Thursday, April 30, 2009

A coffee sign

I thought that this coffee stain on my coworker's cup was pretty neat. Not sure what the sign is telling me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Epiphany in the Panera bathroom

This morning I was washing my hands at Panera before my Monday morning accountability group, and a light bulb went on. (Don't laugh – many of the men who read this blog would say that some of their best thinking comes in the bathroom.)

What had made me resistant to bringing the woman in the wheelchair into my home was that relationally, emotionally, and physically, Diane and I feel maxed out. The demands of work, ministry, and three small children add up quickly, and adding another person to that mix, a person that could quickly become consuming, felt like death to my soul. But what if Diane and I weren't the only adults in our home available to this woman? What if there were one or two others, in different life stages with different demands, who could help us shoulder the load, to really care for her well and weave her into the fabric of community? That doesn't seem so bad. That actually seems doable.

I'm not saying anything that Shane Claiborne and others in the New Monastic movement haven't been saying for the past few years, but it's one thing to hear it said and another thing to envision for how community might embolden and enliven my own ministry here and now.

Community is more than proximity; it is also intentionality and mutual service and sacrifice, and right now, that seems to be lacking for Diane and me. We have a housemate, but since she has a separate entrance and separate kitchen, our lives also seem separate, even though we do have some overlap in ministry. I think that to re-structure our life around community would take more than a simple, "Let's do this;" I think it would entail remodeling our home to connect the upstairs and downstairs and to add a room or two somehow or it would entail buying a new, larger home altogether. It would take a physical restructuring to complement our new commitment. Both of those home-building ideas require money without promise of a return that helps us recoup that investment. But could it be worth it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walking away

She was a pitiful sight – hair askew, eye blackened from a punch three nights previous, sitting just outside her hotel room in her wheelchair. She had been attacked in the camp by the railroad tracks where she lives, and now she was faced with having one more night at the hotel followed by an uncertain tomorrow. I had stopped by to bring her some clothes and food and to try and tell her that I did care about her, even though I had no clue how to fix her situation. She recounted the attack over and over to me, as she had in the days previous, and she began to yell and cry, as I asked her what she wanted me to do for her. I knew that our church could not keep her at the hotel indefinitely. We had already tried to place her in a group home, and she'd left after only two days. There was a chance she could go to a domestic violence shelter in a nearby city, but she didn't want to do that. "I can't go to another shelter situation!" she yelled. "I've been out here in this chair for 10 years, getting murdered, and you want me to go to another shelter?!?"

I was at a loss. It seemed that what she really wanted me to do was find her an apartment and pay for it each month indefinitely, something our church did not have the finances to do. She continued to yell at me. "What if I was your sister or your mom or your daughter? What would you do then?" I told her I didn't know. Inside I thought that I would most likely bring my family into my home to live, but I kept that to myself. "It's all about the money, isn't it? Jesus didn't care about money! Jesus cared about people! You can't look at me in this situation and say you can't do anything. You can't be a Christian and leave me like this!" I told her goodbye and walked away, not sure what else I could say or why I should stay further.

My thoughts in the days since have been haunted by her. Should I have brought her home with me, moving my son into my daughters' room and creating a space for her? Am I just not a radical enough Christian? Isn't that how the early church grew, that Christians would take in those in society that no one else loved or wanted? If anyone is the "least of these", she is. The Lord seemed strangely silent as I wrestled and worried, wondered and prayed. It's times like these that I wonder if I'm cut out to follow Jesus in the hardest places of the world, because when I get there, I feel like I lack either the insight or the courage to act for transformation.

Psalm 22 - He has done it.

As the psalm closes, we find ourselves a long way emotionally from where we started, but we are echoing the truth of verses 3 and 4. Remember?

PS 22:3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

you are the praise of Israel.

PS 22:4 In you our fathers put their trust;

they trusted and you delivered them.

PS 22:5 They cried to you and were saved;

in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

The truth of God has not changed – He has always been the God who is holy, the God who rules the nations, the God who can be trusted. But the psalmist is now experiencing that truth and is inviting others to get in on it. All of the earth, rich and poor, all nations and peoples, from now and forever will be told about the Lord. God is not the God who forsakes, but is the God who acts. He is not the God who acts only in the past, but the God who has been good in the present and the God who will be worshipped in the future. The God of "He has done it."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Psalm 22 - transformed into a worship leader

And so the entire psalm turns after verse 21, moving from cries of desperation into a celebration of the goodness of God. The psalmist is now the worship leader.

PS 22:22 I will declare your name to my brothers;

in the congregation I will praise you.

PS 22:23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!

All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

PS 22:24 For he has not despised or disdained

the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help.

PS 22:25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;

before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.

PS 22:26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;

they who seek the LORD will praise him--

may your hearts live forever!

Declaring God's name, calling people to praise, honor, and revere the Lord, the God who listens and answers. These are outward expressions of the fear of the Lord. And not only does he call people to praise with their mouths, he praises God with his actions and his life.

When he says that he will fulfill his vows in verse 25, he is operating in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 16:10-12. His worship of God invites others to celebrate by giving a peace offering and feast that the poor are invited to. Shouldn't our worship be accompanied by action, by an acting out of what we celebrate. If we praise God that He has blessed us and supplied our needs, doesn't it make sense that we live actively in that and extend those blessings to others, believing that it is God who provided them in the first place? Our deliverance gives us the freedom to look outward.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coolest Room in Town

During the kids' spring break, our friend Terrance Parson came to the house and built an amazing loft in the girls' room. Our girls love having a play area on the ground, and of course they have turned the bed area up top into a play area as well. One of the benefits of having high ceilings in an old house!

Psalm 22 - the God who answers in the midst of it all

Psalm 22:12-18 find us in dire straits. The enemies are too strong, too numerous, too fierce. Death seems imminent, inevitable. If ever it was time to give up, now is that time. But the psalmist rallies one last time, musters the strength for one last cry.

PS 22:19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;

O my Strength, come quickly to help me.

PS 22:20 Deliver my life from the sword,

my precious life from the power of the dogs.

PS 22:21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

He remembers that God is his strength and his savior, and he asks the Lord to fight off the dogs, the lions, and the bulls, to deliver his life. And in the midst of this last gasp of hope, his prayer is answered. The NIV translates verse 21 as "rescue me from the mouth of lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen." But in the Hebrew, the word "saved" or "rescued" can also be translated "answered", and some commentators and translators believe that this is a more faithful rendering. So the ESV translates it, "You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!" Somehow in the midst of suffering, God answers, deliverance comes.

As I headed back to college in 1996, I was the chapter president of my InterVarsity group. I was thinking about going on staff with IV, and I was set to lead our outreach to new students. But my soul was stuck in grief and fear, and so I asked for a meeting with one of our IV campus ministers. I poured out my heart and struggles to him, and then I waited to see what he would think, wondering if he would think it would time for me to step down from leadership. He looked at me and smiled and said, "Marshall, I want you to know that I don't see you any differently right now than I did ten minutes ago, and neither does the Lord. His grace and mercy are totally able to handle your struggles." And just like that the clouds parted and the light of grace and forgiveness and the love of Christ flooded in. And that launched me on a journey of learning the freedom of living in the grace of God.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Psalm 22 - remembering God's personal presence

And so the work of remembering begins again.

PS 22:9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;

you made me trust in you

even at my mother's breast.

PS 22:10 From birth I was cast upon you;

from my mother's womb you have been my God.

PS 22:11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near

and there is no one to help.

The psalmist reminds himself that he is not a worm, but a precious human being, and someone who has been known by God since birth. God is not a God of the past who acted once upon a time for the Israelites, but God is a personal, up close God, the psalmist's God. God is the God who knows us in every moment of our lives and who cares for us tenderly.

There is great comfort in knowing that God doesn't just care for His people, but that He knows and cares for you and me. That there has not been a moment of our lives that He has not been at work to draw us to a life lived in relationship with Him as "My God." Remembering that relationship reminds us to not simply cry out "where are you" but to cry again, "Help."

It also frames our sufferings not as something happening outside of the care and purview of God, but rather events that are happening within His embrace and care; though He may not end them immediately, He is not far from us.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Psalm 22- performance-based theology

PS 22:6 But I am a worm and not a man,

scorned by men and despised by the people.

PS 22:7 All who see me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

PS 22:8 "He trusts in the LORD;

let the LORD rescue him.

There is a theology that says our circumstances are directly tied to how well we play the religion game. If something bad happened it was because we earned or deserved it, and likewise, if something good happened, it was because we earned or deserved it.

That theology is very popular even today, and while most of us here would not believe the overt promise of health and wealth, that if we prayed a particular verse or gave a certain amount of money that God would bless us or heal us, we are still tempted to believe that way on a smaller scale. We're tempted to believe that our favor with God is based on our performance for Him. We think, "Maybe if I'd had a quiet time, I wouldn't have had such a bad day."

"Maybe if I had gone to that FCA prayer meeting at school, I would have done better on my test."

"I deserve to have financial security because I tithe regularly."

It's a subtle way of us putting ourselves back on the throne, think that we somehow can have control of our lives and of God.

The Psalmist is being confronted with this as the religious people are kicking while he is down, mocking his situation, equating his suffering with God's displeasure with Him.

In Jesus' day it was expressed when a man born blind was brought to Him and His disciples asked, "Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind." But Jesus' answer was, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."

When we feel overwhelmed by suffering, we are to persist in prayer, anchored in truth, trusting God to answer and bring glory to His name.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Psalm 22 - the work of remembering

But in Psalm 22, David does not stay focused on his brokenness. In verse 3, we begin to train our souls to see correctly, to look through pain to see God.

PS 22:3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;

you are the praise of Israel.

PS 22:4 In you our fathers put their trust;

they trusted and you delivered them.

PS 22:5 They cried to you and were saved;

in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

Out of disorientation, we are called to reorient ourselves to Who God is. Not what God is or isn't doing, but who He is. God is the King, never to be unseated. God is Holy, never to be tarnished. God has shown Himself faithful to His people. Israel has a rich history of God delivering His people from the hand of slavery, from Babylonian exile, from their own stubborn refusal to follow Him. Over and over the Old Testament recounts God's faithfulness to His people, and the people are called to do the work of remembering, the renewing of their mind to the work of God in the world and on their behalf.

This is the work of remembering, and over and over, the Scriptures call God's people to this work. The work of remembering in the face of suffering is key to the life of the Christ-follower. We are to persist in prayer, anchored in truth, trusting God to answer and bring glory to His name.

And so in the midst of a soul full of anguish, the Psalmist struggles to reorient Himself to what is truer than true. God is the Holy One, always enthroned. God is a good King who has been faithful to His people and who delivered His people when they cried to Him. Everything in the psalmist's experience says God is absent, but history says that God has always been present to His people, worthy of trust.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Psalm 22 - opening lament

Psalm 22 begins with a lament:

PS 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

PS 22:2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, and am not silent

While we don't know what is going on in David's life, the intensity of His cry is unmistakable. Forsaken, groaning, crying. God is far, forsaking, silent. This is a picture of suffering and aloneness. But this cry is not a lack of faith, but instead a disoriented plea for God to show His face. My God, My God. The relationship is still there. But it feels broken.

The summer of 1996, before my senior year of college, felt like a God-forsaken time. I had spent the spring semester over-busy, spending very little time caring for my soul, and when I went home to work at a local newspaper, I had little in reserve to fight off the lies that began to attack me. Reminders of past sin and struggles began to bombard me, and a lie that God was going to abandon me to my struggle began to grow. I prayed and prayed, but it felt as though my cries hit the ceiling and fell to the floor. I had no real Christian friends around me, and I began to take on shame and fear. I felt like I was crying by day and God did not answer, by night and He was silent. Perhaps you have had times like that as well, wondering when God was going to answer, whether He even heard.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Psalm 22 - Introduction

Note: I preached this sermon on April 5th at our church, and so I have broken it up and edited it for the blog

It seems that Easter sneaks up on me year after year. Not much hype, not much pomp. Sure, there's Lent, which I have not done for years, which can be helpful if done well. But even if we give up chocolate or soft drinks for 40 days, what more do we do to begin to prepare the way for the work of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection?

Well, God has given us one tool in a surprising place, the Psalms. The Psalms were the prayer book for the people of God, leading the people of Israel in regular rhythms of hymns, prayers and praise. As the people traveled to Jerusalem to worship, they would sing the songs of God, and these songs would lead them in the work of remembering. Remembering the faithfulness of God to His people, delivering them from Egypt; remembering the work of God in creating the world; remembering the richness of God's word and the fruit that comes from obedience; remembering who God is, the true King worthy of all worship.

As a good Jewish boy, Jesus Christ would have learned to pray using the Psalms. As a rabbinical student, he would have memorized the entire Psalter (as well as the Pentateuch), and as He prayed the Psalms, they would have worked their way into His heart and soul as more than just rote verses, but as a way to worship. The Psalms would have served as a Scriptural anchor for His soul.

And so when we read the account of Christ's crucifixion in Matthew, we hear Jesus praying by that soul anchor, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," Psalm 22:1, and in John, Jesus prays, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit," Psalm 31:5. The Psalms had prepared Jesus for how to continue to seek God in the midst of brutal and lonely suffering, had made a way for Him to pray when everything in Him was struggling to see God and trust the plan of His Father. Like Christ, when we feel overwhelmed by suffering, we are to persist in prayer, anchored in truth, trusting God to answer and bring glory to His name.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Image or abiding?

I meet weekly with two friends who are also pastors, and recently one if them mentioned that he struggled with whether he was "worthy" to be called a pastor. He still struggles with how to best love his daughter (a high school senior), wrestling between trying to give good direction in her life and feeling like he is being controlling. He knows that he still has sin in his life. And aren't we pastors called to something greater than the "average" Christian, since we are professionals and all?

My first response was yes, by all means we are called to a different standard. James 3:1 came to mind, which says that Christians should not presume to be teachers (desire to be teachers), because those of us who teach will be judged more strictly. I also remembered the qualifications for elders and deacons in Titus. But I stopped in mid-sentence. I was beginning to encourage my friends (and myself) to aim at a standard, rather than to depend on Christ. In a sense I was saying that we needed to be seen as being above reproach. We had to do all the right things because people were watching and we have a responsibility to them to be impeccable. And in doing so, the goal becomes our appearance, how we are seen and perceived. We begin to overwork because a "good pastor" always helps all people all the time. We begin to treat people kindly not because we love them but because it is what we are supposed to do. And slowly we begin to live by a list of do's and don'ts, and then we begin to call others to live the same way in their walk with Christ.

But we pastors, like all Christians, are called to live by the Spirit, to abide in Christ. Even though our "list" may say to help, the Spirit may say, "Don't bail this person out now, even if they think it's your Christian duty." The Spirit may say, "Take this hour to pray with me, and don't let the urgent need at the door interrupt." If I am abiding in Christ, I will love my wife and family as Titus 1:6-9 instructs. I will be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined because Christ in me is all of these things. And I will not be able to take the credit, because it is Christ in me who is and does these things.

It's tempting for my friends and I to make a list and then meet each week and hold each other accountable to how we're doing in keeping it; in fact that would be easier in some ways. But Christ has freed us from that way of living. As we live by His Spirit, we will lead those under our care not to ourselves or our own example, but to the life that is truly Life, Jesus Christ.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wrestling with John 15

In re-reading John 15 the other day, I noticed that the New King James Version had an alternate translation of verse 2. In most translations, this verse reads, "He cuts off (removes, takes away) any branch in me that does not bear fruit, while any branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." The New King James, in a footnote, says, "also He lifts up" instead of removes or cuts off.

As I read and thought, I began to wonder why "lifts up" is not more widely used. Is "cut off" used because of the word given in verse 6? If lifting up a branch perhaps produces more fruit on the vine, wouldn't it make sense that the Gardener, who is most interested in seeing more fruit, would lift up the branch rather than remove it? Jesus says in verse 8, "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." In verse 2 He says that the Gardener (the Father) prunes branches so that "they will bear even more fruit." God's desire is to see fruit, not to have firewood.

Also, in verse 2, Christ says, "Any branch in me," which leads me to think that Christ isn't interested in cutting those branches off. The New Testament talks time and time again about our being "in Christ," much more so than Christ being in us, actually. It is troubling to me to think that my standing in Christ can be based on my fruit or lack thereof; who in the Body of Christ could remain in Him if our "in-ness" was based on us? Who in the Body abides in Him perfectly moment by moment? Our salvation is by grace, as is our abiding. Verse 2 translated "cuts off" would seem to make my position in Him more tenuous than it is, considering I am sealed with the Holy Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing my inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

In the ESV study Bible, mention is made of the "lifts up" possibility, but it discounts it because in verse 6, the unfruitful in Christ are thrown away and burned, symbolizing judgment and hell. But the NIV translates verse 6 to say, "If anyone does not remain in me (doesn't say "anyone in me") he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." It seems that the problem for this branch is that it is not in Christ, and therefore has no life. It withers and is only good for one thing – firewood.

I vaguely remembered that Bruce Wilkinson had written a book along the "lifts up" angle, though I never read it. So I did a google search for "Bruce Wilkinson, vine, lifted up" and the first link I found was this one.
I also found this article online.
And this one. (For contrasting views see here, and here. )

To me, lift up makes sense and seems consistent with what I believe is the point of John 15, which is that we learn the secret of bearing fruit. It's not that I don't think there will be judgment, it's just that I think that Christ was talking more about fruit than judgment in this passage. What do you all think?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The gift of not being able

The past few weeks have been a stretch for my body and soul to say the least. As our women's shelter at Grace came to a close, the urgency to find housing for our women became greater, and it weighed tremendously on my heart and mind. Late nights at the shelter seemed to be followed by early morning meetings. At the same time, it seemed that the situations in and around our church became more desperate. In addition, I had the chance to preach at our church, which was so much fun, yet exhausting as well. And, on a lighter note, March Madness robbed precious hours of sleep as my Tar Heels moved through the field.

And so I found myself at work last Thursday just D-O-N-E. I took Diane out to dinner that night, but I had very little to offer her in our conversation. The next day was my day off, and after I took Psalter to pre-school I came home and went back to bed for two hours. That night I was in bed again by 9:30. I wondered a bit if I was depressed, but ultimately I didn't think that was it, because I didn't feel down, just tired. So I continued to be disciplined in going to bed early, and on Sunday I also took a 2 hour nap (I only nap if I am completely wiped out). And this morning, after my fourth consecutive night of 8-hours of sleep, plus two naps, I began to feel something that I had not felt in weeks – energy. I felt excited to be awake and excited to go about my day, and I felt like a different person all day long.

I really wish that I could do more, be more productive, help more people, be a better friend. I wish I was one of those people who could get by on 4 or 5 hours of sleep, that I could just go and go and go. But God has, in His wisdom, given me the gift of not being able. There is a certain point where I am unable to do much at all – whether that is relate to people (or the Lord), work, think, be productive because I am just too tired and life is too out of focus. And this forces me to stop. To sleep. To leave my laptop at work and leave messages unanswered.

The end result is that I remember that I am not what I do, I am not what I can accomplish. I am limited in my ability to put my identity in my performance. I am what He is in me, and I am loved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Day of retreat

Today was the first moment that I've been still in a long, long time. No people, no pressure. No phone or iPod or Bible. Nothing but me and God and the beauty of His creation. It took me quite some time to get still – I rambled through the woods, jumped over the creek, walked in a freshly-plowed field. I paused here and there, but I couldn't quite enter into silence. But I finally a sat down on a bridge over the small creek, listening to it gurgle below. I listened to the water on the rocks and thought about what a lovely sound God had made for us, so simple and so soothing for my soul. Then thoughts from the world beyond crept in and I found myself saying, "Shhhh" aloud. Not an angry "Shush!" but a soothing "Shhh," like I might say to my children when they got upset. As I called my mind and soul to be still, I began to cry. Not weep or sob, just tears rolling down. I wasn't sad – I was simply tired and entering into a rest that I've needed for months. I wasn't trying to learn something from God or pray or do anything except rest with Him, in His presence. To simply sit and enjoy what He had made, the sound of the water and the sight of the current rippling in different courses downstream. When the sun would shine out from the clouds, the ripples became more distinct, speckled and dancing. The wind blew in my face, and I was at rest. I can't remember the last time I had been unreachable by phone or text or email, the last time I hadn't had a person or a responsibility simply an arm's length or phone call away. I need that more often. As I listened to the stream, I realized that the sound came as the water went over the rock. The rock was still and the water moved. In the same way, I am to be still, letting the Lord wash over me, and trusting that He will speak in the midst of His life flowing over and around and into mine.