Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pentecost - The Gift of the Spirit and a New Creation

Preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017

Scripture readings: Genesis 1:1-2; Acts 2:1-21


The sound of a violent wind; what appeared to be tongues of fire on top of every disciple’s head; your ability to share with others the message of the wonders of God in their own language: have you ever been there? I haven’t. Yet, somehow that is exactly where we are; all of us together. This is what is true of everyone who belongs to Jesus.
A week or two after I turned nineteen, I was in a Presbyterian youth group that had its own Pentecost. Alright, it was just a little Pentecost; no wind, no fire. It was something we all felt, although I was the only one there who began to speak in tongues, which I had never done before. I remember it very well. I remember how it felt for me.
I believe that we all can (and probably all should) have Pentecosts of our own; at least once in our lives, but maybe it should happen more than once: as often as we need it.
I believe we should all kneel before the Baby Jesus at the manger, and we should all stand at the cross, and know that something real is happening to us. I wish that for you all.
Jesus gets born in each of us, in our time, even though Jesus was born only once, long ago. Jesus dies for each one of us, in our time, even though Jesus only died once, for all, on the cross.
I must tell you that anything of real importance never stops. Everything that matters goes on and on, and it all can become yours. The crowd at Pentecost heard, in their own native languages, the wonders of God. In that moment, the wonders of God became their own. The wonders of God never end: not a single one of God’s wonders ever stops.
Pentecost is (like the birth and the cross of Jesus) a one-time event that is so important that it never stops. It can’t stop, because it is an event that has its place in the very nature of God. What God is, and what God wants, and what God gives, flows through our world, for all people, for all time.
We see God in the wind of Pentecost. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, our concepts of wind, and spirit, and breath are all contained in one single word (ruach). The same concepts are covered by a single root word in the Greek language of the New Testament (pneo).
In the Book of Genesis, when we read about the Spirit of God hovering over the unformed creation which is about to become the living, moving creation that we see around us…when we read about this Spirit of God, we are also reading about the Wind of God, and the Breath of God. This is what God breathes into the first human beings in order to give all humans life. We exist, we are alive, we breathe, and we are spiritual beings reflecting the image and the glory of God because we are all created. We are creatures. We are creations.
Peter reminded the crowd of the words of the prophet Joel, who told of the times of the last days, when those days are about to become the new day of the new creation. In that time, the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all people. All people need to become a new creation in order to be part of the great new creation of all things: a new creation of the Spirit. Peter essentially said that this was what Pentecost was all about.
Does this sound strange? The original Christian Pentecost meant that all Christians become the new creation of the Holy Spirit, because Jesus died for us and rose from the dead. By grace, and by faith, when Jesus draws us to himself, we die with him, and we rise from the dead with him, and we become new. It’s the will of the Father, and the work of the Son, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When you read about the first generation of Christians, as told by the Book of Acts, you can tell that they weren’t always feeling new. You can tell that, from time to time, they had new experiences of the power and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They needed new experiences of being made new, if they were going to succeed at keeping on the road of the new creation.
The Spirit is like breathing, because it keeps on happening. That is how the Holy Spirit keeps us alive spiritually. The truth is that this is how the Holy Spirit keeps the whole universe going, all the time. If the Holy Spirit stopped its life-giving work, for only a moment, the whole creation would cease to exist.
But, for you and me, the work of the Spirit is like the alternative power source of the wind. It’s a renewable energy source.
And it’s not only for merely you and me, as individuals. The Holy Spirit was, and is, God’s power for the Church: for all the people of Jesus as a collective, single unity.
What we are together is kept alive, and goes on, and hopefully grows, because we love what the Holy Spirit wants to do in all of us, together. This means that we need to all be together, just as all of Jesus’ people were all together, in one place, for the Holy Spirit to take them all together and make them part of the same experience and miracle. The will to not be together is the will of something else than the Spirit of God.
The Spirit continually works in two movements, or two directions. The Spirit drives our movement out, into the world, to share the wonders of God with everyone. And the Spirit drives our movement in, together, to be one. If we, ourselves don’t participate in these two movements or in these two directions in life (if we don’t love these two directions of life) then we may not fully receive the life that comes from the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit can’t move us in his two special directions, then he may resort to moving without us.
Then, there is fire. Fire is a symbol of purity or purification. This is part of what was behind the burnt offerings, or the sacrifices, in the Old Testament. Fire took care of (and got rid of) the sin represented by the animal sacrifices slain on the altar.
Purity, or purification, is what happened when the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God, in all his glory and holiness. In the presence of God, Isaiah recoiled in horror at himself and his people, in the light of God’s glory. In this vision, Isaiah was touched on his lips with a burning coal, to make him clean, in order to make him what God wanted him to be, to free him from whatever kept him from being what God wanted him to be.
The fire represents the Holy Spirit because the life that comes from the Spirit sets us free from everything that keeps us from being what we are created by God to be. In a way, this is what John the Baptist meant, when he predicted that Jesus would baptize everyone with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
I don’t think the crowd saw the fire. I think they heard the sound of the wind and they were confused when they heard the message of the wonders of God in their own language from the people who shouldn’t have been able to speak their language.
It was only the people of Jesus, gathered in one place, who saw the fire resting on the heads of everyone there in that room, before they went out. I believe this vision of the fire tells us something important about our life together, and our growing together, in the Spirit. It tells us that we should be able to look at each other and see glory and purity.
For the Holy Spirit to make itself real and powerfully present for me, it’s necessary for me to look at each one of you and see you crowned with flame. For the Holy Spirit to make itself real and powerfully present in you, you must see each other crowned in flame. By the way, you should see me the same way, too. We don’t have the fullness of Pentecost without that reality, because that’s what God is all about: it’s what he is, and it’s what he wants.
Then, there’s the message of the wonders of God. The wonders of God are what we see in Jesus. Jesus said: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) The disciples weren’t only telling the people about Jesus, they were telling about their witnessing Jesus. (Acts 2:32) They were telling the wonders of God as they had witnessed them for themselves.
The Holy Spirit takes the things of Jesus and makes them ours. Jesus said this would happen through the Spirit. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26) “He will glorify me, because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John16:14-15)
When the people of Jesus shared the wonders of God with the others, they weren’t sharing merely the facts, they were sharing their very own lives with strangers. The wonders of God were their wonders. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, makes this so.
When I speak in tongues, I speak to God. This is what often happened in the early churches, and Paul writes about this in his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 14) It’s a way to speak to God in such a way as to share yourself with him beyond your understanding.
The tongues of Pentecost were different. They were a gift of communication with others. As such, in a way, the tongues of Pentecost were completely unnecessary. They were unnecessary because everyone in the crowd would have been able to understand the two languages that the disciples were also able to speak and understand.
Everyone in that crowd would have been able to speak and understand, more or less, the two international languages of that part of the ancient world. The two languages were Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic was a common international language to the east (at least as far as Persia). Aramaic included the nearby areas of Syria and Arabia. It included the disciples own home area of Judea and Galilee. Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic as their home language. It was their language of the heart, but it was also an international language for the lands to the east.
They also would have known Greek. People all over the Roman Empire knew Greek and there were Greeks in North Africa, and as far east as India, and what is now Afghanistan. Aramaic would serve a purpose for Pentecost: Greek even more so.
This rendered speaking in all those other languages completely unnecessary: except for one reason. All those many areas (except for Greece) had hearth languages. There were these old dialects that had not died away. These were languages of the heart, the private languages of the home.
For us (for you and me) the Holy Spirit wants to empower our ability to speak to other people’s hearts. God wants you to communicate in other languages than our holy church language, whatever that may be.
The Holy Spirit may give you the gift of speaking to people who seem to speak the same language as you do, only they may have the language of another way of life, another system of priorities and purposes that make you seem strange and foreign to them. The Spirit can empower you to bridge the gaps between your heart and their heart.
Here, again, the power of the Holy Spirit is designed to be so much more than a personal experience. The Holy Spirit wants to become an interpersonal experience: a heart to heart experience.
Pentecost is meant for each and every one of you, as the people of Jesus. It’s for all of us as we form a family of people together. There may be no audible wind, or visible fire. There may be no foreign languages. But there is that heart to heart with each other and with the people of the world around you.
There is that fiery, purifying freedom from everything that keeps you from being the person you were created to be, and touched by Jesus to be. There is the new creation; living in the new world. In the Holy Spirit, we live in a world that operates according to God’s will, and God’s priorities, and God’s victory in Jesus.
This new life of Pentecost is the gift of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The life-giving power of the Holy Spirit is like breathing. It’s a renewable energy. It has not stopped. It will not stop working for you. It will not stop being available to us, together.

It isn’t really our thing. It’s God’s thing. Pentecosts is God’s plan and intention for all people, including us. Don’t write it off. Don’t count it out. Be ready and willing to receive it. Be ready to do something new and unexpected.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Holy Spirit, Storm of Power



















HOLY SPIRIT, STORM OF POWER

Holy Spirit, storm of power,
Tempest with a rain of love;
Rise and surge and sweep our spirits
Till they run with wholesome flood.
Fill us, till our course is flowing 
From your open gates above.

Holy Spirit, sanctuary,
Comforter in times of stress;
You refresh us in the morning.
In the nighttime, you will bless.
Peaceful strength and steady counselor
Lead our hearts in quietness.

Holy Spirit, flame in darkness,
Melting hearts to warm delight;
Kindle us to bear your fire.
Make us torches burning bright,
Shining from the truth that frees us
In the glory of your might.

Holy Spirit, cleansing tempest,
Comforter and fire of faith;
Be the growing life within us.
Strengthen us to run the race;
Bearing fruit to please the Savior
Till we meet him face to face.

Lyrics by Dennis Evans, 1971, 2007
Here's something I wrote when I was 19 and revised a little a few years ago. I wrote it for Pentecost because most of the hymns I knew about the Holy Spirit were about quietness and sweetness, but the Day of Pentecost was all about fire and wind.

Memorial Weekend - Know Your Story and Remember It

Preached on Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28, 2017

Scripture reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Once there was a group of tourists visiting the historical sites from the Revolutionary War. One day their guide took them to an old church where George Washington had worshiped.
Memorial Day Celebration
Live Oak CA
2014
Their guide pointed out the very pew that had belonged to Washington, and he went on to describe the church services of those days: how, sometimes, they lasted two hours or more. Hearing this inspired one member of the tour group to comment, “So, George Washington slept here too!”
Our scripture reading this morning describes part of an annual celebration in which the people of Israel gave recognition to God’s blessings upon their land. They gave thanks for what God had given them.
It was a little like Thanksgiving, a little bit like Independence Day, but it was also a little bit like Memorial Day, too. It taught them to remember how they had got where they were, and why they had what they had.
They were taught to remember that they were part of a much bigger story than themselves. They were taught to celebrate what God had done through their friends, and parents, and grandparents, and so on, for many, many generations.
The people celebrating in the old Tabernacle Tent, and in the Temple had worked, and maybe even slaved and fought, to get, or to keep, what they had. But many, many others (more than anyone could count) had done the same, each in their generation.
Our scripture reading is about a Thanksgiving that memorialized this. The most important thing memorialized was the plan, and the work, and the power, and the faithfulness of God. The Lord had spoken to at least some of the members of all those past generations. God encouraged them. God made great promises to them, and kept those promises.
There was a time when their ancestors were only wandering Arameans. (That means belonging to a generic sort of people in the area of what is now Syria and Iraq. It, sort of, means being nothing special.)
Anyway, when they were nothing special nomads in the desert, or slaves in Egypt, it didn’t always look like God was there at work. In spite of that, the Lord did have a plan, and the plan was going forward, even when they couldn’t see it. Those worshippers who brought their offerings to the altar came there to remember, and to tell the story of how God made, and kept, his promises to their nation, and their tribes, and their families.
They came there to confess, for the record, that they were witnesses to God’s plan. They were witnesses to the story of God’s faithfulness, and they confessed that they were part of that plan themselves.
A memorial is a reminder.
Memorial Day started in the South, as a way of remembering and honoring those who had died for the confederate side of the Civil War. There, it was surely a sad day: a day for remembering those who sacrificed themselves for lost causes. There’s more to remember than we think.
I’ve served in some places where it’s common for most people to go to the local cemetery, on Memorial Day, to decorate the graves of all their family members who are buried there. This happens in old, small towns. I’ve seen parents leading their kids among the gravestones, telling them how they were related to each person buried there, and telling them stories about how those people came to that place, and where they had built their first homestead shack, and what had happened to them afterwards. There’s more to remember than we think.
God’s people are called to look forward in faith and hope. Today’s scripture reading instructs God’s people to remember. There, it was the people of Israel remembering their life with God, or God’s role in the story of their life.
In their case, they weren’t only God’s people, as we are. They were also God’s nation with a history, and they were to remember that God wanted them to be a certain kind of nation. God’s people, in any nation, are taught to remember that God wants them to be a certain kind of nation.
Israel was also a family with a tradition, and they were to remember that God wanted to lead them and nurture them, as a family, so that they could be the kind of family God wants all families to be. God wants us to remember this, too.
God wants us to be good rememberers, and to make a habit of being able to understand and retell how all the things which God has done have come down to us. God wants us to search the history of our nation, and to search our family stories, to find out where the Lord has been at work. God wants us to remember people whose lives and sacrifices have benefitted us; or taught and influenced us.
Sometimes it seems that we hardly know anything about what God has given us through others.
The sense of things in our society not working, or falling apart, has happened because too many people have forgotten how to look around them, and at themselves, and think seriously about what the Lord has given them. We have forgotten what the Lord wants to do through us in our families, and our nation. We have forgotten that this is all a gift.
It’s hard for us to remember that our nation, our people, our family, and our friends are a gift if we don’t also realize that God himself is a gift. The One who created everything to be a gift has made a gift of himself to us. 
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have many Memorial Days to keep clearly in our mind what God has done for us, himself, so that we can learn to love the gifts that people remember on Memorial Day.
All the celebrations of the church are memorial days. Christmas is a memorial to the Lord coming down from heaven and becoming one of us, to be a humble Savior and a Servant King. Palm Sunday is a memorial of the Lord coming to his own people, in which we remember that some of his welcomers turned against him. Good Friday is the memorial of the Lord offering himself as a sacrifice to take away our sins, and the sins of the whole world. Easter is the memorial of the victory over sin and death, that the Lord shares with us, so that evil and death can have no lasting power over us. Pentecost is the memorial of the Lord sharing with us his Holy Spirit, so that we can be supernatural people with supernatural resources.
The remembering means that what God wants from us is more than memory verses. God wants us to remember how great he is (as great as we need him to be), to know what he has done for us, and for everyone, and to repeat it so that others can learn.
Since this is Memorial Weekend I want us to be like the people in small, old towns, or in families with long memories, who remember how God has shaped us through all those who have given of themselves, whether in the life of our families, or family members serving our nation in war.
Let me tell you a little bit about my Grandpa Evans. He was very good with his hands. He could work on heavy machinery. He had experience as an industrial photographer, and he could work on cameras. During the depression, he got a job adjusting navigational instruments for a shipping company in New York Harbor, and he accomplished something that none of his predecessors had done before. He got completely caught up on all of the company’s boats and ships at the same time. When this happened, it being the Depression, the company realized that it wouldn’t need his services, for a while, and so they laid him off. He had to find another job, and he never went back to them.
He was forty-one when we entered World War II and he enlisted in the Navy. He was a reconnaissance photographer in the belly of a navy bomber in a battle over the Aleutians and his plane got shot down.
Since the Navy hadn’t thought that it was important to train him in the use a parachute, he was smart enough to know about pulling the cord, but not how to hit the ground. He landed on an island in the middle of a battle and broke both his legs and had a very harrowing escape.
I think my Grandpa Evans represents a family tradition of conscientiousness, neglect, hardship, bad luck, good luck, and survival.
The Israelites would repeat the story, “My Father was a wandering Aramean, and we were slaves in Egypt.” It became a story of their remote past, and yet the tradition, and their need for that tradition, went on and on.
Their heritage often repeated itself. It told them what God was able to do for them when they felt like they were wandering aimlessly and didn’t know where they would end up. That’s what heritage is for. That’s what remembering and what memorial days are for.
In the seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses warned Israel never to fool themselves about their story and how they were able to succeed. “Don’t think it was because you were larger, or stronger, or better than other nations, because you weren’t. You succeeded because God loved you and helped you when you needed him.”
The Lord wants us to remember the things that make us humble and human as a nation, and as a family.
As a kind of memorial, I want to read part of a copy of a letter that my family has kept from a long departed relative, writing to my great-great grandfather from the front at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862, during the Civil War. “My beloved brother, although I have written to you last, I cannot wait for another from you, as we were paid off a few days ago. I think you may need the money, and even if you do not it is not safe for me to keep it for we expect to have a big fight and when we move from here there is no telling how soon I shall have the opportunity of sending a letter to you again. I think we shall be paid off again in a short time, say two weeks – for another two-month’s pay is due to us tomorrow night. I send this draught of eighteen dollars which is the biggest lot I have sent before. I think I shall have my debts all paid by the time I get out of this, I guess.”
This brother of my great-great grandfather died not long after sending his pay. He wasn’t even born in this country. They were both born and raised in a poor working-class family in England and they came to America to improve their lives. This soldier enlisted to pay his debts. He was surely a hero.
One of my heroes, from that time, is Abraham Lincoln, who was really placed by God in the right place at the right time. Lincoln thought and prayed about forgiveness and compassion, and the horrible idea of using war as a cure, even for such an evil as slavery. I realize that my relative, fighting the rebels down in Virginia, probably gave those things hardly a thought. He was just trying to get along as best he could.
And yet, both Lincoln and my old relative had a lot in common. They were both familiar with poverty. They were both in serious trouble. And they both needed the Lord’s help.
If we were better at remembering who we really are, and how we got here (especially the stories of those who have gone before us and given us our heritage) we would realize that we have the same thing in common with them.
They have something to say to us. They say, “You’re just like us. You need help.” Then, the Lord tells us, “I will help you, that’s what my strength is for.”
“Remember the original Wandering Aramean,” says the Lord. “Look at Abraham. I gave him a goal, a promised land. He didn’t know where it was or how to get there, and I got him there. You don’t know where to find your promised land, but I can lead you to the real thing. Look at the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. For generations, they were slaves. They forgot how to think for themselves. They forgot how to live without fear and suspicion. But I taught them how to have courage. I taught them how to be free people. I taught them how to live by faith. I can make their story your story. I can teach you to maintain courage and faith. I can teach you how to be free.” Thus says the Lord.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
William Barclay once wrote about some missionaries who travelled through the villages of India with a slide show of the gospel story. With a projector hooked up to a generator, they showed the pictures of the life of Jesus on the white-washed wall of some house on a village square, with all the people sitting on the ground. One night, they reached the scene of Jesus dying on the cross. A man in the crowd jumped up and shouted, “Jesus, come down from the cross. I should be there, not you.”
That man had received a new memory. He had been given a new story, and a new heritage. The story of Jesus on the cross became part of him and his own story. That new memory would change his life.
The Lord is a Savior: a helping, rescuing, life-changing God. Knowing this God (whom we meet in Jesus) and trusting him in your life, and trusting his ability to work in your family, and nation, and world (whatever the needs may be): that is what is really glorious.

It’s a different kind of glory than we would have chosen for ourselves, or our family, or our nation. It’s the glory of needing help and finding it. It is by the Lord taking over our stories, in our need, that we have something worth remembering.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Columns Rearing Tall and Grey

Woods Along the Feather River, Live Oak, CA























Columns rearing tall and gray
To a green glass roof,
Through which is streaming,
On soft brown grass,
The light of day:
A refuge and a placed for dreaming
In woods so near, yet far away.



Spring 1968: This is my first serious poem, written for Mrs. Engstrom's English 11X, American Literature and Composition (when I was 16).

Monday, May 15, 2017

People of Help in a Me-Centered World

Preached on Mothers Day, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Scripture readings: Matthew 25:31-40; Acts 9:36-43

More of That Walk in April 2017
Along the Columbia River, Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
A woman used her husband’s car for some errands, and when she got back she noticed how dusty the outside of the car was. So, she cleaned it up a bit and, when she went into the house, she said to her husband, “The woman who loves you the most in the world just cleaned your headlights and windshield.” Her husband looked up surprised, and said, “Mom’s here?” (From “1001 More Humorous Illustrations”, Michael Hodgin, #563)
We don’t know much about Tabitha, as a mother. In fact we don’t even know if she was a mother. What we can see for ourselves is the fact that she mothered people. She took care of people. She helped people.
After Easter, the rising of Jesus from the dead makes us think about how the power of God gives us a new life and a changed life. The people in the Book of Acts, like Tabitha, are examples of this power of God shaping the lives of those who follow Jesus, and who live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thinking about Tabitha, let’s look at how God shapes a kind of mothering instinct in God’s people.
Maybe we don’t all want to think of ourselves as mothers. But the Holy Spirit shapes us, and molds us, and nudges at us to be people of resources; to be people of care-giving, to be people of help.
Who do we see Tabitha mothering? Apparently, she mothered the widows of the church. And so, she mothered the mothers, and maybe even the whole community.
The Old Testament puts a lot of weight on paying special attention to the needs of widows, and orphans, and aliens. The Bible tells us this, over and over again in the books of the law and the prophets. These groups of people are singled out by God as people who are most likely to be neglected, or forgotten, or taken advantage of.
They were God’s special test cases to see if his special people were truly people of love and compassion. Would God’s people take care of the most defenseless people, the most neglected people, in their society?
The strange truth is that, even though the Lord put the greatest weight on giving attention to the needs of these particular people, they continued to be the people of greatest need. And they still are (to this day), along with others we could mention.
The room where Tabitha’s body was laid out for visitation seemed to be full of widows. And when Peter got to the house, the widows got up to greet him. They told him about their spiritual mother. They showed him the clothing that she had made.
As the commentaries informed me, the way the Greek text describes them showing this clothing to Peter seems to make them point to themselves when they point to the clothing. (It’s called “middle voice”.) They showed the clothing by pointing to themselves, because they were wearing the clothing, themselves.
Clothing was expensive in the ancient world. Clothing was used for barter. It was used for collateral for loans. Average people seldom had much extra clothing beyond what they had on their backs. The people who were below average had even less than this. Widows tended to be such people.
There’s no way of knowing whether Tabitha raised money through the church to cloth the community’s widows, or whether she had income of her own, so that she could afford it herself. But if her body lay in her own home (which seems likely) then the fact that she had an upper room in her house meant that she was better off than some. It meant that she used what she had, and she used her advantages, to help others in their need.
Why do we have what we have? Why do we have money? Why do we have time? Why do we have talents? Part of the answer to that is, that we have what we have in order to help others.
We don’t have what we have in order to be the slaves of others. What God enables us to have is for blessing and for joy. But joy comes not only by enjoying what we have, for ourselves. Joy comes, most often, from sharing.
This has to do with mothers; but also with fathers, and with all kinds of servants, and with all the people of God, because we are all called to be mothers, in a way. We are all called to be people of help in a “me-centered” world.
Mothers and fathers have what they have; not only to work and to have fun; but what they have is for their children, especially their gift of time. I knew a minister who heard rumors of grumbling when he was seen playing catch with his son in the front yard of the manse. Someone in their church didn’t understand that a parent’s time (even when that parent is a pastor) is not just for work, and not just for others, and not just for the church, but especially for their children.
The great loves you have are not just for yourself, but they are to be shared with your children. So, you better love to share your great loves with them; like fishing, or flying, or gardening, or music, or making things with your hands. And you have to go farther than that. Knowing that their kids have great loves of their own, mothers and fathers pay attention to the things that their kids love; like games, and playing, and laughing, and talking.
Mothers and fathers share their kids’ great loves with their kids. They use their time for this. If you are parents or grandparents, this is part of what you have, because God has given these children to you.
We live in a world where the message is that self-fulfillment comes from self-indulgence. But that message can never build a family. It can never build a marriage. It can never raise children to be happy adults. It can never build the mission of Jesus.
One thing I noticed, in this story, is the name of the woman. I don’t mean the unusual sound of the name Dorcas. (Pronounce it the Biblical Greek way.) The name means gazelle, and the Aramaic and the Greek versions of this name are both used twice as if Luke wanted his readers to think about the name, or (more than that) what the name meant and suggested.
This woman was the gazelle. A gazelle is graceful, and quick, and a long-distance runner. When a need arose in Tabitha’s vicinity, it was gracefully, quickly, and almost unnoticeably met. Children think that their mothers really prefer chicken wings, and necks, and backs, and like them much better than drumsticks and thighs, because their mothers are so graceful, and quick, and steady about their choice.
I think I was a teenager when I actually asked my mom about this, and found out the truth. She did it so that I could fight my dad and my sisters for the drumsticks and the thighs.
When the Holy Spirit makes us people of help, those we help may hardly notice. And if we don’t always give help in a way that’s as graceful and quick as a gazelle, then, maybe, we can give the kind of help that runs as long-distance as a gazelle.
The help inspired by the Holy Spirit goes long. It goes long in order to create a strength, and a self-reliance, in your neighbors and in your children. The strength they gain comes from the security, and the dependability of your help: the help that goes long.
This is what a mother’s or a father’s help does. You help a child grow into courage, and perseverance, and strength, and confidence. This is also the kind of help which God’s people are called to give to each other. But God’s people are also called to give this to anyone in need.
The very shape of the miracle of Tabitha’s life is basically a replica of what Jesus did. Peter and the others, as they would visit each other, were being like little Jesuses, wherever they went. They were all little Jesuses in the things they did for each other; not only in the way that miracles happened, but in their whole attitude; their whole spirit; their whole way of humbly learning and serving. They would see Jesus at work around them, and they would see Jesus in each other, because they were being Jesus to others.
They would see Jesus in each other, not because of their power, but because of their love. They would even see Jesus in each other because of the others’ need for love. They would see Jesus in those who seemed the smallest. They would even see Jesus in those who counted the least, and who needed the most.
When Jesus told his disciples, and us, to see him in the neediest of people (Matthew 25:31-40), we see the secret of why Tabitha created this community of widows with the help she gave to them. She saw Christ in them; not in their strength but in their weakness, and in their need. When she looked at them, she saw Jesus who became weak for us on the cross: Jesus hungry, and thirsty, and naked. She visited Jesus when she helped her neighbors.
In marriages, in your lives as parents or grandparents, and in our lives as children of parents, we see the sacrifice of Christ in the sacrifices that others make for us.
We also see the need of Christ in those who need us. We see, in them, their need for the sheer love of Christ. That is how we are called to relate to each other, and to our neighbors, and to everyone in this world.
The love of Christ, as we see that love on the cross, and as we see that love in his rising from the dead: that love is the ultimate help. The love of God, in Christ, gives us mercy and forgiveness. The love of God, in Christ, gives us peace with God, and a new heart, and a new life, and a whole new set of motivations in life.
Because we know that love, we meet Christ everywhere, and it makes us partners with Christ in his love for the world. We want to bring the help that comes from his love into all our relationships. It makes our lives as children of parents, and parents of children, into holy ground.
At the Lord’s Table we meet that love. We see that our spiritual life depends on the nourishment of that love as much as our bodies depend on food and drink.

At this table, we learn that Jesus is glad to be our host. He personally invites us to feed upon him, and to share his life, and to be transformed into people of help because, through Jesus, we know the help of God.

Good Morning

















“Good Morning”

Good morning poured into my room
In streams that, warming, wakened me
To watch the golden, rising tide
Flow inward from the dawning day.
The maiden light is rarely such
A flood of nearly touchable
Assurance, eager to arrive
And meet you; waiting like the sound
And fragrance of festivity
On your own doorstep, greeting you
Before you open and go in.


March, 1982

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Living and Dying, Earth and Heaven

Preached on Sunday, May 7, 2017
  
Scripture readings: Psalm 73:21-26; Philippians 1:19-30

“How many of you want to go to heaven?”
An old-time preacher asked the question, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” And everyone raised their hands, except one child. The preacher asked the child, “What about you? Don’t you want to go to heaven?” And the child said, “Yes I do; only I thought you were trying to get together a load to go right now.”
The Heavens
Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
March 2017
Paul wrote a strange, radical thing to his friends in Philippi, in the north of Greece:
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21)
Paul was living the life of a prisoner. He was chained up in a stinking, underground dungeon. The remains of this dungeon can still be seen today. He was being held for trial before the emperor’s court, in Rome. He was on trial for his life. 
Being on trial for his life was a very familiar experience for Paul, except for the part about the emperor. That part was exciting. But Nero was the emperor now, and Nero had started to persecute Christians as dangerous conspirators, the enemies of humanity and enemies of the order of the empire.
There had been a great fire in the city of Rome. Some citizens blamed Nero who had been making plans to redevelop the city.
Nero needed someone else to blame, so he blamed the Christians, and he had many of them tortured and killed. And once he had painted them as the real enemy, if he didn’t want to look dishonest, he had to keep it up.
Things did not look good for Paul. It was a serious time to settle the mind, to keep focused on what was truly important. But the question was: was it time for Paul pray for inner peace and strength, or else should he prepare to let it all go, and focus on heaven?
Or else, should Paul pray for a dismissal, or an acquittal in court? 
And should he pray about his old missionary plans? Should his goal be traveling west to Spain; or back east again to visit the churches he had started in Greece, and beyond? What should he want?
Paul’s friends wanted him to live. They wanted him around.
But what did Paul want? Certainly he wanted to be around. But should he want this? Should he be ready to die, or ready to live? And what does it mean to die? And what does it mean to live?
Paul tells us what he believes, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Now this is sort of like saying, “To live is great, and to die is even greater.”  If we found ourselves in Paul’s situation, it would be understandable if we considered our life to be over and hopeless. But, for Paul, sitting in the stink of one of Rome’s worst jails, waiting to have his case heard by an emperor who was politically motivated to torture and kill him... for Paul, in that time and place (even there) to live was Christ. 
When he says that “to die is gain” he doesn’t mean “There is nothing left for me here.” There is more to it than meets the eye. Even here, in this prison, in the shadow of death, life is Christ.
I once heard a professional mountain climber being interviewed. This man was well on his way to his goal of climbing the fourteen highest mountains on the earth, and doing it without any bottled oxygen. We are talking about heights of twenty-eight thousand feet, and more. Up there, the air is so thin that the muscles and the brain begin to starve, for the lack of oxygen. The muscles are depleted. The brain loses judgment, and a clear sense of time and direction. Up there, the exhaustion and cold are torture.
Climbing each mountain takes months of training, and preparation, and attack. By the time of his interview, this climber had conquered nine of the fourteen mountains. He loved doing this! For him to live was mountain-climbing.
Paul was a spiritual mountain climber. And he was facing the tallest mountain of his life. And he said, “For me, to live is Christ.”
I want to list for you a few of the parts of Paul’s life that were NOT what he meant when he said “to live is Christ”. Here are some things that Paul, as a follower of Jesus, could point to and say, “To live is a great thing.” Yet these are not the same as saying, “To live is Christ.”
Here is the Christian life as a great thing. For a follower of Jesus, having sisters and brothers in Christ is one of the things that make living great. There are people you belong to, and they belong to you. But this sense of belonging doesn’t happen only because you share a common cause, or because you’ve spent time together, or even because they may be your very own flesh and blood. There is a sense of belonging that can include all that, but it’s much more than that.
There’s a sense of belonging that comes from knowing the fact that we don’t own each other. The greatest sense of belonging comes from knowing that we are given to each other by God. Actually, everyone we know, everyone we meet, is God’s gift.
The most normal thing in the world, when you think of your brothers and sisters in Christ… the most normal thing in the world is to give thanks. In every letter but one (Galatians), Paul starts out by giving thanks for the people to whom he is writing; even when they are driving him crazy with their backsliding, and their immaturity, and their conflicts.
When Paul says that he hopes to remain with them, and he says, “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you,” the word translated as continue is really a side-by-side-continuing. “I will stay, and I will stay beside you, with all of you.” This staying side-by-side with people who are given to you by God, and made a part of you by God, is a part of following Jesus. It is something that makes following Jesus a great thing.
Other things that make following Jesus great are these: standing for the truth, being witnesses of good news in a world that is crying out for good news. There is having a God-given purpose in life. There is standing for compassion and mercy. There is being prayed for by others, and praying for them. There is being a servant. There is the help of the Holy Spirit, or the supply of the Spirit. This comes when the Lord renews your strength, or gives you insight into life and shows you the way. To live (following Jesus) is great.
But Paul says... “For me, to live is Christ...” This is something more.
Partly, this is a matter of what is important to you. For instance, you might say: “Farming is my life”, or “Education is my life”, “My work is my life”.
You might say: “Success is my life.” You might say, “Survival is my life”. Or you might say: “My family is my life”. Or you might say: “My happiness, my comfort, is my life”. These are answers to the question: What is the most important thing for you? And then you could say: “Christ is my life”. That brings us closer to what Paul is saying.
Now what if you are like me, and you have a lot of different things are important to you? What if there was a conflict between your work and your family, and both were in competition for the center of your life? What if your work was not good for your family life; or your spouse and children hated the work you did? That happens to people working in the ministry.
The Bible doesn’t really say that one kind of work is more holy than another. It just says to work, if you can, and to do honest work.
The Bible says to work so that you can eat. It says to work so that you can have something to give. Otherwise you’re free. You have lots of options; unless God gives you only one.
And then the Bible says to be a good husband or wife. Be a good parent. Sons and daughters: be good to your parents by obeying them. These are not options. Here we are not free. Surely your family life is more important than the work you do. And if they are more important than your work, then they will motivate how you relate to whatever work you do; so you do the right work, in the right way.
If Christ is your life, then Christ will win in any competition with any other part of your life. But Christ will also motivate you in every other part of your life. Christ will motivate you as a worker, and Christ will talk to you about the kind of work he calls you to do, and he will make your special calling become a way of following him in holiness; in the Lord’s unique purpose for you.
If Christ is your life, then the Lord will make your relationships with your family into ministries. Your spouse, your parents, your children will all be holy ground for you. If Christ is your life, then even your relationships with strangers will turn into ministries. Christ will give you your priorities, and he will show you where to sit tight, and when to hang loose.
But you can say “Christ is my life” and still not understand what it means to say, “For me, to live is Christ.”  You can say “Christ is my life” and be only a slave in the way you live for Christ. You can be a drudge for Christ.
To say, “For me, to live is Christ” is more like being in love, which is wonderful, and scary, and joyful, and challenging, and frustrating, and exciting, and confusing, and fulfilling, all at the same time.
The word atonement, in the Bible, which refers to something that brings people together with God, and brings peace with God, means the action of making them “at one”. Atonement means “at-one-ment”. There (in “at-one-ment”) to live is Christ.
It’s like marriage, where two become as one. In love, there is passion and the desire to be together all the time, and even if that seems to cool down, there are always thoughts like: “She would love to see this.” or “This is something he wouldn’t like.” To say, “For me, to live is Christ” means “He is my reason for living. And he is not only my reason for living; he is the very source of my life. He is the love of my life. He is my joy and my peace.”
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I think this means something like, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is to gain more of Christ.” Paul surely says this very thing when he writes: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far...” (Philippians 1:23)
But better than what? Better than being of use to his friends and family in Christ? Paul loved being useful.
Heaven will bring us the pure enjoyment of love and thanks in a way that is separate from usefulness. This is very strange. When Paul talks about staying, he talks about his presence with his people being necessary, and then he talks about leaving that behind.
Going on to be with the Lord will be something different from usefulness. It will be the end of being of use, and of being necessary. Or it will be a graduation to something better. Perhaps there is something more wonderful than being of use, and much better than being necessary.
I do believe that there may be some kind of joyful work or service to do in the everlasting life, after we depart to be with the Lord. It’s possible. But we will not do it because we are indispensable, or even merely useful. We will not be loved for what we do; we will do because we are loved, and because we love.
If we want to know anything about the Lord, we have to know that the whole message of the good news of Jesus Christ is that he did something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Until we get that, we don’t get anything. And here we fret and we think that our life has no purpose if we cannot do things for others, or even for ourselves. 
But that isn’t true. We have a purpose because God made us, because God loves us, even when we are helpless and useless. This is the truth. But it is very, very hard to grasp.
A new born baby has a purpose in life. An unborn baby has a purpose. A flower in a vase has a purpose. A hug and a kiss have a purpose. The clasp of a hand has a purpose. A song has a purpose.  A sunset has a purpose. None of these things are of any material, practical use to us at all. But they are priceless: absolutely priceless. 
Craig Barnes was a young pastor when he faced a long and difficult battle with cancer, and the treatments left him too sick to be of any use to his congregation, or his wife, or his children, and he didn’t know if he would ever recover. This made him feel completely helpless and hopeless. Then, one day, he felt that the Lord was telling him this: “You are too important to be necessary. You deserve to be loved.”
Part of heaven will be the experience of this love. “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” To die is to gain more of Christ.
Often the Bible compares death to sleep. The body stops, and takes a long, long rest.  Other times the Bible talks about death as moving away from our bodies and this world, into the presence of the Lord. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.” 
“I desire to depart and be with Christ.”
The word that’s translated as “depart” tells us what it means to die. The word could be used a number of different ways. It literally means the loosening or the untying of something. It’s the word people said when they struck camp; when they loosened the ropes and the stakes on their tents, to pack them up and move on.
When I was a kid, we went camping every summer, and it was one of the great rituals, setting up the tent. And it was just as important a ritual to take it down exactly right, so it would go up exactly right, next time. And when we struck camp for the last time, then it was time to go home.
The word “depart” means loosening, and untying of the moorings of a boat, so that it can launch out.
In one of the churches I served, we went for an annual rafting and kayaking trip every summer. On these trips, we had this great ceremony in the mornings, when the rafts were packed and ready, and everyone was in their places, we said a prayer, the knots were untied, and we pushed off down the river.
The word we translate as depart also means, of all things, unraveling a problem, it means finding the solution. There’s a time and a place where all the hurts are healed and all the questions are answered. Those who wait till the end will understand.
There’s a phrase from an old prayer that goes like this: Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who are ready to go forth and live, so that whether we live or die our LIFE may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Earth is for life. Heaven is for life. Living is for life. Even dying is for life. In Christ, it is like being in love.

This is what Paul believed. This is what the Bible teaches. This is what we believe.