Thursday, September 27, 2012

When the Rubber Meets the Road

Our church staff team has been reading The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. I’ve have read this book at least twice before, and it still challenges me in deep, deep ways. Over and over the mantra of Peterson is a pastor prays, a pastor does the deep work of seeking God, a pastor shepherds and points people to God. The pastor does not busy himself with so many tasks that the work of hearing God, attending to His Word, and praying (and teaching others to do the same) gets crowded out by the busyness and business of church.

My life is marked by busyness, crowdedness, always another task to do or another person to help. American culture teaches us that is what a pastor is – a pastor is what he does. But I want to be an unbusy pastor, one who prays, one who has time and space for God and people.

Today I decided to put that into practice in the last half hour I was at the office. I went to the sanctuary, and unwisely took my cell phone. Ten minutes into prayer time, my phone rang and, unwisely, I answered. It was a friend who had just lost their housing (I’d spent the afternoon with a guy from my small group moving my friend’s things into our garage), and they were working to get their next place. They had left some papers at their old house and wanted me to go and get those papers for them. What should I do?

Clearly it’s important that they get those papers. They don’t have a car, but they do have a bus pass. I could get the papers for them in 20 minutes, but by then my day would be done. Prayer time would be over. I could pray tomorrow, but would I? When do you draw a line in the sand and say that the work of prayer, though it can be done anywhere and any time, is not to be put aside?

Perhaps you would have chosen differently from me, but I chose to remain in prayer. My life seems to be a series of crisis calls, people needing help RIGHT NOW and everything else quickly gets put on hold, most especially the work of prayer. Choosing to stay and pray was painful. I felt guilty, ashamed, and I was unable to focus for a  while. But that guilt and shame were from my own sense of importance, my own unbelief that God could provide for my friend in other ways than me.

It sounds nice to be an unbusy praying pastor, but I am learning that there will be a cost and that ideal will be challenged. I hope that I am up to the challenge of living by the Spirit and discerning when to stay and do the work of prayer that I am called to. I’m sure there will be other days when I am called to “go” but I didn’t think that today was that day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to live a faith-filled life

What does it mean to live by faith? The idea of having faith can be so nebulous, can't it? That's why Sunday's definition of faith was so helpful to me. Bill said that faith is confidence in God's presence and God's provision no matter the outcome. But I also found myself wondering what would it look like to practically weave that into my every day life? How can I live out Hebrews 11:1-6 in a meaningful way? I think God gave me some help in the Psalms.

First in Psalm 86:11, the TNIV says, "Teach me your way, that I might rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name." As I prayed and thought about that, I realized that relying on God's faithfulness meant trusting in His provision, and fearing His name meant trusting in His presence. Every moment of my life is to be lived in the reality of God's faithfulness and the reality of His presence, which makes every moment holy. God has to teach me how to do that (teach me your way) and He has to shape my heart to get to the place where my will is to do His will (give me an undivided heart).

But what practices could help me move in that direction? That led me to Psalm 92:2, a verse that has been working on me for some time now. It says, "[It is good to] proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night." To proclaim God's love in the morning is setting my heart and mind on the fact that no matter what I face in the coming day, He is present and He is going to provide. To proclaim His faithfulness at night is looking back on my day with eyes of faith, looking for God's presence and provision in all things. Putting these two simple practices into place can help me live by faith, not afraid of the unseen challenges ahead and thankful for all the ways God moves in and through me each day.

This week, let's put faith into practice, growing in our awareness of God's presence and provision, proclaiming His love each morning and His faithfulness each night.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Story to be Lived

The summer blockbuster season is here, yet I rarely get to see movies in the theater unless they are of the cartoon variety. So getting to see Spiderman this week was a real treat. And as the previews rolled before the main feature, I wanted to see every movie that was coming out, because I love to get lost in these big stories. The best stories to me are ones that not only show the shadow side of life and sin (though they might not label it as such) but also offer the hope of something better. A mix of warning and encouragement and hope all in one is the recipe for a great story.

We see this in Hebrews 10:26-39, where the author of the letter not only warns his congregation against the danger of rejecting Christ and embracing sin, but also offers them the memory of God's faithfulness in the past and offers the promise of God's ultimate deliverance in the future.

The reality is that sin will destroy us if we allow it to take root and if we reject the work of Christ on our behalf. But it does not have to be the end of the story. Sin reduces us as humans, enslaves us in a small story, the story of "me." The bigger story that we are invited into is the story of God's redemptive work through Christ on the cross. It's the story of here and now, the Holy Spirit indwelling and empowering all who would say, "Yes" to God's offer of life and freedom. And it's the story of tomorrow where we dwell in peace in God's Kingdom.

This week pay attention to the cautionary tales around you, let them warn you, and embrace the faithfulness and promises of God. That's a story not just to be seen but to be lived.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Allen Iverson and Galatians 6: More In Common Than You’d Think

In 2006, Phildephia 76-ers guard Allen Iverson went on a now-famous rant when he was questioned by the media for missing practice (“Practice? I’m supposed to be the franchise player and we’re talking about practice?”). The clip closes with him asking, “How am I going to make my teammates better by practicing?” He just wanted to play the game.

Sadly, when it comes to church, Christians often live this same attitude in the way that we treat one another.

Galatians 5 is a beloved chapter for many Christians, because it contains the “fruit of the Spirit” verses and amazing reminders of the freedom that we have in Christ. And it’s tempting to stop reading the letter there, because Paul goes on in Galatians 6 to talk about boring stuff like humility, helping others overcome their struggles, and sowing good seed in order to reap a good harvest. Who wants to hear about that when we can talk about victory over sin and how to be Spirit-led?

It struck me as I studied these chapters recently that they are meant to be linked together. Now, if we are reading the Bible faithfully, that’s a no-duh statement, that they were meant to be linked. Who gets a letter from a friend and reads it a section at a time over the course of several days, or reads the middle without the beginning, or skips the last paragraph? No one does, yet we do that with letters in the Bible all the time, because they’ve now got those chapter and verse numbers in it. (Those weren’t in the original letters, by the way, and neither were the bold-printed subject headings inserted before new sections).

Galatians 6 rightly follows chapter five, because one of the primary arenas that we learn to walk in the Spirit and bear Spirit fruit is in the Church. Church is where we come to practice humility, speaking the truth in love, bearing one another’s burdens so that when we have chances to do that outside the church walls, we are ready.

What happens instead is that we often come to church expecting those around us to be perfect, to have their lives together, and so we are not ready to practice this life in the Spirit because we sort of think we shouldn’t have to do that at church. We tend to act like the fruit of the Spirit is only for when we need it in regular life. And that can lead us to impatient or less-than-gracious with fellow Christians.

The community of Believers is the place where we practice humility, practice hospitality, practice forgiveness and repentance and prayer, because we should all know that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. It’s a place to grow in deeper communion with Christ, to acknowledge our failings, and to grow as disciples together.

Galatians 6 is how we practice the good news of Galatians 5, and we need to notice that Paul is addressing Christians and how they treat fellow Christians. Sunday is not just about hearing a message and singing songs, and it’s not about serving in a Sunday school class. It’s a place where the Body of Christ learns to live from Christ’s life in us, that we might go out and do that in the world.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

“It’s not you, it’s me?” A question about prayer

“Marshall, it says in James 5:16 that the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective. But what do you do if you know that you are not a righteous man but you are trying very hard to do righteous things? Does that mean there is no power in my prayers?”

My friend who wrote this is going through major trials in his life, some of them self-inflicted and some not. And my heart broke as  I read his question because he doesn’t see God at work. The problem with his question is that he is starting at the wrong point. His view is that in order to be righteous, I do righteous things, then God is pleased with me. Action determines identity. However, for the Christian, we are righteous because of what God has done, therefore we do righteous things. Identity determines action.

And so what about this question of the prayers of a righteous person?

1) How do we become righteous? The Bible is clear that there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10), and that if you want to try and use your righteousness to earn favor with God, the bar is set impossibly high (Matthew 3:20).

Righteousness is a free gift, given in and through Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he has a righteousness not of his own but that comes from God on the basis of faith. Christians are righteous because Jesus is righteous and He gives His right standing with God to us.

2) Righteousness and prayer: So when Christians pray, we pray as righteous men and women based on Christ’s work.

3) The mystery of waiting: When God doesn’t answer how we hope or tarries in answering, it’s not because we aren’t doing enough righteous things. We’d sort of prefer it to be that way in a sense because then we might be able to control our own destiny. But prayer doesn’t work that way – it’s more mysterious and dependent on God to answer in His way and His timing.

It’s hard and uncomfortable to wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers, and it’s natural to think that we are doing something wrong, that God is mad with us and holding back His blessings. But prayer is an act of faith, putting our concerns into bigger hands and offering the outcome to God, trusting His love for us even when it seems hard to see.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Top Five Albums

For some reason I began thinking about which albums would I choose if I could have only five. I have a ridiculous amount of music, but it was surprisingly easy to whittle it down once my criteria was set. I had to use the whole album, not a mix of songs and no cheating by using a “Greatest Hits” compilation or a live CD where they sing all their hits. Some artists were easily on the list, but choosing which album to take was hard. Others were on the periphery but couldn’t quite make it. So, here they are, my top five:

#1 Graceland by Paul Simon – Paul Simon may be my favorite artist, and choosing one album was hard, especially when it came to excluding Garfunkel albums and The Rhythm of the Saints. But when it comes down to it, I don’t know of any album that I love more than Graceland, both musically and lyrically. It never seems old or dated, and I won’t forget Paul and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Saturday Night Live together all those years ago. I was 12 when Graceland came out, and I doubt I appreciated it until I was un college. Easiest #1 ever.

#2 Love and Thunder by Andrew Peterson – Andrew Peterson is neck and neck with Paul Simon as my favorite, and it was very hard to choose between this album and Behold the Lamb of God, which is a Christmas album in name and general theme but is so good that it crosses all holiday boundaries. But when it came down to it, this 2003 album by Andrew has haunting lyrics, beautiful harmonies, and songs that really stir my soul. “After the Last Tear Falls” perfectly captures the pain of this world and the hope of heaven, and “Family Man” inspires me as a dad.

#3 Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons – Again, musically and lyrically this album is a homerun. Banjo is always a way to my heart (especially when it’s used in a way that I’d never heard before), as are lyrics that are deep, spiritual, and full of mystery. I could almost include “The Cave” on a worship mix list, because it’s story of hope and identity as so powerful. This album received round the clock play for quite some time after I first bought it, and I don’t get tired of it now.

#4 Lonely Runs Both Ways by Alison Krauss and Union Station – Bluegrass is my favorite genre, and Alison Krauss has a voice like an angel.  I chose this album because it has both the bluegrass elements that I love (like banjo and a twangy tenor) and some songs that are just hauntingly beautiful when Alison sings.

And here’s where it got hard. One to go, what to choose? It came down to Song in Her Head by Sarah Jarosz and This Side by Nickel Creek. This Side has been with me, getting regular play, for almost ten years and has two of my favorite Nickel Creek songs, “This Side” and “Green and Gray.” If I were on a desert island, I would hate to be without those songs.

On the other hand, I remember buying Sarah Jarosz’s debut album on a whim after seeing a Facebook ad for it as the Amazon deal of the day. It was only $2, and my jaw hit the floor from the opening notes. I couldn’t believe someone that young could be that talented. And in the end, she incorporates banjo, which Nickel Creek doesn’t, and so:

#5 Song Up in Her Head by Sarah Jarosz – some great bluegrass, some newgrass, and just excellent pickin’, playin’, and singin’. Many of the songs have a somber, haunting quality that is really wonderful.

Albums on the outside looking in:

#6 This Side by Nickel Creek

#7 Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson

#8 Jars of Clay by Jars of Clay

#9 Purpose by Design by Fred Hammond

#10 The Nu Nation Project by Kirk Franklin

#11 Live by Harrod and Funk

#12 My Calm, Your Storm by Caedmon’s Call

#13 Tigerlilly by Natalie Merchant

#14 Paul Simon’s Concert in Central Park (I know, it’ a live greatest hits deal)

#15 Songs by Rich Mullins (I know, it’s a compilation)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Couldn’t have drawn it up any better

The last few weeks have been overwhelming to say the least, so it has seemed like a minor miracle that my family and I are in a stretch of three straight evenings with nothing to do but be home and be together. Today (Saturday) is probably the best Saturday we’ve had as a family in a long time.

We made our usual Krispy Kreme run but this time got them to go, as we were headed to Levering Orchard in Ararat, VA to pick cherries with another family from Grace  that we really love. The drive was amazing, the “are we there yets” were minimal, and when we arrived, the temperature was mid-60’s, sunny, and breezy. It was so quiet and peaceful (except for making sure our kids didn’t fall off any ladders while they picked cherries). We came in $2 under budget for what we picked, saw some other friends from Greensboro who were there, too, and had a great lunch on the way back with our friends from Grace.

When we got home, we plugged the kids into the Wii and computer games for an hour, and Diane gardened, and I got to vacuum the cars out (which actually is a treat for me) and to shovel about 200 pounds of gravel and dirt out of our curbside.

Then Jacob and Psalter and I played whiffle ball until dinner, which was finished off with cherry chocolate chip milkshakes, and then we all watched Tin Tin, which ended up being an amazing movie.

What was great about today was that I was with my family for almost the entirety and we had so much fun – we laughed, played, and enjoyed being together. We were able to watch an adventure movie without any of the kids getting scared. We had some great time with friends. AND I even feel like I got a couple of things done around the house that were just sitting there waiting on me. This is a day that I will always be thankful for because it was restful, joyful, and it was a reminder of how God has filled my life with good things.

Not a profound post, but definitely a thankful one.