Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Are You Ready to Grow Smaller?

[This piece, originally posted earlier this evening on Facebook, is inspired by Matthew, chapter 18.]

When God came into the world to save us from ourselves, He didn't overpower us. He didn't make war. He didn't go into politics. He didn't establish a financial empire. Those, He knows, are all the ways of death, the ways of people who wrongly believe that this world can offer us freedom or salvation or meaning.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God became a sinless servant who died on a cross at the hands of every human being. That was His plan...and because of our darkened minds, we played right into His nail-pierced hands.

The God we know in Jesus always chooses what the world sees as weak, insignificant, and small to accomplish His purposes.

He doesn't do it through military conquest.

Nor through political power.

Nor with big bucks.

And He absolutely doesn't do it through preachers who promise unrepentant people success and prosperity.

Instead, God uses every believer in Christ who, convicted of their own need of Christ, call others to repentance and the faith in Jesus that alone can save us from sin, death, and darkness.

A dying world still tells us the lie that we can conquer all if we get bigger and stronger.

But freedom from all that kills and destroys us only comes to those who to the small, disdained way of trusting in Jesus to do for us all that we clearly cannot do for ourselves.

The vulnerable and weak are better able to understand this; they know that they're not "all that," that they're not gods.

Our call from the God revealed in Jesus isn't to grow up to be big and strong, or independent and self-sufficient, but to become little children who trust in Christ alone.

The phenomenal song linked below, written by the late Mark Heard, and performed by the late Rich Mullins, is a reminder of the stupid futility of pushing ourselves to the top when real life is found in surrender to God's grace, His charity.

It's time for us grow down, to descend to true greatness, becoming children at the feet of the One Who has torn eternity open for all His little children. Are you ready to get small?

Tonight's Weeknight Bible Study of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18

Monday, June 29, 2020

Tonight's Weeknight Bible Study of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16

June 29: Of Saint Peter, My 2010 Heart Attack, Malcolm Guite's Poem, and Following Jesus

On the calendar of the Lutheran movement, today is the Day of Saints Peter and Paul. 

We remember saints, people the Bible shows to be sinners saved by grace through faith in Christ, to remember how deep God's love is for human beings. 

Through the saints, we also remember how much God can do through sinners who turn to Jesus for forgiveness and new life.

I have experienced these undeserved gifts many times in the forty-four years since I began--imperfectly, often rebelliously--to follow Jesus. 

He called me to Himself even as I tried to dig in, a recalcitrant atheist who wanted my own way.

He called me to ordained ministry, I dug in resistantly to that, and He kept calling. 

And He has continued to call me, despite my sin, through my nearly thirty-six years of ordained ministry.

He called me and remained faithful to me even when I have been faithless or, by turns, heedless of His will or willfully intent on pursuing my own course. 

The God I know in Jesus has been gracious to me.

He has also stood by me. Moses said of Him to God's people, the Israelites, "he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6). And Jesus, God in human flesh, tells all who believe in Him: "I am with you always." (Matthew 28:20)

I have found those promises of God to be true in my walk with Jesus Christ. 

Facebook Memories reminds me that it was ten years ago today that I returned from the hospital after receiving a stent in the left anterior descending artery leading from my heart. 

Two weeks earlier, I had the "widowmaker," a heart attack with a 100% blockage in that artery. 

I probably should have died. A year later, my heart significantly damaged, likely because a local hospital ER had failed to detect what was happening at the outset, I received a pacemaker/defibrillator. (I lost 40% of my heart muscle, something that medicine can't yet restore.) 

But I remember well what the cardiac care nurse told me the day I received the stent. "We don't see too many people who survive the heart attack you had. Almost never. God must have a reason for you to still be here."

Whether the nurse said that because she knew she was speaking with a pastor or she really meant it, I have always regarded it as a true statement...although I have not always lived as though it was true. 

Like Saint Peter, even after Jesus' resurrection, there have been days when I've talked big and lived small, jumped to conclusions, followed the crowd. But I pray that, like Saint Peter, I've known to return to Jesus each day in what Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal." 

What I have learned, especially over the past decade, is what I suppose Saint Peter learned. Peter is the one, of course, who tells us that "baptism saves you" and that through Christ, we are born again. But Peter also found that he could still get things wrong, still had to be corrected by others in the Church, even as he lived out his life as a faithful disciple and apostle. And he learned, as I am learning, that Christ is so patient that as I turn to Him, I am born again each day.

I identify with Peter. 

That's why I asked that the Roman Catholic priest who preached at my ordination in 1984, to focus on John's account of the risen Jesus meeting the disciples on the lakeshore. There, Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him, three painful and restorative questions that allowed Peter to repent and know God's forgiveness. 

It can be painful to follow Jesus. 

It's painful for us as proud human beings to own up to our sin and to our mortality, to confess our need of Savior and our need of God. At least it is for me. 

"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other," God tells His ancient people in Isaiah 45:22. 

And at the first Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus' disciples to proclaim all of God's mighty deeds, including raising the dead Jesus to life, Peter cited words from the Old Testament to call people to turn to God in the flesh, Jesus, with the words, "And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Acts 2:21) 

As Peter himself would say to Jesus, after the Lord had asked the disciples if they wanted to abandon Him as others were doing, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

All of this comes to mind because, on this day of Saints Peter and Paul and the anniversary of my coming home from the hospital ten years ago knowing that Jesus had, for His mysterious purposes, delivered me from death, the poet Malcolm Guite has reposted a poem about Saint Peter. 

As Guite reminds us, Peter shows us that while life with God is a gift freely given in Jesus, following Jesus on this side of our own death and resurrection isn't easy. 

For me always, as I suspect was the case for Peter, the greatest impediment to my following Jesus faithfully is me...always me: my sin, my preferences, my ambitions, my insecurities, my faulty judgments, my big mouth, my little faith. I always seem to be getting in the way of Jesus working in my life. 

And then there's the constant opposition Christians face as we seek to follow Jesus: the sin of a fallen world and the evil one, the devil, always on the prowl, as Peter well knew.

Yet, for all the impediments and struggles involved in following Jesus, there is no other way I want to follow. So, each day, when Jesus calls, I ask the Holy Spirit's power to do what I cannot do on my own, follow Jesus.

At my ordination nearly thirty-six years ago, we sang the haunting ahymn, They Cast Their Nets. I love the melody by Herbert G. Draesel, Jr. But the lyrics penetrate to the core of what it means to be one of Jesus' disciples, a sinner made a saint by His grace, a needy human being who keeps following Jesus even when it brings suffering or rejection or disappointment. It recalls the disciples Jesus called by the Sea of Galilee: Andrew, Peter, John, and James. In their experience of following Jesus, we see what it must be like for all who put their trust in Him:
They cast their nets in Galilee,
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisherfolk,
Before the Lord came down,
Before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too,
Brimful, and broke them too.

Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified,
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace.
But strife closed within the sod.
Yet, let us pray for but one thing:
The marv'lous peace of God,
The marv'lous peace of God.
© William A. Percy, 1885-1942

Peter reminds me to embrace an enduring faith. Jesus says, "The one who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Matthew 24:13) Thank God!

Here is Malcolm Guite's beautiful poem for Saint Peter.

Buy Me A Book