Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Broken Pot Business.

The Christian scriptures are full of stories. The stories are about God's interaction with human beings - primarily those human beings of Semitic origin, yet even more specifically, the Abrahamic branch of the Hebrew people.

As one reads the stories, you are struck by the personal nature of the encounters and the passionate responses of the participants. But there is something else that strikes the reader as well - if they have read closely!

These people are all less than perfect.

They are too short, too young, left-handed, women, deceptive, faithless, frightened or unskilled. They are average or below average in beauty, they are unhappily single or unhappily married. Many of them have low self-esteem or simply have been overlooked by the rest of society. They are the proverbial "pound dogs" - the dogs nobody else wanted, and thus have been assigned to the pound - they are the people from which no one expected much and thus are overlooked and under appreciated. They have both physical flaws and character flaws. In a modern society, they would have been relegated to anonymity in either low-paying, low-expectation blue collar jobs or if an intellectual, assigned to positions in corporations, government or universities where they were useful, but not necessarily mobile.

As Christians, we have enshrined these people as "heroes of the faith" but we have assigned them character qualities and abilities that simply aren't a part of the narrative. We become offended when anyone questions his or her character, ability or veracity. Jacob was a deceiver, a liar. Moses had anger management issues and could be weak-willed. Ehud was left-handed, which the world equated as weakness. Samson was a philanderer and David was an adulterer. Solomon sold his soul to his wives' gods. Isaiah was a priest of low standing and Jeremiah never wanted to be a prophet in the first place. Peter probably couldn't read and Jesus was from Nazareth - what good can come from Nazareth? stated Nathaniel in John 1:46. Paul condoned murder, was a fast-track Pharisee and probably had vision problems. One could even make the argument that he was jealous of Peter. Sounds harsh doesn't it? Don't get upset with me, read the Book!

So what's the point. The point is this: God is in "the broken pot" business.

God takes that which is devoid of worth to the rest of the world and pours out His glory through it. He takes the broken pieces of our lives and makes something beautiful out of it. Although interested in the beautiful (B), famous (F), smart (S), wealthy (W) and industrious (I) - they already have their glory. (Which should be a clue to those BFSWI that they are broken pots too - pride, arrogance, self-sufficiency and control are their flaws, which can be the most insidious!) So God calls those in our world who are obviously - at least by our world's standards - broken, used up, impoverished and over-looked to be fountains of His glory. God loves children (beautiful, shapeable lumps of love!), the poor, the abused, the simple, the hurt and the rejected. He takes these broken pots and remakes them according to His purpose and for His glory.

Now if this is God's business, then certainly it should be the church's business too, shouldn't it? Sadly, we tend to emphasize our priorities instead of His. We focus on the beauty of our buildings and our own comfort in worship. It has been said that Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most segregated hour in America. Why? Because our churches reflect our desires rather than God's desire. Our churches are not only segregated racially and geographically; but they are also segregated economically and theologically. There are churches for every race and ethnicity; there are churches for intellectuals and churches for the blue-collar worker; there are churches for older, tradition-oriented and "mature" adults and churches for "emerging" young adults.

But what about the church that God wants?

My good friend, the Rev. Jo Regan is now pastor of a Baptist Church at Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, UK. She is a she. The world doesn't expect her to powerfully preach the gospel or even to successfully (whatever that means!) lead this church to health and growth. But God does. My friend Jo realizes that it is all about God, and because of that, God will do great things in Burton-on-Trent. If only our churches in America could more fully understand that truth. Jo understands that the church is in the business of not only mending broken pots, but seeing the glory of God pour forth from them!

This Sunday, God has led me to a church where I will preach in view of a call to become part-time pastor. It is a small church, a very small church. It is a church that is broken, yet holding as much love as it possibly can. In the last few months, I have been on a roller coaster ride - suffering along with the travails of my family, turning down the call to a beautiful, large church in Oregon and preparing my oldest daughter for college. I am overwhelmed; Yet as I pray and seek God's wisdom and will concerning this weekend, I am overwhelmed by peace. There is no large salary, no manse and really no budget - there are only broken pots. But ironically, God does His best work with broken pots.

May God the Father richly bless each of you this week as you ask Him to mend your own "broken pot" and seek to become a fountain of His love.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Goodbye individual, hello personal.

The human vocabulary is filled with first person pronouns: I, me and my. As a citizen of the United States, and an inheritor of contemporary Western culture, I understand the national ethos to be "rugged individualism."

We see this in our consumer approach to reality: "be all that you can be", "have it your way", "don't you deserve the very best?", "sink or swim", "my bologna has a first name" and other such sloganeering aimed at the individual. Life is about you and your individual choices. Life is about whatever makes you - the individual - happy.

Nevertheless, It's one thing to appeal to the individual in advertising, but another altogether to allow individuality to become the ruling metaphor for culture. You see, the end of individuality is isolation and separation. The individual becomes the center of interpretation and thus inhabits an increasingly isolated reality. This is one of the serious handicaps of American Christianity. We construct our own theologies - our own "God talk" - in order to satisfy or even justify our own self or better, selfish ends. (Once I had a student argue with me about the nature of the imago Dei - they insisted, contrary to scriptural and historical precedent, that the image of God in humankind is radically individual; ironically they did this in order to justify an obviously sinful behavior!) Thus, in this way we can objectify the other and in doing so, somehow make it more manageable. Yet interestingly, all we do is increasingly alienate ourselves from reality, rather than engage it.

The very essence of sin is individualism. It is the choice to place "I" before "Thou" as eminent Jewish philosopher Martin Buber reminded us. It prioritizes self preservation above all else and thus elevates the individual to divine status. God then becomes a pawn to do the individual's bidding in life. How quickly Christians forget the admonition of Jesus, "yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39 NASB95).

The human reality is that we are "persons in relation" as the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reminds us. Our individuality results in isolation; our personhood depends upon community. We can only be who we are when related to community. Our person is defined by the communities and other persons to which we relate. We relate to God, to each other and to the balance of creation. When we fail to live in an I-Thou relationship to God, none of the rest of our relationships function correctly.

Christians, John the Apostle is right - do you desire to be a disciple of Jesus and live eternally? Then let it begin now: love one another. That's how the world knows you are Jesus' disciples. Far too often we are Christian gnostics - as long as we have "salvation knowledge" it doesn't matter how we live. In the process we become exclusivists; justifying all sorts of unrighteous attitudes and behaviors in Jesus' name. Nothing could be further from the truth. To believe is to live a life of agape love. If you love like that you will live, truly. And if you live truly, you will not simply be an individual, but rather the 'person' God created you to be.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oklahoma Apocalypse!

This past week I had the opportunity to visit family and friends in the great state of Oklahoma. [Now I know some of my friends in Texas will take offense at the "great state" designation, but bear with me, there is a greater point at stake here!] I did a bit of archaeological exploration just north of Marland and south of Ponca City at the site of the Miller Brother's 101 Ranch headquarters site; visited the Marland Grand Home in Ponca City and even the Marland Mansion; I preached in my father and step-mom's church; saw uncles, aunts and cousins. Finally, I was able to visit the old homestead in Verden. A good visit all told, with one exception: hail.

For those of you who aren't acquainted with the phenomenon, it is frozen rain that has been tossed back and forth in the atmosphere and coated with more freezing water or clumped together with other hail stones until it attains a variety of sizes - from 'pea' size to 'shot put' size or even larger I assume. Hail is endemic to cumulonimbi - thunder storms. Hail is a common product of thunderstorms, especially in the Spring in the midwestern or Great Plains portion of the United States. It is here, in the spring time, that the heavy, warm, moisture-filled air from the Gulf of Mexico encounters cold fronts moving in from the north and west. When these two forces meet at the "dry line", thunderstorms form and the possibility of hail comes into existence! Having given you a brief lesson on hail, I want you to know that it is "severe weather" season in this part of the country and it can be terrifying.

Now back to my story.

It is Sunday, May 16. I've just finished preaching at my father's church in Oklahoma City and have proceeded to Edmond, just north of the city to visit relatives. On a lark, my cousin, Derek decides to take me back down to the city for a bit of 'exploration' and just some 'catch-up' time. On the highway, while on our way back to Edmond we run into the leading edge of a massive thunderstorm that had formed quickly on the northwestern edge of Oklahoma City. I took this picture as we headed into it, being simply amazed by its size and contrast:

Now as we drove into the storm - and by the way, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, necessarily - just another day in the springtime of Oklahoma! - I became very interested in white column coming out of the bottom of the dark cloud. I had never seen that before. But since we didn't see the 'green' color normally associated with the presence of hail, we didn't think about it. We decided we would just get tossed about in heavy rain and high winds. But then we saw the storm chaser on the over pass and decided we ought to turn on the radio. About that time, my cousin noticed the cloud was "greening" and that we were going to run into some hail. The radio announcer said to take cover, the storm had a huge hail column containing up to softball sized hail. (Now think about how big that is. I'd heard of softball size hail, but never seen it) So what I was looking at in the storm - the white cloud on the left - was the hail column.

Then we ran into it. We immediately took a direct hit to the windshield. It was as if someone had taken a sledge hammer to our windshield - it blew the rear view mirror off and cratered the upper middle of the windshield. I put my feet on the windshield as "shot put" size hail slammed into our vehicle. It was so loud you couldn't hear yourself think. Cars were slamming on their brakes as they hit the storm, some of them spinning out of control as they lost some or all of their windshield as they hit the wall of hail.

Immediately we sped up in order to get to the shelter of the next overpass. We kept taking hits though and we took another monster hit to the windshield by my right foot, which created another crater. Thank the Lord for safety glass! In about a minute (felt like 5 minutes!) We made it to the safety of the underpass. All of the lanes were packed with people. Some cars had even turned around and driven in backwards to get protection from the apocalyptic onslaught. For 10 minutes the storm continued.

Even under the protection of the underpass, the hail was coming in and continued to hit the vehicles, though the monster pieces were shattering as they hit the bridge or the road in front of us. I opened the door briefly to snap this pic of the hail under the bridge - most of these pieces are fist to baseball sized hail:

Compare the hail stones to the size of the car at the top of the picture and you will get a good idea of what was pelting us. Imagine that stuff coming down so hard and fast that it was like bullets raining from heaven! We sat under the overpass until we believed the hail core had passed (though we left a little early and had to stop under another overpass about 2 minutes later) and talked about the fact that we had never seen anything like it. Of course we discussed whether or not the apocalypse had begun or maybe that the 'global warming' was true and mother nature was getting revenge!

Eventually we were able to start heading out from under the safety of the bridge and the site that met us was just surreal - look at this last photo: It looks like snow on the highway - in May! I've never seen anything like this. Kudos to my cousin Derek for getting us to safety so quickly!

Now I know that many of you scientifically minded-readers understand the forces in nature that make these kinds of storms possible. The possibility of this type of storm hitting every so often are slim, but still possible. The right conditions can make all sorts of things happen in our world. But if nothing else, these events must make you think about ultimate realities. What do I mean by ultimate realities? I mean the questions of existence. Far too often human beings live their lives as if there is nothing greater than they are. We are masters of the universe and nothing can stop us. Nature reminds us that our reality isn't quite that self-assured. There is something greater than we are and we must respect it. We disrespect it at our own peril.

As I sat through this 'apocalyptic' event, I was reminded of the fact that I am only human and that my life is so very fragile. If we approach life in this fashion, every moment becomes a gift and every encounter a treasure. Not an hour before this occurred, a friend of mine had sent me a text message telling me how beautiful it was in Texas hill country that day. I found it ironic that 300 miles north, I was caught in what could only be described as 'judgement day' on the earth!

So today I can tell you that God has reminded me of the limited, fragile nature of my life. If I take care of my physical body and avoid too much danger, I might live on this earth between 60 and 90 years. But that isn't very long. Ultimately, God holds our lives in His hands. Each day a gift and each moment something that must be treasured and inhabited. Tell someone you love them today. Tell them how much they mean to you. Smile at someone you have not smiled at in a while and then take time to enjoy that moment. Smell a flower. Bite into a grape. Heed the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!

“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’“For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. [Matthew 5:25-34 NASB95]

Bless you my friends this day!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It IS a beautiful morning...


I get up this morning and I can tell its summer. In Texas.

A little humid, but the birds are singing and its still only 75ยบ (24 Celsius for my UK friends!) at 6:00AM.

Anyway, I made a pot of coffee and went out into the back yard. The grass is green and growing. My grapes are ripening nicely and my blackberries are starting to turn, well, black - or better - a rich purple. (Note to self - time for bird netting on berry plants!) Melissa's onions, corn, squash and tomatoes are coming in well. The jasmine and honey suckle are so aromatic that its overwhelming at this time in the morning. Good coffee. I wander just long enough among the plants to get my toes wet, grass covered and even a bit muddy from watering.

Time to sit on the porch swing.

And I remember. I am praying for friends and family who don't have as laid back a schedule as I do at the moment. My mother has had cataract surgery and ironically my friend Carol is performing cataract surgeries, amongst other things! My dad is recovering from a fall; my sister is getting her art projects done. My friends in Oklahoma have suffered terrible losses. My students are looking for jobs and my daughter is getting ready to graduate high school.

In spite of all the difficulties we face - medical, economic, emotional and spiritual - we live in a world that is governed by God. God give us life and life itself - in the midst of the dirt, setbacks and suffering in our daily 'grind' - is still beautiful. To touch, to feel, to hear, to see, to love is a gift. To cultivate relationships - to rid our world of loneliness - is our general marching order as human beings. To cultivate a relationship with God, who reaches out to us; to cultivate relationships with each other and even with the rest of creation is that for which we were designed.

So I walk in the yard. Pray. Drink coffee.

Coffee is good.

Life is good.

Life is beautiful.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Turning the page on a new chapter

The first and second weeks of May are always interesting weeks for me. As a college professor, these weeks mark several ends and new beginnings. It is the end of the Spring semester and it is also graduation time. Students take their "final" final exams and then turn the page for a new chapter in his or her life.

What is true for academia is true for us in the world as well.

We reach forks in the road, run into new opportunities or are simply faced with decisions that will change our lives. This doesn't mean that we "leave behind" or "forget about" what has happened before, but it does mean that as we accept these opportunities or make these decisions, our lives will change. Some of us don't do so well with change. We like things the way they are - predictable, routine and 'safe' - but that reality is false. It means that in our refusal to allow for change, we will not grow, we will not mature. Although we will age, we will not learn.

On the other hand, to face change is to grow. Growth, however, is never easy or painless. Growth extracts a price, either temporarily or permanently. Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me!" (Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) It is an imperative, not an option. Inherent within that call however is the obvious call to suffering. Bearing the cross is neither easy nor is it neat. To bear the cross is a messy, life changing ordeal. It frightens us. It causes pain and it changes us. Nevertheless, it is the only way.

Sadly, there are many who insist on making Christianity a game to play. They want all the love and acceptance with none of the cross-bearing or pain. They flirt with the cross without actually bearing the cross. They crave forgiveness but have no desire to forgive anyone else. They have become the hypocrites that Jesus roundly denounces in Matthew 23. They avoid true change at all costs. They are not only disingenuous to God, but to themselves as well.

I've been there. Maybe we all have been there. But I don't want that in my life and I pray you do not want that in yours. I want to grow. With the Spirit's help, I know that we can. The truth is, we never arrive - God is always growing us, asking us to take up new challenges and turning the page on new chapters in life.

So here is my new chapter...

• My oldest daughter graduates high school and enters her own new chapter in college. Our relationship will change, but that's OK... it must as she grows into being the woman God has called her to be.

• I am accepting a call to lead a small church as a part-time pastor. Together we will face the future God has for us.

• I am working with other student groups at the University now, both athletes and scholars. We will be getting missional together for Christ.

• I am finishing my thesis this summer and looking on to the next writing projects.

• I am seeing some students off to bright futures, while forging new relationships with new, bright and eager freshman minds.

God is good and He's changing me. I know there will be difficult paths to tread. I know that I will experience suffering and privation. But that's OK - my master did it before me.