Not what I asked for…

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John 11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

I’m imagining myself as the messenger telling Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus is very sick. I’d want Jesus to get right up and follow me back to Bethany. Stat! When someone is as ill as Lazarus was, time is of the essence. Then there’s verse 6, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was”.

What?! Dude! What are you doing?! Let’s go! Two days must have seemed like an eternity. And to then learn Lazarus was dead… devastating. In the messenger’s mind Jesus was supposed to prevent Lazarus from dying in the first place, not raise Lazarus from the dead.

I have found myself praying for God to save someone from death many, many times. My desired response from God is for God to bring healing to the person near death so they might extend their life. Sometimes that’s what happens, but sometimes not. Sometimes, like Lazarus, what happens to the person I’m praying for is death, to be followed one day by resurrection from the dead.

In just a few hours I will preside at the funeral for one of the saints, Karyl. And I do mean “saint”. Karyl was a remarkable woman, a person of deep faith who cared for others right up until the end. And boy did she love Jesus! And so today I will gather with Karyl’s family to grieve her loss, but also to take comfort in the promise of the resurrection. Lord let it be so. Amen.

The word of God is a light…

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Psalm 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. 

There’s a simple wisdom here. When we’re unsure of our next steps, the word of God can be the lamp we’re looking for. That said, there are many times when I see the path illuminated by the word of God – and choose another path anyway.

Lord I am a stiff-necked man who wants to do my own thing. Give me grace to follow after your lead. Amen.

Thinkers and feelers…

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2 Samuel 19:1 It was told Joab (the commander of David’s armies), “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king, and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.”

David and Joab provide an interesting contrast. David seems to me to be a (Myers-Briggs personality profile) “feeler”, meaning his feelings often drive his decisions. He is resistant to take action which will be painful to others and/or jeopardize a relationship – even if it puts the overall mission at risk. This was never more evident than in his dealings with his rebellious son Absalom. Joab, on the other hand, seems much more a “thinker” in that he lets facts and logic drive his decisions. If strained or severed relationships are the cost of getting the best outcome, Joab has no problem with this. It’s the successful outcome that takes priority. Since both perspectives have value, David and Joab were a great team before they split.

I’m by nature a feeler. The impact of decisions on others and on important relationships takes a high priority for me. However I’ve also learned that when feelers shy away from difficult leadership decisions in order to protect relationships or feelings, an organization can get stuck. Not good. I’ve heard it said a change leader’s job is to disappoint people at a rate they can tolerate. That has certainly been true in my experience. In fact, sometimes I’ve disappointed people at a rate they cannot tolerate. As a natural feeler, I hate that.

As you’re reading this I wonder if you more closely identify as a “thinker” or “feeler”. Everyone has some of both in them, but most of us lean more towards one than the other. What’s important to know is that both perspectives have value. In fact, the best teams are those which include both perspectives. This is why David and Joab worked so well for so long.

Gracious God, today I thank you that you did not create people to be alike, for there is great gift in diversity. Your kingdom needs all kinds of people to prosper. I especially thank you today for the thinkers you’ve put in my life over the years, who have shown me how to see things from their perspective even if it’s not my nature. Give me grace to lead well. Even when it hurts. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The voice of the Shepherd…

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John 10: (Jesus said) “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

It’s interesting to recall how many thousands of people heard Jesus teach and saw him perform miracles. And yet – very few actually stayed with him as disciples. They heard the shepherd’s voice and followed.

Jesus may not be with us in the flesh, but the Spirit of God still calls people via human voices. I first joined a Lutheran church in my early 20s. The pastor there, Pastor John, had a shepherd’s voice that I could hear. Pastor Bill, at the second church I joined, also had a shepherd’s voice for me. I also recall two lay women who were mentors for me – Nita and Rini. I definitely heard the Shepherd’s voice through them. There are many more I can name, many of whom were not pastors but lay leaders.

Part of the call of any Christian is to be the shepherd’s voice for others. That’s another way to think about evangelism isn’t it? When we speak words of care or hope or invitation – or even prayer – to others we open the possibility that the Good Shepherd may call that person to the flock via our voice. Isn’t that an exciting thought? Can you think of someone through whom you have heard the Shepherd’s voice along the way? And for whom might your voice be the voice of the Shepherd?

Lord Jesus thank you for calling us sinners to you, the Good Shepherd. We certainly get lost from time to time, but you never leave us behind. You are always seeking, always calling us back to you. Give us grace to listen for your voice today – and to be your voice for others. We pray this in your most holy name. Amen.

Certainty – not all it’s cracked up to be…

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John 9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out (the man born blind whom Jesus healed), and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

This chapter relates the story of a man born blind whom Jesus heals on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are angry because this took place on the Sabbath. Talk about burying the lead. In this passage the formerly blind man “sees” Jesus by recognizing him as “Son of Man” (v.35). Yet the Pharisees, who have sight, are blind to Jesus.

While it’s easy to be unsympathetic to the Pharisees I’m not so sure I would do better. In fact if Jesus were to appear in an inconspicuous manner as he did the first time I wonder if I would recognize him. I’m pretty sure he would defy my expectations. Seems that biblical “certainty” may not be so helpful here.

As I’ve gotten older I find I’ve also gotten less “certain” about many things of faith. As a young seminarian I thought I would get the answers to my faith questions and then teach those answers to others during my years of ministry. I remember asking my systematic theology professor (Dr. Faye Schott at Lutheran Seminary Program in Austin) to give me the answer to a particular question of theology. She said to me, “Ernie, if a professor offers to give you the answers, run the other way.” I remember being a bit miffed by this. I wanted the shortcut. I wanted to skip the hard work of study and prayer and experience and inter-personal dialogue that shape one’s theology. I mean, if you can’t get the answers at seminary, where can you get them?!

Of course over the 20+ years of life as a pastor I have developed a great appreciation for the way theology grows, moves, is torn down, is built up – over time. I’m less concerned with certainty than I am with an openness to be surprised by God. To see God in the unexpected places. And so while I may not recognize Jesus when he comes again, I pray the Lord will give me grace to be found by him. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Letting the Lord handle it…

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Psalm 119:68 You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. 69 The arrogant smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts.

This morning I’m noticing how the psalmist dealt with those who meant him harm. Rather than fight back directly, or devising a plan of defense, he turned to the Lord instead. More specifically, he turned to the precepts (statues and ordinances) of God. In essence he’s giving the problem to God and trusting God to handle it.  

This reminds me of David who did something similar. When his enemies were upon him he would often worship the Lord in the temple, entrusting the situation to God rather than taking matters into his own hands. It takes an enormous amount of trust to do this.

So this morning I’m searching my heart for ways to follow suit. Where am I attempting to deal with my struggles in my own strength rather than handing them to God? What would it look like for me to what the psalmist did? Lord give me grace to do likewise. Amen.


Parenting is tricky business…

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2 Samuel 13:37 But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai son of Ammihud, king of Geshur. David mourned for his son day after day. 38 Absalom, having fled to Geshur, stayed there three years. 39 And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon.

Absalom was one of King David’s sons who killed another of David’s sons named Amnon after Amnon had raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister. It was a revenge killing between two sons of the king. And since it was not Absalom’s place to take justice into his own hands, he should have been held accountable by the king – his father. But v.39 describes David’s heart as “yearning for Absalom”. And as we will say later the story, David did not hold Absalom to account with terrible consequences.

As I read the story I have empathy for David. It’s easy to know what to do when describing someone else’s adult child, but not so easy when it’s your own child in question. I have three young adult children and each of them is different. I’m very proud of them, what they’ve accomplished, the pathways they’ve chosen. But it hasn’t been easy figuring out how to be a father to them in this season of their lives – and mine. They’re not teenagers anymore, but they’re not completely independent either. Some days I think I get it right and other days I get it wrong. So I’m trusting the Lord’s grace over all of us to see us through.

Dear Lord, today I offer a special prayer for parents of adult children. Give us wisdom to parent well, reflecting your wisdom and grace in difficult situations. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The bondage of sin…

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John 8:31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus was talking to some of his Jewish disciples who took issue with his suggestion they were enslaved. As happened frequently in the gospels, Jesus’ hearers took him literally while Jesus was offering an analogy. His disciples weren’t literally slaves, but were enslaved to sin (v.34). As are we apart from Jesus. But, Jesus does indeed set us free by taking our sin upon himself and imparting to us his righteousness. And by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, we are made children of God.

The passage this morning is calling to me to reflect on my own sins, which are many. As the words of the liturgy say, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”. Lord Jesus, by your grace alone, set me free. Again. Amen.

Faith in the midst of grief…

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2 Samuel 12:15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died… 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped…

David had done a terrible thing in having Uriah killed so he could take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own. The child he conceived with Bathsheba was cursed by God and died shortly after birth. It’s a tragic story start to finish… which is why the last part of v.20 got my attention:

“(David) went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped…”

Wow. It just seems incredible to me that David responded to the death of this child with worship of the same God who cursed the child. Astounding. Lord, grant that I might have faith that is a fraction of David’s faith and trust in you. Amen.

Making peace with parts of God’s nature I don’t like…

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Isaiah 45:6 I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things. 

One of the most challenging realizations I had when I first determined to read the entire bible start to finish was the fact that God was responsible for some awful, awful things. For example, the bible tells us that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” when asked by Moses to let the Hebrews go from slavery in Egypt. As a result Pharaoh denied Moses’ request over and over – and the Egyptian people suffered horrific plagues.

Or when the Israelites were taking over the Promised Land from the native peoples and were directed by God to slaughter every man, woman, child, and living animal. In other words, nothing that drew breath in that place was to be spared. Can you imagine Israelites (at God’s insistence!) taking babies from their mother’s arms and running them through with the sword?

And of course God’s own people Israel were not spared. When they rebelled against God’s rule God sent plagues, poisonous serpents, and other kinds of calamities to bring Israel back in line. It’s not that God was never merciful, but God was not always merciful. That’s just a fact.

As I’ve written before, God refuses to be domesticated by you and me. God is God. God does as he chooses, for reasons known only to God. I don’t have to like it, but I also shouldn’t deny it. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning to make peace with God’s apparent contradictions and less than loving ways.

Lord God, teach me to love you – even the parts I don’t like. Amen.