Monday, September 12, 2011

A Prayer for Peace on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

This is a prayer my friend and pastoral associate Brent Johnson recently wrote in remembrance of 9/11.

Heavenly Father,
As we reflect on that tragic day, in the face of such profound evil, such horrific destruction, such great sorrow, it’s so easy for us to ask, Where are you, God? When Jesus on the cross cried out in anguish, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, he spoke on behalf of so many who find themselves at the brink of despair, in the face of death itself. And so we know you understand how we come to ask such a question. There are times so hard, situations so bleak that we feel forsaken, abandoned, forgotten by you.
Though we in this room tonight may not have been personally touched by death on that terrible day ten years ago, we have all felt the aftershocks of war, violence, terrorism, fear, economic hardship, and international instability that have resulted from the events of September 11, 2001. Those aftershocks have changed some of our lives in very significant ways.
But for so many of us, the effects have been in our hearts. We have grown distrustful of certain ethnicities, loveless towards people groups that you love dearly. For some of us, the seeds of sorrow that were sown on September 11 have grown into weeds of hatred that have gripped our hearts ever since. We confess to you our need for your love. You told us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. Give us hearts that reflect your love, that emulate your gracious forgiveness.
Father, with your grace making up for where ours falls short, we speak forgiveness over the men who planned and executed the horrific events of that day. The enemy used them to steal, kill and destroy. And he stole, killed and destroyed many of their own lives through dark deception as well as those who died with them in the planes or in the buildings that were destroyed. If we have harbored unforgiveness in our hearts, we confess that to you and ask for your forgiveness, and ask also for the grace to forgive them. We surrender our right to vengeance. We leave it in your hands. While our human systems can rightly work to bring evildoers to justice, we will hold no blood-thirsty vengeance in our hearts. It is yours to set things right in the end. We let that go.
Lord, we pray that you would be near today to those who lost a loved one on that tragic day ten years ago. Your Word says that you are close to those whose hearts are breaking. Surround them with a sense of your compassionate presence. If they don’t know you, let them know it is you who is meeting them in the valley of the shadow of death to replace their fear with peace. Send them your children to be your hands of tender care.
And lastly, Lord, we pray that you would be at work in human hearts and human systems of government and military power to work towards the good of mankind to counter the destruction we bring upon ourselves. Give leaders the ability to make decisions that lift up the hurting, bring justice for the poor, and work towards peace between people groups and nations that have only known conflict and strife. Let every one of us learn from the pain of human tragedy to be more kind, compassionate, and life-giving than we have been in the past, that your will might be done here on earth, as it is in heaven.
It is in the strong name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and for the sake of His Kingdom that we pray,

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mercy and the Wise and and Foolish Person

On Sunday I led a panel discussion on the biblical topic of justice which got us into talking about God's mercy. I made the point that God's mercy and grace are extended even to people we might deem undeserving by virtue of their own self-indulgence and or laziness. In response the following questions were emailed to me to which I am responding in this post.
Here is what was asked:
I want to ask you about the part where we are supposed to give to "everybody" regardless of whether they got themselves into their mess or not.
Many people out there do not want to work, make lousy decisions, and have
their hand out for any and all handouts. I know, that sounds very harsh;
but I don't feel that I, a responsible person, should have to feel
responsible for a irresponsible person who has no intention of working and
is happy with the life they have chosen. Is this what God calls us to do?
What ever happened to personal responsibility? Aren't we enabling this
behavior by rewarding it? What am I missing here?
Here's my response:
These are very good questions and thanks for asking them.
The problem with public speaking and limited amounts of time to do it in is you can't stop and cover something to the extent you might like to sometimes.
Here is an attempt to fill in a bit more on the point I made about the standard of judgment we use and God's grace and mercy.
The Bible says that All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God-Rom. 3:23.
All means All so in that sense we are all in the same boat, no one is exempt.
Also, all of us have been and are-self-indulgent-that's why Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (Gal. 2:20) both call us to die to self.
And at times all of us are lazy. In fact my favorite theologian, Karl Barth says that the root of human sin is sloth. All of us are spiritually lazy creatures.
Self and sloth are in the picture for each of us and all the time.
And, all of us are where we are in part because of who we are and the choices we have made. Each person is responsible before God for their present situation no matter what background circumstances may also be involved. In this sense we are all both victims and victimizers. That's why the Bible talks about judgment for sinners and accountability to Christ for Christians. However on this point I will add that the grace of God is always in play and we can also say we are where we are at his point in life because of it too. When we receive God's grace it makes the great exception to our situation like I was sharing about Sunday...I was blind, but now I see, was lost but now I am found. This only comes by grace and to the extent that we respond to it our situations improve from what they would be if only sin reigned over them.
All of the above is why we can assert that the playing field for humanity is level.
All have sinned and all need God's gift of grace through Jesus Christ and the eternal life it brings which saves us from the eternal death we have clung to (Rom. 3:24).
Now, all that being said, the Bible also says there are three kinds of people-Wise, Foolish and Evil.
Wise people can be told the truth about something they did or about a negative trait they have, and even if it is hard to hear and they don't like it, even if it wounds them, they can receive it, thank you for it and act on it to better themselves. That, the Bible says, makes them wise and they grow in wisdom because of it. The book of Proverbs is filled with examples of wise and foolish living.
Foolish people are those who reject or deflect the truth said to them. They make excuses and blame others or other circumstances for their actions. They don't learn from the truth, can't use it to grow and so remain unwise. Over time they even can move further into darkened thinking and acting because of their ongoing resistance to truth and light.
Evil people move beyond foolishness and actually mean to bring harm toward others. These people are dangerous and rather than try to give them truth, we may have to protect ourselves from them.
To me this is where the crimminal and the addict with all that can go with these conditions comes into play.
These are people who are so given over to the needs of self that they invade our boundaries and ruin our lives in pursuit of their own needs. This goes far beyond the normal side of this type of selfish strategy which all of us sinners sometimes use with each other. Let's face it, we all have an agenda at times and want what we want right?
Jesus said we are to be as wise as serpents, but as gentle as doves-Matt. 10:16. And discernment is certainly a Christian discipline we ought to utilize.
We don't help people with addictive behaviors by being naive toward them or simplistic in our response to them. Sometimes the best thing we can do to help someone is confront their behavior and establish firm boundaries with them. And in some cases we must cut off contact with them for safety's sake. Two books well worth reading on these topics are Boundaries
and Necessary Endings both are by Dr. Henry Cloud.
Hope this rounds out for you the comments made from Sunday.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Father's Day Penguins and the Story That Matters

Penguins are cool…counterintuitive little critters.
They have wings, but they use them for swimming not flying. In fact they are the fastest bird swimmer out there at 15-20 mph (try that Michael Phelps).
Penguins dress for the opera, but are actually outfitted for stealth (does that make them the 007’s of the animal realm?)
Penguins live in community and often mate for life.
Dad Penguins are stay at home parents and Moms are career gals.
…And of all God’s creatures, let’s face it, nothing looks or walks like a penguin! They are the Charlie Chaplins of bird-dom.

…This year my wife gave me a Father’s Day card with two penguins on it. In fact the picture I have posted here is the very same picture that is on the card.
Up to this point when I have pictured my self as a penguin it has always been in conjunction with my dear friend Brian. Back in our high school days we were budding Steven Spielbergs making Super 8 movies together (Hey isn’t there a summer movie by Spielberg out just now and having to do with that?) Brian and I formed a film company which we called Penguin Films. We were the two penguins.

I have not thought of Cathi and me as Penguins, but it’s worth thinking about.
In our 39 years of marriage we have certainly been swimming together, sometimes in sync other times not. Calm waters…stormy seas…you get the picture.
But Cathi’s point in giving me this year’s card so pictured has to do with the two birds waddling along together with the immense ocean lapping near by. The picture shows the two birds walking together in the same direction. The ocean is near them and while they are not actually in it, their feet are wet from the surf so they are connected to it.

Here is what Cathi wrote to me in the card,
So many stories take place on the shores of the sea…
Our age has become addicted to “happy endings” for each individual story.
The One Story has an unimaginable ending which is also the beginning of the One Truly Happy Ending. It is that story which will give us all what we long for.

So here’s my take away from Father’s Day. With a nod to Brian MacLaren, which story do we find ourselves in? Is it only about me or you on the beach? Is the surfside story all there is? Is that story all we get our meaning from, have our hopes in or search for the happy ending through? Or is it just possible that we are amblin along in our own little stories while actually on the edge of the big story that really matters? The big story that has all the meaning and the genuinely happy ending (see Revelation 21-22)?
I like to think we are…or at least that our feet are wet from it.
Surf’s up…penguins unite…God’s big story is upon us!
…Check your feet…dry or wet?
Here’s to penguins on the sea shore.
…Thanks for the card dear wife.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Meditation for Esther Whitehead Jackson

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand…

So say verses 17 and 18 of Ps. 139. The Psalm Tiffany read for us and which Esther loved.

How precious are your thoughts…

Here are some thoughts I found expressed in a book of poetry and quotations kept by Esther.

From the Keswick Hymnal,
When I stand before the throne
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then the Lord shall I fully know,
Not til then…how much I owe.

From Elizabeth Elliott,
The whole purpose of life, I believe, is to learn to know God. This is life eternal.

From a prayer by Phillips Brooks,
Oh Lord, by all Thy dealings with us,
Whether of joy or pain, of light or darkness,
Let us be brought to Thee.

And at the very opening of the book Esther has written,
Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.

You learn much about a person by what they note and quote.
When Esther quotes Dante saying,
The Lord’s will is our peace.
…She reveals much about the inner disposition of her soul and her perspective on life.

Quotes and notes can also act like marker stones along the path of one’s journey.
For example we know that Esther, with husband Leslie and family spent many years in pastoral ministry which included several parsonage stops along the way.
One dog eared page in Esther’s book has this quote from Flora Thompson,
Poverty is no disgrace, but tis a great inconvenience.
We can only imagine how this line might have applied to the various parsonage situations the Whiteheads experienced through the years!
Or how about this delightful peek into Esther’s family life?
Esther tells a story from Christmas 1951 while living in the parsonage in Vancouver B.C.
She writes,
Les and I talked with Mark about baby Jesus and the stable and why he was born there because there was no room at the inn.
After Jane was born (two weeks later), Mark was all concerned and wanted to know if there was any room for her at the hospital.
…A footnote on that same page says that this story was later included in a Christmas sermon by Dr. C. Dorr Demarary.

We could spend hours reading through Esther’s precious thoughts and would find spiritual treasures a plenty in them.
One thing her notes make clear is that Esther’s thoughts centered on God’s thoughts.
How precious are your thoughts O God.
It was God’s thoughts which Esther pondered and which she shared with others.
And she drew on those thoughts from scripture.
Like her book of quotations, Esther’s Bible was filled with notes and quotes.
When you open her Bible you see that Esther has filled every available blank space on the cover pages with quotes, verses and references.
Its’ as if she was already busy engaging the text before she even got to Gen. 1:1!

Another thing we see in her Bible is that on in the margin of each page, Esther has the date she read that page. Follow the dates and you see she daily read her way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Esther loved the Bible.
She quotes Billy Graham who says,
The Bible is food for the soul.
Esther was a biblical nutritionist.
She was constantly feeding on God’s word and serving it up to others.
Throughout her life we know that Esther led numerous Bible study groups large and small.
She took time to be with others in the word.
Matt told me that he and his mother would enjoy 3 or 4 phone visits a week and they always included scripture sharing and discussion.
Esther wrote notes to family and friends using the scriptures to encourage, instruct and speak to people’s situations from God’s point of view.
She also helped grandchildren and others to memorize verses, psalms and chapters.

Hers was the Wesleyan practice of scriptural conversation.
John Wesley asserted that Christians should be so familiar with God’s word that their very language should become a blend of common speech and scripture.
I have personally had conversations with Esther where she would seamlessly move back and forth from speech to scripture. It was like warm music being played in our conversation.

I discovered that Esther had the lovely practice of reading the Bible through in a year for someone.
She would pick a person like Matt or Jane or Mark or perhaps a grandchild then buy a Bible for them and read it through.
While reading it she would fill the pages with notes and comments and then when finished she would gift that Bible to the person for whom she had been reading it.
Isn’t that wonderful?

Scripture was the script for Esther’s life.
God’s word oversaw the goings out and the comings in of Esther’s daily life.
In response to the One who was familiar with all her ways, Esther was becoming intimately acquainted with all the ways of that One through scripture.
The path of her spiritual journey was being lit by the lamp of God’s word.
For example Ps. 139 in v. 7 asks,
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
This is the affirmation that God is everywhere.
There is nowhere we can go where God is not.
…Even the darkest most remote places on earth…like a crowded refugee camp in Tanzania for example.
Scripture scripted Esther’s walk toward social justice.
Because God is just and in Christ is reconciling all things unto himself, Esther made sure she was involved in that reconciling reality!

For several years Esther worked with World Relief to help settle refugees throughout the Pacific NW.
While living in the Warm Beach Senior Community she worked tirelessly with the African Refugee Ministry team to visit churches throughout the state presenting the refugee camp needs to congregations and taking love offerings for that work.
Those offerings were mostly small ones from equally small sized churches and yet in time Esther helped to raise over 100,000 dollars in support of the refugee ministry.

Like Jesus, Esther took God’s love to the marginalized. She was about redemption for the last, the lost and the least.
And like Jesus, she found such work an uphill climb.
A revealing note in her book reads,
A Xenophobia revival is making the task of organizations which support refugees particularly arduous.
…Esther was no Xenophobe…she held no aversion in her heart to strangers and aliens.
Esther suffered from redemptive colorblindness which limited her to only seeing people with the vision of God’s love for them irrespective of their ethnicity.

Esther knew from Scripture that she lived in a world where the darkness of sin endeavors to hide people its’ cloak.
But she knew from her favorite psalm that with God,
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Esther believed that God can see in the dark where we can’t. That in fact God turns night into day and brings dawn to hopelessly night engulfed situations.

I specifically asked that when Ps. 139 was read in this service that the entire psalm would be read including verses 19-22.
I recall that during one of the first times I made a hospital visit to someone when a student pastor I read Ps. 139 to the patient.
After reading aloud all those great verses about God’s thoughts, light and presence with us, even from the womb to the end of our days, I got to the last verses and was suddenly reading the psalmist’s venting of wrath against God’s hated enemies and the look on the patient’s face changed from bliss to concern!
She even said to me after the reading…
Oh I never read those last verses…they just ruin the psalm!
I made a note to myself then and there never again to include those verses among my texts for pastoral care with people!

What was the psalmist thinking here?
Why ruin a perfectly good psalm with stuff about hating enemies when later in the gospels, Jesus would clearly be against doing that…right?
Well the point here and why I believe Esther read and applied all the verses of Ps. 139 to her life, is that when the psalmist says,
Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
The psalmist is standing with God against sin, wickedness and all the unrighteousness of fallen humankind.
These verses aren’t a so much a vindictive against people as they are an affirmation about committing to stand with God on the side of right.
They are about making God’s cause our cause.
And the fact that these verses are followed in vs. 23-24 by a plea for God to search the heart and life of the psalmist in order to make sure he is right with God, tells us that verses 19-22 need to be read in the context of a humbleness of spirit.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
This humbleness of spirit permeated Esther’s life as she walked the paths of social justice and of soul winning.

Justice and Evangelism for Esther were both scripted by God’s word and guided by God’s heart.
In sharing the saving news about Jesus Christ with others, Esther never did so with a holier than thou attitude. She was never condescending in her soul winning.
In fact, Esther was the perfect fisher of people.
She knew that God included all types of fish in his catch and she was always aware and grateful that she herself had been caught in the net as one of those types!
Esther had a marvelous openness to people always seeing them as included in the sphere of God’s love no matter what type of fish they were…common or odd!
Like Acts 17 and Paul in the marketplace of ideas, Esther went where the people were and connected with them and their contexts.
She was a relater of the good news…showing people how God’s saving work in Christ was relevant to their lives and situations.
Wherever people were at, cynical religionists, tentative seekers or avowed unbelievers, Esther was always operating in I Peter 3:15 mode.
She was always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asked her to give the reason for the hope she had in Christ.

With the way everlasting as her concern, Esther was always cultivating relationships with people.
Her sister Eunice told Matt that when she herself arrived to begin living at the Warm Beach Senior Community she soon met nine different people who each told her they were Esther’s best friend! Esther had made each of them feel that special.

In the ER after her fall while everyone was showing their concern for Esther, her one concern was that someone would contact the young woman she was to have Bible study with and tell her Esther couldn’t make it this week.

Esther loved people because God so loves the world.
And like God who gave his son for the world, Esther gave herself for others that they might know him who loves them.
Scripted by God’s word, Esther was a new creation conversationalist.
She was an illuminated witness to the God who lights the darkest places and brings hope to the hopeless.
Esther leaves us with the sure witness that God had created her inmost being…God had knit Esther’s life together from the womb to the end of the days which were ordained for her.

How vast were the sum of God’s thoughts in Esther’s life.
In her own words of testimony Esther writes,
I gave my heart to Jesus when I was a child of 6 years old…Although I was very young, I understood that I had not given my heart to Jesus. I remember speaking to my mother and telling her I wanted to be “saved.” She knelt with me by our library table and I prayed and entered the family of God.
There have been bumps along the way and many trips to the altar, but there was solid ground under my feet and that first decision has held firm.

This would be Esther’s desire for each of us.
That we would each know the One who saves and make him known to others.
And now as we are parted from her for a time we are assured by her favorite psalm that when she awakes she will still and ever be with her Lord.

May the life and witness of Esther E. Whitehead-Jackson be an encouragement to each of us to trust in the God who is present in all things…bidden or unbidden, he is there…Esther’s life assures of this.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

...rants by Me on-Limited Grace and A Lack of Extended Forgiveness

Lately I keep hearing about examples of limited grace and a lack of extended forgiveness.
NPR did a piece last week about a fundamentalist church congregation that likes to show up at funerals for gay soldiers and proclaim God's wrath on them and their families. They do this with signs that read things like God hates fags! and Thank God for another dead gay soldier. I just can't see Jesus taking this approach. ...Pharisees yes, Jesus no. I think Jesus would want to reach out to the grieving family and not make things even harder from them to be open to God's love and leadership in their lives by using some self-righteous, ham fisted and wrong headed witnessing tactics. These church folk say that the reason the US Armed Forces is currently experiencing casualties in the middle east is because America tolerates gays. So does this mean that the logic of their argument is, that if we got rid of all the gays tonight then tomorrow forward our armies would be invincible? Think McFly, think! Didn't Hiltler try this for his army with the Jews? Or was it the Ark of the Covenant I forget.

Recently I experienced a wonderful weekend of spiritual renewal led by an amazing Spirit-filled woman who's daily walk with God rivals that of the apostle Paul. Yet someone came to me after and suggested that because this woman was on the stout side body type wise, that this person felt her ministry was less valid. Overweight Christians (this would be the average America person including me) unite! WOW is this person missing God's point! Talk about the wrong focus! In I Samuel 16:7 it reads, The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” In saying it is finished Jesus was announcing to the world that the doing which was needed in order for salvation to happen had in truth been finally accomplished. Jesus did it so now it was done. Salvation was a done deal. There is nothing we need to do to experience it other than use our faith to bask in it and let it permeate us. That’s all.

Outside or inside? Shallow or deep?...where are we focused?

And then I have a dear friend currently struggling with God's forgiveness in his own life (who doesn't?).
We all wrestle with the works and grace issue, the doing and done thing. Some of us can't handle that God really loves us and we don't have to earn that love or merit God's fact there is nothing we can be or do to earn these things. Others of us though receive God's gift of grace, but then once saved we go right back to what I call White Knuckle Christianity. WKC is when God saves us by grace and then we take over again and try to become a new person by pulling ourselves up by our own self-help boot straps.
Grace has saved me and now I must try harder to be better! Sound familar? Dr. Henry Cloud of Boundaries fame asks us to think who are we, the person riding in the ambulance or the driver of it?

So here's my parting thought on the lack of forgiveness we show others and ourselves and the limited amounts of grace we seem to despense to the same:

…Not do, but be.
…Be inside the done.
As theologian Karl Barth says,
In His death He exercised judgment according to His wonderful righteousness, and He did so once and for all for the sins of all men. Is not the result of this just judgment mercy and forgiveness for all? Who, then, is not included? Which category of particularly great sinners is exempted from the pardon effected on the basis of the death penalty carried out at Calvary?
Amen brother Barth.