Thursday, February 25, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

I've been reading about fear lately for a sermon I'm preparing. Seems like I'm always "preparing" a sermon. Didn't I just do that last week? It's kind of like shaving. You just have to keep doing it even though you seemed to have just finished.

Does not sound very "holy" or reverend does it? Well, this is a blog, not a sermon and if you really know me there are times I'm not very holy. I guess you might say it is one of my fears: that people will find out how really "not holy" I am.

Anyway, back to fear. There are the top ten fears. It seems that speaking in front of people is one of the top fears. No wonder I don't sleep at night sometimes. Then there is fear of flying, fear of dying, fear of crying,...maybe fear of lying, or sighing, or buying (too much), or if you are a hardshell Baptist maybe there is the fear of "frying." (You know the old Hellfire and damnation routine)

In my fear research for the sermon I encountered that scene where Jesus is told to "run for his life" because that nasty old Herod is out to get him. Herod had already relieved John the Baptizer of his head. John was pretty "hardshelled" himself and told Herod that he was persona-non-gratta for messing around with his own brother's wife. After a late night party Herod got all excited when his new wife's daughter danced around some pole and then slithered up to the old king with that "what have you done for me lately" look. Herod, who probably could have done a Viagra commercial, found himself boxed in when he told the sweet young thing that he would do anything she asked. She winked at her mom and said she wanted nasty old John's head on a platter.

Herod bit his tongue but it was too late. Since John was conveniently wasting away in Herod's dungeon John became dead man walking before the night was over.

So you can see why some well-meaning folks thought Jesus ought to run away from Herod. Jesus had a lot to fear because according to some polls Jesus was next on the list for Herod's ax. So what does Jesus say and do? He started singing, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf." Well, that is a loose translation. Jesus said that he had work to do and he was not going to duck and run from that old "fox." He called Herod a fox...that's first cousin to a wolf.

So Jesus called his fear by name and faced up to it, which is what all this reading and study I did on fear says you have to do. Years earlier Herod's dad was told that he had "nothing to fear" from some obscure prophecy that foretold of a new king that would be born, but when he was told that the event may have happened in little old Bethlehem Herod had every child whose birthday even came close to that starry, starry night killed.

So it is no surprise that Herod's boy, Herod Jr, knew how to kill kings and prophets and would be saviors. Jesus had reason to fear.

But Jesus told those who offered him tickets to some far away place, to go tell the fox Herod that he was headed to Jerusalem and if the old scoundrel wanted a piece of him he could find him in the Holy City. Herod did eventually face Jesus in a kind of trumped up trial in which the aging king had his few minutes of stardom as he faced down Jesus and mocked him up one side and down the other.

Jesus basically said, "You can huff and you can puff but you can't blow my dad's house down." Herod and his side-kick Pilate said, "We'll show you" and hung Jesus out to dry "in the wind." So now we come upon another one of those top ten fears: fear of dying.

It seems that Jesus stepped into that fear also, right after the wind quit blowing. A few days after Herod and Pilate quit giving high fives to each other Jesus stepped around the corner of death and reminded his bewildered disciples that they still "had nothing to fear" because death was taken care of.

So fear not, or at least that's what those "sore afraid" shepherds heard that night. The truth is that we will fear. It comes with our wiring. (I found that out too in my study time) But if you wish... do as the old hymns say one way or another: "Hold on to Jesus...and let him hold on to you...He understands fear."

What or who are the "foxes" in your life? Step toward them and ask for a little help from the one who refused to run away so that we would not have to...
Bless you,

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Well, I did it again. In the ancient language it is called "the imposition" of ashes. The faithful, or those who are trying to be, line up and come down to the altar to be "imposed."

It is an interesting word. "I hate to be such an imposition but...." "I know to show up like this is an imposition but..." To impose means to intrude or to lay on somebody what they would rather you not lay on.

So what is this imposition of ashes stuff? Does anyone really want to hear, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return?" No wonder it is called imposition.

But every year this "interruption" happens in order to get our attention. I mean if reminding someone that they are made of the same stuff we kick up under our feet each day does not get your attention then we really are numb.

The truth is if you are at all like me I do not much want God to impose much of anything on me. I have my agenda and my schedule. Not to worry, I'll work God in...when there's time...and space...and well money. But see that is the problem. We work God between.

So each year those ancient words from Joel are read, "Sound the alarm, declare a fast, rip out your hearts and quit tearing up garments like so much religious ritual that you keep doing." It seems that God wants to be up front not in between or worked in. So we hear another old word, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."

Repent means to turn around. This year I used the image of those "spikes" that rise up from the pavement in some parking garages or lots where rental cars are dispersed. If you go the right way over them they fold down nicely and you drive on. If, however, you attempt to sneak out the entrance without "paying" those spikes stay firmly in place and puncture your tires. Go the wrong way and you "will" pay.

Repent means to stop, look, and listen to see if we are going the wrong way. For most of us to stop, look, and listen is an "imposition" but it looks like we need it.

So ashes are imposed on our foreheads so that we can "see" that mark of the cross. A little girl in our church asked her mother to guess what the little girl's favorite letter of the alphabet was. Mom started the guessing with "s" because that was the first letter of her daughter's name. "No mom, its 't'". "Why 't', asked her mystified mother? "'t' stands for church, mom. That is the place where I know that God loves me and the place I hear about Jesus." "But where do you get 't' in church honey?" "You know it's up there on the table...a big "T."

So this child of God sees what we grown-ups fail to see. That is why we need an imposition. We need our lives interrupted so that we can kneel and have a "big T" put on our foreheads to remind us that we are very special dust.

Each year I write a poem for Ash Wednesday. Here's this years "imposition."

A Dusty Pause

Say it no more
that I am dust
For I have knowledge
that I am more
not less

Accumulated are my
trophies of living well
And your words attempt
to burn away
my earnings

Is not life more than
food and bank accounts
But then that is fair
sounding poetry
for I know better

I am known by my titles
and my possessions
They grant me the identity
that I wear
like a coat

But you tell me it and
me are still dust
Waiting to discover
that in the end
there's no escape

So mark me with the
ashes and the cross
And I shall pause and
remember the
finality of love

Sound whatever alarm
will cease my wandering
For it all ends in dust
and only your breath
A promise of new life
for the dust

Bless you

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sins as White as Snow!

Well it snowed "again" and now I'm in the role of a kind of School Superintendent who has to decide if there will be school (church) "tomorrow" or will the "kiddies" have another play day. Alas the scripture came to me, "Come let us reason together; though your sins are like scarlet they shall be white as snow." Trust me, just because I am a minister does not mean that I sit around all day with scriptures simply "coming to me." I'm actually kind of a worldly guy who neither thinks in technicolor nor in scripture sound bites...but...with all the snow this blast from the past came cascading my way.

So, hey, here is another reason to come to church on a "snow day." You can get your sins "snowed away" for heaven's to speak. I did not make this stuff up. It seems that old Isaiah says that God feels this way.(Isaiah 1: 18) Maybe it was some snowy afternoon when God "said" those words; "come let us reason together...though you've messed up really bad...have a seat and let's talk. I could see red and be all mad at you since your list of transgressions are like scarlet, but I'm going to give you a pass and...well...take a look at some of my snow...I'll make them like that. You're forgiven."

It's like a "get out of jail" card or something. Some folks have trouble with what is called in Christian code words, "the doctrine of the Atonement." I may be one of those people. As a child I did not like the constant reminder to me that "Jesus had to die for my sins." If God is a father, what kind of dad needs his child to die so that I can live? I thought even back then that God needed a good dose of some expanded imagination to come up with a better plan.

No one ever told me that all this "blood of Jesus" stuff comes from a very Jewish understanding of "fixing things" when someone messes up. It seems that in Jesus' day if you wanted to say, "I'm sorry" something had to die and some blood had to be know to show that you were really serious and really sorry.

The Bible is written so that it seems Jesus had no choice but to "go along with the plan." Well, most of them were Jewish after all so it made sense. Quite frankly it does not make sense to me and never has, but then God did not ask me. I do think, however, that Jesus did have a choice. He actually begged to live that night in the garden when his best buddies were sleeping off too much wine and too many words. I think of all the people who have ever lived that Jesus loved life more than any of us. I also believe he could have lived on and shown us how to love life as he loved it. I think that is what he was asking for that night in the garden...and when he said, "But not my will but your will be done" was really not that he had to die but that if God did not stop it...intervene...then Jesus was going to die. Jesus did "offer" his life in the sense that he would not back down from the way of love and sacrifice.

Love to be love has to have a choice. The choice was there. They/we could have accepted this new way of life that Jesus offered. But he poked the religious types in the eye and he offered a way of risk and sacrifice that turned over all sorts of tables. He spoke about the need to "let go...(or die if you want to really get serious) an old way of seeing and being in order to be born into a whole different world/kingdom.

I believe everything could have changed and God did have the kind of imagination to not make someone die in order to atone for our addiction to selfish, ego-centered living. But Jesus did die and ever since that cloudy Friday afternoon religious folks have been coming up with various "theories of the atonement" to explain why he "had" to die and what that death "did" to "get us right with God." One can debate which of these theories makes most since or if any of them do, but this is what I am sure of: The world and its ways nailed Jesus' kind of love down so that it would not disrupt business as usual. God did not stop it but God sure said, "I'm going to do something with this death that changes everything." I think God was very "affected" by all this and the death of Jesus became an investment into the very fabric of existence.(If you think I'm really off base here you can find something called Process Theology that says something like what I am suggesting.) Jesus did "die for us" and "with us." He was hung out to dry for us so that our suffering is now "redeemed." See I did get around to using a religious "code" word.

God "used" Jesus' death in a big way. I know some of this may not be "politically" correct or even sound a bit heretical to some people, but I believe that God was pulling for his boy the week that we now call Holy Week. What father would not want things to go different for his child. O I know, God "knew" it would come out the way it did because God knows us. But I believe that the love of God was agonizing with Jesus that week. Even God hopes and loves, you know. My heart tells my mind that God wanted Jesus to "live" for our sins but God knew that his very special child would lay his life on the line...and he did.

After God spent three days grieving and crying, God simply raised Jesus from the dead. (I know this is "commentary" and not scriptural but I warned you that I do not always think in scriptural ways.) So now God can really say to us, "Come here my child and sit down and let's talk. You keep messing up but I want you to be whole again. I long to forgive you...My own son came to live with you and for you...and even die with and 'for' you so let's reason together...and besides look it's snowing outside...."
Bless you,

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Pocket God

Wow we are really smart. These days we can have a pocket calculator, a pocket phone/computer/radio. From our pocket we can listen, send, even watch the ballgame. In days past there was a sense of wonder that an invention was able to not put time in a bottle but in one's pocket. Someone long ago figured out how to take a big, bulky time piece that was mounted on a wall or a mantle or even perched high up in a tower and put in all in a small metal orb that you could...yes...put in your pocket and "tell" time.

Now we've done the same thing with information. What used to reside in some dark basement with magic wheels that would spin with tapes of information now rests in our pockets. How did they get all that from the basement to our pockets?

So now we are fooled into thinking that we have time in our pocket and the totality of information in our grasp. So perhaps it is "time" that we pause a moment and put some things in perspective.

As I listen to how God is captured in containers of late I wonder what basement some have been wondering around in. It seems now that God can provide riches if we follow the right formula. God can champion specific causes for certain countries. God, while we were napping, took flight lessons and is now our "co-pilot." We've done it again. We have managed to take something really big and a bit mysterious and put it in our pockets so that we can "use" it whenever needed.

Nope...It just isn't so. The old story clearly says that the real God will have none of this "idolatry." Yea, that's what it's called. Whenever we reduce that which is supposed to be in part beyond our reach and put it in a place where we can reach it "conveniently" we participate in an age old ritual called the "golden calf" party.

It seems that when we creatures of the light get inpatient with any darkness we light a fire and create a pocket god. It works for a while. It even feels good. But it's not real and it's not God.

God is the one whose light takes 100,000 years to go from one end of the Milky Way galaxy to the other end. (By the way "Milky Way" is our term. Just because we can name it like a candy bar does not mean that it is "ours.") Our galaxy with is 100 billion or so stars circles around what is known as the virgo cluster. The virgo cluster contains around 2,000 galaxies.

It seems that the closest galaxy to us is the Andromeda galaxy, again named by us because it sounds really neat. It is a mere 2.5 million light years away. You can see it as a small point of light in the night sky. It looks like "just another star" but careful, you can't put in in your pocket and make a wish.

The truth is that this tiny speck of light is rushing toward us at about 500,00o miles per hour and will one day ram into our Milky Way causing quite a candy crunch. In case you are thinking of turning off your computer and "rushing" to the store to get milk and break, take a deep breath and continue reading. You've got some time...about 2 billion years or so before it slams into our party.

" O God, when I look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, the work of your fingers, what are human beings that you are mindful of us?" That is what some psalm writer(Psalm 8) composed one night before pocket watches and handheld computers messed up the wonder of it all.

We can make us a pocket god but as nice as it feels it will not be real. The real one always has a touch of wonder and mystery that will not allow us to capture the essence of the divine. The reason that fundamentalism is so dangerous in any religion is that it makes religion into creeds and dogmas and reduces the Holy to some pocket set of beliefs. This makes the "owner" of the pocket god the one who can say to the rest of us that we do not possess "the truth." Since we do not know the way or we do not practice a certain custom we are either lost or we are infidels.

It takes 250 million years for our candy bar to orbit around its "core" that is believed to be a black hole whose energy is equivalent to around 4 million of our suns. Is this non-pocket God "mindful" of us? Faith is not a "10 steps" to something card that you can put in your pocket. Faith is the amazing assertion that the answer is a very humble, quiet "yes."
Bless you,

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lucky or Blessed

Somehow this misty morning the words of Mary Chapin Carperter's song "I Feel Lucky" came to mind. She "stumbles out her rack" one morning and takes a look at the horoscope in the paper and discovers that "the stars are stacked against you girl, get back in bed." Have you ever felt that with without even looking at the print on the page?

John Denver in his sage-like way said that, "some days are diamonds and some days are stones." But alas our "pilgrim" in the prior song throws the paper in the garbage and professes, "I feel Professor Doom gonna stand in my way...mmm I feel lucky tropical depression gonna steal my sun away"

It seems that I hear a lot of talk about God's "plan." People often ask me if God has it all "planned." There is the classic debate about predestination and free will. If God has it all planned out where is our part in the plan and how much choice do we have? And where does "luck" come in?

To say God has a plan is fine if the stars don't end up being "stacked against you." The "gospel of success" that is professed so much by smiling TV faces is great for people who are "lucky." But the old story does not mention luck. There is a good deal in that old narrative about "blessing," but it seems that the blessings end up being showered upon the good and the bad just as the rain falls on the just and unjust.

So are we left with taking a chance on our daily horoscope? Is life really about luck, or is there a mysterious plan that God has encoded into the stars or our genes? It makes more sense to me to talk about God's "purpose" for our life rather than God's "plan." A plan is defined and set. A purpose is something longed for and offered.

I could not stay in this work of mine if I did not believe that God has a purpose for each human being, but I also could not stay in this "calling" if I believed that God has a set plan that is unalterable. If that is so, God is not doing so fact God comes off either not caring much about us or as one who seems to be against us. There is just too much unfair stuff going on. Some talk of God's plan as if it is much like the paragraphs in the daily paper that warn us or urge us on.

God longs to bless us and does. Life, on the other hand, is full of mystery and freedom. In the midst of the amazing sunsets and hummingbird hoverings there comes earthquakes and cancer. So where is the "plan?"

I like what old John Wesley came up with as a compromise. He called it prevenient grace. Give up on trying to make spell-check approve "preveninet," it won't. Prevenient grace, Wesley believed, is God's grace that "lures" us toward God's purpose for us but does not compel us in that direction. Like a divine lover God longs for us to be whole, to walk the right way, to help God heal that which is broken. But we can go our own way. We have that choice. The stars are not locking us into a direction and neither is God.

Life also has its own free will. I am told that cancer is our body over-reaching itself in the rapid growth of cells...too much freedom. It seems that earthquakes are the result of plates that also have freedom. So is God simply "wishing us good luck" in the midst of it all? No...God is "in" the midst of it all offering us prevenient grace that is always out there just ahead of us, pulling for us, working as a "woman in labor" for us...wanting birth...and new birth for us.

Yes, the bad stuff happens and sometimes the stars seem stacked against us. But God is "always" for us. Life, which has it share of freedom, and we who are free may chose otherwise but God will not chose otherwise. Life may beat us down or we may be "lucky" but God is steadfast in offering blessing.

Good things happen in the midst of evil and resurrection occurs just like the flower that appears in the crack in the sidewalk. And yes, the reason for eternal life being a reality is that God is going to have to complete some of God's purpose in the next phase. Don't tell me when I do a child's funeral that it is part of God's "plan." God's purpose is for goodness and wholeness. I am weary of religious types who have to make everything "fit" by saying it is part of God's plan.

Mystery is part of God's plan. Blessing is part of God's plan. God has a purpose for us and the whole universe but it is not as apparent and simple as some smiling TV faces paint it to be. That is why it is called "faith." Alan Jones says it best when he says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.

So, "get out of bed" and step out into the place beneath the stars. Those stars do not hold your destiny, the God of the stars does. We do not know that destiny except to trust the old assertion: "our purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy God forever." You are blessed to be a blessing. If you feel lucky, that's great. If you feel blessed, that's better.
So as I often close...."blessings"