Chains of Ingenuity
I’ve spent the last several months working on my expositions of the daily scripture readings here. That’s not all I’ve been up to though. Between working on several writing projects, one that is finished and in need of a publisher and another in the works, decided to jump back into my music a little more. Specifically, I’m working on a musical about the life of John Wesley, the celebrated founder of the Methodist movement from the 1700’s in England. There is more than enough drama and adventure in his life to pull a significant story from it, as some have already done in cinema, and many have done in books.
There is plenty of music in his life as well. His brother Charles was a prolific hymn writer of the time period and several of his songs are beloved and sung by us today. One of his most famous hymns is the Christmas Carol Hark the Herald, Angels Sing, which I hope to incorporate into the musical in a small way. Much of the music for his hymns have been rearranged over the years but his lyrics remain with us.
Why Wesley? With so many other church leaders, let alone the cast of powerful stories in the Bible itself, why focus on two brothers from the 1700’s? For one, they represent the original values of my own church tradition, a church that is going through (along with most churches) a significant time of discernment and deliberation right now. We, like the Anglican Church that Wesley belonged to, are going through a decline and are trying to rediscover our mission and purpose - or more specifically, how to live into the mission and purpose we already have. Meanwhile, the current Anglican Church has been trying out some of the very things that Wesley did 200 years ago and experiencing new birth. Maybe interaction with his story will inspire us anew as well.
We are also in the midst of some significant political change as well. I expect we will look back on this decade and the one to follow as a kind of launchpad for a new renaissance in the United States. I would love to claim that it will originate with us and travel the world from here, but some of this political change has already taken place in Europe, in places like England and France (that I’m aware of) and I am sure that this change is related to the political climates in Africa and Asia as well. We are seeing corruption float to the surface within and inside our media as well as our governing authorities, perhaps most significantly in places like Venezuela today, but we in the U.S. are not outside of that threat either.
Times are changing, and we cannot stop that. What impressed me about John Wesley was that, in his own changing times, he was sure to take note of the people on the sidelines. Indeed, it is arguable that he built his church from the ‘B’ team - those the churches of the day did not want. By remembering the people being left out, Wesley changed his own nation, one person, one link at a time, until he reached back across the Atlantic and transformed the newborn United States of America. Our founding fathers may have written our constitution and led us into battle, but it was Wesley and others like him who transformed the hearts of we the people, to create a Christ honoring culture at the beginning of our nation. It was not simple or easy then, nor is it now, but he was not afraid to take up the standard for Christ and fight for the souls of this world.
The last few years I have seen my social media celebrating 30 days of Thankfulness throughout the month of Novemeber. I have not seen a single instance of that this year. This year, I have seen it filled with vioence, rioting, name calling, sarcasm, and, on the more positive side, pleas for peace.
Looking back, it has not just been this month either. 2016 has been filled with unrest. In many cases, it seems like we have traded our gratitude for fear. Now that we come to one of the biggest holiday seasons of the year, we find ourselves with too little to celebrate.
Does that sound too naïve? Is it wiser to push aside gratitude to make more room for fear and anger? Do we enjoy freedom more when we use it to push others down? I don't think so. I think we should look back to the beginnings of this holiday and remember that it was two separate groups of people that banned together in peace and cooperation (Here I'm thinking of the generosity of the Native Americans to the Pilgrim colonists). Or perhaps we can remember that it was created as a national holiday following the Civil War, when our nation had been torn apart by incredible violence and strife. I imagine that first national holiday was hard to swallow for many people.
I wish I had good answers for the people of our nation and the chaos we have endured throughout this entire year. I don't understand how thousands can gather to celebrate a baseball team one week and storm the streets in anger and hatred the next. But this much I do know: we will lose our community if we give up our gratitude. Our nation will not split in two - it will simply shatter until it is everyone for themselves. Gratitude is the true food of family and the crux of community and when we lose it, we lose everything.
So this holiday season, what are you grateful for?
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.”
Psalms 118:1 NLT
Yesterday I made a mistake.
I have been taking Chinese lessons for about a year now, from 3 different teachers, and am progressing painfully slow. It took me 6 months to be able to distinguish between all the Chinese consonants. It took almost another 4 months to be able to hear the tones they use in every word. I'm not a linguist.
But I try. In rehearsing last week's lesson, I tried to get creative and create my own sentence instead of just repeating the phrase in front of me. I tried to say, "I have brothers.", but due to a slight mispronunciation I instead said, "I have God." My teacher had a perplexed look on her face and told me that was not the correct way to say that phrase, that I should say "I believe in God", not "I have God."
I explained I was trying to say "brothers" and not "God" and we had a good laugh. This mistake has stuck with me though. There is a difference between belief and possession. I have brothers. I have sisters. I have a wife. I believe in them as well, but saying I believe in brothers does not mean that I have one myself. I think this is more than just a problem in Chinese linguistics. It is a perspective on what it means to be a human being, what it means to be God, and the kinds of relationships possible between the two.
The Bible itself tells us that we have to do more than believe in God.
So believing in God does necessarily make you good or put you in right standing with God.
The idea of "having" God seems to be a bit of a stretch as well. If God truly is the Creator of everything, certainly he can "have" us as his possessions, but how could we possibly "have" him as well. It all comes down to semantics. In some cases, possession signifies a subject-object relationship, as in. "I have a car.". However, you can also say, "I have a president." while someone else can claim, "I have a king.". This is a change in semantics that does not assume that the president or king does not have a free will of their own, nor does it assume that because you have them, that you are somehow superior to them. Those people are more than their titles.
This is probably best expressed by the fact that most cultures (perhaps all cultures) consider it appropriate for children to refer to their parents by their functional title, not by their actual or chosen names. It doesn't matter how old the parents or children are, it is always more honorable to be called "Mom" than it is to be called "Linda" or "Jessica" by your children. Similarly, if anyone is asked if they "have" a mother, anyone would say yes without feeling like they were somehow objectifying that important person in their life.
God wants to be in a relationship with us, just like that… like a heavenly parent. He wants to have us, and he wants us to have him. I'm reminded of the traditional wedding vows - "…to have and to hold, from this day forth, til death do us part.". We understand what it is to have a relationship, Sometimes we just get a little shy of applying that same reasoning to a God who is so much greater than us.
We are approaching Advent, a time when we celebrate the grace and goodness of God, who could have stayed back and objectified us, but instead chose to come near to us all in Jesus Christ and lets us all know that he wants to have us and his own people as he offers himself to us as well.
Do you have God?
I've got a prayer list. It's actually part of an app on my phone called Faithlife - an app marketed as a Christian version of Facebook. I'm not sure it has succeeded in that, but it has a daily checklist of prayer requests that I have been using for the last 5 months or so. Functionally, it is no different from carrying a small notebook around in my pocket, but for me, it seems to work.
Life has become more complicated in 2016. I took on some new leadership roles within my local ecumenical community and across Kentucky and my work is now more influential and more influenced by national and denominational politics (both good and bad) as well as a much wider community. Most days I go to bed having no clue what I am supposed to be doing or if any of the dozen ideas I've had are the right things to do. I'm constantly trying to find the place where ideas that work meet the values that are faithful to God. I don't always succeed in that.
So I have a prayer list. I list all the people that are in my care - whether they know it or not - and I pray for them each day. The list grows because it is not just prayers offered for those who are sick or in trouble. I pray for those I pastor and those I work alongside. I pray for those that God brings into my life that need to know him. I pray for friends and family. If you are reading this, there's a good chance that you are on my prayer list.
Praying does not calm me down. Some days it feels like a chore. Other days, I'm praying through my list while I'm actually doing other chores. I am not a super prayer warrior and do not have a specific time, place, or ritual to praying through this list. My only criteria is consistency (doing it each day) and surrender. I don't pray for specific outcomes. I just lift those people and situations (mostly people) up to God and leave them in His care.
The affect of this very basic prayer practice has been incredible. Consistent prayer has opened my eyes to the work and power of God in the lives of those around me. I have less answers to offer and more opportunities to see God work out impossible situations. My ideas still matter, but I find that I hold them loosely and allow God to sift and shape them before my eyes.
Does this sound like just "going with the flow"? It does not feel like it. It actually feels like steady work as I battle myself and my schedule each day to be sure I am taking this time to pray. That is my part of the work. I then let God do His part of the work in solving these problems and stirring up new life in those that need to be moved by His Spirit. I apply prayer - the ultimate solvent to the situations in my life, and as I consistently pray, and God consistently works, I begin to see solutions forming before my eyes.
Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
Autumn is season where we celebrate life because we begin to see it leaving us. Harvest time brings great excitement, but leaves the land bare. Perhaps there is a psychological need we have developed that makes us want to use this celebration time to prepare us for the winter ahead.
As opposed to Christmas and Easter, which are celebrations that point to life in a time of death, this season of revivals points to a memory of life pray and tried to connect it with a hope for the future, but it is done while the grass is still green. It is the good news footnote in the wake of a prophecy of cold, darkness, and death ahead.
I think this creates a perfect time for reflection, thanksgiving, and changing priorities in life. Sometimes the most important New Year's resolutions find their roots directed in the harvest time of October, nurtured by Thanksgiving in November, and are given inspiration during the versions of Christmas. Today may be the day you begin a lifetime of change and growth in a new direction.
I have been told that it is important to plan with the end in sight, and I think I keep that in mind in the past when I have spoken at funerals. In those times out cold, darkness, and death, we look for hope and opportunity for new growth. We celebrate the past and look to the future for new life. How do you make that connection? Through God's Word.
I think the two most important scriptures for me in preparing for funerals are Genesis 1 and John 1. Genesis 1 is the story of God creating the whole world and creating humankind. We, like the rest of creation are spoken into existence - made by His Word - if you will. We are also told that we were created in God's image. If you skip ahead to John 1 we discover that the Word of God that we were created by in the beginning, came to earth and became flesh and lived among us, so that we would know God. We should have been able to see God at work in each other, but sin had marred and twisted that image. Christ came (in part) to clear things up.
I believe that God works through all things for the good of those that love Him (Romans 8:28) and that means He works in all people, whether we, or they, realize it or not. That means that no person is not so full of sin that God cannot be seen in some aspect of their life. Granted, sometimes we have to dig pretty deep to find it. Often it is not even something done intentionally. Regardless, I approach funerals with the belief that everyone has a witness to Gold in their lives... Something that can be expressed by the Bible.
It is as simple as taking the concept of a "life verse" and applying it to the lives of others. One of the best ways to bring honor those we have lost, to bring comfort to their loved ones, and to bear witness to God's love and power in all our lives. It helps turn us all from a place of personal sadness and loss and helps us lift our eyes to our God in gratitude for the life that we honor at that occasion.
Why wait though? Take a moment to reflect and decide today what your life verse is. Stay living it out deliberately so that when your day comes, your family will not need a preacher to help them see God's love... Your own life will be witness enough.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to sing.
In the Bible there are two Psalms that describe a vast range of emotion and experience as God's people, and they are encamped right next to each other. Psalm 137 is a lament and plea for justice about the fallen nation that is held in the grip of sinful people. It describes the mocking presence of rulers and tormentors who did not love or fear God, and called on the people to sing songs of praise and remembrance of Jerusalem, the city left in ruins. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. None of them felt like singing at all. Instead they felt as if God had left them.
Psalm 136, placed right before the lament found in Psalm 137 is just the opposite. It is a psalm of gratitude and thanksgiving. It encourages all who read it to raise our voices in thanks and praise to God as we remember everything He has brought us through. The two Psalms work together because it is most often the dark times that we go through, by God's grace, for which we are the most thankful. So the lament and gratitude go hand in hand as we worship our God.
What is the big deal then? Doesn't this just naturally happen? We have good days and we have bad days and a lot of days in between. Yes, but how do we honor and celebrate those victories and losses? Do we, like the psalmist, lift our voices and sing? I don't think so. No instead we too often throw parties for ourselves to celebrate our own works when things go well. When things go poorly, we hide it away, for fear of showing our pain, or we take it out on others, or sometimes even ourselves. We do not often have the courage to take tragedy and make music from it. In hiding our pain, we have lost our voice.
In tough times, the artists are often the first to be cut from the public square. Yet it is just as often the arts that pull us all out of our places of despair into new light - and there have been times where the Church inspired those artists. I'm concerned today though, that the artists are not being inspired by us, for we have failed them, and ourselves. We have forgotten how to sing and lost our voices. Because we could not sing our laments, we cannot sing our songs of thanksgiving and praise, and our spirits, which the psalmists tied to our very breath, remain stagnant and unmoved.
Lift up your voice and sing, whatever you find yourself going through today. It will stir your soul and bring you closer to God, out of the darkness and into the light.
Healing is not simply an act of patching things up in life. It is a way of going through suffering alongside others… the same way Jesus came to earth to join us in the suffering we all go through because of the destructive nature of sin let loose.
Here is a list of scriptures that may be helpful in helping us minister to those suffering.
Dr. Rossi shares here that healing comes from God and not ourselves. Starting out with the attempt to do something ourselves will result in frustration. In a general sweep of service to God, we can look at encouraging passages like Philippians 4:13, but we should do so with caution because Paul writes this as direction to find contentment in all situations, not as permission to change the world around us to suit our own desires. Here is the whole passage:
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:10-13 ESV http://bible.com/59/php.4.10-13.esv
So by all means, take God's healing into the world, but do so in obedience, following Jesus, rather than going off on your own initiative. Pray, and let God lead you. Seek first the kingdom of God and He will provide for you. That was the secret of Paul's own contentment.
Don't stop just bringing healing to individuals either. Here is an article by Relevant about three simple things we can do to bring healing to our whole community.
I belong with God and I belong with you.
These are words that every Christian should be able to say in the presence of any other Christian. We all have a need to belong and this is because of a core truth about what it is to be a human being. Before sin entered our world, we were created with a NEED to love one another and to love God. The creation of woman, the second human being was based entirely on this need. When Jesus summed up the law as loving God and loving others, He was not just pointing out the shortest way to describe all that God wants from us. He was describing the only way we can be truly fulfilled as human beings. Sin did not take away that need in us. It just covered it up like a handful of fig leaves.
If we need to belong that means we have to find new ways of relating to one another. Constant competition, trying to prove who is better or worse, erodes away at that sense of belonging, both for those judging and those receiving that judgment. When we compare one another we are not being with them, we are objectifying them and separating ourselves from relationship with them. The man who constantly compares his wife with every other woman that passes by is not really married or soon won't be. He is not loving and he is not finding his sense of belonging with his wife.
Jesus tells us that this judgmental attitude that tears down our relationships begins with our eyes. It is a question of perception, or rather of misperceptions. Our imperfections cloud our vision and cause us to see imperfections in others, which may or may not actually be there the their eyes as well. Our points of view are broken and instead of seeking healing for ourselves, we try to fix everyone around us. We work so hard to fix everyone else because we cannot fix ourselves, investing our best treasures into that work in the name of Jesus, and like a herd of ungrateful swine, or wild dogs, they come back demanding for more after they have trampled our work into the dust. We leave empty handed, discouraged, frustrated, hurt, still every bit as broken ourselves as when we started, and feeling like we still don't belong.
Jesus says we need to ask for help ourselves instead of fixing others. Imagine Adam and Eve first meeting each other. In forming that ideal relationship, do you think Adam tried to buy her friendship, her love…? What would he have given her for a lifetime of devotion (which according to Genesis was a lot longer than we live today)? Or do you think he was wise enough, gentle enough, humble enough, to know that he did nothing, had nothing, and could do nothing to deserve her? His only real option to come to a place of belonging with her was simply to ask her if she would be with him.
We build bridges by asking and we tear them down by trying to fix one another and it is in belonging together that our imperfect eyes are able to compensate for one another allowing us to see truth and allowing us to see God at work all around us. You may not realize it but it is easier to see God at work when you have a whole community you belong with looking for Him than if you are trying to do it alone.
Who do you belong with?
Where in your life do you most struggle belonging?
What do we do about those who come and try to fix us though? How do we know if we are not sure whether someone is actually belonging with us or just trying to use us? There are deceivers - wolves in sheep clothing. They are ones who ask in order to take rather than to share. They do not want to belong with us, they want to possess us. How can we tell who they are?
Jesus tells us to watch their fruit. Do they belong with God? Do you see evidence that they belong with God. Some people just radiate God's presence and goodness. Others seem to flicker with His presence more often. Some of these people shine with God's light in just a few parts of their lives and may not even know it themselves, but we can see God at work in them. Do they belong with God or do they only want to belong with us?
How do you recognize those who are with God?
How do keep others from just fixing or using you?
At some point our relationship needs to grow from acquaintance to friend and from friend to family. This happens between Jesus and us. The disciples started out belonging with Jesus, but after 3 years, a lot of challenges, a lot of miracles, and trust built, they no longer belonged with Jesus, they belonged to Jesus. They were His and He was theirs and nothing in this world could separate them. The two had become one. They no longer did things in order to earn the favor of God. They knew they already had it because they had given themselves to Him. They served because God asked them to serve. Even in that most intimate relationship between God and ourselves, God still asks of us and we still ask of Him and when we meet Him in person someday, He will already know us because we belong to Him.
Those disciples also learned to belong to each other. They may have scattered when Jesus was arrested, but most of them were gathered together to witness His resurrection and those that were not were named as doubting, not being faithful. We belong to those we trust and we will suffer with them. Either we will belong to Jesus and suffer with Him, or we will belong to this world and suffer with it. There is no escape from suffering, just a choice of what kind of suffering we will face and when. The storm is coming, the rain will pour and the wind will blow and our house - our life belongs to whatever ground we have built it upon.
I belong to God and I belong to you.
Who do you trust most in your life?
Who would you be willing to suffer for?
(Taken from Matthew 7)
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
How do you change the flavor of the earth and shine God's light in the world?
Give. Fast. Pray.
Bank with God, not with the world… and don't spend your days worrying about all the details.
It's not complicated. Everything we do comes back to the questions…
Do you truly trust God?
How does that affect the way you live on a daily basis?
Let's break this down a little bit more. Jesus calls us to give as we love. We give to our neighbors as we are called to love them. We become neighbors to those we find in need and give, not because it is our quick and easy response, but because giving is a part of loving. If our loved ones were in need, we would give to help them. We would not stop an analyze our giving. We would not begin a tally of what we might be owed back. We give because we are called to love.
We give to God as well though. What can we give the one who already has everything? We give ourselves. We take away from the things we want and waste it lavishly on Him, not because He needs it, but because we want to show Him love. We give our time, energy, strength… We turn off the television and we hand the remote to God. We find ways to stop doing our own business and focus in entirely upon Him. We give like this because we love God. This is fasting.
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show love to others?
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show your love to God?
When we pray, we don't pray with empty words. We pray to the one who created us, who knows and loves us more than any other. He is our hiding place, no matter where we find ourselves, and there is no place else that we come alive the way we do when we are in God's presence. We do not speak His name in hushed tones. We rejoice in it! All the desires of our heart pale and melt away into the single plea that God would come establish His kingdom here among us. We do not pray for revival. We pray for heaven to come down here, so that when the day comes that we pass from this life into the next, we don't miss a beat. We will do whatever it takes for God to have His way with us here. We know that life comes from God and we are dependent upon Him, so we ask for whatever we need to be strengthened and inspired to serve Him well today. We freely release the debts of those who owe us as we ask forgiveness for our own debts that we have yet to repay to God. We will not let the problem of debt hold any of us back, or anyone around us, from serving God to their full capacity. We ask for guidance, not trusting our own understanding but acknowledging that He is the one who directs our path. We ask that He release us from the snares and pits of the enemy.
Looking at this model of prayer, what kinds of small prayer types would you divide it into?
Which of those types of prayers do you find yourself praying most often/least often?
Our world is on life support and it is fighting to pull the plug on itself. There is nothing in this world that will last. There is nothing in this world that will truly satisfy us. There is nothing in this world that will make us secure. There is nothing in this world that will save us. Every dollar we invest outside of God's will is a dollar lost. Every drop of sweat we spend trying to build something in this world apart from God is a wasted effort. We proclaim that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13) not because He somehow gives us superpowers, but because apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5).
It's not just our actions that demonstrate our faith either. It is our thoughts as well. When we dwell upon things that do not matter or are outside of our control, instead of seeking God and trusting in His provision, we are tossed about like waves, unstable in all we do, and should not expect to receive what we ask because we are full of doubt, instead of full of faith. (James 1:6-8) We either believe that God created us in love, watches over and provides for us with love, and will never forsake us… or we don’t. Oh but we all worry every day you say! Perhaps, but we do many things every day that we do not let linger in our lives. Worry is spiritual uncleanliness that will lead us in spiritual sickness the way a household that is unable to dispose of sewage will soon become filled with disease, not only unlivable itself, but contagious to those around it.
What is one thing you have found helps you stop worrying and trust that God will provide?
- from Matthew 6
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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