Monday, August 25, 2014

Church service

Our small church in the city meets on the fourth Sunday of the month for service. Not a service but service. There is no worship service but we are given service projects in the community. Last night after dinner together, we split up to clean a seven block stretch of Main Street, both sides and the median. Our group of six or seven filled up three large garbage bags in an hour. Other people stayed in the church building and wrote letters of encouragement and support. A third group helped organize the room where the children meet on Sundays. Since we are sharing space with another church this project helped them out, too. Pastor Susan took the children to the local firehouse and distributed bags of cookies and the kids got to meet the firefighters and get on a fire truck.

I was out on garbage patrol while my wife stayed in and wrote out cards. It had been hot during the day but by 6 pm it was only muggy due to a passing thunderstorm. No matter we worked up a good sweat. The street was busy with cars and people stopping at several fast food businesses. I noted that a good share of the trash we were picking up was packaging from those same restaurants. There were several tattered Charlie Crist for Governor signs from a recent political rally, or Scott supporters were messing with Crist's signs. In this part of the city where many signs read, African-Americans for Crist, I figured it was the former.

One local catering business owner was on his way out to his van and turned to thank us for what we were doing. Mostly though the persons on the street went about their own business without giving us a second look. Next week, someone commented, the street would look much the same as it had before we started. That might be true but for right now the street looked good and we had had a good church service.

Little League World Series

I enjoyed watching some of the Little League World Series games. I was cheering for Mo'ne and was energized by the comebacks of the team from Chicago. I hoped they could pull off another one against South Korea. Then I sat back and reflected on what I had watched - 11-13 year old boys and two girls - who were being covered by ESPN as if they were adults. There were the entertaining side stories and interviews with families of those kids who were playing. There were inspiring moments when "miked" coaches rallied their teams on to greater efforts. There were the moments when the "boys of summer" looked like boys and girls: tears after an error or pitching wildness and broad smiles after a home run or game winning hit.

That's what bothered me, I guess. Those moments, the close ups which seemed to be an invasion of childhood privacy and exploitation of a child's game for adult viewers. Mo'ne who became an overnight sensation said it kinda creeped her out when adults approached her for her autograph. The kids in her school would never do that because they already knew her, she said.  At least, she is home now and her life can return to normal. Unless she decides to so some endorsement deals. Those who know say she could make a quick one to five hundred grand if she doesn't think about it too long. Soon, she will be forgotten and the sporting public will be following football.

There were up to 30,000 spectators at some of the games. The umps were volunteers as were the coaches. Of course, the kids were not payed either. Yet, the cameras, more every year, were on their every move in HD. We saw the sportsmanship, we heard coaches encouraging the kids and groaned at some of the calls as ESPN showed in replays how the umps blew the calls. We were mesmerized at the comparisons with the big leagues, how a 70 mile an hour pitch at Little League dimensions was the same as a 90 plus mile an hour pitch in the bigs, although some experts debated an exact comparison. Anyway, we marveled at how these kids could catch up to a 90 mph heater.

Some of the comparisons went the other way, too. The former big league stars on the ESPN broadcasting team pointed out how a pitcher who had just plunked a hitter on the other team walked off the mound and shook his hand and told him he was sorry. In the big leagues the pitcher has a look of indifference when there is not a shouting match between players or an on field brawl. I love it when the teams line up and shake hands after the game. Why don't they do that in the bigs? Would anyone dare mike up the coaches? The LL coaches never failed to inspire but would big league coaches?

The LL World Series is about the last place you can watch baseball on tv as it was meant to be played.  Of course, most of us can go down to the local LL ballpark and watch a game when the boys and girls of summer play. Some of us can coach, ump, or serve up hot dogs to the fans. It is baseball at it's finest. Without ESPN.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Morning devotions

John 3:16 has to be the most often quoted and memorized Bible verse. Tim Tebow wore it on his eye black. That guy used to hold up a sign that just said, John 3:16, in the football stands under the goal posts. You just know what John 3:16 says even if you haven't spent a lot of time in church.

But what does it mean? That's another question altogether. Does God love the whole world, like everybody? How did He give us His Son and how does that work anyway? What is His great purpose for all of us? Long chapters of theology have been written on each of those questions. A very popular series of books by a very popular West Coast pastor mined the riches of that last question (The Purpose Driven Life).

Perhaps we have made it more complicated than it is. Eugene Peterson says that verse contains everything we need to know about God, and all of it is good. Frederick Dale Bruner in his commentary on John calls this verse the heart of the gospel and the international treasure.

I have preached on this verse many times but I think, not enough, and were I to do it over, I would preach on it and it's themes more.

Here they are: First, is the world-wideness of God's love (Bruner's term). God so loved the whole, entire ball of wax (the cosmos), all of us, each one of us. His love should not exclude any group or any one.

Second, God loved the whole world, as is. With all it's waywardness, failures, flaws and fallenness (sin) and He gave for, one and all, His only Son, Jesus Christ. We celebrate his death and resurrection for us at Easter, and every Sunday and every day when we arise. There are many theories of how this works, of how Jesus's death saves us from our sins, and you can study them for a long time but, essentially, they all say what John says here. That is, that God's giving was historical and local and personal - in Jesus Christ. And that God gave personally (his own self), and that his love is not just a feeling but an action that cost God and benefited us. (Bruner says, consider that event and bow your head in wonder!)

Third, ..."so that every one, every single person, who is believing, entrusting him or her self to God... We have a hard time with the simpleness of this statement. We would clarify it with adverbs like totally, or wholly, or sincerely where the gospel has no qualifiers at all. It says it simply, simple trust is all that is needed. Our salvation depends on God our Savior not on us. Bruner again, we do nothing but trust Another who has done everything. Trusting is like breathing - it is ongoing, continually resting in the divine love (Bruner).

Fourth, the direction of our trust is "into Him".  John's teaching on belief is not just "belief that"; it is that AND a personal commitment to.

Fifth, such simple trust brings Life not merely life. (John's gospel fleshes out all of these themes).

We (my wife and I) sang Love Divine, All Loves Excelling from the hymnbook and it's a good thing our only audience was God!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Who gets the crumbs?

I was talking to a businesswoman this week who was helping us get a loan for our new home. I had never met her face to face. I knew her husband and that he had surgery recently. I inquired how he was doing. He's in a lot of pain, she said. But, I know he is going to be healed. I am claiming that! That's the South. Few people are reluctant to share their faith even in a professional context and with someone they had never met. I am getting used to it and I don't mind it. It's easier in the South to know where someone is coming from than in the North. Then, she asked me a couple questions and realized I had been a pastor. She wondered if I had a church now. No, not in the sense of pastoring one but we attend one in the city. Our pastor, she... Whoa, wait a minute, she interrupted, you mean you have a woman pastor...I thought the Bible said women can only teach other women and children. Well, I said, I don't think the Bible says it quite like that. In fact, God uses women in leadership positions in the Bible, and women in ministry are viewed in a positive way. Which is remarkable given the patriarchal culture of Bible times, I was about to say but we were on to another question.

I've heard Christians affirm that the Bible teaches women cannot be leaders over men often over the years.  Looking at who leads churches in the part of the South where I live it sure seems like Christians are practicing what they teach.

So, I like to notice when the Bible shows women operating outside the cultural expectations but, apparently not outside God's. This morning I was reading the story about the Syro-Phoenecian woman who "came out the hills", is the way Matthew puts it (the Message), as if to remind us that she was not on any one's radar at the time she encountered Jesus. Jesus had been in mostly Jewish territory teaching. This woman was not only a non - Jew, a Canaanite, in fact, but she was a woman who was the mother of a daughter who had an  unclean spirit according to Jewish tradition.  It was impossible for her to approach a Jewish Rabbi. Jesus tries to ignore her and his followers urge him to send her away because she is such a beggar. Cultural and religious expectations are in full view.

The woman will not be shrugged off that easily. She persists so that Jesus finally talks directly to her. I have been sent to the lost sheep of Israel is what he says. Then, he tells her a parable about dogs and crumbs from the table. It's one of those so called hard sayings of Jesus that is hard to get. She got it though, right away, as her immediate response shows.  To call someone a dog was an insult and Jews regularly used that term for Gentiles. Dogs were not pampered in the culture of Jesus' day. Jesus chose a word for dog that meant a small dog or puppy. Tim Keller writes, "the woman is a mother, and Jesus is saying to her, You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat, too. It is not right to violate that order. The puppies must not eat food from the table before children do."  Keller explains further that Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel to show them he was the Messiah they were expecting. But, after he was resurrected he told his followers to go out to all the nations and spread the gospel. What he was saying to the woman was not an insult but a parable which meant "Please, understand, there's an order here. I'm going to Israel first, then to the other nations (Gentiles) later." This Gentile woman comes back with "Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." "In other words, Keller writes, Lord, the puppies eat from the table, too, and I am here for mine."

Commenting on this passage in his study of the gospel of Mark, James Edwards, writes, "She appears to understand the purpose of Israel's Messiah better than Israel does.... the woman is the first person in Mark to hear and understand a parable of Jesus...she is the first person to hear the word of Jesus to her.

That it was a Gentile woman whose spiritual sensitivity and insight was so unexpected in the culture of her time makes what Jesus was saying harder to understand What sounds offensive to us was really Jesus turning the racial prejudice of his followers upside down.

 Keep your eyes and ears open as you read the Bible. This is not the only time in the gospels when a woman gets it and the men do not. It is still so unexpected in parts of the cultural terrain of our time that the children and the women are eating some of the choicest meals at the table while the men are content with the crumbs.

(btw, Keller's book is Jesus the King and well worth a read.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Meals on wheels

My wife and I went out on our first meals on wheels delivery this week. We were a team - she was the navigator and runner (took meals to the door) and I was the driver ( I ran, too, as some of the places had no numbers to identify them and looked a little questionable to us). I felt brave as I checked out some of the homes expecting a pit bull to come tearing around the corner of the house. My wife is pretty good at talking down angry dogs, better than I am, but how could I let her fend off a pit bull while I sat in the car ( admittedly, I did think about it for a second). We have lived in this mostly rural county 35 miles from Jacksonville, Florida for over a year now and we discovered we didn't know much about it. We drove on country roads we had never seen before, some sand and barely passable after recent rains. I was glad we still had our 4 wheel drive SUV. We were given a list by the Office of Aging with no directions other than, just go. So, with my wife on her iPhone GPS system we crisscrossed our corner of the county. Our route took us so far down some sandy roads we  had to drive on the grass to the next home. At one such home the sand road bore the same name that welcomed us on the home at the very end. We felt like we were in a scene from a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. Most of the people we were delivering to looked at us cautiously since we were new. When we identified our selves as the new delivery team with their hot lunch and cold milk their faces brightened and they told us how thankful they were for bringing the meal all the way out to them. Some of the people had no visible means of transportation and were unable to get to the door. "Just come in the back and leave it on the table, sweetie!"  Often there was a ramp leading to that door and a wheelchair inside. The remarkable, and yet, unremarkable, thought that came to us was that in each of these homes down those long country roads there was a person living. Now, that sounds like a simple statement of fact but this delivery of food may be the only human contact they have all day. When you looked into their faces you saw that fact may be as important as the food we delivered.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Prayer meeting

The church is big on meetings. Looking at some church calendars there are meetings scheduled every day of the week. Meetings to plan, to problem solve, meetings to fulfill a scheduled meeting. Meetings to plan another meeting. I am not saying meetings are unimportant. But, I do think some are unnecessary. We might need a meeting sometimes but we don't need to meet just to have a meeting. I don't recall Jesus scheduling a meeting. He met people over dinner and he met people who were traveling to the same place he was. He met people at worship. Other than that he didn't need a lot of meetings. He had times and places of prayer where he met people, too. This is what I want to focus on. Churches have a long history of prayer meetings although most have fallen off the church schedule due to a lack of attendance. "Prayer Meeting" unfortunately has a negative ring to it due to too many, long prayer meetings where a few people pray long, rambling prayers. Prayer meetings don't have to be this way. Prayer meetings should be exciting, perhaps a little noisy, and include everyone. I attended some prayer meetings in another country where concerns were lifted up and then people turned around, knelt at their seats and commenced to pray out loud, every one, all at the same time. Prayer is a community activity, of great significance.

Jesus shows us that as he regularly withdrew to pray and, especially at the main turning points of his life, we are told he took time to pray. He taught on prayer so we have a richly, nuanced prayer that teaches us how to pray all our lives.  In Luke 22 we have a detailed account of the last meal, Passover, Jesus had with his disciples. In painting the picture, Luke shows us a dysfunctional group of disciples sharing this meal with Jesus.  Jesus is getting ready for his walk to his cross and his faithful followers don't have their legs under them. They are comparing themselves to each other vying for the best positions in his kingdom. Jesus warns them of the tests to come even as he faces his biggest one. The devil had done all he could to throw Jesus off stride and he wasn't done yet. Peter, the captain of the group of disciples, comes in for a very specific alert. "Simon, stay on your toes! Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me like chaff from wheat. Simon, I've prayed for you in particular not to give in or give out. When you come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start." (The Message) When you read on you see that Peter had not assessed his situation the same way.  Jesus knew what was coming so he bracketed the time of testing with a meal of forgiveness before and after (see John 21).

Fred Craddock observes in his commentary on this text."Christian leaders are not those exempt from fear, doubt, discouragement, and repeated testing but those who are supported by prayer and who, through repentance and forgiveness, find grace and strength to continue."

There are a number of cliches associated with prayer but prayer is not a cliche. It is what we do in the church. It is not a meeting, or a formula although prayer happens at meetings and we can use written prayers to guide us, especially the one Jesus taught us. We need to daily uphold our spiritual leaders in prayer for every one will go through times of testing. Each one of us needs to be alert, as well. I am reading a new book by J.R. Briggs entitled, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the midst of midst of ministry failure. Sensing a crisis among his brothers and sisters in ministry, he began a conference which was called, Epic Fail Pastors Conference: Where Pastors Put Their Worst Foot Forward. His first conference on failure was so successful he has put them on all over the country. His research and personal experience showed that 1500 pastors leave their pastoral vocation each month because of burnout or contention in their congregations.

If I were advising a young pastor today, I would tell him or her to pray. Make prayer the center of church life. Meet people to pray. Have prayer groups. Teach the Lord's Prayer to everyone. Make sure you pray it yourself. Use books like Eugene Peterson's Praying with Jesus in which I found this prayer today. "Dear Jesus, I see what you want me to become but I have no power in myself to produce it. I depend wholly on you to bring about the consecration you desire. Continue your prayers for me, O Christ."

Monday, August 4, 2014


Last night at our church we read the Scripture in Genesis 32 which tells the story of Jacob's wrestling match with God. Jacob is changed by the all night struggle and is given a new name to mark that change. It was a well chosen story to reflect upon on this first "dinner church" meeting of our church. We lost our rented space to another tenant who would use it more and pay more for that use so we have been looking for another vacated storefront in the community but were unsuccessful. Another church in the area offered us some space in their church but since the building is small it worked out that we would meet at night. So, we met for dinner and then a worship service around the tables. We were able to have time for reflection on the passage from Scripture and celebrate Communion together.

It has been a struggle for the church to sense what God is calling us to be in that community. Thanks to another expression of the Body of Christ we have a place for this month. But, we are not done looking for a more "permanent home". We were reminded that the church really is the people as we gathered in a new place and at a new time but were still the church.

I struggled with the change, too. I have always gone to church in the morning. I pastored churches which had morning services for almost 40 years. It was like it said somewhere in God's Word that His people would gather at 10 am or 11 am with Sunday School before or after but He preferred before. I have been to evening services or special events at night but that was always Extra! So, when we left church last Sunday after our last morning service for awhile, I said to my wife, I don't think I can do this. We will have to go somewhere else next Sunday morning. I don't know if I can change. You know, something about old dogs and new tricks. My wife was silent. She knew. Saturday night she asked what we were going to do for church on Sunday. I said, let's see in the morning. She knew. When we got up we knew we did not want to go to church somewhere else. Our church was meeting at 5 pm. I knew.

We walked, read, prayed, visited our son's family who were camping nearby, took the dog and one grandson on a long walk and then sat at the playground by a beautiful lake. It was peaceful. We came home and made pancakes and then read some more. Then it was time to go to church. Traffic was light and our church meeting place was simply yet tastefully decorated for dinner. Many potlucks filled a table. We sat at tables of six to eight. We got caught up on the stuff of our lives and we laughed with each other. I was able to find out why a man who had not been to church for several weeks had not been coming. I could tell him I missed him and had been praying for him.

Then, we sang, studied the Scripture passage, prayed and celebrated communion. We prayed for a blessing on a young family who had decided it was time for them to leave our church community to seek a new place to worship. We cleaned up and it was time to go home. It had been a good day all around. God knew.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Matthew chapter 14 is one of the texts in the gospels that tell how Jesus fed a lot of people. After a day of healing and teaching, Jesus' disciples advised him to check the time and see that it was getting late and they were in the desert a long way from home - so he might want to think about calling it a day and send the folks home. Disregarding their advice, Jesus told them to go ahead and feed the people. Thinking it must be a joke the disciples quickly added up their resources and reported they barely had enough for their own picnic supper. Jesus took their resources and after blessing and breaking the loaves he began to feed the large crowd. Five loaves and two fishes for over 5,000 people.

There were probably a few people eating Jesus' fast food who saw the benefits of hanging around Jesus: food, health care and good Bible teaching. And, I imagine there were some others who were calculating the risks involved. Who is this guy and what does he want from us. There is no free lunch they were thinking. We are even more leery in this modern age. Every day the media recounts stories of scams, frauds and Madoff like promises that what we know is too good to be true. Still, we sign on. It's like spending $100 of our hard earned money on lottery tickets because today our luck may have changed.

While the appeal of Jesus may have generated both of these responses, neither one comes close to what he was doing. He was living the life he came to live and to give. John, in his gospel, called it "abundant life". Which is another way of talking about the Jesus life. It is a full and fulfilling way of life. But, it not just for those who choose to follow the Jesus Way.  It is meant to be shared. That's why there were leftovers. Pick them up and give it away to others. That's the way the Jesus Life is lived.