random thoughts from sitting and listening to God

Latest

Clean Slate

Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!

Another lesson from the golf course. Probably the first task that I did when I began work at the golf course was to rake sand traps, the dreaded sand pits dotting golf courses. They are technically called bunkers in the rules of golf, but sand trap feels more appropriate for those of us who are not very good at golf. They feel like traps that are difficult to escape. Anyway, there are 53 of these pits of sand and every morning they are raked to smooth away the imperfections.

There are days when it looks like either very few people played golf the day before (or maybe they were all just better at avoiding the traps), or like a child was in there running around and digging for treasures. So every morning anywhere from 1-4 people are dispatched with metal leaf rakes to basically erase evidence that anyone was in there before. We work methodically, starting by going all the way around the edge, then dragging straight lines across the sand trap from one end to the other. When we are done it looks fresh and renewed for the day.

The writer of Psalm 51 knew what it was like to have their life full of blemishes. And here I’m not talking about physical blemishes, but the blemishes of sin, of failing to live in line with God’s will for our lives. God has a plan for our lives that involves living in complete and perfect love with God and our neighbors (and according to Jesus that means everyone, including our enemies). As humans who are given the gift of freedom when it comes to choosing how we live, we quite often don’t choose the way God would like for us to choose. The result is broken relationship with God and others. And that brokenness is sin.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we make choices and do things that are not in line with what God would want. We make choices and act out of selfishness, fear, brokenness and a host of other things that cloud our judgment. And we are left with the consequences which like scabs and scars on God’s beautiful creation; us.

But there is good news. Even though our lives are full of blemishes, like the sand trap with the marks of imperfect golfers, we can be renewed. We can have our blemishes wiped out, washed away, and purified by God’s love and mercy. We can be created anew with a new and faithful and joyful spirit.

In Christianity we talk about being born again and/or being saved, and part of that process is God cleansing our sin. But where we often fall short in our talk and understanding of being born again or being saved is that we talk as if we get cleansed once and we are good forever. But the truth is that we still stray away from God’s will for our lives. We still sin and leave more blemishes. No one is perfect in this life. Every day we mar the clean slate given us, we trample through the freshly raked sand of our lives.

The more we live in faith and love the less we mess that clean slate up. The better the golfer is, the more they learn about it and live out what they learn on the course, the less time they spend in the sand traps. In truth though, even the best golfers find their way into the traps. But the good news is powerful and perfect; God will always be merciful and loving and give a new start for those who desire it.

Lamentations 3:22-23
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Begin (and/or end) every day by acknowledging the tracks through your life left by straying from God’s will for your life. And allow God to drag a rake through your life to wipe away the blemishes. God’s love and compassion are new every morning, and you can be too.

Advertisements

Focus

Hebrews 12:1b-2 from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language
Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God.

For the past year I have been working as a groundskeeper at a golf course. I have been preaching some weekends, filling in for pastors who need to be away on Sunday, but my main daily work has been lot of physical labor and mowing a lot of grass. And believe it or not, there are a number of things that we do that lead to some great possibilities for blog posts.

This week marks the third Sunday of Lent. I’m not following what many might think of as typical Lenten themes; prayer, fasting, Bible study, service. Not that they aren’t important things, but I want to take some different paths. So off we go.

Mowing grass at a golf course is a bit different than mowing grass at home. For one thing, everything is a lot bigger. Bigger equipment and bigger fields of green. Actually, we use four different mowers for different areas on the course (which may be a future blog post) and cut several different lengths. But it’s one of the techniques we use to mow that I want to use for this post.

When I used to mow grass at home (live in an apartment right now so no mowing) I liked to try to keep the lines straight. I didn’t have to, but I thought it looked better. On a golf course the emphasis on straight lines is a higher priority. It may not seem like a hard thing to do but it really is. Even when the line isn’t really long, like on greens and tees, it’s pretty easy to have a subtle curve or to weave a little. Make it a fairway, where you might have a line that’s over 200 yards, and it’s extremely hard to keep straight. There are lots of distractions. It’s easy for me to lose focus with everything going on around me. It’s easy to be led astray by the curves of the fairways, greens and tees. It’s easy to get pushed away from your line by the undulations of the ground.

It’s not all that different from trying to keep my life “straight” in relation to what God’s will might be for me. The shorter the timeline that I focus on for staying in line with God, the easier it is. If I want to do a particular thing in a way that would line up with God, I find it easier to do than if I just say I want to live every day fully in line with God. The short run is easier to maintain focus. But even with that I find it easy to be distracted by many things. My own wants, desires, and preferences. Other people’s expectations for me, and their own wants, desires and preferences. The twists and turns and obstacles that I run into along the way. And when I look at where my path has gone it find curves and weaves.

The technique we use to keep straight lines is actually fairly simple; pick a spot in the distance that is straight ahead and keep yourself and the mower centered on it while you go. There are times I find myself not blinking so I don’t lose focus on that spot. I try to block out the distractions and ignore the shapes and undulations of what I’m mowing. Just focus ahead on that spot. The better I focus the straighter my lines.

The writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament of the Bible challenges us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we try to live a life of faith. Strip away all the distractions, the twists and turns and obstacles that we and others put in the way. Don’t focus on the distractions and hope that Jesus will help you navigate through them. Focus on Jesus and trust that by following him you will navigate them and stay on the path God has for you.
So here are some examples (not a complete list) of what I mean. Don’t simply focus on your hurts and angers. If you focus on Jesus, you will find his voice speaking in your relationships. Don’t simply focus on your money or job problems. If you focus on Jesus you will find new or renewed wisdom in dealing with finances and career. Don’t simply focus on your bad habits and addictions. If you focus on Jesus you will find new or renewed wisdom, strength and resolve in breaking the chains of habits and addictions. Notice that in these examples I didn’t say to avoid or run away from the things that distract you from following God’s will for your life. But by focusing on Jesus we will deal with the distractions as they come while staying on the path.
So, focus on Jesus! Read the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry. Pray for wisdom and strength and clear sense of direction.
“Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.”

Quiet!

When I was in seminary, studying to become a pastor, I took a class in Christian spirituality from Sister Joan Marie. It was a class that was an elective but I’m convinced that class, or something like it, should be required for every seminarian. We used a couple of books as study materials that were very good. But there were a couple of exercises that left the biggest mark on me. One was a guided meditation that helped to reveal how we understood Jesus and our relationship with him. The other is what I want to tell you about here.

One day as we were starting class, Sister Joan Marie told us to put our stuff away. We didn’t need our books, our notebooks or writing instruments (there weren’t any laptops or tablets or anything like that then). She told us that our assignment for the next half hour was to go outside and find God. She wouldn’t give us any more instruction than that; go outside and find God. So the whole class went out the doors and began to wander off in multiple directions.

In the book of 1 Kings in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was running away from his problems. Granted, they were big problems and his life may have been in danger, but he was still running away. God spoke to him in a cave on a mountain where he was hiding, telling him to go stand outside because he was going to pass by. Here is what follows.

1 Kings 19:11-13
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. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

There is a lot to the story that is important about what Elijah had done and what God was directing him to do. And I could get into a long post just about following what God is calling us to do. But for this second full week of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, I want to just spend some time with these couple of verses.

Elijah’s world was in chaos to say the least. Now, he had been doing what he felt God had called him to do. And those actions had led to his feelings of being in danger and everything in chaos. Regardless, he was feeling alone in his chaotic life at the time and was fleeing as far away from his problems as possible.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever been so overwhelmed with life that you felt alone? No one could possibly understand what you are going through. I’m out here on my own and not even God seems to be present or caring! I have been in those places before and it’s not fun. There are many different emotions that we may experiences. Fear and anxiety, sadness and depression, confusion, betrayal, anger and lots of others. We may find ourselves lashing out at others around us, including those who love and support us. And we may even lash out at God. Where are you?!?! Why have you left me in this awful time?!?! And we demand and/or expect God to show up and speak in some big way, some big sign that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is still present and cares about what is happening. And we are often disappointed.

I’m not going to say that God doesn’t sometime speak in some very big and loud ways to some people. But that isn’t my experience and I don’t know of many people where that has happened. We expect God to speak through a powerful wind, or an earthquake, or a fire, but God usually speaks in gentle whisper. We spend a lot of our focus on the big stuff and don’t pay attention to the gentle whisper.

As I walked around the grounds of the school where the class was taking place, I found myself in a stand of really old pine trees. They were huge. The kind of trees where there aren’t any branches near the ground so the trunks look like great columns. The ground was covered in a blanket of pine needles, so dense and complete that it looked like a floor covered in a great brown carpet. I felt like I had just walked into an ancient cathedral without walls. And it was quiet. I wasn’t far from the building and the road that ran out front, but it was quiet. As I stood there for a moment I felt a gentle breeze moving through the trees and I was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence. I had found God!

I want to offer a challenge to you for this week. I want to challenge you to take some time to find a quiet place. A place that is away from the busyness and noise of your world. Don’t take your phone! Don’t take a laptop or tablet! Don’t take a book or even a notebook. Just take yourself. It might be a place outside or it could be inside. If it’s inside get away from all the technology that you can. Turn off the TV and music. And just be present and aware. Be fully present in that place in that moment. Be aware of the quiet and listen.

I don’t promise anything profound will happen. But if you continue to practice these times of quiet listening I believe that you will sense something happening in your spirit regardless of what you do or don’t hear. I believe that the chaos and feeling of being alone will begin to melt away. I believe that a sense of direction will emerge. And honestly, that is the result of being in the presence of the God who loves and cares whether you hear it or feel it or not.

Tempt Me!

Mark 1:9-15 New International Version (NIV)
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

This week marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days, not including Sundays, leading up to Easter. Lent is meant to be a time of fasting, prayer, penitence (showing by some action your sorrow for your sin), reflection and, historically, preparation for baptism on Easter. The 40 days is meant to be symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.

This week we begin by looking at that 40 day period of Jesus’ temptation and how it might inform our 40 days leading to Easter.

When Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led into a time of temptation. But there are at least a couple of things to note:

First, even though he was full of God’s Spirit he was tempted. We have somehow, in our American religious culture, come to an understanding that the good or bad things that happen in your life are directly connected to how strong or weak your faith is, and whether your good deeds are weighted more heavily to the good or bad. The sentiment goes that if you are good and/or have strong faith your life will be easier or more blessed. If we are good people with strong faith we shouldn’t face great temptation. The problem is that temptation doesn’t care how good or faith-filled you are.

Luke 4:1 says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil.” Jesus had just had an experience where he was not only acknowledged by God for how pleased God was with him, but he was Spirit-filled. I’m not sure if you have ever had what some call a mountain top experience, but it’s a time where you feel especially close to God and you feel like your spirit is just overflowing. You feel joyful and invincible and more aware of God’s presence than ever. That’s where Jesus was at this time. And he was still tempted!

There are probably many views on this idea of the faithful being tempted, but I want to quickly look at two. The first is that there are some who believe that Satan will come at you more forcefully the closer you get to God. The thought is that when you are far away from God you are already closer to Satan so he doesn’t need to bother with you. The closer you get to God the more you are a threat to Satan. Therefore, the closer you get to God the more Satan will try to draw you away.

Another way of looking at this temptation is that the closer you get to God the more you are aware of the temptations you face every day. When you are far from God you don’t really recognize the temptation, you just follow it where it leads without much thought. The closer you get to God the more you realize that the temptations are contrary to what God wants for your life. The temptations look bigger or more abundant because you are becoming more aware of how destructive their path is for you.

The second thing I want to note about Jesus’ time of temptation is that he was full of God’s Spirit as he went. He wasn’t on his own. It would be easy to read the accounts of the story in the Bible think that Jesus was on his own to face his temptations. Matthew tells us that after he was finished being tempted that “suddenly angels came and waited on him.” But that doesn’t mean that he was alone. God’s Spirit was with him as he went. The angels came later.

So, when I’m facing temptations in life, when I’m being led into places that aren’t in line with God’s will for my life, I’m not alone. I don’t have to rely on just my own feeble strength. God is with me! God’s Spirit surrounds me! I don’t have to be Jesus for that to happen. God’s love and grace for me is such that it is with me always. According to Romans 8:38-39, nothing can come between God’s love and me. So, when I’m facing temptations God can and will strengthen me.

In Luke 4, the temptation story tells us that Jesus was tempted with self-reliance, power and authority, and proving how strong your faith is with a big display. I don’t know about you, but I can fall prey to these temptations pretty easily. It’s easy to get caught up in the seemingly automatic course of the day and not even look to see how God is with me and what God is saying. It’s easy to want to have the power and authority to get things done the way I want. It’s easy to try to put up a front of strong faith for others to see. But if Jesus, the Son of God, Savior of the all, humbled himself instead of putting it all on himself, I probably should at least try to do the same.

As you begin this journey through Lent to Easter, I hope and pray that you will become more and more aware of God’s presence in your life. And as you face the distractions and temptations that seek to keep you away from God and God’s will for your life, may you allow God to hold and strengthen you.

Standing with “Me Too”

I just read a post by a woman who essentially challenged the “Me Too” posts that have been appearing all over Facebook in the past few days. She mentioned situations where she said women were offended by comments, like honey or sweetie, and flirtations made by men that she thought were freaking out over nothing. She mentioned being in work situations with customers who made these comments and flirted with her and she was able to tell them no, and that she trained them how to treat her. At the end she said she wasn’t downplaying it for women who have been in an uncomfortable situation or felt threatened. Reading this post, as an adult male, made me feel uncomfortable. Here’s why.

First, the fact that the comment about not downplaying was one sentence at the end didn’t calm my feeling that she was downplaying what has been happening, and continues to happen, to women every day. If you really want people to believe you aren’t downplaying it, make that comment up front and probably repeat it a couple times. But …

Second, the way that final comment was worded left me feeling like she was downplaying it. Using “uncomfortable situation” and “felt threatened” doesn’t begin to get at what the “Me Too” postings are about. This isn’t about discomfort or feeling threatened, it’s about feeling powerless. With customers, you are at least on equal footing, if not in a power position. What the “Me Too” posts are about is not fending off customers or guys you pass on the street. They are about dealing with bosses who hold your livelihood in their hands. Not every woman is able to say no to a boss who may fire them. A single mom who is barely making ends meet can’t afford to stand up to a boss who may well fire them. I have known women in these circumstances and have heard many other stories. The posts are also about being in a situation where you know the man, and have felt safe with them before, only to have them turn on you with beatings and rape. I have known women in those situations as well. These posts are about women who have been in a vulnerable state of mind for any of several reasons, only to have a safe man take advantage of them. Those are just a few examples of what “Me Too” is about.

I’m glad that this woman has never been in those situations! I’m glad that she has felt strong enough to handle the men in the much lighter situations she has been in. And I really mean that! But the women who I have seen posting “Me Too” are not snowflakes who are just easily offended. They are strong, intelligent, wise women who have had their situations forced on them through no fault of their own.

There’s a third reason why I felt uncomfortable reading the post. I believe her when she says that she wasn’t trying to downplay the real assaults that happen. But the way the post was worded made it very possible for men, men who are perpetrators of these assaults, to say, “See, here’s a woman who agrees that it’s no big deal.” I felt the same way reading this post as when I read articles about an individual Black man who says there is no problem with racism and racial injustice in this country. I’m glad they have not had the experience of the vast numbers of other Black men. His post may be very real, but it is being used by White people to maintain the status quo. And his one experience certainly doesn’t negate the experience of the vast number of others. I think this woman would be upset if a group on Facebook used her post to negate the experiences of women who are assaulted by men. But I feel like that door was opened.

A male friend of mine posted “I’m Guilty” today to acknowledge that he hasn’t spoken up enough about harassment and assault on women. I’m guilty also, but today I speak up!

Responsibility or Response-ability

I was reading an article by Wm. Paul Young that someone posted on Facebook today and it made me stop and think a bit. Here is an excerpt:

Sitting on my desk, right now are the following: Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Tyndale Publisher’s The Word Study Concordance (based on Strong’s Concordance) and Geoffrey Bromley’s 1,356 page Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. On my shelf is the massive, ten volume set of Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

The word I’m thinking of is not in any of these. No derivation of the word is in any of these. This word is simply not in the Bible, although it has slipped into a few English translations.
What is the word? Responsibility.

Neither “responsibility” or any of its derivations, including “responsible,” make a single appearance.

Instead of responsibility, the Bible chooses to focus on a another action: the ability to respond. This is entirely different.

Responsibility is as set of expectations enforced from the outside. It’s a law or code of behavior and often used to define a good person and communicate shame for poor performance.

But a response arises from within. It is dynamic and relational. A responsive person may or may not give, but a responsible person is supposed to give. Because of who we are as human beings indwelt by Jesus (John 14:20), we have an ability to respond, not a responsibility. This has massive implications and is implicitly an invitation to adventures in living.

Remember that today. Your call is not a responsibility. It is your willing and joyful response.

I shared it with Nola and we talked about what it meant. Something she said made me think about the last year or so of my journey.

As many of you know, I went into a “retired” status as a United Methodist pastor at the end of last year. I did so for many reasons, not the least of which was the desire to be close to our son and daughter-in-law and our soon-to-be grandchild (that would be Sullivan, born in April). But the truth is that some of the reasons have to do with the way I was treated by a District Superintendent, and people in church leadership who are more concerned with maintaining their control on things than on faithfulness to where God might be leading (That part manifested itself in pretty much every church I served to some degree. Some more than others.) So part of my decision was born of being burned and being burned out.

Since we moved down here I have filled in for pastors 8-10 times on Sunday morning. I have given the sermon and done other things to lead worship. I have been told that I am welcome back any time on several occasions. A couple of the churches were getting ready to go through a pastoral church and I was told that they would love to have me be their pastor. But I’m not looking for that at this time.

For the last several months I have been working at a golf course as a turf maintenance worker. I have been using large mowing equipment to mow fairways, tees, and greens. I have been maintaining bunkers/sand traps. I have been doing landscaping, which has included lots of mulch, compost, and planting a lot of flowers.

You may have noticed that none of that sounds like it needs a master of divinity, which included lots of biblical studies, theology and ethics, along with church history and governance. And it doesn’t. But the physical labor involved has been good for my soul in ways that are hard to describe. And there have been surprising conversations about Christianity and the Church. They all know I’m a pastor.

So back to this morning.

There have been moments of guilt about not following what I have been called and trained to do. It’s what if did for 24 ½ years! But that article and my conversation with Nola caused me to pause. My guilt is born out of the feeling of responsibility, something that Young says is not in the Bible. And my ability to respond, or more accurately, my desire to respond to this calling and training has been marred by my experiences.

I think that the difference between responsibility and response-ability is huge and important. It is my belief, and I think in line with the theology in which I have been trained, that God does not try to coax us with guilt. God does not heap up responsibility until we give in to the weight of it. God woos us with grace and love until we are lifted by it to the point of wanting to respond in line with God’s desire for us.

I think that right now I am beginning to emerge from my healing mode and hearing God’s grace-filled and loving call for my life. And I still don’t think it involves being appointed to serve a church as pastor, at least in the traditional sense. I am beginning to sense God’s desire for Nola and I to build real community in the apartment complex where we live. And by real community I mean community shaped by love and grace. What that looks like I’m not sure at this point. But we have some ideas. We’ll let you know later.

By Another Route

Many churches around the world today heard the story of the wise men following the star to Jesus. The story is pretty familiar in our culture, but if you don’t know it you can read it in the Bible in Matthew 2:1-12. The very last words are what I want to focus on right now.

                “… they returned to their country by another route.

This morning, Nola and I went to worship at my home church.

I was baptized as an infant there.
          I grew up going to worship and Sunday School every week.
                               I attended youth group and sang in the youth choir.

I met Nola there.
                Our children were baptized there.
                                We were in a small group there.
                                                We left for seminary and pastoral ministry from there.

So today, as I enter into retirement from being a local church pastor,
                we returned to the place where it all started.

It was different being there. It was good … but it was different. And, as I thought about it, it was because we were returning by another route. It has been 26+ years since we left, and a lot has happened to us and to that church. We are all different. And honestly, that is how it should be. If it had been 26+ years and we hadn’t changed, something would be terribly wrong. Our children, who were an infant and toddler when we left, are now adults aged 28 and 26. One is married and getting ready to welcome our first grandchild. We have lived in 5 different towns. We have served 4 churches.

But the truth is that the change I’m referring to is not in those details. The change I’m talking about is from our growth as followers of Jesus Christ. There have been so many circumstances in life, some we consider good, some we consider bad, that have challenged us and stretched us and threatened to break us. But with God’s help we have persevered. God has done things with us that we never imagined when we left.

And so we returned by another route. No longer wet-behind-the-ears, young and naïve and idealistic. Rather we return with eyes-wide-open, seasoned (with many scars to prove it) and wiser. We return knowing all of the goodness and ugliness of humanity, including Christians and their churches. We return knowing that God is good, and God is faithful, and God is just, and God is love. Period. There is no downside with God. I many not always like the places where I feel like God had led, but I never doubt that God is good and faithful and just and love.

And so we returned by another route. Mature adults and Christians, touching base with our roots. Not to try to reclaim something of the past, but to remember. To remember where we came from. To give thanks for where we came from. And to prepare for the next leg of our journey. Because returning by another route doesn’t mean we return to settle. We are not the same and God has not called us by another route to just complete the circle. In our case, “another route” means that home is not where we came from, but where we are going.

Where has your route led you? Are you different? Not just because of common life circumstance, but because of how you have lived those circumstances with God. Have those circumstances led you to doubt God or to grasp God? Where is your route leading you?