Thursday, December 31, 2009

Two Responses

"(Jesus) told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him."
(Mark 3:9-10)

Crowds.  Needy people.  REALLY needy people.  Sick & diseased people.  Desperate people.  Add to that mix - Jesus "the healer," and you have all the makings of a mob scene.  So Jesus planned ahead.  He had his disciples get a boat ready so he could preach and teach from the shoreline.  In his young ministry, he's already learned that one of the main responses to him was for people to crowd around & press up close to him.

But there's another response from a particular group - those "demon possessed" people (those with "unclean spirits").  Mark tells us that they responded quite differently - they bowed down and shouted, "You are the Son of God!"  Unclean spirits said this!

So we have two different and yet similar groups: the sick & diseased... and the demon possessed.  The first group knows they need healing, but primarily see Jesus as the ultimate healer.  So their response is to surge for more of him.  Press forward.  So much so, that Jesus actually feared being crushed!  Wow.

The second group is also sick - but not physically.  Mentally.  Emotionally.  Relationally.  Only, they don't want to be healed.  That's the nature of the beast, so to speak.  Yet, they're completely in tune with who Jesus truly is.  They know!  Son of God.  Savior.  Master.  King.  And instead of pressing up, they respond by falling to their knees.  Reverence.  REVERENCE!!  From a group that lives in opposition to Jesus' ways.  And they're the ones who recognize his true identity.

How often do we "press in" toward Jesus?  Seeing him primarily as one who can "do stuff" for us?  So we move as close as we can to him.  But it's not an intimate movement.  It's crushing.  Stifling.  Might we learn something from the unclean spirits?  Might the possessed have it right?  When we're in the presence of the "Son of God," the only legitimate response is to fall on our knees and acknowledge his authority!

Of course, he's a God who wants intimacy, so he won't keep his distance.  But who are we to presuppose such casual familiarity?  I don't want Jesus to feel like I'm "crushing him" with my constant demands/requests.  He's big enough to handle them, for sure.  But there's a difference between coming to Him with our needs, and overwhelming him by nagging.  Intimacy & reverence.  That's what I want more of.  (Sounds like a great New Year's resolution doesn't it?).  AMEN.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gloriously Busted

"How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore, do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.  For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal."
(Job 5:17-18)

"Busted!"  Nobody likes getting caught doing wrong.  Nobody enjoys being scolded or reproved.  Some of us have experienced varying degrees of discipline over the course of our lives - from the "slap on the wrist" (basically looking the other way) to being "taken out to the woodshed" (physical beatings).

But not all discipline is created equal.  What comes from a well-spring of anger/resentment has quite different effects than discipline emerging from genuine love & concern.  Enter our passage today from Job 5.  It reminds us that God's discipline is a good thing for us.  Don't fight it!

God has set guidelines for how we are to live.  Rather than believe them to be "restrictive" and "oppressive," God's laws help us live with freedom, grace, joy & purpose!  When we act in contradiction to those standards, we do harm to ourselves & others.  So when God disciplines us (whether we receive it through reading scripture in our own quiet times, or other "more public" means), it's to help restore us to true wholeness (holiness!).  Whether we're pastors or children, God's discipline should never be feared.  Only embraced.  Sure, it will be uncomfortable for a while (no one likes getting 'found out').  But we'll come to know the healing power of being gloriously busted!  AMEN.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Simple Gifts

"Forty years (O God), You sustained them in the wilderness so that they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell."
(Nehemiah 9:21)

'Tis the season... to give & receive gifts.  All of us are in the midst of it, right?  As we prepare for Christmas (only 10 days away!), we've all got our lists, don't we?  People we need to shop for.  And in many cases, we love doing it - because these people are special to us, and it brings us joy to be able to bless them.  The other list I've been trained to make is the post-December25th list (aka the "Thank You" list).  My mother trained me early on of the importance of acknowledging the gifts I've been given.

The 9th chapter of Nehemiah is like one giant "THANK YOU" note to God!  The priest Ezra is recounting the wondrous deeds of God... how He's richly blessed his people over countless generations. A lot of it can be classified under "the big stuff" (ie. created heaven & earth, gave us life, made covenant with Abraham, divided the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, etc.).  These are the miracles.  The one-of-a-kind moments that become seared into the consciousness of a people.

But there are some other thank yous.  Ones that aren't quite so flashy.  Ezra notes that during the 40 years in the wilderness (post-Exodus), God set it up so their clothes didn't wear out and their feet didn't swell.  To be honest, I don't know if I've ever given thanks for those two specific things.

Now, given the reality of their situation - wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years, both of those problems were distinct possibilities.  Clothes do wear out - especially out in "the elements" of the wilderness.  And it's not like the Hebrews could just pop over to The Gap (or Banana Republic!) and pick up a few more cargo shirts.  Plus, swollen feet are a given when one is doing as much walking as htey were.  Yet, neither was an issue for the Israelites.

Did they recognize these simple gifts at that time?  I don't know.  But I've recently started having some calf/achilles muscle problems during my weekly basketball activities.  I never really appreciated what a joy it was to be able to play ball without aches & pains (and injuries).  Now I sure do!  Simple gifts.  They're all around us.  And if you're anything like me, you can do a bit more to recognize them... and express gratitude to The One Who Bestows Abundant Blessings!  AMEN.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Guide

"Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus - for he was numbered among us and was alloted his share in this ministry."
(Acts 1:16-17)

Let's talk Judas.  What words come to mind when you hear his name?  TRAITOR... BETRAYER... THIEF (John tells us he used to steal their common funds)?  ALL-AROUND BAD DUDE?  Yet here in the first chapter of Acts - the book about the early church & how it got started - we get a slightly different perspective.  Judas has committed suicide & the disciples need to find a replacement amongst the 'inner circle.'  But what descriptive word does Peter use when talking about Judas?  "GUIDE."  Judas 'became a guide for those who arrested Jesus.'

It's sort of always bothered me that Judas got the label of "Betrayer."  It wasn't like he gave out any inside information about Jesus that people didn't already know.  Nor did he reveal any secret location of Jesus' whereabouts, when he was trying to remain hidden.  Jesus had been out in public all week - preaching & teaching (granted, during the day there were great crowds around him, so at night it would have been 'less congested,' and easier to arrest him without the people protesting).  But Jesus wasn't trying to stay hidden.  So I don't buy the 'betrayer' label.

But "guide" is very interesting.  Instead of helping guide people towards the Kingdom of God (which was Jesus' stated mission, and what he trained his disciples to do), Judas guided the Jewish religious authorities to Jesus - but not for insight, healing or illumination.  He guided them ot Jesus to STOP his ministry.  Maybe he became disillusioned with who he wanted Jesus to be in light of who Jesus was actually becoming?  Whatever the reason, Judas guided people to Jesus for the wrong reason.

One of my seminary professors liked to say that if we wanted to get the full impact of the Bible's power, then we needed to put ourselves in the role of the least likable characters in a story.  So how might we be following in Judas' footsteps?  How do we "guide" people to stopping Jesus' ministry?  How does what we say or do discredit the gospel that Jesus worked so hard to share?  It could be things that bring obvious shame to God (and Christianity in general), or it could be simply attitudes & actions that turn people off from seeing Jesus for who he really is.

Far be it from me to cast the first stone.  I just pray that I'm not one who guides people away from Christ.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Unlimited salt!

"Whatever the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence, up to 100 talents of silver, 100 cors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and unlimited salt."
(Ezra 7:21-22)

Midway through the book of EZRA, we get to meet the man for which the book is named.  Ezra is a scribe of Hebrew descent, living in Babylon.  Evidently, he's in really good standing with the Babylonian King, Artaxerxes... for he is empowered to take a core group back to Israel to rebuild their temple.  But the king doesn't just "let him leave" the place where Ezra & his companions have been living in captivity for over 75 year... he also sends Ezra with a few "parting gifts" (aka supplies).
  • 100 talents of silver = approximately 7,500 pounds of silver...
  • 100 cors of wheat = 650 bushels...
  • 100 baths of wine & oil = 6,100 gallons each...
(I love the unlimited salt part.  Can you imagine going down into the "Salt Storage Room" and trying to figure out how much to bring along with you?  "Let's take two of those big Costco-sized storage drums.  No, wait... how much do you think a camel can hold?!?")

The king believed in Ezra's integrity, passion, purpose & faithfulness - otherwise he wouldn't have sent him off with such blessings.  How empowering that must have felt for Ezra.  It didn't mean there'd be absolutely no problems - but it was a great start.  Also, Ezra made sure that he and his traveling companions began their journey home only AFTER preparing themselves spiritually for the endeavor (prayer & fasting).

We at Aiea UMC are embarking on a new chapter of our history next month.  We're launching the process of starting a House Church ministry - with the desire to bring people together in small groups of caring communities, that otherwise wouldn't normally be drawn to a traditional church setting.  Instead, they'll meet in homes - growing closer as friends (and quite possibly eventually) followers of Jesus.

As we begin, we've been blessed by the larger UMC denomination. Our Conference Board of Congregational Development has granted us close to $125K for our first 18 months of ministry.  We still need to put in another 25-30% of the funds to meet our total budget, but what a wonderful start!  We have been entrusted with Conference resources (not something that happens everyday).  It's truly exciting!  It's also a bit scary.  Will it work out the way we're envisioning it?  Will people's lives be transformed?  Will we be up to the task?  Questions, I'm sure, Ezra & Co. pondered as they started out from Babylon.

In the meantime... all I can say is, "pass the salt, please!"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sorrow of Being Unaware

"As he came near and saw the city, (Jesus) wept over it, saying, 'If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes...'"
(Luke 19:41-42)

I know of only 2 places in all Scripture that Jesus broke down and cried.  First, of course, is the famous shortest-verse-in-the-bible passage (John 11:35) - "Jesus wept."  It came after his good friend, Lazarus, died... and Jesus saw Mary (his sister) weeping, too.  The second is this passage from Luke 19.  Jesus is in his final week of life.  He's just entered the city of Jerusalem, in order to preach & teach.  He stands overlooking this great city and weeps for what could have been - had they only recognized what (WHO!) was among them.  He goes on to lament their future misfortune and then leads it all back to this cause: "Because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God" (v.48).

Wow... what an indictment - not recogniing the time of your visitation from God.  Most of us, if we found out that God would be visiting, would go out of our way to be ready & prepared.  But with Jesus walking in and among the people of Jerusalem... the city on the whole had no clue.  None.

We're in the Advent Season now... getting ready for Christmas in a few weeks.  So much about the Christmas story is "recognizing the visitation" of God - the Magi, Mary's divine conception, Joseph's angelic experience, the shepherds in the fields, etc.  It's ALL about recognizing.  (Herod couldn't and had to ask others for the signs.)

What about us?  Are we keeping our eyes open for signs of God's presence among us... or are we, by and large, clueless?  Can we "follow the stars" overhead... or will Jesus weep over our persistent unawareness?  The Good News is that it's still early in the Advent Season... and there's still time!

Monday, December 7, 2009

A New Perspective

"(Jesus) asked him, 'What do you want me to do for you?' (The blind man) said, 'Lord, let me see again.'"
(Luke 18:41)

There were no "handicapped accessible" reserved seating locations back then.  No braille ATM machines.  No "talking crosswalks" for the visually impaired.  Nope.  If you had the misfortune of being blind, you were simply out of luck.  Period.  Thus, forced to get by via begging.

So everyday he sat there.  Along the roadside.  Waiting for travelers so he could ask for some spare change.  Everyday.  But his ears worked.  Very well.  He'd heard about Jesus  The man who had miraculous powers.  Miraculous!  And one day, who so happened to come along, but this very same Jesus.

"Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" he cried.  (Note: By saying 'Son of David,' he was acknowledging that Jesus was indeed the Messiah!)  "SHUT UP!" the people around him scolded.  But the man cried out even louder. "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Jesus heard him... and called him over.  "What do you want me to do for you?"

I imagine he could have answered Jesus in a number of ways.  'Make me rich' (so he could stop begging).  'Get back at all those who have put me down & insulted me over the years' (which had to have been demoralizing).  'Let me find someone to love me' (it must have been very lonely for him).  But he didn't ask for any of those.  He asked to be able to see again.  Now we may think that was a no-brainer (like, duh!?!).  But do you honestly imagine that he woke up that morning thinking he'd be healed today?  No.  Another day of begging.  The same old, same old... period.

So he came to his usual place and did what he always did.  Beg for money.  But when Jesus came by, he suddenly was given the chance to voice his deepest desire... a desire that no one else but Jesus could meet.  "Lord, let me see again."

I wonder how we'd respond if pressed to give voice to our deepest desire (a desire that ONLY Jesus could meet - no one else!)?  Oh, we may think we know what we want (financial security, a bigger house, a better job, Dallas Cowboys season tickets, an HDTV (!), etc.)... but when we find ourselves face to face with the Savior of the World, might we have a new perspective?

'Tis the season to be making gift wish lists, right?  What might you put on your "deepest desire" list for Jesus this Christmas?  And might we be able to shout out to Him for mercy?  Or are we simply content to keep quiet and not make a scene... to continue life the way we've been going along? 

I see we still have much to learn from this blind man...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

HIGHER definition

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
(Luke 12:32-33a, 34)

On Thanksgiving Day, a windstorm blew over our satellite dish in our backyard.  We've been DirecTV subscribers since they first came to Hawaii (can you say NFL Network?!?) - about 5+ years ago.  Originally we had a medium-sized dish on our roof, but no local TV channels (we had to get them via an antenna).  Then they added another satellite over the Pacific, and about a year later they offered local channels.  But we needed a dish upgrade.  This one was HUGE... and it had to be mounted on a pole in our yard.  It was a HD-compatible dish.  We didn't have an HD TV, but it was necessary for us to receive local channels.  (Interesting note: at that time, true HD service required TWO of those massive dishes, linked side-by-side!)

So anyway, I was talking to our repair guy the other day about the size of the dish & HD service... and he said that now this single dish is able to receive HD service on its own.  Which got me thinking... gee, it sure would be nice to be able to watch sports in HD!!!  So I've been scouring the internet for prices/sales on HD TVs.  Nothing huge, mind you... 37-40 inches LCD should be adequate (1080, of course!).  But in the back of my mind, I kept hearing this voice ("But the TV you've got is just fine!")... so I'd answer back, "True, but it's not HD!"  To which the voice would say, "But the TV you've got is just fine!"  Which tells me that the voice doesn't know how to listen to reason!

Then I read today's passage from Luke 12, and stumbled upon (literally) verses 32-33.  Jesus tells his followers that God longs to give them THE KINGDOM!  Wow!  The Kingdom of God!?!  That's a great gift!  Then Jesus says, "Sell your possessions and give alms."  Hmm... what about "Upgrade your out-of-date possessions, sell your old models, and THEN give alms!"???  (Nah, I didn't really think so either).  The kicker comes in verse 34: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  (dang!)

We're officially in Advent now... the season of preparation for the Coming of Christ again.  I'm trying to lead my congregation along this pathway - putting the first things first - striving after The Kingdom... and darn it if visions of HD TV's keep dancing in my head!  ("But the TV you've got is just fine!")  Maybe God is calling me to spend that $500-$600 on the poor this Christmas, instead?  Maybe that's a "higher definition" of faithfulness? 

But what if a really good sale pops up?!?!

I know... I know... THE TV I HAVE IS JUST FINE.  (Sheesh!)