A Friend of God

This morning my family and a back yard full of friends prepare to celebrate the first year of John Luther’s life. He was actually born the morning of August 28th. My strong willed daughter perhaps holding out so that her child be born on the same day as her beloved maternal grandmother, Atha Setzer and his great aunt, Brenda Coker! Now he is the third birthday celebrated, a Trinitarian!

He is such a special young man, always smiling, stealing our hearts. Though I must say of late, he has learned much about the art of manipulation. He is brilliant, for at the age of one, he knows how to move from a radiant smile, a gentle hug, to a face that stops half way between inner joy and a frown. You guessed it, just at the moment that he senses potential denial of whatever he might desire!

This kid has a future that is amazing, though he may at times tax God! Hey, so did his grandpa! Enough of the doting grandfather stuff, but it was so real in my heart this morning as I was praying.

I am reading a book, that has stared at me for about three months, since first receiving it at our local City-wide prayer meeting in May of this year. The book by Jan Harrison is entitled, Life After the Storm. Built around the tragic loss of a son, she is able to minister to those stuck in grief, and seems to have a grip on the reality and necessity of mourning.

How does that relate to my life and why would I begin a post on grief with paragraphs describing celebration? Already I suspect that you are experiencing my inner turmoil. It seems to be my gifting! My devotional time this a.m. seemed a set up! The book’s message so timely, as so often seems to be the case in my life. Someone drops a book into my hands; I take it home and place it beside my morning reading chair. Eventually I pick it up and it begins to read me!

How could I be grieving at such a wonderful moment in our lives? What would I have to mourn, being so blessed?

In Harrison’s words, “Greif is defined as mental distress. It’s the factual knowledge that we possess intellectually of an intense loss we have suffered.” She then goes on, “Mourning is the physical and emotional activity that helps me process my pain and loss and learn to accept them.” Those two sentences articulated such valuable insight.

Life is about struggle, if your life is making a difference. However, it often seems to take a death, the loss of a marriage, a wayward child to bring this struggle to the fore in a way, that our emotional façade is no longer able to cover it. Fortunately for me, and for you, God always provides a way of escape that we might be able to bear it.

For me, in this most difficult season, when everything my life has been about seems at times in question, a child was born. John Luther’s birth has been a Bethlehem moment for me, now six years into a message about foreclosure, to the institution that I so love, the Church. As well, almost 20 years into my calling to this city, so perhaps what you hear is my tiring?

When I cry out to God in my distress and anguish, He reminds me of the gifts he has given me, the “just in time” provision he always brings, and the fact, that I am a friend of The “I Am.”

That is enough, and suddenly my weeping turns into dancing, and my heart finds new strength for the struggle!

“He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3-5

Joyfully, I follow my friend!

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Oh, The Donkeys We Ride!

“The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it…” Jn 12:12-14.

This morning I was reflecting on the continual challenge of making church work, encouraging a diminishing attendance, sharpening our aging programs, maintaining our facilities, avoiding mission drift, and on and on it goes.

I had to wonder how Jesus always seemed to move with such simplicity.
Surely when He spoke of “building my church,” He did not have our version in mind?

He, unlike the ruling culture, did not select the best steed nor the shiniest chariot, but the “foal of an ass.” Yet when he moved, multitudes followed.

At his most critical moments, such as the one that lay before him as he entered Jerusalem, it wasn’t with a marketing plan, nor the fanfare of a paid entourage, working the city before his arrival. He simply borrowed a donkey and let the Spirit do the rest!

Churches are at best tools, donkeys to be ridden. We in our postmodern times may have constructed something more akin to a Trojan horse?

It was never about the donkey that day in Jerusalem, but the message that the donkey carried.

When your church attempts to enter the marketplace are you greeted with palm branches of hope or sticks and stones?

No disrespect intended but I must ask, does your church carry the message, or are you, the messenger, now carrying the donkey?

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Learning from a Child

Sitting here in the dark with John Luther on my shoulder.  He is teething and with temperature, so I have the pleasure of his company today. He is resting quietly on my shoulder as I write, but with some need to cling, suddenly awakened by any attempt to distance myself from him.

Of course, if I lay him down, the cry he has learned to use is somewhat like my own.  That cry of alarm that awakens heaven when I am dis-eased by a falsely perceived distance from God.  I then pull him quickly back to my bosom.

John Luther, like his grandfather has his attachments, he likes to have three pacifiers within reach.  Even when asleep he will reach out and cluster them near his mouth.

I have my own pacifiers, certain sins that easily beset me, often reached for in my restless struggles.  I am much better than in my younger days, just as he will one day joke about his then distant neediness.

I am also learning anew the Father’s heart for me.  I feel His heart when mine is touched by John’s infirmities.  Whether an earache or a tooth trying to come through,  I suffer too, at least emotionally. 

He stumbles and bumps himself more often now, for at 11 months John is beginning to walk.  At first he was constantly grasping a finger, holding with all his strength for security.  Then came the day when his parents sent the video. He had broken loose on his own, pushing a toy with wheels somewhat like an older adult with a walker. 

The last couple of days, he has begun to stand up on his own, better enduring the awkwardness, as he gains confidence and stamina. 

He is learning that freedom is more enjoyable than being bound by the need for an adult hand.  Myself, at 67, perhaps still a little clingy, but my Lord, like this first time grandfather is always nearby, patiently awaiting my reach, but hoping for my breakthrough moment.

Will I ever grow up, truly walking “up-right” in the image of God? I certainly aspire to, but brokeness seems a part of my fabric.  My false-self as I read again this a.m.:

“Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.

The only One Who can teach me to find God is God, Himself, Alone.”*

*Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation.

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Progressive Revelation

Whether anything will ever come of my writing is becoming less and less significant. The conviction of my heart rather, did I honestly share my own thoughts or did I like so many, merely comply with the thinking of others? The latter is what I have observed in my sixty plus years of participation in the denomination laden religion of Christianity.

I can say that I have had phenomenal moments within my corporate experience of worship and have tasted of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the organic Church. Remember, I am fourth generation Pentecostal!

My life however, and for many reasons, has had the privilege of exposure to multiple denominations, and now multiple beliefs. During that journey it has been my practice to filter all my learnings through a disciplined reading of scripture. Perhaps that is what is now driving me to share more openly in my second semester of life?

This morning, I was again compelled to post given conversations of late, as I contemplated two of my favorite online devotionals, Ravi Zacharias; Slice of Infinity (1), their tag line by the way is “HELPING THE THINKER BELIEVE. HELPING THE BELIEVER THINK” and Richard Rohr (2)!

First from Ravi and writer Margaret Manning’s Unfolding Narrative: “Indeed, those who follow Jesus ought never to forget that God entered time to enact the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. As we grow in our understanding of that timeless act, the events of our temporal lives act as sign-markers for eternity. And while we often see the significance of our time-bound events “through a mirror darkly,” the day will come when “all things are subjected to Him…that God may be all in all.”(3)

Manning continues to allude to the progressive revelation of scripture, ““I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai) but by my name ‘the Lord (Yahweh)’ I did not make myself known.”(2) Within the long ministry of the prophets, a God is revealed who gradually discloses what will take place. Isaiah presents the God who “proclaims to you new things from this time; even hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, and not long ago: and before today you have not heard them” (Isaiah 48:6-7).”

There is something that happens with time and aging that causes one to dare think! “Come let us reason together” were Isaiah’s words (1:18, KJV). What God shared with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was a lesser revelation than that of Moses, and even that incomplete without the revelation of the Prophets.

What the Prophets shared could have been easily misconstrued had God not chosen to fully cloth Himself in flesh in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Still yet, post resurrection, the Holy Spirit continues to unfold the mystery of God, as men and women remain open or as Rohr concludes, via the work of contemplative Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), die to one’s false self.

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . .”(4)

The Apostle Peter in his more mellow years wrote: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (II Pet 3:9 NIV). One of God’s promises was to Hagar, the mother of Ismael. “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” (5)

Is that perhaps what is going on in these “last days” as Muslims by the droves come to a new revelation of Isa, Jesus the revered one?

Then a little closer to home, I cannot help but be stirred by the recent and I believe honest confession of an “elder” in the Hindu faith during my recent visit to a local Puja. I felt “strangely warmed” as he spoke of his pursuit of the Creator. The gathering lasted more than two hours as “prayers” were offered in preparation for the construction of a new temple in the Village of Clemmons. Don’t discount this stirring of hearts, as God is up to something big! The danger is thinking that you know what that “Big” looks like!

For those now totally on edge, I offer clarity as to my point of view. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”-Jesus.

Be careful as you look through this “mirror darkly” for when you think you have it figured out, just know that well intended people have been wrong before! “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and people say, ‘Look at him! He’s a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”(6).

1 http://rzim.org/

2 http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?ca=106a2b57-b859-43fc-8c4c-004517d7ea0d&c=d34a34d0-eef9-11e3-b593-d4ae52754b78&ch=d4304f10-eef9-11e3-b60f-d4ae52754b78

3 http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity

4 Ibid, Rohr 8/18/15.

5 http://biblehub.com/genesis/17-20.htm

6 http://biblehub.com/matthew/11-19.htm

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“The Family of the Unsandaled”

The above language from Deuteronomy 25:10 stood out this a.m. in my annual read through scripture. Whether such a linear devotional practice has paid off for me stands to be determined. Yet after 40 years, it seems that my greatest revelation often springs from the mention of such austere rules.

The text references the shame that accompanied a sibling unwilling to sustain a family member’s lineage. “This is what is done to the man who will not build upon his brothers’ family line.” (Deut. 25:9). City elders would then allow the surviving spouse to offer herself to other near-kin, upon which time the sibling refusing is relieved of responsibility, but only after removing his sandal and being spit upon by those in authority.

Being barren was the ultimate Hebrew shame, the potential plight of Judah’s daughter-in-law as well as with Ruth and her near kinsman, Boaz. If God’s nature is the author of such curse, why would God chose that lineage for the Messiah, the Christ? The legalist must either deny the Christ or consider that scripture both captures the best of God and the worst of man. Unfortunately, the latter is often transferred to the nature of God by the same broken men inspired to write about God! Otherwise, God breaks His own rules?

As I age, I am less inclined to follow the rules of religion, often meant to protect the image of God, as if God needs our help! Perhaps some maverick spirit has possessed me, but I base my thoughts upon a long journey with a merciful God, unwilling that any should perish. No other being has ever changed the course of the world like Jesus, and His very words were, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” No other name has every provoked such angst when mentioned. There is “something about that name.”

The stories around this man’s life cannot be denied given the miraculous power displayed, his compassion for others and the impact upon His followers. Men and women risked their lives daily just to be in his presence a few more moments. Even after His death and until this day, the devoted still offer themselves as living sacrifices and often face brutal deaths to carry on His name.

My own life would perhaps be easier, if, I chose not to adhere to the Word spoken daily to my heart. I cannot get away from my life experience, the miracles and the mercy. All this compounds the revelation from this phenomenally mysterious book, the Bible. Daily as I read, I find myself challenged by my unseen Friend, the Lion of Judah, the offspring of Boaz; Jesus, the One born out of “The Family of the Unsandaled.”

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An Interfaith Experience

Hindu Event

Saturday was quite the day for me, given my tendency to be overly concerned with what folk think of me. I awoke early to the criticism of my “Correspondent of the Week” article posted in the Journal West on July 22. A resident of my community apparently misunderstood or perhaps failed to read for clarity?

Given that one can never please all and hold firm any personal convictions, I moved on, after posting a brief statement on Facebook! Again, perhaps the residual wounding of six years in politics, but I am sensitive to what folk think of me, and more so what they think of the Christ whom I follow.

That criticism created some pause in my plans to attend the Puja scheduled for that morning on the site of the soon to be constructed Hindu Temple. A Puja is not a ground-breaking or ribbon cutting, just a time of offering prayers in response to what had been an awkward moment in their plans to build in Clemmons.

My faith was on the line, and I was not without reservations as I headed out to welcome these citizens as a Christ-follower, lest they misunderstand my actions as endorsing their beliefs. If you are familiar with the Pentateuch you would know from the Book of Deuteronomy, that Moses was very opposed to any engagement with those who worship different gods. Yet, I felt compelled to follow through with my convictions, reaching out in love on behalf of the One whom I have come to know, as the Lover of all mankind!

I called a dear friend and Bishop in the faith, and to my delight, he asked if he might go along. I assured him that I would be glad to have him accompany me; in fact I was somewhat relieved.

We both dressed appropriately without appearing too official. Our intent was to respect these gentle people, yet, best represent the community given that I am a former mayor.

We arrived at the site a few minutes early and noticed two sheriff deputies parked nearby, apparently warding off any further harassment, given that someone had earlier used their sign for target practice.

We took our place in a field of some ten or so cars and followed others toward a plastic tent, under which two Hindu Priests wrapped in ceremonial dress sat alongside a small band of followers. We learned that they were chanting in Sanskrit with incense being offered. Some canned goods and fruit had been set out, perhaps symbolic of an offering? Here we were, two ordained ministers, just outside the tent, standing amidst an assortment of shoes and sandals, belonging to those gathered under the tent. We kept our shoes on!

We were immediately greeted by a very kind man, wearing an off-white linen Hindu robe. He walked barefoot to the edge of the tent along with his wife and daughter, bowing and greeting us graciously. We explained why we were there and quickly felt welcomed. We asked questions about their belief and were surprised by the commonality of their position regarding the deity, creation, and the fall of mankind. It almost seemed as if the “Our” God and His creation had already somehow leaked many Christian beliefs, though expressed quite differently in language and titles.

I know I will sound gullible, especially to the one so quick to criticize my previous Journal submission. However, many of my fears were quickly eroded as I got to know this gentleman, not as a Hindu but as a fellow citizen. By the way, he and in fact both of the priests, were local fulltime IT professionals!

Though we did not stay for the entire two hours, we came away strangely warmed by our experience, and at a nearby Panera debriefed, as to how we might be more effective at loving people, with the same love we have experienced in Christ.

I stand by my quote from the earlier article:
“As a Christ follower, the rules are simple for me: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Not the neighbor that thinks like you, worships like you, or looks like you … just love your neighbor.”

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True Community

This past week was quite amazing in that I had gracious time to be alone when needed, and the privilege of spending seven days with my family and my only grandson, John Luther.

The week also included the luxury of time with a book, Church Refugees (1) by Josh Packard, which includes data collected from a group known as The Dones.  As well, I had the privilege of comment in the local newspaper regarding the growing pluralism within our community.(2) That may be how you found my blog.

Church Refuges

The Dones, based on over 100 interviews among those who have left the churches, ages 18-84, are identified as those who “gave up on the institutional expression of church. They didn’t stop doing things to advance what they believed to be the work of God; they stopped doing things to advance the work of the church. Their substantial energies and skills are now poured daily into activities and structures that happen completely outside the purview of organized religion. They’ve opted for relationship over structure, doing over dogma, and creating with rather than creating for. In short, they’ve created a new religious home.”

Since 1973, following a profound God-moment on January 3rd, my life has been about serving the church and my community. The latter has received most of my focus after an encounter with God in 1978, and a calling to cities.  During that near six year period, I had served the church intensely, to include associate pastor.  As well, along with a small band of passionate believers,  we physically built a new sanctuary, debt free!  When it seemed that a small church was insufficient to reach a city, my family and I eventually sold our new home and relocated to another community to be a part of a mega church. We have now served there for over 25 years.  “Devoted to the Church” would be an understatement.

I find the Dones not to be the people that during my 40+ years of church were easily offended by their pastors, or those dodging responsibly and without passion for “the lost.” It seems these are those who most desire true community and understand what it takes to get there.

“Community must be worked at, nurtured, and nourished. It’s a misconception to think that community naturally occurs when people get together often enough or that community occurs when people who agree with each other come together. Community happens when people share life together, when they see each other repeatedly and share experiences. These commonalities lead to a feeling that people can be counted on and to a shared sense of reality and values.”3

Packard and Hope go on to say, “Instead of understanding that shared life leads to shared beliefs, churches frequently want to make sure that everyone signs on to a common belief system before they can begin to do life with each other. This is not only a dubious way to practice Christianity according to our respondents, but also a profoundly ineffective way to build community.”4

Since that 1978 moment of clarity and calling in my life,  my focus has been about following Christ in the marketplace perhaps long before that became the language of the contemporary church.

Somehow my life has always been about “the next”, an often misunderstood way of life, though at times it may ring of vision!  I for sure have empathy for John the Baptist, and though tested no where to the extent he was, I can feel his heart. Luke records him “calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

I am not yet a Done but I do have days like John when I question what is going on.  Not whether Christ was sent from God, for I know the encounters, the “thin moments” I have had with Him over time.  My questions come when I look at the number of churches that dot the hillsides of our country, yet observe the direction that our country seems to be going. That by the way was not meant as a political statement. Our problems are spiritual,  our politics only symptomatic!

When I engage within my community, and there find scores of people who love God with all their hearts, but are isolated from each other in their most meaningful spiritual moments, I wonder about our strategy as the Body of Christ and the limited impact of our spiritual siloes.  Especially when it seems that so many of the critical, high impact decisions on behalf of community are left to those who at best may use religion solely for political gain and at times demonstrate the least integrity.

When Jesus gathered his disciples for that Last Supper moment, sharing the intensity of what he knew was about to occur, he made a statement whose meaning we may have lost in our intent to secure that critical moment in the form of a sacrament. He said, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in remembrance of me.” I wonder if the “this” he desired was not just to serve communion, but to practice true community?

1 Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith Kindle Edition, Josh Packard, Ashleigh Hope, 2015.

2 http://www.journalnow.com/journal_west/news/guest-columnist-on-proposed-hindu-temple-love-thy-neighbor/article_0ee07956-300c-11e5-9e62-3be7d2972554.html

3Church Refugees, 2015.

4Ibid.

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