Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thursday Blues

Well, here it is: Another Thursday and its time once again to wrestle with a text to create a message for the weekend that will be witty, relevant, comforting, challenging, Biblically accurate, no more than 20 minutes long, effectively speak to Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, GI generation and people of every imaginable situations in life. Not an easy task.

One day, a long time ago, I heard a voice - not an audible voice, but a voice nonetheless - and it was God calling me to ministry. At the time, I didn't realize exactly what that might mean. Had I been able to foresee the challenges and struggles of being a pastor, perhaps I would have ignored that voice. But God was gentle and helped me ease into my calling much the same way a person wades into a cold lake for a swim. It was step by step; inch by reluctant inch; part by part until now, I feel fully immersed. And, I might add, like I am barely able to tread water at times.

This week, I want to preach on what it means to serve others in Jesus' name. My text is from Matthew 20 where James' and John's mother comes and asks that her sons be given the places of highest honor in Jesus' coming kingdom. Isn't that just like a mother? Always looking out for ways to protect and elevate her children.

Jesus reply was not to her but to her sons. "Can you (not will you) can you drink the cup from which I am about to drink?" They not knowing, like I didn't know, said yes, we can drink from that cup. I don't think they really knew what they were signing on for. Acts 12 tells us James was beheaded or run through by the sword at Herod's command. John, we know was exiled to the isle of Patmos and church tradition tells us that he too was martyred.

Jesus' point was not about honor, ambition or doing good enough to ascend to a place of honor. It was about accepting the fact that anyone desiring greatness in God's kingdom has to, first, become a servant (or as Dale Brunner puts it, 'a table waiter) for the others. Greatness in Jesus' view comes not from self-advancement or vain ambition. It comes from selfless, humble service to others. "Can you drink from this cup?"

Can I drink this cup? Am I really ever ready to accept the responsibility and obedience of service that Jesus calls me to? I think I am today. I hope I did yesterday! I am not sure about tomorrow. I will have to commit to that tomorrow. I pray I will not just hold the cup at a distance. I ask that I will not just give lip service to my devotion and sip from His cup as though it were some bitter, foul-tasting brew that's too hot, too cold, too awful to ingest.
I gulp from cups of joy and blessing when they come. I take mighty swigs from the cup of self. If my own interests were cups of Starbuck's Coffee, Starbucks stock would be much higher than it is today. But drinking from the cup of Christ ---that's tough!

But I know I want to serve. I want to give the best sermons possible. I want to be available to any and every person who asks for my time and energy. I want to be less self-serving and egotistic. I want to be more like Jesus but it is hard.

So here I sit, wondering what I can say to people this weekend about drinking from Jesus' cup and being servants. Hmmmm, maybe I have just said it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Making a difference

Great story today at the Rainier Hills Young Life Banquet. The speaker Ted Johnson told about a taxi cab trip he had recently taken from his daughters house in Wheaton, Il to O Hare Airport. When he got in the cab, he noticed that there was nothing in the front seat next to the driver but a well worn Bible. About halfway to the airport, his curiosity got the better of him...he just had to ask: "What's with the Bible."

The driver began telling him how important it was to him and it was a great conversation starter. The driver then asked Johnson what he did for a living. When Johnson told him he worked for an organization that helped High School kids. It was called Young Life.

The cabbie exclaimed, "That's remarkable. Young Life is the reason this Bible is here. When I was in high school, I was a tough kid but a Young Life leader at my school on the South Side asked if I would like to go to camp for a week at a place called Windy Gap. He told me that it was paid for - all I needed to do was show up and go. I did. And that week I met Jesus Christ and gave my life to him. Since then I have been telling others about him."

Believe it or not, Ted Johnson and his wife had made a big contribution toward the construction of that camp. In a sense, he was the one who had paid the way for that cabbie and others to go to camp and meet Jesus. He reminded us that this was an investment that made a real difference; an investment in a stock that just kept splitting and splitting and splitting.

How we spend our lives makes a difference. Who knows, the people in whom we invest our lives and faith may very likely turn out to pass that faith along to countless others. Whose life have I touched today? What kind of difference have I made in someone's life?

On a side note, the new area director for Young Life here on the Plateau is Mike Iverson and his most recent position was in Las Cruces, NM, running a program that Judy and I were privileged to be a part of as committee members and where our daughter Melissa was part of a group of college students that started their program as volunteers. Small world - or is it really?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to Buck Creek

For the past 10 years, the Elders of Calvary have gone away on retreat to pray together, laugh together, seek the Lord's leading for the church together, and set in motion specific plans or goals which would move us forward in reaching our community for Christ.

Calvary has had, over the years a warm and close relationship with Buck Creek Camp, just 30 miles up the road toward Mt. Rainier. Previously owned by the Presbytery of Seattle, people from Calvary have attended winter retreats, summer camps, leadership retreats and all-church retreats there. We have helped with major construction and clean up at the camp over the years so in many ways it is an extension of us.

Judy and I also have had a warm spot in our hearts for Buck Creek. Our daughters attended their first summer camps there. I served on the Camps and Conferences Committee for Seattle Presbtytery for over 5 years. I led High School Summer Camps there. Our family has stayed many a night in the rustic, beautiful retreat house.

We all were saddened when the Presbytery decided to sell the camp several years ago. Was this the end of an era? Would Buck Creek close permanently? Or would some other Christian Camping organization pick it up, refurbish its aging facilities and use it effectively for camping? Our quesstions were answered when Camp Berachah, a local Christian Camp and Conference Center between Auburn and Enumclaw purchased it and began using again last year.

After several years of having our retreat at Camp Ghormley or Cascades Camp and Conference Center, it was really great to be back at Buck Creek. Fortunately we didn't have snow like the picture shows but we were cozy and warm before the fire in the large stone fireplace in the Retreat House.

It was great. Pracitcal jokes like remote controlled mice, fake legs sticking out of pillows brought the house down. Rousing games of Pictionaryman and Cranium really brought us together. We ate too much and slept too little. Most of all, we felt the Lord's presence as we knelt in prayer, studied God's Word and discussed what it means to be "a church without walls."

I am reminded that Jesus often felt the need to withdraw with his disciples to a quiet place where they could pray and rest. We don't get enough of that in our busy lives. With all the grim news of war and falling stock prices, it was especially nice to be away with the Lord and renew our faith and confidence in the Lord's ability to sustain his people through these trying times.

As we read Scriptures depicting the life of the early church, we sensed the still small voice of God calling us to not just go to church but to be the church in the world. Coming down off the mountain to our community, to our families, to our jobs and our church and our responsibilities became an opportunity to be reminded how much we needed that time away.

I am grateful for God's design of the church - that its true foundation is His Word, its cornerstone Jesus and his people the living stones that are being built up into a holy temple to the Lord. Once again I was impressed at the insight, wisdom and sensitivity of those God has called to serve as Elders. They keep me from running too far ahead of myself or of the Holy Spirit but they listen and trust and move forward in faith as they lead God's people.

So, it was good to be back at Buck Creek - not just for the place it is and the memories it holds - but because this was a time when God was at work. What a thrill to be a part of that calling.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What do computers and stock markets have in commmon?

I woke up this morning and went into the den to check email, play a game of Sudoku, read the news and check scores, stock market, and weather forecasts. I know, its not very exciting or spiritual - it's just my routine.

The monitor in front of me was blinking a yellow warning telling me there was no signal from the computer. I looked over at the tower and the green power light was on, the fan was running and the hard drive was spinning. So, I shut down and tried a restart. No luck. The message told me the configsys. file was missing and that I would have to reboot with the original startup CD.

Strangely, this was the second computer to go down this week. One of the church office's computers went to computer heaven as well. What is going on?
As if the continuing depressing news from Wall Street was not bad enough, the market is obviously not the only thing susceptible to crashing this week. I even went to get my car washed today and the automated brushless carwash was out of order. Is there some sort of conspiracy?

Depressing news all around it seems. Then I began thinking about friends in Africa that we met this summer. I guess when you are wondering if you will have food to eat today, computer crashes, clean cars and 401Ks are not even on the radar screen for them.

So, all this "bad luck" really isn't all that bad. That's a relative term based on the incredible amount of material stuff I have to take care of. As I write about all this, it caused me to stop and pray for the children and teachers/staff at the Balm of Gilead School. I prayed for Joy and Rachel. I also prayed for the Teicherts and Witherows in South Africa - and for Pastor Adam in Nelspruit.

I guess sometimes, it takes a "baseball bat" rather than a gentle tap to remind me of what's truly important in life.

On the bright side, our jazz group - BY COMMITTEE - has grown from a quintet to a septet. We have a guitar now and we will be rehearsing later on this morning. Then, tonight, our ministry staff and Elders are going away on a weekend retreat to pray and plan. Our main topic is "being the church without walls." We are talking about how we live out our faith and commitment to our common life in ways other than weekend worship events. I am "jazzed" about both these things. (Pardon the pun)

Hey, the sun just came out and is highlighting the golden leaves of the birch tree just outside my study window. I guess, I'll pour another cup, get ready for the retreat and enjoy what God has in store for me today.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Jury Duty and the faith

The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play entitled “No Exit” in which he depicted the hopelessness and despair of humanity as he saw it. Garcin, the main character, is ushered into a room where there are no windows, only one door and it is locked, no windows and grim stark walls – no windows, no decorations, nothing of beauty. The reader soon realizes that this “Hotel room” is actually hell. Garcin is joined by three others in this room where they expect they will be punished for their past sins. However, no torturer arrives and the only torture is that which the room’s occupants inflict on each other as they point out the others’ sins and misdeeds. At the end of the play, the door finally opens but Garcin and the others choose to stay.
Why do I bring up such a serious, depressing thought, you ask? I do so because for the last three days, I sat in a similar room with about three hundred others. This room, like Sartre’s Hell, had no windows and only one door which could only be exited at certain times. Some of you may have had the experience of sitting in that same room. It was the Jury Assembly Room at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. After 40+ years of voting, adult maturity, this was the first time I had ever been summoned for jury duty. What an experience this was.
If you have ever served in this capacity, you know about the interminable waits, the crowded conditions, the terrible coffee, and the very diverse group of human beings that gather there. Each person has been randomly selected from records at the DMV or from voting registration lists. No one I talked to wanted to be there but they were doing their civic duty. And so we waited…and waited….and waited.
The one redeeming factor – and one that Sartre could never have envisioned in his despairing play about hell and judgment – was that we had a strong Wi-Fi signal so I could stay in touch with my office, with friends, and with others via email and Face Book. I was also able to get some planning and preparation done for an upcoming leadership retreat for our church’s elders. So it was not all bad. But the waiting, oh the waiting. For someone who admittedly is attention deficit disordered, there were times when the place and the waiting conjured up images of hell.
Having said all that, as I sat waiting and wondering if I would actually be called to serve in judgment on another person, I was reminded of a key bit of Gospel grace: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.”
That, my friends is good news. God, the supreme judge is not willing that any should perish under the rigorous demands of God’s own holy and just nature. Instead, God is abounding in steadfast love and full of mercy. God does not treat us as our sins deserve but instead forgives the sins of the contrite who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, and restores the broken to a right relationship with God’s self.
There is no one else who can judge us because all humanity has fallen under the brokenness of selfish rebellion against God, and therefore has no right to condemn. Only God does, and God declares those that come to him through Christ, as not guilty; forgiven.
Back to my court experience. After two full days of waiting, I was given a number and assigned to a criminal trial. We were told to come back Wednesday morning to be interviewed by both attorneys so that a jury of 15 could be seated (12 regulars and 3 alternates). So, for a third day, I travelled downtown and entered “hell” one more time. This time, though, I was sure we would at least be moved to a courtroom for jury selection. But no, we sat and waited some more. Finally, at the end of the morning, just when I was beginning to despair that I would ever exit this room with no windows, mirrors or doors, the announcement came over the intercom: “All prospective jurors in Judge so-and-so’s trial are dismissed. A plea bargain has been agreed upon.”
Jubilant that I no longer faced the specter of waiting – or worse – sitting in on a trial that could last several days or even weeks, I practically skipped out of the courthouse. Then, as I rode a crowded Metro – Transit bus back to Federal Way, stopping at no less than 45 stops – I did another reflecting exercise, realizing that in my case, a guilty sinner, a plea bargain had also been arranged. Though guilty of sinful, willful rebellion against God, a different sentence was handed out. The very one I had offended, God incarnate, had taken my place and born my guilt as he hung on the instrument of capital punishment of his day – the cross.
I may have to wait in a crowded jury room, airline terminal, or Department of Motor Vehicles line again in my lifetime. But thanks be to God, I need not fear God’s judgment not the room that has no windows or doors. Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, has redeemed me and released me and provided a door – not just an exit from the trials of hell or for that matter life on earth, but a door toward renewed, full fellowship between me and the loving God who created me.
Unfortunately, many like Garcin in “No Exit,” choose to stay in the barren room of condemnation and wait. How about you? Jesus is the door. You can exit from a life of despair and futility into a new life of freedom and hope.