  That was unusual. He was a light-hearted and gracious man. But there was something darker in his eyes on this day, in spite of the bright fruit in the box.

After pleasantries, I asked him, “Otis, is there something bothering you?”

“Yes, preacher. June and I are going to leave the Church.”

Otis had been a member of the church for over 20 years. I was shocked.

“Why are you going to leave, Otis?”

“Well, we just don’t feel like we are being fed,” he said. “The fellowship has grown cold. We don’t feel like it is a very friendly church anymore.”

I was 27 years old and this was the first time someone had threatened to leave a church that I pastored and I didn’t know what to say or think. But something in me told me to just listen. So, I asked him a few more questions. He told me more about what was wrong with the church and my ministry as pastor. The list grew and grew, the more he talked. It was if he was talking himself into more criticism.

Leaning up against his blue Chevy pickup, I remember asking God to help me understand. No one else had ever listed the things he was listing as problems in the church. In fact, just the opposite. Almost everything that he said was a problem, I had had 10 other people tell me were strengths.

I became quiet and listened some more.

Finally, I said, “Otis, if I fixed all those things you just mentioned about my preaching, leading, and the fellowship of the church—would you and June stay?”

He got quiet.

Finally, he said, “No.”

“Why? Is there something else?”

“Yes. I don’t like it that I haven’t been asked to sing in the church anymore,” he said.

“You know I don’t have anything to do with that, right? That is Ellsworth Honeycutt’s job to arrange special music.”

“Yeah, but you could tell him to ask me to sing.”

I sighed and said, “Okay.”  I didn’t know any better than to let a church member blackmail me so I asked Ellsworth to invite Otis to sing special music on Sunday mornings from time to time.

I’ve learned a thing or two since then. And one of those things is that more often than not the stated reason behind someone leaving the church is not the real reason they are threatening to leave.

I’ve also learned in doing hours and hours of counseling with folks in my study, that the issue they come to see me about is often not the issue that is really troubling them.  I’ve learned that there is a question underneath the question. An issue underneath the issue. A problem underneath the problem.

mark-2

Mark 2:1-12

My wife’s favorite story in the New Testament is about four men who bring a paralyzed man to Jesus, tear a hole in the roof of a house and lower the man into the presence of Jesus. The first thing Jesus says to the man on the mat, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Seems like the most obvious issue the man is dealing with is his inability to be self-mobile. Jesus bypasses his physical need and goes straight to the brokenness of his soul.

The problem under his paralysis was his estrangement from God.

What’s more, Jesus announces to this broken man forgiveness of his sins without the man repenting. This is not the pattern in Scripture. Every other time in the Bible God forgives after contrition and repentance. Not in this story. What’s going on?

Jesus had the ability to see into the hearts of all people. I think he saw that underneath the paralysis of the man’s body, and underneath the obsession of being healed, there was an inkling of desire to be whole at the soul level.

Jesus is so gracious, so eager to pour out mercy and embrace this guy, that He even responds to fragmentary, imperfect expressions of contrition and repentance that are left unexpressed in our hearts. Jesus is aggressive with His grace. He comes after you and pours His grace into you if you just give Him the slightest of openings.  Faith is a gift.

It’s almost as if Jesus has a “grace gun” and it is always pointing at us; all He is waiting for is a flinch in His direction and He’ll blast us with grace.

Jesus knows that there is a problem underneath our problems. Our deepest need, the need under all of our needs, is that we need God. In some ways you just have to ache in his direction.

Most of us go to Jesus to have Him help us get our saviors. We want God to get us over the hump in finances, attractiveness, job, family, health, career…we want Jesus to fix our externals. We believe that if our externals are fixed, we will be happy and fulfilled. It never occurs to us that we are still looking to something other than Jesus to validate our existence.

The problem underneath our problem is that we are all looking for love in all the wrong places. We come to him with an inkling of desire for grace, but a blue pickup load of desire for him to fix our circumstances of life.

But Jesus didn’t leave the three-corner table in heaven to help me be happy, successful, and fulfilled. He came to be King and Redeemer.

He’ll be that or He’ll be nothing.

So, flinch in His direction, I dare you. You never know what might happen.

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The Power

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Mark 1:35-37

When the people learned that Jesus had miraculous power the response was overwhelming. Everyone wanted an appointment, everybody wanted to see him. That can produce anxiety in the best of humans. Like my grandfather used to say, “Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

Years ago, a man under as much pressure in his professional and private life as I have ever known asked me to go with him into the wilderness to pray. When we found the right place he was looking for, he asked me to stay at the foot of the mountain and pray for him while he climbed the mountain to talk with God. He didn’t tell me what to pray or even what all this was about.

Two hours later he came down the mountain. I asked him how it went. His eyes were red and swollen. He said, “I can’t tell you about the conversation, Joe. But I heard from God.”

392260_10150341680200036_551436009_nThat example marked my life. I’ve been trekking in the wilderness ever since, not looking for the white wizard, but for the Voice of God.  I call it ambulatio divina—Sacred Walk.

Jesus response to a time of extreme business, tremendous opportunity, and incredible popularity is very different than most of us. When we get this busy the first thing that is cut is our prayer life and solitude. But the busier Jesus gets, the more he retreats to solitude and prayer. Jesus didn’t move to a quiet enclave or patio to pray. He went away from where people were into the wild or “the waste” to pray.

If you do a study of the prayers of Jesus, you find a very similar dynamic. He begins almost all of His prayers with “Father” or more accurately “Abba.” Today we might say “Dad” or “Papa.” What does this mean? The essence of prayer is not “give us this day our daily stuff.” It is not “forgive us our sins.”

What comes first? Orientation and alignment. Our Father, which art in heaven…

The essence of prayer is searing the senses of the mind and heart with the white-hot fact that in Jesus, the cosmic God of the universe has become your Father.

All other prayers are based on this dynamic.

I’m not sure who said it but the statement is poignantly true, “A parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child.”  Unavoidably as a parent there is such an entanglement of emotion and soul-connection that when your child is happy you are happy and if they have no joy, you have no joy.

If that is true of me and you as broken and sinful parents, how much more does God’s heart ache when our heart aches? God is infinitely more committed to us as His children than we are to ours.

And it is that orientation and connection that motivates Jesus to rise early and journey to a solitary place to be with His Father.

Earlier in his life God spoke wonderful words to His son at his baptism when a voice came 377329_10150341652390036_35450691_nfrom heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Now Jesus is back for more of that infinite love. As a human being he needed it. But here is what Jesus is after: the power of Jesus’ life is the joy of His sonship.

In prayer, he goes back to it every day, and He sears His heart with it. And that’s what gives Him the joy and energy to handle the “busyness” and pressure of this ministry.

See, prayer is foundational and the purpose of prayer is not to get things from God, but simply to get God. And to the degree you know the unconditional Fatherly love of God you do not need human affirmation, affection, power or control.  They don’t work on you. You are secure.

Because you still have that Voice ringing in your ears, “You are my beloved.”

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Sacred Space

I lay my hand over my mouth.  Job 40:4

“Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” ~ Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Some sights take my breath away.  Like the first glimpse of my wife in her white wedding gown as she walked down the aisle of the church.  Like the sight of my first son squirming, screaming, chin quivering and arms flailing as the nurse wiped gunk off his nearly ten-pound body.  Like the first time I saw the Grand Tetons and averted my eyes because it was as if I were looking at the very face of God.

It happened to me a few years ago.  I felt my hand come to my mouth to hide my weeping.

I have been a Southern Baptist all my life.  We Baptist are an austere people.  We like things simple.  We don’t go for flashy, expensive, what we would call ostentatious trappings of liturgical churches.  The larger churches down south might have red brick and white columns, colonial trim and padded pews, but for the most part my people are a plain people.  Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but true Baptists would look at those churches as “showy and shallow.”

If you were to walk into the church in which I minister today, it would come across as simple, clean and rather plain.  Not much to look at.  I like it.  I can justify its Spartan style by saying, “it’s the quality of the people not the ornaments of the building that really matter.” The architecture and accoutrements of our little Baptist Church are not impressive.  It is simple and plain; like our faith, traditions, and our people.

Maybe that is why I got blind-sided in Conejos, Colorado.  On vacation recently I saw a historical road-side sign that had an arrow and words that said, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish: the oldest church in Colorado.

About a mile off the main highway stood a large brick building with crosses on the spirals.  I had driven by it countless times as a kid with my grandfather when I worked on a cattle ranch in New Mexico, but he never had time or cared to go to the church.  Well, I was driving now and dadgummit, we were going to see the church.

7-16-our-lady-of-guadalupe-front-view

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish

There was a four-room City Hall, a six-room elementary school, several abandoned buildings and a few houses and this large red-gray brick church building with a mission bell at the top of the front façade.  A chain-link fence surrounded the manicured lawn.  Large shade trees were on the south part of the yard.  A man of Hispanic descent was talking on a cell phone and walking around.  We got out and took pictures of the ghostly little village, abandoned and condemned out-buildings. The man ended his call and asked us if we wanted to go inside the church.  Yes, we did.

He unlocked the building, pulled the door open and reached for a font of water on his right just inside the jam of the door and crossed himself as he entered.  Do I do that, too?  I didn’t.  I am a Baptist.  My family followed me through the doorway and followed the man to the altar.  As the man kneeled at the front and crossed himself again, my sons were taking pictures of the stained glass and statues like they had all the film in the wide world.

I don’t know if it was the late afternoon light streaming through the colored glass, the majesty of the artwork, the height of the ceilings, age of the building (built in 1847) or the care in which the custodian (his words) was showing for this old building, but I froze just inside the door and stood in the narthex (Baptist translation: vestibule, the rest of you: entry way).

And then the tears came; buckets of them.  My sons gave me an awkward glance. My wife stared at me but knew better than to ask me what was wrong.  The care-taker walked past me and barely gave me a glance as if, perhaps, this was a common occurrence for him.  Maybe it was common for him, but it wasn’t for me, for I am a Baptist.  We don’t get moved at the sight of a church.  We don’t get moved at anything unless it clearly says so in the Bible or some other Nashville-approved Baptist document.

I am not sure why it moved me at such a visceral level.  Maybe it was the beauty of a building that was cared for by very poor people with such obvious love.  Maybe it was the grace of the care-taker to let us in after hours.  Maybe it was the age of the sacred place; even the air felt old inside the building.

All I know is that it was a sacred moment in a sacred place.

Perhaps there are just those magical moments that we encounter from time-to-time that pull us out of the shallow fray of our frantic life to rest in a centered awareness. Like a threshold — a true “thin place.”

The concept of thin places comes from Celtic mythology. Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian, writes:

“There is in Celtic mythology the notion of ‘thin places’ in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good — and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal. Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.”

I wonder if we have forgotten how to honor God with extravagant beauty and art.  God seemed to enjoy and even expect it in the Temple of the Old Testament.  Jesus seemed to support it when he drove out the souvenir salesmen and when He praised a woman for spilling her alabaster treasure on His dusty feet.

Today churches look more like warehouses than places of worship.  They look corporate.  Few things are as spiritually dulling as the blurring of the lines of church and the corporate. Pastors are trained as leaders and behave more like CEOs.  Success is measured in attendance, book deals and making a “someone to watch” list.  We want so badly to attract a crowd that we will do almost anything to market ourselves.

I like what author Bill Johnson says, “We are not relevant when we mirror the world around us, we are relevant when we model what they long to become.”

I wonder if our faith ought to be an organic and holistic part of who we are.  I work hard at erasing dividing lines between sacred and secular.  I want my faith to influence and impact my vocation, politics, and all my social relationships.  Are we doing our communities a huge disservice by camouflaging our sacred spaces to the extent that we have removed the wonder and the sense of transcendence from community life?

2012-07-02_18-29-57_7401When our breath is taken away at beauty; that enjoyment spontaneously should overflow into gratitude or praise. That gratitude and praise is almost like our inner spiritual health being made audible. It doesn’t just merely express our gratitude; it actually completes the enjoyment of it. But, after our praises are uttered and our songs are sung, perhaps we should allow silence to wrap herself around us like an old woman’s shawl.

I say we get back to decidedly sacred spaces.  Where a bar is a bar, a jail is a jail, a store is a store and a church is a church.  And maybe, just maybe, when people enter our vestibules they will have an encounter with the holy.

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