Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day

"The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24). May we care for earth, God's gift to us, our home for now.

Obedience, Faith, & Listening to God

For my daily quiet time with God, I use a method taught by the Navigators called Stop. Look. Listen. Respond. Today, I asked God to show me the truth I needed to see as I read Matthew 12.

In my personal effort to gain the new insights I believe God wants to give all of us when we read His Word, I've been using Eugene Peterson's translation/paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. This is helping me to overcome the danger of familiarity, which is the failure to see things in the Bible exactly because I know the Scriptures fairly well.

Portions of two verses, spoken by Jesus to self-righteous people known as Pharisees especially struck me today. Jesus is speaking of how faith in Him is truly authenticated in our lives:
"...Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys my heavenly Father's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:49-50)
Jesus said this after being told that His family wanted to see Him.

What the Lord led me to see in this passage today wasn't a new truth to me, but one I needed to have underscored for me at two levels.

The first level on which I needed to have this truth underscored is this. I get on myself for the temptations to sin with which I consciously wrestle and the sins I perceive in myself for which I repent.

It's right that I invoke Christ's help in fighting off temptation and in repenting for my identified sins. But sometimes I unconsciously look at the fact that I have to fight temptation or have sins for which to repent as a blot on my character.

But the fact is that fighting my temptations and repenting for the sin I see in myself are both examples of obedience to God, the very thing that Jesus says demonstrates that believers are close to God.

Temptations will come to us. They came to Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11), though He never sinned (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). So, we can't be exempt from temptations. They're part of life for every person no matter how close they are to God.

And repentance for our sins is a sign of the Holy Spirit's work in me through God's Word. I wouldn't repent if I weren't close enough to the God I know in Christ to know when the Holy Spirit is pressing me to repent and so, to be changed and renewed by God's grace (Matthew 12:31-32).

This level of the passage's truth was and is reassuring to me, an instance of God's grace for my life.

The second level on which I needed this truth underscored is this. Earlier today, someone to whom I'm close confronted me for a way I had been acting toward them: defensive, snotty, unkind.

I hadn't even been fully aware that this was the case. While I was busy struggling with other issues--temptations and sins I had been open to letting the Spirit identify for me, I was being deaf to the Spirit's clear call to change how I was treating this person.

I need to be careful to not be so focused on evicting one demonic element from my life that, not really attending to Christ's call to obedience to God's commands in all of my life, I let other sins take root in my life.

This is exactly what Jesus warns the Pharisees, so focused on combating some evils in their lives while totally ignoring the ways in which they disobeyed God in other ways, against, also in Matthew 12:
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” [Matthew 12:33-35]
This is an instance of God's law and command for my life. I need it too as I pursue my relationship with God each day.

I realized again that I need to let Christ be Lord of and let the Holy Spirit speak to, my whole life, to never presume that I see all my sins (and, like the Pharisees, think that I've got it all together).

I also need to relish the knowledge that God gives grace to me to wrestle with my temptations and my sins. The wrestling doesn't show that I'm far from God. The wrestling shows that I'm walking with, listening to, and seeking to obey God.

Lord, help me to stay related to You through Christ and to obey You by seeking to do Your will. Help me also, to seek to do Your will in every facet of my life, heeding what the Spirit tells me through Your Word. Show me the unseen places where I let sin into my life and, as I repent, make me new. In Jesus' name. Amen

Thursday, April 21, 2016


I'm sixty-two. I probably listened to more of Prince than many people my age. How that happened was sort of happenstance.

Prince's heyday was in the early- and mid-eighties. It was the era of big hair and MTV. I was listening a lot to U2, the Police, Stevie Wonder, a bit of Bruce Springsteen, with whom I became less enamored after Nebraska, and later, Bruce Cockburn. And, of course, I was still listening to Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Queen, and David Bowie.

At that time, I was in seminary. During my senior year, I worked as a janitor, cleaning seminary offices and the library after hours. It was a fun gig and it came with some perks.

One was being able to crank up a stereo in the library basement while dusting and vacuuming. I didn't have much money then either. So, when friends loaned music to me, I would often use said stereo to transfer their music to cassettes I could stick into my boom box at home.

The fourteen year old son of a classmate got wind of this perk of my job and asked me to record a bunch of Prince LPs that a friend had loaned to him. Being into piracy, I recorded all of that material for him and me.

For a while after that, I listened to a lot Prince. I thought his lyrics ranged from vapid to the faux sophistication of an adolescent thinking he knows more about sex than his parents. But his musicianship was undeniable: He had a fine sense of melody and rhythm. He played guitar especially well. And his voice was rangy. For about six months, I was sort of hooked.

But, in the end, I was never moved to buy a Prince LP. In fact, I wasn't moved by Prince at all. His virtuosity could move me to appreciation. But his songs never moved me. They didn't encourage me to see my life or the world differently. They were simply the candy by which he showcased his amazing talents.

In recent years, I was aware that Prince was performing some. But I had no idea that he was still releasing new material--some source today said that he had released four new LPs in the past eighteen months! To me, there were many artists older than Prince--McCartney or Dylan, for example--or artists who were his contemporaries--U2 comes to mind--more current than Prince was over the past two decades.

Reading the other day about his plane making an emergency landing because he was ill was like learning of the reappearance of a ghost from the past, similar to his amazing guitar solo on the collaborative performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

So, the response to Prince's death I've seen evidenced online and, briefly tonight, on TV, has caught me by surprise.

Prince is being accorded coverage similar to that which greeted the untimely deaths of Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and David Bowie, or, in less heavily mediated days, those of Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Buddy Holly.

While I would have guessed before today that, in the end, Prince might be viewed as more culturally significant than some of his contemporaries like Madonna or even Queen, I wouldn't have anticipated the reaction we've seen to his passing today. In coming years, I suspect that he'll be remembered more for his stunning musical performances, both recorded and live on stage, than for the quality or meaning of his compositions.

But however you look at it, his sudden death is a tragedy and I pray that all who grieve will be comforted by God.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Shelter from the Storm (Understanding Revelation, Part 3)

Revelation 7:9-17
One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs is Shelter from the Storm. In it, Dylan's narrator remembers a friend or loved one from whom he has since been alienated. He recalls the shelter she once provided to him, from which he had once drawn hope. Dylan begins the song:
‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When darkness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in," she said
"I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”
From the moment I first heard that song forty-one years ago, I resonated with its lyrics. Everyone of us, I believe, at one time or another, in one way or another, seeks shelter from the storm.

We long for that place and those relationships in which we are known and yet loved, imperfect and yet forgiven, broken and made whole.

In fact, I believe, seeking that shelter is the quest of our lives, whether we know it or not.

If we are wise though, we learn in the course of time, that no earthly place, person, elevated status, and no relationship can completely, fully shelter us from life’s storms, or assure us of our worthiness, or give us peace, or grant us life.

We learn that it’s too much to ask of any earthbound place, person, status, or relationship to give us these things.

We may be blessed with imperfect, temporary shelters from the storms around us and within us: marriages and friendships that last decades until death parts the partners; minds and bodies that serve us well until finally giving out. We should thank God for blessings like these.

But we hunger for more.

Why is that? Are we just inherently whiny, fussy, impatient, intent on having perfection as we define it? The short answer is, “Yes.” But there’s a deeper answer.

We were made for more.

And deep in our hearts, down in our guts, in every synapse of our brains, we know it! We were made for more.

The Bible says that you and I were created in the image of God. God’s imprint, His eternal nature, is written right into our DNA. God did not create us to sin, to hurt each other, to be hurt by each other, to age, to be limited by disease, to die. We’re right to feel that if the world was right, these things wouldn’t be part of our lives, that we would be sheltered from all storms.

We’re related to our Father in ways that no other creature is; He meant for us to share in His perfection, righteousness, love, and eternity. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He [God] has...set eternity in the human heart…” We know that we weren’t made to be exposed to the storms, the chaos, over which God’s Spirit first moved and by the force of His love carved out a perfect universe over which we were made to be the godly stewards.

But you know what happened. Adam and Eve, our great-ancestors, fell into sin, bringing all the sins (including our sins, yours and mine) and imperfections and storms that we know too well--into this world.

So, we look for the perfect shelter.

But unless we look for it in the God we meet in Jesus Christ, we will never find it!

As we continue our series, Understanding Revelation, today we encounter people who took shelter in Jesus Christ. And they found that despite the storms they encountered in this life, God sheltered them here in His grace, and when they passed from this life, they entered the eternal shelter for which all of us long and for which we were all made.

Revelation 7:9-17. Follow along with me, beginning at verse 7. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

John is, as was true in last Sunday's message, still in the throne room of God. The robes worn by a crowd from every nation of the earth are white, symbolic of purity. They carry palm leaves, symbolizing victory.

Verse 10: “And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’”

In the Old Testament and among Jewish teachers down to the time of Jesus and beyond, whenever you encounter a list with an odd-number of items, you look to the one that stands in the middle. That’s the most important item. What was this throng in white emphasizing? Their thanks to God for the gift of life, for the gift of Jesus, and for the eternal shelter He provides to those who put their trust in Him above all! They were filled with thanksgiving.

Verse 13: “Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’” The elder asked this of John like a teacher using the interrogative method, helping his student own what it being taught.

But John initially only owns his ignorance. Verse 14: “I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation [That is, those who have lived faithfully in this world despite the obstacles, despite the difficulty of believing good news in a bad news world, despite shunning, dismissive disdain, or persecution.]; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…’”

John saw many things in the revelation Jesus gave to him at Patmos. He saw God on His throne. He saw the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus, the Lamb of God. He saw angels. All of that would have caused him--would cause us, were we to see it--to stand or fall on our faces in awe, hearts racing with the majesty and perfection of God.

But nothing John saw would have given him more assurance, more hope, more peace than seeing this throng of believers safely delivered into the perfect, eternal shelter of the God in Whom they put their trust.

John saw that the yearning we know from the moment we’re born--the yearning to live eternally, to live with purpose unencumbered by all the harsh realities of this world--is the yearning God wants to fulfill for us.

God wants to set us free from sin, death, futility, disease, discord, and separation from others.

God wants to set us free to live in loving relationship with Him, our families, our friends, the world.

God wants to banish sin’s power over our lives and actions and relationships for all eternity!

These blessings were meant to be the birthright of every child fashioned in God’s image. We sold off that birthright long ago when sin took us captive. But Jesus Christ has purchased us out of our slavery to sin and death and the devil with the expenditure of His blood.

It’s an inheritance that we can claim when we wash ourselves in the blood of the Lamb, committing ourselves to lives of turning from sin and trusting in Jesus Christ to be our Savior, our Lord, our King, our God, our shelter.

Like Jesus, we will die before we know this inheritance in full. (After all, we’re not better than Jesus and we shouldn’t expect to live or die better than Jesus! So, to each us, death will come.) But even now in this world, those who take shelter in Christ, find that though the storms of life buffet them, wound them, even take our lives, we have God’s peace. We live confident in God’s grace and provision and love.

When I had my heart attack and didn’t know whether they could salvage much of the 60% of my heart still functional, my son sat in the hospital room and read Psalm 46 to me: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…[And then] Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

The God revealed to all the world as Lord and Savior in Jesus was my shelter, not because I deserve His shelter (I know me very well and I know that I deserve no blessing God might give to me; I deserve only death and damnation.), but because God loves me and wants me now and for all eternity.

He wants you now and for all eternity too!

Go back to our lesson, starting at verse 14. The elder is still speaking to John about this multitude in white. “‘Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [There’s the promise that will see us through every storm in this life. And there follows the promise of an eternal shelter through Christ.] ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”’” What a promise! Eternal shelter!
In Dylan’s song, he says:
I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn
"Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.”
Dylan's narrator voice is wrong to think that the ultimate shelter of his life could be found in another human being, though other human beings who trust in Christ can be the instruments by which we trust that Christ can shelter us here and in eternity. (That’s why the great commission--making disciples of all nations, is the central mission and purpose of every Christian disciple!)

But he's right in believing that all is not “hopeless and forlorn.” We have Jesus Christ. All who trust in Him will share in the eternal blessings John saw in his vision of heaven. If we will remain steadfast in trusting in Jesus Christ with our whole lives, we will be part of the multitude John saw, those who repent for sin, take shelter in Christ, and know that they will live with God for eternity.

With the psalmist, through Jesus we can say of God: “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Amen

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]