February 26, 2012

Catalyst to a Journey

Through Lent, we’ll travel the Road to Jerusalem and to the Emerald City. What can these two very different paths teach us? Like Dorothy in Oz, we are each seeking a way to ‘get home’ and find the love and security that can only be found in God. Hebrews 11:13-16 reminds us that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth…[desiring] a better country…for [God] has prepared for [us] a city. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) because he knew that his journey would open the door for us, to that city. Dorothy found herself on a long road through Oz to find someone to help her get home. Jesus also traveled a long road to the Holy City. Come follow their paths and see how it might change your Lenten journey.
Where does Jesus’ Road to Jerusalem start? When Jesus is baptized and begins to call his disciples he and they step onto the road that will ultimately lead to Jerusalem. (Mark 1:9-20) The every day life of Peter and Andrew, James and John, was about to be dramatically changed. A catalyst entered their life, similar in some ways to the tornado that scoops Dorothy up and spins her off to Oz. 
Dorothy was an ordinary girl living in Kansas-perhaps not too happy with her situation, but it was the life she knew. The disciples, too, were going about their daily routine of fishing and selling the fish and cleaning the nets for the next day. Rather boring, but predictable. I know I go through my days in a fairly standard cycle, too. Breakfast-feed cats-check computer-go to work-come home-writing-dinner-TV-bed.
Into the lives of the disciples and Dorothy comes a catalyst that changes them. For the disciples it is Jesus saying “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” For Dorothy the tornado whirls her out of the everyday bland life into a life full of danger and unexpected things.
I recently heard that there are two sorts of problem solvers: those who see opportunity in every difficulty and those who can only see difficulties in opportunities. Jesus taught his disciples how to look for the opportunity no matter what the apparent difficulty. Dorothy could only see the difficulties in her situation. In Kansas her life was boring and repetitive. Even in Oz she discovers that there are more difficulties: witches and ‘lions and tiger and bears, oh my’, and a wizard who isn’t the solution. As we’ll see, it took the catalyst of saving her friends to help her find the opportunity (a bucket of water) in the difficulty. For the disciples it took the seemingly impossible-to-overcome difficulty of the Jesus’ crucifixion to understand that God is greater than any problem.
The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells the story of a woman who also had to step out on a journey to discover God. Naomi’s life in Bethlehem started out fine, but then came the catalyst of drought and famine. Her husband decides to look for greener pastures in Moab and so her journey starts. “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” (Ruth 1:1-3)
What catalyst is there in your life? Lent is a catalyst because it offers a set length of time in which to try new disciplines or ministries. Are you up to the challenge to try something new, to step out of your comfort zone this Lent? Maybe it is a simple (or hard) as starting to look for the opportunities in the difficulties rather than focusing on the difficulties. Perhaps it’s a new phase in your life, or it could just be spending more time with God in quiet and prayer.
Next time we’ll start down the road to Jerusalem and the Yellow Brick Road. They look wonderful and seem to be the answer to all problems.

February 22, 2012

Roads for Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, when we are urged to spend time in self examination and make plans to ‘give up’ something like chocolate or novels. Sometimes though, self examination takes the form of looking at the journey we are on. It can be a good time to map out where we are and where we are going on the road of life.
Roads are everywhere. Some are wide, some are narrow. There are interstates and country roads, city streets and village lanes. Tracks in the woods (like at the left) are just as much roads as giant concrete interchanges. Jesus warns his disciples to “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Robert Frost echoes this in his well known poem, “The Road Not Taken”:  

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,  
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.  

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In life, as Frost notes, we have to make choices about the road we take. He says “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Throughout literature and movies, we find the road image again and again. Consider the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, or the Road to Mordor. The Odyssey and Canterbury Tales both take place as people travel as do Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn. Of course in these works, the road symbolizes the protagonist’s search for meaning or a solution to their problems.
A long time ago, in “The Little Colonel's House Party”, I read a story about Robert Lewis Stephenson and how after his death, the chiefs of Samoa built a road to honor him. In the book it was called “The Road of the Loving Heart” and was a reoccurring theme throughout the series as the girls turned into young women and got married, they all tried to keep ‘building a road of the loving heart’ for people around them. Angry words and wrong choices left rocks in the road for others to stumble over, but doing right and being loving created a smooth highway. It always reminds me of Isaiah 40:3: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Isn’t that what we should be trying to do-build a smooth, straight road that points to God, so that others can find their way? Have you ever stopped to consider what ‘road’ you are on in your spiritual journey? Are you searching for a solution to life’s problems like Don Quixote or Odysseus? Do you need to find a way home like Dorothy and Frodo? Is the road you are on just a way to get from here to there as for Huck Finn and Chaucer’s folks? Is your road a “narrow road that leads to life”, a “highway for our God”? Are you building a ‘Road of the Loving Heart’? If you are like me, your road and journey is a little bit of all these things.  We learn about life and God as we ‘travel life’s highway’. John Bunyan put this whole journey into the allegorical story, Pilgrim’s Progress as did Dante with The Divine Comedy.
During Epiphany I explored two parallel passages from Paul’s letters as ways to help us live and remain faithful to our life in Christ. We are to ‘rejoice always’, ‘pray without ceasing’, ‘give thanks in all things’ so as to welcome the Spirit and live in the peace of God. At first these seem impossible, but maybe there are ways to use them as cobblestones for our roadway. When we live into the promises of our God, we can build a 'road of the loving heart'. 

Through Lent I’ll be traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem and with Dorothy’s along the Yellow Brick Road. How will their different, yet perhaps not so different roads inform my Lenten journey and yours? If you are looking for a new focus for this Lent, come along on this adventure.

February 19, 2012

Will of God

We’ve reached the end of our study of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and Philippians 4:4-9. Paul has led us on an exploration of steps to leading a life of joy in the Lord. He concluded by telling us that this kind of life is “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18b). Further, living a Spirit filled life of rejoicing, prayer, thankfulness will offer us “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

As we saw the end of January, the ‘peace of God’ is not necessarily a warm, fuzzy feeling. Indeed more often it is the action that results from living a life based in Christ and responding to God’s call on our lives.

Over the past 7 weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to explore these parallel passages in greater depth than I’d ever taken time to do. At the beginning, I shared that the verse from Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always” has been my ‘go to’ verse when I’m feeling down because it was the charge given to a confirmation class in the 1970’s. Now I understand that it is part of a fuller exploration of a life committed to letting go to God.

One step in letting God be in control and accepting the will of God is believing that God values us-for who we are NOW! There is a song by Jason Gray: “Remind me who I am” that is the cry of many hearts.

When I lose my way,
And I forget my name
Remind me who I am
In the mirror all I see
Is who I don't wanna be
Remind me who I am
In the loneliest places
When I can't remember what grace is

Tell me, once again who I am to You, who I am to You
Tell me, lest I forget Who I am to You, that I belong to You, to You
When my heart is like a stone,
And I'm running far from home
Remind me who I am
When I can't receive Your love
Afraid I'll never be enough
Remind me who I am
If I'm Your beloved
Can You help me believe it


I'm the one You love
I'm the one You love
That will be enough
I'm the one You love

I suppose we all have days where we think that the one we see in the mirror “is who I don’t wanna be” and days when “my heart is like a stone, and I’m running far from home.” The video of this song is a moving reminder that no matter what we have done, we are indeed loved and beloved.  Each of us has something we are not proud of. The Good News of our faith is that we are not trapped in the past or mired in the bad things we have done. All that is removed and erased in God through Christ.

Living the life outlined by Paul in these passages helps us to stay grounded and reminded of Whose we are. Practicing the disciplines of rejoicing, praying, giving thanks and looking for the good things around us help us hear the Voice calling us each “beloved.” Paul doesn’t promise it will be easy, but that it is the “will of God for you.” A prayer I learned a long time ago, which turns out to have been turned into a song by Glen Campbell and others, is yet another way to live out the precepts we’ve explored over the past couple of months.

Let me be a little kinder, let me be a little blinder to the faults of those about me.
Let me praise a little more, let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery.
Think a little more of others and a little less of me.
Let me be a little braver when temptation bids me waver.
Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be.
Let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery.
Let me serve a little better those that I am strivin' for.
Let me be a little meeker with the brother that is weaker.
Think a little more of others and a little less of me.

When we are grounded in God, we look at the world and those around us differently and we think “a little less of me”, then we come closer to living the will of God in our lives. I’ve learned some things on this study of the two passages and hope others have to.

Next week brings us to Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. During Lent, we are on a journey-a road to Jerusalem. Like Dorothy in Oz, we are each seeking a way to ‘get home’ and find the love and security that can only be found in God. Hebrews 11:13-16 reminds us that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth…[desiring] a better country…for [God] has prepared for [us] a city. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) because he knew that his journey would open the door for us, to that city. Dorothy found herself on a long road through Oz to find someone to help her get home. Jesus also travelled a long road to the Holy City. Come follow their paths and see how it might change your Lenten journey.

February 12, 2012

Whatever is Good

For over a month we’ve been looking at the lessons in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and Philippians 4:4-9. (downloadable here). Starting with Rejoicing, thanksgiving, and prayer, Paul tells his audience, 2000 years ago and today, that these exercises will help us be open to the Spirit of God and find God’s peace. However, as we saw last week, he warns that we must test the prophets and only copy those who are worthy.

Now Paul goes further and tells us to “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21b) and “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Look around, what do you see that is good, noble, true, right, pure, lovely, admirable? There really is a lot of good stuff happening. To watch the news you might forget that with their focus on disasters and failures and tragedy, but in reality there is more good than bad in the world-it’s just not considered newsworthy. It takes a special effort to find and admire the good things happening. What are some things that come to mind?

A beautiful sunrise that sets the sky ablaze…
Sweet puppies or kittens that warm your heart…
A lovely note, text or tweet from someone you haven’t heard from in a long time…
You see or read about someone going out of their way to help another…

What about the days that seem bleak or when things really do go wrong-a scary diagnosis, loss of a job, back-biting colleague or the myriad other problems that come from living in a broken and fallen world? As all the animals insist in the Contented Little Pussy Cat, “there are so many things to trouble a body.” How can you find something lovely, true, noble, good, pure, or admirable in the troubles? I think the answer might be found in looking for God, especially in those times. Paul says we should “hold fast to what is good.” We claim to believe that we have a good and loving God, therefore God IS in even those times that feel bad.

God is in the diagnosis because God walks through the valleys with us, not causing sickness, but offering strength to carry on.
God is opportunity knocking in the job loss, opening new doors when all we see are closed ones.
God is in the conversation with the colleague as a mirror showing that each of us is wounded and needs compassion.

The interesting thing about looking for the good things (reminiscent of Pollyanna-see Jan. 22) is that the more you look for, the more you see. When we intentionally look for God in all times and places and events, we will find God! Paul is correct in advising us to think about the good and noble things and not focus on the negatives and bad things of life. When I look for the good things, my attitude is much better than when I let myself be dragged down by the negative reports and negative attitudes around me.

An interesting discipline is to make a list of 3-7 things each day that are lovely, true, noble, good, pure, admirable. This list of things that make you thankful and joyful reminds you that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right in the world.” It’s something I’m still working on because, for me, anyway, it’s easier to get trapped into the negatives than look for the positives.

It’s not easy, but certainly worth it. I’m challenging myself to find at least 3 things and if possible 7 things each day that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable” etc. every day. These are places where God is breaking into day-to-day life. Consider doing that yourself for this week and see what happens. If you need a visual aid, you can click on the picture and paste it into a document to print out. You can make your own from a piece of paper or a small notebook, and photos, inspirational sayings, observations, etc., too.

Next week we’ll conclude these meditations on the passages from Thessalonians and Philippians with Paul’s summary of a life lived in Christ.

February 5, 2012

Practice of Faith

We’re more than half way through our study of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 and Philippians 4:4-9. (downloadable here) Paul’s advice to those two churches is just as apt for us today. He advises us to rejoice, pray, and give thanks because then we will discover that God and the peace of God is with us-no matter what the outward circumstances.

Paul has another piece of advice for us today. At first glance the two citations may seem to be talking about different things, but really he is saying we should practice our faith. He says, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything” (1 Thes. 5:20-21) and tells the Thessalonians “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me -- put it into practice.” (Philippians 4:9a) Paul says we should ‘test everything’ we hear, even from prophets,-sound advice in this world when everyone has a different opinion and take on everything from what to wear to politics. On the other hand he says that the church members should practice everything they have observed in Paul.

Paul and other giants of faith are good to emulate. Reading their words can inspire us to work on our spiritual life. Calvin, famous Reformation preacher, said “The stability of the world depends on the rejoicing in God’s works…. If on earth, such praise of God does not come to pass… then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion…”

We saw over the past month that rejoicing and prayer and thanksgiving lead to finding God’s peace. Calvin insists that rejoicing is necessary. However, we cannot expect to be perfect at prayer, rejoicing, and thanksgiving without practice. As the Contented Little Pussy Cat (Jan. 8) told his friends “Nothing good is ever learned without practicing.”

Another, modern, theologian and musician (John Michael Talbot) posted a Facebook comment in which he said,. “The more you retire into solitude, for prayer the more the power of the Spirit is stirred, and people seek you out for active ministry. The more time you spend in silence, the more powerful your words become in the Word…All mystics of every religion realize it, but do we who claim to follow the compliment and completion of all faiths practice it?”

These three diverse ‘prophets’ might give us food for thought. Talbot reminds us that prayer stirs up the Spirit of God for “active ministry” and makes us “powerful…in the Word.” We must ‘test the words of the prophets’ by discerning if what they say fits with the Truth found in God’s word. Then we can imitate those who are worthy of imitation, whether in prayer, practice, or in rejoicing in the Lord. But how do we discern who is on the right track. Reading the Bible and prayer are certainly two guideposts that can assist our search.

There are stacks of books and studies to help us pray more efficiently, to give thanks more fully, and even to rejoice in all things. It can become overwhelming to find the ‘right’ guide. OR It can be as simple as the ACTS style outline of prayer, which encompasses Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Another blogger suggests the SHELTER method:

Say Short Prayers
Have Helps to prayer like devotionals or studies
Establish a place to pray
List your prayers, both thanksgivings and requests
Take Time to pray Together with others
Establish a time for prayer
Reminders help focus our prayer (like a cross or icon or Bible)

An online search will turn up other prayer aids you might want to try. Click here for a compilation of some of them. You won’t want to use them all, but pick and chose the ones that seem helpful. Consider taking on one new prayer practice this week-just for fun. Practicing your faith can be fun.

Next week we’ll look at “what is good”-the fruits we obtain when we practice a discipline of prayer, rejoicing and thanksgiving that invites the Spirit to live in our lives.

February 2, 2012

Candlemas, February 2

Today, February 2 is the feast of the Church called Candlemas. What is Candlemas? The day is also known as the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. In Luke 2:22-38 we hear the story of Simeon and Anna seeing Mary and Joseph with Jesus and recognizing the child as Messiah.

I think that their experience could teach us (at least me) something about waiting for God’s answers. Simeon and Anna have some attributes that can be copied and practiced in our own faith journey as we seek to see God in our daily lives.

First of all they were expectant. Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2:25b)

They believed the promise. “It had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2:26)

Anna and Simeon were dedicated to the Lord. Anna “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:37b)

Both were patient, having waited for years to see Messiah. Anna was 84-an ancient age in the first century!

They were available to God’s revelation when Jesus did come. “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple…At that moment [Anna] came, and began to praise God.” (Luke 2:27, 38)

On this day when we remember that Jesus was a human child, and his parents were obedient to the Holy Laws, (Luke 2:22-24) what can these elderly prophets teach us?

As I considered Anna and Simeon, I had to ask myself a few questions about the way I wait for God to fulfill my requests and God’s promises in my life. You might have similar questions to answer about your faithful waiting.

Do I expect to find God every- and indeed any-where? Too often, I want God to be where and when I expect-say in church or among friends, not where my gifts or personality or beliefs will be challenged.

Can I believe the promise of God to me? “I know the plans I have for you,” says Jeremiah 28 and Romans 8 tells us that “all things work for good.” It is human to want our lives to go smoothly, though without all the bumps and challenges. I for one have to be reminded that God is in those times, too.

Am I dedicated to looking for God in all things, people, places or do I maintain that my way is the only way? Don’t we all stamp our feet, at God sometimes, and say “I want it MY way”?

How patient am I when God’s answer seems to be delayed or even when the answer is ‘no’?

How often am I available to God’s revelation in ways I don’t expect? Surely Simeon and Anna didn’t really expect God to be in a month old child-but they were available and open to God’s revelation.

I think all these questions might be answered by living out Paul’s advice in the Philippians and Thessalonians passages that we’ve been meditating on in this blog for the past month. By Rejoicing, Praying without ceasing, and giving Thanks in all things, we can be more open to God’s revelation and patient when the answer is delayed. Nope-not easy, but look at Anna and Simeon. They both recognized their Savior and praised God. Simeon’s hymn is used in the daily Evening Prayer service and is a wonderful prayer to go to sleep reciting.

Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

I’m sure Mary and Joseph pondered long on the words of these prophets, as should we. God still comes when and where we are least expecting.

Help me to wait expectantly, aware and yet patient for your coming, O Lord.