Saturday, August 08, 2009
I was sick recently and claimed that I had Swine Flu -- it is the disease d'jour of course. Besides, who wants to have something run of the mill like the "common" cold when you can claim to be infected with H1N1.
Sorry for the confusion -- for the record, I do not have Swine Flu.
But maybe I did? I have been wondering how I would even know that I did or did not have Swine Flu? What's the difference between it and the many other flu's that are available? I don't even know that I had flu.
Swine Flu triggers something in us. We are conditioned to pay attention to it. But do you remember the ominous illness of days gone by? Remember Bird Flu? How about SARS? What about Mad Cow disease? There's a farm theme going on here.
Here's one I bet we've all forgotten -- who remembers the impending invasion of Killer Bees? Remember when it seemed like a huge swarm of them was going to cross the border of Mexico and just overwhelm us?
The lesson for the day: The media peddles fear. Don't buy it.
Sunday, August 02, 2009
We believe that God’s mission has a church. We believe that this congregation, this church is part of God’s mission. That mission unfolds here in many ways, but if we had to name four ways that it is being worked out on a large scale then I would say, as we’ve said before, it is Campus, Kids, Healing, and Hope.
It is this last one that I want to call your attention to: Hope. What does hope look like among a people who strive to live out God’s mission in this world? What is hope? What does it do, what does it feel like? Is hope something more than a political slogan or campaign buzzword (like change)? Is hope anything more than wishful thinking?
To appreciate what hope means, we need a word of wisdom about our human condition that is more ancient than our American culture in the 21st century. We need a word of wisdom that is much deeper than our reductionist reading of Bible. We need a word that truly speaks what we feel rather than what we think we should feel.
There is such a word in the Psalms. We find it buried beneath the sweet and comforting glow of Psalm 23. We find it on the lips of Jesus as he suffers on the cross. It is a word familiar to God’s children, but unfortunately we haven’t always felt comfortable discussing it. It’s like on of those family secrets that everyone knows, but no one can ever verbalize it.
But this Psalm was written down for all generations. It was set to music and arranged to be sung in worship. It became the earliest Christians’ scripture for understanding Jesus. Unfortunately we have given this Psalm to Jesus, applied it to Jesus, but never owned it ourselves. If we are going to take up our cross and follow him, then we need to open this Psalm up. For as raw, ugly, and seemingly irreverent as this Psalm may seem, it is a key that unlocks the meaning of hope.
1. Crying Out for Help: What do you say when God seems Silent?
There are times when our wrote prayers just don’t seem to have any meaning. Sometimes it is easy or even comforting to shout praises – to declare God is Great, God is Good. We should and ought to give thanks. We should and ought to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your Name!”
But sometimes, we cannot because we feel like we are shouting into an empty darkness. Let’s be honest, there are times that we want to say, “God, where are you?”
This Psalm (and many others) gives us permission to ask the questions that may seem inappropriate or irreverent. After all, God doesn’t want a relationship with people who don’t have any expectations of him (Do you want that sort of relationship?).
On the cross, Jesus doesn’t pray “Our Father who art heaven hallowed be thy name.” Rather he is verbalizing a question that he dare not ignore – a question from deep within his soul – “God, why are you so far from me?”
Jesus takes this whole thing very personally, because Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He’s not a hypocrite. With the Pharisees, God is all business. When something goes wrong, well God didn’t mean anything by it. It’s not personal. But for Jesus, this is Father and Son. And if it is for Jesus, then it is for us.
We have expectations for God – we remember how he has helped other people in times of trouble. We can read stories about the mighty things he has done. And rather than give God an excuse not to help in case God doesn’t want to the Psalmist holds God’s feet to the fire.
This is more than just a prayer – something religious to say so that we can remind ourselves and others that we are believers – this is a plea.
If it seems irreverent or sacrilegious to make such a plea and accuse God of being away from his post, then let me explain why this matters:
1) We are going to feel like this no matter how often we lie to ourselves and others.
2) If we dress up our prayers and lie to God, then what have we lost? We have lost our expectation that God will do anything. We are essentially numbing ourselves to the pain and suffering and all of our prayers are saying – “Whatever.” There’s no hope there.
Psalm 22 is a deeply reverent prayer – It affirms that God should be God. It remembers how God helps those need it. It has high expectations of God and calls God out. High expectations lead to hope. It’s not enough to accept that God can do what he has done before – we must hope that he will. Expect it and call out for it!
2. God is Near:
The Psalmist reflects on God’s presence. God was there when he was born. God was there when he was just a nursing child. God is present in the little things. In the smallest, most common efforts at survival. God is there not removing it from us, but working in it.
Now all the more since this Psalm is spoken by Jesus on the cross, the experience of pain and suffering in this world is changed. It isn’t that pain and suffering are really different, but there is new perspective. God doesn’t run away from our suffering. He doesn’t abandon us.
Pain and suffering may come about because of our poor choices, but God doesn’t abandon us. It isn’t always divine retribution. How can we say that?
i. The cross and the words of Jesus show that God identifies with the weak and suffering. He participates in it. It is radical to suggest that God suffers.
ii. Suffering is not a sign of misfortune. Nor is God trying to teach us a lesson. Remember that Jesus made this personal. God isn’t a dispassionate divine despot experimenting on us poor humans. He is in the trenches with us. He has risked something in order to make a difference.
Hope feels like the experience of v. 24. God doesn’t ignore or abandon those who suffer. (v. 24)
3. Celebration and Suffering: Hope promises to praise God.
The Psalmist fixes Hope on the anticipation of telling the story of God’s help. – There is an expectation in the goodness of God. Somehow, someway when this is over the story of God’s help will be told. It will be sung.
Notice the setting for the praise – the assembly! Others will hear it. Generations later will tell it and sing it. (v. 25-31). Like evangelism it is going to be told everywhere.
But I have to ask: Do we give a place in our assemblies for people to bear witness? Do we permit ourselves the opportunity to praise God for his help. Not just in general, but the real stories. Can we name the pain and suffering that we feel? Not just the surgeries and sicknesses, but the depression, the fear, the pain and sickness of heart. Dare we name our brokenness like the Psalmist – like Christ?
In our culture we spend a lot of time and effort on ignoring suffering and pain. It is good that we have treatments and therapies that have been unheard of in ages past, but our attitude of secrecy and our advertising of solutions has implied that if you are hurting or suffering, then something about you must be abnormal. Furthermore, we get the idea that if life isn’t always glamorous, exciting, perfect, and snappy, then something is really wrong. If boring and sad are problems for our culture, then how much more is suffering and pain a problem. Our efforts to ignore pain and suffering are stressing us out.
When I say culture, I mean us in the church too. Can we be different enough to allow our Psalmist to tell what God has done? Is our assembly a time and place that allows the afflicted to fulfill their vows to praise God (v. 25)?
Imagine our assembly and our community as a place of Hope. Like God we do not hide our face from those who suffer. Like God we do not despise or abandon those who feel forsaken. The praises of those who have received help, strengthen those who cry out for it.
Thank you for your prayers and encouragement that made it possible for me to join the group that went to Mexico to work on a church building for the congregation in Santa Monica, just outside Monterrey.
· These lessons grow out of my mission trip in Mexico – (I packed my yellow tool bag and got busy with the work, not quite knowing exactly what we would be doing, but knowing that there was a mission).
· However, the application of these lessons is larger than just Mexico Missions or an particular missions.
· It is about THE mission and the church at West-Ark which is part of that mission.
1. Tools are not the mission. They serve the mission.
I took the tools I thought might be useful for the sort of work I anticipated. But then I packed some other items. At first I wasn’t sure why, but most all of them served the mission.
· Some became immediately useful – wire cutters and pliers
· Some became useful in unexpected ways – Wonder Bar (why would it be useful when we had all those crowbars and hammers? It is the best tool for prying a board when more is needed than brute strength.); the combination pliers. Without a socket wrench and a socket, we had no other way to remove the spark plug from a faulty compacter.
· Some were not useful at all expect for one moment: Why did I bring my headlamp? It was sunny all day. Why would I ever need this? At the very end of the trip, when we got home and it was 1:30 in the morning. I had searched for my keys. I then took out the headlamp and could see where they were hidden in my suitcase!
Our mission was not determined by the type of tools in this bag, rather the tools in this bag were made to serve the mission
2. The tool bag is defined by its contents – not the other way around!
This dirty old tool bag was slung around all week. It got filthy and beat up. It got wet. It wasn’t that attractive to begin with -- a rather sickly day-glow yellow and it has my initials scrawled on it. But this dirty tool bag performed its task well, it contained something that was needed to accomplish the mission.
It is a vessel. If it carried medical supplies, it would not have been a tool bag. I had another black bag for those useful items. It was defined by its contents.
We are containers; what we contain makes us worthy
3. Sometimes you have to hit the board to pull the nail.
Our nail pulling crew learned this lesson. There were moments that they would work on a particularly tight, twisted nail. Even though their hammer had a tight grip on it and even though two of them would be pulling on the hammer it just wouldn’t come loose. But then, they would take another hammer and hit the board. Pop! It came right out.
Working together; learning from one another. Seeking wisdom from those who were working ahead of us.
Don’t worry about what isn’t in the tool bag; just focus on what is in the tool bag. I was fortunate to have just what was needed – sometimes it took creativity – but we had what we needed. (But I did think on occasion that I would give my back teeth for a good reciprocating saw).
The mission always requires us to be creative and wise.
1. Tools are not the mission. They serve the mission.
· We turn our tools into the mission. I could have sat in a shady corner all day cleaning the tools, oiling them, refusing to use them because I didn’t want them to get worn. Fussing with everyone over the proper way to use the tools (instead of the creative uses we often had to employ). I could have been very selective about who used them and maybe even checked them out and hovered over the folks who used them. I could have brought back a shiny bag with clean tools. How would that have served the mission? Would that have served the mission? Of course not.
· Too often we make tools the mission. We focus and worry so much on buildings, programs, and resources. Now hear me correctly – I am not against these resources. They are all useful and all worthy of the time and expense as they serve the mission of God. But when our purpose is to keep and maintain these things, we cease to serve the mission (not the tools, but we cease to serve the mission).
a. It can be the physical resources – buildings, vans, property, family life center, and auditorium. Even smaller tools count: computers, software, carpet and pews.
b. It can also be more subtle things: bank accounts, committee structures, the type of printed or unprinted music we use in worship, the type of bread and juice we use in communion, the format of the bulletin. Even things like curriculum, the format of worship, the sermon and how it is preached (I struggle with this).
c. Yes, it is appropriate to think about these things as we pack our tool bag for the mission. It is good and worthwhile to think about their best use, but tools must never become the mission.
d. When Christ returns he isn’t going to be impressed with how clean our vans are, rather how we used that van in the mission. When Christ returns he isn’t going to be impressed with our musical arrangements of songs and whether we all hit the right note in the proper key, but he is pleased with the heart, passion, and gratitude that swells up in our praise of his glory. When Christ returns he isn’t going to be impressed with my preaching eloquence – or lack thereof – but he will be concerned with the truth and good news of the message shared.
Our mission is not determined by our tools; rather all of our tools must serve the mission.
2. The tool bag is defined by its contents – not the other way around!
· We are containers; what we contain makes us worthy.
· Think of how much attention we give to our outward appearance and our outward well-being. Are we truly as balanced as we need to be?
· 2 Cor. 4:1-15 . . . We can spend so much time trying to make ourselves and our congregation attractive, when we are simply the clay jars. Our weaknesses and imperfections do not become a discouragement or something to cover up; rather we plainly show that the power to save is from God – not us.
The container is defined by its contents – not the other way around!
3. Sometimes we should hit the board, not the nail.
· The mission always requires us to be creative and wise.
· Creativity and Wisdom – Luke 16. Jesus nudges the church for not being as creative as the people of the world. After all, if the people of this world are so intent on achieving their goals, shouldn’t God’s church be all the more intent on fulfilling his mission.
· Why aren’t we as creative and wise as we can be? Usually because we are afraid. Specifically we submit to the “Fear of Criticism.”
· We reveal it in our comments such as “Somebody’s going to say something.”
· Let’s take “Somebody’s going say something” out of our language. Notice how non-specific the statement is. What is the something that somebody is going to say? Maybe something good? Maybe something praiseworthy? Maybe something that helps? And who is somebody? Usually Somebody is Nobody.
a. Let’s be creative and wise and remove from our thinking the attitude of “Can’t Do That.”
· The spirit (or leaven) of the Pharisees is too often still among us waiting to spread and grow. We have to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees. It is that tendency in us to focus on our resources to hoard them. To be satisfied in our rules, our policies, our abilities, our knowledge, and stop trusting in God. The leaven of the Pharisees kills the passion and creativity that God’s mission requires.