Friday, July 6, 2018

The Center and the Edge - Philippians 1: 21-26


My generation was the first to grow up with a TV. My childhood was spent in front of it watching old movies, sitcoms, and cartoons. Growing up, television was my third parent and my best friend. When I was lonely, it was always there. When I was hurting it cheered me up. Television was my life. 

Even though we were southerners, I didn’t have a Southern accent, because I learned to talk by television. I told time by television. Four PM was Father Knows Best. Nine AM was Captain Kangaroo. My tenth birthday I remember only because it was when The Beverly Hillbillies premiered. Every family event was dominated by TV; every holiday we watched football games and parades.

 People complain today about kids on the internet and video games. They are either lying, forgetful, or grew up in a different kind of family. In the 60’s, television sets were on at least eight hours a day in most homes. There’s nothing new about this. Kids are doing what they saw their parents and grandparents do—lose themselves in media. Furthermore, old people are just as addicted to media as their children and grandchildren. Today, according to the New York Times, we spend 10 hours and 39 minutes a day staring at screens. People over 50 watch the most television—five hours a day--and are the most influenced by it. The use of cell phones for entertainment has increased over 60 percent since last year. We have no right to criticize the young for spending so much time before screens when we do it ourselves. 

Here’s the problem--we are losing our souls.  We live in a matrix of media-induced reality. We think what we see on our screens is real, but it’s processed reality. Whether we are watching the news, sports, or science fiction, it’s still only a shadow of the real world.

This would be all right if we were strong enough in ourselves to resist what we see, but we aren’t. The world pulls us out into itself with such force that we never have time to evaluate what it is saying. There is no time left when we turn off our screens to think about anything. 
Richard Rohr paints a grim picture of modern life. He says:

“We are a circumference people, with little access to the center. We live . . . confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance . . . If the circumferences of our lives were evil, it would be easier to moralize about them. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, and too often in need of defense or “decoration.” Our “skin” is not bad; it’s just not our soul or spirit. . .  Earlier peoples, who didn’t have as many escapes and means to avoid reality, had to find Essence earlier — just to survive. On the contrary, we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite a long time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only “life” available.”

 We’re like donuts—our outsides are covered with sweet amusements, but inside there’s a big hole. We try not to think about what we’re consuming. Our electronic “friends” tell us what music we’re supposed to enjoy, what’s funny, and what values we are supposed to have. The media demands the right to tell us what to do, what to believe and what to value.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul’s center was Jesus. He didn’t care what the world said. Everything he was or did focused on Christ. Anything that distracted from this was discarded or treated with indifference. The stuff on the edge of his life didn’t disturb his inner core. Christ defines his world. That’s what it means to have Jesus as Lord. Christ, not culture, is your core.

Other generations lived lives that were so hard and short they were forced to develop their inner core. They had to build their personal center of strength through prayer, reflection, and self-examination, or go insane. But when we’re faced with problems, we lose ourselves in distraction. The center cannot hold, because we do not look within.

People, families, and churches are falling apart. Cynicism and anger replaces innocence and love.  The best thoughts on humanity are silenced while the worst parts of us are energized by mob mentality. The best part of us, our spiritual center, is underdeveloped.

 “To live is Christ and to die is gain” can only be claimed by those whose inner lives are more important than their outer lives. They are hurt, but not broken. They endure pain, and can be happy in it, because Christ is there. They bend, but don’t break. Their surroundings don’t matter, because they are grounded in Christ.

But when we focus on the circumference of life we become fragile and brittle. We follow every new fad. We are empty, rootless, and easily manipulated, swayed by every new thing. We are trapped by trivialities and cannot break free. 

Here are some signs we’re living on the circumference of life, not the core:

1.  We feel anxious and afraid. Our lives are run by the urgency of other people’s agendas. It’s amazing how important we think the news is. Half the news is gossip, most of the rest are lies, but we think we must listen to it all. Very little of the news has any real impact on your lives, or who you are.

2.  We distract from unpleasant thoughts instead of dealing with them. We lose ourselves in TV, video games, the internet, social networks, and shallow conversations that distract us from deep thought to avoid pain from unresolved issues. This doesn’t solve our problems, it just delays them.

3.  There’s a difference between what we really believe and what we are “supposed” to believe. We don’t have time to think through what people say to us. We accept easy answers just because they are easy. If we have questions or doubts, we pretend we don’t. Our electronic, entertainment driven world discourages us from thinking or questioning.

4.  There is no time to sit and think. Our lives are so busy we never reflect upon our feelings, thoughts or actions. Someone has said that experience teaches us nothing. But thinking about our experience teaches us everything. If we never ask God to show us the meaning of our experiences, we stay stupid.

5.  We’re obsessed with quantity, not quality.  Everything must be more, bigger, better, and louder.  Going to church must be a major production or we don’t hear God. Everything is about getting more, more, more, but not appreciating what we have. We buy in to the consumer-driven world, because we cannot be still long enough to hear the voice of God. 

6. We’re bored most of the time. We don’t understand what things mean, so it just seems boring to them. If you are deaf, music means nothing. If haven’t understood the meaning of the life around you, it’s just boring. You are constantly seeking something to interest your time, but find nothing.

7.  We never have deep conversations. All conversations are about weather, news, sports or television. There is no time with others to be open about our real thoughts or feelings. 

8.  God is a what to us, not a who. God isn’t a friend. We may go to Him for strength or answers, but He’s not just to enjoy him. We see Him as a policeman, or a professor, or judge, but not as someone who we can know. We are content to know a few facts about God, but not to know him personally in our inner being.

Don’t say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” if you don’t mean it. People who live in the circumference of life become used to repeating slogans they don’t understand. To truly have Christ as the center, you must spend time with Him. To receive Christ is to receive Him into your inner being, and to invite Him into your heart and to seek His presence always. We live with Christ in our inner being, as Paul did. When He is there, we can resist the pressure of the world around us.  

How do you develop your inner core? Let me give you some suggestions.

First, turn off your devices. TV, video games, and cell phones are a spiritual issue. You don’t know if you are addicted to them until you try turning them off. Instead of listening to them all the time, try turning them off and practicing a little contemplation. Be still in the presence of Christ. 

This is hard at first. It takes a few minutes to silence the constant thoughts that crowd our minds.  But set aside your devices and distractions and listen to God. 

Second, stop multitasking. When you are with someone or something, give it your full attention.  Pay attention to the person in front you. When you are with your spouse, child, or friend, pay attention to them. When you are praying keep your mind on God. When you are alone, pay attention to yourself, and listen to your inner voice.

Third, practice daily self-examination. It only takes a few minutes a day, but it can change your life.
Get alone and sit in silence before God. Find a place where you can get away from the distractions of the world. Enter the presence of Christ. Acknowledge His presence by reading a verse, singing a song, or just bowing your head. 

Give thanks to God. Find something that was a gift from God to you, and thank Him for It.

Now, this next step is important. Go back through the last day in your mind and think about your thoughts, feelings, and conversations. Give each moment to God and ask Him to show you where He was or wasn’t in it. Confess your sins to God as you recall them. As you think about what you have done today, God is with us always, but sometimes we aren’t paying attention. Ask God to show you the meaning of what you did today, and how He is working in your life.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” How did you live for Christ today? How do you acknowledge Him as Lord of your life this day? The world through many voices demands our attention in the circumference of life, but Christ demands that we do not neglect the core. 

 Before we can honestly say that, “for me to live is Christ,” we need to learn to give him a few minutes of undivided attention. Spend less time looking outward at Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, Snapchat, Fox, MSNBC, or ESPN, and more time looking at the Son of God.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Joseph’s Dream - Matthew 1: 18-25


The problem with this passage is that we know it to well. We read it every Christmas. But if we are to really understand this passage, we need to shake the jingle bells off it and see it as a testimony to faith. Consider what Joseph had to believe:

1.  He had to believe that his pregnant fiancĂ© was still a virgin. This is so ridiculous it’s laughable.  It sounds like something a desperate young girl would tell her fiancĂ© if she had been unfaithful and was trying to cover up her sins. There is no doubt that Joseph did not believe it at first. Being a good man, he was willing to put her away quietly—essentially taking the blame for her pregnancy. But at first, he believed that she not only had been unfaithful, but either crazy or a liar. To believe anything else defied common sense.

The Bible doesn’t record how much the people of Nazareth and the closest relatives and friends of Mary and Joseph knew. We don’t know what was said to them about Mary’s pregnancy, if it was well known. But it’s not a stretch of the imagination to picture what would be said. “Joseph, what are you thinking?  If Mary is already unfaithful, what will she be when she gets older? If she’s claiming that God is the father of her child, what other nonsense will she put out later?  Dump her!” 

But Joseph did not do the sensible thing. He did the believing thing. He took Mary as his wife, and believed the message God gave him. As a result, he became the earthly father of the Messiah. His faith made it possible for Him to receive the greatest blessing a father ever had. He believed God and received his reward.

2.  He had to believe that something he dreamt was the voice of God. Scientists who study dreams say they are hallucinations our brain produces while we sleep. They express the mood and feelings of our day in symbolic terms. 
  
David Benner, a therapist and spiritual director has written about the value of dreams to reveal our inner self that our conscious mind covers. He suggests keeping a dream diary by our beds and writing down our dreams first thing in the morning.  This doesn’t mean that our dreams reveal God, but just out inner thoughts. There are times in the Bible where God speaks in dreams, but most of the time, they are just our own feelings coming to the surface.  The ancients knew this, just as we do today. 

But Joseph believed God was speaking to him in his dream. Would you make a major decision based on a dream you had last night, when practical common sense pointed in a different direction?

God speaks to people in two ways. One way is objectively, through the Word of God and through nature and His laws. We observe what God has said or done and use our brains and common sense to interpret what we see and hear. This keeps us from following presumption and fantasy. The other way is subjectively though inner voices in our hearts. Both are important. Joseph chose to follow the inner voice in his heart revealed in a dream over common sense. Most people would say that is a little crazy.

3.  He had to believe that out of this ordinary girl, God would produce the Savior of the world. Great ideas and great people seldom come out of nowhere. We need families and we need networks of cooperators to be successful. Great men and women are usually the result of generations of preparation, or the work of cooperative communities. It’s no accident that famous people have famous children, scholars have children who are scholars, and great preachers have children who are great preachers. Generations have gone into making us who we are.

We also need networks. Writers get published, because they know some publisher. Scientists must submit their ideas to peer review. Politicians get elected through political parties. The “lone wolf” or the lonely prophet seldom make a difference.

Why then would Joseph presume that a child born in an insignificant place like Nazareth, the son of a carpenter and a little girl would redeem Israel?  It was a crazy idea. Even so, he believed. 

His belief involved three things. First, he had to look beyond what the world thinks impossible.  Second, he had to believe that God Himself would speak directly to his heart. Third, he had to believe that people who were “nobodies” could be used by God to change the world—that their own baby could be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.

We talk a lot about people hearing God’s voice.  Preachers hear from God a vision for the church. People heard from God in previous generations—the foundation of the church, the Protestant Reformation, the founding of our denomination. As a denomination we believe that elders and ministers hear God’s voice. But can we believe the same guidance when we believe God speaks in the present as He spoke in the past? Can we believe that we can hear God in the same way the apostles and prophets heard Him? Or is the voice of God only for people long ago, or for a select few today?  

Think about the implications of it. If God is able to put an idea inside the brain of Joseph, then he is able to do it to us. He can inspire us to believe and do, the same way he did to Joseph and Mary. God is with them, but the child they brought into the world is called Immanuel—God with us. He is still with us.   

I have never believed that faith was one of my most prominent. Faith doesn’t come easy to me.  When I hear God’s voice, I usually regard it with suspicion and skepticism. But this passage teaches me something. God really can speak, and the voice inside my head in a dream can really be a Divine message. God can make ordinary people like us part of His cosmic plan. He really can and does speak to us.    

The virgin birth is a one-time miracle that will never be repeated. But something similar can and does happen all the time to believers across the world. God can conceive in us an idea and put it in our heads, just like He put Jesus in Mary’s womb. 

It may be an idea with no human source, to someone who has no legitimate credentials to carry it. It can be an idea that comes directly from God. It doesn’t come, because we are smart, or because we have the right upbringing, or because someone else has put it in us. In fact, if we think that the idea is the result of our wisdom or experience, it isn’t from God. But God can put in us a thought or feeling that comes directly from Him. It may defy logic, but it is real and we need to obey.

We know God’s voice, not because it’s practical, but because it isn’t. It doesn’t match what we would ordinarily do. When we see a problem, we solve it using our education, experience and common sense. If we can fix it ourselves, that is good, but it is no miracle. We have simply used the tools at hand, and the glory for solving it is ours.  That’s enough for people without God—find a need, fix it, take the glory for it.  

But if there is a need without an earthly solution, then God must solve it. When things are humanly impossible is where miracles occur. We can’t solve our children’s problems, for example. So the only place we can look to is for God. When something happens with no earthly solution, then the miracle comes from God and He gets all the glory. Our cleverness and self-assurance doesn’t help miracles to happen, and they just get in the way.  Real miracles are virgin births, coming out of the barrenness of our soul. God births a solution in us where there is none. Others may not hear the voice we hear, but God is there. If He can cause a child to grow in a virgin, He can cause a new idea to grow in an old heart.

God speaks to us inside our hearts. My scholar and educator friends hate this. In scholarship all truth must be verified. They are right to say this. There are a lot of crazy people in the world who think they have heard from God, but haven’t. But how could Joseph verify a voice of a dream? He could only believe or not believe.

Notice the first thing the voice said to Joseph “Do not be afraid.”  It didn’t say people would believe them. It didn’t say everything was going to work out the way they hoped. It didn’t say they wouldn’t be rejected by their family and have to sleep in a stable. The voice of God simply said, “Don’t be afraid. This is from me.” God doesn’t give details. He just says, ‘Do this and don’t be afraid.”

The GPS on my phone gives me directions when I drive. I can’t read the map and drive at the same time, so a nice lady’s voice says, “Turn left,” and I turn left. She says   “turn right” and I turn right.  She says, “Stop,” so I stop. God doesn’t give us a map. He just gives me directions today. I don’t know what the next turns are going to be. That’s all he needed to know. I must trust the subjective, internal voice of God in my inner being.

God’s message to Joseph’s did show him a destination, though. God told him that this child would fulfill Biblical prophecy and be the savior of the world. He and Mary were nobodies, but to God, they were very, very important. When we look at ourselves objectively, we can’t see what God is capable of doing.

Don’t try to measure your worth by looking at what you are or what people think of you. Measure your worth by God’s love for you. It is God who works through you and in you. 

The child who is coming was given two names—one by Isaiah and one by his parents. Both names came from God. He is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He is also Jesus, which means “Salvation.” Mary and Joseph aren’t better than anyone else—they are just the ones who bore the God and salvation into the world.

 And so are you. You bear in yourself the Spirit of God. Do you have faith to believe this? Can you accept that you might bear God’s word to the people around you, that the Spirit of Christ within you is greater than all the power of this earth?
This is a small church with a lot of problems.  Sometimes, they seem insurmountable. But our problems don’t matter. All that matters is that you can deliver God’s love to others. You are not nobody. You are the holy ones of God. As long as you are here, God is with you.

Don’t despise small things. When Bach was selected to be the church organist, the committee complained that they had to settle for second best.  When Fred Astaire was given a screen test, a reviewer said, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little.”  The world doesn’t know what it has, but God does. Wherever God is working there is a miracle. You are a miracle of God. 

Expect miracles, and God will give them.  Expect the ordinary and that’s what you get. God has great things for you if you believe. 



Friday, June 22, 2018

Behind the Mask - Matthew 23


Matthew 23 is a passage called, “The seven Woes.” In six of these seven woes, he uses the same phrase, “Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites.” “Hypocrite” is one of the worst insults we can call someone. It means a two-faced, lying traitor.

Jesus is for hypocrites, not against them.  In the prayer of confession, we say we have “left undone the things we should have done and done the things we should not have done.”  We are all to some degree hypocritical. To assume a stance of moral superiority, because we think ourselves less hypocritical than another is like two pigs in a sty arguing over which one is muddier. 

But when Jesus calls these leaders hypocrites, He isn’t using the word like we do today. “Hypocrite” meant “actor.” It meant someone deliberately pretending to be someone else, who was trapped in a role he did not necessarily want to play. Acting was a job for slaves in Jesus’ day. Actors were owned by producers—impresarios—and were in bondage to them. They were not payed for their work and lived in servitude.

In Jesus’ day, no one knew the names of actors. They wore full body suits, complete with head-covering masks. Imagine the guy at Disney World wearing the Goofy costume. It didn’t matter who was in the suit, or whether he wanted to be there, just so long as he pranced on stage in a hot suit in the blazing Roman sun. 

Actors only spoke what they had been told to say. The masks they wore were designed to magnify their voices. The man in the suit was unimportant. He was a prisoner of the suit. 

The actor got no special treatment. There was no payment. The only thing he could hope to get was applause. Every so often the slave in the suit could hear the crowd applauding. 

For a slave, any recognition was cherished, even if it was useless. Applause was all they lived for. Applause meant that someone somewhere saw what they had done and appreciated it.

It was horrible and exploitative--living anonymous lives in slavery and squalor.  Applause became a drug for them like heroin, to help them ease their pain. They craved their daily dose of applause.

Jesus probably had been to a theater to see these Roman “hypocrites” on the stage, but did not despise them. He more likely pitied them. He could see behind their masks.   

These religious leaders were trapped behind masks—living out their lives in hopes that people would recognize them and appreciate them. He isn’t condemning them—He’s pitying them.

Jesus compared them to actors trapped in a role, trying to live off the applause of others.  Every day they put on their Pharisee masks and costumes--little men who were lonely and hurting who didn’t know God’s love, so they looked to the love of others by playing the Pharisee in public. They wore the faces society required of them. They didn’t want to be real, because they thought they couldn’t be real.  They played the role of respectable people, because they wanted the applause. Other’s good opinions were like heroin to them.

On the Greco-Roman stage, characters didn’t change much. Every play had the same few stereotypes—the king, the fool, the heroine, the boor, the trickster. Each character was represented by a different mask. The plays changed, but the characters stayed the same. Over time, an actor might become better at playing one role than another, wearing the same mask every performance. 

In our world, we get typecast, too.  Everyone has their own mask they wear--the holy man, the mother, the father, the angry man, the clown, the responsible citizen, the rebel, the athlete, the nerd, the party animal, or the knight in shining armor. We don’t think of ourselves as wearing masks, because we have worn masks most of our lives. The role we play becomes our life’s work, and we don’t see ourselves as having a life outside of our roles. 

When Bela Lugosi died, he was buried in his Dracula costume. Then there was Clayton Moore who in his seventies still dressed as the TV’s the Lone Ranger. These actors became so connected to a role that they could not have a life outside it. But sometimes we all take off our makeup, look in the mirror and face the person behind the mask. We must face who we really are. 

When working with dying patients, the biggest problem is not dying, but losing the roles they play in life. They can’t give up being a mother, father, or caretaker. The masks we wear can possess us if we are not careful.

 Parents must be parents. Preachers must be preachers. Bosses must be bosses. But those are just roles. God doesn’t love the role, but the person inside. If we don’t take off the mask sometimes our roles possess us and our souls are forfeit.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to seek his advice. Nicodemus wore a mask of spirituality and respectability. Jesus told him to be born again—drop the mask and be born again. Babies don’t wear masks. The rich young ruler wore a mask of wealth. Jesus said give it away. Sell all that you have and follow. A man came to Jesus, wearing the mask of a good son and wanted to be his disciple. He would follow Jesus, but only after he accommodated his family obligations. Jesus said to drop the responsibility mask. Let the dead worry about the dead, and just get real before God.

Our mask is what we do in life. It is our character. We must get rid of it to really have a relationship with Him. We don’t come to Jesus to become better at our roles. We come for orders, out of commitment to be honest before him. Our mask is the role the world assigns to us, which we take on so the world will approve of us. But in Romans 12:2, Phillips Paul tells us not to let the world squeeze you into his role.   Seek the applause of heaven, not the applause of earth. You may have to wear a mask, but make sure the mask doesn’t become you.

How do we know if we are being swallowed up in our mask? We are getting swallowed up by our mask when--

1.  When we crave the applause of others.  One of the surest signs we are play-acting is when we crave applause. We want everyone to see our accomplishments. If others don’t applaud, we are hurt. Jealousy, envy, pride, and the desire to be noticed means we are relying on the audience for support. We all do this, unless we are very egotistical or very godly.   Applause is an addiction that keeps us on stage constantly. We think we can feel good about ourselves.    

3.  When our mask feels uncomfortable.  Do you feel tired from trying to conform to everyone else’s expectations? Then you are chafing under the weight of your mask. If that’s so, you don’t necessarily have to change jobs, families, or churches. You may just be wearing the mask wrong. Take off your mask and adjust it. Sometimes we hurt, because our mask is hiding deeper hurts, like a man who has a sore on his shoulder who is wearing a large, heavy mask. Take off your mask, get healing for your underlying hurt, and deal with your injury.  Then you can better deal with your role in life. But if you don’t take off your mask for a time, you will hurt underneath it for the rest of your life.    

We all need time away. Take a vacation, get some rest, and take off the mask you wear.  Get out from under the burden of the mask for a while, and you may feel better. Most of all, never wear your mask to bed or to worship. Take if off in the presence of God and your spouse. Be yourself, not what everyone expects you to be. 

4.  When we are ashamed of what’s under the mask. Suppose tomorrow you had to give up your job of being a mother, father, doctor, mechanic, Sunday school teacher, or any of the other masks you wear. Would you be ashamed to show yourself as you are without your accomplishments? If we are ashamed of who we are inside, then we need to work on the person inside, not the outside. 

5.  When we are not free. Actors were slaves. They didn’t wear the masks, because they wanted to, but because their owners made them. Jesus makes us free from shame by His forgiveness on the Cross. Not only that, He sets us free from the need to be people-pleasers by assuring us that He is completely pleased with us. If we listen for the applause of heaven, then we don’t need the applause of earth. 

When was the last time you heard the applause of heaven? If you don’t, it isn’t because God won’t applaud. We just can’t hear Him through the masks we wear. You have strained so long and hard to earn the love of people you will miss the voice of God, saying He loves us as we are right now without the mask.  He speaks to our inner heart, and lets us know that He loves us as we are, without the mask. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Prodigal Grandson: A Father’s Day Parable - Ephesians 6: 1-4


Here’s a story you all know.

A certain man had two sons. And the younger one said, “Father, I’m bored. Give me my portion and let me go.”

The father did it, not because he had to, but because he loved him. It was not an easy thing for him to do. It hurt him to see his son squander a fortune on riotous living. It cost him countless nights’ sleep.

But he did it, and it worked. After his son blew through his fortune, he turned and said, “I will arise and go to my father.” His son returned, bruised and bloody and thin and pale. But he came back, and that’s what was important. 

His father was looking for him every day. Then one day he saw him. He smelled him before he saw him. This raggedy boy, reeking of pig slop and failure, must have smelled to high heaven. But the old man knew his son’s smell, even under all that dirt and grime. He ran to him, pulling up his skirts and running in a most undignified manner. He took him in his arms and held him close and cried. He called out to his servant, “Slay the fatted calf. Put rings on his fingers and a coat on his back. Let there be wine and feasting and music. My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and now found.” He threw a party and everyone came. Everyone, that is, but one.

His older brother was in the field. He found out from a servant that his younger brother returned, and that the old man had thrown a party for him, and he couldn’t stand it. The younger son didn’t deserve it. He complained, “I’ve worked all my life for you, and you never slew a calf for me!”

“No my son,” the old man answered. “You’ve had me all the time. Every day you’ve feasted in my house. But your brother was dead, and now he is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found. Today I rejoice--and so should you.”

That’s the story as you’ve learned it. But it is not the end of the story. The sins of the father are visited on the children. The blessings of the father are to the children as well. 

This led me to imagine what it might be like when these two sons were grown and had children of their own. What would their families be? How would they treat their boys? 
Here’s the way I think the story might have gone.

Twenty years have passed since the boy returned to his father, and the brothers still live on their father’s farm. The old man doesn’t run things any more. He’s retired and lives in the house alone. The two boys are married, and each has his own family.

Each boy married women like themselves. The prodigal son married a prodigal daughter who rebelled from her family, but came back in the end. The older brother married a proper lady from a fine family. They live on opposite corners on their father’s farm.

Each son has a son who is the spitting image of his father.

Younger son was still prodigal. “Prodigal” means irresponsible, wasteful and undisciplined. Though he experienced the forgiveness of his Father, he still had not learned to bear the yoke of discipline. At his house, the shutters were never painted and the grass was always long and there were holes in the fence where slats should be. They didn’t much care whether the house was clean or dirty.

Their son was a wild child with a dirty face--about as disciplined as an ape. But his parents loved him, as all parents love their children—even disobedient ones.

When the wild child misbehaved, they never punished. When the boy wanted something he got it, no matter what it cost. When he came home with poor grades in school or was caught swinging on the neighbor’s gate or setting fire to a barn, they let it pass. The prodigal son had learned forgiveness from his father and was determined to show the same forgiveness to his boy. But he never learned what has to come after forgiveness.    

The older brother hadn’t changed, either.  He was still being responsible and dutiful. He lived in a nice home on the bottom land where the shutters were always painted and the grass was always mowed, and there were no holes in his fence.  His wife kept the house neat as a pin.

Their son was a good son—a well-behaved boy. His parents were strict and believed in discipline. When they broke a dish or split a drink, or left a garment on the floor, his father got out the belt. They believed in that proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This boy learned to respect and fear his father.

Once a week on Sunday, the whole family got together at Grandfather’s house. There was lots of feasting, but not much talk. The older brother still didn’t like the younger son, or his family.

The younger son didn’t like his brother, either. The younger brother’s wife thought the older brother’s wife was a snob. The older brother’s wife thought her sister-in-law was a slob. But they buried their differences for the sake of the old man, whom they all loved. So the years rolled by and the family survived in chilly silence.

The grandchildren grew. The prodigal son’s son grew wilder. His antics broke the silence of the Sunday meals at the grandfather’s house. At first, it was just running in the halls, talking loudly, and breaking things. Then the breaking went to stealing and the loud talk led to swearing, even on Sunday.

Now, the younger son didn’t approve of this, but he had a problem with discipline. He saw too much of himself in the boy. How could he punish him without confronting his own irresponsibility? So every day, his son grew more and more restless, and his parents grew more troubled, but did nothing.

The older brother complained to grandfather about his nephew, “Tell them to discipline that boy. If he goes on like this, he’ll corrupt the morals of my boy. Banish that boy from your house. While you’re at it, why don’t you send them all away? They’re all a bunch of good-for-nothings.” But Grandfather would never do it.

The older brother and his wife shook their heads disapprovingly, but inside they had a kind of grim satisfaction. They had been proved right.  Maybe if Grandfather had been tougher on that prodigal son he would not have such a bratty kid. “Like father, like son,” they said. “An acorn never falls far from the tree.”

Then one day the wild child went to his parents and said, “Father give me my portion now. I want to experience the world, like you did.” It broke his father’s heart. He had experienced the world—and barely survived! He did not want his son to have to go through what he did.

“Son,” the younger brother said, “I have given you everything already. I can’t give you a portion of what I do not own. I live on my father’s charity.” But he felt for his son so he went to the Grandfather, and asked on behalf of the boy.  

But Grandfather said, “Son, I gave you half of all I owned, and you squandered it. More than that I gave you freedom and forgiveness. Along with those gifts come responsibility. He’s your responsibility, not mine. I can’t help you.”

The boy ran away the next day.

“Hooray!” said the older brother and his wife. “Hooray! The Old Man has finally come to his senses. He’s finally practicing tough love!”

The Grandfather heard what they had said. He replied, “Son, you’ll never understand. Tough love was what I gave first. Which is easier--to hold your child or to let them go? How do you measure the price of all those sleepless nights of worry, of knowing your son was out in the dark, without a place to stay? I could have forbidden him to go--it was my right. But if he had not failed, he would never have learned. Letting him go was the hardest decision of my life. I let him go for his own redemption.”

Now the older brother was happy that the wild child was gone. His good boy would no longer be exposed to his awful influence. Things were quieter now. Much more orderly. His own good son got all the attention.

Then one day at home, the older son and his family sat at their table. Suddenly, their good son spilled his drink. His father did not hesitate for a moment. He drew back his hand to give the boy a walloping. But before he could connect with his son’s backside, his son whirled and caught his hand in mid-air.

“Enough!” said the boy. “All my life you have beat me for the smallest things. You have never loved me. You never touch me, but in anger. You’re a judge, not a father. You’re a jailor, not a parent. I won’t take it anymore. I am out of here!”

He walked out of his parent’s house, never to return. 

The older brother never looked again at that empty seat without realizing his awful mistake.  Every night before he went to bed they prayed to hear his footsteps at the door. 

Two sons. Two fathers. One tender, but too ashamed to be tough. One tough, but too proud to be tender. And a grandfather, who loved them all. 

God our Father loves us all. He is both tough and tender. He is never stern when He should be loving. He is never loving when He should be stern. He knows the value of holding children close, and the value of letting children go.

He was so tough on Adam and Eve when they ate forbidden fruit. Yet He was tender, descended from His throne to look for them in the garden.

He was so tough that he could say, “The wages of sin is death.” Yet He personally paid for us on the Cross, rather than let us die without hope.  

Fathers, be tough and tender. Punish, but not until you know how to hug. Set boundaries for your children, as you set boundaries for yourselves. But a good father will listen to his children, comforting them, praying for them and hugging them. A good father will never ask anything of his child that he will not do himself.

Paul says, “Children, obey your parents, for this is right.” Then he says to parents, “Don’t provoke your children”--love them instead. A wild spirit may be tamed. But a broken spirit is not so easy to repair. Let your love for a child be like God’s love for us.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Lost Son - Luke 15


Jesus was on a preaching trip to Jerusalem through lower Galilee. As He preached, the opposition grew. The Pharisees were appalled at the dregs of society who flocked to Jesus.

Wouldn't we complain about a preacher who hung around with “those” kinds of people? We might think he was compromising their faith. How do we reconcile the need to win the lost with the need to keep ourselves pure?

The problem they had with Jesus went deeper than his associations. It was His view of the personality of God. To the Pharisees, God was primarily a God of justice, but to Jesus, God was first a God of love. 

God is both, so why be concerned about which comes first? Because the way we live is determined by how we perceive God. If we think first of God as justice and second as love, then there’s an end to His love. At some point He must give up on us and admininster justice. But if He is first love, then at some point He must set aside justice for Love. The way we perceive God leads into our treatment of others, and the way we see ourselves. If we see God as justice first, then all love becomes conditional.  Our love only goes so far.

But if God's love precedes justice no matter what we have done, His love remains. This, too, carries over into other relationships. We love our children, even when punishing them. Likewise, we see ourselves differently. We know our Loving Father continues to love us. 

When challenged about his associations, Jesus responded with three parables—the lost  Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. All three told of something precious that was lost and found, and how happy the founder was. The will of the Father is that the lost be found and restored to him. But the parable of the Lost Son, more than any other story, save for the cross itself, reveals the heart of the love of God, and how it relates to His justice.

The story is perhaps the most perfect story ever told. It works in every culture and every time. We have all seen versions of it countless time. But this parable is different when Jesus told it, because it reveals the heart of God. 

The story goes like this. Once there were three men, a father and two sinful sons. The father represents God. This must be understood if we are to appreciate the wonder of what follows. His heavenly Father is the father in this story.

Then we have the younger son—a wild child. Some of you may not remember what it is like to be a teenager. We are physically mature and emotionally immature. To be a teenager is to be frustrated, because you want to go out on your own,  but you lack the maturity and knowledge to know what to do when you get there. 

How frustrated this boy must have been! I picture this young man sitting on the roof, staring out over the horizon, imagining what the big wide world must have been like. One day, he could stand it no longer. He went to his father and said, "Give me my inheritance now." 

If I were the father, I’ld shake some sense into him. I'd lecture him about the dangers of the world he wants to know--but he is a teenager, and you can't tell him anything.  

But I’m not the father—God is. God understood that sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our children is to let them  make their own mistakes. His love has been perfect, faultless. In spite of this,  his children have problems. This father is exercising the most difficult discipline of all--cruel freedom. Without the freedom to be a fool, we will never learn to be wise. 

Consider what this prodigal son cost his father. He cost him at least a third of everything he owned. He cost him many sleepless nights of worry.  His name was being laughed at in the streets. Yet in all this, his father never ceased to love his son.

The son's fortunes follow their inevitable course. The son  drinks and gambles; he falls in with prostitutes and con men. Soon, all his money is gone.  If you had gone to that boy and told him all this before, he would never have believed you. Now, it is too late. In no time, the boy squandered his entire inheritance, and is left penniless and friendless.

He gets a job as a hired hand to a pig farmer. Imagine what that meant to a Jewish boy! In the eyes of Israel, he might as well have been a drug pusher. No Jew would welcome a fellow Jew who fed pigs. No synagogue would even let him enter to worship. He was cut off from his family, cut off from his people, cut off from his God. The pig farmer who employs him treats him like dirt, and thinks he is dirt.  Even the pigs ate better then he. It is amazing how cruel the world can be to those who cast off their principles.

At last, the young man comes to his senses.  How fortunate he is that he did!  Most don’t. The morgues are full of nameless D.O.A.'s, young prodigals who lived nightmare lives, from which they never woke up. It is estimated that among those with fully developed cases of alcoholism that ninety percent die of the disease. Unless they come to their senses, one hundred percent die, murdered by their best friend, the bottle. Drugs are the same. Unless prodigals come to their senses, they will die. 

This young man had an advantage over others in similar circumstances. He had the memory of a loving father. He knew there was another life out there. Parents,  pray for your children, and give them memories of love, that can return, even when everything else is lost. 

The boy thinks the father will never take him back as a son. He never expected him to. He did think that his father, at least never treated his hired hands like he was treated now, so he reasoned that his father might take him on as a hireling. So, he leaves the pigs and returned home.

How little this boy knew of his father's love! The boy trudges down the long road to his father's house, filthy, malnourished, scarcely recognizable.  But His father knows him. His father would have known him, no matter what shape he was in. At this point, the father does not think of his former sins, or the pain he caused. From a long way off, his father comes to meet him, he throws his arms around, and embraces him, as a child returned from the dead.  He orders the feasting calf to be killed, the one saved for the most special occasion. He throws a tremendous party, a coming-back-from-the-dead party, because his son is alive to him again.

Remember who the father is. The father is God. We have all been like this son, done sinful and stupid things. God has let it happen in the cruelty of freedom. But God has slain the most precious lamb for us, He has paid the ultimate sacrifice for us, all for His love of us. No matter what we have done,  Jesus has welcomed us back from the dead.

But all this is not the point of the story. It is not the younger son who is the lesson to us, but the older one. There were two sons and  there are two kinds of sinners. The first son was obviously a sinner.  The second was not so obvious. 

If we, in this church, were to pick which one of these two sons we were most like, most of us would have to picked the second son, not the first.  Most church people never stray far from God. We live moral, decent lives, in the bosom of our Heavenly Father. That is what we want for all our children, too. But Jesus leaves no sin unexposed. It is we, who are religious, that He really calls to repentance.

When the boy returns, the older brother is out in the field. Unlike the father, he is not looking for his brother's return. If the truth were known, he hoped that he would never return. He had seen his father worrying, night after night. He had seen what happened to the family farm, when it had been reduced by a third by the boy's inheritance. The older brother is outwardly calm, deeply moral, and filled with hatred and anger toward his younger brother. So far, he had borne quietly all the indignities of having a brother like this, but now,  when he hears of his father's decision to throw a party on his brother's return, the older brother explodes.

"When did you ever do this for me?  Haven't I served you all these years? You never celebrated me the way you celebrated him!"

Oh,the insight of Christ! He knew the hearts of men, and knew that in the seemingly most pious of us, there are cauldrons of bitterness and jealousy,  brimful, and ready to spill. Because our sins are not so obvious, because they exist only in the privacy of our own minds or homes, and we do not allow them to affect our outer lives, we believe they are less, but they are not. Of the two kinds of sinners, this is the hardest to reclaim.

The father answers his second son, "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  We had to celebrate today, because your brother has come to life." Notice the words--this son calls him, "your son," the father calls him, "your brother."  We have an obligation to the lost. Notice, too, that the father reminds the older brother that at any time, all the Father had was his. If at any time, he wanted a party, he could have it. If at any time, he had wanted his father to embrace him, he would do it. The Father's love is not limited to the so-called lost, but is open to any who needs it. Many religious people today are doing the right things, living in God's house, but alienated from His love and affection. This is not the Father's choice, but theirs.  They cannot believe in the love that is so close to them.

Two sons, two sinners--yet the solution for both is the same. Come to the Father. Jesus himself is the sign of God's undying affection. "For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten son, that whoever may believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Jesus himself became the proof of the unbounded affection of the Father, that He was willing to risk all, to give all for our redemption. 

Prodigals, one and all--for all of you have wandered and squandered the gift of God's grace--return to the Father. He has satisfied justice with the blood of His Son, and His love poured out for you. 



Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Good and Worthy God - 2 Samuel 11:1-5


The story of David and Bathsheba has everything—sex, violence, comedy, tragedy--plus an important moral. But what’s it really about? What is the great sin that led to David’s other sins? It’s about lust, of course, but it didn’t start with lust. 

Why did David suddenly have this overwhelming passion for his neighbor’s wife? Why do strong men of God suddenly fall to temptation?

Godly men want to follow God. Then some sudden temptation comes along and we fall. I’ve known alcoholics and addicts who were sober for years suddenly fall. I’ve known pastors who have had productive ministries caught up in pornography, adultery or embezzlement. What happens?

David was a young boy when Samuel came to house and anointed him king. There was something about this boy, and his attitude towards God, that made him different. Even as a child he pleased God. 

We all know the story of David and Goliath. Not one man in Israel dared face him, but David did. He was so confident in God that he not only fought the giant but defeated him.

 King Saul took him into his own house and he became a court favorite. Mad King Saul alternated by treating David like a son and trying to kill him.  David responded to the king’s rage and jealousy with forgiveness and grace. When his raging became too great, David had to leave. David became the leader of a band of rebels, but refused to attack the king or any Israelite, just Israel’s enemies. He mastered his desire for vengeance and self-preservation. Once Saul was chasing him and went into a cave to relieve himself. David and his men snuck in, cut off a piece of his robe and sent it back to Saul to show that he could have hurt him but didn’t. David trusted in God to elevate him. He didn’t seek the throne, but was made king by the leaders after Saul’s death.  Through all this, he kept up his relationship to God.  He wrote many psalms, including the 23rd, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  His faith was strong and real.

So what’s he doing on a rooftop, playing Peeping Tom? How did this great man become an adulterer, liar, and murderer? 
Some say that David was being lazy. They point out that while his army was fighting in the field, David was lounging around the house. I don’t buy that. Kings would not go out unless it is a major battle. His place was at the palace. What if another enemy attacked another part of the kingdom? David had to be in place to order a response. David was where he needed to be.  

 David fell for a particular kind of temptation that causes more godly men to fail than anything else. The best way I can describe it is by illustrating with another story. 

In the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, the greatest knight was Sir Lancelot.  Sir Lancelot was dedicated to the king--almost to a fault. Sir Lancelot was his most trusted knight. As a result, King Arthur entrusted to him the safety of his greatest prize—his wife, Guinevere. Lancelot swore to defend her with his life. But Lancelot didn’t defend her--he slept with her. In the legends, their infidelity brought down King Arthur and Camelot.

The Arthur stories are really parables. Arthur represents God. Lancelot represents a man who is wholly dedicated to God. There’s not a man on earth who does not have in his core a desire to be a knight in shining armor, entrusted by God with a great mission or defending a great prize. Husbands feel that way about their wives and children. Pastors and elders feel that way about their churches. Company owners feel that way about their companies. David felt that way about Israel. There is something of Lancelot and David in all men. 

But as we give to others, we must also receive.  God not only gives us assignments, He also provides for all our needs. He protects us, defends us, feeds us, and provides. Just as we look to him for guidance, we also look to Him for provision. His provision means he will give us worldly things, such as food, clothing and shelter. He also will give us intangible things, such as strength, rest, encouragement, fun, and support. These things are just as much God’s provision as food and water. 

But what happens when we forget that God is our provider? We start looking for some place to provide for our own needs. We become like an army that moves forward by foraging from the world around us. An army may have to do this in a foreign land, but in their own land it becomes disastrous. If we look at the place where we are supposed to be guarding as a source of our own provision, then we become worse than the enemy.
 
This is what we do when we try to live out God’s love without receiving God’s love. What God gave us to love unconditionally, we expect to love us back. Then we become whiny, demanding and exploitative. We resent what God has done for us and get into sin, because we demand food, respect, or attention from those we serve.  
That’s the root of David’ sin. He used for ourselves what God gave us to protect and defend.

David looked over Israel like a father over his child. In return, God provided for David. He gave him a great palace, lots of money, and a harem full of wives. Somehow, David thought this wasn’t enough.  He still thought God owed him something. If he needed more, God would give it. But instead of asking God, he still said, “God owes me.” He felt he deserved Bathsheba, and he took her.    

It’s easy to rationalize sin when we think we deserve it. We say “I have my needs, I have my rights, and I have my dignity.” But we don’t. All our needs should be met by God. If you need anything ask Him.  

David’s sins weren’t about sex. They were about not asking God. For what He wanted. Instead of giving to the world he took. The kingdom and the people were no longer his responsibility—they were his personal property.
Our mission is to serve God. We are soldiers in His army, knights in His service. We are not here to defend our country, our family, our church, or our community. We must be ready to abandon any mission to take on a new one when God calls, or even to sit in reserve, until He sends us forward. 

While we are serving or waiting, God provides our needs. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” we are praying for this.

When we don’t believe this, we throw upon own devices. Instead of trusting God’s protection, we become defensive. Instead of finding companionship in God, we seek out wrong companions. Instead of waiting for God’s leadership, we rush in to make fools of ourselves. But if we wait and trust, God will provide.

We want the world to be pleased with us, to praise us! So we seek flattery and attention. We become addicted to the praise of others. This is a particularly grievous sin of ministers. They often stop short of preaching God’s wants, because they are afraid people won’t flatter them. Compliments are good, and we should give them. But when we crave the assurance of men instead of the assurance of God we sin. Instead of demanding attention from others, learn to recognize how much God already loves us.

How do keep from falling to temptation? 

First, learn to recognize temptation when it comes. St. Ignatius wrote about the three faces of temptation. The first face is a spoiled child. Sin throws a tantrum in our hearts to get us to give in.  Because we are tired of hearing them, we give in. The second is a secret lover. We like the thrill of a secret affair. We come to believe there is no thrill in doing good. 

Having secrets feeds our egos and makes us feel clever. The third fade is a military commander. It threatens to overpower us by force. Our fear causes us to give in, because we do not trust in God. 

Second, we recognize that our struggles are pointless and re frame the problem. There are certain temptations I have struggled with. When I say “struggle with,” I really mean “lose to.” It’s like sumo wrestling a Ford F150 truck. I keep losing over and over. There’s not much contest to it.

I was not put on earth to fight temptation, but to respond to God’s invitation. Each temptation is an invitation by God to a better life. I am daily asked to choose whether or not to accept the better life God has given me. 

 I’m not being tempted with food. I’m invited by God to join a healthier lifestyle. I’m not tempted by pride, but invited by God to give up responsibility for the universe. I’m not being tempted by materialism, but invited by God to be free of it. Sin is my natural state, but God’s invitation is to a new state. 

Philippians 2: 5-11 says:

 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Christ’s humility was not the point—His exultation is. In order to respond to God’s invitation, we must humble ourselves. In order to experience the new life in Christ, we must let go of the old one.  This may seem hard, but it is really the beginning of a great life. 

We can resist doing harm to others, because we don’t need anything from others. We get it all from God. 

If this seems hard—it is. But who said it would ever be easy? What knight or king would ever attempt a task that was easy? Real men seek out hard tasks, they don’t run from them.

Here’s the good side. We serve a good and merciful God. When we fall short, He forgives. When we feel weary, he gives us rest. When we don’t think we can go on any farther, he gives us the strength to carry on. 

Take your attention off the things of the world.  Put your attention on the Lord Jesus Christ who is your true leader and worthy Lord. Turn your back on the rewards of this earth, and serve Him alone.