Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Commitments - and being Worshipful

Pundits say we live in a low commitment culture – but we constantly bump up against evidences of commitments.  There’s a ring on your finger.  There’s a contract to be signed.  The mortgage bill arrives.   It’s time to show up for work again.  I can’t meet you because I have a lunch date already.  We are our commitments.  Our true freedom is exercised, not in willy-nilly doing whatever the heck that suits me in the next 5 minutes, but in making and honoring commitments.

   Consider all the commitments made in worship.  Parents make promises when their children are baptized.  New members take vows.  Every discrete act of worship is a promise – to live as forgiven, thankful people once we’ve left the place.  People flit from church to church, forgetting we make commitments to a church family.  And of course, we have weddings.

   My anniversary is tomorrow.  Lisa and I made promises – not merely to each other, but to God, and to our families, and to the church.  Like all who make any kind of commitment, we didn’t fully understand what it would mean to live out those promises.  We might have predicted how it would all unfold, but our forecasts would have been wrong.  You make commitments, then grow into them, struggle through them – and inevitably too many of our commitments wind up fractured.  We need mercy.  We need a power beyond ourselves to stick with those we’re stuck with.

   Worship teaches us how to make and keep commitments – largely because worship is about God.  Lewis Smedes shrewdly wrote, “Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises.  They choose not to quit when the going gets rough.  They stick to lost causes.  They hold on to a love grown cold.  They stay with people who have become pains in the neck.  They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make.  I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”

   And thus, we worship God out there through living into and even surviving the commitments we have made – buoyed by our humble awareness of God’s total commitment to us.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Worshipful - the Offering

We collect money in worship - yes, to fund what the church needs to do, but more importantly for you to grow spiritually, and to counteract the stranglehold money has on our souls. What if we let the offering time in worship linger in our minds so we might become worshipful with all our money during the week?

What is money for? Seems obvious - but then again: does money burn a hole in your pocket so you buy stuff like right now? Is money for investing, a nest egg, to earn more money or provide a security blanket? Is money an index that declares my worth as a person? Where does my money go? and is God glorified by what I do with it?

Jesus talked a lot about money, although he didn't have much. He suggested that God feels about us the way a poor woman feels about one lost coin, and she sweeps and hunts on her knees until she finds it. Maybe the next time you hold some change in your hand, which in today's economy feels relatively useless, more of a bother than anything else, remember that woman who prized her coin, and that Jesus values you and me, and the other person who only seems worthless.

Yes, Jesus warned us about money, how it deceives, misleads, usurps God's place in our souls - and how it cannot deliver. Some Americans insist our money should say "In God we trust," but we should shiver over the realization that money has become the god in which we vest our trust.

John Wesley spoke up for Jesus when he said Make all the money you can, save all you can, then give all you can - and he didn't mean Give the extra money you don't really need. Give generously, sacrificially, joyfully. "If you have money, consider that perhaps the only reason God allowed it to fall into your hands was in order that you might find joy and perfection by giving it away" (Thomas Merton).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Gratitude - and being Worshipful

     I write a minimum of three thank-you notes every day.  That’s not many, only takes 4 or 5 minutes.  But in a year that’s more than a thousand, and as I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that’s a lot of thank you notes.

   What is striking as I think about it is how many people I have forgotten to thank, and for so many kindnesses and favors.  Superficially, a thank you note is about good manners – but I’m only mildly interested in etiquette.  I want people to know I appreciate them, that I’m honored by them.

   More importantly, I want to be a grateful person.  Like everybody else, I’m tempted toward a sense of entitlement.  I’m drawn toward what I think I deserve.  I easily lurch into a sense of self-sufficiency.  But these moods are not of God – and they are not even the truth about me or anybody else.  We are all great debtors.  On my own I’d be nobody, except one to be pitied.  The more I realize how all the good in my life is a gift, and the more I express thanks for the wonders in my life, the richer I am, the more spiritually settled I become.

   The Bible speaks constantly of gratitude:  “I do not cease to give thanks for you” (Ephesians 1:16).  “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 107:1).  You can’t thumb through many pages without reading expressions of thanks.

   Disciplined practice of gratitude makes us grateful people, and deepens our gratitude to God – and even teaches us how to ask God for things:  “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).  Not “Ask, then give thanks if you get what you wanted,” but “With thanks, ask.” 

   Gratitude is contagious.  If someone thanks me, I’m inclined to thank somebody else – so more people are encouraged, and a whole church, a whole community might become a grateful, encouraging place.

   If you want to know God, and to be worshipful, and even a nobler, more contented person, try this praxis:  write a thank you note or two, or four or seven, each day.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Remote - worship fully?

You pick up the remote. An image appears on the screen. What to do next? Surf! See what piques your curiosity, or search out that hip drama everybody is watching, or ... Maybe Springsteen needs to remake "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)" - maybe "1,057 Channels (and Nothin' On)"?

But something is on. Some of it is tawdry, or just sophomoric. The remote has an off button. But TV isn't bad: good dramas can help us understand ourselves, the dreams, aches, kookiness and wonder that we are - and our need for hope. If Sheldon (in Big Bang Theory) makes me laugh, I thank God, who decided life would be richer if God devised something like a sense of humor. Jesus was no sourpuss.

Watch the news - and don't let the devil make you believe the networks are so biased you can't get the facts. Pay attention: there's tension in the Middle East, hunger in Africa, turmoil in Europe. God's heart is broken every day in farflung places. If you think like Jesus you'll care and hurt too.

Finally there's great preaching on TV - but not from the clergy. Tune in those nature shows that show you the secret haunts of jackals or the nests of eagles, or a nebula in deep space, or the echolocation of bats. Let your jaw drop, and be awestruck by God.

Pick up the remote (or put it down). Worship fully.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Doing the wash - worshipfully

Doing the wash: now there’s an activity ripe with theological possibilities!  The act of sudsing and spinning your clothes clean might remind us that we need God to cleanse us – and it might be uncomfortable and hard on us, just as it is on our clothes in that machine!  In worship we confess our sin and seek forgiveness; it’s embarrassing, and requires change.  Being washed, like my laundry.

   But then the load is ready to come out of the dryer.  As I fold an undershirt, and then a handtowel, and then my biking shorts, I say a prayer for someone, anyone, or give thanks for something, or someone.  As I smooth out and put my laundry in order, I ask God to put my life in better order.  Iron out my crooked places, O Lord.

   And then there are socks – notoriously independent creatures, although they were made to live in pairs.  I’m always one sock short.  Where could it be?  As I pair my socks, I pray for a relationship, mine with my child or spouse, a couple I know that is struggling.  When I notice the lonely sock without its friend, I think of someone who’s been left alone – and pray, and maybe even email or phone the person.  Or I think of the one who has gone out on his own – the friend who’s moved to the West coast for work, or the son away at college – and I pray, and maybe even shoot that person a note of love.

   The laundry: another chance to worship fully.

Worshipful - at a stoplight

I'm driving. Maybe I'm running a bit behind. I approach an intersection and - darn! - the light turns yellow. Quick decision: mash the gas and sail on through? Or ease onto the brakes, and stop?
Now it's red - and it's one of those long ones. Waiting. I hate waiting. Maybe I try to respond quickly to an email. Still red; the digital clock is rushing forward and I am not.

Finally - finally! - back to green. But... the knucklehead in front of me isn't going. Head's down - he's texting! Do I lay on the horn as my blood pressure surges?

Jesus understands. He was the Savior of the world, which had to be a pretty demanding job, his work never done, places to get to. And yet when the light turns red, I suspect Jesus wishes we might exhale, thank God, and just let a little Sabbath moment happen in the craziness of the traffic thicket. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). Instead of reaching for the phone (or continuing to peck the thing if you've stupidly been doing so prior to the red light!), remember that not everything hinges on me and my frenetic busy-ness. God has the world well in hand. Being worshipful begins when we simply stop.

Jesus' Bible repeatedly reminded us about this, like a clock chiming the hours. "For God alone my soul waits; I shall not be moved" - or "rattled" (Psalm 62:1). "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength" (Isaiah 40:31). "I wait for the Lord like a watchman for the morning" (Psalm 130:6). But maybe I'm hustling to go do something for God! "They also serve who only stand and wait" (John Milton).

The gracious blessing of the red light can be the saving mercy, when we think like Jesus, and relish an unchosen but worshipful moment. My car - becomes a sanctuary?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Spectating? Worshipful

You notice: I'm a spectator right now. Maybe I'm at a game, or the symphony, or watching TV, or looking out the window at a couple walking by. We know how to be in an audience: you watch, soak it in, maybe grade whether you approve or not. Did the movie make me laugh? Did my team win?
You might begin to feel like a spectator of your own life - like it's happening out there, the frames whizzing by, scenes you see and maybe wish you were a part of. Political life in America is largely about watching the TV and fuming about the knuckleheads - in the privacy of your own den, with no constructive action to make a difference yourself.

You come to church, and once more you slide into your accustomed role: I'm watching the show. Does the music suit me? Do I agree with the preacher? Did it hold my attention?

SΓΈren Kierkegaard helped us understand worship: while a service looks like performers (minister, choir) on stage before an audience (the congregation), the truth is we are the performers (minister, choir, and congregation), and God is the audience of One. We are not consumers to be entertained; if we are in a spectating mindset, we have not worshipped at all.

Worship isn't about what I like or don't like. Worship isn't like pulling up at the gas pump and getting a refill. Worship is about God; in worship we glorify God. Worship is maybe only time during the week that it's not all about you, the one time you shelve being a consumer.

I once knew a woman who kept coming to church after she'd grown totally deaf. In a note I asked her why, if she couldn't hear the music, my sermon, or the other people? She wrote back and said It's not about you, or them, or even me. It's about God. I might even be able to worship better because I can't hear.

Next time you notice yourself spectating - in church, or out there at a movie or in a crowded restaurant, stop and think of Kierkegaard. You are the performer, and God is your audience. You begin to participate, and to really live - and it's not for the other people who might look your way. It's all for God, on Sunday morning but all through the week.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday. Somber worship. A mark of the cross on my forehead: a sign I need forgiveness, and a sign I am forgiven.
I like it when, after the service is over, I'm downtown, or at the grocery store, or in the neighborhood, and I have forgotten I have a black mark on my head. People look quizzically, and try not to stare. I've had helpful friends offer to wipe it off. The imprint of worship lingers when I'm not in worship any longer.
I've been intrigued by the idea of us becoming worshipful people ever since I was talking with a young man in my office, who positively lit up with energy when he told me "I'm an outdoorsman." He told me about hiking, climbing, camping... and was totally invigorated by being an outdoorsman - while we were very much indoors.
Could we, when not in worship, be animated by what we do in worship, and actually become worshipful people, who gradually, in subtle ways, begin to worship all the time? We gather in pews or chairs, we scan the bulletin or screens, and then we engage in a list of activities: a song, somebody talks, we bow our heads, we admit our mistakes, we give money, we say what matters, we ask God to help, we are quiet, we say thank you. What would it be like to be marked by these things, and the mark lingers for hours and days?
We might even think of worship as the ultimate Praxis. We believe, and practice doing what we'll need to be doing in the coming week: thanking God, offering ourselves, admitting weakness, asking for strength, reflecting on God's Word.
See More

Monday, February 11, 2013

Praxis - Jesus and Wine

Wine is big. We have multiple stores devoted exclusively to wine. Restaurants boast extensive wine lists. Many of us are amateur sommeliers. Others believe in the health benefits of wine.
But then we remember: some drink too much, or for vexing reasons. Does booze become the secret elixir without which we cannot have fun? After a hard day do you "really need a drink"? Can you get to sleep without a glass of wine? Think of the freight our society piles on top of alcohol, like being hip, or a chic entertainer, or a business mogul. Marriages and families crash and burn - and doesn't alcohol too often fuel the explosion? Death claims too many who are too young because all of us buy the lie that is alcohol. When will we stand up and say "Enough!" or "God help us"?

All biblical people drank wine, including Jesus, Mary, Moses, Abraham. Wine was normal table fare; vineyards and the production of wine are used in some of Jesus' best stories, and by the prophets describing our life with God (Luke 5:37, Matthew 20, Isaiah 5, John 2). Paul recommended wine for its medicinal value (1 Timothy 5:23).

And yet the Bible, pressing not for abstention but for moderation, warns of the perils of alcohol. "Wine is a mocker; strong drink is a brawler" (Proverbs 20:1); and how observant is Proverbs 23:31: "You who drink will be like one who lies down in the sea; you will see strange things, and utter perverse things."

Alcohol seems to be this lovely gift, yet one replete with peril. Can we consecrate our drinking, or our lack of drinking, to God in some meaningful way? Am I willing to engage in some probing diagnosis of why I buy, drink, or serve what I do? Is some regular practice of fasting - just to prove I am not dependent - in order?

And can't the organization that meets in many churches, Alcoholics Anonymous, teach us much about how to be the Church? People who are broken, who know they are lost without each other and the power of God, meet, share, bolster, encourage, lift up, are brutally honest... Sounds like what Church was supposed to be.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Jesus & Email - Praxis...

When I first heard about email, I waved off the very notion, and didn't bother with it for a couple of years. Now, I... love it? depend upon it? am addicted to it? I'd say it's what the phone used to be, but that's not right at all. The phone required manners, and listening, give and take, a measure of humanity. Email may do these things at times, but too often we get knee jerk, thoughtless rips you wouldn't say face to face. And the sheer desperation and foolhardiness of humanity is exposed, as emails (which we know are forever findable in the virtual reality where there are no secrets) prove the ruin of wayward married and business people.

Beyond the rudimentary rules of email ethics, could there be such a thing as holy email usage? There must be a kind of virtue of hospitality in emailing: we remember tone of voice is guesswork, and so when we say anything that matters, we clarify, we express care, and maybe we forego the email if feelings or relationships are at stake and pick up the phone or visit in person.

Jesus once said "It's not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out" (Matthew 15:11) - and I suspect that's how Jesus feels about email. It's not what inadvertently flies into your email box - but what you forward out to others: this is what defiles. Tragically, people now pick up what they know about the world, politics, other people, religion - really anything! - from forwarded emails, with no backing or authority except somebody pressed "forward." The rancor, rage, misinformation, flat out lies and prejudice spewed via malignant emails is a poison that eats away at the soul. Jesus is not pleased. Can what comes out of my email box be edifying? or at least not corrosive?

Quite a few of the "books" in the New Testament were originally letters mailed across a great distance, preserved now for us to read centuries later. Do we ever say anything in an email worth saving?

If I send an email ("what comes out"), I want it to be okay with Jesus - and hence truthful, not hurtful, not disparaging of anybody, not arrogantly ranking me and my ilk as superior to somebody else, never a catalyst for venom, or anything that may cause another person to stumble.

So we think, and maybe offer up a quick prayer before we hit "send." Even email has the potential to be redeemed; even an email might actually prove to be holy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Jesus - and the alarm clock

I cringe with a touch of foreboding when I set my alarm clock; I shudder and shrink deeper under the covers when the thing goes off in the morning. I'm not a morning person. The alarm says It's time - now! - to get moving, to hustle, to get the stress of the day cranked up. I heard Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, humorously ask, Why is it called an "alarm" clock? An alarm means warning, fright, danger! Why not call it an "opportunity" clock?
As cobwebbed as my head can be when I'm awakened, I do have a choice. I can mutter, Ugh, time to get up, I'm tired, why did I set that breakfast meeting, it's dark, not enough sleep, so much to do today. Or, I can pause, and breathe - and the simple fact of inhaling and exhaling can be my first prayer. Thank God I'm alive; praise the Lord that another day has been added to my life. God is good.

I might give thanks I got some sleep. I might let a Bible verse cross my mind, or even come out of my mouth: This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice, and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24). I wonder, with technological advances, if I could even persuade my smart phone or iHome to awaken me with somebody reading those words, or maybe a spiritual song or a hymn.

I picture Jesus waking up in the morning. Maybe his mother Mary jiggled his shoulder a little, or he heard a rooster crowing. Maybe his travelling companions began to stir. I envision Jesus as a morning person, but maybe his body clock was like mine. Either way, Jesus was so intimate with the God who made the day, the God who keeps hearts beating and lungs respirating when none of us are even trying, the God who dances a few dreams through our heads during the night, that I bet Jesus rose gratefully, and before grabbing his coffee (or whatever pick-me-up ancient people used) he spoke with God his Father, gave thanks, offered himself to serve that day.

Nothing to be alarmed about. Just another day the Lord has made.

Monday, February 4, 2013

There's Somebody I Don't Know - think like Jesus

There's somebody I don't know. He's not from around here. He isn't dressed like us, his mannerisms are peculiar, his accent is strange, he doesn't think like I do, his tattoos or his gait or his religion or his political viewpoint or his line of work or whom he loves qualifies him as a stranger.

The world says Be suspicious. Be afraid. Profiling is not only acceptable but prudent. Why bother connecting with a stranger? I have enough to do, it would be hard work, and scary.

But Jesus is all about hospitality. Jesus believes that when we encounter the one who is different, when we engage, when we aren't merely polite or tolerant but actually hospitable to the other, we grow, we uncover new truths about ourselves. If we haven't honed our skills at burrowing out of our narrowness to connect with the stranger, we probably will miss Jesus too, since he is from another place and time, his skin dark, his hair long, his lifestyle unsettling, his words troubling.

Children are taught not to cross the road; but as they mature they navigate the dangers and can find their way. Children are taught not to speak to strangers; but as we mature, we know how to be cautious, but we also can discern how to poke through barriers, and even befriend.

There's a stranger. Might just be somebody Jesus sent - or Jesus himself in disguise. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:2).

To meet lovely strangers.... Come to the church Wed. Feb. 6 @6:30pm or Sun. Feb. 10 @12:15 to learn about joining one of our Hope Teams. You and 4 or 5 others befriend someone and change a family's life (yours and theirs!) through our friends at Charlotte Family Housing.

Watch this terrific video about Elizabeth House - our great new project with CFH.