Saturday, January 21, 2017

Of Whom Shall I Be Afraid?

Are we safer today than yesterday?  Are we on the road to greatness again?  Have we finally found our place in a dangerous world, one of strength and security and self-determination?  Can we now breathe a sigh of relief that regardless of what happens in the days and years ahead, at least we responded to the anger and despair of our own people?  Or have we stepped closer to the abyss?  Have we turned our back on unity and progress for a nation of division and oppression, suspicious of the other, protective of those like us and rewarding the haves at the expense of the have nots?  Have we elevated personal choice, local options to such a level that there is nothing that unites us anymore and it’s every soul for themselves, some will make it and some won’t, and that’s just the way it is, let’s be real, shall we?

Well, maybe neither.  Maybe something different.  It probably won’t be as bad as some think, but it likely won’t be as good as others think.  It what?  The future.  The glorious future of our great nation.  Whenever there is a change of power there are both hopes and fears.  That seems the way of things.  And maybe focusing too much on hope sets us up for failure and disappointment.  That seems to be the feeling of many who wanted a change.  And the call for change seemed to be based on fear.  Which is understandable to a degree, in the campaign.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  People will respond out of fear, will rise up out of fear, will demand change because of fear.  The question is are we still being led by fear and those who would stoke our fears?  Or is it time to find something else upon which to build tomorrow?

Ps. 27:1, 4-9 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ...  4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple. 5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD. 7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 8 "Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Your face, LORD, do I seek. 9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

The psalmist knows trouble.  If this is David as some traditions have it, then he indeed knows trouble.  Threatened by enemies and loved ones alike, loved and despised in turn, filled up with God’s presence and then seemingly abandoned by God because of his hubris, because of his arrogance and self-conceit.  He knew what it was to fear.  He knew what it was to want to hide.  But David’s glory was that whenever he found himself in trouble he turned to repentance and humility.  And then he sought redemption from the only source who could calm his fears.

It wasn’t his own strength, flexing his own muscles that brought him comfort.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”  Whom indeed?  You want a list?  Because I can find a list.  There are plenty out there who will itemize the fears we need to embrace.  It is the way of the world, it appears.

Exactly.  The way of the world.  And while we live in and embrace the world, we don’t live by the ways of the world.  We are called to live differently.  We are called to live confidently.  Have you ever noticed that scripturally, the opposite of faith is not doubt?  Doubt seems to be prevalent in the Bible.  Doubt seems to coexist with faith rather well.  Remember the prayer of the desperate father?  “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Go look it up, Mark chapter nine.  Jesus doesn’t chastize this poor man.  Belief and unbelief often sit side by side.  There are indications that belief without unbelief, without a measure of doubt, turns into a crusader’s arrogance, into the one who believes themselves incapable of error.  A certain amount of doubt gives us the right amount of humility to really be an effective instrument of God’s grace in the world.  Job, who had spent about thirty seven chapters convinced he was right, and that someone - namely God - had messed up and needed to fix all this mess real quick, falls to his face when God does show up and says I didn’t know what I was talking about!  I spoke above myself, of things I didn’t really understand.  And God blessed him in that doubt, in that uncertainty.

No, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt.  It is fear.  Throughout the bible the call is to not fear.  Angels said it every time they showed up.  God proclaimed it.  Jesus lived it.  Paul theologized about it.  John put it on a bumper sticker for us to cling to when things got shaky.  Perfect love casts out fear.  Perfect love.  The love that comes from Christ.  Casts out fear.  There is no room for fear when we are filled with love.  

You can’t get rid of fear with wisdom.  You can’t argue people out of fear.  You don’t show up at your child’s door in the middle of the night and say, now Billy, you know there are no such things as monsters under your bed.  This being afraid in the middle of the night is simply illogical.  Think about it, Billy.  No, that won’t work, and it sounds odd for a parent to do.  Instead we step in, rush in and gather little Billy up in our arms and hold him close and remind him that he is loved.  Powerfully, completely, unconditionally loved.  That’s how you handle fear.

The psalmist says the same thing in a different way.  Seek shelter in the tent of the Lord, he says.  Hide in God and be lifted up, above our fears, stable on that rock.  Then, we’re told, worship with joy.  Shouts of joy.  Not sitting in the pew while the worship show goes on, but shouting with joy while we make sacrifices.  Sacrifice?  Animals?  No, not any more.  The blood has been spilt already.  Instead let’s sacrifice our pride, let’s sacrifice our propriety, our stiffness, our standoffishness.  Let’s sacrifice our “you first” attitude and offer a hand to someone else, someone not like us.  Let’s act like we really have nothing to fear, but fear itself.  

So, you’re thinking, ok, I like the sound of that.  That living without fear kind of thing.  But how?  I mean, I heard the speech.  There are lots of things to fear.  Our world is falling apart.  Making fear choices seem to be the smarter way to go these days.  Acting out of fear seems the logical response.  So, how do we get to where we can live without fear?  

The psalmist is right there with you.  Needs a little pep talk to get to where his theology tells him he needs to be, even if his guts won’t let him.  Luckily, he slipped his little inner dialog right into the psalm.  “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek His face.’” You want to over come fear?  Seek God’s face.  Seriously.  This isn’t just a cliche to make you feel better.  It is a program for ridding yourself and the world of fear.  Seek God’s face.  Set yourself the task of looking for God.  At work in the world.  We claim to believe God is at work among us, we claim to believe God is at work within us.  So, look.  Look for God’s face in the face of the stranger serving you your lunch, working on your car, asking for a hand out.  Look for God’s face in the gestures of kindness in this terrible world.  In the opportunities to laugh and to sing.  In the moments of grace with loved ones, in the passion of body and soul.  Seek God’s face in the beauty of music, in the wonder of the world around you.  You’re on a mission.  And if you fill up your life with the search for God you won’t have time to fear.  Let me see your face, O God, my light and my salvation!


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Your Pit Or Mine?

Pitiful comes from pity, but neither seem to come from pit.  Sorry, a little etymological research today.  We’re in a pit again.  No, that’s not right.  We’re remembering a pit.  We’re out of it actually.  Celebrating breathing the fresh air.  It’s an ex-pit, a former pit experience.  A wiping of the brow and saying “whew!”  Glad that’s over.  Or is it?

Pits appear in the bible all over the place.  Often in speculative situations.  “Suppose someone falls in a pit.”  Or an animal.  An ethical puzzler.  Or a legal brief sometimes.  If someone digs a pit and leaves it open and animal falls into it, the pit producer is liable for the value of the animal.  That’s in Exodus where they’re trying to figure out how they are going to live as a new nation.  This from the pit owners lobby.  Or the clumsy animal supporters.  I don’t know.  But pits occupy the attention frequently.

The first pit reference is in Genesis.  You know the story.  Joseph, that sharp dressed little daddy’s boy, gets his brothers in such a lather they decide to kill him.  Luckily one of them regains his senses enough to say, let’s not kill him.  Just throw him in the handy pit.  Which seems like a good idea. Better than fratricide, certainly.  And it ends well.  Eventually.  Still, I imagine Joseph had pit-ophobia for the rest of his life.  Though he spent time in an Egyptian jail, that was probably pit like.

Pit like is what Daniel faced too, you remember.  It was called a den, but no lazyboy chairs and big screen TVs here.  Just lions, hungry ones, in a pit.  Daniel is lowered down and his friend the foreign king wipes away a tear and goes home to dinner.  That one ends well too, and the king finds Daniel the next morning curled up with the ravenous lions like they were kittens sharing his bed and hogging the blankets, though they do leave a warm spot when they do finally move.  

There are pits aplenty in the Psalms.  Which is where we are settling this week.  Fifteen different psalms rhapsodize about a pit.  Some of them are wanting a pit, for the enemies, the oppressors.  Throw them in a pit, Lord!  Some of them are petitions to help avoid the pit.  Some of the pits are capitalized.  Not just any old pit, but the Pit.  Don’t send me to the Pit.  Redeem me from the Pit.  

Our particular pit is kind of messy.  Mud and mire, just a mess.  The kind of mess that sticks to you.  That you can’t shake off, even after you’re out.  Maybe that’s why it comes up again.  Even after being rescued, something clings.  A memory, a grief, a wound that just won’t heal, a scar that reminds, a limp that persists.  Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, it is a reminder that you’ve been helped before, that there is a weakness in you that makes you need to lean on a savior, reminds you that you rely on a power that comes from outside of you.  A rope dropped down into the pit to pull you up.  Not so that you are worthless, or a failure.  This limp isn’t a reminder of that.  Instead it is a reminder of the joy.  A reminder that rescue happens.  That transformation is possible.  

That’s what we hear in these verses.  Listen!

Psalm 40:1-11 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. 4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. 5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted. 6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. 7 Then I said, "Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. 8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." 9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. 10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation. 11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.

Good news.  I waited patiently for the Lord, and He heard me.  He heard me.  Drew me up, dropped a line and I scrambled to safety.  I lay there panting, dripping with the mire that clings, and I started to sing.  To laugh and to sing.  

Can you imagine?  Do you remember such a moment?  You need to.  You need to remember that song.  The song you sang when the mud still clung to you.  When the memory of not being able to breathe was still a terror in your heart.  You need to remember the song you sang with passion and with joy, because you were made new.  The song you sang to everyone you met.  To old friends and new strangers, to neighbors and family members.  You sang it so much and those who knew you wept with joy to see the new you, the rescued you.  

And all you wanted to do was to please your rescuer.  You were the first one at worship when the doors opened and the ushers were still sorting out the bulletins.  You signed up to set up tables at the potluck dinners, you offered to wash dishes at the community meal.  You packed boxes and delivered Christmas gifts.  Remember, you taught Sunday school even though you thought you didn’t know anything.  But you were there.  You held crying babies and tears came to your own eyes as you realized this was you.  This little life afraid of everything and everyone, needing more than you knew how to find; but Someone came and held you in arms stronger than the fear and a love deeper than the pit.  Held you until you stopped crying and started singing.

What happened to that?  To that passion and that joy?  What happened to the song that you sang so long and so loud that even those who loved you thought you were a little bit crazy?  Some will say, well I never really had that passion.  I grew up in the faith and it was just there, you know, not a big life changing thing.  So, all this doesn’t really fit me.  I’ve seen folks like that, heard their stories.  That’s just not me.

Really?  Never fell in a pit?  Ever?  Never had the feeling that the walls were closing in on you?  Never walked through fire and somehow survived; never lost a battle you thought you should have won; never hurt someone who then forgave you even though you didn’t deserve it?  Never felt relief, rescue, grace?  Think again.  Go back to Psalm 40 and keep reading.  The pit is always there.  It comes back, just when we think we are safe and secure.  Just when we say “No thanks God, I’m doing fine on my own.”  It clings, the muck and the mire.  Our pit is always near.  The only thing that keeps it away is to sing the song that was put in your heart.  And to keep singing.  In and out of the pit.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Bruised Reed

I just came from a difficult meeting.  Difficult in many ways: the subject was difficult, the implications of the subject were difficult, the decisions needed to be made are and will be difficult.  But perhaps worst of all for me was that implied message that it is all my fault.  That had I been better at my job, made better decisions, worked harder and longer and been ... well, a different person then we wouldn’t be in the position we are in right now.  

Now, I’ve done this enough to know that the others attending the meeting would have a different impression for the most part, and would tell me I’m overreacting.  But that’s what I heard.  No, that’s what I felt.  Like a weight pressing down on me.  But.  But.  I’m being overly dramatic.  Emotional.  And you don’t need that.  The church doesn’t need that.  So I’ve been told.  We don’t need passion, we need ideas.  Things to think about.  Nuggets of truth to contemplate.  And there is wisdom in that.  Paul says in Romans chapter 12, that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  So let’s think. Not react.  Just consider.  Who are we supposed to be as the body of Christ?  As the community of faith?  What defines us?

Well, there are all kinds of things we could use to define the church.  Lots of models and concepts.  Lots of techniques and examples from the world of business and the consumer culture in which we live.  There is much to learn about what is successful, about what works.  Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?  We don’t need words from a source thousands of years old, do we?  We can find better ideas in the world around us.

Well, we can find ideas, but are they better?  If we decide to become like the rest of the world then have we surrendered what makes us who we are?  We might as well be any number of service organizations, or social clubs, many of which do good things and are getting people involved in service and interaction.  Or is there something unique that we are called to do and to be?  Is the church something different?  Something that just might not be that appealing on the surface, but bringing profound commitment on a deeper level?  Frankly, I’m wondering these days.  Maybe Isaiah can help us.

Isaiah 42:1-9 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. 5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

The first question we have to consider from these words is who is he talking about?  Well, and who is “he”.  Isaiah and the Lord often get confused when reading these sixty-six chapters.  Is this Isaiah talking for himself or speaking for God, and did God say this through Isaiah or to Isaiah and does Isaiah insert himself in the conversation, adding to God’s words?  There is a lot to think about.  So much that we could easily avoid acting on the words while we try to parse every verb and decline every noun.  (OK, maybe it is the other way around?  Where are my grammarians when I need them?)

Instead, let’s decide.  Let’s decide that this word is indeed the Word of God.  Let’s decide that it carries a description of what it means to be the servant of God.  And like most of the hearers of Isaiah, that servant isn’t an individual, but is the nation, the people of God.  We would say this is first of all a description of the church - the church that God calls us to be.  

But wait, you scholars might say, isn’t this about Jesus?  Doesn’t he fulfill this passage?  It isn’t about us, it’s about Him.  And you’d be right!  And wrong at the same time.  It is indeed a description of Jesus.  All the Servant passages of Isaiah become the template by which we examine the life of the One we call Christ.  But that does not mean that we are off the hook.  It is still a description of us.  Not me, and not you.  But us. 

See Jesus could fulfill the call to be the perfect servant of God.  But you can’t.  And I can’t.  But we can.  Together we who are the church are called to live this out in real and dynamic ways.  Live what out? Bringing justice, but not whining about it all the time, not complaining about how hard it is - that’s the lifting up the voice in the street bit.  But, this justice bringing will be healing and not destroying.  We don’t have to tear down in order to build up.  We don’t have to stomp on those with whom we have an issue, we don’t have to put down those who we think are wrong, we don’t have to beat up on those who have been beaten.  That’s the kind of justice we are called to bring.  

That’s who we are when the Lord delights in us.  What an amazing idea.  We are, we can be, a delight to God.  Not just obedient, not just faithful, not just thoughtful and considered, but a delight.  Isaiah says God likes passion.  Likes enjoying us.  Life isn’t a class room, a test to be passed, it is a joy.  Jesus said I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.  Abundantly.  

Then, and here’s the best part, God promises to help us do that.  Help us in bringing justice by healing and helping.  Help us in being a delight to God and to others.  God will take us by the hand, what a wonderful image, will take us by the hand and walk with us and show us what it really means to be free. To live free and set others free.  

Then the last verse.  Is it a threat?  Things will change.  Don’t cling too hard to the way it has always been, because how it has always been might not have been as great as we remember.  Instead look for the new.  For the opportunity to serve in new and deeper and more joyous ways. 

Let the Spirit blow, even through difficult and uncertain terrain.  Walk in hope, and be lifted up.