Saturday, March 21, 2009

They Were Me

I was reading in scripture last week and came across a familiar verse, Matthew 15:8, and it reminded me of a song I had written quite a few years ago. Even though I had not thought of that song in ages, the words and music came flooding back to me, and it sounded fresh and relevant to my mind's ears. Here are the lyrics:

They Were Me

I read their stories in the Book You wrote:
Teachers of the Law and Pharisees.
"These people honor Me with their lips,
but their hearts--their hearts are far from Me."

And I hated them,
'cause they shoulda knew.
Oh, I hated them
for what they did to You.
I hated them
with my self-righteous ire,
never knowing they were me--
they were me.

Hebrew children in the wilderness--
You showed mercy to them while they were slaves.
Moses led them to the Promised Land,
but they rebelled against You all the way.

And I hated them
For their idolatry
Oh, I hated them
'cause they did not believe.
I hated them
with what I thought was holy fire,
never knowing they were me--
they were me.

Jesus, for Your mercy now I plead,
like the Psalmist in his darkest day:
"Please create a clean heart within me,
please don't take Your Holy Spirit away."

I hated them,
because they brought You shame.
Oh, I hated them,
and then I did the same.
I looked down on them
from my point of pride,
until You showed me they were me--
they were me.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Regarding Parables

(It would be helpful if, before you read the sermon that follows, you take a moment to read Matthew 13:1-17.)

Most of the time, when we gather to hear a sermon, what we receive generally falls into one of two categories. Either we receive instruction about how to make the principles of the gospel practical in our day-to-day lives, or we are given some kind of teaching designed to help us understand some of the more obscure points of doctrine or theology. On a good day we get both.

What our preachers and teachers do for us is take the tough, hard-to-swallow pieces of our religion, grind them up for us and spit them back out in little, easy-to-digest portions that we can more readily handle as our own spiritual food. (I know this doesn't sound too flattering or appealing.)

Think of a nest full of baby birds. The mother bird flies down to the earth and nabs a worm, partially digests it, and then flies back to the nest, where she regurgitates it into the throats of her children, and they receive the nourishment they need.

Don't get stalled by the analogy. The point is, when we hear a sermon, we are usually getting something that has been designed to help us understand the finer points of religion, something that has been carefully prepared to increase the understanding of all who hear.

That is not how Jesus preached.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What I'm Reading

I recently finished my second Malcolm Muggeridge book, Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim. I'm not going to give any in-depth analysis here; I just want to say that it was a beautiful book.

Muggeridge tells his life story, from youth to near-death, mostly in the third person but in a style that doesn't seem the least bit pretentious. He gives enough detail that the reader has a sense of the momentous events in the author's momentous life, but the story isn't nearly so much a historical narrative as it is a spiritual confession.

Just one sample excerpt, from the last chapter:

The hardest thing of all to explain is that death's nearness in some mysterious way makes what is being left behind--I mean our earth itself, its shapes and smells and colours and creatures, all that one has known and loved and lived with--the more entrancing; as the end of a bright June day somehow encapsulates all the beauty of the daylight hours now drawing to a close; or as the last notes of a Beethoven symphony manage to convey the splendour of the whole piece. Checking out of St Theresa of Avila's second-class hotel, as the revolving doors take one into the street outside, one casts a backward look at the old place, overcome with affection for it, almost to the point of tears.

So, like a prisoner awaiting his release, like a schoolboy when the end of term is near, like a migrant bird ready to fly south, like a patient in a hospital anxiously scanning the doctor's face to see whether a discharge may be expected, I long to be gone. Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited, hearing the key turn in the lock of Time so that the great doors of Eternity swing open, disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.

A triumphant story of a very real human being; someone so hard to find--an honest man. Well worth the read.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

When Jesus Called

Today's lesson deals with the call of Jesus to follow Him, and how several people responded to that call. I'm not necessarily talking about the salvation of their souls (though that may possibly be implied as well); I'm just talking today about the legacy of the lives of these ten or so people who came face to face with Jesus Christ and heard the words coming from His own lips: "Follow Me."

First of all, let's look at the four famous fishermen--two sets of brothers--Andrew and Peter, James and John:

"And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, 'Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.' They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him" (Matthew 4:18-22).
We know from other passages that these men already knew Jesus, at least a little bit. They had heard Him speak; they had been to His house. But this represented a significant moment in their lives; Jesus says the words, "Follow Me." And they did. Later on in the book of Luke, a similar scene is recorded. Some think it refers to the same point in time--I think it refers to another moment, shortly after the first call from the Lord:

Friday, January 30, 2009

Free Offer: Bella and the Prince of Spices

Paper-copy reprints are now available for my short story, "Bella and the Prince of Spices." These little pamphlets contain only the text for the story itself, not the sermon that accompanies it (which you can find several posts below this one). The story is available absolutely free of cost or obligation; all you have to do is send me an email with your mailing address.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hide and Seek

It seems like from the beginning of the time of the human race, God has been playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the people He calls. "Seek My face," He commands, and our hearts reply because of His own grace, "Your face, Lord, I will seek." And God, instead of then bursting out of the darkness into our lives, laughing and saying, "Here I am!" continues to remain hidden, mostly: Hidden from our experience, hidden from our every-day, hidden from our mundane.

If you look at the world that surrounds us, it would be easier sometimes to believe that there is no God than that we have a loving Father who tenderly watches over our every waking moment and guards us while we sleep. Wars and rumours of wars. Famines and earthquakes. Abortions and infanticides. Ethnic cleansings. Tsunamis. Crime. Neglect. Disease. Sudden and surprising heartbreak. Spousal abuse, child abuse, poverty and starvation. Is this the creation of a loving Father? But still the call goes out from God, like a whisper of breath in our ears, in the midst of the noise and clamor of our warring world: "Seek My face." And in the midst of our sin and confusion, we are surprised and somehow delighted to find our own hearts responding, "Your face, O Lord, I will seek."

In Old Testament times, people were afraid to look upon God, and rightly so.

We already read this morning about Jacob and his face-to-face encounter with the Lord, how he was blessed by God but walked away from that encounter with a permanent limp.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Treasure of the Lord's Prayer

When I was a child, my mother used to come in and sit at my bedside every evening to hear my prayers before she turned out the lights. In our family, we didn't say the "God bless Mommy, and God bless Daddy" kind of prayers; we recited "Now I Lay Me." It might not have been very deep or searching or theological, but it was something--something to remind us little children that there was a God in Heaven watching over us at night.

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

When my sisters and I grew a little older, we graduated from "Now I Lay Me" to The Lord's Prayer. We'd recite it every night with the same passion and intensity that we'd recited our earlier prayers--that is to say, virtually none.

By the time I got to the age where my Mom quit listening to my bedtime prayers, I had it down to the point where I could say the whole thing in about one-and-a-half seconds.

OurFathew'art'n'He'n-ha'db'name-kingd'mcome-w'b'done-da'ybread,f'rgiv's'r'debts-kingd'm-pow'r-glory-f'rever. Amen!

I say that to my shame now, but that's really how I did it. I didn't honor God with such "praying," but at least my mother tried to remind me, night by night, that He was there.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bella and the Prince of Spices

Once upon a time, there was a slender young girl named Bella. She was very poor, and all she had to eat was a daily portion of watery, tasteless gruel. Day after day, she would sit at the table with her bowl before her, dreaming of nothing so much as a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the taste of her meal.

"Oh, for a bit of sweetness," she sighed. "If I only had a pinch of sugar, how happy I would be." She said this to herself every day, not remembering to be thankful for the gruel's nourishment, only resenting its blandness.

One day, there came a knock at her door: rap, rap, rap! Scurrying to answer it, she found a smiling, whiskered man there, clad in a beggar's rags.

"Yes?" Bella asked politely.

The man stepped into her small room with a grin and a bow. "I am the Prince of Spices! I have come in answer to your prayers!"

The Prince of Spices? Bella had never heard of such a thing! He certainly didn't look like a prince, and she said so.

"Ah, but appearances may deceive!" he winked. "Your Ladyship's wish?" And with that he reached into the folds of his rags, and produced a little paper packet filled with a brownish powder. "Where is your porridge?" he asked. She pointed to the table, and the Prince of Spices opened the packet, drew out just a pinch of the powder, and stirred it into the gruel.

"There!" he cried triumphantly. "Taste and see!"

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Words that Hurt, Words that Heal

My stepdaughter Dana and her family joined us for dinner last night. Dana is a smart girl, bright and sensitive, with a tolerably good sense of humor. And I've always taken an inordinate amount of pleasure in trying to get her to laugh, or at least smile, or failing that, grimace.

That's where I get into trouble. My own sense of humor tends toward a celebration of the absurd. As the great observer of humanity C. S. Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters, a joke exists only with the sudden perception of some incongruity. True for me! The more ironic I find something, the better. (Maybe that's why I dislike so much of what passes for "comedy" these days. Instead of trying to exploit incongruities and reveal something truly funny, which is hard work, today's writers appeal to the lowest elements of our society: foul language, which is no longer shocking enough to be incongruous, and jokes about sex.)

Not everyone, of course, shares my sense of the absurd. I can't begin to tell you how many times people have been shocked or offended at what they perceive as a lack of sensitivity, propriety, or compassion on my part … when all I was really trying to do was make them smile.

Wait--that's not quite true. While I would have been perfectly happy to have made them smile, what I was really after was the approval, the admiration, of the person behind the smile. "That Bob--he's always so funny!" "Yes, isn't he, though? What a great wit!" "He must be really smart!"

While I'm pretty sure people don't really say things like that out loud any more, I'd really like them to think that about me. So my marvelous sense of humor is exposed at last for what it is in truth: another pathetic attempt to stroke my own ego, another vain genuflection at the altar of self-worship.

That's where my introspection inevitably leads. And while I humbly thank God for the revelation--which, though it smarts, brings healing--this article is really about outrospection: how do my actions affect others?

Which brings me back to Dana.

More, perhaps, than any other person (at least in the last ten years), I have seen in Dana's eyes the sting of pain when some misguided attempt at humor has gone awry. Again! Time after time, I have tried to exalt my own cleverness in some meager attempt to win her approval, only to leave her briefly hurt and confused. She entrusts me with a bit of her heart, and then I betray her by wounding her with my words.

I did it again last night. She had almost gotten out the door without incident, but didn't quite make it. It doesn't matter what I said. It was an attempt to be witty, and it misfired. And just for a moment, I saw the familiar old pain in her eyes, before she realized that it was just another one of those moments.

Is that better, I wonder? Is it preferable to be misunderstood as a failed comedian, or correctly perceived as a fool?

The awkwardness between us doesn't last. I usually apologize, she always forgives; there is love and grace between us. But why do I have to go there in the first place?

More than ever this year, I am trying to put into effect the admonition of the Apostle Paul: "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers" (Ephesians 4:29 KNJV).

My God, how short I fall! But what is a nobler goal for me--that people should think me clever, or that my words impart grace? God, help me to choose the better portion.

And Dana, sweetheart--I'm sorry. Please forgive me yet again. And pray for your mother. She has to live with me all the time.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Resolution for a New Year

"Tell me a little bit about yourself." We've all had chances to do that; maybe a job interview, maybe meeting somebody new at a party.

Most of us, when asked to describe ourselves, would give an answer something like this: "Oh, I'm 5'7", a little overweight. I work for ABC company and I like jazz music. A huge Steelers fan. I'm a Democrat, a member of Local 202, but I vote for whoever impresses me the most. I give blood to the Red Cross and sometimes I volunteer for the Boy Scouts. I like to donate a little money to St. Jude's and the Heart Association. My daughter just gave birth to my first grandson, and I'm just as pleased as I could be. Oh, what else? Well, I'm a member of the Methodist church. I guess that's about it."

Don't think that I'm mocking you if that sounds a little like what your answer would be. Those are all acceptable things to say if you were posed such a question. But is that how you really regard yourself in your heart of hearts?

I hope that being a member of a church wouldn't be the last thing you think of. And I hope even more that being a member of a church would not be a poor substitute for a living, breathing, growing relationship with a living God, who is constantly breathing life into you as you mature in your faith.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Once to Every Man and Nation

I remember singing this hymn one time when I was a kid growing up in the Baptist Church, and I was just amazed. We had never sung anything like this before! I didn't even know it was in the hymnal! And to be sure, it's not in many hymnals any more at all.

From the first dirge-like tones coming from the organ, I was captivated. (For those of you with a working understanding of hymn melodies, it goes to the tune called Ebenezer.) Reflecting on it now, I imagine it would sound terrific with pounding 6/8 drums, and power chords on the electric guitar.

But it was the words that gripped me. I found out much later that they came from a much longer poem written by James Russell Lowell around the time of the Civil War, but the four verses I had access to were infused with a timeless quality that piqued my adolescent curiosity so long ago, and stir me still. Here they are:

Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of Truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
offering each the bloom or blight,
and the choice goes by forever
'twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with Truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
ere her cause bring fame and profit
and 'tis prosperous to be just.
Then it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
'til the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track,
toiling up new Calvaries ever
with the cross that turns not back.
New occasions teach new duties--
time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still and onward
who would keep abreast of Truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the Truth alone is strong,
though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above His own.

While these words were originally written as part of a poem supporting the abolition of slavery, I can clearly see their application to our present American culture, as well as the potential trials of the immediate future.

The day has arrived, and will undoubtedly intensify, when the "ancient good"--morality, decency, the Gospel itself--has become uncouth in our society. The "new Messiah" of materialism offers the bloom of hedonistic pleasure if you embrace it, and the blight of society's stern disapproval should you reject it.

It'll get worse.

I often wonder how those in the present-day American church will fare when faced with the scaffold, whatever that will eventually mean to us. We do love our prosperity.

May God grant us the grace to be like those who embraced His promises and "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.... But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:13-14, 16 NKJV).

Happy New Year.