New Life

While winter in Texas is not as cold or stagnant as winter in Iowa, over half of the trees are without leaves, the grass turns brown, and the color of flowers is limited. With the approach of spring, all this changes. Over the last few weeks, we have seen significant change in the landscape. Trees are flowering and budding. The garden centers are stocked with flowers ready to be planted. The sun has increased in its warmth. Rains are helping green to reenter the grass and other plants. New life is arriving daily.

Currently in the Christian Church calendar, we are in the season of Lent. Lent is a time for personal reflection, recommitment to spiritual disciplines, and a time to await new life. The new life which becomes a reality is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which is a reminder of our mortality and forty days later (Sundays are not counted) we are reminded of the truth of new life we share with Christ.

I am sure that the correlation of the transition from winter to spring and Lent to Easter is not coincidence. Just as spring provides new life for God’s creation, Easter provides new life for God’s children. As a child of God, I anticipate the fulfillment of the resurrection in me as much as I anticipate the witnessing of new life during spring. I yearn for both of them. Every Easter I celebrate the truth of my new life while I watch the promise of new life in creation.

What does spring mean for you? How does Lent and Easter create anticipation for you? Where do you see God’s promises fulfilled around you?

May the promise of new life in Jesus Christ fill you with anticipation and great joy. May the witnessing of new life in creation be a present reminder of this promise for you.

The Chains

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Carol. I prefer the version with George C Scott playing Scrooge. For me to feel like it is Christmas time, I have to watch this movie. I think the reason is this adaptation of Charles Dickens story speaks to the heart of Christmas, the attitude of giving and being set free from those chains which bind us from appreciating life.

As a Christian, this movie also reminds me of the breaking of chains which accompanied the work of the Lord. Jesus shared the love which God has for every person and gave us the opportunity to be free from the chains which prevents us from appreciating life. In his teachings and actions during his ministry, he worked at destroying the chains which society placed on people. He held leadership accountable for putting burdens of rules and expectations on the people. Jesus taught that love, not oppression, was the intention of God. He redefined social norms. He confronted boundaries established by the world. Jesus taught and demonstrated that God’s love provides freedom.

Every year when I see Marley come to warn Ebeneezer about the chains which he is forging in his life, I wonder about my chains. What is it that is forging the chain which I wear? How am I contributing to the forging of someone else’s chain? This can be a very humbling self-reflection. I always think of the lessons Scrooge learned from the three visitors as I am reflecting on how I live my life and the comparisons.

Then after some self-reflection and recommitting myself to work at providing a better reflection of God’s love, then I am reminded of the promise which I have received. The Lord has promised to remove those chains which bind me. I am set free in the Lord’s love and grace. All I have to do is reach out and accept it. Then my reflection of God’s love is a response and not a requirement. In order for Scrooge to reduce his chains, he had to change his life, his view of Christmas, and the way he treated others. The Lord takes away my chains even before I change my life.

What chains are you forging in your life? Have you allowed the Lord to remove those chains or are you still clinging to them? Are you responding to what the Lord has already done for you or do you think you still have to earn the removal of your chains?

Let the Lord remove your chains forever and enjoy the happiness of life and love!

The Force

Like many others over the last month, we went to Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I vividly remember seeing the very first Star Wars movie, “A New Hope,” when it came out. I saw it twice in the same week. Once was at a drive-in with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew. The other time was in a regular theater with my brother-in-law. I definitely have some favorites in the series which now spans over forty years.

As I have gotten older, I am amazed at how many correlations there are between the movie plot lines and theology. One of the most profound is in regard to the force. For anyone who for some strange reason does not know to what I am referring, the force exists throughout all creation and through this invisible entity the Jedi’s obtain the power to overcome evil and work good in the universe. This seems clear to me what I refer to in my faith as the Spirit.

In the very first movie, Luke Skywalker must be trained by Obi-Wan Knobi to sense the force and to use its power to achieve the missions which he is given. Throughout the first three movies, which are actually chapters four through six in the story, Luke learns more and more about who he is and how to benefit from the force. I see a correlation with the journey of a Christian. We need an experienced mentor like Obi-Wan to first introduce us to the Spirit and then guide us as we tap into the power and strength of the Spirit. This is a journey and along the journey we come to realize who we are and whose we are.

One significant difference between the storylines of the Star Wars series and our experience with the Spirit is that only select individuals seem to be able to fully harness the benefits of the force while the Spirit’s benefits are available to all people. There appears to be a hereditary connection among those who are able to utilize the force in full capacity. This is partly true when it comes to the Spirit also because we are heirs with Christ because all are children of God.

So let me recap the connections which I see between Star Wars and what I believe:

  • the force = the Holy Spirit
  • the need for a mentor/guide
  • the power and strength to achieve our mission in life
  • the benefits are linked to inheritance
  • family lineage = heirs with Christ

I encourage you to look for other connections between Star Wars story lines and Christian beliefs. In a galaxy far, far away, I may even share some other connections which I have found.

MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

Spiritual Library

Every day when I take my daily walk, I walk past a playground area near my home. On one side of this playground is a little lender library which seem to be appearing throughout neighborhoods all across the country. These are a great addition to our neighborhoods. If you are not familiar with this concept, they are small wooden boxes with a door which has a glass inset and shelves. People place books they have already read into these and if a child or adult is looking for a book to read, they can go pick out one and take it home to read. People are encouraged to add a book if they take one and/or return the book after they are finished reading it. Some of these can be very creative in the size and shape which they take.

As I was walking today, I glanced over at the little lender library. A question came into my mind. If I were to create a lender library for someone wanting to grow in faith, what would I include?

When I designed curriculum for young individuals wishing to confirm their faith and be commissioned as members of the congregation, I had a list of items which I felt were important for them to know. I have never been a huge proponent on memorizing Bible verses or other faith documents but I thought there were a few vital pieces which required memorization. My goal was that if the person was ever in a situation where they needed guidance, one of these items might surface in their mind and be a tool which could be beneficial.

So here are the items which I found to be important and which I would include in my spiritual lender library:

  • A copy of the Lord’s Prayer – This prayer provides a template for those new to, or struggling with, prayer. It provides the basic focus of prayer and can be a launching pad to our own prayers.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed – Like the Lord’s Prayer, this creed is a template for articulating a person’s faith. This can also serve as a summation of the beliefs which underlines the faith which has existed for centuries. Someone exploring what Christians believe can look at this creed for a basic understanding and a basis to start creating questions which can be explored with other believers and on their own.
  • A copy of Matthew 6 – So the person can understand where the basis for the Lord’s Prayer originates and place it in context.
  • A copy of Exodus 20 – Here a person can gain insight into what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These words provide a basis for how we are to respond to God and our relationship with God. Contained here also is the understanding we are to have regarding our relationships with other people in our lives.
  • A copy of Luke 15 – This chapter from Luke’s gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. This is a story of selfishness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. I find this story important enough to be one that if a person cannot remember anything else, this story is the one that remains. My reasoning is that we all experience times of wanting to break out on our own and explore possibilities. We make mistakes and choices that are not beneficial for us. We eventually realize that we need to return “home” and hopefully in a more humbled state than when we left. This story reminds us that our Lord stands waiting for that return. When we do return there is not judgment but instead an outpouring of love and reconciliation which is like attending a magnificent banquet in our honor.
  • A copy of Matthew 28 with verses 16 through 20 highlighted – For anyone wishing to know what a believer in Christ is supposed to do with their life, this passage answers the question. Frequently known as the Great Commission, this passage tells every person that in whatever way fits their skills and abilities, they are called to go and share their story along with what they have learned in their faith so far.
  • A copy of 1 Corinthians 11 with verses 23 through 26 highlighted – Here we find one copy of the words used in the institution of holy communion. Holy communion is one of the key sacraments in the Christian Church. Realizing that words used for this portion of a worship service were randomly chosen but have their basis in Scripture helps to strengthen their meaning.
  • A copy of Matthew 22 with verses 24 through 40 highlighted – Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” is found in these verses. Christianity is often given the same criticism which is applied to Judaism – it is just about rules. In Jesus’ response, it is made clear that our faith is not about following rules as much as it is about loving God and loving one another.

This would be the start of my spiritual lender library. What would you place in yours?

Joining Together

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

This poem speaks of our connectedness as humans. When we were created, humans were created to be social creatures. We are intended to interact with one another. We build each other up, support each other, challenge each other, and strengthen each other. We are also capable of tearing each other down, abandoning each other, attacking each other, and weakening each other. The reality is what Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (See Matthew 25)

I thought of this poem and our interconnectedness when I was pondering the value of Christian fellowship. Often when we hear this term, our minds go to that designated time before or after a worship service when individuals gather for coffee, snacks and possibly some conversation. While these are important social gatherings, this does not fully present the concept of Christian fellowship.

Christian fellowship is about interconnectedness among those who follow Christ. In actuality, it extends beyond just followers of Christ but for this post I wish to focus on the concept in regard to a group of followers. Being in fellowship with one another is paramount to faith formation and growth.

A person can believe in God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ without being engaged in a Christian fellowship. A person can also worship God without being engaged in Christian fellowship. I am sure you have heard individuals say, “I can worship God on the golf course, lake, or hiking down a trail.” That is a very true statement and should be encouraged. A person can be a Christian without ever becoming actively involved in fellowship. However, a person cannot experience the full potential of faith formation and growth without being actively involved. I would also say that the person who chooses not to be engaged in this manner, loses the opportunity to experience the fullness of Christ while sojourning on earth.

Spiritual matters are difficult for us to understand. The truth is that we never fully understand all the intricacies of our spiritual self and our spiritual beliefs. Attempting to sort through these weighty aspects alone can lead to disappointment and discouragement. God never intended us to do this alone. As social beings, we were expected to engage with difficult spiritual matters along with others. We see this expectation established throughout the Old and New Testaments shared with us from the beginning with Adam, through the diaspora, and throughout the ministry of Jesus. This pattern is continued in the stories of Acts and in the letters of Paul along with letters from other spiritual leaders in the early church. We NEED one another to wade through our questions, trod through the muck of life, and determine what we truly believe.

In addition to seeking out answers to our questions, Christian fellowship provides a support system. Life is not easy. There are times when we experience difficulties which can seem impossible to overcome alone. As Christians, we come to believe that during those difficult times, Christ remains beside us and walks along the path with us. The physical manifestation of that belief is found in the fellowship of Christians. When a fellow believer provides a listening ear, a shoulder to cry upon, or other type of support, it is Christ reaching into our lives. I personally have experienced this truth multiple times in my own life. I have also witnessed the challenges which individuals who are not engaged in Christian fellowship experience during their difficult times. These challenges seem to multiply whatever struggles they are experiencing. The opposite exists when a person is part of the Christian fellowship. While the difficulties do not go away, the burden is easier to manage.

We were created to be connected, not an island. As followers of Christ, we were intended to be in fellowship with one another. While at times it is necessary to take a sabbath from Christian fellowship, it should never be a regular state of being for us. Christian fellowship is vital to a healthy faith.  

Where Is Hope

For me, a benefit of believing in Jesus Christ is that I have hope. Hope is truly an interesting word. Much like the word love, hope has such a varied number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. I can hope that the Hawkeyes will win their football game. Right now, rain is something I hope for in the area in which I live. I have hope that I will stay healthy and active for many years into the future. I am confident in the hope of Jesus’ promises. Each example is a different understanding of hope since the focus of that hope changes.

Having hope does not mean there are not times of discouragement, disappointment, and a level of despair. A person who has hope does not experience any fewer hardships in life than one who lacks hope. The difference is that a person who leans upon hope responds to the hardships much differently.

I recall a situation during my ministry when I was called to the emergency room of a hospital. A person in the community had been found hanging by a belt in his garage. Upon arriving at a local hospital, the medical staff attempted to revive the man but were not successful and pronounced him dead. The partner refused to leave the body so the staff requested I talk with him and convince him to leave in order for them to finish preparing the body to be transported. After much conversation, I was able to get the partner to leave the room. In talking with him and the family of the victim, I quickly realized that the issue which was causing problems was they lacked hope. This became clear again after the funeral service which they asked me to officiate. They would not leave the room where we had the service because they were convinced that this would be the last time any of them would ever see the dead man again. They had no hope in Jesus Christ, no hope in the resurrection, and no hope in life beyond death.

Hope is not always an easy thing to maintain. There are times in which I need others to remind me of the reason to hope. I need to hear words of reassurance. I need prompted by the Spirit to read passages of Scripture which speaks of the hope found in Jesus Christ. Rereading the promises which Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles set before us is a great way for me to replenish hope in my life.

Faith and hope are strongly linked. Being able to hope in the promises of God requires having faith in God. A person must believe that what we read in Scripture regarding the love and the sustaining presence of the Lord is true. This requires us to have faith in not a physical reality but in a spiritual truth. This faith is the source of our hope.

Looking around the events in our world today, or even specific times in our own lives, it can become easy to lose touch with hope. Life can have some very depressing realities. Difficulties can mount and appear insurmountable. Messages which we often hear can lead a person to despair, grief, and a sense of abandonment. For some, this all piles upon each other to lead the individual in believing that there is no hope. Yet, let me declare to you that there is always hope. This hope is not sustainable in trusting of any human or human institution. This unfailing hope can only be found in Jesus, the Christ.

Hope in the Lord. It has never failed me yet.

Describe the Devil

Recently I was watching the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which is one of my favorite movies. During one scene in the movie, Ulysses Everett McGill, who is played by George Clooney, gives a description of the devil. Ulysses responds to a question by Pete, played by John Turturro:

Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.

Ulysses Evertt McGill

Clooney’s character gives a description that is part of folklore and often presented in art. The problem is that nowhere in the Bible does such a description exists. The only comparable passage where the image could have been generated from is found in Revelation 12.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.

Revelation 12:3

Caution must be used here since we know that the book of Revelation is attributed to a man whose name is listed as John and at the start of the book it indicates that this is a vision. This would mean that a lot of imagery is used in this portion of Scripture so a literal interpretation is very unwise.

Another perception of the devil is that it is a fallen angel. This concept can be attributed first to the Book of Enoch which presents the idea there are fallen angels. While the Book of Enoch was rejected by both Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries, the idea that fallen angels exist did not go away. Add to this two passages from the Gospels, first Luke 10:18 where Jesus is speaking and says, “He replied ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.'” Along with Matthew 25:41 which is part of Jesus explaining the separation of sheep and goats on judgment day, “Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. All these combine to create a description of the devil as a fallen angel and the leader of the other fallen angels.

The imagery and perceptions from this imagery has led to a lot of confusion concerning the devil. Confusion with a limit of certainty. Much like the difficulty of describing God, creating a description of the devil, Satan, Lucifer, or any other name assigned is fraught with difficulty. There are only fragments of insight contained in Scripture. Yet I am willing to provide a little speculation here.

The image which is the strongest for me is that of a tempter. We find this presented in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted by Satan, we see that a figure comes to Jesus and attempts to take him off his planned ministry course by the trappings of success as described by humans. Three different attempts are recorded, and Jesus successfully avoids the temptations of humanity’s definition of success. The image of the tempter also occurs at the start of the Bible in Genesis 3. Although this account does not state it is Satan tempting Eve but instead says it is a serpent which has come to be thought of as Satan.

I would argue that this “tempter” is not really a being at all. Instead, I believe that the temptation to get off course is from within our very selves. This is the aspect of our humanness which we allow to lead us to make unhealthy decisions. Decisions which have a negative impact on our lives and the lives of all around us. It is the part of us which feels that our ways are better than the ones God presents before us. This is the aspect of our free will which creates negative instead of positive.

This leads me to state that I believe a description of the devil is only obtainable in imagery. This imagery is our attempt to describe the aspect of our thoughts which led us to be tempted to act irresponsibly or in a manner counter to God’s nature.  

Using A Liturgy

Liturgy in the church is something which can cause quite an argument. Some individuals have the view that without liturgy to guide worship, there has not been genuine worship. On the other side are individuals who view liturgy as a heavy burden from the ancient past which causes worship to be dreadful instead of energized. More than a few remain somewhere in the middle. In recent times, this has been a struggle played out among many congregations and within many denominations. Little surprise that there exists a broad spectrum of the type and amount of liturgy experienced throughout the church.

For those who may not understand the term of liturgy, it is the form which public worship takes within a religion, most often Christianity. The arrangement of the different elements of the worship service is prescribed and followed in each worship service with only a little variation. The actual words, music, and prayers may or may not change but the order and structure remains the same.

My experience in the church has been one in which there has always been some type of liturgy guiding the worship service. I have been in settings where it may not be as pronounced but it is still present. Participants in some worship settings in which I have participated may not even think about the liturgy being used or the basis for the choice of liturgy.

Like many aspects of the church, there are positives and negatives when it comes to the liturgy. First, some positives. The most evident one is that by using a prescribed liturgy, the worship participants who attend regularly know exactly what will happen next in the service whether they have a printed guide or not. In addition, many parts of the service are easily memorized since they are used every week. An example would be a liturgy which includes the Lord’s Prayer. The participants tend to memorize these words early in their worship experience and each week it remains the same. Another benefit to a liturgy is that for worship leaders and planners, it provides a guide for their work. Each week they know what elements they need to prepare. The leadership also knows the order and movement in the worship space.

Now, some negatives which accompany the use of liturgy. One negative is that liturgy can lull a participant into going through the worship service almost on autopilot. All the positives listed above regarding memorization and knowing what comes next can allow a participant to not even think about what is being done. Another pitfall of liturgy is that often the meaning behind the elements and the ordering of those elements gets lost. I mentioned earlier that some participants may not even realize that a liturgy is in place because they have forgotten or it has not been explained what the liturgy is and the reason for every aspect of it. Most liturgies have a theological, practical, and spiritual meaning to them but with time those understandings can be forgotten. The third problem with liturgy is that if someone is a new participant, the individual can become lost since regular attenders just move from element to element with little or no explanation. This can turn a newcomer off since they do not wish to feel ignorant or become very self-conscious of their lack of knowledge.

Much of the negative can be overcome. The key is that communication about the chosen liturgy must happen regularly both verbally and in print. Discussion around the meaning of what is done and why it is done in the prescribed fashion must occur with those who are regularly participating. Explanation of each element and the flow needs to be shared by the worship leaders and/or in whatever printed materials are used so that the newcomer feels she/he has a guide which empowers them to participate.

So here are the questions which I would like each reader to answer:

  1. Does your worship setting use a liturgy? If so, what is that liturgy?
  2. Do you understand why a liturgy is in place and what the elements of it might be?
  3. Is liturgy an aid or a hindrance to the worship experience?

Good Managers

Today I thought I would talk again about one of the words that is used in church circles but is often misunderstood. The focus word for today is stewardship. When most people hear this word they think about a campaign each congregation launches in late fall to get financial pledges from their members for the coming year. Based on those pledges then the leadership creates a budget. The problem with this understanding is that it is far too limited.

The word stewardship comes from the word steward. A steward is a manager of property and/or finances on behalf of another person. So stewardship is the act of managing. Based on this definition, one can easily see why the word conjures in the minds of many church members the image of a financial campaign. Yet this falls completely short of the Scriptural understanding of stewardship.

The concept of stewardship is first introduced in Scripture in the first chapter of Genesis. Here, as part of the creation story, God places all creation under the care and authority of humanity.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1:26-30 NIV

Here God is placing humans as managers over all which God just created. So stewardship includes the managing of creation.

Another aspect of creation is found in 1 Peter. Here the writer reminds us that we are to use whatever gifts (skills and abilities) we have been given to serve one another.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:10-11b

Not only are we reminded that we are to be managers of our gifts but also of the grace which we have received from God.

As you can see, stewardship involves much more than the annual fundraising for the church. Stewardship is an expectation and responsibility placed upon us by God. We are to be managers of everything which God has created and which God has given to us.

Hopefully the next time you hear the word stewardship, you will not only include your managing of money in a way that benefits God’s church, but also consider how you are managing the other aspects of life.

Understanding Prayer

Prayer is one of the most common aspects of any faith system. Every faith tradition which acknowledges a belief in a higher power has some form of prayer as one of its spiritual practices. Some systems have regimented prayer structures. Others are relaxed and dependent more upon the individual than upon a structure. No matter how a particular faith practices prayer, the understanding is that prayer is a conversation between a person or group of people and the higher power which is at the center of the beliefs.

A challenge which prayer presents is that there are such a variety of forms and so many ideas about prayer that we often stumble over ourselves attempting to engage in prayer. As a Christian, I have often heard people say they cannot pray. Whenever I hear that, I am saddened because often this type of thought is the result of someone telling them that they do not pray correctly. At these times I explain to the person that a “right way” to pray does not exist. Sure there are formulas that some individuals use but a specific pattern or specific words are not at all necessary. Usually structured or patterned prayers are intended to introduce the concept of prayer to a person but are not mandatory in any way.

Prayer is a conversation, a conversation which should include a sharing of thoughts and feelings like any other conversation you have in life. A unique aspect about this conversation though is the reality that there is no audible response from the other one in the conversation. I am not saying there does not exist a response, just not one to which we are accustomed. A person needs to be open to experiencing the response in a much different way. Yet what remains is the understanding that prayer is a conversation and does not need to be difficult.

I have been practicing my faith for a large number of years. I have been trained as a leader in my faith. Over all those years and through all my training and service, I have prayed in different settings both aloud and silently. I have led prayer and I have been led in prayer. All types of prayers have been a part of my experience. I continue to learn of other ways people pray. Through all this, I have come to the point where praying is no longer confined to a specific time or location but seems to have become woven into my everyday life. I had heard of continuous prayer but had no perception what that might mean. Instead, continuous prayer in my life has just happened. I feel constantly engaged in conversation with my God. Different experiences, different settings, and different forms of expression make up continuous prayer for me.

Let me confess, I am not sure that the title I have given this blog post is fair or accurate. I say this because I do not believe that prayer can truly be understood. Prayer contains so many elements and expressions that it cannot be neatly tied up with a definition or a specific formula. Prayer instead is an experience, an experience that is unique to every person, every faith, and every culture. Accepting this reality is what I think has opened the door to continuous prayer for me.

Since prayer is such a large topic, I want you to view this as an introduction into my thoughts on this topic. I can promise more blog posts concerning prayer as time moves along. I would also love to hear of your experiences of prayer.