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Archive for April, 2015

Life Notes

 

Swallowing Camels

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe … (but) have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23-24

 Too often, I lose sight of what really matters. Usually, it is easier to get lost in the details of an issue than to focus on the bigger picture. The minutia in our life is clear-cut, but the whole-life-view is blurry. We have sayings that capture the sentiment: “He cannot see the forest for the trees,” or “She majors in minors,” or “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Jesus said it even better: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We immerse ourselves in the small stuff while neglecting the reason for doing the small stuff.

Jesus reserved his harshest name-calling for two groups of people: the scribes and the Pharisees. These two groups were devout and pious about their religion. In their attempt to do everything “right,” they did nothing righteous. In fact, because they did not understand religion’s larger purpose, they led others astray. They made following the religious laws the focus of seeking God, and ignored God’s issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus called these obsessive zealots “hypocrites” and “blind guides.” That was strong language for such “holy” beings. It is little wonder they had Jesus crucified.

How does one eat a camel?  Just like one eats an elephant – one bite at a time. We consume our days in endless details, leaving no time or energy for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith and Gulp! We just swallowed a big bite of camel. As time passes, we get used to the taste. Not having to deal with the squishy, impossible-to-solve issues of faithful followership can make the lingering aftertaste of camel fur almost pleasant by comparison. Straining out gnats is so much easier, and at the end of the day, we feel like we accomplished something. Unfortunately, straining gnats does not bring us into relationship with Christ, nor does it move God’s will forward on earth.

Clearly, we cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without paying attention to certain details. We also cannot mistake the details for the end goal, however. If, at the end of the day, everything on our to-do list has been checked off, we should be a step closer to something else of larger importance. Small tasks are like fruit flies – kill one and a hundred more appear. Eventually, we may have to allow a few gnats into our soup in order to focus on our purpose on earth. We are created in the image of God, and we, in partnership with our spiritual brothers and sisters, were created for great things!

Come home to church this Sunday. Better to eat a few gnats than to swallow a camel.

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My Ebenezer

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

EbenezerLast week I attended the memorial service for a cousin of my father’s. It was at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church, 3 miles south of Green and about 8 miles west of Leonardville. A group of German Methodists immigrated to the area in the 1870s and established the church, barely a decade after the Civil War. My great-grandfather, a child at the time, was among them. The remote location of the church is memorable, as miles and miles of farmland surround it. It is on the slightest of rises in an otherwise flat expanse of pasture, wheat, and soybeans.

Ebenezer UMC is a familiar church because of family reunions, funerals, and other gatherings I have attended there since I was a child. It is a plain, no-frills, wooden structure. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy stone or woodwork, and no vaulted ceilings. This church was built for function, not form, consistent with the folks it was built for – practical, down-to-earth, and humble. I always found Ebenezer UMC disquieting, due in part to its name. Perhaps it reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge – bah humbug! Perhaps it was the puzzling line from an old hymn: Here I raise my Ebenezer; but something about the name made me think of ancient and haunted things. The church stands proud, however, on this unforgiving, horizontal vastness, tempting the unrelenting Kansas winds to blow it off its foundation. At least in my lifetime, no storm has phased it.

The biblical references to Ebenezer are in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. I assume the “stone” that Samuel placed was large enough to be seen for miles. That stone, which he named Ebenezer, stood as a symbol of God’s constant and helpful presence throughout their struggles. Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they gave up everything they knew for the promise of a new life. A group of Methodist immigrants gave up everything familiar and crossed the Atlantic Ocean for a similar promise of a new life. They landed in a vast country where they could eke out a reasonable living with the sweat of their brow. In the midst of this fertile soil, they erected a visible reminder that God is good; a place to call the faithful to worship and, in their time, to call the saints home. An Ebenezer – a symbol of hope, a reminder of God’s presence – is a good thing to have as we weather the storms of life. God is always near, but sometimes we forget. When we enter new life territory, when we feel lost and alone, when we need to remember, may there always be an Ebenezer in sight.

Come home to church this Sunday. Where is your Ebenezer?

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Life Notes

24 Hours

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at the time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12

I am not one to pay a lot of attention to dreams. For one thing, I seldom remember them. Last week, however, I had a vivid dream that stuck with me. I was working at the nursery that employed me during college. My boss came up to me, clearly angry, and said, “Greg, you need to be here more! You’ve got 24 hours.” The message was that I would be fired if I did not change my priorities quickly. It was puzzling, as I had never had that sort of encounter with my boss.

Three things stuck with me about the dream. First was the urgency of the message. Clearly, something had to change, and it had to change now. Next was my boss’s exhortation to be here. Finally, the 24-hour deadline made no sense in the context of my job, but it was obviously important. As I considered the dream, I concluded that it was a reminder that in the next 24 hours my life might change dramatically or – gulp – end. I recalled my mother losing her ability to communicate, my father’s death, and a friend’s paralyzing injury – all happening in an instant. The message, then, was if this were my last day on earth as I knew it, what would I do differently?

Clearly, the urgent message to be here is the key. When we are fully present to the moments in our lives, we are less likely to miss opportunities we might regret later. We make sure that those we love know. We do not allow a beautiful sunset to pass unnoticed. We appreciate and acknowledge the blessings around us. We fix broken relationships and forgive past hurts. We develop and use our gifts and talents for good. When we live our lives intentionally, we do not relinquish a moment of our limited time without receiving something of value in return. Time is a constrained gift, not an entitlement. Certainly, being present does not mean that we let needed tasks go undone. It does mean, however, that whatever we do and however unpleasant the task may be, we take charge of our attitude and experience the available blessings. Being present also means we reevaluate the necessity of certain activities that may have no significant value.

The fact that this might be my last 24 hours on earth, which is a true statement for all of us, should change me. As the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, “no one can anticipate the time of disaster.” The challenge, in the absence of a known and imminent calamity, is to live as if the time is near. That knowledge should change us for the better.

Come home to church this Sunday. What will you do with your next 24 hours?

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Life Notes

 

Beyond Words

Be still, and know that I am God!  Psalm 46:1a

Be StillI am a man of too many words. I think in words, I speak in words, and, too often, I experience life through the filter of words. I attempt to capture beauty in words and in doing so I invariably lose much of the wonder I try to describe. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I experienced the sunset in this picture a couple of weeks ago at the Lake of the Ozarks. I would only detract from the splendor by trying to describe it. Even the picture does not capture the experience, however. A picture is a two-dimensional recreation of a single moment. A sunset occurs in four dimensions, the fourth being the 30 or so minutes it requires to manifest fully.

I enjoy using words to share the insights and wisdom I occasionally find. A part of me knows, however, that the more words I use, the farther I stray from the essence of what I attempt to share. Consider a finger pointing at the moon, where the moon is truth and the finger is its description. The purpose of the finger is to point, to lead others to experience the moon for themselves. Unfortunately, we too readily focus on the words – the finger – instead of the truth – the moon – to which they point. I fall into this trap regularly. I tell myself if I can only find the right combination of words, I will capture an experience for eternity. Certainly, the written word can be beautiful, inspiring, and artful. But words cannot capture the totality of a beautiful experience.

Words are symbols we create to represent something else. The word rock describes a part of creation. Adjectives can make it more precise: a small, smooth, round, brown rock. Even so, the rock and the description of the rock are not the same. We simply cannot capture reality in words. Reality is experiential, and words are just marks on paper. Like the sunset above, reality happens in space over a span of time. If we want a description of an experience, words are great. If we want the experience, however, we must be present. Words can lead us to believe we have experienced something we have only read about.

Saint Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century monk, wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In general, we talk too much, and our words can actually inhibit understanding. The Psalmist tells us to “Be still” if we wish to know God. We cannot find God in a dictionary. Neither does God live in books, including the Bible, even though that text is our primary resource for learning about God. We experience God by seeking and listening, not to the words of the voice in our head, but by responding to the pull on our heart. To find God, we must eventually move beyond words.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be still and know.

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Been There, Done That

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  John 17:1b-3

Today is Holy Thursday, the day the church remembers the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas. Jesus and his disciples gather in a room for the Passover meal. Jesus washes their feet and gives them a new commandment – to love one another. Finally, he establishes a new covenant, one indemnified by his body and blood. Christians know the rest of the gruesome story – the sham trials, beatings, flogging, crown of thorns, carrying his cross, and the crucifixion. There are many lessons of importance here, including these two: (1) Jesus came so we could know God through him; and (2) Jesus suffered so we would know that God understands our pain.

A common illustration of the generation gap occurs when a parent tells a suffering child, “I know what you are going through.” Children do not believe it. They believe the world has changed dramatically since their parents were kids, so parents cannot possibly understand contemporary challenges. Our children do not grasp that although time may put new clothes on life’s challenges, the essence of the experience does not change. Similarly, some may assume God cannot understand our pain because Jesus’ trials were 2000 years ago. Suffering is suffering, however, regardless of age, socio-economic status, geographic location, or any other variable. Pain is an equal opportunity experience. Jesus suffered horribly near the end, both physically and emotionally. No matter what we go through, we have assurance that God has experienced it, because God was there in Jesus. And God is with us today. In order to finish his “work” on earth, God-in-Jesus experienced the worst. Jesus went through death’s door and came back to show that death is not the end. Our suffering will end, but our existence continues. Hope springs eternal.

Jesus drew all people to himself – the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the foreigners, and the unpopular. He knew what we only pretend to know, that higher levels of life and truth must contain and embrace all lower levels. We cannot overcome evil by ostracizing it, nor can we overcome suffering by ignoring its existence. We overcome less-than-desirable parts of our lives by loving them, by living a better way, and by accepting all into our circle of awareness and blessing. Jesus invites us to bring our earthly trials and lay them at the foot of his cross, where he will bear them with us. We are not alone. He has been there and done that. At the Last Supper, Jesus told us to remember – remember he has been there; remember this life is not all there is; remember we are loved beyond imagination. There is light on the other side of the cross.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be there and do that.

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