Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Simple Joy of Childhood


The Simple Joy of Childhood
Luke 18:15-17
            I love to watch young children in public places, like fast food restaurants.  They live in their own worlds, making up games, inventing characters, creating their own entertainment.  They are totally ingenuous.  They don’t care if anyone is watching—don’t know anyone is watching.  They are being, in the truest sense of the word.
            Then they grow up.  I taught middle school for many, many years.  Most of my students were self-conscious, convinced the whole world was looking at them, worried about how their peers would see them.  There were days when I longed to see the absolute innocence of the little ones.  I think—without being aware of it—one of my goals for my students was to help them recapture that time in their lives.
            Tony Horning captured the innocent wonder of childhood when he wrote the following piece about a show-and-tell experience.
            “Jamie came to school one morning with a rolled-up towel that secured his priceless treasure.  Waiting to share was frustrating for both Jamie and Mr. Taylor.  This little boy, eager to share his discovery, interrupted lesson after lesson.
            “When Jamie’s time finally came, the students formed a circle on the floor.  Jamie lowered his towel to the floor with much care and slowly unrolled it to reveal a handful of old, soggy, brown leaves from his yard—not the beautiful leaves of autumn with their vibrant reds and yellows; just plain, old, brown leaves.
            “As Mr. Taylor looked around that circle, he was surprised to see on the children’s faces amazement, wonder, joy!
            “Listening to the class you would have thought they were staring into the Grand Canyon.  Captivated, these children held those soggy leaves as if they were newborn kittens.
            “There in that circle, the teacher became the student.  For a brief moment, Mr. Taylor could remember a time when the simplest things in life brought wonder and joy to him as well.”
            I think Jesus must have felt the same joy I feel—and Mr. Taylor felt—as he watched the mothers bring their little children to him.  No problems with people trying to trap him.  No arguments over who would be first in the kingdom.  No one seeking something from him.  Just kids, loving life and living in their own worlds. 
            And Jesus loved them.  In a culture where children were mostly ignored, Jesus gave them his complete attention.  They were, as the old hymn says, precious in his sight.  No wonder he reacted negatively—perhaps even angrily—when the disciples tried to keep them away.  Not only was he enjoying the interaction with them, he knew their importance.
            “Don’t send them away,” he said.  “They are what God’s kingdom is all about.  I tell you the solemn truth; if you don’t come to God’s kingdom with the innocence and love these children are demonstrating, you’ll be on the outside looking in.  Let them come.  I welcome them.”
            Some of us have experienced horrible-acting children, and we might be skeptical of Jesus’ words.  But if you’ve ever watched little ones when they’re lost in their own magical worlds of play, or held them in your arms and felt the beauty and completeness of their love, you understand exactly what Jesus meant.
            “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says today, “and do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God.”  And we’re all children in God’s sight.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

God's Preference


God’s Preference
Luke 1:46-55
            One of the biggest problems we have with Scripture (aside from wanting to believe only those parts we agree with) is trying to understand an ancient document in modern times.  We tend to think of our culture as similar to biblical times.  In contrast, we realize how much the world has changed in our lifetimes.  Many of us speak longingly of the “good old days, when…,”—and we complete the sentence with (often inaccurate) memories from times when we believe things were better.
            Why is it we can see the changes in our own lifetime but not understand how much the world has changed since the Bible was written down and canonized?  If the world has changed so much in our “three score years and ten” (or however long we’ve been on this earth), how much more must it have changed in the thousands of years since Scripture came into being?
            Throughout the Bible we read of God’s care and preference for the poor.  The concept is enshrined in the Torah, God’s law—God’s instructions to the fledgling nation of Israel.  Throughout the ensuing generations God’s prophets were called on to remind Israel of its obligation to care for the poor in God’s name.  Jesus reiterated this prophetic message for his generation, and demonstrated what he meant by his actions toward those who were on society’s bottom rungs.  The only way we can miss God’s preference for the poor is by ignoring the biblical record.
            God cares for the poor.  God insists that God’s people care for the poor.  Jesus makes it clear (Matthew 25:31-46) how those who would inherit the kingdom of God are to behave toward the poor.  We ignore this message at the peril of our souls.
            Who were these instructions addressed to?  Who does God expect to care for the poor?  Who is under the obligation to provide for those unfortunate enough to not have enough?  This is where the cultural problem comes in.
            When we read these words in the context of our own culture we often conclude that it is up to the church, or to individual members of the church to provide for the poor.  This is a good start, but not the whole answer. 
What Jesus said painted an entirely different picture of God than that presented by the religious leaders.  When Jesus spoke the words in Matthew 25 he addressed the poor—the working poor.  Most of those who gathered to hear Jesus were from the working class.  They understood it was their responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves, but they could only do so much with their limited resources. 
But Jesus was really speaking to the religious leaders.  They were the ones with the resources to make a difference in the lives of the poor.  They were also the ones who were sure they had already qualified for the kingdom.  They didn’t believe they had to go out of their way to help anyone.
Today we try to separate the church from the government—and rightly so.  No one religion should be able to call the shots for everyone, no matter how sure we are that we are right.  In the first century—and in the centuries before—the church and the government were one.  God was the ruler, and the leaders were God’s representatives, chosen to care for all the people.  Jesus made it clear that those in charge were to provide for those who could not provide for themselves.  These were the ones to whom Jesus addressed his message.  These were the ones who had the means to make a difference.  Just as God had spelled out in the Torah, just as God had reinforced the Torah through the words of the prophets, just as Jesus made it clear to his generation, so we must all band together to eliminate poverty—for Jesus’ sake and for our own.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
And of our willingness to obey God.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

God's Road Map


God’s Road Map
Psalm 78
            Yes, I know the reading is long.  Think of it as spiritual spinach.  It will do you good.  If you’re like most of us you don’t spend enough time with the Bible.  Here’s your chance.
            While on vacation recently I finished Lee Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River.  Enger is a great storyteller.  His characters are interesting.  They draw you in to the plot so the story carries you along.  Not everything comes out the way you’d like.  There’s some winning and some losing, but that’s like life, isn’t it?
            The novel is about a father and his young son and daughter.  They embark on a road trip to find their teenage son and brother who has been arrested for murder and escaped.  Reuben, the eleven-year-old son, tells the story.  On the first leg of their journey they travel from Minnesota to a friend’s house in North Dakota.    As they pull into the yard Reuben ruminates on the journey that lies ahead.
            “In truth I was a little scared, and preoccupied about where we’d go from here.  For I had asked this of Dad the previous night, asked it straight out.  Where do we go from August’s?  He didn’t know.  We’d simply go forth, he said, like the children of Israel when they packed up and cameled out of Egypt.  He meant to encourage me.  Just like us, the Israelites hadn’t any idea where they’d end up!  Just like us they were traveling by faith!  Indeed, it did impart a thrill, yet the trip thus far…had reminded me what a hard time the chosen people actually had of it.  Once traveling, it’s remarkable how quickly faith erodes.  It starts to look like something else—ignorance, for example.  Same thing happened to the Israelites.  Sure it’s weak, but sometimes you’d rather just have a map.”
            I understand—and I believe many of you understand also.  Starting a journey, especially if it’s from somewhere you’re glad to leave, or towards a goal you really want to achieve, is exciting.  It doesn’t matter whether that place is geographical, emotional, relational, or some other “al,” we’re glad to be on the move.  The thrill of expectation—expectation that things are going to be better—gets us on our feet and propels us from darkness into expected light.  We’ve experienced the beginning of freedom, and we can’t wait for more.
            Then, to use Enger’s word, erosion sets in.  We realize how little progress we’ve made, and how long the road that lies ahead.  Worst of all, we begin to understand how vague our destination is, so shrouded in mystery that we can’t grasp it.  Faith turns to fear as we realize how little we know about what awaits us down the road.
            Psalm 78 relates the story of God’s chosen people.  We see them at their high point, leaving Egypt in spectacular fashion, crossing the Red Sea on dry ground, then watching Pharaoh’s army—horses, men and chariots—drown as the water resumes its flow.  How could they not rejoice?  How could their faith not reach its exuberant peak?  This was great!  God was going to lead them straight to the Promised Land.
            Then erosion sets in.  The realization of how little they have, how much they need, how desolate their surroundings overwhelms them, and they understand how ignorant they are of the journey ahead.
            “We need a map,” we cry, along with the Israelites.  “Show us the way.  Let us see where we’re going.”
            “Have faith,” God says.  “Trust is all the map you need.”  “Trust me and I’ll get you there.”
            Can we trust enough to follow God’s map?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Vacation

Ken will be traveling through September 22.  He will resume his musings when he returns

Raising Children


Raising Children
Proverbs 2:1-16
            The book of Proverbs is attributed primarily to Solomon, the Israelite king known for his wisdom.  Proverbs 1:1 says, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, King of Israel.”  In his later years Solomon lost his way and did not follow the God of Israel as closely as he should, but we remember him more for his wisdom than for his failings.
            Proverbs 2:1 begins with the words, “My son.”  Whether Solomon was addressing a biological son, or using the word in a more general way for those for whom he felt responsibility but who were not part of his family we don’t know; but the king makes it clear that this is a collection of wise sayings meant for the education of the next generation.  Solomon wants them to benefit from the wisdom he has gained through years of living.
            If Solomon was addressing his biological son, 1 Kings 2 paints a picture that tells us the wisdom was not received.  Upon Solomon’s death Rehoboam was anointed king in his father’s place.  He was not up to the task.  The alliance between Israel and Judah, which David had worked so hard to achieve, and which Solomon had been able to hold together, disintegrated under the reign of Rehoboam.  His failure is an instructive example of the words of Jean de la Bruyere (1645-1696), who said, “Eminent posts make great men greater, and little men less.”  Unfortunately, greatness and wisdom don’t always run in families.
            To make sure Solomon’s intent is not missed, the next five chapters of Proverbs begin either with the words “My son,” or “Hear, O sons.”  There can be no mistaking the direction this wisdom collection is taking.  We would do well to use these sayings to educate our children today, with the difference that we should include daughters with sons.  Some proverbs might not apply today because of the cultural change, but not many, I’m sure.
            One of the problems with our culture is that we fail to develop wisdom in our children.  We send them to school, expose them to (in many cases) good teaching, fill them with facts, and systems, and knowledge, but fail to teach them how to use that knowledge wisely.  It is a huge failing, and one we must correct if the human race is going to progress towards the goals God has set for us.
            Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet, addressed this problem.  He said, “Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying too zealously to make it easy for them.”  And we thought helicopter parents were a 20th century development.
            Wisdom is difficult.  Using knowledge wisely is difficult.  Living in a world where decisions must be made in ways that help people rather than hurt them takes more effort than simply memorizing a set of rules and applying them unthinkingly.  That’s an easy way to live, but not a very helpful or effective one.  No area of knowledge I can think of works well by using binding rules applied the same way every time.  There are principles that cannot be ignored; “what goes up must come down” comes to mind—although with the possibility of space travel looming large in the future, even that might be in question.
            We owe our children an education steeped in wisdom.  As Solomon tried to pass his wisdom on to the next generation, so we must help our children understand that life isn’t always easy.  Difficult decisions must be made.  Rules indicate a world that is black and white, but our world has too many gray areas to live life only by those two shades.
            Like Solomon with his sons, God wants to give humanity wisdom to use the knowledge we have been given in ways that will be beneficial to people.  Like Solomon, we have to commit ourselves to educating our children to be self-sufficient and wise.  Not an easy task.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Look to the Future


Look to the Future
Isaiah 43:16-19
            Name any important figure in history and you can be sure multiple groups with widely varying agendas will try to claim him/her as their own.  It’s natural, I guess.  Whatever our outlook we want to have important people as our representatives, or as representatives of our ideology.
            This is truer of Jesus Christ than any other person in history, at least partly because so much is at stake.  If we can tout Jesus as a spokesman for our point of view, people will have to give us a hearing.
            White supremacists want to make America a white Christian nation, implicitly claiming that Jesus is a white supremacist.  Interesting interpretation.
            Most minorities claim that Jesus is on their side, and that he supports their claim to equality.
            Conservatives believe Jesus supports their worldview, preaching that we must adopt what they believe are first-century Christian practices, or some other ideology anchored in the past.
            Liberals point to Jesus’ support of the disenfranchised, the poor, the suffering, the homeless to validate their view that society must make a priority of caring for these.
            Radicals point to Jesus’ message, which opposed the religious and political leaders of his day, and his willingness to suffer torture and death for his beliefs.
            So…who is right?  Is Jesus a conservative?  A liberal? A radical? One who favors one group or race over another?  Does he stand for complete equality?  Where will we find Jesus?
            I believe Jesus is neither a conservative nor a liberal.  I do not believe he supports, or can be made to support any political or social agenda.  Jesus stands outside all of those, outside all human constructs of politics, religion, social structures. 
            This helps us understand where Jesus doesn’t stand, but where will we find him?
            The gospels make it clear that Jesus stands with the poor, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the needy—all those who, for whatever reason, find themselves on society’s margins.  Jesus also proposed a radical interpretation of the Torah—radical for his day, but in reality a return to God’s original intent.  In spite of his comments about coming solely to the house of Israel, the gospels tell us of instances where he went out of his way to provide assistance for those outside Jewish society.  He was also responsible for calling Saul/Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles. 
Jesus was—is—definitely inclusionary.  Perhaps we can best describe him as a progressive in the truest sense of the word.
            God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing.”  God reinforces this statement in Revelation (21:5), with these words: “Behold, I am making all things new.”
            Our problem is that too many of us resist change.  We like things the way they are—or, more reactionary, the way things were.  We don’t want a new thing, thank you very much.  We’ll stick with the old ways.
            Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) addressed this viewpoint when he said, “Each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand mediocre minds appointed to guard the past.”  We must be sure we’re not clinging to the past so blindly that we miss the new things God is doing every day.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Blessed


Blessed
Matthew 5:1-12
Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes, is one of those passages we know too well but not well enough.  It is easy to let what we think we know get in the way of what we should know.  We’ve read this passage so often, heard it so often, heard about it so often that we believe we understand it.  When we try to look below the surface we may find our sight as clouded as when we open our eyes underwater and try to see what’s at the bottom of the lake.
Jesus begins each saying with the word blessed.  What does he mean?  Blessed means more than just being happy, although that certainly is a part of it.  We would expect the person who is blessed to be happier than the one who isn’t.
Blessed involves spiritual well-being.  It means having God’s favor.  If we are where we should be spiritually we will have God’s favor, feel blessed, and most certainly be happy.
One commentator has said that, in this passage, blessed could be an instruction:  be poor in spirit; be meek; be merciful; be pure in heart.  In this interpretation, blessed is not a reward, but a command.  These are the qualities God expects of those who would enjoy God’s favor.
N.T. Wright translates blessed as, “Wonderful news!”  For him, blessed is not a command, not a state we ought to be in, but the heart of the gospel.  Being poor in spirit is wonderful news, for it puts us in the same place Jesus was during his time on earth.  It’s wonderful news that when we mourn we will be comforted.  It’s wonderful news that we have been given, as Paul says, the ministry of reconciliation, allowing us to be God’s peacemakers.
To be blessed includes all these definitions and more.  When we embody these attributes—spiritual poverty, meekness, purity of heart, peacemaking—we’re in good shape spiritually.  We’re in a place of spiritual well-being.  We will surely enjoy God’s favor. We’re blessed.  What more could we ask for?
We know this is not the way the world is.  It is not the way the world operates.  The world appears to be governed by an entirely different set of principles and behaviors, one that is the opposite of the Beatitudes.  The world says:
Blessed are the proud, the haughty, the vain.
Blessed are the strong, the powerful, the bold, the daring.
Blessed are the tough, the winners, the ones who go for the kill.
Blessed are those who aren’t afraid to fight for what they want, who fight back when attacked.
These may be the world’s standards, but we know something the world tries to forget.  Since Jesus arrived on earth, what we read in the Beatitudes is the way the world is becoming.  It may be difficult to see.  The evidence against it seems overwhelming; but if we look closely, we can see signs that the world is changing.
When we admit to spiritual poverty, when we allow ourselves to mourn, when we interact with the world in the strength of meekness, when we make peace instead of war, when we are reviled and choose not to revile in return, we cross the barrier.  We leave the old world behind and enter the new world.  We become part of the kingdom of God.
The Beatitudes are written in the present tense.  We are called to live in the present, and to live in the way that will bring about God’s promised future.
Because that future is now.