More Like Jesus

Let me start by lifting up for prayer all the people who have been uprooted and traumatized by Harvey and it’s aftermath. In times like these we need to come together as people of all faiths to take care of those who need us. In addition to your prayers, please contribute your time and/or your gifts to help them.

Two news items came out this week that provoked this blog. The first was a synopsis of a book by Brian Zahnd—Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God — in an article by Jonathan Merritt in the Religion News Service. Although I haven’t read the book yet (I surely intend to!) the article captured my imagination and took me back to a time when I was beginning to remember the importance of faith in my life.

Pastor Brian Zahnd’s book focuses on Jesus as “the perfect theology.” At a time when I needed to return to God, the thought that came to me was “Jesus was right.” I did not think “I am a sinner,” or “I need God’s help” or even “I need to go to church.” My thoughtwas that Jesus was right in everything he taught and in everything he did—you know, all that stuff we learned in Sunday School. Jesus was right in his emphasis on loving both God and others, he was right about how we are to relate to money and material things, he was right about the priority we are to give to helping people in need, etc. My next thought was that if everyone in the world did what Jesus taught, what a great world this would be. Then my mind said that could never happen—which led me to the conclusion that even if it didn’t happen, my job was to do my part. That conversation with myself eventually brought me back to church, leading me to the rest of my “herstory” as a pastor and Christian leader.

So you can see why I’m fascinated that Pastor Zahnd has captured my thought as the subject of his book. He tells us that Jesus is the perfect incarnation of God, the living theology (understanding of God) whose example we are to follow and through whom we are to interpret and understand the Bible. To make a point about how misdirected we can become if we don’t focus on Jesus, Pastor Zahnd shares this historical example from the American colonial era:

 

In 1637 the English colonial leadership in Connecticut sought to launch a war of aggression against the Pequot tribe for the sole purpose of acquiring their cultivated land. … When some of the colonists expressed moral qualms about launching an unprovoked attack on their peaceful neighbors, the matter was referred to their chaplain, the Reverend John Stone. After spending the night in prayer, Reverend Stone “was ‘fully satisfied’ with Mason’s proposal.” At dawn on May 26, 1637, the armed colonists attacked “the main Pequot village at Mystic Lake on the central Connecticut River, killing an estimated 400 to 700 Indians. Most of the dead were women and children… —burned to death in their wigwams as the English slaughtered those who ran.” Captain Mason describes the slaughter in these words: ‘Thus was God seen in the Mount, Crushing his proud Enemies and the Enemies of his People…burning them up in the Fire of his Wrath, and dunging the Ground with their Flesh: It was the LORD’s Doings, and it is marvelous in our Eyes!’

This story leads me to the next piece of news I received this week: The “Nashville Statement on LGBTQ & Transgender Acceptance.” This statement was published with much fanfare by a relatively small group of conservative evangelical leaders on August 29, to reiterate their denouncement of homosexuality. This statement begins by claiming that Western Culture has become “increasingly post-Christian,” and that those who support the LGBTQ community are a part of a “secular spirit” who are drawing away from God. They ask: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life?”

This group of conservative leaders lift themselves as having a complete understanding of God and the Bible. But they don’t. The “biblical conviction and clarity” they promote as coming from Jesus comes from them, not Jesus. They want us to believe that every true Christian must accept their viewpoints as the only Godly “way of life.” We don’t. They think they have the exclusive right to tell others what is God’s truth. They don’t. They are no more perfect than other humans, they do not get the final say on how the Bible is to be interpreted or the right to tell us what to believe, and we don’t have to worry about the wrath of God just because we don’t agree with them.

What Jesus says is more important than what these conservative leaders think. Jesus says the highest commandments for us are to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Defining how we love others as ourselves has to be interpreted both individually and collectively. If your love doesn’t feel like love to me– if it condemns me for what Ibelieve and for how I interpret the Christian way, if it condemns me for disagreeing with you–it’s not real love.

The percentage of persons in the United States who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender is around 3.8%, making them a very small minority (see this Gallup Poll article) They pose no threat to American Christianity. Many in fact are Christians, and many other Christians support them, including me. My interpretation of the Nashville Statement is that The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who wrote it, intend to excoriate and ultimately eradicate the Christian LBGTQ community and their Christian supporters from living peacefully alongside them as Christians. Jesus’ fiercest wrath was against religious leaders who thought—like this Council and like Reverend Stone in 1637—that they had the right to judge and condemn others in the name of God (See Matthew 23). “How can you say to your neighbor,‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:4.

The “Nashville Statement” disparages, tortures, and nails to the cross the LGBTQ Christian community and their Christian supporters. The Christian leaders who wrote it stand before them shouting “crucify them, crucify them.” Who is more like Jesus?

The Truth About Love

When Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to the cross and refused to bring himself down, he proved to us the truth about love.
Jesus proved on the cross that love is not quantifiable. True love is not something that is more or less. You can like something a little or a lot. But if you love it, you love it. If God’s love was quantifiable, Jesus would probably have said “I love them a lot, but not that much.” The truth about love Jesus proved on the cross is that there is no more or less about it—if you love you love. God is love.
On the cross, Jesus proved that God’s love will never be taken away from us. We learn that Jesus’ love for us is steadfast and true. We don’t understand why bad things happen; we are not privileged to have that knowledge. But God so loved the world. Knowing this allows us to stand unshaken and firm in the knowledge that no matter what happens to us on this earth, God does in fact, indisputably, undeniably, without any limitations whatsoever, love us. And we are commanded to love each other in the same way.
Jesus proved on that cross that love really cares. Caring is quantifiable. You can care a lot, you can care a little. The truth about love is that love always cares a lot. You can’t truly love someone if you don’t care whether they are healthy and safe. You can’t love your neighbors and not want them to have full and happy lives. True love will challenge systems that oppress, it will stand up for what is just and right, it will always care for the “least of these,” and it will always speak truth to power.

The truth about love proven to us on that cross is that love does not condemn. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He had a right to condemn us then and he has a right to condemn us now. But he didn’t come to give us what we deserve, he came to give us his amazing grace. We learn from the cross that we can’t really love someone if we condemn them for being who they are.
Jesus proved on the cross that love sacrifices. Sometimes we have to sacrifice our desires, our safety, our comfort to truly love others.
The truth about love is that it is not a self-righteous judgmental attitude that looks down on or tries to change people who are different.
The truth about love is that it will never look, sound, feel or taste like hate.
The truth about love is that it is not a sweet, syrupy happy feeling that doesn’t do anything to prove itself.
The truth about love is that to prove it, sometimes we have to get down and dirty, sometimes it will be difficult, and sometimes proving it can really hurt.
The truth about love is that it will do whatever is necessary to prove that it’s true.
The truth about love is that it is truly amazing.
The truth about love is that it will save your life.
The truth about love is that it will give us victory over death.
The truth about love is that it is absolutely the most powerful force that we can wield on earth—it can and will move mountains.
The truth about love is that we need lots more of it in this world, and we need it now.
Hanging up there on that old, rugged cross, Jesus radiated true love. The closer we get to that cross, the more we feel love’s power to save our souls and the more we understand the truth about love; The closer we get to Jesus, the more we learn to radiate true love out to the rest of the world. He is the light of the world, giving us the wisdom and the power to save us from ourselves.

 

My Latest Book–The Revolutionary Power of the Lord’s Prayer

Buy Now! Judsonpress.com

Along with being one of the most powerful nations in the world, the United States is a highly Christian country. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that the U.S. had more Christians than any country in the world, over 246 million. The number has dropped over the years, yet the United States continues to have a majority of Christian citizens—slightly more than 70 percent of U.S. Americans identified themselves as Christian in 2014.

Have you ever wondered why, when we have so many Christians in our beloved country, it is still plagued with deep societal problems that seem impenetrable to all efforts to resolve them? Problems like the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world; a growing, staggering gap between the rich and the poor; entrenched poverty and all of the ills that come with it; an increase in both labor and sex trafficking, which includes children; a proliferation of gun violence; and racial animosity that continually shows up in racism, racial profiling, racial disparities, and racial discord.

Many Christians think they should not concern themselves with these type issues, other than maybe through prayer. They may believe these are governmental concerns, not connected to their faith beliefs. Lots of folks misinterpret the legal expression “separation of church and state” to mean “separation of my faith from our country’s problems.” If you believe that the welfare of people in your country is not connected to who you are as a follower of Christ, you should pay closer attention to what Jesus did and taught while on earth.

In his first sermon, Jesus said he was anointed to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ ministry was not just about saving spiritual souls, it was about helping people who faced earthly troubles. When John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah, Jesus responded by describing what he had accomplished: the blind received sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cured, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the good news was being preached to the poor (Luke 7:18-23).  And Jesus clearly expects us to do likewise: He taught that those who will be received into heaven are those who feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those who are in need, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. Whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46). Could Jesus have been more clear about what he expects from those who claim to be his followers?

The Gospel of Luke tells us that after the disciples had been with Jesus for some time, one of them asked him to teach them to pray. At this point in their journey with Jesus, the disciples, both men and women, had given up their livelihoods, their families, their security, and their comfort to follow him. They had not only witnessed much, they had also done amazing things in Jesus’ name. They were not new in the faith when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray!

Jesus knew what the disciples would need to do the work he had planned for them. He also knew the great struggles they would face. Jesus’ response to their request to teach them to pray was clearly designed to help them focus on praying for what was most important to enable them to do his will. He gave them the precise words they should pray to become the best disciples they could be. Jesus’ response to the simple request of his disciples was short and straightforward, but as are so many of his teachings, it is packed with amazing depth and power.

This potent prayer is for all of us who claim the name “Christian.” I believe that when Christians think seriously about why Jesus taught us the precise words of this prayer, and when we pray the prayer with a sincere, deeply felt desire to be the best disciples we can be for Jesus, the true power of the Lord’s Prayer will pour out to change the Christian faith. Not only will Christianity be revolutionized, but Christians themselves will become empowered to revolutionize our communities, our country and the world. This is how we begin to solve the systemic problems we face in our nation, and it is what Jesus has always expected us to do—work together to help make our nation a place where God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.

So we’ve titled my book “The Revolutionary Power of the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s a study for individuals and groups, including relevant life stories, “deepening” information and study questions. I hope you will read it, find it empowering, and share it with others. It will soon be released by Judson Press. You can go to their website to pre-order.

To my American Baptist family, I will be presenting the book at the 2017 Biennial Mission Summit in Portland, Oregon. I hope you will join me. It’s the learning opportunity on Saturday, July 1, at 3:45 pm, called “On Earth as in Heaven: Discipleship in Action.”  Preregistration is requested.

There is power in the name of Jesus! To wield this power, we must be brave enough to live our faith out loud and loving enough to care for others even more than we do for ourselves. Isn’t that just like Jesus!

Come, look. See? Go!

As we are nearing Holy Week, I thought I’d share with you some of my Easter sermons, edited mostly to make them somewhat shorter for your reading here. I’m starting with one I first spoke about 13 years ago: Come, look. See? Go!

Come, look. See? Go! Matthew 28:1-10

Some of you may remember the early school reading books that were popular when I was learning to read. They taught us to read using very simple words. Come, look Jane. See Sally and Spot. See Puff run. Go, Puff, go. I understand these books have not been used in a long time. I was reminded of those early reading books as I read the text for this resurrection Sunday. Because in this text, I see God’s world changing power described by these simple, basic words: Come, look. See? Go! These four basic words that we learned in our pre-reading primers, when used in the context of the greatest story in all history, announce amazing, world changing power. Come, look. See? Go! show us the movement of the two Mary’s, who were, in Matthew’s account, the first witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. Come, look. See? Go!, simple words that provide us with all that we need to understand the great power of that resurrection that is still at work in our world.  Let’s walk with the two Mary’s.

The first thing we see is that the two Mary’s went “to look at” the tomb. In Matthew’s version they were not coming there to anoint Jesus. They were not trying to figure out how to roll away the stone at the entrance of the tomb, as in Mark’s version. They didn’t come because they were planning to do anything to the body of Jesus. They didn’t come looking for a Messiah, because they knew Jesus was dead. The one who they had walked with and talked with, who claimed to be the Son of God, had been killed in an excruciating manner by the religious leaders and the Romans, and had died on that cross and was buried in the tomb, and as far as they were concerned, that was the end of the story.

But they came. They came not because he was the victor that we know him to be, but because of what he meant to them when he lived and walked and talked with them. One of the women was Mary Magdalene. He had healed her by exorcising 7 demons from her. She knew he was dead, now. Still, she came, drawn to his tomb because she knew what he had done for her. Her love for him could not be contaminated by what the world did to him. The other Mary came with her because she had followed Jesus with the other disciples, too. She probably had decided that Jesus he was not the Messiah that he claimed to be, but she knew for sure that he was a great man. She was drawn to his tomb because he was a man who loved the people around him, a man who taught what was right and good, and who had great power that he always used to help others.

You see, they remembered that Jesus taught them that they were to love and care for each other. Jesus taught them the two highest commandments, love God and love each other. Jesus taught that the meek and the poor were blessed. They remembered the Jesus who walked with them and talked with them, and made them feel whole and alive and blessed and wonderful. They loved him for who he was, and that love could not be taken away from them by the evil in the world. They were drawn to come to the tomb by the goodness of Jesus that they knew was true love when he was with them.

We are drawn to come, too, by the goodness of Jesus.  As humans, we are drawn to what is good unless we’ve been warped by the evil in this world. The good helps us know right from wrong. The good gives us a sense of fairness. The good is what makes us cry when we see other people suffer, and laugh when they laugh. The good calls us to both give love and to want love, to help and not hurt others. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that puts cravings in our hearts for something right, true, better than this world has to offer. We come to find some purpose for our being in this world, for some hope for our futures, for joy and for peace. We come, like the two Mary’s, drawn to Jesus even without fully understanding what it may mean for our lives. We are drawn to come, knowing somewhere deep in side of us that good is the right thing to seek. That’s the prevenient Grace of God, whispering into our ears this one simple word that will take us on a life changing journey: Come.

When the Mary’s followed their hearts and came to see the tomb, they found an Angel there sitting on the already rolled away stone, who tells them Jesus is not there. He has arisen. Look, says the angel, at the place where he had been, but is no more. Look, he is not dead. Look, he lives. Look, what you thought was defeat is in fact victory. Look at what Jesus has done.

After we’ve been drawn to the good through the prevenient grace of God, we are called, just like the two Mary’s were called by the angel, to look. When we follow the longing in our hearts for more good in our lives, we are called to look for Jesus, who represents that good. We look for Jesus by studying the stories about his life and teachings that are in our Bible. Not just reading, but studying with people who are trained to share with you the history and context of the stories of the Bible for deeper understanding.

We look for Jesus by talking to people whose lives have been changed by his presence. We look for Jesus in other people who are called to the good just like you. A part of what it means to be in the church is to help each other strengthen our knowledge of Jesus and what that means for our lives. The search for Jesus is a continuing exercise, calling us to study Jesus and at the same time examine our hearts to make sure that we living in ways that are pleasing in Jesus’ sight. When we look, we will begin to see Jesus more clearly, to see his goodness and his righteousness. To feel his love, his mercy and his grace. When we respond to his call to come, when we look at him, we begin to change. When we look, we find that goodness we’ve been longing for and begin to feel the peace and joy that life with God offers to us. Seek, and you will find.

Come, the angel said to the two Mary’s, look. See what he has done! He is no longer dead, he is alive. Then the angel told them to go and tell the others. And the women ran. Can you imagine how they must have felt at that point? I think they were probably filled with more fear than joy. They went to see the tomb of a dead man who they loved. Instead, they saw the angel and the empty tomb. How were they going to tell that to anyone else? How would they get the others to believe them? Jesus lives ?! They were both excited that it might be true and afraid at at the same time because it seemed so impossible. How will they tell the others? How could this be?

That’s when Jesus showed up. To make sure that they really understood what was happening, to make sure that they could stand up to the challenges and scoffs that they were surely going to receive by the other disciples when they told them that Jesus had arisen from the dead, Jesus decided to come to them himself. Isn’t that just like Jesus? He wanted them to see for themselves, so he came to them.

Can you imagine these two women, already full of fear and joy, looking at Jesus standing there? They fell before his feet, still trying to wrap their minds around the idea that he really was alive. But when they saw him, they got it. Seeing is believing. See, what I have done. See I have risen from the dead. See, the stone is rolled away. See, I really am the Messiah that you knew in your hearts was true when I walked with you and talked with you. See, I have power that you didn’t know that I had. See, I live! Now these two women of faith know for sure, and have no doubt. They know that he lives, because he came to them himself.

Come, look. See? When you begin to look for Jesus, he will find you. When you search for him in your heart, you’ll find that he’s already there. When you begin to understand more about who he is and what he is able to do, you will begin to understand better and better the great power that is his, that same power that he offers to you. When you begin to see. When you begin to get it. When you begin to understand the power of God by seeing
Christ for who he truly is, you will begin to feel the changes happening in your own life.

See how Jesus’ power of forgiveness can overcome that sense of unworthiness that lurks in the dark places, telling you that you’re not worthy of God’s love. Jesus lets you see that God loves you no matter whatyou’ve done in your past. See Jesus’ power to turn your sorrow and sadness into joy just by his presence. See the hope that floods your heart and gives you new possibilities for your life. See his power to defeat the things that continually want to break you down, drawing you to anger, depression, guilt and shame—all designed to kill your spirit. See? Jesus wants you to have a real life, with real joy that will give you life and not take it away. See– with Jesus that all things are possible for your life. There is nothing too big for Jesus to conquer. See? He can roll away all the stones that continually block you from the success you deserve in life.

See that Jesus has conquered even death, so that there is no longer any fear. Jesus, the on who represents the good, has won the victory! Didn’t he promise us that he is waiting for us, that he has gone to prepare a place for us, so that where he is we will be, too. Death has been defeated by the mighty power of love, of God, of Jesus. See? Oh Death, where is your victory! Where is your sting? See, there is no longer anything to fear on this earth, if you only believe. Seeing is believing. Good has won the victory. There is still evil in the world, but the victory has been won for us, because the darkness does not understand and cannot withstand the light! See?

Come, look. See? Go! Go tell the others said the Angel to the women. Go and tell the others said Jesus. Now that you have come, looked and now that you see, I have a job for you to do. Go and tell the others that Jesus lives.

When we see, we will humble ourselves before him, just like the two Mary’s did. We will humble our hearts and through the humbleness allow him to work in us. When we open our hearts to be changed by the power of Jesus’ presence, he will give us our marching orders. And when that happens, we are ready to go.

Just like Jesus needed the Mary’s to go tell the others, Jesus has a message and a job for each and every one of us who are called into his service. Come. Look. See? Go! Tell somebody who Jesus really is. Tell them that Jesus lives in the hearts of all who believe in him. Tell somebody how your life has been changed because of your belief. Go! With excitement and joy. Go! Allow the power of the only one who could defeat death to move you from the living dead to abundant life.

Go! Take the good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for those in prison, help the others who are still blind to see the goodness of God through your words and actions. Go! Speak truth to those in power in high places so they will know right from wrong. Go and help the people Jesus sends you to so they will see your good works and know who Jesus is. Go, be the lights of the world and the salt of the earth, so others will both see and taste the good that is Jesus. Go! all the while giving God the glory and praise that only God deserves. Go! in peace and joy. Go! in power and truth. Go! in love and thanksgiving. Go!

Come, look. See? Go! Jesus lives! Go out and tell somebody, Jesus lives! Show that you know he lives because he lives right there in your heart. Let them see your good works and inspire them to come and look for Him themselves. He will be with you when you go, telling you where to look, helping you to see others as he sees them, everywhere that you go in his name, because He lives!

 

What’s Your Niche?

I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but in our conversation my husband Bill pointed out that Jesus didn’t heal everybody when he was on earth. He didn’t heal all the leprosy, give sight to all who were blind, or feed everyone who was hungry. He didn’t fix all the problems, only some of them. That, of course, got me to thinking, why didn’t he? He had the power to fix everything, didn’t he? So I figure that Jesus’ purpose in coming was not to make the world a flawless place. If that’s what God wanted, God did not need to come down as Jesus to do it. And God still hasn’t fixed everything. I’ll save the discussion on why God wants us to exist in such an imperfect world for another time. This one is about finding our niches

Jesus had a role to play on earth, designed just for him. We know his purpose was to help us understand God’s amazing grace and forgiveness, which is true love. He came to teach us to love God and others in that way, and to let us know that God understands the frailty of humanity. He came to help us set Godly priorities and to encourage us. He had a role to play—his niche—and he carried it out perfectly.

The conversation with Bill came back to me as I was thinking about some things I would like to do, things I feel are right to do and would be good if I did them. Shouldn’t I be helping with the after school program? The homeless mission could surely use more help. There are always people who I would love to visit more often in hospitals and nursing homes. I’d love to sing in the choir. How many things can I do if I want to do anything well? This has been a constant struggle for me since I became active in church many years ago. Sometimes I would stretch myself thin, get tired and frustrated, stop doing some things, then feel guilty. If I could just figure out how to be in two (maybe three) places at once!

I’m sure more than a few of you know what I’m talking about. Remember this: Jesus had a niche, a role just for him. Remember that Moses had to understand his niche in order to lead the people through the desert (Exodus 18:13-26). The apostles had to learn the same lesson (Acts 6:1-7). And Mary let us know that sometimes our niches are not what society dictates (Luke 10:38-42). Each of us has a niche, a role that we can fill that suits us best. We’re not equipped or required to do everything that needs doing as we strive to serve God. Our niches are defined, generally, by our gifts—what we are good at doing and what brings us joy in our service to God.

I love to write, preach, teach, and sometimes to organize and lead. I have a strong inclination to focus on societal justice. These things define my niche. I also do other things, often driven by my love for people, but I’ve learned that what I enjoy doing and what I do well must be my primary focus if I am to be effective in my work for Christ. We all need to stop feeling guilty because we can’t do everything we’d like to do for God.

What’s your niche? The Lenten Season, the six week period before Easter, is a good time to reflect on how you can better serve Christ with your set of gifts. Keep trying different things until you find what you feel is right for you—there may be more than one or two things that define your niche. Pray to God for guidance as you seek to be more effective in your kingdom building work.

God is the one who gave us our roles to carry out  God’s plan. When we come together as people of faith, sharing our gifts while focused on the same objective—bringing the good news of Christ to the world through our words and our actions—we’ll be empowered to do “greater things,” as Jesus promised: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” ( John 14:12)

Move mountains? Yes, we can! And there are a lot to move.

A New Year’s Prayer for Your Blessing

The phrase “shock and awe,” as we most often use it, was generated in a military setting. It describes a military tactic that is so devastating that the “enemy” immediately recognizes their inability to defend themselves, so they surrender immediately. This usually involves some form of large-scale brutal slaughter of people all at once, like the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I believe that Jesus’ coming into the world was God’s “shock and awe” tactic, intended to help the world move to a better place. Not that the world is God’s enemy—but just the opposite, “for God so loved the world” (John3:16). The shock God gave us is the proof of God’s unfathomable power through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the awe is that it’s all about God’s unfathomable love. Through Jesus, God offers us a love so complete that we still have a hard time grasping it. The awesomeness includes a grace that is so amazing that it pierces the hearts of all who accept it.

The change that God’s shock and awe tactic seeks is for the purpose of world dominance, but it’s not for world destruction. We’re doing a pretty good job of destructing the world ourselves without God’s help. God’s tactic is designed to make the whole world more wholesome, more healthy, by helping the people in the world to become more loving, caring and peaceful. God intends to change us one by one, helping us to understand the depth and breadth of God’s love, moving us closer to God’s goodness. A more wholesome world for all the inhabitants will be the result.

Too many Christians don’t really believe some important teachings of Jesus, because they just seem so radical. Things like “love your enemy”, “do good to those who would hurt you” (both in Luke 6:27) and “give to everyone who begs” (Luke 6:30). Too many of us don’t really accept that we are to give up some things we desire in life so that others might have better lives (Philippians 2: 5-11). Too many of us don’t believe that Jesus’ radical forgiveness from the cross that still shocks and awes us is the same forgiveness that God expects us to share with others (Luke 23:34). Too many of us see Jesus as our personal savior, and are very thankful for that, yet we see the rest of the world as not our problem.

Our job as believers is not to just talk to people about Jesus. Our job is to share the radical, powerful and unrelenting love that Jesus brought, taught, and showed us, so much so that people will be shocked and awed into believing, and be changed.

So here is my prayer seeking blessings for your new year:

May you find abundant opportunities this new year to shock others with the love of Christ through your acts of loving kindness. May you discover new ways to share the awesomeness of God-like forgiveness and grace with those who need to receive it from you. May you be strong and bold in your faith in the teachings of Christ, standing against injustice with justice, unrighteousness with righteousness, hate with love, discrimination with inclusion and war with peace. May your heart sing with God’s joy, which this world can neither give to you nor take from you. May your soul feel the rich satisfaction of peace that comes from knowing you tried your best to follow Christ. May your mind find new ways to share that same joy and peace with those who God puts in your presence.

Have a Blessed and Happy New Year!

God’s Prism

One of the things that amazes me about God’s creation is that each human life is so wonderfully unique. Even if we are born in multiples, there is something special and different about every one of us. We each have a specific set of genes and personality traits. We have an array of physical, mental and spiritual capacities. We come from different times, cultures, environments and family situations, giving us a wide variety of perspectives on life. And, as we are all human, we each have our own unique set of imperfections.

In the conclusion of his classic book ‘The World’s Religions,’ Huston Smithth says that one way of thinking about the different faith traditions of the world is to compare them to “a stained glass window, whose sections divide the light of the sun into different colors.” He points out that “For God to be heard and understood, divine revelations would have to be couched in the idioms of its respective hearers.” Each religion reflects how it understands God in it’s own way. I think this beautiful analogy applies to individual believers as well.

For Christians, Jesus is our pure light. He shines through us when we follow his teachings and share his goodness in the world. Our unique imperfections limit our capacity to shine Jesus’ light perfectly, but we have been given the light to shine, anyway, through the grace of an almighty God who is light, and who has overcome the darkness. As the perfect light shines through our imperfections, we become like prisms, refracting God’s light into a beautiful rainbow of unique colors.

th-1We don’t have the right to tell other believers what color their lights should be. We don’t have the right to tell another color it should be our color. We just have the right to shine our own lights in the best way we can–whatever color that may be–and to come together with as many others as we can, so others may see the beauty of God’s light.

The Reverend Dr. James Forbes, Pastor Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York, preached at Shiloh Baptist in Washington, DC this past Sunday. He pointed out that Christmas comes in winter. No matter how cold, bleak or difficult our surroundings may seem at any given time, it’s all just th-3background–darkness–that will be shined away by the light of the world who came as a baby in a manger. That child is our Messiah, who overcame the world some 2,000 years ago.

Darkness will not overcome our world, our country, our cities or our communities as long as we let Jesus’ light shine through us. Our beautiful spectrum of bright colors will confuse the darkness! There is nothing more powerful than Jesus, who dwells in us. Nothing. That means we need not be afraid of a misogynistic, intolerant, power hungry and greedy tyrant–like King Herod– no matter how much power he may seem to hold, and no matter how many others may seem to follow him. Together, the spectrum of light that shines through us will simply blind him, and it will bind him.

Let’s celebrate Christmas with the great joy that our God has given us, in solid faith that this world can’t take it away. Let’s tell the world by our words and actions–all through the year– Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

The Living Light

Jesus is the light. John 1:4-5 tells us that: “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomth-1e it.” The phrase “has not overcome” was interpreted in the King James version to say that the darkness did not “comprehend” the light. The Greek can mean either the darkness did not comprehend the light or the darkness did not overcome the light. I prefer to believe both are true.

Darkness exists. It just is. It is inactive and passive, but it is. Without light our human eyes can not see through the darkness. Light, on the other hand is active: it shines through darkness, moves and flows and flitters on and off. Light can be on or not be on, its brightness varies, and it comes and goes with amazing speed. When light shoots out, darkness is overcome–and we can see.

Jesus is the light, incarnate. John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  [Jesus] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (NRSV) In a wonderful book entitled “Radical Amazement: Contemplative Lessons from Black Holes, Supernovas and Other Wonders of the Universe” Judy Cannato talks about how light has been connected to science’s Big Bang Theory. The “echo” of that big bang was discovered by nobel peace prize winners Perizios and Wilson who heard some kind of a constant static on their ultrasensitive antenna. They learned this static was what Cannato describes as “light in the form of microwave radiation,” the remnant of the “big bang.”

Ms. Cannato quotes theologian and professor of cosmology Gerald Schroeder, who said: “Light, existing outside of time and space, is the metaphysical link between the timeless eternity that preceded our universe and the world of time, space and matter within which we live. … Light can leave the ethereal realm of energy and become matter, entering into the limited domain of time and space.” Jesus is that light. Light entered the realm of darkness when God said with a big bang, “Let there be light.” And the darkness was not able to counter-act the light because it neither understood nor was able to overcome it.

thJesus teaches us to share the light of his goodness in the world. Isaiah 9:2 tells us: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” Have you ever noticed in some ancient artwork the “halos” that are painted around the heads of angels, the virgin Mary and other spiritual leaders?  Halos represent people who are blessed with a special presence of God’s light. Have you ever been able to see a halo around the head of someone who is living in tune with Jesus’ teachings? Have you ever felt a halo yourself? You know, like when you do something really selfless to help someone else and you feel good in your heart about doing it. Nobody else needs to see your halo, but you need to feel it. It will lift your heart and bring you true joy. This world can’t give you that feeling, and it can’t take it away from you. Shine your light!

When more light is brought into the world, the dark matters will not understand and will not be able to overcome the changes that take place, which will make our world more like the Kingdom of God that Isaiah talks about:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.” (11: 6-9)th-1

“…. [L]etyour light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16 (NRSV) This Advent season, please take some time to contemplate what it means to shine your light.

Shining

Image

 I love Advent. I love that every year the Christian lectionary calendar celebrates the coming of Christ for four weeks before Christmas. We celebrate the coming of Christ through his birth into the world, we celebrate the coming of Christ into believer’s lives throughout history, and we celebrate that Christ will return one day in divine glory. thTraditional Advent liturgies involve the weekly lighting of candles on an Advent wreath. The four candles around the wreath represent hope, peace, joy and love. The candle in the center is the Christ candle, representing Jesus, the Light of the world.

Isn’t it fascinating that we light these inspirational candles as winter approaches, when daylight gives way to night? As days get shorter, the candles remind us that Jesus is the source of our hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas comes soon after the winter solstice on December 21, the shortest day of the year. On Christmas we light the Christ candle, acknowledging that the Light of the world has pushed back the darkness.

Have you ever noticed how people are inspired when they see someone say or do the right thing? People are encouraged by others’ examples to do good, or at least to try to do better. This came home to me when I was standing on a crowded subway train one morning, next to a very pregnant woman who was struggling. She was very pail, holding unsteadily onto the seat rail with her head down. There were several people sitting reading newspapers or staring out the windows, none paying attention to her. I was afraid she might faint and said, “Won’t somebody give this woman a seat? Can’t you see she’s sick?” A couple of the men looked up and immediately stood up. Then, to my surprise, a young person got up and offered me a seat, too. They just needed a little encouragement to pay attention to others around them. They were willing to do the right thing, they just needed a spark, a little light to help them to see the right thing to do–the better way to behave.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus tells his followers: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” The Light of the world came to teach and to show us the right things to do. Then he told us we are to be shining lights, leading the world to a better way.

Advent reminds us that our job–all year long–is to shine our lights. Lights don’t shine unless they’re brighter than the darkness around them. We’re not to follow the world, we are to lead it to a better way. Let’s make sure that we do things, often small things, that shine hope, peace, joy and love to others. th-1Let’s shine by giving a pregnant woman or an old man a seat when we can, by smiling more often, by helping someone carry a heavy load. Let’s shine by offering a ride to somebody who needs it, even if it means going out of our way. Let’s speak peace and hope when everyone else is arguing. Let’s shine by standing up for justice when needed, and let’s not be afraid to speak truth to power no matter the consequences. Instead of just fussing about the rampant materialism that retailers have made into Christmas tradition, let’s show the world a better way by giving more money on “giving Tuesday” than we spend on “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday.”

To spark the world into becoming a better place, let’s just be the best “goody two-shoes” we can be! That’s how we confuse the darkness. I’ll share more about this next time, as I continue to discuss what it means to be followers of the Light. I do appreciate your comments.

Vanity

I woke up the other day with this song in my head:

If I Can Help Somebody

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,

If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,

If I can show somebody, how they’re travelling wrong,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

Chorus:

My living shall not be in vain,

Then my living shall not be in vain

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

 

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,

If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,

If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

 

mahalia_jackson

This highly favored hymn/gospel song was written by little-known composer Alma Bazel Androzzo in 1945, later made famous by Mahalia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie, BillieEckstein and others. You can find all kinds of versions of it on the web (click here.)

I don’t know how that song got into my head.  I hadn’t heard it in a very long time.  But it is full of meaning, isn’t it?  It reminded me of how I ended up in the ministry.  I had a healthy career, working on a job that I liked, was making good money and had gained considerable expertise in my field.  My second son was graduating from college.  A comfortable life as a tax attorney, with the freedom to do pretty much what I wanted and when I wanted, was just over the horizon.

About that time my call to ministry became undeniable. The thought had been nagging at me for years.  I had a hunger that could not be satisfied with money, comfort or freedom. The thought that finally brought me over was “Life is too short.”

Life is too short not to dedicate it to something meaningful.  Life is too short to spend it chasing after material comfort at the expense of at least trying to make a positive impact in the world.  Life is too short not to give it your best to do what you know you ought to do. Life is too short not to fear living in vain.

The fear of living in vain can easily be pushed aside while we’re striving to make it in this world. Survival is important, but we can become mesmerized beyond surviving to wanting all that we see. Then, when we see the end of life approaching and begin to realize that living in vain might be a real possibility, we find ourselves searching frantically for ways to prove to ourselves and others that we’re here for some purpose beyond self-indulgence.

As the Teacher proclaims about life without meaning in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “All is vanity.”

This one life is all that we have.  Each of us is absolutely unique, which makes our lives all the more precious– and yet we are only temporary, which ought to give us a sense of urgency.  We have this one chance to do something with the precious gift of life that we’ve been given.  Just one chance to get it right, and we don’t know how long that chance will last. Life is too short, however long it may be, and it may be shorter than we hope.

If you believe like I do that our gifts, talents and opportunities are bestowed on us by God to use to make this world a better place, then you will agree with me that life is too short to be distracted by the material things of this world, which can be to us like that fruit on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden that seemed too good for Adam and Eve to resist.

This wonderful song helps to remind me that when we reach the end of our journeys, more than anything else, people will remember how well we did or did not love them. It helps to remind me of what’s really important–loving God enough to try to obey God, loving each other enough to do for others what we’d want someone to do for us.

If I can just stay focused on that, then my living shall not be in vain, no, my living shall not be in vain.

If you’d like to comment on this post, you can click the little balloon at the top of the post for the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know and feel the love of God and thereby be filled with peace, joy, and hope.