Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Misconceptions of a Striking Appearance

There are those moments in life when we expect one thing and get another.  It is amazing to see how the mind works.  So often we perceive things with our eyes that can be not true at all.  My best friend Steve and I faced this situation in college. When I first heard about him it was through girls.  I heard their stories of how cool he was.  When I saw him in his tech vest standing outside of chapel, my first impression was that he thought he was super cool.  When I found out he played football and the tuba, I quickly drew many other conclusions about him.  I never gave him a fair shot.  Then to top it all off he decided to be pre-seminary, meaning  for some reason he thought it would be cool to be a pastor.  It was like he just wanted to jump on any bandwagon he could find--football, orchestra, and even a pastoral calling.  At the time, we had a very personable pre-seminary director, who seemed to draw people in.  But in a case like Steve’s, I was not buying it.  Eventually we both headed for the pre-sem retreat, and there we began to get to know each other.  I soon learned that he was passionate about the same music and artists that I liked.  He was a deep thinker and studiously contemplated many things in life.  Our friendship took off when I took the time to see past my first impressions of him, and not rely on misconceptions built on stereotypes.  By the time I left college he was my best friend.  Our friendship still revolves around many foundational issues in our lives, and has taken on several new topics.
            You never really expect to talk about misconceptions in Scripture.  But there are several historical discrepancies in the Epiphany account, which cover up the true meaning of what is really going on.  Don’t you think if God’s Word described someone as a wise man, it would be Solomon?  Don’t you think if these men were truly wise men they wouldn’t have been so easily tricked by the king?  And who ever said there were three of them?  Maybe the hardest one to accept--because it takes some cultural knowledge--wouldn’t the wise men, kings, magi, know what gifts to bring Jesus?  All of these misconceptions distract us from understanding why they came to see Jesus, which totally confuses the meaning of Epiphany.  I like the definition of Epiphany as a striking appearance, because it properly conveys the power of this story.  These men typically served kings, wrote horoscopes (well, the versions written back then), and were not considered wise at all.  They were the least likely people to see Jesus.  That is why striking appearance is something that fits better.  Imagine how they must have wondered what in the world had just happened to them.  They were meeting the Messiah!  What were they supposed to do about that?  It was striking to see the appearance of Jesus, which was totally unlike anything they expected from Herod’s direction.  God can take hold of anybody, no matter what the appearance or story the world has put on them.
            I can hear it ringing in my ears, “Pastor, what I want to tell you is, I got a telegram from God.”  She was so sure and then she went on to say, “I know He protected my soul through all the testing.”  You never get to decide when God brings His striking appearance into your life.  You can reject it or ignore it, but time and time again Jesus comes to rescue all people.  His timeline may not fit our own, but He comes with His love, joy, and peace and you know this is nothing our world can offer.  So often we can see our own misconceptions of what we expect this life to be, or even how we expect God to handle things.  I knew Carol Eckert’s encounter with God would be striking to Mt. Calvary as well as to me, but for Carol, His appearance was an Epiphany to go home.  The last time she could really talk as we were planning her funeral service, she hugged and kissed me and said, “I got something special for you, buddy.” You never forget those striking appearances of Jesus in His people.  And while the story of the Epiphany may contain misconceptions because of manger scenes, childhood stories, and live nativities, the power of how Jesus appeared to these men was unbelievable.  It reminds us that this story will never lose its power, and that not a single misconception can change the Epiphany of God’s plan to rescue all people.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Narrating the Nativity

On every boyhood Christmas Eve, I remember waiting to get my brown bag of candy.  The apple would get a quick toss to the trash, but I dug deep to find my orange, sugar-coated gel candy.  Sounds delicious when I say it out loud, doesn’t it? People who are aware of my food tastes realize that those who possess a sweet tooth belong to other family members.  They will remain nameless for the safety of my well-being.  Regardless, I am rarely enticed by too many sweets; probably my greater issue has been with liking sweet drinks.  Now I must admit it has been difficult to appreciate regular tea as opposed to sweet tea.  Yet, that cheap piece of orange candy enticed me every year, which was odd because those bags cost 50 cents at the store.  Not that they were out of my price range, there just was something about eating that candy Christmas night before we returned home to find out what Santa got us.  It revealed a narrative of my life.
            Sometimes we forget details in our narratives.  Over Thanksgiving, our family was talking about finding a needy family next year to support.  I expressed my opinion that we should anonymously choose a family and begin to learn their story.  In our world of giving, knowing the story of the lives of people helps us to understand what giving truly means.  It was in a similar time for us that a piece of my family’s story came out.  It was the period after the divorce when we were broke, and our church had even put us on the giving tree.  That was a truly humbling experience for my family.  My wife was shocked to learn this.  God has changed my family narrative by adding Rod, my step-dad, to our lives.  It was at that point that I realized that Mindy and I had lived such different lives.  My wife’s family had its lean years, but during most of them she was too young to remember.  When we evaluate  the narratives of our lives, we find pieces we have not contemplated in awhile.
            Undoubtedly, the Christmas services create a whirlwind of different portions of the nativity narrative.  Many of you may also have narratives created in your minds by nativity plays that ended with the presentation of brown bags of orange candy.  You might remember angels singing, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  You might remember Mary in a blue robe, and Joseph wearing a brown one.  You might recall seeing little costumed shepherds visiting the new king, while the story was read by a 5th grader who was super nervous.  As we grow up, we return to the Gospel accounts written by four men who had very unique perspectives on the telling of the nativity.  Over the last couple of days we heard Luke’s very detailed and precise version.  On Christmas Day there was a more general connection to God’s Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  This weekend we are reminded that this is not simply some sweet story with cows and sheep keeping our Savior warm; rather this is the story of a loving Father who came to rescue His people from a world of sin, pain, and the devil’s attempts (through broken human beings like kings and others) to destroy that plan.  Yet, the narrative of the nativity would not be stopped by the distractions of this world.  Every detail of God’s narrative leads us to an important understanding of how Jesus came to rescue all people.  And here we are today, experiencing another Christmas time, which is full of the usual distractions, struggles, blessings, and love; but most importantly, Jesus.  Again we hear this familiar story that we have heard many times, but this I pray:  in your worship, in loving others, in reading, and in your prayer lives, stop and notice the details of the narrative of the nativity.  I also pray that this account blesses your life and reminds you of how much Jesus loves you.  The story of Jesus’ birth has not changed, but the kid who once loved the sweet taste of that orange candy has turned into a man who prays that people are not so distracted that they miss the depth of Jesus’ love for them.  Your story has changed this year, but God’s promise to send His Son will never change.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done

The most recent conversations in our house have been about time.  When is Christmas coming?  How long until my birthday?  When is Easter?  Whose birthday is first?  This summer I remember conversations that occurred much closer to the birthdays involved constant countdowns.  I actually remember a moment when Mindy looked at me and said, “Enough with the birthday talk.”  She mentioned this quietly to make sure our kids didn’t hear.  But no doubt being an American and a kid creates a desire for immediate satisfaction.  Yet, I am not sure this is limited only to us in our country.  I wonder if this has been going on through all of time.  As I look back across my life, I am shocked at the things that God has brought me through.  I think realizing this only began recently because I often remember asking God to move more quickly.  I wanted to know where my future would land and what God would do in my life.  At this stage in my life, I relate more closely with the words from my favorite artist John Mayer’s song, “Stop This Train.”
            I think the most shocking reality in all of this was discovering how the difficult events in my life came at a time when I could actually handle them.  I was prepared at 13 to live through the divorce of my parents, and at 21, I was ready to accept the passing of my father.  This last year I lost my grandma, and as I watched the passing of generations that have taught me faith, I contemplated the legacy that God would call me to lead for my family and the church to which He has called me.  Considering the fact that when I was coming out of seminary, the idea of  being the sole pastor of a church was scary to me, but God continued to prepare me for every adventure, struggle, and blessing.
            As we stay faithful to our Lord, and certainly during this Advent season, we see how the traditions of the Church speak a reality that many of us may not embrace.  One of the lines we speak every Sunday from the Lord’s Prayer is, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  These lines do not fit well with a fast-paced society which is always concerned about when the next birthday, holiday, or event is coming.  These words are about patience and trust that God will bring us the appropriate thing in the right moments so we can handle them.  This is fine to say until we talk about some tragedy or something that brings us pain.  As we continue to walk through life, we find hard realities that shock us, and often we are not willing to jump right up and say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  Yet, these lines are at the core of what God wanted for us.  He wanted us to be a part of His kingdom and He certainly knows His will is best in our lives.  Yet, no matter how much we prepare for His Kingdom and His will, we never seem to be truly ready for it.  Much of that has to do with the fact that His will often remains outside of our normal ways of thinking.
            This weekend we will study Isaiah.  In our reading, Ahaz was debating what to pray for.  He was wrestling with how to respond to God.  At that moment God was giving him a glimpse of His saving plan to send Jesus.  That saving plan would reconcile all the turmoil with the people of Israel and the pains Ahaz was facing with sin.  None of this changes his reality in that moment.  At the time it just may have made it harder, hearing that God was going to save the world through Immanuel . . . but not yet.  Thank the Lord we don’t have to wait for Jesus to come anymore.  But we are waiting for when He will come back.  And with every crazy turn in life we see how He prepares us to see His will mold and shape us.  We do know that sometimes “Thy Kingdom comes,” happens more quickly for some of our loved ones than others.  And we, like Ahaz, sit waiting for God’s kingdom and His return to come into our lives.  This Sunday as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus again, we take time to contemplate what it means to have His kingdom come and His will be done in our lives.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Preparing for God's Plan

There seems to be an equal mix in our world of the understanding people have of the idea of fate vs. a structured plan based on our lives that is scripted down to the very detail.  People fall on either side of the spectrum on this.  And let’s not discount Christians, because while we don’t call it fate, there is something to be said for the easy-breezy-plan-in-action vs. the every-detail-put-in-place-theory.

Let me give you an example.  Currently in the sports world, winter meetings are being held, so it’s time to bring up baseball, right?  I have a friend who plays against me in fantasy baseball.  During the Dodger/Cardinal series, our friendship became somewhat strained.  Let’s just say verbal shots were fired.  He was very disappointed to watch his boyhood team fall to my Cardinals.  If you remember Carlos Beltran, now a Yankee, that’s like jumping ship.  Royals, Mets, and Cardinals are all fine, but you are going to end in the pin stripes; anyway, Carlos voiced his disappointment with the way the Dodger players expressed their enthusiasm.  As Carlos bounced off the wall in Game 1 of the World Series, my friend’s opinion was  that it was just karma.  I shook my head as I heard that comment.  My friend is a strong Christian, a Lutheran teacher, in fact, but his superstitious baseball head takes over in moments like that.  He assumed that because Carlos made those comments that was what caused him to bruise his ribs!  Unreal, right?

In a similar but unique way as my Dad dove more into the non-denominational church body, I discovered he held this very defined understanding that God was in control of everything in our lives.  Many of the comments dealing with worship, healing, and even day-to-day events seemed to him and his fellow followers to be driven by God.  I remember him telling me once that, “God told me to go to the flower shop.” Even as a teenager I shook my head at this comment.  There was no way I felt that God was defining moments as small as flower shop visits.

Yet, as we approach Christmas, we see commercials about Santa putting coal into packages for some people.  We have constant reminders that if we are good we will receive gifts.  The underlying message is that good things come to good people.  It is our way of spreading the idea of fate based upon works.  And that, of course, throws a huge monkey wrench into people’s understanding of why they would even need a Savior if it is all based upon their good behavior.

All of this comes together in the reading this week.  And, if not examined closely, we could draw the conclusion that fate and good behavior were driving these stories. When Scripture speaks of Mary as favored in the eyes of the Lord, it continues on to define how all things worked together perfectly to bring the House of David, the promise to Jacob, and two upstanding citizens into God’s plan.  So how do we understand all of this?  How do we argue against our world’s conventional way to determine who is good and who is bad?  How do we look at the face of fate and karma and challenge those who subscribe to these ideas that God guides us, but we do have free will?  And with all those questions how do we understand why Mary was chosen, and why do some churches lift her name higher than others?
These are good questions that don’t have easy answers; yet, some of the answers are found in the context of Scripture.  In our preparation for Christmas, a time we call Advent, it is important to understand God’s very definitive plan.  God was headed in one direction and all of Scripture points to the central message of our Savior’s birth.  These passages are not speaking about flower shops or where the donkey was fed; instead they are focused on bringing God’s plan back from the brokenness of sin.  In the context of Scripture, we find that Mary was a woman who received a full amount of grace.  That same grace is needed by all of us, but in Mary’s case that Word incarnate, that grace, was literally sitting in her belly like Thanksgiving dinner.  It is difficult not to express this as full of grace or favored.  As Scripture unveils all the relationships Joseph had with the line of David, it also describes the connection with Jacob and the promise that his house would live forever.  Jacob was a man who begged, and wrestled for the blessing of God.  As this story unfolds, we see something that is neither fate, nor karma, but something that was God’s absolute plan to bring all things together in order to rescue His people.  And along the way, He chose people to accomplish this.  As Jesus was born, He used Mary, but in this day and age we must prepare for the moments when He will employ our unique gifts to fill people with grace.  I pray in this season of preparation that the story of an angel appearing to Mary isn’t just some story you have read a million times, but is a reminder of the grace God puts right in the middle of our lives as Jesus comes to rescue us.  Keep your eyes open.  You never know when God is going to use you to drop grace right into the life of some unexpected someone!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

I was never prepared for the arrival of any one of my kids.  I like to tell people I should have known that when my mother-in-law had seven kids that this might not take all that long.  I don’t want to go into too many details that make people uncomfortable, which it shouldn’t since it is God’s process of procreating, not mine. But this is neither here nor there, and we move on.  I remember the conversation with my mother-in-law after every birth, “I am not sure I am ready for another kid.”  She would say, “Well you know how this happens.”  The phone would grow silent and I would sit there in my sullen state.  It is not that I would give back any of my kids, it just didn’t fit the plan—well, my human plan.  I mean there I was as youth pastor constantly busy with youth and then occupied with three little kids as well.  The first time I was caught off guard because I expected that Mindy and I would have more time together.  The second time we were moving into our new home, and back to St. Louis.  And the third time, it just seemed too soon.  I have all my reasons, but they are all human reasons.  As the months got closer my fatherly worry turned to joy.  I was beginning to prepare for three little people that mean the world to me.  I can’t imagine my life without any of them, but in the beginning I was scared, and had all my practical earthly ways of wanting to tell God that this train was moving too fast.
            In both our Matthew readings this week, we certainly see how God was preparing the world for its unexpected child.  Honestly, in our sinful state we are never ready for this baby, this Savior, our Jesus.  In our sinful state, and with our mortal minds, we have designed our own plans to make our lives better.  We have ideas of what should transpire, and when it should happen.  Honestly, there is not anything wrong with this thought process until we contradict God.  The reality is that God designed us with minds to make sense of the things in our lives.  He provided us with common sense and the ability to think things through.  So let’s just take a look at our stories.
            Here is Joseph, this dude who is going to get married to his love.  And then she turns up pregnant, and he knows he is not the guy.  This is the perfect script for one of our reality TV shows.  You can imagine the dialogue playing out. “Um, Mary, you are pregnant?  That’s not really cool.”  Mary responds, “Well, Joseph the Holy Spirit put this baby in me.”  Joseph responds, “Ok, so now, not only are you lying, but you think I am dumb or you’re delusional.” Because we hear this story so many times, it eventually sinks in, but stepping back we see that this was the preparation it took for the Son of God to come as the unexpected Savior of the world.
            In Story Two, we find a dude who is eating bugs and walking around in a woolly robe.  He is telling everyone that Jesus is coming.  He is going outside of the church, baptizing people, and telling everyone that Jesus is his cousin.  Not too long before we go, “Well, when you put it that way.”
            See, human logic would involve advising Joseph to follow the law, divorce her quietly, and get out of Dodge.  Human logic would tell us not to believe the bug-eating robed dude.  But if God’s plan came as an expected event, it wouldn’t be any fun.  No, just kidding!  The fact is that we can’t even figure out what we really need, or the way God can save us.  Seminarian Professor Jeff Gibbs puts it this way:  “It contrasts the ways that human beings think and behave with the unexpected way in which God puts His plan to save into action.”  Again I say, “Well, when you put it that way.”  If God’s plan and His miracles operated outside of the natural means where He sets things up, it probably means that we, as humans, don’t understand what He is doing until His Holy Spirit is inside of us, helping us to understand.  And even then we have moments like I shared at the beginning of my blog where we wonder how God is going to get us through certain situations.
            My prayer for you this Advent season is that you prepare to expect the unexpected.  We believe in God’s saving plan; that is why we go to church.  That is why we strive to be extraordinary servants.  That is why we seek to follow the B1 discipleship model, and grow closer to Jesus.  That means that if what we said in these stories is true about Jesus, God will shock our human thinking like He shocked Joseph, and bring us to be prepared for the unexpected.  So are you ready for an unexpected Advent?  Be prepared!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Riding on Donkeys

At one of my previous churches we always took people to the Grand Canyon. It was amazing to watch the 8th graders see one of the greatest things God has ever created.  On one of the first nights we were there, we would take a walk.  The faces of the kids would light up as they would take pictures over the vast canyon.  I made this visit several times, and it never got old.  One of the things I found odd was that mules would take people up and down the canyon.  Mules are very funny looking animals.  We would watch the kids move out of the way every time the mule train passed.  The 8th graders would pinch their noses at the smell, as they constantly had to move around the mule poop.  On one of my favorite trips, we had to wait an hour so a mule that had died could be removed.  A helicopter had to be flown in so it could be lifted out.  The kids were amazed watching this happen.  What I find funny is that here we have this majestic formation that God made, and included in His creation is this weak looking animal that carries people up and down this beautiful canyon.
            This weekend our lesson is much the same.  Here is our great King, and He comes into town riding on this donkey.  It is like the Grand Canyon and a mule; the comparison is between something so awesome and something that is weak and humble.  Kings didn’t do things like Jesus did.  They rode in their big chariots and showed off their kingly riches.  Jesus was a different type of king; He was humble. This week we begin Advent, and remember the first time the world ever saw a different kind of king.  We reflect on the way in which the world accepted God’s idea of a king.  Years before, the people had begged God for a king, and what they got was a variety of selfish men who wanted to rule the world.  They saw natural wonders similar to the Grand Canyon, and wanted to make those things their own. They could never have enough; then God intervened and gave the people the kind of king that He originally wanted them to have.  The disciples saw this happen before their own eyes.  Can you imagine what it was like when they had to go get the donkey for Jesus?  They had to be thinking, Why does this guy want a donkey?  He could have something greater.
            As God moves us along on our train of sanctification we stop at stations to stare back at our kingly selfish nature, and recognize how that attitude puts us in bad places.  There are times when we don’t even like what we look like.  In those moments we pray that God would restore us and help us to go forward.  In Advent we are reminded that it took Jesus coming to this world in a humble way--our only way out of the pit of our selfishness.  God restores us through a baby, and we begin the Church Year in that mindset, and in preparation for what God is going to do with us this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Growing in Generosity

As a kid I began mowing lawns and making a good amount of money in the summer. I watched as my stockpile of money grew and grew.  I began to plan on all the things that I wanted to buy.  I had a list of all the baseball hats I wanted.  (Yes, this was well before I turned my back on baseball, after which my heart was changed back years later with our Cardinals.)  I also collected baseball, basketball, and football cards.  I had over 300 Michael Jordan cards, and I was always looking for the next bump up in the collection.  This was also the beginning of my love of music, so I had a list of CDs I wanted to buy as well.  Back then, music companies had special offers where you could get a certain number of CDs for a low price if you bought one for the next six months.  I was always looking for those ways of increasing my CD collection.  Not to mention, more CDs meant more CD towers to hold all of them.  I had figured out exactly how much money I was going to make, and had written out my plan of what I was going to do.  (I know this may come as a surprise to some of you that I had a systematic way of preparing for all the things I was going to buy.)  Anyway, I remember telling my dad about my plan.  I told him that by the end of the summer I was going to give ten percent of all the money I had made to church, because I would have made my last purchase by then.  I remember my dad specifically saying, “Will, if you do that you won’t have that money left to give; it is better to give first.”  There was some confusion in my head of why this was true.  But I took it is as truth.  Throughout my life it has been confirmed why this is true.  It was not like the number on my lists of baseball hats, CDs, or cards was going to get smaller.  With every new thing I bought, it was kind of like a drug, luring me to purchase more.
            In my recent Tuesday night Bible study we talked about this.  Several of us agreed that we don’t seem to get enough of the excitement of purchasing things.  It is hard to explain, but there is something to be said about the feeling you get when you buy a new shirt, new music, a new car, a new house, or new furniture.  It is a natural desire, built in by our selfish, sinful nature, the result of which is to satisfy ourselves first and everything else later.  Early in our faith walk many of us react just like I did.  I will give to God when I have more, or have bought everything that I want.  It is through biblical teaching that we see the practice and understanding of generosity that God teaches us about giving.  Every time we give, we let go of something we hold onto so tightly.  This is best seen through the eyes of children.  Think about little children playing with toys.   So often they are quick to tell other children that the toy in their arms is theirs.  They own it!  It belongs to them!  Often, we too want to say, “This is mine.”  Yet, in reality, everything we have is what God has given us.  Sometimes when kids are first taught to share, they throw the toy at the other person.  Trust me, Jacob and Gavin have both been hurt by an iPad toss from his brother.  Sometimes our own giving can resemble throwing it at God.  We think, Ok, I give.  I am supposed to share.   Here you go, God.  If we begin to think of earth like a hotel room, we realize there are things that are necessary in a hotel room, but none of them are ours except what we brought.  In this case it is just our selves.  When we look at Heaven as our home, we realize God is putting all kinds of things in our heavenly room that we truly need.  None of it will be because we are selfish, and all of it will be what we really need.
            This is Genius of Generosity at work as we begin to see earth and all the stuff we have here as temporary goods.  The amazing thing in all this is that God continues to give to us even in our lack of generosity.  He continues to bless us, and as we come alongside and live in that atmosphere of generosity, we recognize the depth of His love in the way He gave to us.  So, I still have over 300 Michael Jordan cards, but I no longer have magazines to tell me what they are worth.  Some time ago I thought my kids would love to have them.  The reality is that those basketball cards sit in a box in my parents’ garage.  I haven’t looked at them in years, and if my mom threw them away I probably wouldn’t care.  Funny how God changes our perspective over time!  This weekend I pray that God changes all of our hearts so we can become Geniuses of Generosity.

Generosity, the Gateway to Intimacy with God

Intimacy was one of those words my family didn’t jump at the chance to talk about. This was partially a family thing, but also a cultural challenge.  Too often intimacy was misunderstood on television, the movies, or just the basic understanding.  Just as last week, we broke down the understanding of genius, this week it is more an understanding of intimacy. I am sure when you think of intimacy you think of a story of a man managing money, right?

Yeah, right!  But this week we examine one of the toughest parables in Scripture.  This is not just because I want to challenge myself to preach on a parable often misunderstood, but honestly, it has to do with the depth of our intimate relationship with God.  Jesus continues to bless us with many things, but unfortunately we often treat them poorly.  It is through the depth of our relationship with Him that we form intimate relationships with the gifts He gives us, and in turn, learn the depth of His blessing.

This week Jacob’s godfather arrives in town.  Derek and I became friends during our final year of seminary.  He was telling a story about a girl.  Soon that became a common theme in our lives.  We shared stories about girls and the dream of intimacy.  These were stories with white picket fences and kids that ran through the backyard.  We never anticipated our stories continuing, but sure enough, our first calls put us 20 miles apart.  In the LA area this meant more of a drive than it would in St. Louis; but even so, Friday after Friday our lives were joined together.  We began to live and breathe the depth of ministry, while wondering what God would do next in our lives.  Mindy and I married soon after, and then little Jacob came along.  It was an easy choice to make Derek Jacob’s godfather, and he carries the title well.  He is always one to send birthday cards and gifts to help prepare for the financial burden of college.  The hard part is that Jacob has to learn who Derek is every time he visits.  But the last time he was here, we made some great memories.  Derek and I spent the day with Jacob playing baseball on a small field. Jacob was just beginning to love baseball, a love Derek has had for a long time.  Jacob was quick to jump on his lap every morning before Derek truly had a chance to wake up.  The final most intimate moment was their farewell.  Derek went to say goodnight to Jacob the night before he left. Jacob called for one more hug from him, and as Derek returned to the living room tears poured down his face.  That is intimacy.  Derek hadn’t seen Jacob in two years, yet the memories of his being in the hospital when Jacob was born are certainly something that Derek treasures.  His relationship with a baby who is now a young boy has grown even though they are states apart.

We want to picture intimacy with flowers on beds, champagne bottles, kisses on doorsteps, and date nights.  Yet, intimacy involves a much deeper definition than moments of romance captured in time.  Intimacy grows in each of our relationships with our interactions.  So if we were to think about our intimacy with God, with Jesus our Savior, what does that look like?  If Jesus is described as Love, and if His deepest act of Love—generosity--was to rescue us, then wouldn’t it make sense that the more we act on love, we act on generosity as we care and give to others? Then we begin to grow in our intimacy with God, and realize what Jesus did for us.

As Jacob grows up and learns to love baseball more than he already does, he will see something that his godfather is passionate about.  He will hear stories about how Uncle Derek got Jacob’s dad back into baseball.  He will listen to accounts of Uncle Derek playing fantasy baseball with his dad.  Jacob will discover how something Uncle Derek was passionate about changed his story.  Yeah, you heard me right.

I had no real passion for baseball until Derek got me back into it.  Because of that Jacob and Gavin have memory after memory of going to baseball games with me.  It changed Jacob’s story because of Derek’s intimacy with him.  The goal is that God would do the same for us.  The story of Jesus’ generosity will help us grow in our intimacy with Him.  We will see the way He gave and how it changes our story.   And then we can’t help but become a Genius of Generosity!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Genius of Generosity

I heard it again the other day.  I was out to lunch with a friend who was telling me a story about money.  He said, “Money is the root of all evil.”  Ah, a lesson in context.  If you don’t like learning how to Read 1, you won’t like this lesson, but let’s just assume you do.  The rules are simple.  Scripture interprets Scripture.  Don’t proof text.  And the Gospels are not only the books we stand for in church, but we actually believe they carry more weight than other books.

What do I mean?  Let’s break it down.  First, it is important to check to see how Scripture can help you decode other Scripture.  So in this case, What does God think about money?  If God thought money was bad all together, why would Jesus pay the temple tax?  Why would He commend the widow for giving her few coins?  You see what I am saying:  God doesn’t hate money.

Proof text means I want to tell you something that Scripture says, so I take one Scripture (often out of context) and say, “Here is what I mean.”  In this example, I want to convince you that money is bad; that God doesn’t care about money.  Now my friend meant that in a totally different way, but he was missing a key word, but we will get to that.

Finally, we uphold what Jesus did as higher than other books of the Bible.  Why do we do this?  Simple!  We know that the main message of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is simple: we are broken sinners; we need a Savior; Jesus our Savior fulfilled the law so we could go to heaven.  The Gospels maintain this central theme by bringing all of Scripture together concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So what does this have to do with money and generosity?  This often misquoted Scripture is from 1 Timothy 6:10, where it says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with pangs.”  Wow!  Eye opening, right?  It is the love of money, not money.  But they “pierced themselves with pangs.”  (I’m not sure what a pang is but I don’t want it.)   Many translate a pang as grief, but you get it, right?  Who needs more grief?  Not me, for sure.

About a year ago I watched this 30 for 30, ESPN film called, “Broke.” It was all about how athletes go broke.  I have your attention now, right?  You feel bad for A-Rod, and the many professional athletes who are making millions of dollars.  Hang with me for a minute.  Think about it.  Many of them go from a life of poverty to living a millionaire life style in a matter of minutes.  Yes, I said minutes.  The natural progression of finances goes like this: we slowly creep up, and things start becoming easier.  Mindy and I had our first son very early in marriage.  We had to move to a larger apartment, and began to realize the cost of diapers, formula, etc.  Then, in addition to that, we moved from California to Missouri, and our income was reduced
to one salary.  This often happens in the early years of marriage.  So who feels bad for these athletes?  But think about it.  They have friends who are poor; they have family members who are poor; and so they begin to help them out.  They also get crazy and start blowing money.  They buy new cars and other new things, and before they know it, someone talks them into purchasing a business that will surely tank.  Suddenly, they realize that they started their career early in their 20s, when few young people knew how to manage money, and then their career ends in their mid 30s.  Now it occurs to them that they need to have enough money to carry it through the rest of their lives.

That is what got me.  Without the basic principles of saving, paying bills, and so on they find themselves Going Broke.  This weekend we start a new series called “The Genius of Generosity.”  Basic Principles are key for all of us.  If we don’t understand why giving is important, or how to give, or what to give, then how can we be generous?  Generosity has more to do with stewardship than anything else. Stewardship means managing what God gives me.

Let me explain:  I grew up living through my parents’ bankruptcy. Therefore I had a hard time giving up our stuff. Mindy grew up with a much different attitude.  Since her love language is giving, she will give up almost anything to anyone.  Such different outlooks can cause a few wrinkles in any marriage.  But soon enough I saw her heart for giving, and had to discover ways to accommodate both outlooks.  It also meant I needed to give to her.  With little money early in our marriage, I decided that gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas should be things of the past.  We acknowledged them, but we didn’t give gifts.  Words of encouragement were my love language.  So all I needed was a letter and a reminder that I was valued.  Over time God has changed my heart, and I treasure finding unique gifts for my wife.  I also understand when she wants to give to others.  This series is not about money; it’s not even about stewardship; it’s about heart change.  And I pray that God will allow us to become more generous through observing His goodness to us.

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day

Over the next 48 hours we will celebrate some pretty key holidays.  It is interesting that Reformation, All Saints Day, the Day of the Dead, and Halloween all fall within this time frame.  That is enough to put our brains on overload so it’s a good thing that we can enjoy an extra hour of sleep.  We believe that Luther and the Reformation brought us back to the true meaning of the saving grace of Jesus.  Its promise helps us see what truly happens in death, and to the saints.  Not to mention that this also keeps us from seriously participating in a holiday that involves people acting like evil spirits; rather we can trust that God has power even over that.
            I actually encourage you to think about death during these moments.  The other day my family and I were at the zoo, hanging with all the cousins and having fun before the big wedding.  We were talking about how retirement has been such a focus for our culture.  People put so much emphasis on what they will do when they retire.  They save, and work hard, promising themselves that they will play when they retire.  Do they ever capture the moment of what Jesus has for them today?  I encourage you to Read 1 - Ecclesiastes 9 and specifically verses 7 to 10.  This was the wedding verse I planned to have for my wedding until it was vetoed by my mother-in-law.  See, even pastors get challenged by mothers-in-law.
            The context of these verses help us to see that while Solomon did think life was meaningless, he took the time to grasp everything God gave Him in it.  My mother-in-law didn’t like this verse because it implies that after we enjoy this life we will go to Sheol; ultimately we will face death and then we will be with Jesus.  But we definitely will face death.  I like to face the facts.  I will die, and when I die will I wonder if my money, my life, and my fun remained dormant while waiting for retirement?  Now I am not talking about reckless behavior.
            I believe God created us to enjoy His work.  Think about the fact that God wanted us to enjoy marriage.  He didn’t want us to keep checking out the opposite sex after we were married.  He wanted us to look at our spouses with passion.  He wanted us to enjoy food that will keep us healthy.  He wanted us to enjoy the family He has given us.  He wanted us to enjoy loving others.  I’ve got to admit that a long time ago I didn’t look forward to the awkward talk about Christianity with a stranger, but now I treasure the moments when I can discuss faith.  In the beginning of my ministry funerals made me nervous; now I know they provide an opportunity to share the saving grace of Jesus with a room full of broken people.  Yes, even weddings offer a chance to speak about what marriage truly is.  No doubt my sister- in-law will get a full dose of that this weekend whether she likes it or not.  No, she knows me well enough to know what’s coming.  I tried to convince her to choose Ecclesiastes 9:7-10.  She almost agreed, which meant it would have been getting my mother-in-law back six and half years later.  But she went in another direction, and actually picked another great verse!   She chose the Ruth passage.  That was a unique situation because Ruth resisted what her culture maintained.  Ruth allowed God to influence her, rather than adhere to some false expectation of what her world required.
            When we look death in the face, we realize that we need a Savior.  When we become aware of that, we begin to allow Him to take over.  He shapes our lives through the Holy Spirit, and we enjoy every step and blessing He gives us.  Don’t miss the opportunity to look death in the face and relinquish its power over you. Then sleep an extra hour on Sunday, you’re going to need it!

Pray 1

One reason I gave all my reading to God, as I spoke about it in the last blog, is because I knew I was not going to do that in other areas.  This means the reason I read only Christian books and the Bible is because I knew I was never going to do that with my music.  I realized a long time ago that I was never going to be like my mom or my uncle Rich, who only listened to Christian music.  Yet, from my roots there is a band I love a lot--Toby, Kevin, and Michael, otherwise known as DC talk.  DC talk was the first concert I attended.  They have broken up now, and have formed three separate bands.  The most successful is Toby Mac.  His band has created some of the top Christian hits.  Occasionally I hear one of his songs, which is just like pop music, and I fall in love with it immediately.  I was in the midst of having one of my Christian music moments while I was listening to Pandora, and I heard one of Toby's new songs, "Steal my Show."  Let me develop this song for you.
            Toby gets off the plane and heads out to put on his "Show" or concert.  He realizes, as he is about to be on stage, that the people came there for "the beat to drop."  He goes on to explain that what they really need is Jesus.  So this is where the line comes in: If you want to steal my show, I'll sit back and watch you go, if you got something to say, go on and take it away.  The concept of this artist stepping back from all his fans and letting Jesus be center stage is a powerful image of prayer.  But the image gets even stronger at the end of the song when he sings: No matter who we are, no matter what we do every day, we can choose to say, if you want to steal my show, I'll sit back and watch you go, if you got something to say, go on and take it away...go on take it away, my life, my plans, my heart, my dreams, my fears, my family, my career, take it away.  What a powerful portrayal of our prayer life with God.
            We all have a show.  We all have something we own.  We all have lives that we expect belong to us, and prayer is that time when we communicate with God, and listen for what He has to say in our lives.  It is also the moment that we give it to Jesus, to have Him take it away; a reminder that we need His leadership.  As I listened to this song I thought through all of the times I have had to say to God (and sometimes with resistance) Steal my show and take it away.
            Martin Luther stood in the crux of time when the show that the Church was putting on was wrong.  The prevailing spiritual leaders were truly unwilling to let Jesus take back the show.  They had their way of doing things, and were not just resistant, but unwilling to hear the true essence of the Word of God.  Jesus came to save.  He came to rescue us from the mistakes we have made.  It may be hard to hand over our lives, but this is where prayer is important.  It is our connection with God.   And while I love the prayers I have memorized since childhood, there is nothing better than just talking to Jesus, knowing He came to steal my show and rescue me.  He came so that I could Pray 1, and now that has become a privilege.  If praying out loud makes you uncomfortable, I would encourage you to practice it.  But right before you try it, say:  Jesus, steal this show, and then Pray 1, boldly trusting in His Word through you.  Pray 1!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Read 1

A long time ago I realized reading was going to be a struggle for me.  It is not something that I love doing.  As I began to sort out the discipleship model in my life, I knew that staying connected to God’s Word was important.  I also knew that since I don’t enjoy reading, I decided the only things I would read would be Christian books and the Bible.  This practice began on vicarage, through my internship, and has continued along this path ever since.  I have my Bible reading plan on my phone; I am reading a book for my Bible study on Tuesday nights; and trying to tack on some other books as well.  The staff and I are going through “Storyline”, and many at Mt. Calvary know I am rereading, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.”   Someone recently bought me a book called, “Intentional Walk”, and that is next on my list.
            Almost everyday I make a small inventory of the mistakes I made the day before, repent, and think through what I want to change today.  There are plenty of times I look at the list of things I need to read and find myself frustrated at the places where I missed the mark.
            This weekend we study a unique reading where Jesus quotes Scripture to the Pharisees.  Jesus does this multiple times, but pondering that He is the Word, and ultimately He is speaking the words connected to Him, sometimes the Word is substituted for Him, as it is in John; but the Pharisees would only understand and receive this through Scriptures.  Then after He spoke the words they memorized and claimed they lived, He responded with His words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
             I will spend the next couple of days in Kansas City, attending the funeral of my Grandma Hanke.  Grandma loved to sing.  Hers was the story in last year’s Christmas sermon titled, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Although Grandma was struggling with Alzheimer’s, my brother and sisters enjoyed one last visit with her.  We spent a day with her last Christmas, and afterwards hung out with my aunt and shared some memories.  Grandma has been ready for Jesus for a long time so this is a good thing.  I am not sad; rather, it is another reminder of someone who for many years taught me about eternal life, and now is living it.  What does sadden me is thinking about the legacy that is now gone.  Grandpa and Grandma Hanke taught us about faith.  Grandpa Hanke is the whole reason I often use the saying, “Holy Habits.”   He used to say, “Will, habits create sin.”  This got me thinking about habits and how they can be the opposite as well.  My grandparents taught me “Holy Habits” for a long time.   Now it is my turn to help disciple my family and my congregation, as I continue to struggle with the same thing.  I am constantly allowing God’s Holy Spirit to work those “Holy Habits” in me.
            The Gospel message comes ringing clear when I know Jesus is the Word. Because He comes to rescue me and love me, and as I ponder my mistakes, He gives me forgiveness and reminds me how He is working in my life.  This was so clearly evident the other night when Jacob and Gavin were watching the Cardinal game. Jacob said, “Dad I am so tired, can we just read the Bible tonight!”  Wow, the Gospel appears when I am in my weakest moment and doubting myself.  Jacob meant that we should skip the other reading, but not the Bible.   Why?  It’s because we try to read the Bible every night, and I am passionate about this.  I believe that for years the Church gave people outs, and we ultimately read the Bible for them at services on Wednesdays, Sundays, and so on.  Now I believe so strongly that is part, only part of the reason some of us struggle with reading daily.  I believe Read 1 speaks to that. We want to connect with God’s Word every day, not just with devotions, but through God’s actual Words.  The CECE hands out Bibles at age two.   Our Children’s Ministry will be handing out Bibles and worship bags this weekend.  We, as the people of Mt. Calvary, are creating a “Holy Habit.”  This is what Read 1 is all about.  It is a key piece to B1 disciple, which was what Jesus was teaching His disciples in the presence of the Pharisees.   Sunday we dive into it!