Powerful Reading

During seminary, I read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and I really enjoyed it. Last week I checked out Sue Monk Kidd’s book, Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings, from the local library. Apparently Merton had a big influence on her life and writing, so it inspired me to buy more of Merton’s works. I had just sold a few books on Amazon.com, so I ordered two of his books with my earnings: New Seeds of Contemplation, and Spiritual Direction & Meditation.

Wow. New Seeds of Contemplation is a book I really needed to read during this time of my life. I wouldn’t have got much out of this book if I had read it any earlier, so I’m thanking God for this providential coincidence (how’s that for a paradoxical phrase). There are times while I’ve been reading it yesterday evening and this morning that I’ve found that Merton knows me far too well! I’ll just warn you, don’t read this if you don’t have time to stop and pray.

March 7, 2008 at 8:49 am 1 comment

Joel Osteen’s Typical Week

This is from an interview on southernillinoisan.com where they asked Joel Osteen (who I still think looks like Orel Hershisher) what a typical week in his life is like (h/t MMI)

Mondays and Tuesdays I try to take off. Wednesdays I read and study and pray. I have a stack of notes for potential sermons. I get a theme, and once I feel good about a simple thought, I read and find stories on that. I get up real early and write my sermon on Thursdays. Fridays I finish writing it and take three hours to go over it. I really get it down in me. Saturday I study it for several hours and finish getting it down in me. I have a real good memory. I rest Saturday afternoon before the Saturday night service, and I also preach two Sunday morning services. Sunday afternoon I edit the sermon for the television broadcast. I’m just used to doing that. That’s how I started.

March 4, 2008 at 9:09 am 4 comments

A Few Thoughts on John 11:1-16

Lazarus is deathly ill. Mary and Martha expect Jesus to turn around and hotfoot it back to Bethany. The disciples, on the other hand, seem to be concerned about all the angry folks with rocks waiting back over the horizon. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t meet either of their expectations. First he waits, upsetting Mary and Martha. Then he returns, upsetting the disciples.

In all of this, I love Thomas’ response. Even though he was just as scared as everyone else about what would happen back in Bethany, he has a classic line. “Well…let’s go. We might as well die with him.” If you follow Jesus, you really don’t know where it will lead. He has this strange way of failing to meet our expectations, only to transcend them in the very next moment. And the only way we can follow him is like Thomas, scratching our heads, shaking our heads, and then following him come what may.

Sure, there will be times when we get tired. Thomas eventually got frustrated enough that he said, “How in the world are we supposed to follow you if we don’t know where you’re going?! (v. 14:5)” But Thomas was the one who loved Jesus so much that he just had to know Jesus had really risen.

I suspect Thomas’ advice to disciples would be this: just follow him. Don’t lag too far behind. Don’t worry too much about your questions. Don’t hold too tightly to your expectations. Just follow him. That’s enough. You’ll see.

March 3, 2008 at 5:05 pm 4 comments

Orwellian Communication

Here’s a great quote from George Orwell that could apply to preaching or any other communication endeavor,

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

How do you think this might apply to communication within the Church?

March 2, 2008 at 8:20 pm Leave a comment

Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

Eugene Peterson has been my spiritual director for years, so I wanted to share some of his thoughts on Spiritual Direction from an interview he did with Christian Century back in 2002.  Here it is:

…basically [spiritual direction] is not a specialized thing. It’s very much a part of the Christian life and should be very much a part of the pastor’s life. In my view, spiritual direction is a conversation in which the pastor is taking the person seriously as a soul, as a creation of God for whom prayer is the most natural language.

This kind of conversation is not problem-centered. If you have a problem — an intense, tangled, emotional problem — there are counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists to help you. That’s good and important work. But most of the time people don’t have problems — though somehow in our society we don’t give careful attention to one another unless there is a problem. If I don’t have a problem and yet I have this sense that something is going on in my life and I have questions about what God is doing — what am I to do? I should be able to call up my pastor and say, “I need to talk to you.” But usually people feel like they have to come up with “a problem.”

If they’re lucky, they have a pastor who is alert to what’s really going on — which is usually not much more than ordinary life and the yearning to live it fully, maturely, with some intensity. “Ordinary” doesn’t mean mediocre or complacent. Ordinary is capable of intensity and is worthy of attentiveness and commitment. I get worried that the popularity of spiritual direction will take it out of ordinary life and put it more in the category of problem-solving.

I have two basic definitions of spiritual direction. One is you show up and then you shut up. It’s important that people have a place they can come to and know that you’re going to be there with and for them. The other is that spiritual direction largely involves what you do when you don’t think you’re doing anything. In other words, you’re not trying to solve a problem. You’re not answering a question and it doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything. It takes a lot of restraint and discipline for a pastor not to say anything, not to do anything. But the pastoral life is an ideal school for learning how to do it.

 

 

February 29, 2008 at 7:52 am Leave a comment

From Crisis to Confession

Since John over at Come to the Waters is wrestling with Moses and the snake out in the wilderness, I thought I’d post an old sermon that I wrote on this. This one ended up in the online edition of Preaching Magazine, so it’s one that I look back on fondly. Here you go:

From Crisis to Confession: A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9

The people of Israel were “hacked off.” It’s right there in the Bible, they were hacked off. Oh sure, the translation in your pew bible says “impatient,” but in Hebrew it doesn’t say impatient it says qatsar. Qatsar mean making something shorter, and was also used to describe the harvest. When the grain in the field is harvested – it gets qatsar – cut off – shortened. That’s exactly how the people who the wandered around following Moses through the middle of nowhere were described. They felt as if they had been cut down, their fuses were short, and they were at the end of their rope. But most of all they were simply hacked off. Being impatient is sort of a nuisance – we get impatient as we wait to pay for our gas at the convenience store while someone ahead of us leisurely scratches off their lottery tickets hoping to win a dollar or two. Being hacked off is more intense – we get hacked off when someone nearly runs us off the road as we’re driving.

The people of Israel were at the end of their rope. Moses had led them out of Egypt, but now they were in the middle of nowhere and things were more difficult than they ever expected. Along the way they had made enemies, and now they had to go hundreds of miles out of their way to travel around Edom, a country they were forbidden from crossing. A hundred mile detour makes a huge difference when you’re walking over rocks and through steep valleys – especially when you’re wearing sandals. Blisters and calluses were beginning to take their toll. God had provided manna and quail, but visions of Egyptian buffets danced in their heads. No doubt about it, they had had enough.

The old saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” However, I’ve often found that when the going gets tough, the tough start complaining. That’s just what Israel did. During my time as a professor, I found the same thing to be true. When the tests scores were bad, it was rare that I heard someone say, “You know, I really should have buckled down and studied. I wasn’t ready for that test.” Generally I heard people saying, “That was too hard, can we get a big curve!?” Just like a group of unruly students, when the tests in the wilderness got hard, the Israelites started complaining about everything: What kind of leader would bring us out here in the desert to suffer? What kind of God leads his people around in the desert like this? All of a sudden, even enslavement back in Egypt started looking good. Complaints filled the air – the attitude of God’s people was as poor as it could be. In no time, people doubted God and questioned His reason for bringing them out of Egypt in the first place.

The story then takes a terrible turn, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” You know, I thought about entitling this sermon, “Complain about your leader and get killed by poisonous Snakes,” but I didn’t think that would go over too well – and all kidding aside, I don’t think that’s what this passage is talking about. Whatever the reason God sent snakes among the people, and it is likely impossible to know fully, there can be no mistaking the fact that this was a terrible crisis in the camp. Things just as mysterious and frightening happen in our lives – people who are apparently healthy just days find cancer slithering into their lives and find they only have months or weeks to live. Marriages begin to unravel. People in our families make poor choices with devastating consequences. We may not face literal snakes, but the symbolic snakes in our lives can be just as frightening and destructive. Like the Israelites, as we travel this world we’re all too familiar with crises in the camp and many times that leads us to question our faith and even to question God.

Yet somehow through the grace of God, against our own inclinations, crises can lead to confession. The Israelites took stock of what they were doing and examined their lives. When we encounter snakes in our lives – poisonous relationships, poisonous health issues, tragic losses, or seemingly insurmountable odds – it is time to take stock and see reflect on what matters most. The people of Israel very simply say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” The crisis of the snakes led Israel to confess their failings as God’s people. Not only did they turn against the leader God sent them, but they rebelled against God as well. Is it wrong to question and be confused? No way – the only way this becomes sin is if we decide to rebel against God and call it quits – the ultimate danger is letting the crises of our lives cause us to turn our backs on our faith.

The crisis of the snakes helped God’s people realize that their very lives were in the hands of God. Even though the situation in the wilderness was one of difficulty and challenge, the very fact that they had survived this far was evidence of the ongoing presence of God in their lives. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us to this kind of truth. Before I answered God’s call to ministry, I worked in a research lab even though I was sick and tired of it. I had resolved to plow through and just go down the path I had planned. But in the middle of this I encountered a crisis. My father was checked into Saint Francis hospital in Tulsa. My wife Nanci and I made several frantic trips back and forth from Oklahoma City, where we lived, to Tulsa thinking he was going to die at any moment. Even though my father pulled through that difficult time, something changed within me. The crisis led to confession. I understood like never before that our lives are gifts and we never know how long or short they might be. For me, life was too short to do something other than pursue God’s call on my life. The crisis in my life led me to confess I wasn’t doing what God had planned for my life. Every single one of us will have points of crisis in our lives, just like the Israelites surrounded by snakes. Yet, God’s grace offers opportunity for growth in the midst of danger. By God’s grace we’re offered hope in the middle of hopelessness.

Moses prayed and God responded. As Israel confessed their disobedience and admitted their utter need, God responded. God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to lift it on a stick. Those who were bitten needed only to faithfully respond to God by looking at the snake and they would be healed. The snake wasn’t magic – it was the sheer power of God that brought salvation into a frightening and horrific situation. There is no situation that cannot be transformed by confession and trust in God’s means of salvation. Sometimes, like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake up on a pole in the wilderness in order to be rescued from their snakebites, God’s means of salvation looks a whole lot like the catastrophe we face. Sometimes, through the transforming grace of God, the darkest situations we face in our lives can actually lead to our healing and salvation.

We don’t need to look any farther than our faith in Jesus to see the truth of this belief. The cross was more deadly and humiliating than any snakebite, but it is at the cross where God’s greatest triumph takes place. The people confessed to Moses, he interceded and trusted God. The people lift up their eyes and receive healing, not from the deadly serpent, but from the very hand of God. It is through the suffering and shame of the cross that God offers transforms the entire world.

Nearly every one of us who was raised in church knows John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But how many of us remember the two verses that come before 3:16, “…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In what was apparently the greatest defeat of all time, God’s own Son was lifted on the cross. Yet in the providence and grace of God it is through Christ was raised from the dead and we are offered eternal, full and abundant life. Following God and trusting Jesus Christ means looking at the frightening and tragic situations of our life in a new way. Through Jesus Christ, nothing in this world is beyond being used for God’s redemptive purposes in our lives. Whether it is the sickness of our loved ones, the loss of a job, the struggles of a family member, the unraveling of a marriage, or the death of a friend – through God’s grace any of these situations offer one more opportunity for resurrection and can be transformed from the most frightening snake to the most miraculous salvation.

February 25, 2008 at 8:30 am 3 comments

Blazing Pulpits

Burning BushOne of my good friends, and sometimes commenter on this blog, has loaned me an excellent CD set on the Old Testament by Amy-Jill Levine. It is really terrific, even if I crave driving to listen to more of it! Dr. Levine’s lectures have given me new insights on several passages I’ve heard my entire life.

In the episode of the burning bush, I’ve always identified with Moses. After all, he was hearing God’s call to mission. However, after hearing the lecture on this particular episode, I’ve decided those of us who are pastors might better relate to the bush itself.

Let’s be honest, desert shrubs aren’t anything spectacular. They’re kinda dry, they sit there, and they do whatever they can to soak up nutrients from the sun-parched soil. Set ablaze by God’s divine fire, however, they become something important – something worthy of our attention. Aflame, yet not consumed. Burning alive. How’s that for a image of ministry? I think Wesley would like it. Remember this, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

Far too often we’re dry shrubs, failing to realize our call to be burning bushes while living hand-to-mouth searching for the stuff of life. What would it take for us to be transformed, catching the attention of would-be Moseses (Mosi?) in our community?

What does God’s fire do to the bush, ever-aflame, but not consumed? I can’t imagine this is comfortable or comforting to the bush itself, even though it isn’t consumed. Is it like Jeremiah who writes, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (20:9).”?

What sets you on fire? What is in you like a burning fire in your bones? What would it take for you to share that with God’s people?

February 18, 2008 at 9:14 am 6 comments

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