Thursday, September 27, 2012

I like new

I, like many of you, have watched the craze come and go related to the iPhone 5. I have friends who ordered theirs online one minute after midnight on September 14 so they would be the first to receive them on September 21. They started tracking them on Monday, locating their phones, even able to identify to the minute their arrivals at their homes. And here I sit in my office, feeling less than sufficient looking at my now-outdated iPhone  4s.

I’m no different than the next guy — I like new stuff.  There’s something about the smell of a new car, the look of a new sweater, the feel of a new pair of shoes, and yes, even the newest iPhone. There is always something new out there. Because we live in a consumerist society, it’s often about bigger and better, or smaller and faster. I’m not sure that’s the only reason we like to buy things new, though. I’m wondering if we have a bent toward what’s new for another reason.

New isn’t just about iPhones, shoes and sweaters. It’s also about do-overs.  It’s about fresh starts.  For instance, I wish my Cleveland Browns could have a do-over this year. I’m writing this Thursday morning, nervous about tonight’s game at M & T Bank Stadium against the Ravens. You already know the outcome of that game if you’re reading this. At the same time, though, I’m also wishing we could go back to that first game against Philly; I’m wondering what could have happened if Weeden hadn’t thrown four interceptions, and we started the season with a win instead of a loss.  How could our season look different if that were possible? Of course, you know it’s not, so I continue to worry about tonight.

I think you know me well enough to know that when I talk about do-overs, I’m not talking about the Browns, as good as that would be.  I’m talking about a God that seeks us out, wanting us to know Him completely. We know He desires what is best for us.  And for some, that means we get a do-over.  He wants to redeem; He wants to restore; He wants to bring our lives back into balance; He wants to make us new.

I don’t need to settle for the experience of purchasing a sweater or pair of kicks to find out what it means to have something new. There is so much that is artificial in that. God desires so much more for us. He wants to meet the longing in us for fresh, clean and new in other ways than just getting the newest “thing,” whatever it may be. 

So yes, I like new stuff. But that is best defined by a God who makes beautiful things even out of us.

“’Look, look, God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!  They’re his people, he’s their God.  He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death is gone for good – tears gone, crying gone, pain gone – all the first order of things gone.’  The Enthroned continued, ‘Look!  I am making everything new.  Write it all down – each word dependable and accurate.’”  Revelation 21:3-5 (MSG)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stay tuned, there's more to come

“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have made it.  But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.  Friends, don’t get me wrong:  By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus.  I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)

I was reminded this week of a conversation I had with my dad as a teenager.  It came by way of another conversation I had with a student after chapel on Wednesday.  He was sharing with me about his disillusionment, frustration, and even anger toward some of what the church is about.  Everything he was sharing with me, I had felt as well.  The questions he was asking, and concerns he had, were good and valid.  And then I remembered this:

I was, or at least I think I was, a typical church kid.  In my tradition, that translated into going to the altar two to three times a month.  I was always concerned about making sure I was doing everything the right way, and felt like the sermon was aimed at me, so I’d snot all over the altar several times a month.  That’s not a bad thing, but as I grew older and more mature — I mean I was 15 now — I sensed a weariness and frustration that was leaving me feeling like I was losing ground, not gaining. 

One particular Sunday night on my way home from another “snotting,” I remember asking my dad, “When will this end?”  I wanted to know how long this discontentment of feeling that I would never measure up would continue?  This certainly would not be a persistent pattern my whole life.  I haven’t been able to forget his answer to that question as he looked at me and said, “Never.”

Never? Not exactly what I was expecting to hear.  He went on to explain that he hoped I would never get to the place where I felt like I’ve finally “arrived,” because we never do.  “There is always more that God has for you, Mark. Never forget that!”  That’s not exactly what I was looking for, but the wisdom in that short conversation continues to shape me to this day.  I can’t shake that answer; God is never done with me. 

You should be very grateful for that; I know my family is.  But I can’t tell you how much that has helped me over the years.  This week, as Scott shared that he is a prisoner of hope, I think I’m there with him because of that one-word answer riding home with my dad on a Sunday night some 35 years ago — never. 

Because of that one-word answer, I remain hopeful knowing this isn’t all there is.  I’m hopeful because I know I don’t have to remain where I am.  I’m hopeful because I know God is always doing new things — in me, in you, and in His Church. If God isn’t willing to leave us where we are, that is good for us and the Church because we are the Church. 
Eugene Peterson writes it this way, calling what we’re describing as, “our long obedience in the same direction.”  As we make this “journey,” reflecting on all that God has said to us this week in revival, we can remain hopeful that, “The God who started this great work in us would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.  So stay tuned, there’s more to come.

He missed it by that much

“He missed it by that much,” said Maxwell Smart from the old TV show, Get Smart.  He’s commenting on the guy trying to escape by diving out a window onto a truck loaded with mattresses.  And he didn’t miss by a lot — just by “that much,” holding up his hand to signify inches. 

It’s one of those scenes I remember from at least 40 years ago.  We use it in different forms today when talking about someone just missing a home run; an attempt at a world record in track or swimming; the narrow escape you made just yesterday when turning into oncoming traffic barely making it. “Missing it by that much…”

We can be surrounded by something — so close to it — but might as well be a thousand miles away. So close, yet so far.  It’s like finding out your best friend was in town, but you weren’t aware of it until he’s gone. Or when you are traveling, and find out the site you’ve always wanted to see but couldn’t find, was just around one more corner. So close, yet so far.  Jesus talks about this when it comes to the things we understand about Him.

It’s embedded in a now-famous conversation with a teacher that approaches him in the middle of the night.  This teacher is confused by what is being said — it’s all new — and he can’t think in the ways that Jesus is teaching. He was in good company. Right before the 3:16 statement,  Jesus says to him:  “If I tell you things that are as plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?”  (MSG) Let that question soak in for a minute.  As plain as the hand in front of your face.  The problem was not understanding, but believing.  In other words, “Come on Nick, you are so close, but yet so far away from my Kingdom.”

But that’s not where he ended the conversation. He goes on to say these hopeful words — words you know well:  “This is how much God loved the world:  He gave his Son, his one and only Son.  And this is why:  so that no one need be destroyed, by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”  (MSG) 

My prayer for us this week as we move through revival is that we receive and don’t miss; that we move from far to close; that hard hearts are made soft; that God sprinkles clean water on us; and the new heart he longs for us to have is realized.  

This is a message for everyone. Oftentimes, if we’re honest, it is as plain as the hand in front of our faces.  It is what’s behind the message of new hearts. So close. Right here. And yet Nicodemus missed it by “that much.”

Text for the week:  John 3:11-17

It's not always about the soil

My best friend in junior high was Scott.  We went to school and church together, and would get together several afternoons a week to play ping pong.  We were good friends, and I thought I knew him well.  Then one day as we were walking home from school, he pulled out a cigarette, lit it up, and began to take a long drag.  I was shocked, and not just because we were friends, or because we were in the 8th grade, but I thought I knew him.  As we began to talk about what I was seeing, I realized I didn’t know much about Scott at all.

Have you ever experienced something like that?  You thought you knew someone, or you thought you knew what was going on, only to find out you didn’t know much at all.  

The parable of the sower is an amazing story, complex and layered with meaning.  The traditional approach to reading this parable, and possibly the correct one, is to constantly examine the soil.  We cultivate it, tend to it, softening the hard places, removing rocks and thorns, making it ready to receive the seed.  We like to think we’re experts in soil, responsibly throwing seed where we think it has the best chance to grow.  We don’t believe in waste; we want to be productive making sure our seed has the best chance to grow.  There’s nothing wrong with that, right?  Here’s what I’m thinking.

We say we believe that God is active everywhere, all the time, seeking to redeem and restore everyone.  That is the message of our Gospel — that this is for everyone.  I wonder if I’ve always believed that.  The reason I say that is because I haven’t just been surprised over the years by friends like Scott, who I thought I knew only to find out there was this hidden part of his life that I knew very little about.  But I’ve been just as surprised by students and adults over the years who appear to be far from God, later to find myself surprised by how God was at work in their life.  I’ve slapped labels on them that I’ve had to remove because of a conversation around a kitchen table, or a response at a retreat, or an act of compassion on a missions trip.  I thought their hearts were hard, calloused and crusty, only to realize there was this soft place where God had been working.  I may not have seen it, but God was working in spite of me.  He had thrown some seed that had taken root and was helping to break up that hard, crusty exterior — pouring on the tenderizer, if I may.  I’m embarrassed to admit that from my perspective, I saw nothing.  How does that happen?

I think it’s because I like to be an expert on soil, and not so much on sowing.  One point to the story that I don’t hear talked about much, is that the sower wasn’t concerned about where the seed fell.  This is called the parable of the sower, not the soil.  The seed is thrown everywhere, almost wastefully — on the path, among the thorns, in the rocky places as well as the soft, believing that God is at work in all of them.  So maybe I need to throw off some labels that I’ve put on people.  Maybe I need to be grateful to realize that God’s activity isn’t limited by what I see going on.  Maybe I need to stop thinking I know what God is up to, and just throw some more seed.  Anybody else?

Text for the week:  Luke 8:4-10

Pouring on the tenderizer

I love to cook on our grill.  For Father’s Day last year, my family bought me a nice, stainless steel one that sits in the corner of our porch, and we use it at least twice a week.  I’ve gotten pretty good over the years, but the success of what happens on the grill is dependent on what happens to the meat before it’s grilled.  There is preparation that goes before the grilling.  You don’t just throw a nice steak, chicken breast, or hamburger on the grill without first seasoning it and pouring on the tenderizer.

Tenderizing beef is an art.  Some marinate it in a sauce.  Some pound it with a wood mallet.  Some add seasoning that works itself into the meat over time; all three making it ready for the grill.  The more tender the meat, the better it will cook and taste.  The key to a great barbeque isn’t just the grill — it starts with preparation.

This semester, we’re living into four phrases that will shape our conversation.  The four phrases are:  “I will sprinkle clean water on you;” “I will give you a new heart;” “I will remove your heart of stone;” “I will give you a heart of flesh.”  These are promises.  Like I shared yesterday in chapel, our rescue from the circumstances we find ourselves in isn’t dependent on us.  That is good news.  We can depend on God to do what He does best — rescuing and changing hearts.

At times, I have found myself turning this promise into a prayer.

I’ve prayed for students in my youth group whose hearts have grown hard, that God would change their hearts, chipping away the hard, crusty exterior, and giving them a soft, fleshy one.  I’ve prayed this for family members, and found myself praying for some of you this summer.  For some, you need a fresh sprinkling, assuring you that God is with you no matter what you face.  For others, you need a new heart, a fresh start, a new beginning.  And still for others, you need radical surgery done, removing a heart of stone, and replacing it with a heart of flesh. 

So as we begin this semester, I’m praying that God pour His “spiritual tenderizer” on us, softening our hearts, so when He speaks, we listen.

Text for the week:  Ezekiel 36:24-26

 [PR2]What does this mean?