Monday, August 31, 2009

God's Plans and Our Plans

Scripture Readings: James 4:13-17; Luke 12:22-34

There is an old spiritual joke. At least, I think it’s a spiritual joke.
Do you know how to make God laugh?
You tell him your plans.
I love that joke.

I used to think that only someone who loves God can love that joke. But that’s not right.

Only someone who knows that God loves them can love that joke. Only the person who trusts God’s love can really laugh at the thought of God laughing at them and their plans.

Our readings from Luke and James tell us some things about God’s plans and our plans.
What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Those questions are the start of one sort of plans. Jesus is talking about this sort of plans.

Then there is this. Let’s go to another town, start a business, and get rich: these ideas are the start of a different sort of plan. James is talking about this sort of plans.

They are really different sorts of plans, but we make these different sorts of plans because we are the creation of God the planner.

I don’t believe the, “What shall we eat, or drink, or wear?” questions are the sort you ask in front of an overflowing refrigerator, or a closet full of clothes. (Well, some people do, because they have so many things to choose from.)

I think that, originally, these were the sort of questions that you ask when the refrigerator and the closet are empty. Most ancient people lived from hand to mouth. They were people on the edge. And so I think these are survival questions. They go along with other survival questions like: can I plan to survive? Can I find a way to go on?

When I planted the lilies in front of my house, I remember the instructions required me to bury those bulbs pretty deep. I was surprised how deep. The flowers of the field send their roots deep down to drink their water and survive.

I watch the birds. They do play and enjoy themselves. But they also spend a lot of energy looking for food, or flying away for safety, in order to survive.

Can I plan to survive? Can I plan for a way to go on? I think Jesus is saying: “These are not bad questions. You are not the only one who asks these questions. The rest of the world asks these questions. The way that I want you to be different from the rest of the world, is that I don’t want you to be afraid when you have questions like this. I want you to remember that my Father and I love you.”
When Jesus points at the wildflowers, and the birds, he is pointing at God’s plan.

Creation shows us that God is a planner. God plans that there be life, and abundant life; and that that life fits into a plan. In spite of the mind boggling numbers that are needed to count the lilies of the field or birds of the air, or the stars in the sky, there are no unimportant pieces in that plan. There is nothing extra, nothing to spare, in all the abundance that surrounds us. The Bible teaches us this.

Most humans can’t tell one sparrow from another and, out of the billions of sparrows in the world, very few mean any thing to us. Yet these tiny lives, these brief and obscure lives, are all known to God. Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies, yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)

In 1 John 4:18, the Apostle John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” It all has to do with what we believe about God. God is not looking for ways to get us. God does not laugh at our plans as if he is planning to sabotage them; as if he loves to joke when the joke is on us.

Fear has to do with thinking God is out to get us. But if we trust the love of God we will not be afraid. We will be able to make plans and we will be free to wing it when no plan is possible.

God’s greatest plans have been to create us in his image; and to become one of us, and to die for us on the cross to give us peace with him, even though our hearts are full of the things that divide us from him.

I think that if we could ever think of God really laughing at our plans, it would be the laughter of parents watching their baby learning to walk. When a child takes its first steps, and falls, it is better for the parents laugh and make a joke of it than that they do anything else. Of course I can say this because I have never been a parent. If I am wrong tell me later.

Even though a child cries when he or she falls, it is not good for a parent to cry when their child falls. I have seen a child fall and look to its parents, trying to decide whether to run to them crying, or to go on playing with the other children. If a parent cried when their child fell, it would give that child no strength, or courage, or joy in walking and running. It is much better to laugh. Please tell me if I am wrong.

We are the children of a God who makes great plans. God’s children make plans just like their Father does, just as human children learn to walk because they are raised and surrounded by people who walk. If we were raise among wolves, we might very well go around on all fours.

Walking is a serious business, but it is much better to laugh about walking than to react any other way. It is much better to be ready to laugh at our own plans than to react in any other way.

God is a planner. God is a lover of plans. God’s plans are the fruit of love and faithfulness. He doesn’t want our plans to be anything less. God wants our plans to be the fruit of love and faith: “Don’t be afraid. You are loved. Make plans. Keep going. Have faith.”

Then there is the other sort of planning in James. The planning Jesus talked about in the gospels was the planning of survival: doing it with faith in the love of God.
The planning James talks about is the planning of abundance. I would have said that this sort of planning is where you plan for your passions, as opposed to planning for mere survival, but I think we strangely underestimate the value and goodness of survival.

There are a lot of people who talk down about what they call a survival mentality, but I would say that there are two kinds of survival mentalities. One kind of survival mentality is grim, and bleak, and defeatist. It does not accept change, and it is not willing to change tactics, and it is not willing to take risks. But, sometimes, not taking a risk, in order to survive, is far more dangerous than taking many, many risks.

Playing it safe is not always the wisest way to survive. The survival mentality that plays it safe, at all costs, may be the least likely to survive.

The other survival mentality is to love your survival boldly and passionately. There is an ability, in surviving, to enjoy the basics: to be happy even if you only have food to eat, and clothes to wear, and something to drink, and a roof over your head. These are blessings and they should make us happy.

Most people in the world would laugh, and sing, and dance if they had the basics. And most people in the world would be ready to have adventures if they had the basics They would be willing to split what they had and share half of it with anyone who was needier than they are, even when they know they are living in a survival mode.

We have more than the basics in so many. And as Christians, and as a church, we enjoy the best basics. We know the love of God in Jesus Christ. We experience the good news of his love and power every day. We sing. We pray. We worship. We learn. God is blessing us, and I think we have plenty to share.

So then, the thought of worrying, knowing the sort of God we have, never even occurs to us, right? Because knowing Jesus gives us passion, even when we are surviving. The words of Jesus we have read this morning tell us this.

But there is also the planning of abundance, and abundance is another kind of passion. Some of the planning of abundance sounds like the people James had in mind: “Let go to another town, start a business, and get rich.” There are things you can do when you are not just surviving. You can take a trip. You can learn a new language. You can go back to school. You can look for a new kind of work. You can start a business. You can fly a plane. You can paint. You can make something. You can take up a hobby.

Some people who seem, to others, to be just barely surviving are able to do such things. Our idea of surviving is far too spiritless and fearful.

The words of Jesus apply here, too. Consider the flowers. Consider the birds. God’s creation shows us the abundance and passion of the plans of God. With God and his children, is survival really the issue at all?

James isn’t critical of the planners he has in mind just because they are planning to make money, and be financially successful. He sees nothing wrong with that.
But it is true, if you read the whole letter, that James is concerned, a lot, about the kind of things people might do in order to get their hands on that wealth, and what they might do to hold onto what they’ve got. James is concerned that some people, in their pursuit of abundance, will make decisions that will change them for the worse, to say nothing of they harm they do to others.

But that is not what we are concerned with here. James is writing caution to people who forget that life is about intlocking relationships, especially their relationship with God.

Even on a human level, you don’t just, only, link up with people who share your plans. You grow from sharing life with people who have other plans, and who might laugh at your plans.

You can’t avoid this without considerable selfishness. You can never find a spouse who shares all you plans. You have to give and take. And you can never have children who will share all your plans. Part of the decline of the birthrates in western countries may be that people don’t want to bring into the world other people who will interfere with their plans for their own abundant lives.

Selfish people don’t understand that their very lives depend on their ability to interlock with the different and conflicting plans of others. And most of all they forget that we all belong to God, who is the ultimate planner. And they forget that all our human plans are like the first, shaky steps of toddlers.

Even at their best, sometimes our plans are things worth laughing at.

When James says that our lives are like a mist, he is not saying that we are unimportant, or that God considers our plans to be unimportant. James is only saying that our time in this world is precious.

Time is not money, but time is precious. Time flies. Some plans for the use of our time must give way to other plans.

If a man is lucky enough to have a woman who loves him, he will not make plans without her. When I talk on the phone to married guys about doing things, they always say “Wait a minute,” and I hear muffled consultations on the other end of the line.

This is wise. And we are also lucky if we know how much God loves us, and that God is able to know what we need; that God knows best what our whole life is really about, and God is the planner we ought to listen to.

There are plans, and there are plans. When you say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that,” you are recognizing that you are part of a relationship; a relationship with God.

When you realize that you have been given the gift of life in order to live in this world in relationship to God, you realize that there are plans, and there are plans. You recognize that some plans can fail and some plans can be interrupted; but there are other plans that cannot fail and cannot be interrupted.

There are plans that you can always safely plan. You can plan to live as a child of the God, who has a plan for you, who gave his Son for you on the cross to give you life. You can plan to care for those whom God has entrusted to your care. You can love them, and build them up. You can seek to serve the kingdom of God in your community, and in the wider world.

You can do this, relying on the will of the God, who loves you and holds you in his plan. God’s plan is secure, and you will find no failure or interruption that plan; no matter what it may look like from your point of view. Even death will not interrupt God’s plan for you.

There are plans, and there are plans. Plan to trust God’s plan, and don’t worry about what can go wrong, or whether you can even see the goal. Martin Luther said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

This is what the Lord wants from all of us; because all of God’s creating and saving plans tell us to live in hope and not in fear.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"God-Impacted Life: Spirituality"

Scripture Readings:
2 Samuel 6:1-27 (“The Message”, Eugene Peterson)
Matthew 18:1-6

There is this early memory I have. I am four years old; or just barely five. I am sitting on the floor in the corner of our living room. I have a wire coat hanger in my hand, and I am looking at the electric outlet on the wall in front of me.

All children are scientists, and I am conducting an important experiment of discovery. I know that I am not allowed to stick anything in a wall socket. I have been told that this will kill me. But I seriously wonder what would happen if I only put this coat hanger really close to the wall socket.

There! OK, nothing has happened. What if I put it still closer to that slot? What if I put it right on, but not really on; just as close as I can get to it, but without actually touching it?

The next thing you know I am a very lucky boy. There is a little pop; a tiny snap! I am screaming and crying bloody murder.

I see the red line of a welt across my hand, and my mom is filling a bowl with ice for the burn. I have never tried that experiment again.

In the parade of the Ark of the Covenant, the golden box, the Chest of God, there was a sudden surge of power, and Uzzah, the priest, was dead. Thousands were there and witnessed this, but they do not tell us what they saw, or heard, or felt, if anything.

A man was dead because he reached out to keep the Chest of God from falling off the cart, when the oxen stumbled. The NIV translation of the Bible says, “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down.” (2 Samuel 6:7)

But I don’t think it was irreverence, exactly. After all, David wasn’t reverent in the presence of the Lord. David lost his temper with God. He was angry with God for what God had done to Uzzah: angry and afraid.

And, when the time for the next parade came, he still didn’t act in a way that we would call reverent. David danced before the ark, wearing the short-kilted robe of a priest, and danced so athletically, leaping up and down with so much enthusiasm, that those who were watching the king could clearly tell that he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

David’s royal wife Michal, the daughter of a king, had higher standards of reverence than David did. When he came home from the parade, she accused him of irreverent and un-royal behavior. David told Michal that he would make himself as merry before the Lord as he pleased.

For a few years, when I was in college, one of my summer jobs was working in a cannery. We had red lines painted on the floor, around hazardous equipment, and we were required to keep those lines painted fresh and clear, because they were warning lines. They represented danger zones in the cannery.

Because I was young, I thought those lines were silly. The real grown-ups who worked there didn’t think they were silly at all. They took the dangers seriously.

The lesson of what happened to Uzzah is not that God is hazardous or dangerous, but that there are ways of relating to God, or responding to God that may be dangerous, and even deadly.

And this is not just an Old Testament issue. Jesus, himself, tells us that how we relate to God and how we respond to God may be a life or death issue. Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Whatever Jesus means by being childlike; in Jesus’ estimate, this is a life or death issue.

David was a trained warrior. He was a walking danger zone all by himself. But, in his heart, David was a child. He was a child under the influence of God. Whatever he did, he did with all his heart. He acted from the heart, even though his heart sometimes led him horribly wrong. (And our hearts will do that, sometimes.)

In the kingdom of heaven, the childlike life is a God-impacted life. It is easy for children to come to the truth about God, and be aware of the presence of God, and the love of God. The children who know God always live a God-impacted life. David lived this sort of life. We can see that he always lived aware, and honest, and out in the open, in the presence of God.

When David was angry at God, he gave a name to the spot where he thought God misbehaved, so that it would be a place where that behavior would never be forgotten. When he was afraid of God, he hid the Chest of God at a neighbor’s house, the way a child might have a quarrel with a doll and hide the doll in the closet. When David was joyful he danced and danced and gave no thought to what his dancing looked like. It is only when we get older that we worry about what our dancing looks like.

David was always completely himself in the presence of God. But he was able, like a child, to be himself without thinking about himself at all. He was thinking about the one he was with. If Michal had walked in the parade, in front of the Chest of God, she would have been thinking about herself and what she looked like, and trying her best remind everyone who saw her that she looked like a queen.

How we relate to God and how we respond to God is a life and death matter. Michal was barren. It is true that she never gave birth to a child, but that was not the only way that she was barren. Her heart and soul were barren because, even if she had walked in the parade of the presence of God, she would only have walked in the presence of herself. What she chose to be was a deadly choice.

David was only fully alive because he was fully alive in the presence of God, and he was in the presence of God all the time. This made him really alive all the time. Michal was not alive in that sense at all; never. The way of living that she chose, consciously or by default, was a matter of life and death.

Uzzah, as he walked beside the Chest of God, was not in the presence of God. He was basically guarding a religious and historical artifact; something like a sacred heirloom.

It seems perfectly innocent that he reached out to protect the Ark from falling. It would have been irreverent and (even worse than irreverent) it would have been irresponsible, to his way of thinking, to let the thing fall to the ground. How could he possible imagine that God could take care of his own stuff? Yet not being able to imagine that God can take care of his own stuff is a matter of life and death. When you are not able to imagine this, you have crossed a line into a danger zone.

Uzzah must have been very proud to be in that parade, up to the moment when he reached out to steady the Chest of God. He felt very alive, because he was taking care of important stuff for God. He was taking care of God, in that sense. He was in charge and had no living sense that it was God who was in charge and taking care of him. He had no sense that God could very well take care of himself.

We are not spiritually alive when we think that God loves us because he needs us, or that we are alive because we are doing important things for God. If our life, as religious people, is about taking care of God’s stuff, and not about being taken care of by him, then we are not being very childlike in our faith, and our souls do not have much life in them.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chest of God, was not some kind of power cell, like in the Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It didn’t focus an energy that was capable of zapping people.

The Chest of God was a story book of the salvation of the Lord. It was a golden box that held the stone tablets on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. It held the staff of Aaron, Moses’ brother, which had been part of so many miracles in saving the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It held a pot of the manna; the miraculous food that fed the people of Israel in the desert. The Ark, the Chest, told the story of the Lord who commanded them, and who saved them, and who fed them and provided for them. (Eugene Peterson, “Leap Over a Wall”, p. 148)

The thing that was an artifact and an heirloom to Uzzah was the story of the power and the salvation of the Lord to David. And the story was not a fairy tale, and it was not like an article in the news about something that happened to someone else. It was a living story, because David lived every moment in the presence of the living God.

The Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God is also a story that takes us in. It is a living story and, when we become like children, we enter into it. It is the story of the Lord commanding, and saving, and providing for us.

But it is even richer than that because the Lord commands, and saves, and provides for us by becoming one of us. It is the story where he gives us life by sharing our life, and rescuing us from our darkness, and fighting and conquering two huge giants named Sin and Death.

By faith and trust we become part of the story as children of God. We live night and day in the presence of the God who reads the story to us.

The word “religion” comes from Latin and means a connecting thing. Religion is not an organization, or even a set of beliefs. It is all about connection with God. It is all about answering the question: how do you live in the presence of God? How do you respond? How do you react to God? Spirituality is another word for pretty much the same thing.

The life and death issue in our religious life or our spirituality focuses on the question: How do we respond to God? How do we live in his presence?
Uzzah and Michal had a religion or spirituality that was really all about them. It was about their being in charge of their own affairs, and being in control of themselves, and defining their responsibilities for themselves. Their religion and spirituality were essentially reverent but also essentially lifeless.

They wanted to save their dignity and not have to deal with majesty. There is an infinite difference (one that we often miss as religious people) between our dignity and God’s majesty. It is a difference of life and death.

David’s religion was one where God was in charge and might do anything, and could break out, or explode, at any moment, as he did with Uzzah; to set us straight or to give us joy. Whether David was angry, or afraid, or joyful, it never made him forget the presence of the living God. Whatever David was feeling, that went into his worship.

When you read the Psalms of David you see that everything in life went into David’s religion, and spirituality, and worship. There were no boundaries, no compartments: no places where God could be shut in, or shut out.

What we are doing here, in worship, this morning, is sort of our parade with David and his people. If we take the whole parade to heart, we can see that it is not a place for joy alone, but for honesty in everything we feel as we seek to live God-impacted lives.

And one of the most important parts of that whole parade, from beginning to end was a warning, when God broke out or exploded to show that how we choose to live in his presence is a matter of life and death.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"God-Impacted Life: Lamentation"

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 31:1-7; 2 Samuel 1:1-17: John 11:17-36

King Saul, that tormented man, that hater of David, is a mystery. Saul was a good man who loved hearing what the Lord wanted him to do, but, once he heard what the Lord wanted him to do; Saul always thought he could improve on God’s idea. (1 Samuel 15:20-25)

In this sense, Saul was incurably arrogant, but he was beautifully, loveably arrogant. He held people’s love. He held their loyalty, even when the darkness fell upon his mind and he became a dangerous man. Even after Saul made it his main mission in life to destroy and kill David, David never lost his love for Saul, or his sense of loyalty to him.

Because of Saul’s lovable but incurable arrogance, God rejected him as king of Israel. And God selected David to replace him.

I would like us to look at two important facts about Saul that we see in the stories of the end of his life. David saw these two things very clearly, and responded accordingly, and I think this is a part of why the Bible says that David was a man after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14)

David knew these two facts; and the song he wrote and taught his people to sing carried the lesson to them, and to us. The lesson shows us what to care about, and what to love, and what to grieve for, and how to grieve for it, when it is lost.

The two facts are these: Saul was a sinner who went terribly wrong as a king and as a human being; and Saul was glorious and beautiful as a king and as a human being.

The lament, the grieving song of David, in most translations begins something like this: “Your glory (your beauty) O Israel lies slain on your heights.” (1 Samuel 1:19) The glory or beauty in this song is Saul; or Saul and Jonathan, both. To David, both Saul and Jonathan were glorious and beautiful.

No one had caused David more suffering, and grief, and fear, and confusion than Saul. But Saul was beautiful and glorious to him. David himself tells us this.
This is very strange. It seems crazy, but it is very important.

And not anticipating or understanding this about David’s relationship to Saul cost one young man his life. The young man who looted the body of Saul in order to bring David the royal crown and the royal arm-band hoped for a reward with his report of Saul’s death. He also must have believed that he might get an even bigger reward by claiming to have been the one who killed Saul, because Saul was David’s greatest enemy. But the young man was dead wrong. David’s love for Saul was a mystery, but it was absolutely real.

Eugene Peterson takes the Hebrew word that almost every translation gives as glory, or beauty, and he translates it as “gazelle”; that fleet-footed, sure-footed, curvy-horned beast. And he is correct. It really is the word that the Israelites used as the name for that creature. The nearest I can get to why the other translators don’t translate it this way is that this name for gazelle also is used to describe other things that are glorious or beautiful.

The interesting thing about this word for gazelle is that it is also a love word. It was used in Hebrew love poetry. The Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon is a love poem, or love song. It is a song (or almost a miniature opera) about a lover and his beloved. Solomon wrote it as a wedding song for himself and one of his wives.

It has come to symbolize the love between the Lord and Israel, the love between Christ and his church, between God and his people. In this love song, the lover and his beloved use this word for gazelle to describe their feelings for each other. (Song of Solomon 2:9, 17; 4:5; 7:3) The lover says to his beloved: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twins fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.”

Since this is true, it gives us a strange way of thinking about other people. What if David, looking at Saul, saw in Saul what the lover sees in his beloved; saw what God sees in his people; and sees in us? And what if we, looking at God, could see the same thing back?

I have never seen a gazelle. I have seen deer, and elk, and I have seen antelope. Think of the thrill of watching a deer run up the side of a mountain. What do you see? Strength! Energy! Determination! Grace! Beauty! Wildness and passion! Something that makes your heart stir within you! Something that creates a passion in your heart!

What if we saw that in God; and what if God saw that in us? It would be the stuff of a love song. This is something that David felt toward Saul, and Jonathan, and God.
The lament of David for Saul and Jonathan is a love song, and David commanded his people to learn this love song, this grieving song by heart. David wanted his people to see what he saw, and grieve as he grieved.

First and most of all, David wanted to grieve; and he wanted his people to grieve as he did.

David’s song of grief, his lamentation, came to him word by word and note by note. Composing this song was part of David’s process of grieving. Once written, he would not put it away in a box. He would sing it. He would while away his time in singing his lament.

And his people would do the same. Their minds had the discipline of learning things by heart quickly. Still, it would take them time to hear the song and learn it. “OK let us hear that song one more time. OK, now we will try to sing along.”

The song would haunt their hours. One of them would sing it in one of their little stone houses, packed so close together in their villages, and everyone in the house would hear and join in, and the neighbors would hear, and join in, as well.

Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”(Romans 12:15) We have the problem of not knowing how to be happy when we ought to be happy. That is a real problem. But we also don’t know how to be sad, and weep, and grieve, when we ought. When we have lost something, or even more, lost someone, we need to take time to weep and grieve.

There is often so much to do in a time of loss and, in a way, it is a relief to have so many things to do; to bring order and get things done. But when those things are done there must be time to grieve, and not to hide from what has happened by just keeping busy.

There is nothing in this lamentation of David but grief; nothing but grief, and sorrow, and pain. There is no struggling for an explanation. There is no trying to figure things out. There is no seeking for the meaning of the loss. There is no seeking of comfort in the lament.

I think that to truly grieve one realizes that one cannot really comfort oneself. At least our own efforts at self-comfort don’t work very well. When something or someone has been lost, it is only our job to grieve that loss. It is God’s job to comfort us.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” (Matthew 5:4) it is a promise that will be kept. Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God and he will bring the comfort in his own way. It is alright for us to mourn until that comfort comes.

David and all the people of Israel had suffered a terrible defeat when Saul and his army were destroyed and routed by the Philistines. There was a lot to be angry about; and there was even more to fear. But there is no anger or fear toward the Philistines in David’s lamentation. There is only the thought: “Oh those Philistines. Don’t talk to them. Don’t even think what they might be doing.”
David, and his family and friends, had suffered relentless danger and loss from Saul. But there is no anger toward Saul.

Jonathan had been David’s best friend, and David would never have another like him. But there is nothing in David’s lamentation about any regret for a friendship cut short, or any regret for never being able to repay Jonathan for the many times he had saved David’s life and spoken up for him.

David taught his people to grieve without anger, or fear, or regret. Saul and Jonathan would never be seen or heard again in this life, and this was a loss of great worth, and glory, and beauty. The gazelles had gone.

On a larger scale, the losses, the tragedies, the disasters, the great evils that happen in this world cause a lot of fear and anger, but they seldom cause us grief and sorrow. If we knew how to grieve, and mourn, and lament these things, we might be wiser and know what to do, or know what we cannot do. Nations that know how to mourn and lament their losses and dangers, instead of being ruled by fear or anger, are likely to be wiser and healthier.

Those who know how to grieve, and mourn, and lament are the ones who know how to keep on loving. Anger, fear, and regret make us forget what it means to love and to be thankful for the gifts that we have been given. Anger, fear, and regret have nothing to do with love, and nothing to do with faith in the presence of the living God.

In all his ups and downs, in all his successes and failures, David lived in the presence of the living God. He lived a “God-impacted life”.

David could look at Saul and see the gifts of God in him. He could see that God had touched Saul and had a purpose for his life.

David made a lot of mistakes but he teaches us, through his lamentation, to see a God-impacted, God-touched world. The lamentation he sang doesn’t even mention God, but it sees the glory and beauty that God put in Saul; and that God still puts in this world where we live.
Jesus wept at the tomb of h
is friend Lazarus, even though he knew that he was going to bring Lazarus back to life, because Jesus, who is God in the flesh, sees his own gifts and their great value. Jesus sees the gifts of Lazarus, and Lazarus’ family and friends, and community they belong to, and the ugliness evil, and the ugliness of death. Even though death is a part of the rhythm of a fallen world and serves a valuable purpose in that world, something in us knows that death is not the way things are supposed to be.

We live in a world that God so loved, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16) Jesus, weeping at the tomb of his friend, shows us the face of God. Jesus shows us that there is a grief and mourning in the heart of God for a fallen world, and for us as fallen people.

The cross and the resurrection are God’s answer to his own grief, and to ours. The cross and the resurrection are the place where the Lord faces the causes of grief and loss, in sin and death, and the Lord defeats them, and begins the new kingdom of God.

We have all caused great harm and grief in our own ways; yet we are all glories, and beauties. We are God’s gazelles, God’s beloveds.

If we knew how to see a God-touched world, then we would see what made David lament for Saul, and what made Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus. We would take our time to do our job and fully mourn our losses, and our sins as well; and those of our neighbors, and of the whole world. We would not distract ourselves from caring, and we would not be distracted by our anger, fear, or regret.

If we learn from David’s lamentation, then we will begin to know how our griefs can be a part of God’s presence. We will meet our losses with a God-impacted life. Our lamentations will become part of a new love song.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"God-Imapcted LIfe: Desert"

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 22:1-5; 23:1-29 (“The Message”, Eugene Peterson); Mark 1:9-13

A census taker was working an area in the mountains, and there was one house he had to visit that was far from any paved road. First he came to a gate on a private road. It was unlocked, but there was a sign on the gate that read “No Trespassing”.
He opened the gate, and drove through, and closed it behind him. As he drove along, he passed other warning signs: “Keep Out”, “Violators Will Be Shot”, “Turn around Before It’s Too Late”, and “This Means You!”

He finally came to the cabin, and he knocked on the door. An old man with a shotgun opened the door. Surprisingly the old man was willing to answer the census questions, and then they started talking about other things: deer, and cougars, and coyotes, and eagles. The old man made some coffee and told stories for hours. Finally the census taker said he had to leave, and the old man smiled, and stood up, and shook his hand, and said, “Well, you come back again sometime. I don’t get many visitors up here.”

David spent years in the wilderness of Judah: it was not a wilderness of trees and rivers, but a wilderness of pure desert. And it was not a sandy, open desert. It was a desert you could hide in: with mountains, dry canyons, cliffs, ravines, and caves, and a few secret places where water could be found.

David was not a hermit in the wilderness. As we see, he soon had four hundred, and then six hundred, men with him. First there came his own family: his seven brothers, with their wives and children.

Because of the wars with the Philistines, and perhaps because King Saul was gradually falling apart in his rebellion against God, there were increasing numbers of people in the kingdom of Israel who had no good place to go: people who were in distress, or in debt, or just plain discontented. They found David, and David found a way to take care of them, and the families they brought with them. There were a lot of people to take care of.

David took care of them by going into the protection business and by being a hired mercenary. As for the protection business; David’s was honest work. There was no law and no security, so David provided it and was compensated for it. He put his men to work protecting communities, and farms, and ranches from the Philistine raiders, and from the raids of the desert tribes, because Saul was unable to keep the peace in the remote parts and frontiers of the kingdom. There was a time when David was briefly tempted to turn his protection business into a protection racket, but that is another story.

Because David had done all the right things, and because he had done everything well, he was a marked man. King Saul’s demented jealousy turned into demented fear and hate. And so David was a righteous outlaw, a good-hearted man with a price on his head, a human being blessed by God and set apart for a purpose: wanted, dead or alive.

That is the way it was. In one sense David seemed to have failed, and fallen short of a great potential. In another sense he was a victim: a victim of jealousy, insanity, injustice, and betrayal.

David started out in life without any ambitions at all. In a time when birth order really counted, he was the eighth son of a poor family. He was the spare. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as a “nobody”. (1 Samuel 18:18, 23)

Then the prophet Samuel silently anointed David to set him apart for a purpose. (1 Samuel 16:13) But we have no clue that David really understood this. He never spoke or acted as though he thought he was supposed to be the king, even after Jonathan, his best friend, the king’s own son, told him so.

For a while, the whole world seemed to open up before him. He was brought into the royal house to play the harp and sing for the healing of the demented king. He became a commander of the king’s armies. He became the king of hearts of the kingdom. All the people, and the king’s officials, and the king’s own family loved David.

But King Saul developed that nearly fatal fear and hatred of David, and tried to kill him more than once.

Hatred and injustice seemed stronger than love and goodness. David went from having nothing, to having everything, and then to having nothing again. All he had, at last, was the desert, and a community of misfits and rejects.

For years, David would live life on the edge of survival, always in danger; either on the run, or ready to run at a moment’s notice. If anything the Bible says is clear, it is this: David’s lot in life was unfair. It was undeserved. It was hard and hopeless.

There was no visible way out. And David just had to make do. His ambition was just to survive. He had to live in the desert and make it his home. And so he did.

Deserts are dangerous places where you have to be careful, and alert. You are forced to think first about the basics. You have to watch and listen for hazards, and breakdowns, and snakes, and other wild things. You take precautions. You watch out for the safety of whoever is with you. You have to know how to respect where you are and yet not be subject to your fears. Driving or walking in the desert requires a healthy kind of faith. Life hangs on the edge and becomes precious and holy. The desert shows us what it means to live on holy ground.

The Bible is full of desert stories. The first three generations of Israel lived in the land that God had promised them as if they were nothing more than strangers and desert dwellers. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept their tents and their flocks and herds away from the towns, away from the farmlands, out in the desert, out on the edge. This was God’s idea for shaping their identity; for making them people of faith.

When they lived for generations in the fertile fields of Egypt, along the Nile River, they were still on the edge. They were surrounded by abundance, but they lived in the desert called slavery. This was part of God’s plan to shape their identity and make them ready and hungry to live on holy ground of freedom and faith.

Then Moses led them from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, but they spent a whole generation in the desert in between. A generation died in the desert, and a generation was raised in the desert. The desert was the method of a faithful God to help his people rise above the failure of their faith into a living and active faith and confidence. This was God’s solution for shaping their identity.

When the everlasting Son of God came down from heaven, and entered the world as a human being, the Father in heaven had a plan to shape his son’s life in the desert. When the time was right for him to openly begin his work, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized. He heard his Father say, “You are my Son whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) And then we read this: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.”
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke the temptations are based on assumptions of doubt; to make the Son doubt the love of his Father, and to doubt whether that love was enough to sustain him in any circumstances.

Satan always started by calling into doubt what the Son had heard his Father say: “You are my son whom I love. In you I am well pleased.” Satan began with the words: “If you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)

The desert was the place where Jesus learned the absolute need to trust the fact that he was beloved, and to discover that it was enough in life to be so loved. Jesus came to restore us as children of God who can live in faith, trusting that we are beloved and living a new life because of it.

When we look at Jesus born for us, living a humble workman’s life for us, and dying on the cross, we see God at work setting the foundation for us to be the free and beloved children of God, with whom God is well pleased, who are able to live as new creations of God in the realm of a holy ground where the Lord reigns.

Ruthie Gillis tells me that, when she was about twelve or so, her parents gave her the job of taking the cows out to pasture. She had to take them out to a place a couple of miles from the farm. She rode the distance on horseback. She might have been afraid to be out there by herself with those cows, except that the field where they grazed was on a hill, and she could see the farm from there. That field is like the desert of God where God sends his people out to live by faith.

In another world, Ruthie could have been a beloved child, comfortable at home, waited on hand and foot. And that would have made her a spoiled child, a ruined child. But in the real world, Ruthie was a farm girl, wasn’t she, and that wouldn’t have made any sense at all.

Instead she was given something important to do. She was entrusted with the family business, out alone, out in the weather, out in the distance. Her faithful parents, in their great love, put her where things could happen, where things could be uncomfortable, where things could go wrong.

Ruthie would have to learn what it meant to be a real human being by being trusted by those who loved her. She would learn to understand, and love, and trust her parents, by being made part of their work, even the difficult parts, even the long, silent, lonely parts.

Would she show the same faithfulness and responsibility out in the field as she showed under their own roof? Ruthie was well beloved, and her parents were well pleased in her growing, and thriving, and the joy she took in her work; even when it was long, and silent, and lonely.

Earlier in the story of Saul and David, we can read that the kind of king that God desired for his people was a person after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel 13:14)
From the very beginning David had shown a heart that put into action his faith in the presence of God. He had shown a God-impacted heart. In the desert David showed the same heart that he had shown as a boy facing the giant Goliath; and as a young man set to the task of playing his harp for a deranged king; and as a member, by marriage, of the king’s own family. David had a good heart, a God-impacted heart, and his heart did not change during his long, hard, silent life in the desert.

The pattern for life as God’s beloved children, called by the Lord, called by Jesus for his love and purpose, always includes a desert. This is not a desert of sand and rock, or a lonely place of heat and thirst.

There is an experience in life that Eugene Peterson calls a “circumstantial wilderness”. We can find ourselves in a desert of circumstances. In the circumstances of loss or grief, sickness or failure, unfairness or disappointment, change or bad times, conflict or weariness, we can find ourselves in a long, silent, lonely place. We can be in a desert of our own making or the desert of people, and forces, and events beyond our control.

It is an experience where we can lose all sense of direction, all sense of hope. It is an experience in which we don’t know what to do and where there isn’t much we can do. It is an experience where we may be tempted to become angry, or depressed, or bitter, or deceptive, or vindictive, and live as though we are people who are not beloved by God or by those who have known us best. We may be tempted to become people who do not live lives after God’s own heart.

David passed the test of the desert.

He continued to serve others. We see this in the way he saved a town under attack, and the way he left the shelter of that town rather than subject its people to the temptations and dangers that would come from his presence there. (1 Samuel 23:1-13)

We see David’s heart in the way he found strength from his friendship and fellowship with others. We see that God gave him encouragement from his friend Jonathan.

We see David’s heart, most of all, in the way he found strength from God. (1 Samuel 23:16; 30:6) After years in the desert he would still be able to say, “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.” (2 Samuel 22:33)

David could have become a bitter-hearted human being because so many horrible things happened to him (as indeed they did). He had chances to pay Saul back for the harm he had done him. The misfits who followed David were full of encouragement for him to kill the king the first chance he had; but he didn’t do it because, even though David was the Lord’s anointed, so was Saul. (1 Samuel 24:1-7) The desert can be holy ground that teaches us that we are God’s beloved and so are all the others.

A desert of sand and rock is awesome and makes us mindful of the presence of God. Then it becomes holy ground. Our desert of circumstances is also holy ground and teaches us to depend on the presence of God by faith. Our desert teaches us the importance of the words and actions to which God calls us.

The cross itself was a vast desert in which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus was suspended in that desert, held by nails in his hands and feet, to make us the beloved sons and daughters of God.

This communion meal is the invitation Jesus Christ to receive all that he has done for us in the deserts of his life and his cross. The Lord’s Table is where we are invited to receive all that he has given us in the victories he has won in those deserts. He will feed us and nourish us when we are passing through deserts of our own, knowing that he shares them with us. This meal helps us to know that we are held in a love and faithfulness that are far greater than our own, and that that love is worth everything else. It is good to be beloved by God, and this is enough to sustain us in life.

Monday, August 3, 2009

God-Impacted Life: Fruitfulness

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 18:1-30 (Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”); John 15:9-17

Scripture tells us this about David: “In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him.” (1 Samuel 18:14) “Everything David did turned out well. Yes, God was with him.” (Peterson)

Sometimes I think I would like to be like that, wouldn’t you?

Except that, in David’s case, at the very time when things were supposedly going so well, someone was trying to kill him. His boss was trying to kill him. His king was trying to kill him. His father-in-law was trying to kill him. It’s true that these were all the same person (Saul); but that just made it all the more likely to happen. And the very reason David was about to lose everything and nearly be destroyed was this: that he did all the right things; and everything he did, he did well.

David could do all kinds of things, and do them well. He was a good shepherd. He was a good soldier and warrior. He was good looking. He had a fine voice. He could play and sing well, and he could compose his own songs, and perform them. He had a winning personality. When he was the leader, other people followed, and David led from the front. He had a lot going for him.

I don’t know exactly what to call it, when a person is successful at everything that he or she does.

I have known people like that. My cousin Don is a lot like that (though he swears that he has to work hard and systematically to achieve some of the things he wants to do).

I had a friend in seminary named Les who was like that. But Les didn’t have to work at things the way other people did. He was athletic. And he was handsome. He had been a high school band teacher for a few years, and so he played several instruments. He had a great singing voice. He didn’t seem to have to study like the rest of us in order to get good grades. He seemed to be able to preach at the drop of a hat. Some of the other students hated him because of this.

I am sorry to say that I didn’t keep in touch with Les, but (during those years) he was a very good friend. He and a couple other guys and I did a lot of things together and we had a lot of fun. And all those good times had nothing to do with all Les’ skills, or talents, or with anything you could see. Les, for all his good fortune, also knew how to be a good friend; and he took the effort to do it well.

I think that the art of friendship is a trait that David had. His readiness to be a friend is the fact underlying what the Bible calls his success.

Deeper than that; David’s experience of God as his friend gave him the freedom to be a friend to others. This was David’s greatest success because God has a different standard of success than we do, and this strength was God’s gift to him.

Jesus talks about bearing fruit: fruit that will last. (John 15:16) Fruit means more than productivity and results. It means more than what the world teaches us about success. The fruit Jesus talks about is the fruit of friendship.

Jesus says, “Remain in me,” (NIV) or, “abide in me” (RSV). “Remain in my love.” “Abide in my love.” (John 15:4&9)

Remain and abide are words of intimacy; words of friendship. The fruit that Jesus looks for is a life within us that works out from us. This fruit brings Christ into the world, so that his life can be seen in us; so that others can see that we are his disciples because our actions resemble his. (15:8)

David had the freedom to face the toughest things before him because he had experienced the Lord’s friendship. When David was just a kid, in his first meeting with King Saul, when he was about to go out and kill the Philistine giant Goliath with a stone from his slingshot, David was able to say, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37) David was able to say this, and act on it, because he knew what it meant to remain and abide in God’s love.

Saul’s son Jonathan felt drawn to David just from listening to David talk to his father, because he heard the freedom of David’s friendship with God. And Jonathan became David’s best friend.

King Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David because the Lord was with him. He had the Lord’s friendship empowering him, living inside him. But we should not think, from this, that there is a magical connection between the Lord being with you and you becoming attractive to the opposite sex.

We should stop right here, and realize what this means, and realize what is going on in David’s life and Michal’s family. Saul had already tried to kill David by pinning him to the wall with a spear. Did Michal feel sorry for David, and so love him? Did Michal feel rebellious toward her father, and express her rebellion by loving the man her father feared most?

We have to realize that Saul, in his prime, had been a popular man; in fact, a lovable man. I think that we can learn about what attracted the sister, to David, by looking at her brother: look at Jonathan. Jonathan never gave up on his father. He never left his father; because Saul was a great, great man; even in his decline.

David himself never lost his love for the king who tried, over and over again, to destroy him and kill him. This was a part of David’s deep friendship with Jonathan, and a part of what drew Michal’s heart.

Jesus defined friendship in a radical way, yet it is a definition that is rooted in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

When the Old Testament law says, “You shall love your neighbor as your self,” (Leviticus 19:18) it means that this love may come down to your very life. It was hard for David to leave the King he loved, even though the cost of staying was at the repeated risk of his own life.

Friends don’t like to impose on their friends, but friends will gladly do great and difficult things for their friends. David and his friends were like this with each other.

But David never had the chance to do great and difficult things for Jonathan, and Jonathan never benefited from his friendship with David in any tangible way, except in the intangible riches of simply having a friend. In fact, his own father tried to kill him once for being David’s friend. Jonathan saved David’s life, more than once, and died with his father in battle. And so he paved the way for David to become king in his place.

No, David was the only one to benefit from Jonathan’s friendship and Michal’s love. Part of the art of friendship is the graciousness of accepting help when it is offered. This is the hardest part of the art of friendship.

Since David would never have survived without his friends’ help, this is one of the rules of a successful, fruitful life; to let others help you when need it.
This is not the success of being productive. This is the success of survival as a sheer, unmerited gift.

A lot of experts advise against being locked in what they call a survival mode. But survival can be a good thing, if you are able to thrive again when the door to freedom opens, or you learn to pick the lock.

You see, even when David lost everything at the hands of Saul he was still a success, because he had the freedom of God’s friendship; which is everything, and has nothing to do with having anything else. And David was a success because he had human friends.

Saul and David are a perfect lesson of God’s version of success; which is not productivity, or results, but fruitfulness. Saul had everything. He had the kingship. And he was a failure; but not because he was unproductive. In fact Saul was a successful king, a productive king, in many ways. He lost a big battle at the end, but he did good things for his people.

David thought that Saul had done great things. When David got the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a song in honor of them, and one of the verses says, “O daughters of Israel weep for Saul, who clothed you with scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.” (2 Samuel 1:24) In other words, Saul had brought prosperity to an impoverished and plundered people.

Saul was a failure because he couldn’t receive gifts from others (not from God, and not from other human beings), and so he couldn’t be a friend. He lived in fear of those who, like David, could freely give great gifts to him. He had to be the king, and run the show, in such a way that drove him insane with fear and envy and jealousy of the abilities and gifts of others.

He had great love focused upon him, but he was alone because he had no freedom to enjoy that love. And so he was unfruitful. Only if you know you have had a friend can you be a true success.

There is a beauty in God’s brand of fruitfulness, and there is an ugliness in its loss. Everything that Saul does to protect himself, and to keep his dignity and his productivity, makes him weaker, and makes him look worse and more pathetic than before. Everything that is done to David, and every loss that he suffers, makes him stronger, and makes him look more like a king; and more and more like God’s friend.

God is king, and he expanded his kingdom by suffering loss and defeat. This is what God did by being born as a human baby resting in a manger in Bethlehem. We see God’s kingship in Jesus’ carpenter shop, and in Jesus finding his followers among a few fishers and farmers and tax collectors. We see God’s kingship in Jesus crowned with thorns and executed on a cross for our sins.

Saul tried to kill David by piercing him with a spear, and a Roman soldier pierced the body of Jesus on the cross with a spear as a sign of what the world thinks of God’s brand of success and fruitfulness. But there is nothing as fruitful in the kingdom of God as the cross.

The cross is the sign of God’s friendship for us. The cross brings life-changing help to those who cannot give anything comparable in return. The gift of God’s friendship, if we can accept it, gives us the gift of bearing the fruit of his friendship in the world. We can look at Jesus and see that we have a friend. We can live as the Lord’s friends and act out his friendship for others, and bear fruit that will last. This is the fruitfulness of a life that has been impacted by God.