Living the life as a disciple

This week’s scripture is Mark 8:31-38.  It’s the first of three passion predictions given by Christ before He actually is crucified.  He tells His disciples that the Messiah “must” suffer and die, and after three days He will be raised.  Peter, the sort of “representative disciple” in Mark, takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him – and is rebuked in turn.  Then Jesus turns and calls the crowds as well as the disciples and talks about losing one’s life for Him – and they will keep it.

This part of the Story happens right after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, in Caesarea Philippi, a well known and beautiful city that contained the grotto of Pan – sometimes called the Gates of Hades.  And right after Peter gets it right, as it were – he messes it up again.  He is told to get behind Jesus and is addressed as “Satan.”  Peter and the rest of the disciples were not willing to hear what kind of a Messiah Jesus was – the suffering servant of Isaiah who would one day return as the glorious Christ-King.

Are we any different?  Does following Jesus mean getting what we want all the time?  Is the life of a disciple of Jesus, in an “adulterous and sinful generation” consist of getting rich and famous?  Or is it giving up our life – our psyche?  Is it following in the steps of Jesus even when it consists of denying the things that our wordly selves desire – whether it’s a Cadillac Escapade or a Jaguar X type or a villa in Tuscany?  Does living life as a disciple mean giving up our very selves and our identification with our culture and country and exchanging it for a life lived for and with and through Jesus the Christ?

In some ancient manuscripts – not the Bible, but other ancient Jewish texts – the idea of giving up your life has to do with “living as a foreigner” among your people-group.  While I don’t deny that the phrase also has to do with being willing to be persecuted and die before denying  or being ashamed of Christ, I also think it has to do with completely identifying with Him and His people rather than our own culture.  That is, being a Christian first and an American second – if at all….

But the main point of living the life of a disciple is really living as Christ has called us. It needs to be more than an intellectual assertion that Jesus died for us – but rather a complete change of heart and mind identifying with Jesus.  Nothing else can be as important to us – giving up our very “selves” for His “self.”

Frederick Buechner once said that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness learning what it meant to be Jesus the Christ; we Christians need 40 days every year to learn (and re-learn!) what it means to follow Him.  Part of it is to trust Him with our lives, our very sense of self – our souls…everything.  And that is a difficult thing…

Sin and Grace

I have no illusions about those two words – I am not even going to scratch the surface of talking about SIN and GRACE as complete subjects.  But I was thinking about the sermon I gave the other day – I kept talking about sin and comparing it to eating bacon double cheeseburgers.  I do that because it is one of the ways that I understand sin – doing something that you know God doesn’t want you to do, but not really being able to control the desire for the thing or action.  I think we can all relate to wanting something that’s not good for us – like bacon double cheeseburgers.

I do not mean to imply that overeating or eating things that are bad for me is the extent of my sin.  Not at all.  I am as sinful and broken as anyone, and probably more so than many!  I do not want to hold my sin up as an example, and I know that the things that I do may not be accessible to others.  A person hearing me may not be able to relate to my habit of thinking only about myself – at least not the way that I might talk about it.  A person may hear that and think that having any sort of desire for self improvement or time alone is sinful – and that’s simply not true.  Or perhaps a person’s idea of getting angry is very different than mine, and they might think that raising their voice a little bit is going to send them straight to hell.  What I am trying to say is that overeating – and even eating certain things – is not sin in and of itself….and it certainly isn’t the only thing that I do.

Sin is a real problem that we all face – we all have.  We are fundamentally unable to stop being selfish – which is what I believe is the basic underlying sin – original sin if you will; it’s wanting to be gods.  We as human beings want to be able to do whatever we want – when we want it and how we want it.  And we want everyone and everything else to bow down to us and give us exactly what we want.  That’s our original sin – the sin of the fruit of Adam and Eve, and the underlying condition that we all find ourselves in.  We are selfishly impatient for our own desires and wants.  Greed, sloth, lust, all the sort of “standard” sins that we all fall into in one way or another are derived from our own selfish desires.  During Lent we are called to remember that we are that way – we are sinful.  We are broken.  There is something wrong with us, and we (most of the time) embrace our infirmity with abandon. We don’t want to get well!

But that is where Christ and Grace come in.  Even when we don’t want to get better – He is willing to heal us.  He was – and is – willing to extend the gift of His presence and love to us, before we deserve or want it.  Just like a gift that you didn’t know you wanted before you got it, Jesus gives of Himself.  We didn’t know – we didn’t seek Him out – but He came looking for us.  And when  He found us, He gives of His very self in order that we might see; even in broken glimpses, what our life could be.  We can start to see what and who He made us to be…and in little flashes we can see the wonder and love and power of a life lived for and with Christ and the Triune God.  We can’t see it completely, and we certainly can’t live that life alone…but that’s Grace.  We can live with God.

He demands obedience.  He demands perfection and maturity.  We don’t have it.  We continually turn away from who we are supposed to be.  But He helps us.  We take a step, and fall – and He lifts us up and brushes us off and helps us take the next step.  That’s Grace.

What we need to do is accept the gift.  Lent, and the rest of the of Christian year, allows us to once again accept the gift and take our first steps at following Him.  No matter how many times we might fall, how many times we might turn away from the gift…He is there.  Holding on to us and cheering us on.  Giving us grace.

Ashes

ashesLast night, I “imposed” ashes on people ranging from their 70s to a baby born just a few months ago.  It was Ash Wednesday, a holy day most often associated with the Roman Catholic church, although a great many of us protestants have re-claimed it, as well as a celebration of the Liturgical year and the seasons of the Christian life.  So Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season – the 40 days leading up the Easter.

Last night we read Psalm 51 together.  We called out and asked for the Lord to forgive us, because we are broken and sinful human creatures.  We called out and asked for grace – the free gift of relationship with God – and we acknowledged how much we have forgotten how He made us.  We called out and asked for His yoke – to be the People of God, and to enter into the hope of the Covenant, knowing that there are people who are still Christian who might disagree with us and with whom we probably disagree.

I talked, during the sermon, about threats made to a man who referred to Copts who were killed as Christians.  I talked about the thousands of different ways that we Christians read and interpret Scripture.  I talked about how much I might disagree with many of my colleagues in our own denomination, but I still think that they are Christian.  They may be misinformed and delusional regarding some points of doctrine.  Roman Catholics, for all that I have a great deal of respect for their tradition and a great deal of Rome’s teaching – I still disagree with about some pretty major things.  But they are Christian.

For 1300 years, give or take, the Christian Church has made this journey starting with something akin to Ash Wednesday.  It is a great tradition – and whether or not you came down to receive the ashes – we begin our Lenten journey towards the Cross and the Resurrection in dust and ashes.  We repent of who we have made ourselves to be, and we ask for His forgiveness and strength as we go through the time leading towards Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – looking in to find out who we have turned ourselves into, and reading and hearing who God made us to be as we get closer and closer.  Ash Wednesday, with so many of the great feasts of the Church – the holy catholic and apostolic Church – looks both forward and back, both in and without.

The ashes remind us that we are human – we are broken and sinful and we can nothing, NOTHING to get back to God through our own power.  But they also remind us that God can make something good – great – out of even something as dark and horrible as death.  For He has defeated Death, and Life has come.

Let’s get started.

Advent

advent-10001

Advent.  It’s the time of the year right before Christmas.  Technically, it runs from the Sunday nearest to November 30th (St. Andrew’s Day) to Christmas Eve.  There are four Sundays during the season, and each, historically, has been assigned an idea or thought that goes along with it.  The best known is probably the third Sunday – the Sunday of Joy, which usually has a pink candle instead of the purple of the other three.

“Secular” media and the shopping malls of America sort of skip right past Thanksgiving and Advent and go straight to Christmas.  Some – but not all – of the symbols of Christmas that we identity are actually Advent symbols.  Like the wreaths and the evergreen boughs, for example.  But the season is much, much deeper and grander than that.

Advent literally means “coming” – and it, along with a great deal of the Christian Liturgical Year – refers to both what has already happened and what will happen.  That is, Advent is a time of looking back to Christ’s birth but also a time of looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming.  It is paradoxical in some ways – Christ is born, but we look forward with joy to His birth (I like to think of Christmas as His birthday party…).

Personally, I love Advent.  I love allowing myself to linger over the texts of anticipation – not only for what HAS come, but what WILL come.  I love the build-up, the rising crescendo of the different instruments that God has given us – the people walking in darkness of Isaiah and John the Baptizer dressed in camel hair and street-corner preaching repentance, the wonder of Mary’s mysterious visitor and the joy of Isaiah’s Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace… It’s like a symphony, and each piece of the Story is an instrument or a section and the music is slowly – ever so slowly – rising to the power of the moment that has/will come.  I love decorating the house – slowly and surely, little by little as the Wise Men move from place to place, ever closer to the manger where Jesus will appear on Christmas Eve.  I love the transformation of the place – a little at a time.  [Full disclosure – we don’t always decorate like that, but that’s our favorite way…]

Advent is a time of wonder, of joy, of mystery and laughter and tears.  It is a time for poetry and song – not just the Christmas carols, but also the Advent hymns (of which there are really only a couple in any given church hymnal).  O Come, O Come Emmanuel rises to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Holy Night.  It’s bigger, deeper, more wonderful than the gift wrapping and tearing open festival that the stores want to make it.  Advent is…part of God’s song to us.

I heard once that every couple has a song.  God and His Church have one too – it’s the one that God has been singing ever since the Creation, that will go on in everlasting harmony and wonder, repeating strains and making new notes that are unheard of anywhere or with anyone else.

The thing about Advent is…I think, anyway…is that you can’t be busy and enjoy it.  The time demands you to slow down.  It’s too rich not to.  If you leap ahead to Christmas, you miss it.  If you hang behind with the prophets foretelling only Christ’s birth, you miss it.  If you skip past the Birth and land squarely upon the Eschaton, you do violence to the Story that’s not over yet.  You have to slow down.  Enjoy the wonder.  If it snows where you are, I think that helps (although I also realize that is a purely cultural idea of mine and where and who I am…).  Snow forces you to slow down – to hear the whisper of it falling and avoid rushing from place to place in your car.  If you don’t slow a bit you probably will end up in the ditch or the next guy’s fender!

The poetry of Advent is so wonderful, so slow, so deep…it’s worth waiting for.

Work

This last Sunday I preached a sermon about the theology of work.  [in a few days it should be up here to listen to – don’t judge please, I don’t think it was one of my best!]  I used Colossians 3:23-25 – in there is the well loved “whatever you do, do it heartily as for the Lord and not for men.”  I translated that bit – and said that the literal translation should be something more like “whatever it is that you do, do it from the depths of your soul as if it were for God and not other people.”  Using a little bit of poetic license (the bit “depths” isn’t literally there), I think it’s more powerful and more true.  God calls us and gives us a vocation (from the Latin “vocare” which means “to call”) – something that He wants us to do.

I said that many people’s calling isn’t necessarily the same as their job that puts food on the table – but in either case we are instructed to do it from the soul; that is, to work hard at it and do our best.  Work hard at it – because it matters.  Whether you’re a janitor or a CEO or a stay at home mom or dad, or whatever – God wants us to do our best.  Do it from our soul.

However, someone pointed out that I had missed a couple of things in my sermon that are very important.  I just swept right past them, unfortunately – that is, one of the reasons we aren’t terribly fond of working is that it never seems to be done; you pick up  your room and it just gets messy again.  Laundry is never finished.  The lawn keeps growing.  It snows again.  There is always another thing to fix on the car.  It’s drudgery.  It never is done.  This is part of the Fall, I believe.  God told the Man that he would have pain from his work and the toil would make sweat from his brow.  Paraphrased, your work is going to often (if not always!) be repetitive and mindless or seemingly useless. In a more scientific way – entropy always increases unless it is worked upon.  I’m not trying to sound flippant, but the fact of the matter is that this side of the End we won’t have completely fulfilling work.  I mean, in some way there is always drudgery involved.  I love my job – but there are certainly aspects of it that just never seem finished; things I don’t like to do.

I think that is the key – to realize that the drudgery is the same for all of us.  We may think that rich or famous people lead lives without drudgery, but I think that is not true – their drudgery is just different I guess.  Everyone’s is.  I know people who would rather polish and clean every piece of silverware in their house and mine rather than face speaking in front of people – they’d enjoy polishing and run screaming from 10 people trying to listen to them.  I’m much more the opposite.  I enjoy speaking in front of people (analyze that if you must!), but there are lots of cleaning and organizing things that are absolute drudgery and misery for me.  I bet that while I might really enjoy a night on the red carpet and dancing and glamour, many times the same thing is drudgery for a celebrity.  “Another event?  I have to dress in a fabulous gown – again?!?  When will it ever stop!”

Part of the problem we have with repetitive work – whatever it might be – is that we feel it’s not fair.  That other people don’t have this.  We are better than this act.  And it’s just not true.  All of us have our own form of drudgery.  And we all don’t like it.  Brother Lawrence, a 14th century monk wrote a piece that we now call the “the Practice of the Presence of God” where he tells the story how much he HATED working in the kitchens; until he realized that he could enter into God’s presence whenever and whatever he was doing.  When you’re doing something you hate – and it’s threatening to overwhelm you with despair – try to talk to Him.  You might end up having a good conversation with the One Who IS.

The other thing I missed is that most of us feel deep down like our work isn’t very important – or appreciated.  For most of us, I think, this is an aspect of our jobs no matter what they are.  Although I’m sure that there are certainly careers and/or jobs – tasks, even – that feel more unimportant than others.  Motherhood, for example.  Or fatherhood, for that matter.  After talking with several stay at home moms over the years, I  think that this is possibly one of those that feels unimportant and underappreciated.  [At the risk of too much comparison, I think being a pastor is another – although in a very different way!]

Cooking three meals a day and cleaning a house; raising children who don’t pay attention to you and talk over you all the time – not having time to yourself and listening to your peers talk about their day at work and how hard it was to go to that lunch meeting today and have mimosas and salmon…going out with “the girls” and meeting someone new and inevitably hearing “so what do you do?” and feeling that immediate crunch around your heart as you answer “I’m a stay-at-home mom.”  Hearing the unspoken “just” before the title as other people say it.  Feeling judged by everyone else for NOT being a productive member of society – you’re not really making anything, are you?  As Steven Curtis Chapman’s song, Do Everything says “pickin’ up toys on the living room floor for the 15th time today/matchin’ up socks, sweepin’ up socks, cheerios that got away…”  It all seems so useless – does it matter at all?

Go listen to that song.  I love it – and not only because I like the music.  I think he’s right.  Sometimes we ALL wonder if what we’re doing matters.  It does.  God calls us into existence.  We bear His image.  EVERYTHING we do matters.  That sounds so trite -but I think it’s true.  To paraphrase another preacher I heard once – the Resurrection screams to the universe that what we do matters.  Now that’s a big comparison.  Again, I think it’s true.

The things that we do are important. All of them.  No matter how small it seems – how meaningless we might think it is, it matters.  Sweeping up cheerios that rolled away from your toddler’s grasp matters, for so many reasons.  For example – if you leave them there, they are bound to get kicked around and lost and end up attracting little rodents or bugs.  If you leave them there, it shows your toddler that cleanliness doesn’t matter – and they don’t worry about it as they get older.  It’s the smashed window theory – if you smash one window in a nice neighborhood and DON”T fix it, more windows get smashed and not fixed and it leads to more and more and eventually crime and so on.  It might not seem like much – but it matters.  [Now, does it matter if you sweep it up RIGHT NOW, or can it wait a bit while you finish playing with your toddler – that’s a different post, but no, take your time….]

C.S. Lewis once said that if we actually saw each other in the splendor of who we really are – we would be strongly tempted to worship other human beings.  You – and everyone you have ever or will ever met – are amazing and wonderful and beautiful and worth more than you could possibly imagine.  Worth the Life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity.  God DIED for you.  So  yes – what you do matters.  Whatever it is that you do.

I’m trying really hard not to sound cliché or trite.  But I think that all of this is true.  Do I remember it always?  No.  No I don’t.  I wish I did.

Your job matters.  I don’t care what it is.  I don’t care what you get paid for it.  I don’t care if it’s NOT paid.  In fact, I would argue that for the most part it is the stuff that we do when we’re NOT being paid that is the most important.  No, stay-at-home mom, you might not be the effective CEO or COO of a major international corporation; you may not be a missionary to under-privileged children in Guatemala.  No, pastor, you may not be in charge of finding the cure for AIDS or cancer; you may not be using your writing skills to make tons of money and influence millions.  No, owner of a small business, you may not be piloting a fighter jet on its way to save thousands of people from the bad guys; you may not be able to donate millions to charity.

But YOU are important.  What you do is IMPORTANT.  If it wasn’t, why do it?  It may feel useless and pointless.  Folding laundry feels useless and unimportant.  But it’s not.  Making your bed in the morning is important – it tells your brain something.  Raising children is IMPORTANT!! (I should make that a MUCH bigger font!)

There’s an old saying that has fallen out of vogue in recent years, but I think strongly that it should come back.  It comes from a poem by William Ross Wallace.  “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”  Bringing up children is quite possibly one of the most important thing a person can do.  I don’t care if you’re the mother or the father – being a parent is hugely important.  It’s long range and the little things don’t seem like they make any difference, but life is made up from thousands – millions – of tiny little things that we do.

What we think of as unimportant is so often…hugely so.  I used to be a janitor – well, a supervisor of a bunch of janitors, but I did the work too – and I know that some of the people who worked for me thought of themselves as unimportant.  That it didn’t really matter if they did a good job or not.  It was the places where those people worked and allowed themselves to not care about the quality of their work where I did the most fire control from complaints about lost business (for the businesses we cleaned!).  A couple of those people were so convinced they didn’t matter that got depressed because they were “only” a janitor.  The pay wasn’t good, the hours were hard.  They didn’t like it.  But the work they did mattered to other people – the ones who came into the banks and found dirty bathrooms and junk all over the floor or the ones that came in and found nice clean bathrooms and dusted desks.  It matters to someone.

No matter what you do – it matters to someone.  Even if they don’t know it yet.

And more importantly, it matters to God.  Because He loves you.  I am firmly convinced that the Lord God Almighty, Creator and Ruler of the Universe, the One who is and was and will be – has a REALLY REALLY big refrigerator and hangs up snapshots of all the stuff we do.  All of us.  He’s proud of who you are – He made you!  And He’s proud of what you do.

Whatever it is.

Confidence in the Sovereign Lord

I pastor a Presbyterian church – and while there are lots of things that the denomination is doing and thinking that I think are not Biblical (more on that in the next few weeks), I love a great deal of the traditional Presbyterian and Reformed faith.  One of those tenets of our faith is the sovereignty of God.

The Triune God is the One who IS – in fact the Name He tells Moses in Exodus means something close to “The One who is, was and always will be.”  In the Greek Septuagint they translated Yahweh into something close to “The Being” or maybe “The One who Exists.”  He is outside of time, He is the One Who made it all, He is the Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer and He absolutely is in control of the things He made.

But we don’t believe it.  Not really.  When we watch the world news on a Sunday evening and read online that thousands of people are suffering in West Africa from the spread of Ebola, or that a woman from Minnesota just escaped sexual slavery in Louisiana, we don’t believe it.  We are afraid.  We worry.

We think, even when we believe, that maybe, just maybe, the Creator of the Universe has abandoned us.  And then it starts to creep in to our personal lives.  Little by little, shred by shred, we lose our confidence that God is in charge in our own lives.  And we start to compensate.  We might begin by choosing a career that will make money rather than what makes us come alive.  Or a spouse because she’s beautiful more than because when she smiles as you your soul swells.  You choose to not have children because it’s such a shame to bring a life into such a terrible world.  You start to make decisions about your own life and your relationships based on your own convenience.  Because it sure looks like not only has God abandoned the world, but He also seems to have forgotten that you exist.

There’s an old saying with many variations:  “if you feel far away from God, guess who moved?”

When we lose confidence in things – and especially in God – we begin to live our lives as if they don’t exist.  Consider losing confidence in your ability to hit a baseball.  You miss once, and you start thinking “Wow, this pitcher is good!”  But the more you miss, the more you start thinking that it might not be the pitcher, but the swing.  More and more you hesitate going up to the plate – more and more you don’t swing.  Pretty soon you just stop playing (assuming, of course, that you’re not a professional!).  You don’t play – and then you stop going to games…and you just watch the pros on TV.  We do the same thing with God.

We’re not going to figure out the question of God’s reasoning here today.  The why (at least for now) does not concern me.  Why He allows bad things to happen is not where I’m going, but rather the effect of our reaction.  When something – whatever it is – occurs to shake your confidence in what God is doing, what do you do?

You try again.  You pray.  You contact Him.  You continue to live your life as if you trust Him.  You check with Him about decisions.  You work at it until you have confidence in Him again.  Just like if you missed a swing, you screw up your confidence in your own ability and try again!  Or falling off a bike – if you don’t get back up there and try again, you’ll be afraid of the darn thing!

Confidence, like faith, is a spiritual muscle.  You need to flex it.  You need to use it.  Just like your legs or any other muscle, it only improves with training.

Request for prayers

Our church has a prayer chain, and yesterday we got a request that I thought I would share here.  The media, in my opinion, is not doing enough to talk about the atrocities being committed against Christians in N. Iraq and Syria.

But here’s the request:

 Please pray for these extraordinarily brave people.
A friend from Ohio just got a text message from her brother asking her to
shower him and his parish in prayer. He is part of a mission team and
ISIS has taken over the town they are in today. He said ISIS is
systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the
children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far
all have consequently been killed. But not the parents. The UN has
withdrawn and the missionaries are on their own. They are determined to
stick it out for the sake of the families – even if it means their own
deaths. He is very afraid, has no idea how to even begin ministering to
these families who have had seen their children martyred. Yet he says he
knows God has called him for some reason to be his voice and hands at
this place at this time. Even so, he is begging prayers for his courage
to live out his vocation in such dire circumstances… And like the
children accept martyrdom if he is
called to do so. She asked me to ask everyone we know to please pray for
them. These brave parents instilled such a fervent faith in their
children that they chose martyrdom. PLEASE surround them in their loss
with your prayers for hope and perseverance. She was able to talk to her
brother briefly by phone. She didn’t say it but I believe she believes
it will be their last conversation. Pray for her too. She said he just
kept asking her to help him know what to do and do it. She told him to
tell the families we ARE praying for them and they are not alone or
forgotten — no matter what. Please keep all in your prayers. The
mission team is in Milaca.