Friday, August 27, 2004

Easter, 2002 (Another Entry from Mark's 'Greatest Hits')

[Below is a column I wrote for Easter, 2002. I hope that you enjoy it.]

His life was a shambles. Some months before, his wife had moved out of the house to live with another man, someone she had met at work. He was devastated. For reasons he couldn't explain, his pain seemed to drive him to seek out the company of friends who were unembarrassed followers of Jesus Christ. He had always dismissed their faith as quaint and naive. Now, he craved their tough-as-nails serenity, their capacity for tackling life head-on.

His friends had given him just what he needed at that time: open arms and listening ears. When he asked how he could possibly get through, his friends said that the only way they knew how was to rely completely on the God Who understands all our pains and all our hopes...the God Who came into the world through Jesus Christ...Who died on a cross on Good Friday...Who rose again on Easter Sunday.

He was skeptical. In his hodge-podge of church experiences growing up, he'd heard it all before in CCD and Sunday School. Yet, when he saw the way his friends had hope to cope because of their relationships with Christ, his skepticism wore down. He asked Jesus to be his God and Savior. He surrendered his whole life to Christ. He learned first-hand the truth of what the Bible says, "anyone united with [Jesus] gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God Who settled the relationship between us and Him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other..." (Second Corinthians 5:17-18, The Message translation)

The Savior Who rose from the dead gave that man new life. Today, he lives with a second wife who loves him completely and who, like him, follows Jesus Christ. Repeatedly over the years, I've watched Jesus bring resurrection power into the lives of people who seemed as good as dead. That's one reason I love Easter Sunday, the day set aside to celebrate Jesus' rising from the dead, the event that happened on the first Easter. Jesus, Who wouldn't stay dead, is in the business of giving new life, just as He did for my friend...and for me.

But like a man named Paul, writing in the Bible's New Testament, I have to say, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we [followers of Christ] are of all people most to be pitied." If what the Bible says happened on the first Easter didn't happen, then the faith of Jesus-followers through the centuries and all over the world is as quaint and naive as my friend once dismissed it for being.

That's why his experiences and those of people like him are important. The "little resurrections" that Christ gives to people who call out to Him are signs pointing to how the story will end for those who yield their lives to Him. As was true when Jesus raised from the dead a friend of His named Lazarus, the new lives Jesus gives to His followers show us a fundamental truth that He expressed to Lazarus' sister. He said, "I am right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in Me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in Me does not ultimately die." (John 11:25-26, The Message translation)

You may feel unworthy of the love and the new life that Jesus Christ wants to give to you. The fact is, you aren't worthy of it. Neither am I. But Jesus wants to give it to us anyway! He died and rose precisely for unworthy people like you and me. We don't have to do anything to make ourselves worthy of the new life He wants to give to us. The good news of Easter is that if we will simply open up the doors of our hearts to Jesus Christ, He will open up the doors of eternity to us!

If you're a skeptic like my friend had been and I once was, I pray that this Easter, paraphrasing an old Pete Townsend song, you'll let God's love open the door to your heart. You'll get a new life. You'll have the capacity to cope with life in hope. You'll look forward confidently to an eternal future. And you will wonder why you waited so long to let Jesus into your life.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

An Urban Legend Enters the Presidential Campaign

John McCain no doubt speaks for a lot of us when he says that he has been disgusted by the turn the presidential campaign has taken in recent weeks. But now some purveyor of urban legends has gotten into the act.

You know what
urban legends are. They're those myths that have so much resilience that even the truth can't kill them off. These days they usually come to us via forwarded email. A credulous friend, having received the email from another friend whose credibility they don't doubt, passes it on to you.

In the past few years, I've fallen for two of them.
One was about Mel Gibson and was circulating at the time The Passion of the Christ was in movie theaters. It palmed off the story line of one of his movies as Gibson's biography, claiming that his face had at one time been horribly disfigured, that a Roman Catholic priest had convinced him not to commit suicide, and that this life-changing experience had opened the actor to faith in Christ. Stunning stuff. So stunning that I couldn't resist telling the story in a sermon during last Lenten season. I'd received it from a credible source. I was even informed that Paul Harvey had told the story. The only problem is that none of it was true.

Then there was the story that Eric Clapton (or, the late Jimi Hendrix) had
declared Phil Keaggy the world's greatest guitarist. I shared that one with my congregation too. Keaggy may very well be the planet's best guitar-player, but neither Clapton or Hendrix declared him so. Yet that urban legend persists.

But the mother of all urban legends, one that used to circulate via snail mail and of which I first became aware back in the mid-1980s, deals with the late Madelyn Murray O'Hair. It's still making the rounds. This myth has gone through several permutations over the decades, but it
basically claims that O'Hair had brought a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission (even citing an official-sounding case number). O'Hair was supposedly trying to stop people from talking about God on the airwaves. A later version, extant after O'Hair had turned up missing and was presumably dead, said that O'Hair (from the grave, I guess) was trying to stop the airing of the old CBS series, Touched By an Angel.

Today I got a forwarded email from my mom. I don't know who sent it to her. No doubt it was some well-meaning person. It claimed that
in a speech "last week," Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry spoke about the importance of his faith and had cited "John 16:3" as his favorite Bible verse, while quoting John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." The email concluded that this slip-up reflected a lack of faith on Kerry's part and implied that he was a hypocrite.

I remembered that Kerry gave a speech about his faith and its impact on his life a few weeks ago. It was covered in the press and I had seen snippets of it. I hadn't remembered his referencing a favorite Bible passage. I smelled a rat. So, I checked some of the urban legend web sites, places where people track down frequently-forwarded emails and report on their veracity.

Kerry never made any statement about a favorite Bible verse. In fact, about a month ago, an email circulated that said
George W. Bush had been guilty of the identical faux pas. The same thing was alleged in another set of emails about Al Gore a few years ago. It turns out that a major political figure did make this mistake: George H.W. Bush, the president's father, some time ago. (At least, he did, according to a conservative columnist: Cal Thomas.)

But even if Kerry, Bush 2, or Gore had said "John 16:3," only a religious legalist would pounce on it as evidence of faithlessness and hypocrisy. As someone who routinely inverts digits when I repeat telephone numbers back to people, it seems to me an easy (and innocuous) enough mistake to make.

What bothers me in all of this is that someone has to take the time to make this stuff up. What exactly do the manufacturers of urban legends do? Do they wake up in the morning and say, "I think I'll use the Internet to trash someone's reputation"? Maybe they do and though we're all capable of sins, it bothers me when I encounter such brazen and deliberate personal savagery.

Sadly, I've come to expect ambitious politicians to engage in "trash and burn" tactics. But I hate the thought of ideologically-driven cybercruisers palming destructive fiction off on the rest of us.

Anyway, if you get the same email my mom got, at least now you know the rest of the story.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Eulogy for Three Trees

I feel sad today. You may think the reason for my sadness is weird. But I can’t help it.

I should tell you that I don’t qualify as a great naturalist. Buildings with central air, carpeting, indoor plumbing, cable, and Internet access constitute my natural habitat. My idea of roughing it is three days at the Holiday Inn.

I’m not a hater of nature. No Christian can be; after all, God is the inventor of this intricate and beautiful universe in which we live. But let’s just say that with two exceptions, I tend to appreciate nature from afar.

One exception is the human race. I’m fascinated by people. Their capacity for doing incredible things amazes me. In so much of what people do, I see evidence confirming that we truly are creatures made, as the Old Testament book of Genesis tells us, “in the image of God.”

Another natural wonder that grabs my attention is trees. I don’t know why it is, but I love trees. Maybe they amaze me because, like human beings they have the capacity to weather storms and keep reaching toward the heavens, an ability to grow in ways and places that defy the odds. Once they’ve grown to a certain point, trees provide shade, nesting places, climbing walls, and beauty to any lawn or garden. And from the moment they sprout, they interact with the oxygen-breathing species of the planet to clear our air and recycle our exhaled CO2.

I love to walk through woods any time of the year, their canopies forming natural cathedrals where I can praise God. I agree with the farmer who once told me, “You can’t put a high enough value on a tree!”

That’s why I’m sad.

When we first looked at our home fourteen years ago, the owner of the house showed us the backyard. The place was only two years old then. During its construction, he’d insisted that three of the trees on the property, all of which had stood near a farmhouse, be kept. They were box elders, members of a not very esteemed species, but tall, stately, and shade-giving nonetheless. The previous owner had also planted some corkscrew willows, maples, and evergreens in the backyard. “In three years,” he told my wife and me, “this place will be a paradise.”

Within weeks of our moving in, one of the box elders, the one closest to the house in the back, was felled in a storm. The remaining box elder there has grown tall. And under my wife’s watchful care, our backyard has become, if not a paradise, a beautiful place. Its beauty is augmented by some trees my son added.

Our front yard has been presided over by an elder that is now at least fifty feet tall. It sets on a rise and has given distinctive character and shade not only to us, but to our street.

As I write this though, workers are beginning to bring both box elders and one of the corkscrew willows down. There is no choice. The trunk of one of the elders has bifurcated, the other is surviving only on its outer rings. The corkscrew was slashed in half in a recent thunderstorm. None would likely survive the winter to come and if they fell, would destroy ours or our neighbors’ property.

Of course, this is the way of our natural world. Solomon noted in Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament that in this world, there’s a time to live and die. There’s also a time to mourn and to laugh.

I’m not mourning for these beautiful trees today. But I am sad to see them go and like them, I hope to be as useful to God and others on the day I die as I was when God’s love was first planted in my heart.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Right Time

Luke 13:10-17
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 22, 2004)

When is the right time to do the right thing?

And by the way, what exactly is the right thing?

If you’re a normal human being (and most of you are, I think), you’ve probably asked those questions a time or two in your life.

People asked them once in a village in remote, rural Holland. (In a story I’ve told you before and I'll probably tell again.) It seems that terrible flooding was happening. The village lay in the flood’s path. The village was so small that the local pastor was the closest thing there was to a public official there. So, the government contacted him and said that the village might be spared the flood if the people feverishily worked that day to build a temporary dam.

The pastor was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to lead the villagers in saving their community. That seemed like the right thing.

On the other, it was the sabbath day, a day set aside by God for His people to rest and hear God’s Word. Building the dam would be work. Resting seemed like the right thing.

So, the pastor called a meeting. He presented his dilemma to the people of the village. Lots of discussion followed.

At last, to make sure that all points of view were considered, the pastor said that while he was certainly in favor of observing the sabbath day, there were times when Jesus was confronted with what might be called “emergency” situations when He worked on the sabbath. Might this flood be such a situation?

An elderly man spoke up: “Pastor, I must say something that I have never ventured to bring up before. But sometimes, I think that our Lord was a bit of a liberal.”

That man might have thought that Jesus took an even more liberal view of things had he considered our Bible lesson for this morning. Jesus is in a synagogue on a sabbath day. (For a pious Jew like Jesus, the sabbath ran from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. For Jesus-Followers, remembering Jesus’ resurrection, the sabbath is Sunday.) Jesus sees a woman bent over, unable to stand straight, an affliction she’s had for eighteen years. She could obviously use Jesus' help, but this is no emergency situation. Jesus might just as well have waited twenty-four hours to do the work of healing her.

Underscoring the lack of urgency in this situation is the woman herself. She doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed. She’s shown up for worship that day with the same sorts of expectations you may have had when you came to worship here today---the expectations that nothing was going to happen, that she would sing the songs, listen to someone preach for awhile, make her offering, and then leave. She wasn’t looking for a miracle.

But Jesus decides to heal her. Did Jesus do the right thing? Did He do it at the right time?

Not according to a strict reading of the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” That was why the ruler of the synagogue and his supporters were horrified by Jesus’ “work.” They didn’t deny Jesus’ ability to bring God’s healing to this woman or to anybody else. Like everybody else, they’d heard the reports of all that Jesus was doing. But they didn’t think it was the right time for Jesus to do the right thing.

Jesus is furious with this response! He says:

“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie [the original Greek word here literally means loose or set free] his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? [In other words, you do work by taking care of your livestock on the sabbath.] And ought not this woman, a daughter [a descendant] of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free [same word used for the ox and donkey, loosed, set free] from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
It turns out that the synagogue ruler and his supporters were more willing to do right for their livestock than they were for this woman.

When is the right time to do the right thing? Jesus says, Now is the right time. Now.

But sometimes we wonder, don’t we, what the right thing is?

I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose the one prayer I’ve brought to God more than any other in my life, it would probably be this one: “Lord, help me to know and do Your will.” I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t laugh at me when I pray like that because I act as though God’s will for my life is a mystery. And it isn’t.

Time and again, in the Old Testament and then ultimately, through Jesus in the New Testament, God has told us His will for our lives. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” Jesus says. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart. mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The will of God ---the right thing---is to give our lives to the God Who has given Himself to us on a cross and then to share the love of God with others in the everyday world we all inhabit.

That was what Jesus did when He freed the bent woman from her bondage in the synagogue on the sabbath.

That’s what you and I are called to do: to live for God and to help all the bent people we know be free by sharing with them the love Jesus has poured into our forgiven souls.

This is the will of God and we know it.

This past week, I read that a man named Red Davis died. He was the CEO of a large Texas corporation. When he retired in the late-1970s, he approached his pastor and said that with more time on his hands, he wanted to volunteer for more ministries in the church. The pastor thought that Red would be perfect to chair the finance committee or have some prominent public role. But Red said he’d heard the three-and-four-year old Sunday School class was without a teacher and he’d like that job. And so, for two-and-half decades, until the Sunday before his death, Red Davis, retired high-powered business executive, taught three and four year olds about Jesus.

At first, I read, he didn’t know much about teaching, but he was kind-hearted and sat on the floor to tell the little ones the stories of God’s love and power from the Bible. On Saturday nights, Red called the children of his class to ask how their weeks had gone and tell them how much he looked forward to seeing them the next day. And whenever he met the little ones the next day, each one got a hug from Red. The kids in his class never wanted to miss worship or Sunday School!

Eventually, in his church, almost every parent and grandparent had a child who’d been in his class and today, there are young adults active in the congregation, who are members of what came to be called “Red’s Army,” a group committed to Jesus partly because of Red.

Red Davis didn’t do what the rules said retired CEOs should do. Instead, he did the right thing at the right time, the thing that was needed when it was needed.

And so can you---whether as part of our church’s ministries or in all the other places you find yourself each day!

You may say, “But, Mark, what’s God’s will for my marriage? my career? my college major? my second mortgage?” These sorts of questions bring up a huge difference between God and us when it comes to our consideration of the will of God. We become interested in God’s will when we consider the future. But when God talks about His will, He almost always talks about today. Marry who you will. Work where you will. Live where you want. But put God’s priorities first today, right now, in this moment.

And we all know God’s priorities. In his fantastic book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren distills the teaching of the Bible about God’s will for our lives and says that no matter what our career, income, marital status, age, race, nationality, or sex, God’s will for us boils down to five simple things:

  • to worship God every moment of every day
  • to love others as God has loved us
  • to invite others to follow Christ
  • to fellowship with other believers
  • to grow in our faith and dependence on Christ.

Those, folks are the right things for us to do right now, the appropriate responses for us to give to the God Who gave Himself to us on the cross.

The will of God for our lives is no mystery. Let’s put our hands to the wheel and get it done!

[The story of the village in Holland comes from Ernst Kasemann's book, Jesus Means Freedom.

[The story of Red Davis was told last week by Gordon Atkinson on his web log.

[Three sources have caused me to look at what the Bible says about the will of God and concluded that God is far more interested in our doing His will today in the supposedly mundane, pedestrian places of life than He is in the so-called "big" decisions we make about our futures: Gerald Sittser in his wonderful book, The Will of God As a Way of Life; Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life; and Martin Luther when he commented that if we want to discern the will of God for our lives, we should first ask what is our duty?]