Sunday, May 27, 2018

Letting Our Souls Catch Up

Letting Our Souls Catch Up
Exodus 20:8-11
            I’ve just finished Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald, a long-time pastor and author.  I’m a fairly organized person (my wife says obsessive-compulsive), but I still found the book helpful.  If you’re feeling stressed and burned out in your public life I recommend this book.  His thesis is that you can’t find order in your life lived in the world until you establish order in the life lived within yourself.  I agree.
            He recounts a story told by Mrs. Charles Cowman.  She tells of a nineteenth-century explorer who hired some African villagers to assist with his exploration of an unmapped part of Africa.  For the first three days they achieved an unexpected rate of speed, which put them substantially ahead of schedule.  That changed on the fourth day when he emerged from his tent to find that no one was stirring.  They told him they were going to sit the entire day.  They felt they had been moving too fast and needed a day for their souls to catch up with their bodies.
            What a concept!         
            If your life is anything like ours you are constantly on the move.  I’ve just finished a semester (my last) in which I taught full-time, pastored a church, and sought to spend large chunks of time with my wife.  As a result, many things that should have been done were left undone.  For example, out of the whole four months I spent one day exercising at the athletic club where we are members.  I didn’t just sit around, mind you.  I was very active, walking around my classroom, and getting in some other exercise, but it wasn’t the concentrated workout my body needed.
            Since the semester ended two weeks ago, we have been trying to catch up on all the work we let go while I concentrated on teaching.  Even Saturday and Sunday were busy, as we hustled from one activity to another.  We, who are night people, found ourselves going to bed unusually early, exhausted from all we had done each day.
            That’s not a good way to live; yet for many people, that’s the routine.  That’s the way every week—every day!—is spent.  How do they find time to rest?
            The answer is, they don’t.  Worse yet, that lifestyle has become so ingrained that they don’t even know they aren’t getting enough rest.
            By rest I don’t mean sleep.  I mean rest from labor—extended rest.  This is why God instituted the sabbath.  Why did God rest on the seventh day?  It certainly wasn’t because God needed to rest.  It was to show us how much we need to rest. 
On that final day of creation, God looked at all that had been accomplished, “and saw that it was good.”  How often do we take time to look at the work we have finished and evaluate how well it was done?  If it was important for God to do so, how much more important is it for us?
Perhaps we’re at least a little afraid to look at our completed work.  Perhaps we’re afraid that, if we stop to look, we might see just how slapdash a job we’ve done.  Perhaps we’re already aware that we haven’t done a good job of it, but we don’t want to admit it—least of all to ourselves.
“Six days you will work,” God says.  “On the seventh day you will stop working and take time to let your souls catch up.  You need time for evaluation, time to figure out exactly where you are, what you’ve accomplished and how well, and decide where you need to go from here.”
That’s what the sabbath is for—soul catching-up time.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Prayer Changes Us

Prayer Changes Us
Colossians 1:9-10
            My Scottish cousin, Ann, sends me some great emails, mostly amusing stuff she forwards from friends who have sent them to her.  Occasionally she sends something serious.  If you were at Graceland Christian Church last Sunday (May 13, Mother’s Day) you heard the one I shared with the congregation about God’s creation of women.  In return I send her my blog posting each week.  I’m not sure it’s an even trade.  What I get from her is much more interesting than my blogs.  Still, she likes to read what I write, and no writer wants to diminish the size of his audience.
            In response to one of my recent posts on prayer, Ann asked a question that pushed my thinking in a new direction.
            “Do you ever wonder if we prayed more we might be more aware of others’ needs, be less sick, and have more patience with the world?  Could it also make us more considerate of others, and less greedy, too?”
            Wow!  That’s a lot to ask from prayer.  But if we’re ever going to change the world several things are clear—at least to me.
            First, the world isn’t going to change unless humanity changes.  Human nature has remained relatively stable—and unfortunately very unstable—for thousands of years.  I don’t believe we’re any worse than our ancestors.  We just hear about peoples’ problems much more thoroughly and quickly.  On the other hand, we’ve certainly not gotten any better.
            Second, we can’t change other people.  As much as we’d like to make them different, we have no power to do so.  We can only change ourselves.  I change the world around me by making a difference in myself.  I can pray for other people to change—and I do so every day.  But I have no power to make them change.  That ball is in God’s court, not mine.  One thing I do know:  when I become a different person—more tolerant, more loving, more patient, more considerate—the people around me change as well.  As my friend Mike Brower says, “Funny thing about that!”
            Third, the world does need to change.  We can’t go on forever hating each other, hurting each other, killing each other—all over differences of opinion.  I believe God wants to see us work for unity in the church, compassion in government, and humility in our relations with other people.  I realize these are not popular positions.  Instead, we want to defend our version of religious truth to the death—even if it’s ours.  We want our government to look out for us but not for those we deem unworthy.  If I’m humble, other people walk all over me.  I’m not going to give someone else the upper hand in any relationship, personal or professional.
            “When we ask God to do something for us, He generally wants to do something in us.”
            I’ve used this quote before.  I don’t know who said it, but I know it’s the truth.  God wants to make me a different person, so maybe—just maybe—I can be of use in bringing about some small change in the world.  That’s what I hear Paul saying to the Colossian Christians.  He says he prays for them, “asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
            That’s a lot to ask for.  We know Paul asks this for others because he first asked for it to happen in himself. 
It may not change the world, Ann, but it’s a start. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Choosing a Master

Choosing a Master
Matthew 6:24
            For the past fifty-four years I have identified myself as a teacher.  I began teaching the fall of 1964 after graduating from college, and, except for two semesters, have been in the classroom ever since.  During that time I have had a variety of other jobs on the side, but most of them have also involved teaching in some way. 
            For most of those years I taught music.  I have had the privilege of teaching in five states (New York, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi), and at every grade level from early elementary school through university graduate courses.  I’ve directed bands, orchestras and choruses, taught music classes to elementary and middle school students, and taught college students how to teach music. 
            Four years ago, after retiring as a music teacher, I agreed to teach in the social sciences division of our local community college.  My masters degree from seminary allows me to teach philosophy and religion classes.  It has been an interesting and enjoyable change of pace.
            For most of my career I also directed church choirs.  In many ways this was an extension of my music teaching, calling on the same skills needed for my school choruses.  For the past few years I have been a pastor, first on an interim basis for two different churches, and then as the called pastor of the second church.  Both pastoring and church choir directing have been rewarding.  I’ve learned a lot from both positions.
            My focus is about to change.  By the end of the week in which I write this, I will have finished my last philosophy and religion classes, given my final final (finals are one area in which it is always better to give than to receive), closed my last textbook and posted my last grade.  How do I feel about this?  I’m not sure.  Why did I make this decision?  That one is easy.
            In chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s gospel we read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a combination of religious and ethical teaching which we need to study more and follow much more.  If every Christian lived these teachings every day, the world would be a far different place.  That may be asking a lot, but I believe that’s what Jesus intended—and why he preached this sermon in the first place.
            In this sermon Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”  He continues: “You cannot serve God and money.”  This, of course, is the crux of the argument.  We have to choose between God and the world—not an easy choice in this worldly-oriented society, but a necessary one if we are to live out the gospel.
            Anyone who knows anything about teachers’ salaries would never accuse me of choosing money over God if I chose teaching over pastoring, so the intent of Jesus’ statement doesn’t really apply to my situation.  But the principle is the same. 
I have found it impossible to serve two masters:  education and the church.  So I say goodbye to the profession which has sustained me for so many years, the one to which I have devoted my life, and the one that has brought me so many rewards and so much satisfaction.  I have reached the place in my life where I feel that trying to be both a teacher and a pastor means I cannot do either as well as I would like, and as well as I know I should.
I know—I’ll still be teaching within the church setting, but it’s not the same.  The classroom has been, in many ways, as sacred a space for me as the church sanctuary, and I will close the door of my last classroom for the last time with as much regret as satisfaction—but also look forward to whatever God has in store for me next.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Pray Without Ceasing

Pray Without Ceasing
1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
“Why did Jesus, the Son of God, who needed to pray so little, pray so much—and why do we who need to pray so much, pray so little?”  James Allison asks this question.  What is our answer?  I think most of us would have to begin, “Guilty as charged.”
We know we should pray more.  No matter how much we pray it probably—except in a few cases—isn’t enough.  Allison is right:  we need to spend more time in prayer.
I suspect Jesus was praying even when it didn’t seem he was.  We know he went off by himself on occasion for the sole purpose of praying.  Somehow he managed to free himself from the crowds that followed him everywhere, give the disciples an assignment that kept them busy, and achieve some time off by himself to pray.
But there must have been times when he was engaged in prayer while doing something else—walking down the road from place to place, for instance, or sailing in a boat from one shore of the Galilee to another.  There were times when I was riding in the car with my father when I knew he was praying.  While his concentration was fully on the road in front of him, instead of his mind being occupied with idle thoughts, he was holding someone up in prayer.  I suspect Jesus was even better at that than my father.
What limits should we put on when, how often, and for how long we pray?  According to Paul—none.  He tells the church at Thessalonica “Pray without ceasing.”  Is such a thing even possible?  What could Paul have meant by this statement?
Paul is finishing up his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He does what many of us do (those of us who still write letters) when we get near the end.  Time is short.  We’re trying to finish up, but we have many things left to say, and we don’t want to leave anything out.  We might make the last paragraph say something like, “Say hello to Aunt Edna for me.  Don’t forget to let Bob know I’ll be coming in two weeks.  Tell Mom I love her.”  Paul gives seemingly unconnected reminders to his readers—unconnected except they all have to do with living the Christian life.  Right in the middle comes the sentence, “Pray without ceasing.”
Surely Paul doesn’t mean we should be praying every minute of every day—unless he means that our lives should be lived in an attitude of prayer, that we should be so close to God, so attuned to God’s presence that we can be in prayer at a moment’s notice, with no hesitation, as my father prayedwhile he was driving.
I believe this comes close to Paul’s meaning.  We are to be in a relationship with God that allows us instant contact through prayer.  I also believe that’s the way Jesus lived while he was on earth.
We should always remember what Charlie DeLeo says: “Prayers unsaid will always be prayers unanswered.”  Or, as Jesus says in Luke, if we don’t ask we won’t receive.  Not that our prayers should only be about asking—but part of our prayer life should be asking God for the things we need:  patience, greater love, compassion, contentment.  If our shopping list is made up of characteristics like these I’m sure God would be pleased to grant our requests. 
We ought also to ask for God’s blessing, comfort and care for our family members.  John Wilkins says, “We live in a time when more prayers are sent up for parking spaces than for the lost people in our own families.”  How concerned are we about the welfare of our families?  Our friends?  Our business acquaintances?  We know God loves them just as much as God loves us, and is waiting to bless them.  Wouldn’t it be good if we prayed for them without ceasing?