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Posts tagged ‘spirituality’

Stumbling in the Dark

Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can these things be?”  John 3:9 (NRSV)

Nicodemus approached Jesus in the dark of night and began asking questions about how to enter the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ answers were full of symbolism and metaphors, and Nicodemus took what he said literally.  Spirituality is much deeper than what we can see on the surface.  We have to move deeper into our relationship with God and each other before we can truly begin to understand the process of growing spiritually.

Maybe Nicodemus was really seeking answers.  Maybe he was feeling left empty as a Pharisee because there seemed to be something lacking.  Maybe he saw that something in Jesus and wanted to learn more, but he went away confused.

How can one be born again?  The translation in many Bible actually is “born from above,” which makes a lot of sense when we consider the nature of Nicodemus’ quest.  Or maybe his questions were to trick Jesus.  Was he sent by the Pharisees to learn more under the guise of really being interested?  Did he question Jesus to try to find some ammunition against him?  We really don’t know.

Nicodemus did show up again later in the gospel of John as one who tried to defend Jesus at his trial before the Sanhedrin, and then he showed up at the cross after Jesus died to help Joseph of Arimathea in the burial process, but we really don’t know what his intentions were when he went to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.

Darkness indicates something secret; it can also represent not knowing, such as, “in the dark.”  In the scriptures, it also was symbolic of not knowing God and the light was the symbol of revelation and the presence of God.  Wrestling with these images is always fascinating because we tend to also wrestle with our own beliefs and our own faith journeys.

So, what can we learn from Nicodemus?

What do you see in this story (John 4:1-17) that helps in your walk of faith?

How do you identify with Nicodemus?

How do you NOT identify with him?

Ouch! Thanks!

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done?” Says the Lord. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Jeremiah 18:1-11 (CEB)

I remember playing with Play-Doh when I was younger.  The dough was soft and flexible, and as long as I put it back in the plastic cup replacing the lid, it stayed that way.  However, if the lid was left off or the dough was left out for a while, it lost is pliability and became stiff, hard, and breakable.

When we read the image of the clay in the potter’s hand, we can picture the potter sitting at the wheel and shaping it into a vessel of some kind.  I have a friend who once made a whole bunch of chalices and plates for a women’s clergy gathering.  90% of them were great, but a few of them had leaks and wouldn’t hold the liquid and had to be thrown away.  Fortunately, most of them were fine.

Thinking of being like clay in God’s hands is a reminder that, as God’s children, we are molded and shaped through our baptism and our choice to follow Christ throughout our lives.  And as long as we stay open to God’s word, the teachings of Jesus, and the power of God’s Spirit moving, we will grow and become stronger in faith.

Yet, we all have cracks and leaks that show up occasionally.  No one is perfect, and each of us is shaped uniquely in our own way with our own gifts and talents.  Staying malleable keeps us from becoming so rigid in our beliefs that we aren’t willing to learn something new and become even better.  That’s how God shapes us.

I’ve been so blessed as a pastor because the majority of the people in the congregations I have served are open to learning and growing.  There have been a few who disagreed with me, and I would have been disappointed if no one had!  I grow through my interactions with others and from considering their ideas, too.  God is always stretching me and shaping me into being a better “vessel” as I pastor my congregations.

Sometimes the breaks or cracks that show up and bring us pain and sorrow can be repaired.  The scars and the putty or glue that repair those cracks is always visible, but they can also make us stronger.  We can learn about God’s presence in our lives and share that love of God more fully even with – maybe because of – the “wounds” that we carry.  Others can see our human-ness and realize that they can have the same thing as they grow in faith through their life experiences.

What about you?  Where have the breaks and cracks come in your life?

How were you able to see God working to heal and help you move on?

In what ways has God shaped your life and how do you share that with others?

Teach Us to Pray

Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  Luke 11:1b (CEB)

Apparently, John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray and fast, so the followers of Jesus wanted to learn to pray (other scripture references show that there were times when they didn’t fast).  We can also gather that, because Jesus prayed a lot, he set an example for them, so they wanted to know what to say and how to pray.  Maybe they just didn’t know what was the proper procedure.

Well, is there a proper procedure?  The first thing Jesus includes as he teaches them the Lord’s prayer, is to say, “Our Father.”  This isn’t a distant God who is unreachable, but one who interacts with us as human beings like a heavenly parent.  We can have a relationship with God that reflects our love for God and God’s love for us.  Our words, according to the Lord’s Prayer recognize God as provider, care giver, forgiver, and guide in our lives.

So, to go back to my original question:  “Is there a proper procedure?”  I always thought there had to be.  Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer as an example, but I had other things to pray about.  Years ago someone told me about using the acronym ACTS:  Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  We offer prayer of adoration and praise to God.  We confess our sins and ask for forgiveness.  We offer thanksgiving for all God has given us, and we ask for help concerning whatever it is we are dealing with in our lives.

Using ACTS is helpful at times, but is it the only way?  I don’t think so.  Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book about “prayerizing” (The Power of Positive Thinking) your life, which means that we pray all day long, every day, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  In other words, we talk to God whenever, wherever, whatever.  That has been a large part of my faith journey because it reminds me that, like the Lord’s Prayer, God is my heavenly parent who wants what’s best for me, is there to support and inspire me, and helps me to work through things that come up in the day.

Brother Lawrence talked about working to see God in every moment of every day.  He admitted that it’s impossible for us to do that, but it is a practice that we can begin so that we recognize God in even the most mundane tasks.  For many, prayer can be most effective when offered in the moment.  Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies) says that the two most effective prayers are, “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Apparently she added later the one word prayer, “Wow!”

So how will you pray?  When will you pray?  Just talk to God.  If nothing else, say “The Lord’s Prayer.”  And remember, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) and prays for us even when we have no words.  If you really need words, there are lots and lots of prayer sites on the Internet.  Make a booklet! Or buy a book!  Prayer is talking with God – communicating with God, and then remembering to listen.

In what ways will you make prayer a continuous part of your life?

How will you build variety in the way you pray?

When have you experienced a powerful answer to prayer?

 

Heaven

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  Revelation 21:22 NRSV

For the nation of Israel, the Temple was their core.  It was where they believed God resided, and where they would go for the most holy days and festivals.  Even today, the West Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem is an awesome and holy place.  I remember standing at the wall to place my tiny prayer in one of the crevices and weeping for joy at the privilege of being in such a wonderful place.  Israel continues to be a special place, but most of us agree that God doesn’t just reside in that country.

We believe that God resides everywhere and is accessible to all people.  In the Christian faith, we believe that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was reconciled to humanity.  At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies was torn in two as a symbol of God’s love and forgiveness for all the earth, all people.

So, when we think of “heaven on earth” it could be anywhere, and I think it is individual in that sense.  For some, it may be at the birth of a child; others may experience God’s presence on a mountaintop or by the ocean; still others may find God in the midst of a noisy city or working in rural areas.  It varies for everyone which demonstrates that God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

There are some who say that the earth as it is now is actually hell, and the scripture from Revelation 21-22 could actually indicate such a possibility.  We can see the widespread pain, hurt, sorrow, fear, and anguish that so many experience in life.  Yet, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we believe that we can help to build the kingdom of God even in the midst of such challenges.  We believe that God has called us to help make this “Heaven on earth” by living in the ways of Jesus, loving and caring for and about others, bringing kindness, compassion, and care to places where people most need it.

We believe that we are called to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, minister to the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, and reach out to the disenfranchised or outcasts of society.  Sometimes we don’t succeed very well, but other times we actually do quite well.  “Heaven on earth” is God working through all of us, and the temple of God is in all regions of this world.  Our mission field is large, and often it begins right at home (which is often the most difficult!).

Heaven doesn’t need to be a place far away or look any particular way.  Heaven is where the people of God carry out the mission of Christ.  Heaven is where God’s presence is made manifest because of all God’s children working together to make this world a better place.  And some day, heaven will be perfected because of God’s complete presence.  May it be so.

Hope in the Midst of Challenges

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  Revelation 1:8

This passage gives me hope.  Over three weeks I have officiated at three memorial services.  Two were for women in their 90’s who had lived long and good lives, although they had their share of challenges.  The other was for a women in her 60’s who died very unexpectedly from an aneurism right before Easter.  She, too, faced challenges in her life, and one of them was struggling with depression.  Life hands us challenges all the time, and the loss of loved ones, a job, a relationship, income, mobility, health, or other experiences that come out way can be difficult.

The book of Revelation has a lot of rather bizarre images in it, but the ultimate message is that God is in charge and God will make things right.  How does that happen?  There are many folks who can’t see or won’t believe it.  Yet, over and over again, I have had parishioners tell me that they would never have made it through their problems without the strength of God in their lives.

God’s promise is that we aren’t alone, that Jesus experienced what we experience in our lives and understands, that God has been, is now, and will forever be there for us and for all generations.  We will face physical problems and emotional upheavals at times, but we keep on keeping on because of God’s love for us and the knowledge that Jesus, the Christ has overcome even death because God raised him from the dead.  We have hope because of the living Christ.

Revelation was written for people who were being persecuted.  The early Christians needed hope, and the vision of John that is recorded in Revelation was their hope.  It was subversive and disputed the Roman belief that Caesar was a god and lord of all.  It promised that those who rejected God would “get theirs” in the end.  In the end, we all have to stand before our Maker and be accountable for our lives.  We can live in the hope and promise that we have forgiveness of sins and salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our God is with us, encouraging us, leading us, teaching us, and helping us to put one foot in front of the other every day no matter what our circumstances.

That is cause for celebration!  God is God of the past, present and future and won’t abandon us!  Hallelujah!

Mary’s Ministries

Mary came in with a jar of every expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus; feet, and then wiped them with her hair.  The fragrance of the oils filled the house.”  John 12:3 (The Message)

Over the past few days, I have been reading commentaries on the passage from John 12:1-8 as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday.  I’m amazed at the number of “takes” on this story:  educated people who see Mary’s motives in a variety of ways.  She is highly contrasted with Judas, and yet there are some who encourage us to see things from Judas’ point of view and not to vilify him.  I think that’s an important thing to remember – we need to keep in mind the whole picture of the culture of the day, the possible setting at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house for their party.

For example, they would probably not have sat at what we consider a table.  It was probably a low bench type table with cushions surrounding it.  That would put a little different picture of Mary kneeling in front of Jesus to anoint his feet.  But I’m not really focusing so much on the background details as seeking to get a little better picture of Mary of Bethany according to this scripture lesson.

“The fragrance of the oils filled the house” is a reminder of the aromatic oils that were used in embalming.  Maybe they were in their house already because Martha and Mary had buried their brother not that much earlier, and Jesus raised him from the dead, so he is noted as being at the party.  We are familiar with Mary and Martha from Luke 10 where Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen and is, instead, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening.  Jesus told Martha that Mary had picked the better part, not saying that Martha was wrong, but saying that we need both balance and action in order to live fully, and we start with our relationship with God.

In the John passage, Mary has chosen to anoint Jesus’ feet which was a symbol of preparation for his death.  Mary showed a lot of courage in this story.  First, she mingled with the men, Jesus and his disciples and Lazarus (and whoever else might have been there) which wasn’t a normal thing for a woman to do.  Second, she touched Jesus openly and in an intimate way.  This was not acceptable in that culture – women did not touch any man including their husbands in public.  Third, she let her hair down – big no-no!  But Jesus saw beyond the societal expectations and convention and praised her for her act of love.

Isn’t every act of discipleship an act of love for Jesus?  We are called to follow Jesus, and when we do, what we do is a way of serving him and sharing his love with others.  Mary is giving back to Jesus which is what we do when we offer acts of love and kindness to others, even those whom we don’t know.

In today’s world, there is a lot of “stink” around, as well as a real lack of courage from those who are part of church communities.  We don’t seem to be bold enough to “get our hands full of oil” and anoint the world with God’s love.  The small courtesies, the times of “paying it forward,” the tolerance of differences, the ability to listen to another, for example, are all products of the love of God in Christ Jesus that beg to be exercised, experienced and shared.  So, may we spread the aroma of our discipleship one house, one church, one person, one congregation, one community at a time so the aroma fills the entire world.  God bless!

I Once Was Lost – Or Was I?

“. . . you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Luke 15:31b-32 (NRSV)

Whenever I read the parable of the Lost Son, I am reminded of the gospel song, “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton who was a slave runner until he was brought to his senses and realized that his work in transporting African slaves was wrong in God’s eyes.  He realized the error of his ways, repented, and eventually became a minister.  John Newton related to the prodigal son in the parable that Jesus told in Luke 15.

There are many people who have turned their lives around as they recognized the hand of God in their lives, and there are also many who have grown up in the church, thinking that they are Christians by virtue of being part of a church.  Maybe we all are a little of each.  When I was growing up, my family went to church without fail – no excuses, no matter how hard we kids tried to get out of it.  The only time we missed church was if we were sick, and Mom would stay home with us while everyone else went.  We never missed.  Did that make us Christians automatically?  No.

At some point in our lives, we must turn our lives around, confess Jesus Christ as our Savior and really believe it.  Those who have been lost understand that.  John Newton certainly did.  I suspect many of us become lost throughout our lives and find our way back.  Does God reject us?  No.  That’s one of the points of this parable.  Another point is that the other brother, who would be a lot like those of us who have been in the church all our lives, was resentful of the welcome and reinstatement of the younger brother.  We may not reject someone who has “left the fold” and returned, but what about those who have been long time members who see younger folks or new folks becoming more involved in church activities and committee and resent their “new” ideas.  The death of a church begins with resistance to change and the statement, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

The older brother complained because the younger brother had not only disrespected their father and squandered all the money he was given, but then he was allowed to resume his position in the family as a full-fledged son.  We really can’t blame him.  It’s not fair, and we understand that “not fair” thing, don’t we?

But let’s face it:  God isn’t fair.  God is love.  God offers unconditional love.  God gives grace.  God welcomes us home again when we have strayed.  God welcomes us every moment of every day through the chance to start over, to repent of our sins, and to receive forgiveness of sins.  So, maybe we are all the prodigal as well as the other son.  Are we ever the father in this parable?  Do we offer grace, unconditional love, and do we watch for the newcomer, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the lonely, the sick, the outcast?  Do we love them because they are God’s child?  Do we care for them because of that generous love of God that we have been given to share?  It’s something to think about.  God bless your day!

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