Saturday, August 31, 2013

Psalms



Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night. Psalm 1

Two Sundays ago, I invited people to begin reading the book of Psalms.  One of the reasons why I decided to do this is because of the very first word, "Happy".  We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about happiness today.  Often, that happiness depends on something outside of us.  We will be happy if that coworker leaves...that neighbor moves...that new car suddenly appears in our drive way. 

Happy is a word that will appear 25 times in the 150 psalms, that is significant. I am sure in the course of 150 conversations, I talk about happiness at least 25 times.  

What makes you happy?

Where do you long for more happiness?

The psalm does not come out and give us a five point plan for happiness or even guarantee that we will have our best live ever right now.  Instead, first, the psalms tells us to be careful who we listen to, which paths we take, and where we sit.  Because those things matter and make a difference.  If we only listen to people who are cynical, or we only travel down paths have thorns/thistles, or if we only sit with folks who don't see hope that impacts us perhaps more than we know.

It can impact our relationship with God.  

The psalmist does give us some very practical advice to meditate day and night on God's law. Or another translation of that would be to murmur on God's Torah day and night.  So, my invitation is quite practical too.  Read one psalm in the morning and one psalm at night.  As with all good suggestions there is a lot of room to roam here.  I have actually found it is easier to read my two psalms together in the morning.  It is a good time to center myself before the day gets going and leads naturally into prayer.  However, you can decide how to do this in a way that works best for you.  As a psalm comes up that stirs my soul, I will offer a comment here.

Two quick comments: 1).  The psalms are brutally honest in their poetry and prayer.  They talk of revenge and God lashing out at enemies.  We are not use to that in our polite church prayers today.  But, we do sometimes think that especially with that coworker...neighbor...family member who gets on our nerves.  And the psalmist believes God can handle those emotions that we think, but don't always say aloud.
2).  The psalms are poetry and prayer which cannot be read the same way you read a novel.  It is good to slow down and let each word linger on the tip of your tongue, speaking deeply to your heart.

I pray you will accept this invitation.  Or perhaps you can enjoy the next several posts that about psalms.

May we sense more than a trace of God's grace in our connecting with these prayers and poetry.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

...


Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.  Psalm 42:7

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. 1 Kings 19:11-13

When you hear the word, "Silence", what comes into your mind?  Sometimes for parents, silence is a dream.  For people who are often alone, often in silence, it can become a burden.  Sometimes in worship, silence is awkward, so people begin to cough.  Other times in worship, silence is shared conspiring, literally co-breathing together.  

Because of the sea of words we are awash in today, silence and solitude are rare.  Perhaps that why people get a tickle in their throats during silent prayer.  That is a physiological response to encountering something unusual.  

The psalmist tells us that the depth of God calls out to the depth within us.  It is amazing how the still small silence can roar into our lives and sweep us uncomfortably up in its grasp.  Or when Elijah encountered God it was not in the normal ways people in his day experienced God (wind, earthquake, or fire) but in a whisper or some translate this verse as "sound of sheer silence".  I don't often think of the sound of silence.  I think of silence as the absence of sound.

But there is a sound in silence.  There is a whisper that rides the air currents and enters our souls if only we pause for long enough.  So...and you knew this was coming...practice silence today.  Take a few deep breaths and just be.  It doesn't have to be for hours...five minutes would be great.  Actually, in our world, one minute would be great.  Try to practice this each day.  As you do perhaps the words I've posted about over the last few months will keep washing over you:  
Here
Thanks
O
Sorry
Help
Please
When
No 
Why
Behold
Yes
... [silence]

For God is here in the still small silence, awakening our gratitude, acknowledging our brokenness, helping us, hearing us, receiving our questions, our pleas, all we are and will be with a wondrous love and gave that is something to behold.

Thanks be to God...enjoy the trace of God's grace in the silence

Blessings ~

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Yes



Unlike the post for "No", this post is much easier to write in some ways.  I like to hear the word "Yes" in my life.  Would I like some ice cream? "Yes, yes I would."  Would you like to serve on that committee?  "Yes, I thought you'd never ask!"  Would you like to refer someone else to read my blog?  "Yes, it would be my pleasure."  Of course, as much as we like to hear yes and all the warm/fuzzy feelings that go along with it; there is a downside.  Sometimes we say "Yes" so much that life gets overcrowded and chaotic.  Sometimes we say "Yes" only because we cannot find a way to say "No."  And then weeks after the fuzzy feelings are gone and we have to go to the meeting or feel obligated to do something, we can feel a different sensation: annoyance or stress or just plain exhaustion.

The initial euphoria of "Yes" can be like a cotton candy sugar rush that sustains us for only so long.

Yet, there are other moments when "Yes" echoes across our soul sustaining us for weeks, months, and years.  God's emphatic "Yes" can be like that.  It is the kind of "Yes" that is made at a wedding.  This week my wife and I celebrated our 13th anniversary.  I know, it is still not a major milestone in some ways.  According to the Hallmark website, which is the go-to source for all things related to anniversaries, I should have given my wife either something lace or a textile fur...I did neither.  I hope what I offered was even better.  I offered a "Yes" to our continued covenant of marriage.  Yes to celebrating the "for better" times this year and Yes to sticking through the "for worse" times.  Yes to trying to be more patient.  Yes to paying attention to our relationship because it matters to my life.  Yes to the hope that this year will continue to grow in love and appreciation of each other.

Each Sunday we gather to worship, which is one way to affirm/celebrate/and hear God's "Yes" to us.  That does not mean that God is some gumball vending machine just simply saying "Yes" to our every prayer whim.  What we affirm is the emphatic "Yes" of our baptism.  Remember when Jesus was baptized the waters rushed off his drenched face and he gasped for air as he came out of the Jordan.  Suddenly he heard God saying, "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased."  God said "Yes".  Then, Jesus faced 40 days of prayer and temptation in the wilderness...so "Yes" is not some money-back guarantee.  But it is an affirmation that can carry us through what we face this week.  

On Sunday we hear God's "Yes" reverberate through  hymns we love and new hymn we are learning.  We hear God's "Yes" when we read Scripture and dwell in the Word.  We hear God's "Yes" in prayer...not as an answer, but as an affirmation that God hears us and knows us and will be with us no matter what in the week ahead.

While I sometimes wish that God's "Yes" was to make my every wish come true, I realize in worship that what I actually need is God's presence in my life.  There is more than a trace of God's grace in that "Yes".

Happy Sabbath and blessings ~

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Behold



Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.  Isaiah 43:19

Behold, the Lamb of God, John 1:36

Language is an amazing thing.  On the one hand you are able to read this blog.  I am typing words that form sentences that your eyes scan, your brain recognizes, filters through your experiences/understanding that lead (hopefully) to understanding and (with God's grace) to connections.  Yet, language is also limited.  You can misinterpret something.  I may write a sentence in my mind emphasizing one word, only to have you encounter that sentence and emphasize another part...totally changing the meaning of what I meant to say.  This happens, of course, not only in blogs but also in face-to-face communication.  Try giving a sermon sometime and asking people what they heard...then wondering if you were really in the same sanctuary at all.  
Language is also evolving.  According to Google, on average 4000 words are added every year to the dictionary.  And as new words are added, others might fall out of favor.  Only a few generations ago, a pastor might begin a prayer like, "O God, we beseech thee."  If I did that, people might wonder what the beach has to do with God...and how in the world is some sandy shore along a body of water going help in addressing God?  

Along with beseech...behold is not exactly a word that falls from my lips all that much.  I don't say to my children, "Behold, there is a hot air balloon."  I say, "Look!"  Or I don't say, "Behold" when at a 4th of July fireworks show.  I say, "Wow!"  Or "oooo and ahhhhhh"  The great thing about "Behold" is that it means both.  Both that I am amazing, the tiny hairs on my neck are standing upright AND I want others to notice it too.  

I was recently at a person's home, looking out quietly over the garden when we both spotted the first butterfly of the season.  We watched it silently flutter from a flower.  It's wings flapping faster than we could count and gracefully moving around.  It was a "behold" moment both because of its beauty and because we both saw it/experienced it/dwelt in it together.

God tells Isaiah God is going to do a new thing for people to see and be amazed by and notice/pay attention to.  When John sees Jesus he tell others this is a new thing for people to see and be amazed by and notice/pay attention to.  Perhaps the reason why we don't behold much any more is because life is a blur.  I am so busy getting my kids to practices, trying to keep up with my job, make space to honor my marriage covenant, and occasionally read a book, that there is not much time for beholding.  But God does not always move in dramatic bolts of lightening that catch our attention.  God in my life is more like that butterfly that I might have missed had it not been for slowing down.

I am setting this to be posted while I am on vacation, trying to observe a pace of life that is more beholding, less blurry.  But I wonder what happens when I get back to work and the emails have piled up and decisions need to be made and the church year is on the cusp of beginning anew.  Will I try to keep beholding?  Because a life lived noticing God is the way of deep, holy, whole life.  

I pray you've had moments of beholding God this last summer and this week.  I pray that when your skin tingled you sensed the trace of God's grace.  More than that, I pray we will keep trying to practice that kind of watchfulness in our lives...because it matters and makes a difference.

Blessings...and may a butterfly disrupt your carefully planned day to behold the beauty of God!

Saturday, August 17, 2013



It seems to me there are two universal truths in life:

1).  We don't like to hear the word, "No".  AND...
2).  The first word that falls from almost every toddler's mouth is, "No".

So it make sense to me that theologians and pastors spend a lot of time today trying to either work around times when God might say, "No" or trying to justify why God might say, "No."  In the former category, many Mainline Protestants spend so much energy trying to describe God as unconditional love that when something goes awry in people's lives we are sent into a theological tail spin.  On the other hand, other pastors are so sure that God says, "No" only because humans force God's hands.  They will contend laws we pass or legislation decisions limit God so all God can do is step back.  I have to confess I don't care for either explanation. 

I once read that we can make God out to be like a senile grandparent...that all we are interested in is God looking the other way at our brokenness, patting us on the head telling us we are great, and maybe giving us a quarter.  While that is one way to look at it, I also know lots of grandparents who are the primary caregivers in their family.  Grandparents who hold everyone accountable, but do so lovingly.  Grandparents who welcome family members into the spare bedroom when they did not pay their rent and got kicked out.  Grandparents who will say, "No," every bit as much as saying "Yes."  

I think God's unconditional love is wide enough for the moments "No" tumbles into my life.  The real question is, how am I going to respond to that?  Right now I am working through some place where things are not all rainbows and chocolate rivers.  I have bumped into more "Nos" that perhaps I care to count.  So, does that mean that God has abandoned me?  Does that mean that I have caused some kind of brokenness and this is punishment?  Does that mean that humans have the power to say "No" to each other and sometimes we make that out to be about God?  I don't always get my way.  Life is filled with mountains and valleys.  Yet, we worship God who proclaims to be there in the moments of euphoric "Yes" and emotionally difficult "No".  
Sometimes the "No" is also an invitation for me to look around my own life.  Sometimes I am not doing as great as my carefully guarded public persona likes to portray to the world.  Sometimes my actions are causing hurt that is awakening the "No" in the other person.  Sometimes "No" is just a fact of life.

Maybe that is why my kids both said "No" as their first word.  Maybe we say it first because we need to spend our whole life figuring out what to make of and how to respond to this one simple word.  And maybe we need to realize that "No" is not the absence of God, but a chance to fill the emptiness that word can create with the sacred.  Can we invite God into the "No" in our life?  Are we willing to sit with God in silence around that "No"?  And are we willing to be open to God who doesn't promise/guarantee to turn that "No" into a "Yes", but will grieve with you, sustain you, and help guide you to the path of life that is true life?

If so, there is MORE than a trace of grace in that.

Blessings ~ 



Saturday, August 10, 2013

When and why

One of the amazing realities of the human mind is our ability to question.  Our curiosity really is a gift.  In fact, theologians over the centuries have sometimes contended that Genesis 3 is not a story of the first sin, as much as it is the narrative of our curiosity.  Adam and Eve were not so much trying to break relationship with God, but in exploring this big, beautiful, sometimes cruel and always curious world, the pushed the boundaries. Ultimately, Adam and Eve don't die...if that was the case reading the Bible from cover to cover would be more like reading a short story of only three chapters!  There are consequences.  Just as there are consequences today when we try to chart new courses.

Think of it this way.  When the first Christians gathered in people's homes there were no organs for music.  No choirs.  No committees (that brings a smile to people's faces).  No ministers (smile from my face disappears).  No buildings.  They met, they read what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  They read those words in light of their encounters and stories about Jesus our Christ.  They were pushing boundaries to new places in faith.  Some of the earliest Christians still saw themselves as fully Jewish.  Others had different ideas.  Christianity in those early days was just as pluralistic and multi-faceted as it is today.  They were asking questions like how should we follow Jesus?  What does following Jesus look like or sound like or feel like?  When might Jesus come again?  Where should we gather (homes vs in Jewish temple)?

And the church today is still questioning.  I often wonder why the strand of Christianity promoted in the media and as understood by those outside is so closed/confining, when the faith I follow is open armed with open hearts?  I wonder what else can I do or the church to share this vision wider?  How do we help created churches that are more interested in following Jesus, who people in this world still find compelling?

Questions are amazing...yet the other side of the coin is questions can be paralyzing too.  Often questions like the above will not summit to easy, trite answers.  They break through the binds of our cliches and just keep intently daring us to answer.  Intellectually I know that.

When questions enter into our prayers, they often do so with a thud.  We wonder when will the cancer go into remission?  We wonder why we are struggling at work or in a relationship that once thrived?  We ask go how long will we dwell in the valley of the shadow of darkness/death...to quote the poignant image from the 23rd psalm.

I don't know exactly how many of the Psalms have questions.  I do know that well over one-third are what are called laments.  A lament is often the soul struggling with a boundary and the questions the experience evokes.  A lament is being honest with God that these nagging questions won't go away and won't be easily settled by us thinking our way out of it.  A lament is pure emotion offered to God...not always a happy emotion at that.

In a couple of weeks, I am going to challenge the church to read through the book of Psalms.  It is a challenge I am undertaking as well.  Read two psalms a day.  It will take no more than ten minutes.  Yet, if we are serious about learning more about prayer, I think we need more than just twelve words.  We need to read the prayer book, hymn book, and poetry book of our ancestors.  People have come back to the Psalms time and time again.  In the psalms we encounter words like, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  And "How long, O God?"  And "My tears have drenched my pillow."  Poignant questions have been part of the human condition for a long time.  And in a strange way, it helps calm my soul to connect with my ancestors in faith...to know my questions were their questions.  To hear them struggle and still try to praise God.  Not because they have figured out the answers once and for all...but because between the tension of questions and praise there is prayer and hymns that gives voice to our deepest hope.  One psalm proclaims that the deep within us calls us to the deep that is God, that is the reason why I turn to the psalms.  To join in the questions...not for answers...but to pray the questions, live the questions, and to discover there is a trace of God's grace there.

So, consider joining in this journey of reading the psalms...and I will post more about this next week.

Blessings ~

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Please



If the word "help" falls from our lips most often in prayer, "please" is a close second.  Like the word, "Help", "Please" is a one-word prayer.  Sometimes I find myself uttering, "Please! God!" as if other words would be superfluous or just cannot find the right words to say.  I trust in that moment that God knows, even when I realize I don't fully realize all that is going on inside me.

"Please" often means that I have been brought to my knees.  It makes sense that "Please" follows "Help". When I ask for help, I am still actively engaged in whatever is going on.  I ask for help with holding up a heavy item or with editing something I have written.  But "help" is about partnership and working together. When I pray "Please", I may be stuck, I may not be moving at all, I may be all out of ideas, and all out of words (which as a pastor really says something!).  Please is vital in prayer because it reminds us we are fully dependent upon God in "whom we live and move and having our being". (Acts 17:28)

The quote from Acts is often offered, yet rarely do I pause and consider just how profound that statement truly is.  There is nothing I have done, do, or will do without God.  What Acts is saying is that my whole life, every move I make, and down to every cell in my DNA bares the fingerprints of God.  But when this becomes a given every second of our life, it is difficult to remain constantly aware of this truth...so I forget.  I start to think, "God, I've got today covered...You take a break, maybe grab a fro-yo."  But God is God and I am not.  "Please" re-orients my life.  And honestly, "please" disorients my life.  All of sudden I am really not as in control or as in charge as I like to think.  Please means that I am at the end of the rope.  At the same time, I also need to realize that I am at rope's end more often than I like to admit.  I wonder how often we keep trying to hang on when we really need to utter the simple word, "Please"...and then maybe let go!?

That is risky!  We might fall.  We might break through the lure of self-reliance.  We might actually tumble into the embrace of God.  On second thought, we will tumble into the embrace of God.  There may still be a thud as we land and we may be jarred as we land.  But there is still grace in that.

As you pray this week pay attention not only to the specifics of where you are asking for help, but also when words all want to raise their hands and be excused because they can't quite capture what is going on inside.  Where are you inviting God into your life with the simple word, "Please"?  And when you do, how do you sense the traces of God's grace in your life?

Blessings ~ 

Help



I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.  Psalm 121

Surely God is my help;
    the Lord is the one who sustains me  Psalm 54

If "Sorry" is a word that we find difficult to wrap our minds, hearts and lives around...."Help" is not much easier.  We live in a world where the narrative is that you need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, where accepting help is seen as some sort of moral or person failure, and where asking for help makes our stomachs feel all queasy, like we rode the Tilt-a-whirl at the fair too many times.

We don't like to depend on anyone else.  Because, to be honest, we don't like to be beholden to anyone else.  We  don't want that hanging over our heads.  So, we do everything possible to make it seem like we are self made, which is physically impossible.  We have parents who are the ones who made it possible for us to exist and take in air.  With our first breath we are already beholden.  Not to mention the years they provided a roof over our heads and food on the table.  I was educated in the public school...there at least 50 teachers who I am beholden to.  And, of course, working in a church means that I am fully dependent upon the generosity of donations to pay my salary.  Lots of people have and lots of people do help me.  Truth be told, you could say the exact some time.  CEOs need the help of workers.  Teachers need the help of students.  Paul McCarty was right, "We get by with a little (or actually A LOT) of help from my friends (and others too numerous to list...or at least to sing about)"

Scripture is full of passages about the help God offers us.  Sometimes this is tangible help...other times it is just a strength swirling within.  Often times...because we don't like be beholden to anyone....we think think of our relationship with God in terms of a transaction.  That we 'ought to' give money to get God's help or we need to pray the right prayer to get God's help...that somehow we earn God's help.  The image here is of a vending machine, we want something so we have to smooth out and will the dollar into the machine to get what we want.  Friends, God is NOT a vending machine.  Even though my salary does need gifts, God does not.  God desires a relationship, not manipulation or calculation on our part.  God desires our whole lives, not just our wounds.  God desires our honesty, not our speeches.  

That is why "Help" can be such an honest prayer.  But too often that is ALL our prayers are.  Help this person, help us, help this situation.  That is why I found Brian McLaren's list so powerful.  Even though "Help" might be #1 on our most requested prayer list...it did not appear in Brian's until #5.  There is something about starting with acknowledging God's presence in my life first.  There is something about giving thanks.  There is something about noticing the wonder and awe around me.  There is something about noticing my own culpability in brokenness (see "Sorry" post) that then puts into proper perspective my need for help.

I invite you this week with your prayers to do simply that.  Start by noticing God.  How do you notice God?  Then give thanks for the blessings.  Then go deeper with those blessings, be in awe.  Then notice places and times and words that have hurt and hurt others.  Then, name honesty the help we need.

Brian McLaren writes that often our cries for help involve changing someone else or the situation, without acknowledging our own brokenness.  We cry for help when we are late and stuck in traffic, rather than asking for help to be more aware of time/not try to cram so much into our lives.  We cry for help to change the annoying co-worker, rather than asking for help to be more understanding.  As you ponder prayerfully help this week...look over how you are asking for help and what you are asking for help with.  

As you do...may the traces of God's grace move in your life in ways that give us strength to ask for and accept a help that makes our lives whole.

Blessings ~