Monday, February 24, 2020

The Very Best Question

Some of the greatest teachers in my life have been the people who could ask the best questions.  Some of these are ... "What is your personal mission?"  ... "What would you like written on your epitaph?" But Jesus was the greatest teacher ever, and in the third year of His ministry Jesus travels far north to the headwaters of the Jordan where He and His disciples stop and reflect on some important things.  It seems very appropriate to me that Jesus chooses this time for this particular question.

1. There was opposition - The third year of Jesus' ministry was called the year of opposition.  Many people left the movement that followed Him.  They didn't like the talk of drinking His blood and eating His flesh (John 6:53) ... there were literalists in Jesus day too!  They didn't like that the authorities were gunning for Jesus ... they didn't like the risk.  They didn't like stories that were confusing ... they weren't willing to go deep into their relationship with Jesus.  The time to learn who you really are is when you are facing opposition.

2. There was opportunity - Jesus and the disciples had stopped outside of Caesarea Philippi, a place where they would see lots of sin, lots of temptation and lots of decadence. The time to ask great questions is when you face great struggles.

3. There was openness - When things are getting dicey, it is a great time to sort out who you are, where you are going and who you will follow.

So, as they stop for a breather, Jesus asks the best question ever ... "But what about you?"  he asked.  "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15).  This is a loaded question if ever there was one.

1. "What about you?"  This is meant for the group (in the South, "You'all).  It is also meant for Peter, the individual (You).  On the 1st Sunday of Lent, what about you?  As the disciples speculated on what others were saying about Jesus ... as people all around you speculate about Jesus, the Church, faith ... what about you?  What about your faith?  Who do you believe in?  When the bullets start flying and the sky is falling, who/what is your god?  Is your god all-sufficient or is you god metal, wood, paper, digital, recreational?  What about you?

2. "Who do you say that I am?"  Muslims say a great prophet.  Mormons say a great person we can attain.  Add whatever you want to this.  It doesn't matter what others say about Jesus.  It matters what YOU believe, because that belief will flow out into how you live life.  Here are a few ways I process this question.  Is Jesus (to you) who He said He was, or have you tried to create a different reality?  How does Jesus fit into your life-priorities?  Is Jesus King everyday or does He get placed in one of your compartments?

You see where I am going with this.  These are the questions of reflection, self-examination, faith, following and discernment that have, for centuries, been part of the Lenten season.  If you want to know something, ask a great question ... and this question is the greatest.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Humans "Being"

In the Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren said ... "God is more interested in why we do something than what we do."  I think this is why we are called human beings rather than human doings.

I will admit to being a bit oriented to the doing side of things.  This orientation is probably due to hearing "great sermon" on Sunday morning while seeing people go through another week unchanged and unmotivated by God's word, Nicey's prayer or my message.  And it is due to the two extreme elements of our society I often see battling in the world of rhetoric.  One side simply doesn't care about people who are hurting and the other side embarks on angry rants about societal wrongs but wants to use other people's resources to accomplish their goals.  I think both are wrong.  I ask myself, "how would a human being deal with the many injustices we hear bantered about on the news?"

As usual, I would like to walk through the Bible as we reflect.  So ... let's start at the beginning, Genesis 1.  In verse 27 God's word says, "and God created human beings in His own image.  In the image of God He created them.  Male and female He created them."  We, above all of the created creatures residing permanently on earth, are given something special ... the image of God.  This creates great consternation in our hearts because this allows us to step outside (transcend) self and even our own flesh and look at things 1) from another perspective, 2) from another's perspective, or 3) even as Jesus would look at something.  It is a beautiful and terrible ability that pulls at our heart of stone, rends it from our body and replaces it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).  It is perceiving God's image that is inside us.

But that is not where this ends.  Recognizing this ability is like believing in Jesus.  We can believe Jesus is a real person, believe in His story, and still not believe into Him.  All of us have this ability to transcend ourselves.  But not all allow that ability to take hold.  There is an Old Testament term "hardened heart."  It is used to describe Pharaoh's refusal to let the people of Israel leave Egypt.  It is also used when the people of Israel are ignoring God's call on them.  Our free will allows us to resist or refuse God, always to our detriment.  But when we listen to God and allow ourselves to be moved by compassion and hurt for others, we have perceived and participated in this part of God that is so much a part of us.

Finally, there is a third thing.  We can perceive (see) our transcendence, we can participate (feel) God's pull upon our hearts, but still fail to practice transcendence.  When I pull up at the office I see 3 to 4 cats.  They act hungry (and they are little liars sometimes because I know they have been fed).  I can acknowledge God's imparted image that asks me how God would handle this situation.  I can even place myself in their place, feeling the pangs of hunger they might feel on a cold, wet day.  Both of those things move me.  But, I fall short if I don't practice the image of God.  In the case of these cats, I feed them (if I know they haven't been fed).  I have taken this a bit further and I adopted a little girl cat named Sundae who sleeps at my feet each evening.  These last two things are important because they give feet, substance and life to my compassion.  Jesus fed the 5,000 ... healed the lepers ... gave wholeness to the woman with the issue of blood.  Maybe, as human beings, we apply the transcendence we have been given so that God is glorified and people are healed, helped and made whole.  Because God cares what we do and why we do it.  We have an image to uphold ... God's image!  Randy

Monday, February 10, 2020

Core

Since I have been in Abbeville, I have ridden an indoor and outdoor bike.  When I first began riding my bike (after years of neglect), I remembered something someone said to me about muscle memory ... "Your body doesn't forget things like riding a bike ... it remembers."  My outside bicycle is a Giant (brand) mountain bike and it is tall because I am a tall person.  It took way too long for my body to "remember" how to stay balanced on the bicycle ... it was clumsy and clunky.  My head said, "They told me my body would remember."  But my body said, "Dude ... you haven't used these muscles in years."  I found that the hardest thing was to keep my balance on the bicycle ... something that was natural and easy.  Then, in a flash of realization, I realized that what was at issue here was the central or "core" muscles in my body.  Over time I had not focused on this muscle system and it would take time, work and energy to get back into shape.

This morning, as I thought about our passage for the week, I was taken back to this re-learning experience.  Paul is writing a prayer for/to the Ephesians.  He wants them to grow and to have a solid place to go when life gets tough, unpredictable or dicey.  He prays that "God will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit.  Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him.  Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong! (Ephesians 3:16a and 17)."  We have a physical core, but here it says we have a spiritual core.  It is where we are rooted.  It is where we find strength.  It is what we rely upon when we get off balance or the wind trys to blow us off our spiritual bicycle!

We need deep roots in these days of uncertainty.  Because people, events and even our own feelings try to throw us off our stride.  Over the last few months I have had more than a few people saying things about me, some of my close friends and even our church.  About 99% of what I have heard is not true and is pure fabrication, but it still hurts if you give it traction in your heart.  There have been events, like the upcoming General Conference, that have reminded me of the uncertainty of the structures we build as people.  And my feelings have pulled me this way and that (it's what they do).  Paul says that these things require deep roots.  Our core strength is to remember the power and sufficiency of God's love which is wide, deep, high and long (Ephesians 3:18).

How do we get and keep this core strength?  Paul doesn't say "dig deep into your own strength."  Paul doesn't say, "follow your heart."  Paul doesn't say, "get a self-help book."  Paul says 1) trust God's mysterious plan (3:9, because having core strength in the darkness of this world is vital), 2) trust God's eternal purpose (3:11, if you keep on the path it is much easier to stay upright), 3) realize the power to stand comes from God living in you (3:16, because MY strength is totally inadequate), and 4) allow God's power to make you complete/whole (3:19, because God is working in/through you by His Spirit).

When I started back riding the bike, it took repetition, work, failure, persistence and practice to ride with strength and balance.  I had to develop and work those core muscles.  It is the same with what God wants to give you.  God wants you to have a grasp of God's plan, God's purpose, God's power and the wholeness that comes with knowing God.  But you will need to study, grow, apply what God gives you ... core muscles won't get stronger without hard work.  So ... "May your roots grow down deep into God's love and keep you strong!"  Randy

Monday, February 3, 2020

Trails

Each year, for my birthday, the new tradition in the family is to travel to Birmingham and go to Oak Mountain State Part.  It is located between where Christopher and Stephanie live, it is east to find and there are lots of things to do.  We usually cook out, visit the raptor center and just hang out, celebrating my birthday, Elise's birthday and life.  It is a good getaway and I enjoy the family time.

One thing we could do at the park is go hiking on a trail.  There are literally hundreds of possibilities, with varying degrees of difficulty.  As I was looking at a trail map one day I reflected on where we are in society.  We are at a place that has hundreds of possibilities.  God's Word addresses this and in Matthew 7 Jesus says "wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction (7:13)."  Paul says (1 Cor. 10:23) "I am allowed to do everything but not everything is beneficial."  The person and path of God is focused ... not broad!

God's way isn't being able to do and choose anything, even though we can.  God's path, plan and purpose seems to say ... "focus!"  When I walk the trail at a State park I need to do three things.  The first thing is to focus on the trail markers.  They are usually colored and can be seen along the trail.  When I am on the yellow trail, I follow the yellow markings and know that these will lead me to my destination.  When I am following God, I must concentrate on the markers.  For me they can be truth-speaking people, folks who I know have my best interest at heart, readings from trusted sources, sermons/messages and events that teach me.

The second thing I need to focus on is the next step, the terrain and the trail itself.  I have always had a pension for spraining my ankle.  When I am hiking I need to be conscious of rocks, roots, rough places and all of the places I place my feet.  In God's word we find David's teaching ... "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps. 119:105)."  The image here is David walking along and relying on God to illuminate the next step.  Yes, glance forward at the trail marker, but remember to watch the steps you take getting there.

Finally, we must keep our destination in our minds.  When I am traveling in my kayak, I look out at the water right in front of the kayak to make sure I won't have any immediate issues (next step).  I look a little further out to see that I am not losing track of the trail (trail markers).  But I look way out on the horizon at the destination.  We, as God's people, have a destination.  We can get confused about this.  Some think it is the land over yonder, MY salvation and MY ticket to heaven.  Jesus said if we seek to save our life we will lose it.  Our destination is all about God's plan and God's place ... not us.  Maybe in Matthew Jesus is talking about something more difficult, more challenging and more fleeting than our cliche's about heaven.  There are four Gospels.  They are all journeys.  They all end in struggle and sacrifice.  And the journey is so that others (not self) will be saved.  But in becoming the conduit of God's grace and love for all people, Jesus (according to multiple scriptures) is lifted to God's right hand, given all authority over heaven and earth and is the only one worthy to open to scrolls that bring all of our journeys to an end.

In a world where we are told to follow our heart, be directed by our feelings and be led by "the flavor of the month" Jesus says ... "wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction" but "straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life."  It seems to be really good advice to me!  Randy

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alpha and Omega

During funerals we usually read that "Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last."  That statement from Revelation 22 reminds us that God was there at the beginning and God will be there at the end.  It is usually a solemn message as we remember both and ending and beginning.  John Riley likes to quote Dwight Moody who said "If you read that D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead, don't believe a word of it.  I will have just begun to live.  I like that thought, because Jesus is truly the beginning for us in that place and time.

For me, the thought of endings and beginnings is a very timely thought.  At the 30 A Songwriter's Festival, David Olney was performing onstage and said "I'm sorry" and then just died.  I am watching the news of Kobe Bryant and his 13 year-old daughter being killed this morning in a helicopter accident.  Both of these events are reminders that we don't know our beginnings and endings ... so, make it count!  Don't say "I'm sorry" ... say, "Thank you Lord for gifting, trusting, tolerating, loving and being there for a "wretch like me!"

While reflecting for the last month about God being the one God above everything and truly the one true and pure thing in life, I return to Deuteronomy 6 to reread verses 4 thru 9.  This verse brings the idea of Alpha and Omega home to the mundane, routine daily grind.  "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one."  The passage says this truth needs a be part of who we are every day.  Place it in your heart.  Impress it on your children.  Talk about them when you are sitting down and when you walk down the road.  Reflect upon this when you get up and when you lie down.  Tie the symbols of this on your writs and write them on your door frames.  In reading this, do you think God holds this as important?

Here is some practical advice.  Maybe keeping this before my eyes and heart will keep my eyes and heart off things that distract me away from God's plan and calling.  Maybe spending time every day just dwelling on this truth will take my heart and mind away from lots of untrue stuff that seeks to divert my walk with God.  Maybe God, in this advice, gives me something that will begin, end and focus my day on good things.  Maybe if I "get caught up" in this I will realize that most of my petty thoughts are irrelevant and unworthy of the time God has given me.  Maybe ... my life would change!  Maybe, we should try!  Randy

Monday, January 20, 2020

Frayed

Watch them on TV.  Observe them in the grocery store.  See them on the road.  They are distracted, disoriented, self-absorbed and confused.  THEY are us!

Paul writes a prayer for the Ephesians (4:14) and for us. "Then, we will no longer be immature like children.  We won't be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching.  We will not be influenced by people who try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth!"  Paul says that these things will happen when (4:13) we "come to such unity in the faith and knowledge of God's Son  that we will be mature in the Lord."  Unity?  Faith?  Knowledge?  That is why I believe this is a prayer by Paul seeking God's help to find these holy things!

Hebrews 6:19 says, "We have this hope as an anchor for our souls!" The writer of Hebrews is speaking of God's promises to us, fulfilled and lived-out in the person of Jesus.  How do we allow God to make this prayer a reality? For our frayed lifestyle, how do we allow God's word to lead us here?

My take is we must decide whether our lifestyle is led by Jesus or by our world/society.  I have three short thoughts here.

1. I hear many who profess to seek unity in our world.  Their unity means that we come into agreement with their world-view.  I wonder if Paul's "tossed and blown about" relates to the insanity of this ideology?  If 60 people gather to worship there are 60 world-views, 60 definitions of right and 60 plans for the day ahead.  It would be insane for us to think we could meld all of those into what Paul calls unity.  Paul says we find unity in Jesus.  In the Church that is one thing we should all hold as our point of connection.  If we defer to Jesus, we can let our mishmash of world-views go packing and can get to work on the good things!

2. Hebrews says faith is belief in the sure hope of God's unseen things.  I was conversing with a friend sometime back about the chemistry of the human body.  It seems that when you add up all of the percentages you are just short of 100%.  Maybe the soul has mass, weight, substance.  While I don't know the chemistry, I do know that combining all of those chemicals does not produce life.  There is an unseen, unmeasurable spark that Genesis calls "the breath (ruach) of God."  What if our hope of a better, God-led life is unmeasurable, unseen and very real?  What if our distraction can become focus?  What if we can catch a glimpse of the unseen plan and path of God?  What if Paul is right ... as we come to faith and knowledge of Jesus, faith moves into the realm we can call reality?

3. Paul says knowledge is important if we are to perceive God rightly and maturely.  I believe much of our willingness to follow God and walk with Jesus is our ignorance.  I said Sunday that I meet church people every day that want to tell me what God says and what Jesus is all about ... and they haven't cracked a Bible in years!  Paul understands that when we either don't know what God's word says or simply don't care enough about God's word to be in active study, we are easily victimized by "every wind of new teaching."  Thomas Odin, the great theologian, poses that there are no new doctrines ... only recycled ideas that Satan has found effective in leading people astray.  If we know God, know Jesus' teaching and know our Bible, we can stand firm when the winds of new teaching try to toss us about!  Paul is right.

Hillsong writes, from the song Anchor (and Hebrews 6:19) "we have this hope, as an anchor for my soul, through every storm, I will hold to you."  I love this thought, because I have a tendency to become frayed, distracted, disoriented and disconnected from what is most important.  Randy

Sunday, January 12, 2020

That's The Truth!

One way God expresses His "oneness" is in the authorship of a concept that is foreign to the world in which we live.  That concept is ... truth.

Dr. Riley Short ends his sermons with the phrase "and that's the truth!"  He is not saying he is owner or author of this truth.  He is challenging himself and holding himself accountable to preach God's truth ... not Riley's opinion.  Other than amazing sermons, this statement is just one of the things I love about Dr. Short.  In the Old Testament this statement was a bit different but I believe it means the same thing.  The prophets would say ... "This is what the Lord says!"  This is true.  This is what you can count on.  This is not a whimsical thought that changes over time.  This is not prophetic opinion.  This is what God is saying through me.

I wonder if we believe that?  When our preacher or teacher is faithfully following God and brings a message, do we think it has, at least, some power of God's word?  Or are we more concerned with the eloquence of the speaker ... the manner of presentation ... whether we like the speaker ... whether we think the speaker likes us ... how the speaker is dressed?  We filter our hearing in ways we knowingly perceive and in ways to which we are oblivious.  But ... my desire is to be able to say what Dr. Short says after every sermon ... "and that's the truth!"

Jesus, on the other hand, has what Scripture says is ... "all authority on heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18)."  So we had better listen if we value truth.  In fact, Jesus said ... "I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)."  God is all about truth ... and God expresses this truth through Jesus.

How does this relate to the "oneness of God?"  In Deuteronomy 6 the Scripture says that the "Lord your God is one."  We are told that this is a foundational truth to think about in the morning, reflect upon when we go to bed and discuss with our children as we walk down the road.  Moses is telling the people ... "this is truth for everyday life."  And it still is!  For God's truth will give us clarity, freedom and a solid foundation to do life ... and that's the truth!  Randy

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Waves and Castles

I was down at the beach with my granddaughter.  She did what many kids do.  She built a little sand structure, dug out what might be called a moat and played like her "castle" would stand forever.  Of course, she learned it didn't last.  The tide came in, the water seeped under her sandcastle, and it slowly settled into the beach.

I have built castles too.  Places where I have staked my claim.  I have exerted my control and my dominance.  It felt good too!  But, over time, I found that my castles didn't last.  No matter how well I built them they all seemed to fail.  But the tide changed, the waves came in and my perfect little plan settled into oblivion.

Last Sunday we talked about how God wants us to become totally open to Him.  How our little compartments become walls that we set up to keep God out.  I was thinking about this and how I have built life in my little protected and controlled setting.  What if I told you that we can do this all we want, but we cannot keep God out.  God is like the wave on the beach ... the changing tide.  Stevie Nicks writes, in The Edge of Seventeen, about the relentless sea ... "the sea changes colors, but the sea does not change."  God isn't altered by our structures or our plans.  God does not change when I build my castles.  God is even more relentless than the sea, and God's waves (and those that happen because of a turbulent world) crash in.  And the water rushes into our castles and we must either run or stand in God's power and allow our castles, our compartments and our small plans to be changed by the only one who can make something useful out of them.

Thursday we will have an birthday party.  It will be attended by all who have started to see that the wave of Jesus has crashed in on our castles.  I hope none of us will see this as invasion or destruction ... I pray we will see this as needed change.  God will crash my castles one by one, and, if I let Him, He will fill my life with things, people, pastimes, challenges, that will be good for me.  I may not see the immediate positives, but if I get out of God's way, I will see His new and good things in what many may view as calamity.  For seven years our Celebrate Recovery team has listened to those who have experienced waves that destroyed their castles.  We have consoled, comforted and told our new friends "this is happening for a purpose ... let God show you what He can and will do."  If you come Thursday you will hear testimony about a God who makes all things new, sometimes with waves that knock us off our feet.  Come, listen, cry, laugh and hear about the God of the ocean who is strong enough to overcome death and gentle enough to carry, in His arms, a woman who thinks all is lost.  Come ... and let God's waves tear down castles and give you a new and better place to live, in His house!  Randy