Sunday, February 24, 2013

Strength and Weakness

Strength and Weakness
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
            I love job interviews where they ask you to list your strengths and weaknesses.  Strengths are easy.  You just have to be careful not to make yourself sound too good.  After all you want them to hire you, and if you appear too wonderful they might not want you.  You’ll make them look bad.  
            Weaknesses—ah!  There’s the tough one.  If you give them too few, they won’t believe you.  Same if your weaknesses are too weak—too superficial.  If you give them too many—or ones that are too huge—you’re out of the running, out of luck, and out the door.  What do you say that strikes just the right balance—humble and imperfect, but not a walking disaster?
            The best question I was ever asked at an interview was, “Why shouldn’t we hire you?”  It was the last question of a very long (and ultimately successful) interview.  It gave me a chance to turn a quest for weaknesses into a statement of strength.  “Because I’ll work you to death,” I replied, speaking to three people who would be reporting to me if I was hired.  I got the job, and have indeed worked them—and myself—hard over the last several years.
            How to turn a weakness into a strength:  that’s a difficult maneuver.  How do you take a defect and make it an asset?  The other way round is easy.  If you push a strength too far it becomes a weakness.  Strong points pushed to extremes become character flaws—sometimes serious ones. 
            Paul understood that situation well.  He knew all about strengths—and taking them too far.  It was his overzealous persecution of Christians that got him stopped cold on the road to Damascus.  He had been operating from his own strength and the strength of the Jewish religious leaders, only to find himself on his knees before a Strength greater than he could ever imagine.  Now he was blind—so weak he had to be led.  So humbled all he could do was fall on his knees and pray.  He learned—the hard way—the limits of his own strength, and the power of the greatest Strength in the universe.
            Years later, writing to the Corinthians for the second time, he returns to this matter of strength and weakness.  He has just been boasting—not in himself, he says, but in an opportunity he has been given for an unusual revelation.  Now he comes back down to earth.  So that he won’t become too proud, he has been given a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan” to torment him and remind him not just of his own humanity, but of his overwhelming weakness.  Although many have speculated as to what this thorn might have been, we have no idea what it actually was.  We just know he prayed earnestly that God would take it from him.  God refused.
            “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” God said to Paul.  “My grace is sufficient for you.  That’s all you need from me.  When people see me working in you and working through you, they will know that I can take even imperfect vessels and make them able to do my work.  Be content.”
            Paul’s response is a perfect example of God’s grace at work.  “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
            Paul got it right.  There is no way anyone is strong enough to do God’s work alone.  We are all weak, and have no chance of turning our weakness into strength.  Only by God’s grace—God’s strength supplied to us by the power of Christ—can we be strong.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Matthew 18:21-22
John 21:15-17
            A pastor once told me the sermons he preached that received the most negative reactions were the ones on grace.  It seems his listeners wanted themselves and the people they loved (or at least who thought and believed the way they did) forgiven freely, but not any of those other kinds of folk.  The parishioners wanted the other ones to suffer—to pay for their forgiveness.  Why should that kind of sinner get off scot free?
            Jesus, of course, saw things differently.  He understood forgiveness—real forgiveness—better than anyone.  True, he did seem to have it in for the religious leaders.  He gave them a hard time about forgiveness—but it’s important to remember that most of them were unrepentant.  There is solid evidence that some of the leaders (Nicodemus, for instance, or Joseph of Arimathea) came to Jesus in an entirely different frame of mind.
            The Matthew passage actually begins several verses before this.  Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  Jesus continued on with other teaching on this subject, but if we look at Peter we can see he’s not paying attention.  We know how that works.  We hear something that engages our interest, so we stop listening to what is being said and begin to frame our response.  People who teach interpersonal communication skills tell us this is the wrong approach, but in the heat of the moment, we forget.
            When Jesus stops to take a breath, Peter says, “So, should I forgive my brother seven times?”  Seven—the magic number.  Anyone who forgave seven times was considered gracious indeed!  After all, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Fool me seven times and I’m either a super fool or a saint.
            Not in Jesus’ eyes.  Jesus throws all common ideas of grace out the window.  “Forgive seventy times seven,” he says.  The idea here is that by the time Peter (or any of us) gets well into that number he’ll forget where he is in the count and have to start over.  Our forgiveness, like God’s, will be never-ending.
            There was one other time, again with Peter, when Jesus seemed to tie the forgiveness closely to the sin.  You remember how on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times not only that he was a follower of his Lord, but that he even knew him.  You will also remember Peter’s reaction when he realized what he had done.  He wept bitterly—as any of us would have done who had denied Jesus so completely.
            Imagine the guilt Peter must have carried!  He knew he would never have a chance to make it right—never have a chance to ask forgiveness from the Lord he had turned his back on.  For Peter, even the resurrection must have been tinged with fear and remorse.  How would Jesus treat him now?  Would he still be given the keys to the kingdom?  Was there any hope of him ever being allowed back in the inner circle?
            Then comes the encounter by the seashore that John describes so beautifully.  Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”  Three times Peter replies, “Yes, Lord.”  By the third time we hear some exasperation creeping into his voice, but Jesus doesn’t seem to notice.  Three times Jesus says, “Feed my sheep, my lambs.  Do for them what I have done for you.  Here begins your chance to offer grace.”
            Jesus calls us to offer grace in the same way—and in the same amount—today.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Psalm 8
Job 38-41
“Balance,” he said.  “You’ve got to have balance.” 
Most of us have heard these words at some time or other, and we’ve heard them in a wide variety of settings. 
            We’ve got to have balance between our work lives and our social lives.
            We’ve got to have balance between studying and partying.
            We’ve got to have balance between obeying the rules and being creative.
            We’ve got to have balance between our birth families and our marriage families.
            We’ve got to have balance between opposing sides of an issue.
Right nowou’re probably thinking of many “balance” statements you’ve heard. 
We understand the need for balance.  If we skew too far to one side or the other we can stumble and fall.  I experience this when I walk on our treadmill.  If I get going fast (for me, that is), and pay too much attention to what I’m watching on TV, I shift my weight too far to one side and have to use the machine’s arms to help me regain my equilibrium.  I’ve got to pay attention to keep my balance.
Balance is important in our spiritual lives.  It is so easy to lose our balance, especially when we read what seem to be contradictory passages in the Bible.  As we read Scripture we become aware of conflicting statements.  How to resolve these conflicts is, I believe, what faith is all about.  We have faith that the Bible is the record of God’s interaction with creation, especially with humankind, and that God has given us this record to aid in our salvation.  We have faith that God will reveal enough truth to help us understand more completely.
One such apparent conflict appears in the contrast between the story of Job and Psalm 8.  Job and his three friends spend the better part of the book arguing theology.  Theologians can be like philosophers, finding fault with each other in order to enhance the truth of their own statements.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar give their theological opinions about the cause of Job’s affliction.  Job answers them with theology of his own.  They never reach consensus.  Job’s wife even makes her own theological statement:  “Curse God and die!”
God answers with a scathing criticism of all their theology.  “Who do you think you are?” God thunders.  “How can you possibly understand the way I do things?  Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?  You don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.”
Contrast these chapters with Psalm 8.  The psalmist says, “You have made humankind a little lower than the angels.  You have crowned us with glory and honor.  You have put all things under our dominion.”
A silly bunch of know-nothings or the crown of all creation:  which are we?  The answer, of course is—both.  We are indeed the highest form of creation—at least so far (care to debate evolution anyone?).  God told Adam and Eve at the beginning that they would have dominion over all creation.  (We’ll save criticism of the way we’ve handled that responsibility for another time).  We’re also so far below God that we cannot understand even the smallest part of God’s ways.  Yes, our knowledge is expanding exponentially, but only as God allows it—only as God reveals to us more and more how God is working in creation.
Balance.  We’ve got to have balance.  We’ve got to know where we fit in God’s order.  As a Serbian proverb says, “Be humble for you are made of Earth.  Be noble, for you are made of stars.”  We find our balance—our place in God’s order—in the middle.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Resting Place Is in God

My Resting Place Is in God
Psalm 23
Matthew 11:28-29
            One of my goals when I work with voice students is to help them get rid of the tension that stands in the way of good vocal production.  +It can be a difficult goal to attain.  Those who are the most conscientious are often the ones who have the most difficulty achieving the kind of relaxation good vocal quality demands.  These students want so much to please, want so much to be successful that they tense up trying to do the right thing.  When students finally learn to relax, there is a feeling of accomplishment and well-being that is difficult to describe.  At that point, real vocal instruction can begin.  We’ve eliminated the biggest obstacle to successful singing.  Now we can move forward to find out how good they can be.  They can learn to sing their songs with beauty and freedom.
            How like my voice students are many of us who try to follow God!  We build tension into our lives.  Some of us do it because we want to please God so much that we work far too hard at trying to do the right thing.  Remember the story of Mary and Martha in John’s gospel?  Some of us build tension in an attempt to run from God, to hold onto those things in our lives we value so highly that we can’t bear to give them up.  Whether we struggle to do the right thing or struggle to keep ourselves for ourselves, the result is the same.  We fail to achieve all we can for God because we get in our own way.
            David addressed this in the psalm which is a favorite for so many people.  You know it;  it begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  David goes on to speak about green pastures and still waters.  In a verse that all of us should repeat at least once a day, he says of God, “He restores my soul.”
            What a wonderful picture David paints:  a beautiful, pastoral scene where all is at peace, where no enemy threatens, where there is enough to satisfy all.  David concludes by stating that he will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” surrounded by God’s mercy and goodness.
            Even though this psalm must have been recited many thousands of times over the centuries, the children of Israel had yet to find peace.  They still built tension into their lives.  In many cases this tension was caused not by their own efforts, but by the actions and attitudes of those around them.  Still, first century Judah was not dwelling in safety.  David’s dream of the perfect pasture had yet to be realized.  It was a time of stress for everyone, some because they waited expectantly for the fulfillment of God’s promises, and some because they were busily pursuing their own ends.
            Then came Jesus, who offered the peace so many longed for.  As he was teaching one day, he looked to his Father in heaven and prayed.  Then turning to his listeners, he spoke words of comfort.  We can imagine him opening his arms wide to include not just those in front of him, not just the first century world, but all of us, down through the ages.  Having compassion for everyone he said:
“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Are you tired of the burden you’ve been carrying?  I’ll give you an easier one.  My yoke is not as heavy nor as cumbersome as the one you’ve placed on yourselves.  Whatever the burden—whatever the reason you’re tense, overworked, over-tired, take my yoke, accept my teaching, learn from me how to give up the stress you’ve built into your lives, and learn to live tension-free. Within my service you will find rest for your souls.  Stop fighting yourselves and learn to sing the songs of peace, beauty and freedom I will teach you.”