Friday, May 08, 2009

Trusting What You Can't See? (A Re-Run)

[I wrote this back in June, 2005, and thought I'd present it again now.]

"You're packing a suitcase
For a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed
To be seen"

The words come from Walk On, a song by U2, written in honor of the Burmese activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. In it, Bono and his bandmates urge the political prisoner to carry on with her life and work, trusting that the free land she envisions, a place far different from the one that keeps her under house arrest these days, will one day come into being.

The lyrics were the first thing to flash through my consciousness as I awoke this morning--odd because I haven't listened to the song in many weeks--and they set me to thinking about the whole phenomenon of trust or faith. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," a wise person once noted.

"Is that true?," I wondered as I woke. Then I remembered hearing people catalog all the things we do each day as articles of faith, entrusting our lives to numberless, faceless people, circumstances, and things we know nothing about.

Often offered as an example is flying. I love to fly! But boarding a jet entails trust in pilots I've never met, flight controllers I've never seen, ground crews I don't know, engines and other physical components of the plane I've not examined, FAA officials charged with ensuring that all we passengers will be safe, and principles of aerodynamics that, as a post-modern primitive, I frankly don't understand.

And yet, I never think about these things when I board a plane. I trust that all will be well.

The God many believe is revealed to the world in Jesus Christ seemed to enter my life decisively back when I was in my mid-twenties. I sensed Jesus telling me, as He has billions of people down through the centuries, "Follow Me."

Follow a Savior you can't see because He promises you harmony with God, peace with yourself, and a new life that goes beyond the grave? It seemed ridiculous. I was insensitive to all the ways in which I entrusted my life to the unseen and unproven and thought there was no way I could ever surrender my life and will to Christ. Or should. (I still struggle with that trusting surrender. In fact, it's true to say that much of the life of faith, for many of us, is about struggling to trust. I myself am a lot like the man who told Jesus, "I do believe; help my unbelief!")

There were two major impediments preventing me from taking up Jesus' "Follow Me" invitation.

The first was Jesus Himself. In spite of having been brought up in a "Christian culture," I didn't really know Him. Jesus is history's greatest rorshach blot. On Him has been thrust all manner of interpretation and spin, from supposed Christians justifying murder, conquest, and oppression to the ignorant who approach him with what they call faith, but is really superstition.

I decided to get to know Jesus for the first time in my life by reading what His earliest followers said about Him in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (I'm reacquainting myself with Jesus right now in a series of blog articles called, Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time.)

The second and bigger impediment to my following Jesus was His resurrection. I had never met anyone who'd come back from the dead. Still haven't.

Getting to know Jesus triggered a reaction I never would have anticipated: I fell in love with Him. I learned that He wasn't a milquetoast in a bath robe but the ultimate giver of tenacious love. He positively haunted my thoughts and consciousness. I wanted to be with Him all the time.

But a resurrection? A Savior Who died two-thousand years ago, risen from the dead and still living. Even after I became aware of scholars like Pinchas Lapide saying that they bought the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, I still found it hard to swallow.

Maybe you share the skepticism I once had. If so, please ask yourself a few of questions.

First: Do you find Jesus credible? If you do, then remind yourself that the New Testament Gospels find Him repeatedly saying that He would die, taking our punishment for sin, and then, rise again to offer life to all who trust Him.

Second: Why did more than five-hundred people risk their lives to avow that they had seen the resurrected Jesus? That's how many the New Testament reports having seen and talked about Him.

And: What's the likelihood that a conspiracy to back such a lie or in service to what some have suggested was a mass hypnotism the likes of which have never been seen, if the resurrection were a lie, would stand the test of time? There was simply no good reason for these people to risk supporting a Savior Who had been executed. It exposed them to the possibility of the same fate. But they did, many giving their lives in the cause.

Okay, you may say, "I'm ready to accept the possibility of following Jesus. I'd even like to do it. But I find it hard to trust."

The Bible understands this. It insists that we can't believe without the help of God's Spirit. So, if you'd like to trust Christ, please tell God this. The God Who came into the world to experience all that you go through and to go to a cross for you is more than willing to meet you where you are. Just say something like, "God, I want to believe that Jesus has come into the world to change my life forever and that He has risen to give me this blessing. Help me to believe."

If you do that, I know that it will be the beginning of many changes in your life.

Let me know if you've offered that prayer and I'll try to provide some pointers for how you can open yourself to a relationship of deepening trust with Jesus Christ.

Monday, May 04, 2009

What It Means to Be a Sheep

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio on Sunday, May 3.]

John 10:11-18
The first time I prepared to preach on this Gospel lesson back when I was a young pastor, I felt pretty confident about what Jesus meant in calling Himself "the good shepherd." In ancient Near Eastern culture, the image of the shepherd was often used of kings. The tradition in that region had long been that kings would make covenants with their own people, as well as those peoples they may have conquered, in which they pledged to be the protector of their subjects. In calling Himself "the good shepherd," Jesus was claiming kingship and promising to lovingly lead and guide those who follow Him.

I thought that I had a good handle on Jesus as our shepherd, then. But I realized that I was clueless when it came to understanding what it meant for us to be Jesus' sheep. I was a city slicker and I knew nothing about sheep.

So, I called a man in our congregation who, I knew, once kept sheep. "Vic," I asked, "tell me about sheep." "The first thing you have to know about sheep," he told me, "is that sheep are dumb...I mean really, really dumb." He went on to tell me about how completely helpless and dependent sheep are, how much they need shepherds to care for them.

I wondered: Is that how Jesus sees us? Are we so helpless that we need Jesus as our good shepherd?

Last night, as you know, we had a middle-of-the-night breakfast for Logan High School students who attended the Prom. As I watched them--these sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year old young people--walk into our fellowship hall, they all seemed to feel the way I did when I was their age, like they had the world on a string. Only a few of them may have realized how vulnerable we all are, how much we need a shepherd to guide us through life and death, how clueless they are about what may be ahead of them in life.

Ann and I have a friend who we'll call Nick. Nick is a year younger than I am. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force and went to Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. Before he shipped out, his grandmother asked for him to stop by her place. "I know you don't have anything to do with God or the Church, Nick. But I want you to know that I'm praying that God will help you through and that no matter what happens, you'll know that God loves you." Several years after Nick returned home, he--like me--met his wife-to-be and she was a Lutheran. I'll never forget the day that Nick was baptized. This strapping man of 25, a jet mechanic who had gone through service in Vietnam, cried like a baby because he knew just what it meant to have Jesus, the good shepherd, leading him through life. He knew that he needed the good shepherd.

Of course, our good shepherd doesn't promise that the horrors of this life will go away. Like him, we will endure crosses. We will go through what our psalm calls "the valley of the shadow of death." But even then Jesus will lead us.

Years ago, I heard Dr. James Dobson* tell the story of a six year old terminal patient at the UCLA Medical Center where he then worked. The child was on morphine. But occasionally, he would cry out, "The bells! The bells!" Someone asked the duty nurse whether she could explain that. It seems that the day before, with his death clearly impending, a relative had told the child to keep looking for Jesus and when he got to heaven's gates to listen for the bells. "He's been talking about the bells all day long," the nurse said. That child was being led by the good shepherd.

Jesus says we are sheep in need of a shepherd.

Thankfully, Jesus is the good shepherd who wants all who dare to follow Him to know that He will lead them through this life and into eternity with Him.

May we all follow our good shepherd every day! Amen

*Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been critical of Dr. Dobson's forays into the political arena. But I think that in earlier years, he provided sound psychological and spiritual advice on family relationships. Even in that, I don't agree with him on every subject. But I still harbor a deep respect for his early work. ALSO: I may have some details of this anecdote wrong. But the basic story is true and is remembered from a video made in the 1970s, which I haven't seen in about twenty years.

"If you want others to know what Christ will do for them, tell them what He has done for you."

Nothing beats the testimony of a satisfied customer.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Do Your Part to Save Ohio History

The work of the Ohio Historical Society is so important. A knowledge of the state's past is intrinsically important, of course. People who live in a place ought to have an awareness of the journey traveled so far.

But, as the country learns every four years, Ohio has played a pivotal role in the history of the country and of the world.

People, particularly young people, learn about this not only from the Ohio Historical Museum and the nearby Ohio Village, a representation of a typical Ohio town in the early-1800s, but in sites and museums maintained by the Society throughout the state.

Just a few weeks ago, my son and I visited Adena near Chillicothe, the home of the father of Ohio's statehood. As we drove a winding around the modest, but impressive mansion, I told my son, "Look over there." His eyes lit up as he recognized that this was the spot that, more than two centuries ago, gave inspiration to the design of the seal of the state. A small, but not unimportant thing.

The Ohio Historical Society, which depends in part on state funding, is facing tough times. The governor's next biennial budget cuts state appropriations dramatically, for understandable reasons. Among the sites facing possible closure is the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, the hometown of the first person to walk on the Moon. This modest, but informative, museum is a perfect introduction to the history of space flight for young people. After July 20, the 40th. anniversary of Armstrong's walk, the place may be shut down.

The Ohio Historical Society is working on getting a local organization and volunteers to keep the museum open. That may be necessary and may work out well, as I've seen local groups doing fantastic work, as with the boyhood home of General William Tecumseh Sherman and brother, Congressman John Sherman, in Lancaster, Ohio.

But there are things that you and I can do to fill the gap precipitated, in part, by the economic downturn: Join the Ohio Historical Society. You can learn more about the Society here and you can join here. Please consider doing it. Preserving history is one of the ways we find our ways to better futures.

[Pictured from top to bottom: Adena, the home of Thomas Worthington, near Chillicothe; the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, inspired by a sunrise seen by Worthington and other early Ohio leaders, over the Ross County hills; and the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta.]