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One of the greatest treasures I own is a small tin box of letters my grandfather and his family exchanged while he served in the US Army in France during World War I.

Those letters reveal a wealth of information about the day-to-day lives of my family nearly 100 years ago.  They also show me a different side of my grandfather as a man in his early 20s, rather than the 70-year-old  that I knew growing up. I had never truly thought about my Grandpagrandfather’s  willingness to  volunteer to sacrifice his life for his country, if necessary, and how far the battlefields of France must have seemed from the wheat fields of Kansas.  His thoughts and the thoughts of his brothers and sisters, their hopes, and their obvious concern and love for each other shine through in the letters.

The pages of the Bible contain similar insights for us today.  Aspects of God’s personality revealed to us in the actions and words of Christ.  The willingness of a human Jesus to sacrifice his life so that we might truly live.  The love and concern and advice that the early disciples and churches shared for one another.

If you’re feeling unloved and alone, or like you don’t really know God or don’t believe there’s a plan for your life, flip through the pages of the greatest love letter ever written. May God’s hope and obvious love and concern for you shine through on every page.

“Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us . . .”—Ephesians 5:2

The opposite of talking is not listening.  The opposite of talking is waiting.—Fran Lebowitz

 Summer months have a different rhythm. Maybe it feels that way because we set so much of our lives by the school calendar.  Perhaps Kansans pace themselves a little differently when the temperatures climb above 100 degrees.  Even in churches, we tend to suspend many of our usual meetings and activities during the summer.

 Maybe those of us who grew up in less “organized” times never quite get over the feeling that summer should be slower.  For me as a kid, summer meant stacks of books, poking around in the creek, evening drives to check cattle, snapping green beans with my grandparents.

 These days, we’re not very good at not being productive 100 percent of the time.  We only value action and results.  We just can’t wait.

 Waiting is not the absence of activity.  Webster’s definition of the word “wait” is to “observe carefully” and “to be watchful” and “to remain in readiness for some purpose”.

 Summer months as a kid meant I could read books and explore places in nature I didn’t have time to pay attention to during a busy school year.  Summer meant the opportunity for more time and longer conversations with my parents and grandparents. The learning didn’t stop—I could just be more observant about important people and everyday things in life that passed me by when I was too busy.  

Waiting is most difficult when we go through seasons of anxiety and trouble and uncertainty—we become impatient and want answers NOW—even when we understand that God reveals those answers in due season.  It’s the period of waiting where God teaches us to trust and depend on Him, and not our own abilities. 

Seasons of waiting—both in our personal lives and in our life as the church—are not seasons of doing nothing.  They are an opportunity for us to reflect on God, our faith, to pray, to listen, to study, to sit and observe—to rest and refresh, but remain in readiness to act when we’re called.

 “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”—Isaiah 40:31

 

“We know love by this–that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”–1John 3:16

I have always wanted to be asked to give a commencement address, because I have a piece of vital information to pass along to freshly-minted graduates.

Since I haven’t been asked AGAIN this year, I’m going to write it here instead.

Ready?  Here it is:

No matter where you work (and yes, the purpose of all of these years of education is so that some day you will have a job) there will always be someone who makes twice as much money as you for doing half the work.

(If you don’t think this statement is funny, you might be who I’m talking about.)

It might be a bit of an exaggeration.  At the least, you will have a coworker who makes approximately the same amount of money you do and manages to do only about a fourth of the work.

So why is it so important to me that the kiddos know this?  Because how you respond in that situation defines your character and attitude for life.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a workplace.  I know plenty of relationships suffer because one person works harder at it than the other.  I’ve served on numerous volunteer boards with people who worked as hard at their responsibilities for the greater good as they did at their “real” jobs.  And others who signed up just to be able to list the organization on their resumes.

So, when faced with those kind of people, we can respond in two ways.  We can get really ticked off and decide we’re not going to put out any more effort than they do.  Or, we can do our jobs and throw ourselves into our relationships to the very best of our abilities.

In John 10, Jesus says he is the “good” shepherd–not “good” as in “nice”, but “good” as in, this is the kind of dedicated shepherd you want taking care of your sheep.  A shepherd tough enough and courageous enough to go to battle against predators. A shepherd responsible enough to brave the elements 24 hours a day to keep watch on the sheep.  A shepherd gentle enough and sympathetic enough to lead sheep to safe pastures and call them by  name.sheep

A “good” shepherd–“good” as in “model” shepherd.  A kind of shepherd sheep like us should listen to and trust and follow.  A shepherd who puts the welfare of the sheep ahead of his own. One who loves his flock enough to lay down his own life.

Sheep, like people, do some stupid things when they ignore the shepherd and go off on their own.  I read a story several years ago about an entire flock of sheep that committed mass suicide when one jumped off a cliff and the rest followed.  (There you go–your mother had reason for saying, “And I suppose if all your friends jumped off a cliff, you’d want to do that too?”)

Moral to the story: If you decide you want to choose a fellow sheep for your leader, you’d better take a long, hard look at where he’s heading.

At any given moment in our lives, we are being led by who (or what) we believe in, and we are in a position to lead other people by our actions.

So here’s your challenge, Class of 2009: Show us what a world of sheepish leaders led by the Good Shepherd might look like.

 

 

 

 

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.–Mark 23-26

Demons fascinate people.  Books on demonic possession become best sellers.  Movies starring zombies and vampires and evil spirits set box office records.

Funny to say, even some facets of Christianity are possessed by obsessive thoughts of demons duking it out with the angelic armies of God. Um–let’s see—don’t we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection overcomes evil?  So why would we perpetuate the idea that evil just might win in the end if we don’t mind our p’s and q’s? Evil is stronger than God–or equally strong, or almost as strong?  I don’t think so.demon1

Perhaps there are demon imps running around my living room–fortunately, if they’re there, I’ve never met any of them. (My son would like to blame them for the mysterious pink spots in the carpet, but I know that came from a spilled container of body wash in his gym bag.)

 I do wonder, however, by what scriptural authority anyone thinks spiritual warfare is a subject we should lay awake at night worrying about? Focus on evil, and all you’re going to going to see evil.  Is that what Jesus taught?

Take this passage from Mark. Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument with the evil that stumbles into the synagogue.  He doesn’t launch into a long sermon to convert evil to good.  

He doesn’t even break a sweat.  “Be quiet, and leave that man alone.”

The evil fights hard to hang around.  The evil doesn’t want to let go.  But there’s no epic battle of good versus evil going on in this passage.  Good isn’t threatened.  Good can’t be intimidated.  Good can’t be goaded into an argument.

Good–Jesus, God–just gives a command and evil has to leave.  End of story.

Perhaps there are demons, but I think human beings are plenty capable of causing all kinds of chaos on their own, without any help.  The demons I’m familiar with are man-made demons–addictions, tightly held grudges regularly fertilized with self-justification, prejudices, past hurts, fears, bad attitudes.  They grip us tightly and we can’t shake them. We focus on them. We nurture them and allow them to grow.  We use them to challenge God to leave us alone.

We can trust the authority of Christ to banish evil.  Starting not with outside forces, but the evil that lurks within us.

(For more information on the image of Satan included in this post, look here.)

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”–Mark 1:17

That is probably one of Jesus’s more famous quotes.  (Yes, I know, in some circles it’s quoted as “fishers of men”, but most of the time I try to be a politically correct Presbyterian who uses diverse language.  Even if for simplicity’s sake, I still refer to God as “He”.)

But–let’s be honest here–we would much rather just go fishing than heed Jesus’s call to discipleship. “I don’t know what to say.”  “I’m not comfortable talking about my faith.”  “I’m not going to go knock on doors like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (No offense to my JH friends.  I admire your guts.  I feel guilty when you show up because you’re doing it and I’m not.)  And, my personal favorite excuse on the responsibility of discipleship:  “That’s what we pay the preacher to do.”

So, here’s a few fishing analogies to think about:

andygriffith11.  True fishermen spend a lot of time studying their craft.  They read fishing magazines.  They talk to other fishermen.  They go to Cabela’s and look at all the new fishing equipment.

The disciples spent a good deal of time (pretty much most of the three years of his ministry) learning from Jesus.  When he did send them out, it was with a detailed list of instructions to follow.  (Matthew 10:5, Luke 10:1-20).  Sometimes they asked a lot of dumb questions or spouted off false assumptions, but that gave Jesus an opportunity to teach them even more.

2. Fishermen know the best places and conditions for fishing.  You can blow up a baby pool in your backyard and sit all day with a line in the water, but that doesn’t make you a fisherman.  Fishermen go to the fish.  They know the fish aren’t going to come to them.

Likewise, showing up in church on Sunday morning is beneficial for your spiritual growth, but except in a few lucky cases, it’s not a place where fish just jump into the boat on their own.  You gotta get out there where the fish are.  You’ve got to cast your net–invite the fish in.  (There really aren’t a lot of good analogies for the disciples pulling fish out of the water and leaving them flopping on the deck that relate to discipleship.  Unfortunately, that mental picture does relate to what we do sometimes in nurturing the spiritual life of fellow believers.  Ouch–that hurts to think about. But for now, we’ll just think about casting our nets in terms of inviting people in to learn about Jesus.)

You can talk about fishing.  You can pray about fishing.  You can learn about fishing.  But at some point in time, you gotta go fish.  

I have heard that fish bite best when there’s a storm brewing.  The same concept works for people.  Questions like “Why am I here?”  and “Does God really care what happens to me?” always loom the largest when life’s waters are choppy.

3. You don’t need fancy equipment to catch a fish.  You can outfit yourself with state of the art rods and comfortable boats, but likely you’re not impressing the fish.  Plenty of fish have been caught with simple equipment.  

Same holds true with the idea that you’re not qualified to go fish for people because you can’t rattle off long passages of Scripture from memory and can’t recite all the books of the Bible, in order.  (I can’t either.) Vast theological knowledge impresses people very little.  Most of them just need to know that God loves them and cares about them, and maybe the real-life situations that helped you figure out that God loves you and cares about you.

Study the Bible.  Perhaps judiciously use Scripture as bait. (It’s OK to look it up in the index and refer to the Table of Contents). Just be sure you don’t try to beat your fish over the head with it.  (I think clubbing fish may be illegal in most states. )

4. Fishermen are always thinking about fishing.  They don’t always get to fish.  But they’re always looking for unexpected opportunities to go fishing.  The tackle box is ready.  The pickup is packed. They’re reading “Fly Fishing Today” and “Bass Monthly” on their noon hours looking for new techniques to try.

Fishing for people is all about looking for  opportunities and being prepared to act on them.  There may not always be perfectly planned occasions to fish.

But when the time presents itself, go fish.

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you  . . . are you envious because I am generous?” –Matthew 20:14-15

As a kid, I was not just skinny–I was painfully skinny.  And woefully un-athletic. (If only I could have been like Trixie Belden, the spunky, mystery-solving girl in the books I had my nose stuck in!)

So, it’s no surprise that not only was I the last to be chosen for teams for playground games–usually there was a chorus of groans from the team that “won” my services.

There was no worse playground game than Red Rover.  A human chain of third-graders gripping each other’s hands.  The chant, “Red rover, Red rover, send (name) right over.” The chosen child ran as fast as they could, trying to break through the chain.  If they broke the chain, they got to pick someone to go over to their side.  If they didn’t, they were “captured”, and had to stay on our side.

I knew that not only was my name going to be the first chosen (because there was no way I could break through a human chain), I was in for a beating because every aimed for me when they ran–I truly was the weakest link.

But one day my friend Lori Lou picked me to be on her team, ignoring the groans of the stronger members.  She said, “You come stand by me,” and locked my wrist in a death grip.  She knew standing by me made her a target, but she was willing to pay the price to help me.  I didn’t do anything do deserve being on a team, but Lori Lou valued friendship more than my abilities.

In Jesus’s parable from Matthew 20:1-16, workers in the vineyard grumble because the owner opts to pay everyone the same, despite their contributions.  While some of the workers grumble and groan about the fairness of his decision, the owner retorts, “You are envious because I am generous?”

God values our friendship more than our abilities. Was it fair that Jesus took the beating for our sins?  If he is that generous to us, do we have the right to question his generosity to others–or to judge who God deems worthy?