Dry Bones

February 28th, 2009 No comments

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie Star Wars. I have. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and all its sequels and the more recent prequels. You could fairly say I’m a Star Wars fanboy — and I’ve done what I could to make sure my kids are too.

I know the exact moment when I became a Star Wars fan. It was the first time I saw Star Wars, about 30 seconds into the movie.

If you’ve seen it, you remember the opening scene has this battle between two space ships. The first one goes roars overhead, then there’s a moment with these green laser blasts zipping through space, then the second ship goes by. And goes by. And goes by. And keeps going by.

(If you haven’t seen it, watch it on youtube.)

Where the first ship passed overhead in a moment, the second ship takes about 15 or 20 seconds to fly by, so you realize just how big it is.

The moviemaker is able, in the first minute, to give you an idea of the scale of his story.

There’s an equally cinematic moment in Ezekiel 37:

1 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

A valley full of dry bones! Close your eyes and take a moment to picture it.

What is it that God is revealing here? What does Ezekiel’s vision mean, that these dry bones were restored to life?

Whatever else it may mean, it says something about the scale God operates on. It says God is bigger than our problems. God is bigger than our imaginations.

It’s helpful to remember that.

Some days I wonder how things will turn out with our church. I think it’s possible for us to turn things around financially. I have a vision of a church that is making an impact in people’s lives — here in our community, but also among our own members. I believe that. But there are days when I’m discouraged.

That goes double for the broader problems in our society. I don’t believe the troubles with our economy will be our undoing, nor the war on terror. I believe our society can still address problems with education and health care and the disintegration of the family.

This season of Lent is a time for us to remember what a sorry situation we are in. It’s a time for us to consider how pervasive sin and its effects are in the world. It’s a time to see just how much the world resembles a valley full of dry bones.

Easter is coming, but it’s not here yet. While we wait for it to arrive, we can cling to our hope in God. Because our problems are real, and serious, and very, very big. But God is bigger still.

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How Can I Help?

January 28th, 2009 No comments

“Pastor, what can I do?”

People ask me that question a lot. But most of the time, they’re not asking it in a spiritual sense. They’re not asking for advice about a personal problem facing them.

Most of the time, people ask me that to find out how they can help out in the church. It’s gratifying that so many people would like to help out, but when that’s the question, my answer is usually, “I don’t know.”

I know for a fact that the church could use more money — but I don’t know if you should increase your giving. If we talked half an hour about your finances and your attitudes about money, I might form an opinion. I could share some teaching from the Bible about money. And I might ask some questions to help you decide for yourself. But I don’t know, and I certainly don’t know already.

In the same way, I don’t know where you can help out in the church. What are your skills and interests? What experiences will you draw on? Do you have any physical limitations? How much time do you have? How much time would you suddenly discover if you found something interesting to do with it?

I don’t know how you can help. But I can give you some general principles that might help you find out how and where and how much you can help.

The first is this: your pastor might not know what you should do, but the Holy Spirit does. Try spending some time in prayer. Think about the church and its ministries. It might help you focus your thoughts to spend a few minutes flipping through the annual congregational report first, or a recent issue of the Panorama. Ask God if, or rather where, you should be helping out in the church. You might not get an answer. You might not get the answer you wanted. (“Naaah. Take it easy, you’ve earned it.”) And I wouldn’t count on an angel appearing with instructions written out in flaming letters.

But you might feel a sort of nudge in one direction or another. If you do, give the person in charge of that ministry team a call. (If you don’t know that person, call me. I do know a few things.) You don’t have to tell them God sent you. Just ask about what they’re doing. Maybe you can go to one of their committee meetings. As you find out more, do some more praying.

Let me say this about committees, by the way. Nobody really likes them — that’s why we don’t charge admission and take tickets for people to join them. But committees are useful. Some things are just too difficult for one person to do alone. Even if things are easy, there just may be too many for one person.

Beyond that pragmatic reason is another reason. We believe, as a church, in something called corporate discernment. Often, we are unsure about God’s call, but God can confirm and clarify it in and through the community of believers. This is why we open and close our committee meetings with prayer: that God would use them to direct us. When I began to feel called to ministry, I didn’t just go to seminary. First, I discussed it in committee — in a lot of committees, in fact, in my local church and in our presbytery. It helped me see things more clearly than I could have by myself. When I get to heaven, I’ll ask God why committees can be so boring. But I’ll still thank God for them, because they helped me discern what God was calling me to do.

The other principle that will help you decide how you can help the church is this: Just do it.(TM) God told Abraham to go to a country he would show him later. Abraham had to begin the journey before God said where to go (see Genesis 12). Is there some reason God would treat you any different than Abraham?

So start the journey. Go up to one of our elders and say, “Is there anything I can do?” What’s the worst thing that can happen? Suppose they suggest something and you agree to try it, but it turns out you can’t stand it. Maybe the Holy Spirit wants to use you to help nudge that thing in a different direction. Go back to the elder and say, “The way we do this now is all wrong. But if we did it this other way, it would be great.”

I don’t know what you should do. These two principles might help you find out. But if you’d like to discuss it some more, give me a call. That’s why I’m here.

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January 1st, 2009 No comments

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.—┬áJohn 3:8

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and — if you’re reading this after New Year’s Day — that you’re still keeping your resolutions.

For the past several years, my New Year’s Resolution has been to lose 20 lbs. Needless to say, I haven’t lost 60 or 80 or 100 lbs! In fact, I think this year my resolution should really be to lose 30 lbs!

As an accomplished non-keeper of resolutions, I believe that arbitrary starting dates like New Year’s Day are a way we avoid doing the thing we know we should do. Prior to the start date, we say “I’ll start doing that after New Year’s.” When the start date comes, we do whatever it is for a few days or weeks, but eventually our resolve fades and our resolution fails. But by then it’s February or mid-January, and New Year’s seems so long ago that whatever we’re trying to do will have to wait until the next arbitrary start date. (Lent, perhaps, or the swimsuit season, or after our summer vacation, or — better yet! — after New Year’s next year!)

The Psalmist knew better:

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness

Jesus described the movement of the Spirit as unpredictable, like the wind that blows where it chooses. When the Spirit urges us to do something, the correct response is not to say, “Okay, God, I’ll make it a priority after the next arbitrary start date.” Conversely, if you sense a leading to make a change in your life starting a month or a year from now, I’d be dubious that it was God’s prompting.

Our tendency is always to put things off until tomorrow. We figure that if something is really important, it will rise to the top of our to-do list without any help from us. If only that were the case! Time-management gurus like Stephen Covey say our lives can become so cluttered with urgent but unimportant matters that we never have a moment to look at the important things.

This year, one of the challenges I hope we address is evaluating our priorities as a church. I’d like to find ways we can do less of the urgent things that don’t matter all that much, so we can spend more time working on the important things that do matter.

I’d like to invite you to do the same kind of categorization in your own lives. I want you to have more free time, because I’d like you to volunteer some of it to help us do more of the important work of the church.

I’m talking about worship, fellowship, discipleship, and especially evangelism and mission. These are the things that make the church relevant in our community and our world. This is the work that Christ commands the church to be about.

Let’s be urgent this year about doing what’s important.

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Prepare the Way of the Lord

December 1st, 2008 No comments

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. –Isaiah 40:3

The church has two great joyous holidays: Easter and Christmas, the celebrations of our Lord’s Resurrection and his Incarnation. Both these two holidays follow a season of repentance and preparation. Lent precedes Easter, and Advent comes before Christmas.

Nobody seems to mind Lent. (They may not observe it, but very few people seem opposed to it.) Advent, on the other hand, is distinctly counter- cultural. The culture we live in is in a hurry to celebrate Christmas. People talk about “getting into the holiday spirit” and go from party to party munching cookies and drinking eggnog.

I used to think this was what made Advent so demanding. When the people around them are celebrating, even the best Christians don’t want to go through December moping. We don’t like to fast, but especially we don’t want to fast while our friends feast.

(To be frank, I’m not sure that fasting is the best witness. The gospel is supposed to be good news. When we sulk our way through Advent, the message we convey to non-Christians is that Christianity is like having Seasonal Affective Disorder — except it keeps going through the spring and summer.) As I think about these holidays, however, I see there is another problem with Advent, one it shares with Lent. Our observance of these seasons of preparation tend to be lopsided. We focus too much on our sin and brokenness.

(By “our sin” I mean mine. And yours. And everyone else’s. Part of what makes it so difficult to do the right thing is that we live in a fallen world. What made the good Samaritan good is that the man he stopped to help could have been a robber waiting to ambush anyone foolish enough to help.)

I’m not saying we should throw in the towel and go along with our culture’s desire for a ho-ho-ho holly-jolly Christmas. We have to pause and reflect on our sin long enough to remember why the birth of a savior is good news. We have to recognize that even the very best things we do are flawed, and most of what we do is worse. We have to remember that our problem is so severe that only God can fix it.

But that’s all. We don’t have to wallow in it. Once we have recognized the problem, we need to transition to hope.

Isaiah said to prepare the way of the Lord. Hope is part of preparation. You don’t straighten out highways unless you think someone’s going to use the road.

Repentance means “changing your mind.” But we don’t just change our mind about sin, and decide to avoid it. We also change our mind about God. We remember the things we’re so prone to forget about God: his love and mercy and most of all his faithfulness.

This Advent, let’s remember how we got into this mess. But let’s also remember who got us out. Let’s resolve to spend more time this season remembering our God who loves us and has acted in Christ to redeem us. And, by the way, have a Merry Christmas!

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Praying for Deliverance

November 1st, 2008 No comments

One of the questions I received last month when I was preaching the “Let Us Pray” series about prayer was this one:

How can I pray to thank God for saving me from illness, disaster, etc., when others have died or are dying from the same illness, disaster, etc.?

This is a tough question. It is the key question we can ask about God’s grace. Why me? Why me and not them? What did I do to deserve this grace, and what did they do not to deserve it?

I’m reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, speaking of the people in the north and in the Confederacy:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. … as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

Lincoln knew that part of the answer to this kind of question is to admit our ignorance. We will not know, on this side of eternity, the fullness of God’s purposes. We must simply trust that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous.

But while we do not know all its fullness, there are things the Scriptures tell us about God’s purposes. First, they tell us that God may not deliver us from trouble, but that God will certainly deliver us through trouble. Consider the story of Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-50) or David (1 Samuel 16f).

We may say, looking at the victims of a natural disaster, “God answered my prayers by sparing me, but not theirs.” But in fact, if we could ask them, they might tell us how they experienced God’s presence in their great troubles, and feel sorry for us because we were so distant from God in our lesser misfortunes.

The other thing the Scriptures consistently speak of is the idea that we are blessed to be a blessing. Consider the story of Joseph again or Esther (Esther 1-10). God doesn’t just save us from troubles for the fun of it, or even because he loves us. God delivers us from our troubles so that we can be a blessing to others, and bring him glory.

Each breath any one of us takes is a gift from God. But some of us have experienced a disease or other calamity that brings that home in a way the rest of us haven’t experienced. For some of us that’s more real than for others.

So if we are having trouble finding words of thanksgiving, maybe God wants more than just words. It could be a hint that God isn’t finished with us yet. Maybe God wants us to use that gift, the new lease on life he’s given us, to help others somehow. I don’t know how, but God does. So why not ask God what you should be doing with your life in thanksgiving for your salvation?

I enjoyed preaching the series on prayer, and hope you found it helpful. It’s over now, but I’d love to keep the conversation going. Whether you’re a “prayer ninja” who wants to share your insights, or a pilgrim like myself asking questions about prayer, I’d love to talk with you.

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Hezekiah: the Greatest King

September 30th, 2008 1 comment

For the king .. had taken counsel to keep the passover in the second month.
–2 Chronicles 30:2

Everybody’s heard of King David, but how many remember King Hezekiah? He ruled over Judah, the southern part of what had been a united kingdom under David. After David’s son Solomon died, the northern part of the kingdom, Israel, broke away. Its rulers set up their own dynasties, while David’s descendants, including Hezekiah, ruled over the southern part.

What makes Hezekiah so interesting is that he was a good king. None of the kings of Israel, and few of the kings of Judah, were good kings. But of Hezekiah we read: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him.” (2 Kings 18:5)

Hezekiah a better king than David or Solomon? How’s that?

Read more…

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Frogs in the Machine Room

September 20th, 2008 No comments

I’m preaching from Exodus 8 — the plague of frogs on Egypt — and I crack up every time I read that story. I laugh partly because it’s intrinsically funny, but partly because of this picture:

Frogs in the Machine Room

which I clipped out of a computer magazine some years ago. I assume it was for some kind of disaster recovery service, but honestly, I don’t remember.

It’s pictures like this that make me wish I could project pictures on a screen during worship.

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Good advice from the Preacher

September 12th, 2008 No comments

Ecclesiastes can be a little tough to take. But I was reading it the other day and this jumped out at me:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 9:9

There’s wisdom in that. The spouse whom you love (and the enjoyment of life you share) is your portion.

It’s an interesting word, portion. It means the part that is assigned to you. TNIV renders portion “your lot in life.” NLT/2E over-translates it as “your reward.” The Hebrew word chelek is fairly neutral. It occurs in Scripture 26 times in 22 verses and doesn’t have any emotional overtones that I can detect, although we might be tempted in that direction in Ruth 2:3 when Ruth gleans in the portion of the field belonging to Boaz.

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Decent, Orderly Worship

September 4th, 2008 No comments

…but all things should be done decently
and in order.1 Corinthians 14:40

This verse from 1 Corinthians is often described as the “unofficial motto” of the Presbyterian church, particularly with respect to gathered worship. The idea behind that description is that the Presbyterian Church is open to new ideas and is willing to experiment–so long as any new ideas are “decent” and “orderly.” The problem with this description is that “decent” and “orderly” are subjective criteria. One person’s decency is another persons’ outrage, and we all have different understandings of “orderly.”

Read more…

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Blogging Takes Another Life

July 14th, 2008 No comments

According to this report, Olive Riley has passed away. She began blogging in February of 2007. You can find her site (or not; it’s slashdotted) here.

(Tripped over this courtesy Truemours.)

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