Kissing Your Scars

Baby-Kissing-on-Mirror

In the One Year Bible we have been reading about the life of Joseph. Given that his story begins in chapter 37 of Genesis and ends in chapter 50, it is one of the longer narratives in the Bible. The life of such a prominent man surely has lessons for us.

The greatest lesson for me is Joseph’s ability to avoid bitterness and unforgiveness by grasping God’s greater plan. His brothers sold him into slavery and lied to his father that he was dead. While in Egypt he was treated unjustly by the wife of his Master, falsely accused and imprisoned. Joseph had a number of reasons to be resentful about the events of his life over which he had no control.

Years later, after coming to power and being reunited with his brothers, he had every opportunity for revenge. While he did play a number of cat and mouse games, his love for his brothers was evident throughout. The Scriptures record a number of times when Joseph had to leave the room to weep, which is hardly the action of a man hardened by bitterness.

When his brothers realized that this powerful man was their brother Joseph, understandably they feared for their lives. But Joseph said, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He knew that if his brothers had not sold him into slavery in Egypt then he would not have risen to power and been able to save many, including his own family, from starvation. Joseph had learned to kiss his scars.

I connect to this story. Many years ago my best friend betrayed and sinned against me, which resulted in a number of dominos falling and negatively impacting my life in a profound way. Of course I was not without my own sin and guilt, but that does not change the fact that, like Joseph’s brothers, he did evil against me. When I was in the midst of the fallout and pain I could not for the life of me understand why God would allow such a thing to happen. As I was drowning in self-pity a true friend said to me, “He did you a favor” but I could not see it at the time. He was right.

As years went by I was able to see the hand of God in it all. If it were not for my friend’s actions I would have not moved to Chattanooga. If I had not moved to Chattanooga I would have never met Beth, whose very smile heals my soul. If I had not attended St. Paul’s in Chattanooga, my Rector would not have directed me into the priesthood. If I had not entered the priesthood, then I would have never had the privilege of knowing and serving the people of St. Paul’s and All Saints’ and St. Patrick’s and Church of the Redeemer and St. Stephens and on and on. God meant it for good.

Joseph understood and I am learning that evil does not have the final word. God does not cause the evil but His love is so powerful and His goodness so transformational that He works all things together for our good. Thus, in only a way that God could orchestrate, Judas’ kiss sets the stage for the redemption of the world.

Look back over you own life. Unless you have been blinded by bitterness and unforgiveness you will see God’s hand also has turned evil into good. You may have scars that you would not wish on your worst enemy but they are a part of who you are today. You would not be you without them. So give thanks to God for His goodness by learning to kiss those scars.

Lessons from Nehemiah

NehemiahOrdinaryGuy

I have spoken with some who were concerned that the large amount of resistance or opposition that they were experiencing was an indication that they were out of the will of God. The story of Nehemiah shows us that just the opposite is true and it gives us some ideas on how to respond.

After fasting, prayer and repentance, Nehemiah is given divine favor to return to Judah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and to restore its gates. You would think that such a noble endeavor would curry nothing but favor. Instead jealous and greedy men opposed him so vehemently that his workers had to work with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other.

His principal opponents were Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab (didn’t someone write a song about him?). First they tried discouragement. “If a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall” (4:4). I can relate to that. When I first came to Middle Tennessee to plant a church, the priest in the next town told me a number of times that there was no way that an Anglican Church would work in Smyrna, Tennessee. Further I was doubly doomed because my vision was to plant a traditional parish and another priest said that that only a contemporary church would have a hope of working.

What did Nehemiah do with this resistance? He went to prayer and called upon God to defend him and he kept working. In fact rather than being discouraged, they intensified their efforts and worked from can to can’t.

Next Nehemiah’s enemies spread lies about him. They said that he was doing this work in order to make himself king.

I can relate to that also. We had such serious problems with the builder of All Saints’ in 2002 that the builder falsely accused me of felony assault. I was arrested and had to go to court and it took some time before my name was cleared. It is an exhausting thing to try to prove your innocence so Nehemiah denied the accusations, refused to meet with his detractors and went on about his work. No dialogue for Nehemiah!

The third thing that Nehemiah had to face was Tobiah trying to bully him through letters. And we thought cyber bullying was a new thing.

One day when I was quite new to the Internet, I received an email from a stranger looking for dirt on the Bishop in order to bring charges against him. I confronted the person telling him that is not how we did business and that if he did not like the Bishop’s leadership then he was free to find another denomination. The next thing I knew I was being brought up on charges in an ecclesiastical court for behavior unbecoming to a priest. The Bishop thanked me for defending him but he asked me to apologize to the man in order to make the charges go away. I could not do that because I believed that I had done nothing wrong and that the stranger was trying to manipulate us through fear. The Bishop then asked if I would just meet with the stranger, to which I agreed. However the night before we were to meet, the stranger survived a heart attack and I never heard from him again.

Nehemiah’s response to the attempt to make him fearful was to call for a holy day and have a celebration. In doing so he took his eyes off of his enemies and looked to God. He fought fear with worship.

According to the notes on Nehemiah in the English Standard Version Study Bible the theme of Nehemiah is “The Lord’s protection of his people and the need for their faithfulness to the Torah and their faithfulness in worship.” (p. 821).

So when we face resistance or opposition we do not need to fear that we are out of God’s will. In fact, the more we work for God’s kingdom, the more opposition we will face because the forces of darkness fight against the light. We can take a lesson from Nehemiah when the resistance comes and refuse to be stopped by discouragement or lies or fear. Instead we are to look to the Lord to be our defender and shield while we remain faithful to walk in obedience to His Word and be constant in worship.

“ O God, who art the author or peace and lover of concord, in whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear that power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP p.53).

Angry with God?

Crying out to God

People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord – Proverbs 19:3 New Living Translation

Is it ever appropriate to be angry with the Lord? The implication of this verse is that it is not appropriate, particularly when we are shifting blame and not admitting that it was our own foolishness that has resulted in our problems.

And yet I have seen such behavior many times over the years. People speak to me of being angry with God because He is not answering their prayers. The real problem is, as we are told in James, that they are praying amiss (4:3). They are praying selfishly or for their own will to be done or with deep unforgiveness in their hearts. Even though the Scriptures tell us that such things will block our prayers, still they blame God.

Another complaint I often hear is that God is not blessing their finances. Typically the real issue is a spending problem and not an income problem. Or many times I will discover that they are not tithing even though in Malachi God’s promise is to bless us if we do. So it is pointless to be angry with God when we ignore what He tells us to do and then we don’t like the results. To quote a popular song, we need to start with the man in the mirror.

Nevertheless I would argue that there are times when it is permissible and even advisable to be angry with God. In many Psalms, the Psalmist is venting frustration at how things are. In Psalm 74 he cries out, “O God, why do you cast us out forever?” In Psalm 73 he admits to being embittered in his heart towards God (vs. 21). The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of complaining and pleading his case before God because he wants to know why the wicked prosper and the treacherous thrive (12:1).

The ultimate hissy fit is the Book of Job. It is one long lament by a man who wants an explanation and will not settle for the religious clichés of his so-called “friends.” In his book on lament, “The Hidden Face of God,” Michael Card points out that Job refused to say what he thought that God wanted to hear. Instead Job spoke what was truly on His heart. His statements about God were not correct but they were what he really thought and felt. After he got them off of his chest, then he repented for speaking about things that he did not understand. The point is that he spoke them to God. He expressed his anger and frustration to the Almighty.

Thus, while we must not be irreverent or blasphemous, it is okay to be angry with God. Put it in the context of a Father/child relationship. What child has never been angry with their parents? And when we were, also we knew that there were appropriate and inappropriate ways to express our frustration. God as our heavenly Father is more than equipped to handle our anger. He is not surprised or shocked by it because it is one of the ways that we have been created in His image. If we try to ignore anger or to press it down then we only end up hurting others or ourselves.

What we see through the life of our Savior is that God wants a genuine relationship with us. He is not interested in empty religious trappings. He wants our hearts, even and especially when they are broken. So when you need to do so, do not be afraid to cry out to God and tell Him what He already knows that is going on deep inside. As you trust Him with those thoughts and feelings, including expressing your anger to Him, then your relationship with Him will deepen and you may well experience healing.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

Sowing
Acts 17:1-34

One day I was walking downtown in Chattanooga at lunchtime and came across a street evangelist who was standing on the sidewalk and yelling at the cars that were stopped at the red light. He was warning them to repent lest they perish. Meanwhile his intended audience had their windows rolled up, air conditioning on and tunes blaring on the radio. He was being as effective as screens on a submarine but he was not seeing it. I approached him and tried to talk to him about the Gospel being “Good News” but he was intent on being the Yosemite Sam of the Body of Christ, so I went on my way.

While on his missionary journeys, St. Paul gives us an example of doing evangelism properly. First, he went to them. I was asked to talk to a Vestry about evangelism and when I asked what they were doing evangelistically, they said that they sent postcards to the neighborhood, offering a free tour of their new gymnasium. As gently as I could I told them that their new gymnasium is irrelevant to the neighborhood unless they were going to use it to serve their neighbors. We rightly get excited about our new buildings, but they don’t mean a thing to people outside the church. Instead of trying to get people to come through our doors, we need to get out and go through theirs. The philosophers were philosophizing in Athens so Paul went to Athens.

Second, although the text says that Paul was disturbed by all of the idols (vs16), he was respectful and even used the idols as a launching point for sharing the Gospel. People have difficulty hearing the Gospel from us after we have insulted them, like the street preaching yelling at people in their cars. Paul did not start out by telling them where they were wrong. Instead of calling them idol-worshipping pagans, he found common ground, that being they too were religious. Then, beginning with their altar to an unknown god, St. Paul gave them the rest of the story and told them who that unknown God is. He even quoted from their prophets to make a connection.

Third, Paul focused their attention on the Resurrection. He did so because Jesus’ defeat of death is the central truth of the Gospel and it is what gives us hope. Often in evangelistic exchanges, others will attempt to get us off topic, particularly when they are feeling the conviction of the Holy Spirit. “What about the guy in Papua, New Guinea who has never had a chance to hear the Gospel?” (Actually the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea became an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion in 1976. They’ve heard.) Instead of chasing these rabbits down the rabbit trail, we need to follow St. Paul’s example and remain on topic. “I honestly don’t know about people who have never had a chance to hear the Gospel. But I do know that Jesus was raised from the dead, told the Church to preach the Good News to the ends of the earth and that He will one day return to judge the living and the dead.”

Fourth, St. Paul was great about leaving the results up to God. When he started preaching about the resurrection, some mocked him, some wanted to hear more, and some became believers. What did St. Paul do? He moved on to Corinth because his job was completed. He said in 1 Corinthians that he planted the seed, Apollos watered but it is God who makes it grow. While we certainly play a role in the evangelism, it is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit that causes a man to be born again. We do our part and trust Him with the rest. We certainly should not feel guilty or deficient if people do not respond to the truth. Many rejected St. Paul’s words and they even refused to listen our Lord. Our job is to scatter the seed, if it takes or not depends upon the soil.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

I Kings 19:19-21
ox bbq

We are taught to be cautious, to keep our options open, to not burn our bridges. Generally that is good advice, except when it comes to pursuing the kingdom of God.

Elijah called Elisha by throwing his cloak on him. Elijah’s actions tell Elisha that the prophet’s mantle will one day pass to him. In a scene that is a foreshadowing of Jesus calling His disciples (Luke 9:61), Elisha asks he can first go say goodbye to his family. And just as Jesus cautioned His disciples to count the cost, Elijah tells him to go back and think about it.

Elisha must have realized that he had asked the wrong thing, just as the man who asked Jesus if he could first go bury his father. So instead of returning to his family to say goodbye, Elisha made a sacrifice of the oxen with which he had been plowing. It was a dramatic way to make a total commitment to follow his Master. He did not leave himself the option of going back.

This kind of commitment, which seems fanatical to the world, is a thread that runs through the Scriptures. It is what the Lord expects of us. When Lot and his family left Sodom they were told not to look back. His wife paid a sodium chloride filled price for her disobedience. When Abraham raised the knife to sacrifice Isaac, he was fully committed to obey. In God’s covenant with Abraham the rite of circumcision was irreversible. When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was drowned in it, there was no going back to Egypt. And so Jesus tells us that if we put our hand to the plow and then look back, we are not worthy of the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).

This is the nature of our calling as Christian. He asks for our total commitment. We are not to have a plan B if this Christian thing does not work out. Note that Jesus is not saying that we have to be perfect to follow Him, we simply have to be fully committed. He wants to hear from us, as in a marriage, “till death do us part.” That is how the Master/disciple relationship begins and it builds from there. Without this commitment, the relationship is shallow at best.

While such a commitment seems daunting, what makes it easy to do is when we truly realize our options. There came a time in Jesus’ ministry when He delivered some hard sayings and many of His disciples left Him. When He turned to the twelve and asked if they too were going to leave, Peter said, “Lord, to whom should we go, who else has the words of eternal life….” (Jn 6:68). Who else can we trust? I have trusted in institutions and they have not remained true. I have trusted in others and have been bitterly disappointed. I have trusted in myself and I have let myself down. The Rock is Christ. Everything else is shifting sand. When we see it this way, it ceases to be daunting to make a total commitment to Him. In fact it becomes the wisest thing we will ever do. What we need to ask ourselves is if we have any oxen that we need to burn, and if we do, then invite our friends to the barbeque.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

2 Samuel 14:1-15:22

This is the story of King David being briefly reconciled with his son Absalom. To heal their estrangement Joab put a woman up to telling a parable to David. As she was explaining the parable she reminds David of how transient our lives truly are and she says, “All of us die eventually. Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered again. But God does not just sweep life away; instead He devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from Him.”

This is such a comforting image of God and puts us in mind of Jesus teaching about the Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the 1. God is anything but an absentee father. He devises ways to bring us to bring us back. He loves us so much that He plots and plans and fixes fixes to fix us.

When I was younger I had a form of Christianity that I now refer to as “white knuckle Christianity.” It was all about me holding on to God. I had to keep the rules and say my prayers and study the Scriptures and share my faith and be an example and beware of false teachers and discern God’s will and fight the good fight and walk the walk and talk the talk. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why I was always spiritually exhausted and lacking in joy. Then one day a man I had never met before walked into the store where I was working and said to me;

I used to believe this
Me holding on to Jesus

But now I believe this
Jesus holding onto me

He didn’t say anything more and he left the store. At first I did not understand but as I thought about it I realized he was saying to me that he used to believe it was up to him to hold on to Jesus but now he believes that it is about Jesus holding on to him. That was an epiphany for me. I received that man as a messenger from God. It began a life long pursuit in understanding God’s grace as opposed to trying to work my way into being the perfect Christian, because the latter will never happen. Even before I go astray, God is devising a way to bring me back. The great hymn puts it so well.

So to grace, how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
And let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

2 Samuel 9:-12
prodigal son sculpture

The story of David and Mephibosheth is the story of the Gospel. David’s closest friend, Jonathan, had been killed in battle along with his father King Saul. Even though Saul had sought David’s life, David mourned both of their deaths. One day David asks if there is anyone left of the house of Saul that he may show them kindness. A servant tells him of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, who was crippled as an infant. When Mephibosheth received news that David wanted to see him, he naturally feared the worse. It would have been logical to assume that David was seeking revenge against Saul by killing his grandson. But nothing could be further from the truth. Because of his love for Jonathan, David wanted to show kindness to Jonathan’s offspring. Instead of vengeance, Mephibosheth received mercy, treated as family and was given a permanent seat at the king’s table.

Like David, our heavenly Father seeks us out to show us kindness. And like Mephibosheth, we are spiritually crippled and cannot come to God on our own. Because of our rebellion against God we naturally assume that He means to do us harm when He calls for us. But grace brings us to Him and at this point we would be overjoyed if He treated us as a servant rather than as an enemy. To our amazement, His intent is to offer us mercy, adopt us as His own and give us a permanent seat at the King’s table. No wonder we call it Amazing Grace.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light – John 12:36 King James Version

Modern translations, such as the English Standard Version and the New Living Translation have replaced the word “believe” with the word “trust” which more accurately depicts Jesus’ call to us.

When I was in high school a Baptist minister came to our house and in a private conversation he asked me if I believed that Jesus was the Son of God. The question was startling because to me that was as undeniably factual as George Washington being the first American President. But because the minister did not ask any follow up questions, the belief that I confessed only remained in the arena of historical fact. At that point in my life the fact that Jesus was the Son of God had very little impact. I was trying to live my life and figure it out on my own. If he had asked me if I was entrusting my life to Christ, I would not have been so quick to answer.

This is my favorite illustration about the difference between belief and trust. You are standing on a cliff overlooking a thousand feet deep gorge. A professional tightrope walker puts a wheelbarrow in front of him and walks on a tightrope across the gorge, turns around and comes back. He then asks, “Do you believe that I can walk across this gorge pushing a wheel barrow?” And because you just witnessed him doing it, you say “Yes.” Then he says, “Get in the wheel barrow.”

Being a follower of Christ is more than just having right belief. Jesus’ call is to acknowledge Him as the Light but it is more than that. He is calling us also to walk in the Light, to trust in Him, to get in the wheelbarrow.

wheelbarrow

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

Samuel 15:1-16:23

This is the story of Saul losing his throne because he did not obey the Lord’s instructions. The Lord had instructed him through the Prophet Samuel to destroy everything of the Amalekites. Instead Saul took the Amalekite king prisoner and let his army gather plunder, the best of the sheep, goats and cattle.

When Saul first greets the Prophet he declares that he has obeyed the Lord. When the Prophet challenges his veracity, Saul admits to not doing exactly what he was told but justifies it by saying that they had destroyed everything else and they were going to use the animals as a sacrifice to the Lord. The prophet responded with the famous words, “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.”

To the modern reader, this reaction of the Lord to Saul’s actions may seem unfair, that the punishment does not fit the crime. But in a closer inspection of the events and motives we can see how egregious Saul’s actions were and take a lesson for our own lives.

First, Saul lied. He greeted Samuel saying, “I have carried out the Lord’s command” when he knew full well that he had not. When Samuel asked if he had done so then why could he still hear the bleating of the animals, Saul went into cover-up mode, which probably was also a lie. “It’s true that the army spared the best of the sheep and goats and cattle…But they are going to sacrifice them to the Lord your God.” That would have been news to the troops who took the plunder. But even if it was true, it was unacceptable. You do not disobey the Lord and then make up for it through a religious exercise. A CFO who embezzles from the company does not make things right by tithing what he stole.

Second, and the real heart of the matter, is Saul’s admission to fearing man rather than God. “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘Yes I have sinned. I have disobeyed your instructions and the Lord’s command, for I was afraid of the people and what they demanded.’” The army had demanded a plunder and out of fear, Saul gave into their demands. That is unacceptable for a leader. If Saul had given a captain an order in battle, and he disobeyed for fear of the troops, Saul would have had the captain remove and maybe even executed. It is even more onerous for the King, who is the Lord’s anointed, to fear the people more than he fears the Lord. If he leads in order to please the people, rather than leading by God’s command, he is no better than a false prophet.

The two applications for us, is first simply to obey. We should not seek to make excuses, or add religious rationale onto why we are not doing what God has called us to do, such as “I know I’m not faithful to come to Church, but after all we are not under the law.” ( ref. Heb 10:25). When God has given us a command, out of love for Him and a holy fear of Him, we are to be obedient servants. We do not call Him “Lord” for nothing.

The second application, which is more difficult than the first, is to rid ourselves from the fear of man and/or people pleasing. The truth is that people pleasing is an illusion. We can never please everyone and in the end there is only one Person we need to please.

I recently had a gentlemen send me an email redressing me for my style of leadership. I could tell that he spent a lot of time on the email, which is a shame, because the part that he failed to calculate was whether or not I valued his input. While I am always in need for improvement, I cannot act like Saul and lead by trying to please everyone. My job is to pray for direction and wisdom, receive counsel from my Bishop and the appointed leadership of the parish, and then do what God has directed me to do.

Even if you are not in a leadership role, the temptation to fear man and/or be a people pleaser is great. We want to be popular. We want people to like us. But we need to have a larger perspective than that. Having the Lord say “Well done good and faithful servant” must be our highest value because it strengthens us to choose obedience over people pleasing.

There is a great billboard on the highway in Smyrna that says “Be a parent, not a peer.” Parents who are either afraid of their kids or seek to be popular generally fail as parents. It is even more destructive when kings act this way and so that is why the Lord removed him. May we learn from his error.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

I Samuel 5:1-7:17

Last Sunday Fr. Chris quoted the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon, “The same sun that melts wax also hardens clay.” Today’s lesson is an illustration of that truth.

I have always found humor in these passages. The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and taken it to the town of Ashdod and placed it in the temple of their pagan god Dagon. Dagon was a fertility god that was also connected to grain and fish. (He also may have had a guest role in Ghostbusters but further research is needed in order to confirm).

The Ark was placed next to a statue of Dagon and in the morning they discovered the statue on its face in front of the Ark. What did the people do? They put the statue back in its place. The next morning when they came back to the temple they saw the statue of Dagon, again on its face before the Ark, only this time its head and hands were broken off with only the torso left in intact. (As Larry the Cable Guy would say, “Now that’s funny right there, I don’t care who you are.”) At that point they abandoned the temple for good. To add to their misery the Lord sent tumors and rats among the people.

This is where you would think that the wax would melt. The God of Israel was graphically illustrating that He is God and not Dagon and the right thing to do would have been to repent and turn to the One True God. Instead they proved that they were clay and hardened themselves by hatching a plan to rid themselves of the Ark. The plan included returning the Ark on a driverless cow-driven cart along with an offering of 5 golden rats and 5 golden tumors. Why in the world they would think that golden rats and golden tumors would be an acceptable offering, and what a golden tumor even looks like, is beyond my knowledge.

What they were in essence saying by their actions was that they knew that God was present among them, and because things were going badly, the answer was to get rid of God. In their “clayness” it did not occur to them that they needed to change.

As Christians we have our own versions of acting like clay instead of wax. When things are going badly, instead of repenting and calling on the Lord we withdraw. We stop praying and reading Scripture and we stop going to Mass. When things are not going our way we engage in personal attacks rather than asking where we may need to amend our lives. When God’s presence is unusually manifest, some find it so uncomfortable that rather than asking themselves why they have such a reaction, they find it easier to go somewhere else.

Our goal should be to react like wax, to let the Son melt us. He has proven His unfailing love for us, so we can trust Him as we trust no other. It is in trusting Him that the windows of our hearts are opened to the Holy Spirit. He is the One who makes the changes in us that we are incapable of doing for ourselves.