Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Preparing a Place for God

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?  Where's Waldo?  Where are you?  All questions that have been asked over the past years and continue to be asked, especially the last question.   It is asked many times by many who are seeking someone in some way.  Where are you?  Where do you belong?  What is it that you are seeking in life that you have not found? 

Do you have a mission in life, something that makes you want to get out of bed each morning?  What is your mission in life, the thing that motivates you to get out and about and do something that gives you a feeling of satisfaction and worth?  The mission we have in life drives us and makes us want to be involved in life and perhaps often to be involved on behalf of others. 

Jesus prayed for his disciples in John's Gospel, chapters 14-16 and he taught them what they needed to know so that they would have a mission and purpose in life that would connect what they had experienced with him during the three years of his ministry.  He wanted them to know that they would not be alone because the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate would be with them to help them in all they would do. 

So, he sent them into the world to accomplish all that they needed to do, with the help of the Holy Spirit to guide them and urge them on, when times became rough, and they would.  They had a mission, to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all who would believe so that they would be part of the great family that would be created.  That family would be called "Christian" because they would attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to guide others to follow them also. 

Jesus prayed that God would protect them as they went into the world to accomplish the mission.  The word "protect" does not mean to prevent them from encountering danger or harm, because they all died martyr's deaths eventually.  The word means to help them to feel the assurance of the Holy Spirit and to be equipped for every circumstance by the Spirit's presence.  We modern readers understand the word "protect" as the same as "prevent" but in actuality the word speaks to protecting us from despair or giving up.  We are protected from our own frail weakness that would cause us to turn from the mission we have been given as we seek the strength that the Holy Spirit can supply. 

Jesus also prayed that his followers would be sanctified by the Spirit.  This word is one that speaks to holiness that comes about as followers of Christ become closer to God by the interceding of the Spirit in their lives.  As disciples of Jesus Christ seek to live in a way that more closely resembles the way of Jesus Christ, then their lives are transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit within them.  They become "perfected" in love as they live and grow in the way led by Christ. 

Jesus set the goals for his followers.  They are goals that are life-long and will not be completed in this life.  They are goals that are accomplished one day at a time, as people find strength through the Spirit and minister to the lives of others who are seeking to walk in the way that leads to new life through Christ.  As we all follow those goals set before us, we prepare a place within us for the Holy Spirit's presence that will lead us through life to what God would reveal to us as we enter eternal life. 

"What we will become has not been revealed to us, but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we will see him as he is.  Those who have this hope purify themselves even as Christ is pure."  (I John 3:2-3)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Do You KNOW God? Does God KNOW You?

What does it mean to really know someone?  Some of us have been married for many decades to the same person and sometimes we think we may not really truly know them at all.  Some of us have friends that we have had for decades and we think we know everything about them that there is to know and suddenly they say or do something that totally surprises us.  To know someone is to be in their company on many occasions and to be open to them totally and unconditionally so that they feel comfortable being themselves and revealing their true selves and inner feelings to you.

When we truly get to know someone, we practice what is called "self-revelation" in which we reveal ourselves to them in ways that we may not do with others that we know in a more casual relationship.  When I was a school counselor I went to a counseling workshop once where we learned about a model called "Johari's Window".  It was a drawing of a window with 4 panes of glass in it, a bit like windows in older homes may have had.  In each pane of glass there was a description of the way we relate to one another.  "Known to self and to others" was one label.  "Not known to self but known to others" was another label.  Then, "Not known to self or others"  The final one was "Known to self but not to others". 

The model was created by two men named Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955.  They named it Johari's Window by combing their first names.  In the description of the meaning of the model, they say that we most often live in the area of "known to self but not to others", keeping our innermost thoughts to ourselves and revealing little about ourselves except to those whom we know we can trust with what we tell them.  When we open the part of the window that says "known to self and to others" and make it wider so that others know more about us, then the other windows become smaller, inviting greater intimacy and love into our lives. 

We rarely share our deepest feelings with others because we do not have a level of trust with them that would allow this intimate sharing of ideas and feelings.  It is only when we feel completely loved and accepted that we feel we can really open up and let others know who we truly are and know that we do not have to be afraid of their reaction.  They will accept us just as we are. 

God speaks to the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah with a word of forgiveness of grace.  God tells them that he will write a "new covenant" on their hearts to take the place of the former covenant that he made with their ancestors before they left the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  God says he tried to be their "husband" but they would not let him and instead turned to idolatry and failed to keep the commandments.  These to whom God is speaking are exiles, slaves in the land of Babylonia, who have been crying out to God for release.  God has brought about a miracle for them as Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and has released the slaves to return to their homeland, Israel.  Soon, they will be walking the long road home and beginning the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

God wants these exiles to have a new understanding of the faith they have inherited from their ancestors.  It was a strange and mysterious faith, with God residing in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, not to be approached except by the High Priest once a week for forgiveness of their sins.  Now God wants to know them intimately.  God will write his covenant on their hearts and they will all know God.  No one will have to ask where God can be found because God will be found in the hearts and spirits of each person. 

This is not only a new covenant for Israel and its people but it is a new understanding of the God of Israel.  This understanding is of a God who cares, who has compassion on them, and who forgives and forgets the sin they had committed.  God says that God will no longer remember their sin but will "give them a heart to know that Yahweh is Lord and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart."  (24:7)

God is putting trust into this band of exiles that once they settle into life in Israel once again, then the knowledge of Yahweh will fill all the earth and they will truly know who this God is and will want to serve and love God. 

God has written God's covenant on our hearts also.  God has forgiven our sins and cast them as far as the east is from the west.  God has desired a relationship with each human being and wants all humans to come to God and know that God accepts them as they are.  God's covenant is one of love and grace that is greater than anything we can imagine.  The more we trust God with the deepest desires of our hearts and the most inner thoughts of our minds, the more we can be sure that God accepts us for who we are and loves us just as we are. 

God is the Creator and created us for life and goodness.  We are made in God's image and God knows us better than we know ourselves.  God's covenant is written on our hearts and God's Spirit lives within us.  As we open ourselves up to God's love and leading, God will direct us into how we can find greater happiness in life. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Take Up Your Cross and Follow

Lent is here and there is much talk of service and devotion and walking with Jesus through the Lenten experience.  We followed Jesus from his baptism, dripping wet after hearing loving words from God's own voice, to the wilderness, led by the Spirit, accompanied by wild animals, cared for by angels, to the place where he began his life of service and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near.  Jesus told those who were listening to "repent, and believe the Good News". 

It's funny....I said those same words to those who attended our Ash Wednesday Service a week ago.  As they came down the aisle, I put my thumb in the ashes and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and said, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."  The words "Gospel" and "good news" come from the same Greek word from which comes the word "evangelize".  Believe the good news and tell others the same good news that you have believed. 

So, now week two of Lent is here and this week we see Jesus teaching and telling people that they have to "deny themselves" and "take up their cross" and "follow me".  Jesus' words are not as appealing to us as simply believing or repenting.  We think we can do that fairly easily as we ask God to forgive our sins and we attend worship services and hear what is preached.  The themes for this week though imply that we have something that we like or do that we should put aside (deny yourself) and that there is something like a cross that may be in our lives that we should affirm or avow if we are to truly follow Christ. 

I wonder what first century Christians thought about these words when they heard them.  After all, Mark's Gospel is believed to be the first Gospel written and was being read aloud in house churches before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE.  Those early Christians could literally see the signs around them of the days to come when they would flee to the countryside lest they be murdered by the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem.  They may have witnessed many times the crosses by the sides of the roads leading into the city where those convicted of crimes against Rome hung in agony till they died.  Hearing the words of Jesus read that encouraged his followers to "take up their cross" may have seemed puzzling or even threatening to them.  How does one accomplish this and still live to tell the story of Jesus to those who would hear him?  After all that is what believing and telling the good news is about. 

Modern Christians have to think about these words and how they apply to them also.  Denying yourself, as it pertains to Lent, may make us think it means not to have that piece of Coconut Cream Pie that we crave or to pass on seconds when we think we are still hungry.  This is denying oneself, when we do not have or enjoy something that we can reasonably allow ourselves to have in order to prove to oneself that we have the will power or fortitude to do so.  But, denying oneself also has to do with giving devotion to a higher power, a heavenly kingdom instead of an earthly one.  When one denies ones humanity in favor of citizenship in God's Kingdom, then one disallows what it means to have attachments to earthly things.  The word "attachments" is important here because things in themselves are not an issue for us.  It is the attachment we have to what we own that separates us from our true purpose in Jesus Christ. 

Taking up a cross is a bit more problematic for Christians, though.  We all live with crosses of one kind or the other.  We have health issues, job related complaints, family discord, emotional distress to deal with in our lives so those are all crosses we must bear constantly.  Bearing them or taking them up, however, means that we do not complain about them but we instead seem them as fruitful or beneficial to our lives. 

"I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place,  I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face, Content to let the world go by, to know now gain or loss, my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross."  (Beneath the Cross of Jesus, stanza 3, words by Elizabeth Clephane)

Taking up the cross implies that we bear the cross and accept it as a part of our lives rather than trying to rid ourselves of it.  Living with constant pain is a cross many are called to bear.  They would rather not have it in their lives and they try to cope with it thanks to modern medications that can relieve pain.  Accepting that pain is inevitable is taking up the cross.  That does not mean that we stop taking the medication.  It just means that we admit that we may suffer pain as we continue to live in this broken world.  The shadow of the cross brings us a place to contemplate what life is about and what suffering means to each of us in light of the cross being a part of our lives. 

Follow Jesus, he says, and if we can truthfully deny our attachment to the world and its possessions, not do without them, just deny that we must have them even when we possess them, and we can affirm that the cross we may bear may be part of our lives always, then we may follow Jesus on the road to the cross because that is what a life lived through him and in him leads to.  His cross became his reality when he denied his attachment to this life and his affirming of the pain that accompanied the cross.  Jesus' words sound hard and challenging, and they may be, but followers of Jesus find peace in the knowledge that their lives are buried in his life, death, and resurrection and what lies ahead for us is eternal joy. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Where Do You Find Your Source of Strength?

"In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed..." (Mark 1:35)

This week's Gospel lesson finds Jesus and his disciples very involved in ministry--healing those who were ill, curing diseases, casting out demons, being surrounded by needy people, right and left.  Jesus' humanness left him tired from all the demands on his time and talents and he needed rest and renewal.  So, Jesus went out to a deserted place alone to pray.  Jesus needed a time of solitude to recharge his batteries after so many drained him of all the strength he seemed to have. 

Our lives are usually a mixture of busyness and quiet time.  We need both in our lives.  Some of us need one or the other more than others do but all of us need times to be away from the demands on our time and our talents so we can recharge our physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries. 

I love to travel and going to different places, meeting new people, seeing new things brings me new energy.  When I seem to feel the most weary, if I can get away for a while I seem to find new energy and vitality. 

Jesus went alone to a deserted place to pray.  He needed both facets of that...being alone in a place by himself and to pray.  Jesus could have just gone to a place and been alone.  But he needed to talk to God too.  He received the strength to continue his ministry among the masses of hurting and sick people and he received that strength by talking to God and receiving new direction and guidance for life. 

We too need times to receive new strength--emotional, physical, spiritual strength.  We need to talk to God and allow God to minister to us and to bring us new life as we try to be in ministry to others around us.  We are not enough in ourselves.  We need God to give us what we need so we can pass it on to others who are also in need.