Friday, May 29, 2020

What's Going On?

I was thinking this morning about what God was doing with the pandemic and people's "pandemia". I have heard it said that the more things change the more people stay the same. I wonder in what way this is true?

I thought about cultural shifts even in my lifetime. Matters like attitudes toward women at work after WWII, the hippie movement, love and Woodstock, Viet Nam war protests and the response to returning vets as opposed to today. I thought about the historical shift under Constantine with Christianity being the scapegoat of governments and kingdoms to becoming the favored child. How the  context of morality has shifted from that day till this. I thought about how the development of "pandemia" and its fear can add to the impact of world wars, world pollution, world disease, could add to the idea of need for a one world government.

And I thought to myself people are indeed still the same. Being lost is not just a religious idea. It is a moral truth. We seek answers from government, leaders and others and they are never enough.

What is God up to in a pandemic? In answer to that thought, I found some things that made sense. There is an abundance of scripture that indicates it was the work of God to provide the fundamental structure of our existence. You know, the inanimate stuff of physics, quantum physics, math, science and such. Next it was the work of God to bring life to interact with those building blocks. Now comes the very interesting development: moral structure to deal with the freedom we have to play with God's building blocks.I bet your mom told you very early on not to throw the blocks. Right?

The first two steps are PROVISION and the third step is OPERATION. In operation God has shifted gears. The question, what is God doing, has to do with purpose and that may or may not interfere with my purpose. After all it is my life isn't it? Now we're getting to the meaning of the phrase the more things change the more they stay the same. When it comes to purpose we are pretty focused on what's in it for me. But out lives are a part of things much larger than ourselves. We live in the context of the movement of men and nations, of pandemic disease (Covid-19 is not the first nor the last), moral shifts, cultural shifts, immigrant and emigrant shifts, World Wars and we want to know: What is going on?

Let's shift gears for a bit. Her name was Grace Griffin. She was my great Aunt on my mother's side. Late in life she came to live with my folks but before that she was a lifelong resident of Maine and lived with my grandmother in So. Portland. When we went to visit grandmother, we visited grandma and Aunt Grace. I remember her reading her bible or commentary and marking them with a red pencil she kept handy. It had no eraser just a gold cap and it said Harris Oil Company on it. She might look up and share with delight some insight or truth she had just found as naturally as we might talk about some movie or TV show we saw when we were at school in homeroom. After her death I inherited her G. Campbell Morgan commentaries on the Gospels. I still love to see what she had marked and wonder about her conversations with the Lord concerning those thoughts.

His name was Collins Cramer (Rev). He was my grandfather on my dad's side. It was my privilege to live with him and grandmother on the farm for one summer. He farmed for Old Home Manor in PA and pastored a country church. Like my Aunt Grace he delighted in the scripture. On occasion as I passed by his study he would emerge to share his insight and excitement about a passage of scripture and what it said to him. In the morning when I rose I would hear him at prayer, prayer for people, his world and his grandson. After a bit he would call me to breakfast and we would go out to work in the fields with other men and equipment.

My parents and many others of the family on both sides shared these common traits of naturally delighting in concepts they found in the bible and sharing insights as to how they would work in life. Life was very much about what God was doing. They too wanted to know what God was doing, but their perspective on that was very different. Faith did not mean pie in the sky. The Christian life meant going to God. And in the going to God they traveled the same ground as everyone else, they breathed the same air, drank the same water, shopped in stores, read newspapers, were citizens under government, paid for groceries and gas, feared the same dangers, had the same pressures and got buried in the same ground.

So what is the difference? They knew each step, each breath, each success, each tragedy, in all of life, they were preserved by God, accompanied by God, ruled by God and in it all they would be guarded from every evil by the One who guards our very life.

Eternal life given to them by repentance and faith is a quality of life that never perishes nor fails. It keeps us untarnished in the midst of life regardless of its trouble. And when life comes to its end in an expected manner or unexpectedly, it never wins for those marked by eternal life. The quality of life goes on in greater power and depth after death, for it is the quality of life needed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "But to deviate from the truth for the sake of some prospect of hope of our own can never be wise, however slight that deviation might be. It is not our judgement of the situation which can show us what is wise, but only the truth of the Word of God. Here alone lies the promise of God's faithfulness and help. It will always be true that the wisest course for the disciple is always to abide soley by the Word of God in all simplicity."

It occurs to me while under stay at home orders, that we would do well to not only be concerned about online teaching but about the offline teaching we have modeled and shared concerning what God is doing.

It was from the lives of other Christians I came to lay the foundation of knowing God provides that which I need to even exist. I came to see the activity of God in the lives of those who knew him well. I came to hunger for and find the same indwelling God they had found. If flows down to me and out through me to my kids, my grandkids and others around me. Indoctrination? Hardly. It's just water that spills over from the well springs of everyday life in Christ.

What falls from your bucket?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

What About a Cure?

In 1996 a movie called Spitfire Grill came along. Its setting was Gilead, Maine so I purchased the video and still have it. The main character is a young woman who gets released from prison in Southern Maine and comes to Gilead for work in answer to an advertisement. She meets folk who are broken in some way and discovers a secret that impacts the little town and links to Viet Nam. A key moment in the story has two characters looking out over the beauty of Maine and the music is an old hymn based on Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” The words of the chorus:

                                    There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
                                    There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Now in Jeremiah’s day there was a national pandemic of behavior that denied their spiritual heritage and redefined the ways of God according to their own desires and wishes. The use and moments of plague in the OT interrupts all illusion of being in charge, for as we know, in the time of plague there seems to be no cure. During these times the sovereign God calls people back to himself, to the place of healing for their sin sick soul. I cannot help but wonder, and pray that this might be a time calling us individually and nationally to a time of healing and redemption with God.

Our lives have been interrupted. Patterns of politics, exercise of authority, business life, financial desperation, marital pain, kids without school and their friends, where abuse was present it intensified, death that could not be met in normal ways, all these things have been our reality. As we cautiously begin to come out of the grip of our pandemic, we are not able to do things quite the same way. In fact we may never do some things in the same way. We are praying for no resurgence and for a cure to come.  Before us lies the possibility of new ways, to consider the balm of Gilead – the reality of God to not only change our ways but to change our heart.

Herein is the sticking point. As evidenced by our stay at home order, state of emergency order, social pressure for masking and distancing, with enough pressure, we can change behavior as long as there seems a pay off. Religion is often thought of as just another pressure point to make us to change behavior. Popular opinion considers the pay off of religion to be shallow and of little value. And in some cases it may be true. But where a healthy church lives in relationship to the living God, there is spiritual transformation, courage, community, faith, connected friendship, emotional wisdom, all the things we need to do life and continue on even through pandemics. With proper obedience to the wisdom of those who deal with disease, our denied one hour per week might have been one of the most needed sources of strength for people. It still happened by going online but it required the church has to flex and change and not just do business as usual. To our surprise we found we often doubled our listeners. Many churches will continue to be online and never look back. Encouraging, mentoring, teaching and more can be done at odd times and in one on one connection with online capability. The tendency to do what we always did only to get only what we always got is very strong. In these new days God is leading us to build new flexibility upon a solid thought, through biblical truth that brings light to the ways of living into all who seek after the truth and life in Christ.

Let me speak to this religious devaluation. I am the grandson of a pastor, the son of a pastor, the nephew of pastors on both sides of the family, the 1st and 2nd cousin of pastors on both sides and I am a pastor. I know about the real and alleged complaints about Christians. Truth: In the world of people of faith and not faith there are people who live as judgmental legalists. The following statement cuts two ways: Judge not lest ye be judged for the judgment you use will be the judgment used against you. Simply put: It takes one to know one. In our immaturity, a journey for which there are no shortcuts, we have the process of growing in favor and wisdom and stature with God and man. How did Jesus grow? He surrendered his heart and will to the Father and followed him with deep reverence and learned obedience through suffering. Where do you see an exit door for you based on the behavior of others? Is it not just evidence that God is not more important than your judgment?  Isn’t the truth of your struggle with faith that it often operates when you cannot see the evidence of your faith? Some politicians have the same problem. We need to hunger for our growing knowledge of God to develop emotional wisdom. The cost is a deep surrender and to walk with God. Consider the following coming out of and being used within your relationship with God and people:
1.       The ability to accept people as they are, not as you would have them to be
2.       The capacity to approach relationships and problems in terms of the present rather than in the past
3.       The ability to treat those who are close to you with the same courteous attention that you extend to strangers and casual acquaintances
4.       The ability to trust others, even if the risk seems great
5.       The ability to do without constant approval and recognition of others

So the goal of faith is not just more followers, but growing understanding of how Jesus functioned at every level. Remember Jesus did not come to abolish moral standards but to exceed them by living to their intent. Living by the letter of the law alone only makes us a crank! Theology and biblical understanding requires us to be in partnership with God transforming us. Not only are we forgiven of our sin and have a born again experience, but we are engaged in the journey of becoming more like Jesus. We are a people of grace, drawing others. By our words and life we say, “Come meet the one who has changed and is changing me.”

One day Jesus came by my house. I was glad to see him. I had just purchased a tandem bike and with the stay at home order lifted, his timing was perfect. I invited him to go with me on this beautiful day of freedom and he agreed. We laughed and talked and enjoyed the beauty of newly minted green and bright colored flowers peeking out. We stopped by a water fall and explored the trail and jumped the rocks looking at the pools. I learned of him and I learned about me, to my surprise. After that he was always around for our trips and supplied power and commentary on our daily trips. There were places I did not want to go and conditions under which I didn’t want ride and occasionally I grew lost and afraid. After all I was driving and had control of the steering and brakes.

One day the trail turned steep and rocky and I was unsure of our balance and our way. It occurred to me this happened in our travels more than I realized and that day I thought to ask Jesus to take the front seat. I would pedal from the back. As soon as that happened I discovered a peace and joy that I had not known even though I had Jesus as my companion on my tandem bike. But when I became his companion, everything changed. We went on paths I would not have traveled. Sometimes the steepness or roughness or even wildness of his ways intimidated me. But along the journey we would stop and find places of incredible beauty and rest that I never would have discovered on my own. I began to discover the way of considering the adventure in life rather than the struggle of life. I began to know my companion, myself and others at a depth I had not known. My new way of viewing life’s travels came from my deep surrender and obedience to Jesus. Oh and we became a part of a band of bikers. Life has never been the same and I’ll never look back.

Has Jesus stopped by your house and offered to go riding with you? Take him up on it. You’ll never see life the same again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Practicing a Freedom Fundamental to My First Bill of Rights

I parked my car and watched for a bit. Reluctantly I put my mask on. I never liked using it even when I was painting and needed it. I liked it less when I wasn’t sure it really did much good. Slowly I wandered across the lot and claimed my six feet. It did feel a lot like death. A nicely dressed couple older than me got in line behind me. No masks. He disappears and after a bit I notice him coming across the parking lot clutching masks. They were reluctant too. We would have to go by the counters and the mask police to get in. The line advanced.

I looked out to some distant mountains and up toward the clouds and warm sunshine. I was already feeling uncomfortable, no irritated, no an edge of anger. The last weeks when the numbers were higher, no masks were needed. We handled social distancing on our own. And now two days late and a dollar short mandatory masks? I decided I better practice my religious freedom right then and there in the rather resigned waiting line. Now your first thought might be, “You left the line and went to church?” Why would you think that? Is it because our culture has conditioned us to think church is the gathering place? No our first amendment is broader and deeper than that. No I lifted my eyes to the distant shadowy mountains and considered who I was and where I was. I began to consider what the fictitious character Father Tim in the Mittford series by Jan Karon, would call the prayer that never fails. The line advanced.

My father who is not dead but present in the heavens, your name is hallowed. The impact and worth of that is so far above valuing my frustration and speaking out of that emotion. Your character/name speaks power to my heart. In the midst of “governmental control” my place in the kingdom come, your will be done not in abstract religiosity but in your will flowing down to me and out through me. I began to think of the weary lady leaning on the cart before me and the quietly resigned gentle couple behind me. I began to want the will/presence of my Father to be done in my spirit on this little piece of sidewalk. I was there to get some daily bread, true but its availability was now a matter of interest but not of disgust if it were not present. I am of the forgiven. My advocate and intercessor was present in line with me through the person of the Holy Spirit. And in those moments of worship my own spirit began to change with peace and presence of my own that would come to make a difference in the way I regarded those around me. The line advanced.

I was being gently led past the temptation to kill the peace and purpose of being a child of king. The fruit of the tree of knowledge good and evil led me to be aware of the faulty distribution of safety, the misuse of information not for good but for manipulation, some untrustworthy leaders led to distrust of all leaders dealing with human reaction to the unknown. I was being tempted to go down a rabbit hole. I was nearing the entrance. My heart was being freed from the one who was saying, “What of your rights? What of your freedom? What of fairness?” Not today. Not today, evil one. And the line advanced.

I thought about the benefit of social distancing. I wouldn’t have need of as much deodorant and therefore would save money! And I thought of the disappointment of the day. Unlike many of the long lines I stood in, at the end there would be no ride or entertainment venue. Now I was past the counter and the masker. I got my cart and wiped down the handle as my wife said I should. It felt like the first time I bought eggs after getting married. I went to the store full of new importance. As I approached the eggs I saw a lady picking up her eggs and turning them slightly. Wanting to stay in good graces with my new wife, I opened the lid and turned the eggs for some reason. Nothing. So a bit desperate I turned to the lady and asked, “Why are we turning the eggs?” After laughing she said, “To make sure they weren’t cracked!” Oh.  After being in the store a little while I crossed paths with the couple who had been in line behind me. Since we were in the personal products area, I shared my observations about deodorant and the end of the line. Amidst the laughter we soldiered on a bit lighter. And the line advanced.

Augustine wrote when “force is applied, the will is not aroused. One can enter the Church unwillingly, one can approach the altar unwillingly, one can receive the sacrament unwillingly; no one can believe except willingly.” It is incredible how faith misdirected can take you all kinds of places, even to the evil ones delight. But to fix your eyes on Jesus, set him as the navigational point in your everyday ordinary running around life, there is religious freedom. 

So yesterday at Walmart I practiced my religious freedom in a broad and most powerful sense. I trusted the Lord with all my heart, soul mind and strength. If it be possible let the pandemic pass, “yet not as I will, but as you will.” And the line moved…

Thursday, May 7, 2020

To Deal with Fear Keep the First Things First (WWJD)

What Would Jesus Do was a theme that ran through the Christian community a few years back and these initials became iconic. Actually in these days of Covid-19 it’s an interesting question. What would Jesus do in the face of life worldwide stricken by fear, confusion and hope rooted in the best man can do?
                He could bring healing.
                He could restore jobs and economic order.
                He could supply food for all.

Wait. Haven’t we seen these temptations laid at Jesus’ feet before? Wasn’t it when he had fasted 40 days and Satan confronts him when he’s weak and hungry? His humanity, given the fact that he was fully human and fully divine, was on display. A temptation has something to do with willingness to accomplish a thing, even a good thing immediately by taking an ethical short cut. It’s not always evil at the first glance. Wait. Didn’t Eve and Adam struggle with this? Surely it would be a good thing to know how to deal with good and evil properly? I mean what if God wasn’t around and they had to deal with something on their own? Surely God wouldn’t mind if they took on evil by themselves. Of course that’s assuming they wouldn’t be deceived, assuming they wouldn’t be subject to the law of unintended consequences, assuming their hearts wouldn’t fail them for fear. After all they weren’t made as gods, they were only created in his image.

Hebrews 3-6 has some valuable insights for us to draw upon. In chapters 3 and 4 we find a word picture that God intended for us human types to have a place of deep rest, of security, of belonging. It’s something we find hard to experience in these days of isolation. Rest describes a way of life that was love’s deep purpose behind the Garden of Eden. Clearly he is intending for this connection of deep rest (being loved and knowing we are valued and living out of this strong peace) to be ours. Imagine your humanity and mine being part of the very tool Jesus uses to destroy the one who holds the power of death. Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

Even as we do battle against a disease that seems incredibly contagious and that has no cure, even as we wear masks, practice isolation through stay at home orders, we are discovering a fear of other kinds of death. Death of income, death of business, death of all supplies being available whenever we want it, all the things in which we placed our security are being tested and found lacking. But still there is no real movement to look to Jesus and trust him. In fact we hear words from the largest city in America concerning the numbers of deaths going down. “It’s not God, it’s not prayer, we are doing this ourselves.” Governmental orders are being obeyed. Wait. I heard this before in Daniel 4:27-31. After negotiating dreams came true, King Nebuchadnezzar was challenged to obey the living God by renouncing his sins and DOING what is right, and his wickedness by BEING kind to the oppressed.  Then his prosperity might continue. Twelve months later he said “Is this not the great Babylon I have my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” In those very moments his place of authority crumbled and he descended into darkness. The key to the problem is not our humanity. It is our prideful heart. We demand life respond to us our way. When it does we exclude God and the truth that his moral ways of leading us with care, protection and mercy are fundamental to our success. We congratulate ourselves as though our wise leadership did it all.

Many years ago I was invited to go crabbing in Maryland. A boat, a big basket, twine wrapped around a square frame and some bait. We got the first one and we threw him in the basket. I had to keep pushing it down as it crawled out. “This is nuts,” I thought. “There’s no lid.” So I spoke up and the boat owner laughed and casually threw in a couple more. To my amazement as soon as one made progress getting out, the others would pull it down. No lid was needed. Soon there was a whole basket full of crabs that could not escape.

Jesus was to be both High Priest and Ultimate Sacrifice able to sympathize with our fear of life with no love or value as well as our fear of physical death. Legally and morally he paid the price and set the stage for us to change from ways that lead to death to ways that lead to life. Believe me he knows how we are tempted to slip back into the ways of self sufficiency that can take us back to death. Self-sufficiency doesn’t start out promising death but promises good. Stay home they said. Live they said. Care for others they said. But bills went unpaid, food became less certain. Jobs were lost, employees were lost. Fear set in even all around the world. Rightfully so because work is the biggest antidote to poverty!

Jesus knows the reality of these spiritual and physical deaths. He experienced the hurt of rejection, mocking, hatred, betrayal and physical death. Those who were amazed at his knowledge and wisdom at the age of twelve, eighteen years later rejected him and plotted for his death. These were men who knew the scripture. His own disciples quarreled at times over who was the most significant among them. They saw miracles but didn’t get the big picture. Jesus’ heart was heavy with the confusion of his people substituting rules to please God rather than obedience leading to serving God and others. He saw the suffering of people under the domination of government. Sicknesses, death, injustice, spiritual and emotional torment and prejudices and more plagued the world that he loved. In time these were the very things that put him on the cross where he interceded for us, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His mission was to transform our heart, to repair the great divorce of sin and to provide a rest of deep knowing the love of the Father that covers our neighbor and our own heart. A love like this can transform a world. Turning from it can turn a world into darkness. Unlike the offer of making a good temporary life in our own strength, he offers eternal life. This life is a deep rest life that comes with choosing Jesus by asking for forgiveness and extending forgiveness to others including ourselves. This quality of living is centered in our love and trust of Jesus. It is the quality eternal life.

How did he do that? How did he not get off track, give in to fixing things and stopping the madness? IF he had done that – the world would only have the hope of living in a crabbing basket. Rebellion, a major expression of seeking the ways of self, would continue to freely harden our hearts and we would always being going astray in spite of our best intentions. The way of REST (security and value of being and doing love) with a loving God could not happen.

WWJD requires we look carefully at Hebrews 3:1. It has something to do with our mind and heart. “Fix your thoughts on Jesus.” Fix is more than grit your teeth. It has the meaning of setting a point for navigation. This describes the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It needs to be a description of our life in Christ. We ask him to live in us and repent of our self –sufficiency.

Right now, this moment, what kind of life are you living? Seek first the kingdom of God and discover what happens when you live out of the content of rest.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Move Back to Maine

I started out at the Willow House on the Campus of Eastern Nazarene College in the Boston Area. After my parents graduated I was moved to Wareham, Mass. By the time I was a toddler I was a resident of Maine. My mom's family lived in Maine, most of them in the South Portland area. So most of my memories are about being a Mainer. We lived in Eliot, Strong and then in Caribou. I graduated from high school in Caribou. I left Caribou to go "back" to Eastern Nazarene College. I guess I started a pattern of working my way back to where I started. While at college I established one of the first anchoring points for my life. In the angst and struggle that comes with this stage of life, I ran across a paraphrase of Galatians 2:20. It simply said, "For what is life. To me it is Christ."
Have you figured out something to anchor your life when confusion, insecurity, dark nights of the soul comes upon you? Trust me. It makes a difference.

I never went home to live after I went to college. I went back for vacations and such but I needed to work my way through school and I needed a summer job. Loring Air Force Base had plenty of young airman who liked part time jobs and a major employer was the potato farmer. Potato work didn't pick up (pun intended) until the fall and airmen had a lot of the other work. So I ended up working in the Washington DC area. My first summer I worked for a USDA Plant materials center in Maryland. My second summer I worked for a man who had properties in the city of Washing DC. There were lots of life experiences shaping the character of a boy from Maine in those years. DO you understand the years you are just doing the next thing and it seems nothing is happening, something is happening? Trust me. You are shaping your history step by step. Learn to choose well.

During these summers I went to the Nazarene Church on 13th st in Washington DC. It was that summer I met the girl who was to be my wife. She was living in Virginia, I was in Maryland. Both families drove in to the DC church and on Wednesday nights everybody ate together before service. Eventually we started dating and I figured it was pretty safe because she was actually from Colorado and I had never been west of the Mississippi! At the end of the summer Debbie went off to school in Kansas and I went back to Boston. But this cute girl had captured my heart. During January I ended up in in Pueblo, Colorado over Christmas and we got engaged. I then got her to Maine to meet my folks. Mind you it was in the winter and there were places in Caribou where the snow was half way up the telephone pole! She still said yes. I love a lady with courage. Where are your choices leading you? I love a good adventure. What and whom do you love?

The next summer I lived in Colorado Springs and worked in construction. We got married at the end of the summer and went to Boston to finish school. We pastored a small "opportunity" in No. Attleboro, Mass for the last 5 months of school and then went off to seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Finishing grad school in two and a half years we then moved to Upstate NY and arrived on January 1 following a lake effect storm. We pastored three churches on one district for almost 42 years, and 33 of them in the same church. During this time we had two daughters who also went to Eastern Nazarene College. Through this connection they met the men they married, who were Mainers! So for many years we visited back and forth from the Syracuse area in Upstate NY to the coast of southern and central Maine. Eventually most of the family on my side moved out of Maine but my girls led the migration back home. And always this area of Maine felt like coming home. So now here we are! The cycle from Maine back to Maine has been completed. Have you a sense of completion in the design of your life?  Let me mention three other anchors that shape the security of developing the unknown.

The first was Colossians 2:20 as a paraphrase. "For what is life? To me it is Christ." The second is a paraphrase from Proverbs. It guided the development of trust needed to be a young pastor. "Step by step as thou goest the way shall be opened before thee."The third spoke to me of the source of a living model I would need to love people. "Grace down to me and out through me." The fourth taught me how to wait patiently upon the Lord. "God is always at work doing more underneath than I can see on the surface."

So now in a new place and a new phase of life I depend upon these four anchors to be thrown out from the four corners of my life when the storms are raging. And they are raging right now. Move to Maine they said. See your kids and grand kids they said. Enjoy the beauty of Maine they said. Then they said stay home! And life like the restless sea changed again! The crisis began and there wasn't enough. At first it was temporary and an oddity. There were even funny things. But now its not much of that. Got any anchors?

What's Going On?

I was thinking this morning about what God was doing with the pandemic and people's "pandemia". I have heard it said that the ...