Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Kindness Outreach Chronicles (Part 6)

A group of Saint Matthew folks went out again today for a Saturday morning Kindness Outreach. Once more today, we gave away 210 bottles of cold water to folks in cars stopped at traffic lights, walkers, a fellow trimming hedges at a nearby house, and one dog. (More on the dog later.)

The writer of the New Testament book of Ephesians reminds followers of Jesus Christ that their relationship with Christ and the eternity with God that Jesus offers comes not because we're good or virtuous people nor for any good things we might do. "For by grace [that is, God's charity] you have been saved [from sin, death, and hell] through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). We are saved by God's grace, which we claim as our own when we dare to trust Jesus' promise to erase the death-dealing power of sin over our lives AND that He will give us new lives with God.

Kindness Outreaches present a great picture of how "grace through faith" works. We saw it again today.

The water we give is free. All people need to do is trust us enough to take it.

But some don't. Of course, we don't force the water on them any more than Christ forces Himself or His grace on anyone. Until the light turns green, when handing out water would entail stopping traffic, something we don't do, people can change their minds. Similarly, as long as we draw breath or until Jesus comes back, we can--like the thief on the cross who knew his sin, but turned to Jesus for forgiveness and the promise of paradise with God--we can turn to Christ and live. But why wait? The blessing of being sustained and accompanied, actually being dwelt in, by Jesus in this life are too good to pass up!

Few of the people who receive or reject the bottled water we offer them on Saturdays will ever think of themselves as participants in a living parable about how salvation works. But we do hope that the water and the little cards that accompany each bottle will help them think, "I wonder why people who believe in Jesus are out giving away something for free on a Saturday morning?"

If they are spiritually disconnected people, asking that question could lead them on a road to Christ. That's what we pray will happen because it's only through Jesus that the free gifts of forgiveness and life with God can come to a person. As Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

So, what happened today?
  • A woman was walking with her dog. She said that she wasn't thirsty, but that her dog was and loved to catch water from a bottle as she poured it. My wife Ann said, "Mark, you've got to get a picture of this!" I did. It's below. After Ann and Fran had a conversation with the woman, Ann told her, "Here's a bottle for you." She took it and said goodbye to us all as she walked on.
  • Jesse, a college sophomore from our congregation, took water to the occupants of a stopped vehicle. A little kid offered the entire allowance he had just received in exchange. Even kids find it hard to fathom getting something for nothing...which is why the good news about Jesus is so hard to accept and so fantastic to receive!
  • A woman stopped at a light on Hunter Street, her windows rolled down, had initially turned down my offer of water. But I persisted. "Really?" I asked. "It's cold and wet and free!" She laughed and said, "All right." She took the bottle and thanked me.
  • A woman in her sixties wasn't going to take a bottle. "You're not going to get thirsty?" I asked her. "OK," she said, "but just one."
  • Another woman was skeptical. "What's the catch?" she asked. "Nothing," I told her, handing a bottle to her and telling her, "Have a good day."
  • A woman told Fran and Ann that she didn't need water, but wondered if she could make a donation to our work. They said, "No, thank you." We never take money. 
  • A young mom happily accepted water and told us, "This will get me through the drive home!" 
  • Three guys involved in lawn care were bunched together in the cab of their truck, the first vehicle in a line at the red light. At first, they refused our offer. But as they saw us giving away water to people behind them, they evidently thought better of it. "Hey!" the guy riding shotgun called out, "Could we have some of that water?" Sometimes all we need to take the leap of faith or trust is the example of others living with faith or trust.
Like I say, Kindness Outreaches present living pictures how "salvation by grace through faith" works.

No Kindness Outreach next Saturday. But we'll do another one on Saturday, August 27.

Friday, August 12, 2011

On Making Plans

"Plans are the prerogative of God; obedience is the privilege of His children." (Luis Palau, The Moment to Shout: God's Way to Face Walls)

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Psalms

[This week, as we together read the Bible in a year here at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, we're moving into the Psalms. Below is the text of what will be both a handout for the discussion groups on Wednesday and an insert in this coming Sunday's bulletin.]

The Psalms are sometimes referred to as “liturgical poetry.” Leitourgia, the word that is transliterated into English as liturgy, literally means “work of the people.” To worship God for all His goodness, grace, and power is the work of God’s people and it’s something we’re to do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But there are special times when God’s people come together to worship God. The Psalms, compiled over many centuries, are words that the Jews of ancient times and of today, have used for their public worship for centuries. As people who have, through Jesus Christ and our faith in Him, been made part of God’s family, the Psalms are for us, too.

Traditionally, the largest share of the Psalms has been attributed to David, Israel’s second king. Others are said to be written by people like Moses and Asaph. Some are ascribed to nobody in particular.

Who wrote the 150 psalms in this book isn’t as important as what each of them does. Basically, they function to help us have an honest conversation with God, no matter what our circumstances, feelings, or needs.

According to one prominent scholar, Claus Westermann, there are ten types of psalms:
•    The Community Psalm of Lament
•    The Community Psalm of Narrative Praise
•    The Individual Psalm of Lament
•    The Individual Psalm of Narrative Praise
•    The Psalm of Descriptive Praise or Hymn
•    Creation Psalms
•    Liturgical Psalms
•    Royal Psalms
•    Enthronement Psalms
•    Wisdom Psalms

In general terms, lament psalms give voice to feelings we have in times of trouble. They could arise from personal suffering and grief or national calamities. Examples of community lament include Psalms 44, 74, and 79. Examples of individual lament are Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and many others.

Psalms of narrative praise speak of God’s greatness through the narration of specific events. Examples of community praise include Psalms 106, 124, and 129. Examples of individual praise are Psalms 9, 18, 30, and many others.

Psalms of descriptive praise give honor to God while describing His blessings. They had a special place in ancient Jewish worship. Some in this category include Psalms 29, 33, 65, and 145-150, among many others.

Creation psalms speak of God as the Sovereign Who created and rules over His creation. They praise God as Creator. Psalms 8, 104, and 139 fall into this category.

As to liturgical psalms, Westermann says that those psalms referred to as “liturgies…are clearly shaped by…a combination of liturgical speech with liturgical actions.” Most commonly, this involves what we call antiphonies, when a worship leader or one group issues a call and all in the congregation or portions of the congregation respond. Good examples are Psalms 66 and 107. There are subcategories in this grouping like Pilgrimage Songs, sung by people as they processed or traveled to the temple in Jerusalem; Songs of Zion, which were probably Pilgrimage Songs specifically asking God to protect Jerusalem from attack; Psalms of Blessing, special benedictions for those who had worshiped in Jerusalem during a festival and were returning to their homes; and Entrance Instructions, dealing with entering the sanctuary during a festival.

Royal psalms have to do with the rulers of the nation, while enthronement psalms hail God as the one and only true King!

Wisdom psalms are liturgical poetry that present wisdom from God, akin to the book of Proverbs. Examples include Psalms 37, 49, and 112.

The word psalm refers to a sacred song or hymn. There are psalms in other books of the Old Testament and the categories into which scholars sometimes divide the book of Psalms can overlap.

But hopefully, this overview is helpful.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Does God Still Speak to His People?

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Kings 19:9-18
In his fantastic book, The Power of a Whisper, Pastor Bill Hybels, tells what happened to him one day after he prayed this prayer: “God, if there is something you would like me to do…then please say so. It doesn’t matter what it is; I’ll do it.”

He had no idea how God might answer that prayer. But in a few days, Hybels and his wife Lynne were leaving the funeral of his aunt and getting into their car when he “spotted a frail, elderly woman pulling into [a] nearby apartment complex.” He saw the woman park her car, then “slowly and laboriously pull grocery bags out of her trunk.” Hybels sensed God’s Holy Spirit telling him, “How about helping that woman with her groceries?”

Initially, Hybels says, he tried to brush past this holy whisper. It seemed so mundane. But he remembered his prayer.

He approached the elderly woman, asking if he could help her. Relieved, she said, “Oh, yes! Thank you!”

As Hybels tells it: “The driveway leading back to her apartment recently had been seal-coated and was roped off, meaning residents had to walk a few hundred yards just to get from their cars to their homes.” Hybels knew he was helping to fill a real need, especially when the woman handed him a thirty-pound bag of peaches even he found a little hard to handle.

As Hybels tells it, the woman led him “through backyards that had become swamps due to recent rains…” She was “extremely arthritic and slow-moving.” It took thirty minutes for them just to make their way to the woman’s apartment!

After he had helped her to empty the sacks, she reached her hand out to Hybels and said, “I will believe to my dying day that God sent you to help me just now.” As inglorious as it all seemed, Hybels was sure she was right.

Our first Bible lesson for today recounts a conversation between God and the prophet Elijah. It raises an important question: Does God still speak to believers in 2011, the way He spoke to his prophet in the ninth-century BC or was Hybels’ direct message from God a figment of an overly spiritual imagination? What does the Bible say?

Pull out the pew Bibles for a moment, please, and turn to 1 Samuel 3:1, on page 158. The verse tells about when God called a young boy named Samuel to be a priest, judge, and prophet. It says: “Now the boy Samuel ministered to the LORD before Eli. [And this is the part to which I want to call particular attention:] And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation.” That last sentence has always interested me because of is its unspoken assumption that, throughout much of ancient Israel’s history, God commonly spoke to His especially called people, like prophets. The era before Samuel’s call apparently, was a rare time when the connection between God and His people grew spotty.

Centuries after Samuel, after God came into the world in the person of Jesus and after Jesus died and rose and sent the Holy Spirit to believers in the Church, it wasn’t just to prophets and priests that God spoke. It was to all believers. In the pew Bibles, take a look at Acts, chapter 2, starting at verse 17, on page 627. On Pentecost, Peter is explaining how ordinary people who believed in Jesus were telling others about God’s mighty works. He explained how such a thing was possible by remembering the ancient words of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh…”

In fact, throughout the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early Church, we’re told how God’s people prayed and God directed them. The Bible assumes that it’s normal for God to speak to believers who are dialed into God.

But how does God speak to us?

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts and look at the first lesson, 2 Kings 19:9-18.

Let’s set the stage: It’s the ninth century BC. About fifty years earlier, the nation of Israel had split in two. The southern kingdom, known as Judah, retained its worship life in Jerusalem and struggled to retain its faith in the God of the Bible, Who they knew as Yahweh, the LORD. The northern kingdom, with its capital of Samaria, called itself Israel.

According to the Bible, the northern kingdom never had a king who was faithful to Yahweh or just in his actions. The worst of its rulers was Ahab, who worshiped Baal, a false deity of rain, fertility, and agriculture.

Despite the LORD’s first commandment that no other god should be worshiped, Ahab and his wife Jezebel encouraged the people to turn their back on God.

God made Elijah a prophet in order to call the king and the nation to repent for their sins and to trust in God alone.

A contest was held at Mount Carmel involving Elijah on one side and 400 prophets of Baal on the other. No matter what the prophets of Baal did, they couldn't cause their idol to do anything to prove its existence. (In fact, one of the funniest passages in Scripture is part of this incident. As the Baal worshipers went through their conniptions, Elijah taunted them, at one point suggesting that Baal has wandered away. But actually, that dainty translation in most of our English versions of the Bible don't get it right. Elijah literally told them that maybe Baal had to take a pit stop to go to the bath room!)

At Mount Carmel, God was shown to be faithful and powerful, while Baal was shown to be a man-made fiction.

Right after this contest, it seemed that the northern kingdom would return to God. King Ahab got rid of the prophets of Baal as God, through Elijah, directed him.

Later though, Ahab told his wife Jezebel about all that happened and she sent a message to Elijah, telling him that within a day’s time, she would see that Elijah was a dead man. First Kings, chapter 19, verse 3, says that when Elijah received that message, “he was afraid” and he ran. Like Peter, in our Gospel lesson, Elijah allowed his fears to veto his faith in God. He panicked.

Our lesson finds Elijah at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the place where, six centuries before Elijah’s time, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Twice in our lesson, God asks Elijah why he has run. Twice, Elijah says, as he does in verse 10, you see: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant [the covenant God had made with Israel on that very mountain], thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Have you ever known fear like that, a fear that leaves you feeling alone and without hope? The doctor tells you about a poor prognosis or a loved one dies and you wonder how you can possibly function. The stock market moves further into negative territory and you fear that you’ll have no retirement income.

It’s at times like these that God wants to tell us, in the words of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

God wants to tell all who believe in Jesus Christ, as 1 John 4:4 puts it: “Little children…the one who is in you [the Bible teaches that Christ lives in His people] is greater than the one who is in the world.”

God is bigger than anything we may fear and, as Romans 8 reminds us, those who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, live in the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God given to us through Christ!

Sometimes though, we may need special guidance or assurance. Elijah did.

Look at verse 11 of our first lesson. God told Elijah to stand on the mountain, “for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then, we’re told, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire, and after the fire the sound of sheer silence.”

It was there in the silence, that somewhere in his own spirit, Elijah heard God speak to him. (The older translations says that God spoke to Elijah in “a still, small voice,” but even that may suggest something too noisy.)

God then ordered Elijah to move past his fears, giving him three specific tasks.

Listen! When you’re afraid or lonely or need guidance or you simply want to offer yourself to the God Who offered Himself for you on the cross, you can hear from God.

The most reliable place to hear God is on the pages of the Bible. That’s where God’s Word can always be found.

I got to know a Pentecostal pastor named Howard back in Cincinnati. Loved that man! We were having a heart to heart one night when he said, “You know, so many Pentecostals want to hear ‘a special word from God.’ But all they really need to do is look at the Bible to find God’s Word for their lives.” I smiled and said, "Howard, you sound like a Lutheran!"

Howard was right! We’ve all read about people who have done horrible things because, they claimed, some voice had told them to do so. If you feel prompted to do something, look in the Book. Find out what God’s Word says. Talk to a trusted Christian friend who knows God’s Book. God will never tell us to do anything that runs contrary to His revealed will in the Bible. Never.

But when, in the silence of your soul, you sense God prompting you, go for it!

Jim and Sheila, from our congregation, went to Bob Evans for lunch on Friday. Across the way from them sat an older man eating by himself. Sheila observed his conversation with the waitress, indicating he might be a “regular” there. She thought she heard him use the word, “radiation.”

That’s when I think God spoke to Sheila. “I felt,” she wrote to me in an email on Friday, “like I wanted to make this man’s day.”

In order to not be heard by the man, she wrote a note asking the waitress to bring the man’s check to Jim and her. She handed one of our “The Meal’s on Us!” cards to the waitress to give to the man. Later, the waitress brought a box to the man as he’d requested and told him that his meal had been taken care of. “Who?” he asked. The waitress shrugged. The man teared up, read the card twice, then tucked it into his pocket. Sheila says, “My heart felt warm all over.”

[The front of one of our "This meal's on us!" card.]

[The back side of our "This meal's on us!" card.]

Does God still speak to His people today? Yes, most reliably in His Word, the Bible.

But there are also times when God may speak to us in the silence of our hearts and minds, when God will order our steps directly. God will teach us, as He taught Elijah (and as he taught Peter in our Gospel lesson), to live "by faith and not by sight.”

And when we live by faith in Christ, then we are  truly living!