Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Led By The Spirit

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Luke 4:1-2

Ash Wednesday we call it, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent, and this year it begins Feb. 17. Lent is the un-fun part of the Christian year. It's the forty days we focus on things like discipline and fasting and when we read the Bible stories about the Israelites wandering in the desert and the above story about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It's a time when we remind ourselves about the brutally hard aspects of life and the uncomfortable fact that a true resurrection requires an actual death. Churches often cease using the word Alleluia during these 40 days and for good reason. It is not a fun time.

It is, however, an instructional and formative time. It was during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that a group of freed Hebrew slaves became a nation. It was the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness that gave Jesus the focus and strength needed to embark on his life's mission. In that sense, Lent is a bit like school. It's hard...and yet the harder it is, the better you turn out in the end if you put your mind to it and have the right support.

What I find comforting in both the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus' temptation is that God is present. In the Exodus story God takes the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the Israelites across the harsh desert. Luke starts off his story by pointing out the same thing. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness. God is there--even though Jesus is hungry and the devil shows up.

I also find it comforting to know that the hard, harsh desert times of our lives are not necessarily just my own rotten luck or punishment for my sins. It happened to Jesus, after all. No matter how or why those times have come, the Spirit is here with me...leading me...trying to make me into something stronger, better, and more aware than before. Too often I see the devil and fail to see the Spirit.

Around the world we are in a Lenten, desert season of sorts. Times are tough and just when we're down the blizzards come. Those who are supposed to lead us bicker like school children and call each other names. We encourage them to keep it up by voting our hatreds and keeping the ratings high for media outlets that do the same. We keep seeing the devil and failing to see the Spirit.

The season of Lent reminds us that hard times are where greatness is given birth. It was in the years of the Great Depression and World War II that the people we now call "The Greatest Generation" were molded. I would say that the Spirit led them in that time, even though some could see only the devil. I think we are in the same kind of desert now--the kind where it's hard to find water and the climate is uncomfortable and it seems like every hope turns out to be a mirage. But the Spirit is here, too, leading us to something better.

Lent reminds us that seeing that Spirit in a sandstorm requires discipline. We need to know the One we are looking for, and that requires time in prayer, study, and contemplation. Where I see a solid chair, a physicist sees a hub of molecular activity, but she didn't see that at birth. She learned to see it through disciplined training. Lent is that training for spiritual life.

We are in the desert. The devil is here and cannot be ignored. But the Spirit is leading us. Follow. The greatness of God is trying to be born in you.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Keeping Watch

Matthew 26:38b "Stay here and keep watch with me."

Over New Year's I was visiting friends in Florida and, as you know if you've been watching the news, Florida has been having record cold temperatures. New Year's morning began with forty-degree temperatures and pouring rain, starting about 5:30 am and lasting all morning. So we got up late, felt lazy, and figured we'd shower and get dressed sometime after the Rose Bowl parade.

Then Dorothy said, "I just saw a dog." Understand that the home I was visiting is out in the middle of nowhere. You drive until the pavement turns to dirt and the dirt turns into their front yard. A dog out there meant a lost dog. It was about 9:30 am, it was still pouring and miserable and cold. I went out on the porch.

Shortly, she came around the corner--a chocolate lab, soaked through and acting as if she had been shoed away from a number of other homes, perhaps with force. But I could see she had a collar and tags, and after some persistence, she came to me. It took awhile, but I managed to get her up on the porch and got the information off her tags. Dorothy called while I stayed with the dog. Her name was Hershey, and her owner was out driving around looking for her when we called. She would come soon.

And so we waited. We got a towel and dried her off and fed her a bit of leftover steak from the night before. We looked down the road and we waited and we watched until Hershey's owner came to claim her. Then, having added "muddy wet dog" to my personal scent, I finally took a shower just in time for the parade.

Waiting with Hershey reminded me how frequently simply sitting and waiting with someone is the best form of ministry. When we sit with someone who has a loved one in surgery; when we keep vigil at the bedside of someone in their last hours; when we visit someone whose house has been empty of company far too long--what can seem like time doing nothing is actually time being Christ for others, being God with skin on.

That's all Jesus wanted during those last few hours before his arrest and death--someone to sit and watch with him. The disciples fell asleep and failed that simple request three times. We often fail as much or more. But with each new day and each new year, there is a chance to get it right--a chance to be there for the frightened, the lost, the wet and the cold. A chance to make a call, to get a towel, and to wait and watch until the One we wait for comes.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Card

Nope...not a reflection about Christmas cards, although there's plenty to reflect on when you look at them all. I find it a stretch to think that Mary looked that refined after a 70-80 mile ride on a donkey that ended with giving birth in the smelly stable of an over-crowded inn. But hey...we think what we think, and the sentiment of this e-card is certainly what I wish for all of you.

Click here for your e-card.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Common Ones

flock of sparrows in a treeLuke 12:6 "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God."

Most of us in service professions get overwhelmed at times. The needs are so great and the resources so small, and often the smallest resource of all feels like our own time and energy. Even if you're not doing anything in particular at the moment, there is a constant weight of what is needed and what remains undone. The work of service knows no time clock.

On top of that, it can be thankless or even met with open hostility. Think of the way that community organizers were slammed and demonized in 2008 and you'll have a small idea. It's like that in religious service, too, and there have been many times when the question "Why am I subjecting myself to this? Why don't I just do something else?" has forced its way to the front.

When that happens, I generally go for a walk. And when I do, I unfailingly see sparrows.

When I was a young child, my mother used to sing hymns to me before bed. This is My Father's World was a favorite and, combined with her love of all living things, I learned from her that God could teach me through Creation just as surely as God could teach me through the Bible and through other people. Which is where the sparrows come in. At some point in ministry, as I pondered whatever set of trials and tribulations had driven me out for that walk, I passed a bush. It seemed like a regular bush, but as I got closer, it moved. It was filled with a flock of sparrows.

The message dropped like a 75 lb. package from UPS on my head. "You are doing it for them. For the little ones, for the common ones, for the ones that can be easily bought and sold with impunity, for the ones that kids think it's okay to shoot with bb guns. There are masses of them...they are as common as the sparrow and just as disregarded. No one listens for their songs, no one tries to attract them to their feeders because they don't have pretty colors. People get angry because houses made for purple martins or bluebirds get turned into public housing for unlovely sparrows. But God has not forgotten them and has sent you and others to care for them."

Whenever my own task has felt too overwhelming, the sparrows descend as a reminder. They fill the bushes. They are there at the dumpster behind the restaurant or on the city streets, hopping from here to there looking for crumbs. They sit outside my window, reminding me that I am in ministry because God has not forgotten them and I am part of God's provision for the sparrows of the world.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Checking in

Since some of you have written with concerns since SpiritWalkers has now missed a number of weeks, I wanted to write.

First--yes, it will be back. I've had a convergence of family, health, work, and general life issues that have me struggling to keep even my snorkel above water, let alone my head.

It might be a week or two yet before I'm back in the groove, so I wanted to offer the following in the meantime.

If you're up for video, I've done a couple of things lately that are available in that format. The video is in a mobile format, so you should be able to watch it on your phone, too.

1. Since God with Skin on is now officially out and available (you can get it on Amazon here), I had a book signing on April 28 at which I gave a talk about the book. It's posted on the MBS website here. If you have trouble viewing it on that site you can also watch it directly on Motionbox here.

2. One of the events that has been a huge time sink was our Annual Meeting on May 2, which was followed by a bicentennial celebration worship service. I preached for that and the sermon is posted on the MBS site here or on Motionbox here.

If you can't watch video, well, there's this book you can read. :)

Thanks for keeping in touch.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Luke 6:21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

I may have used this story before, but I think it bears repeating at Thanksgiving time, especially a Thanksgiving coming in a time of economic crisis and global turmoil. I’m not going to comment on it except to say this. The Bible is full of talk of blessings, and when we count our blessings we tend to think of the good things that have come to us. But when Jesus describes blessings in what we call the Beatitudes (in Matt. 5:1-12 or a bit differently here in Luke 6:20-26), he doesn’t list things that would be at the top of our list of things we’re thankful for—things like hunger and weeping and persecution.

The story below comes from an ancient Chinese work entitled “Lessons in Human Life,” in “Huai Nan Zi” and compiled by Liu An (179-122 BC) in the Western Han Dynasty. That means it was around more than a hundred years before Jesus was born. Did the story travel from the Far East and reach the ears of Jesus? Maybe a story told to Mary and Joseph by one of the Wise Men? Whether Jesus ever heard the story or not, there is something of its perspective in Jesus’ teaching about blessings. Here is the story. Apply as needed.

There once was an old man who lived at the northern border of the state. He was skilled at raising horses. One day he discovered that his horse had disappeared into the neighboring state of Hu. Neighbors felt sorry for him, but the old man said, "Who knows if this will turn into a blessing?"

A few months later, the missing horse suddenly returned, bringing back a fine horse with it. Neighbors came to congratulate the old man on his good luck. But the old man said, "Who knows if this will turn into a disaster?"

His son loved riding the fine horse, and one day he fell off the horse, broke his legs and crippled himself. Neighbors came to comfort the old man, who replied, "Who knows if this will turn into a blessing?"

A year later, the neighboring state of Hu invaded, and all the young and strong men were drafted to fight the war — nine in ten ended up being killed. The son, being crippled, stayed home and his life was spared.

Blessings can become disasters, which can then transform into blessings. The change is never ending, and its mystery is forever unrevealing.

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