Friday, November 26, 2010

Thankful for the past, confident in the future

Driving through the sage dotted high desert of northern New Mexico brought a flood of memories to our minds. It was late at night and soft-filtered light of a nearly full moon only occasionally broke through the high cumulus clouds. After leaving Albuquerque's busy freeways and bright lights, we were cruising along a very familiar route on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Every year on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, Judy, Kresta, Melissa and I would hop in the family sleigh - whatever it happened to be that year - crank up Christmas music and drive through the sparsely populated landscape of the New Mexico desert toward Los Alamos to spend Thanksgiving with the Wallins. Steve, Julie, Mark and Scott had become close family friends, the kind you can pick up with right where you left off. God had allowed our paths to cross during the first months we lived in Las Cruces and from the first meeting, we knew we would be fast friends.

Sometimes, the laughter would be so intense we would be crying. At other times we would drift into deep theological discussions or the challenges of raising adolescent children. There was always a very competitive game of cards ("big strong men" versus the "Little women"), a calorie burning, L-triptophan clearing hike through the Anasazi Indian ruins at Bandalier National Monument, and always a huge meal produced by committee.

All those memories have been dancing around in our minds as, once again, we have spent yet another New Mexico Thanksgiving (replete with hot green chile in the turkey dressing).

Usually those Thanksgiving trips included the short trip down the hill, past native American pueblos and pinon forests to the historic and beautiful city of Santa Fe. This year was no exception although this time Judy and I found ourselves making this drive the day after Thanksgiving and by ourselves. We were headed to the wedding rehearsal dinner of another dear and old friend of mine. Gil Pinon was the Youth Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Las Cruces while I was the Senior Pastor at Northminster Church there. Somehow, we struck up another of those lasting friendships. After all these years, Gil was getting married and he had somehow convinced his bride to be to ask me to perform the ceremony.

As we drove this familiar route, we marveled at the rich colors of a New Mexico sun beginning to set over the tall mesas and jagged, rocky outcroppings. The golden late afternoon rays of the sun had turned the mountains a deep burnt orange and gradually turning to purple. The sky was a deep aqua blue turning to an indescribably beautiful salmon color as sky met horizon. In some ways, we felt we had never left the Land of Enchantment. This was not only familiar but incredibly nostalgic as we relived all these visceral moments. This land had been our home for over 13 years, and in some ways, it still felt like home.

All these memories of the past have caused us to remember with gratitude that today, Judy and I are who we are because of the people and the places and the experiences God has allowed in our lives. Friends, moments in time, places, sights, even smells (there is nothing like the smell of smoke from a wood fire kindled with pinon pine or red chile and corn tortillas wafting through the crisp, clear air) all have caused us to be grateful that God had allowed us to experience all these things and people because they have all had a part in shaping us.

At the wedding for Gil and Dana yesterday (which by the way had the most beautiful music performed by members of the New Mexico Symphony)I spoke to them of Jesus' first miracle - the turning of water into wine. The guests at the wedding in Caana were surprised that this wine Jesus had provided at the end of the party, was the best. And that is what the Lord is always in the business of doing: producing for us the new wine of God's love in our lives and surprising us with the fact that the best is always saved for last. In other words, in Christ, God's love doesn't run out or cheapen over time, it just keeps getting better and better. The Lord is in the business of turning ordinary into extraordinary blessing as we experience the abundance of his grace and love.

And so I am thankful. I am thankful for the paths and the places and the people who have been a part of my journey thus far. They are all special gifts of God's love and grace that have come to us because we belong to him through Christ. Yet God never wants us to simply live in the past because there are always new horizons, new blessings, and new expressions of his love and grace that he has saved for now.

Now, this morning as I write this before going to church, the sun is just beginning to rise over Santa Fe Mount Baldy signaling the beginning of a new day, new opportunities, new challenges, new wine. "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His steadfast love endures forever."

Friday, November 5, 2010

A story for my grandsons

Judy reminded me this week that our daughter Melissa had asked us to write our stories of faith - how we became Christians; what the Lord has meant to us over the years; etc.
She did a masterful job telling her story in just a relatively few short words. As I began to write my story, I realized it was impossible to tell that story in a few short words. Those who know me or who have heard me preach are all saying AMEN to that. Paucity of words is not my forte; especially given the fact that I just turned 60 - that is 6 decades.

That having been said, I cherished the opportunity to write my story. And even though it was long (Davis, my grandson, said it was long and he was "wiggling" so he'd have to read page two the next day), it was a very moving exercise for me.

Looking back to some of the high water marks in my life, I was reminded of God's faithfulness to me, even when I wasn't faithful to God. I was reminded of the loving, supportive people God placed in my life - family, mentors, friends, pastors and teachers - who made an impact and led me closer in faith to Christ. I was also reminded of moments - seemingly frozen in time - that were epiphanies of grace. A Communicants class; a youth group meeting; a college dorm room discussion; an evangelistic service; a life-changing, body shattering accident; an Elder retreat; a spontaneous outpouring of song among a group of African believers or a quiet, candlelight Communion service; All were, by eternity's time reference, but a micro-second of time. At the same instant, those were moments when God showed up and made a life time of difference.

What is your faith story? How has God led your path? As Moses began to restate the commands of God to the people of Israel, he told them to teach these things to their children. Sitting, standing, walking along the way - wherever and whatever the circumstances - we all have a story of God's faithful leading in our lives that is best passed on personally to our children and grandchildren.

I don't know what this will mean to my grandsons. But I do know what it meant for me to remember. Overcome with gratitude and humility, the footprints of God are so evident throughout the course of my life. Even though I didn't always recognize the Lord walking so closely with me, nonetheless, God was there. At times carrying me; other times pushing me; sometimes gently steering me; always protecting me.

I encourage you to take some time for this exercise. Write a retrospective of your life of faith that you can share with your posterity. Part of the blessing of covenant is that our children are blessed through Gods' blessing to parents.

Timothy was a young cohort of Paul's. But the Lord was at work in Timothy's life long before Paul came along. I II Timothy 1 Paul writes, "I am reminded of your sincere faith which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded now lives in you also. Of all the legacies we could leave our children and our children's children is the legacy of authentic, dynamic faith and the gracious love of God through Christ that guides us in our journey of faith.

Don't keep that to yourself. Remember it. Write it down. Share it with those you love. And in the process bless the Lord for "all his benefits to you." (Psalm 103:1)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A defining moment

Sir Ernests Shackleton and the Crew of ENDURANCE


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost -

I read another blog today that reminded me of an old quip: "There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into to groups and those who don't."

With all the wisdom of his divine nature, Jesus made the true division: Those who choose the broad, flat and easy way in life; and those who choose the narrow, steep and difficult way. He called his followers to choose the narrow and more difficult way. The way that is disciplined, generous, thoughtful and perseverent over a life time. "Therefore, choose the narrow gate that leads to life." Matthew 7:13,14

William Barclay, the great Biblical commentator once wrote, "all life concentrates on man at the crossroads." He was right you know. We are called to choose hundreds of times a day. "How will we use our time? Who will I reach out today? Should I help that homeless person by the side of the road? I wonder if I should buy this item." Choices...sometimes we make good choices. Sometimes we make bad choices. Sometimes the choices are inconsequential really. After all, in the long term does it really matter what color socks I choose to wear today or which route I should take to work?

The Bible indicates that the believer is regularly confronted with choices that do make a difference - an eternal difference; not only for themselves but for others.

Moses, delivering his last sermon to the Israelites before they passed over into the promised land, was inspired by God to challenge them, "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death blessings and curses. Now choose life...for the Lord is your life and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
(Deuteronomy 30: 19,20)

Standing at a crossroads; a time of choice and a time of great opportunity, God's people could have chosen to believe the reports of the spies sent out earlier who came back and reported "giants in the Land." (Deut. 1:19 - 25) Though easier in the short run, this choice would have resulted in death and curses. The choice of blessing and life, on the other hand would turn out to be fraught with great challenge.

Choices aren't always easy.

And so Jesus, as he preaches about the way his Kingdom People should live, addresses the point in the seventh chapter of Matthews Gospel. It is nearing the grand climax of the Sermon on the Mount and he is summarizing the teachings he has already put forth: that blessings belong to those the world considers to be of no account; that one can only experience forgiveness from God and others if they are willing to be merciful and forgiving of those who have hurt and offended them. He has reminded his hearers that they should first take the 2x4 out of their own eye before they worry about the speck of sawdust in their neighbor's eye; and that there is no reason one of Jesus' followers should ever worry about the things that God alone, by virtue of God's gracious providence, can provide.

And so he begins this passage (verses 7 - 12)with an exhortation to keep asking, seeking and knocking because God is a loving God and like a father will give generously to his children that for which they ask, that for which they knock, and that for which they seek.

We want God - no we pray for God to be generous with us and to answer our prayers. Jesus adds a little bon mot here though. He says, "in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." This is an echo of the forgiveness theme. We want to be forgiven? Then we should forgive. We want God and others to be generous to us? We should treat them that way. Or, as it was often expressed in its negative form, "I must not do to others that which I would object to their doing to me." That really doesn't do justice to this "Golden Rule" of faith.

Too truly follow the spirit of this rule and not just the letter, one can only do as they are compelled by the love of Christ. As Barclay says, this will clearly make that person's life more complicated for he/she will have less time for self and will, by choice of following Christ in the narrow difficult way give up what he/she wants to do or is doing, to do what he/she is being led to do as a disciple of Jesus.

Bob Pierce, the founder of the great Christian Relief agency WORLD VISION, used to pray, "Dear God, please break my heart with the things that break the heart of God."
As Jesus put it, "treat others the way you would expect God and others to treat you."
That is not easy. It is a road less traveled. It is the narrow, steep way.

One of my favorite stories revolves around Sir Ernest Shackleton's third attempt to reach the South Pole aboard the ship ENDURANCE. The year was 1914 and he was having a difficult time finding a crew who were willing to make the journey simply for the fame or financial reward and so he posted the following notice in the London Times:


That is the adventure that Christ calls his followers to embrace. Wouldn't you agree that it is a far cry from the promises of prosperity and ease that we hear so much of in the "American church" today. Christ's call is a call to rugged, costly discipleship. It is a call to take up the cross of Christ and deny one's self. It is not just the narrow way of correct "christo-centric" doctrine. Many people wear that mantle. The challenge is living that out because the way we live is the truest indicator of what we truly believe.

No, the narrow way is following Christ to the cross with a spirit and mindset of selfless love. “Have this same attitude in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and became obedient even unto death.”

Be careful what you ask for. When you ask and seek and knock at God’s throne, he will always give you what you need and what is best for you. For those who seek to live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, that means God will give you the opportunity and the challenge of following the difficult and narrow way of generosity, forgiveness, service, sacrifice and obedience. And you will be the better for it. It will lead to life.

Life or death? Blessings or curses? A narrow way that leads to life or a broad way that eventually leads to death and stagnation. You Choose!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jazz Shaped Faith

An American institution; pure music; a metaphor for life. I don't know. I think I am biased. I love jazz. I love to listen to it. I love to play it. I wish I were better at it. I think it has a lot to say to followers of Jesus. If the saying is true that "are imitates life," then it must also be true that jazz is a reflection of the varieties of human experience and faith.

I think it must also be true that had Jesus come to earth in the 20th century, some if not all his parables might have been about jazz instead of farming. For many years I thought being in ministry and holding this deep desire to play jazz were so vastly different that "ne'er the twain shall meet." But about 15 years ago, I remember reading about J.I. Packer, an inscrutable, articulate, reserved British/Anglican theologian teaching at Regent College. He was a huge jazz fan. He had an extensive collection of jazz recordings and even dabbled in playing.

I thought, wow, if J.I. Packer could keep both those things balanced, I ought to be able to as well. After all, jazz really had its roots in the sacred music of Gospel and Spirituals. It's improvisation, free form, collaborative style suits it well as a model for the spiritual life.

It's too bad that back in the 50s, which musically was kind of the heyday of American jazz it got hijacked into a world of drug and alcohol abuse and other somewhat sordid lifestyles. Too bad because many of the jazz artists of the period had their start playing or singing in churches.

A few years ago, Donald Miller wrote a book called blue like jazz. He observed that many people don't like jazz because it doesn't resolve. Faith in God is a lot like jazz because, try as we might, we just can't fit God into a neat little package, resolve every minor discordant doubt or problem. We wish he did. We wish everything in life would turn out on a strong, victorious major chord with an AMEN (I,IV,V) chord progression tagged on for good measure but life just doesn't work that way except in movies.

I used repeat over and over to my wife that "jazz is pure music." She would just roll her eyes and go back to listening to contemporary Christian music. There is nothing wrong with that or with most other forms of music either. What I mean by that statement is that jazz is pure music because it stems directly from a person's heart and life experience. Though it may seem made up on the spot to the casual observer, jazz is a reflection of a deep underlying knowledge of music, a life time of practice, a careful listening to the playing of others, and then bringing one's own interpretation of that tune and basic chord structure into the mix.

I admit it's not for everyone. And in our postmodern culture, it may seem that jazz is to music what postmodern thought is to truth; namely that you can believe and do whatever you want if it works for you. But that really misunderstands the basic nature of the heart of jazz.

Jazz is music in community. When I formed a quintet back in 2007, we struggled for a name. We finally decided on "BY COMMITTEE." It has less to do with the Presbyterian roots each of our members shared at the time and more to do with the understanding that in jazz, each person brings his or her own unique gifts and expression to the piece. It is not unstructured relativism. It is like the Body of Christ. Each person is uniquely gifted to offer their own skills and background to the edification or building up of the others.

Jazz does imitate life. Or perhaps we could even say life imitates jazz. I am not quite sure which is more true. But the fact is that life has blues periods; times when our loss, grief, suffering or pain just cant be neatly resolved. It's okay to express ones self in that way.

But life has many joyous, serendipitous moments as well; moments that are best described as happy, upbeat and joyous. And then there are those in-between times as well. In all of life's experiences, part of God's design for our humanity is that we not perform as a solo act but as part of a combo; part of a group of other believers whose interpretations and applications of God's grace, love and truth, enrich others with their variations on a theme.

Today, I picked up my Denver Seminary Alumni magazine and read about another pastor/graduate of that fine institution. Robert Gelinas describes himself as lead pastor at Colorado Community Church and as a jazz theologian. (he also plays pretty well from some of the video I've seen). There is a lot of theology in jazz. He travels around the country, playing and speaking in jazz clubs about the correlation of the two. I am waiting for the time he comes to Western Washington. I would love to meet someone whose love of jazz and theology of the Gospel seem to be so interwoven and authentic.

One of the myths about jazz that many people have is that it is not rehearsed. Sometimes it is true that a group of musicians who have never played together will somehow get together and begin "jamming" as though they had played together forever. But it would be a mistake to think that much rehearsal had not gone into the outcome of their music. No doubt each of them has brought hours of lessons, practice, performance and knowledge music - both particular tunes and music theory alike - so that their music becomes an existential expression of what's in their heart based on all that lifetime of preparation.

Robert Gelinas, in his website suggests that Christians who have spent all their lives studying theology, the Bible, principles of Christian living, should find ways of sharing the music of their souls in the community of faith. A jazz shaped faith.

As I think about a meeting I have tonight, I am not sure exactly how it will go. However, in some way, I know I will be enriched by what each participant will share just as I hope my variations on the common theme (the meeting is a reunion of our team that traveled together to Zambia a year ago)we all share.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Lord's Prayer

Brief, Intense and Frequent. That is the way that Bible teach Dale F Brunner describes Jesus' teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than trying to impress others by loud public shows of devotion or incessant ramblings and flowery, elaborate speech, Jesus encourages his followers to live a life of quiet devotion and prayer. Prayer is an intimate relationship with God more than it is a display of spirituality.

That is why Brunner summarizes Jesus teaching on prayer this way:
Not for show - God is watching
Not much - God is wise

One author described prayer as spiritual breathing. It is necessary for our spiritual life and should come as automatic reflex, not as contrived showiness or wordiness. The main point of Jesus' teaching is that daily prayer is to be an integral part of the disciple's everyday experience. "When you pray, you should pray like this" does not mean "on rare occasions, and only when you are in desperate trouble, pray this prayer. Instead, it is to be taken as a description of a believers lifestyle of prayer.

Further, the Lord's prayer, while providing words that can be used in prayer,even when we don't know how to pray, does not require that these exact words be used. It forms a framework of prayer; a paradigm for what we should be praying for. Again, Brunner says, "it is a kind of handrail along which to proceed in forming our own words, or we can pray this prayer exactly, using these very words thoughtfully." Praying the Lord's Prayer helps us when we are at a loss for words.

As we at Calvary continue to consider what it means to live as Kingdom people, we need to recognize that "The Lord's Prayer" is at the very center or apex of the rest of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When we ask how do we find the strength and grace to live as disciples; to love God and to love our neighbors, the answer is generated in this prayer. It is to be the nucleus of our spiritual life.

Further more, it should be noted that at the very center of this prayer we are further taught to pray for the forgiveness of our disobedience and sin and to find forgiveness for those who have offended and hurt us.

This weekend, Calvary, along with churches around the world, will observe the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. We call it World Communion and it is a chance not only to receive the perpetual symbols of God's forgiving love in our own lives, it is a call to recognize that as disciples we are part of a much grander scheme. We are part of God's invisible church made up of persons from every walk of life, every age, every tribe, every tongue. Our spiritual life in Christ and our devotion to prayer is not just about our own intimacy with God but with our solidarity and union with other Christians everywhere and of every age.

And so, we are told not only to pray for forgiveness, and for daily bread. We are told to petition God that God's Kingdom would become a reality in this world just as it is in heaven and will one day be when Christ returns. When we pray for God's kingdom to come, we are really praying for his rule to be established everywhere in this world, beginning with our own life. It is a prayer of submission to divine sovereignty. It recognizes the holiness and rule of God and not just God's gracious providence.

We cannot pray the Lord's prayer without thinking that God, in some way, wants each of us to live as witnesses to his kingdom rule through Christ. We can't help but realize that for that kingdom to become reality, it has to begin with us forgiving those who "have trespassed or sinned against us." And we can't help but come to the startling conclusion that we in fact, do live in a global community where we bear no small degree of responsibility for brothers and sisters in places like San Ramon Nicaragua, Port au Prince, Haiti, Lusaka Zambia, Finetown, South Africa and Juarez Mexico. If we live as kingdom people and pray the way Jesus taught us, we will realize God is up to much more than we can imagine in our own sheltered experience.

Here is the way I have been praying the Lord's Prayer this week:
God in Heaven - you are our loving father, but you are also holy and majestic; sovereignly watching over all that you have made, please make your kingdom rule a reality in the lives of people around the world just in the same way it is a reality in heaven. May your kingdom be real in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world today.

We trust you to provide for us today for the things we need, not necessarily the things we want. Help us to be satisfied with daily bread and not so consumed with stockpiling material wealth to excess.

We are sinners and we know you forgive us when we sin against you. We owe you a debt we can never repay. All that you ask is that we forgive those who have hurt or offended us. In that way, we can be free to experience the freedom and grace that comes from your forgiveness.

Help us all have the strength and courage not to fall into the temptations of our culture and our world. Deliver us from the evil that is around us and help us to be agents of change in our world because you love the world and you are deserving of our very best. Lord God, you are glorious, you are powerful. Your kingdom is forever. So be it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

What was the greatest sermon you ever heard preached? Two stand out in my mind. The first was delivered by Anglican Rector and world-traveled speaker/theologian NT Wright. He was speaking at Wheaton College Chapel during the Theology Conference featuring his writings. He delivered the most compelling message using the entire book of Ephesians. Using single verses from each chapter, he developed what he understands to be God's eternal purposes for the world. I will never forget it.

Shortly after I returned from that conference, Calvary hosted the Reverend Dr. Mark Labberton who kicked off our spring sermon series on "THE DANGEROUS ACT OF WORSHIP." Mark's authentic, low-key, and personal delivery as he taught from Isaiah 58 was unforgettable to me. Not only was his understanding of Scripture so compelling, but his personal stories and examples drove his point home with forceful imagery.

What was your favorite sermon ever? Was it an electrifying evangelistic sermon by Billy Graham? Was it a provocative, intellectual lecture-like sermon? Was it from someone you knew? Was it a short sermon or a long sermon? Or, are you like me? I am a visual learner rather than an auditory learner so I often have a difficult time remembering things I hear. But I remember visuals.

It is interesting that in our culture that is so saturated with technology, media, and information, that preaching still has a place in our faith development. The attention span of the average American has been shortened dramatically so that it is hard to focus on and remember an entire 20 minute sermon. Even though God still chooses to use the sermon as a means of communicating the truths of the faith (Faith comes from hearing and hearing comes from the Word of Christ - Romans 10:17)the sermon seems antiquated and countercultural. That is one reason why we sometimes use drama, music, video, or visual props to help communicate.

This past weekend, several of you spoke to me about the concluding act of our worship that illustrated and drove home the sermon's main point. After talking about Jesus statement that believers are "the light of the world," I too was struck with the visual of 80 people standing in the darkness in front of the church with candles in hand, their warm inviting life signifying our commitment to be light in our world. Sunday was no less dramatic as we sang "Lift High The Cross" and people spontaneously began holding their lit candles high above their heads. It sent chills through my soul as I realized that a single action like that would represent the commitment to shine the light of Christ in our world.

When I think of great sermons I have read or heard, Jesus' inaugural sermon that we know as "The Sermon On The Mount" ranks at the top of the list. Jesus was the master communicator; a preacher extraordinaire. Christ's effectiveness as a communicator was not because of homiletical training. It was not because he held a prestigious pulpit.

We know that from a very early age, Jesus had a solid grasp on the Hebrew Scriptures and amazed the Pharisees, Rabbis and teachers of the Law with his keen understanding.
He taught "as one with authority." But what strikes me about the Sermon on the Mount is the relevancy or the way in which he made the Scripture come to life in a very practical, applicable way. I find The Sermon on the Mount to be an incredible primer on the theology and ethics of Jesus and I try to read it at least 2 or 3 times a year just to keep myself grounded as a preacher and as a Christ-follower. It has that kind of trans-cultural relevance and importance. When I read it I almost feel like I am one of those people gathered on a hillside in Galilee listening to this gentle Rabbi in person.

The British physician, pastor and Bible expositor Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used thirty Sunday's of eloquent preaching to expound on this passage at Westminster Chapel in London in the 1950s. These are fabulous messages in themselves. But they testify to the even greater truth and impact of Jesus' timeless teaching in this passage from Matthew's Gospel.

That is why Dan and I felt it would be beneficial and relevant to spend the fall message time reflecting on Jesus' great sermon. In particular, we want to focus on the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. What does it mean in practical terms to live like Christ-followers in our day?

I know that Dan nor I can really do justice in preaching from this great sermon. And we will not take the better part of a year to do so. But I believe you will find very practical, relevant and inspirational truth as we reflect on Jesus' familiar words and seek to apply them to our lives.

It is said that the greatest evidence of effective preaching is "changed lives." I pray that each of us will experience transformation as we reflect on Jesus' teaching through his Word.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Salt and Light

When my father was 79 years old, he had open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve and to bypass a clogged artery. He did great in surgery and his recovery was remarkable. I remember him saying that he couldn't remember when he had last felt that good. The downside of it all was that he had to radically change his diet to a fat and salt free diet. In other words he gave up any food that really tasted good to him.
(I thought it was ironic that he was told he couldn't eat things like Bacon any longer and yet the very valve they used to repair his heart was from a pig. Go figure!)

About 2 years later - at age 81 or so, after one of his complaints about not being able to eat the foods he really liked, I suggested to him that maybe at age 81, he ought to eat whatever he wanted moderation of course. Returning to red meats, cheese, real eggs and salt, may not have been the best thing to extend his life in years but it sure made his last years more enjoyable.

As I begin to prepare a set of sermons based on Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, I am struck by two unique "you are" statements he makes about his disciples. "You are the Salt of the Earth" and "You are the Light of the World." It impressed me that sentence structure doesn't intimate that a disciple should be" salt and light. The follower of Jesus is salt - the salt of the earth. The believer is light - the light of the world.

If that is true, then the question is not whether or not a Christian is salty or has light. The question is, instead, what are you doing with that tanginess and that light. And the Lord suggests that the danger of salt is that it can lose its tang.

Now my palette is not discriminating enough to tell whether the Morton's salt we buy at the store is stale or tangy. Apparently in Jesus' day, salt was not produced in the same way and with the same consistency and it could, in fact, lose its saltiness or flavor. In that case, it was no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under foot.

Salt not only adds flavor by its tang, it was used to preserve food in an age before refrigeration and artificial food preservatives. It had healing benefits. I remember having to soak my feet in Epsom Salts if they were sore or rinsing my mouth with warm salt water after a tooth extraction. I guess it aided the healing process. I know it didn't taste very good.

If we can assume that Jesus had these ideas in mind as he talked about salty salt, it has some profound implication for the way we are to live our lives as Jesus' disciples.

Salt can also be an irritant (i.e. "rubbing salt in a wound"). That might be a down side of saltiness. Sometimes we talk about a person with a salty personality or using salty language - that's usually not a complimentary reference.It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that his followers are to have a tasty desirable influence in our world - one that preserves, heals and transforms our world and the people around us.

Sometimes Christians are known more as the irritant, strident kind of salt. We stand more for what we are against than what we are for. Jesus has called those who bear his name to be an influence for positive change and showing the world a better way rather than the many ways that the world is "wrong."

Hateful demonstrations, strident protests, violence or discrimination have never been great "draws" for people with no faith to become Christ followers. Acts of compassion, careful treatment of the oppressed and marginalized, fairness, and loving unity among themselves seem to be better examples of what it means to be salt.

Similarly, when Jesus went on to say "you are lighthouses in the world" it is more likely he meant we are to be people who light the way from danger to safety, rather than blinding flashes of damaging light. We are reflectors of the true light. We guide the way for others by the way we live. And Jesus says, if you are indeed light, then don't hide your light inside a bucket - let it shine. Be so filled with the True Light of the World that it exudes from your every word and action. Reflecting Jesus' light, the light your reflect will point others to the true light - that is if you don't bury it under a basket of busy-ness, isolation from the world and its needs, and a walk of life that doesn't match your talk.

Ethical, kingdom living begins by the Lord having blessed and equipped us to live as kingdom people. If you are a disciple, you are salt. You are light. Are you salt that has flavor though? Are you a light that shines the reflective light of Christ to a hungry, lost world? Jesus will go on in his inaugural sermon to talk about the commands of the Kingdom; the "shoulds" and "ought-tos." But before he does, he reminds us of what we are and how we have been blessed and equipped. We are blessed so we can be blessings - salt and light. How salty are you?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Running a good race

I was talking to our Youth Director Ben this morning. I asked him if he remembered a famous event from the 1984 Summer Olympics. He said he didn't know about it because he was born that year. Talk about feeling old.

Do you remember those Olympics? It was the year that Mary Decker, a track star from Oregon, was America's hope to win lots of Gold in the Track and Field Distance Events. A huge controversy ensued when another competitor - Zola Budd - a barefoot, South African runner (who had at the last minute gained British Citizenship to avoid the Olympics ban on the Apartheid Policies of her home country)got her feet tangled with Mary Decker's on the last turn of the 3,000 meter race and Decker went sprawling to the ground; her Gold Medal hopes dashed.

Was it accidental? Or was it on purpose? Was there a foul? Or was it unintentional?

It's easy to get tripped up. Since my accident, I have a hard enough time to keep from tripping on small cracks in the sidewalk, or a rough spot in the floor. The other day, I was on the 8th hole at Jade Green Golf Course. My approach shot had come up short and I needed to chip my ball some 25 yards up onto the green towards the hole. I was so intent on the shot I needed to attempt I didn't pay attention to my feet and my shoelace got tangled in the leg of the golf bag stand. Before I knew it I was laying on my side in the wet grass, inches away from the small pond that my golf ball was lying next to. With "catlike" reflexes (ha) I got back to my feet and quickly began looking around to make sure nobody had seen my clumsy, careless spill.

It's easy to get tripped up if you're not paying attention to the terrain and the people around you.

Paul addresses the Galatian Christians in chapter 5 by saying: "You were running such a good race. Who tripped you up." Just like Mary Decker, these young believers who had accepted the Gospel of Grace in Christ were now being tripped up by those legalists who insisted on the Old Testament mark of circumcision - a small part of the larger Old Testament Covenant and Law. Having been tripped up by giving in to the "Judaizers" as they were called, the new believers had fallen away from grace and had landed face down in the demands of the Law.

It's easy to get tripped up on small details and on matters that don't lie at the core of Christian faith. It's easy to make "law" things that Christ has freed us from. We make "mountains out of molehills" and "major on the minors." Instead of focusing on the prize of the upward calling in Christ, we can get our spiritual feet tangled in the confusing web of church traditions, man-made rules, or archaic laws from which Christ's completed work has freed us.

Paul reminds his readers, "You were called to be free." That was the race you were running. That is the course you were on. You were doing great, but you got tripped up and defaulted on the race.

On the opposite end of that entangling legalism, is a false understanding of freedom. Yes, Christians are called to freedom. But it is a mistake to think that freedom in Christ is a free pass to live autonomously and without restraint. Freedom is not anarchy. Freedom is relative. Freedom, as we know from living in the freest country in the world, also requires responsibility.

You are running a good race. Don't get tripped up. Don't get hung up on a legalism that robs you of the freedom and grace that are in Christ. By the same token, don't get tripped up from running a good race by mistakenly thinking that it doesn't matter how you live.

Freedom means serving others in love. Freedom means putting aside our own selfish interests for the sake of others. Freedom means living by the single command that sums up all the OT Law: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Freedom means wanting to follow Christ in love and faith rather than by duty or toilsome obligation

Are you free? Are you running a good race of faith? Or have you been tripped up?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A lesson from the Links

Reading the blogs from our team in South Africa has brought back a flood of memories. The adage we heard over and over again was that "once Africa gets into you, it will never leave" is true. My heart and mind are continually drifting back to the people and places we have experienced in Zambia and South Africa. Bustling cities with people walking, biking, crowding on small buses; wide open vistas dotted with small villages; beautiful smiling children reaching out for a handshake or a hug; warm friendly men and women opening their hearts and their homes to us; semi-arid bush country to tropical jungle; exotic foods (read caterpillars, crocodile, pasty corn meal and antelope; wooden doors with skeleton keys; the Apartheid museum; gated upper-middle class estates next to sprawling settlements and townships; wild animals.... it all is part of my life that I can never forget or put aside.

I am so happy that 18 people from Calvary - some of them for the first time - get to experience the primal, beautiful, rich place that is Africa. Part of me is jealous because I am not with them. Part of me is counting the days (and money) before I can return. Part of me is living their experience with them. But here I am blogging when I should be writing a sermon. At least I have my afternoon pick-me-up of an Iced Americano at my side.

I guess I can't complain. Tuesday I got away from a little bit to play golf with some church guys. Beautiful blue sky! lush green grass. All varieties of birds. gently blowing breezes! The sounds of golf balls clunking off trees. Teasing comments from friends like "Nice putt Alice!" Traipsing through dense woods and slashing through reeds at the edge of ponds looking for a little white orb.... All part of the experience of golf - especially when one hasn't played in over a year.

Had I been by myself, I might not have counted every stroke or I might have been prone to use my "toe mashie" to kick the ball further ahead. Since I was with impressionable church members, I needed to play by the rules. So my score was less than stellar to say the least. Or to put it another way, my score was much more than I wished it had been.

Playing by the rules, keeping score, taking your proper turn, making sure you follow golf etiquette - it's all part of the game. For those who really take it seriously, any violation of the rules can have serious consequences. For the pros it could mean the difference of several thousands of dollars in prize money.

There are a certain set of mechanics of a golf swing that need to be religiously observed as well. Keep your knees bent. Head down. Right elbow in tight. Take the club back slowly. Follow through to the target...on and on it goes.

Playing as seldom as I do, obeying all these rules and remembering all those steps for a good swing remind me that I need lessons and practice. I am painfully reminded that there are others much better than me. I will probably never excel at the game, especially if I can't just relax and play for fun.

I need something more. That is, in a slight comparison, the dilemma facing the Galatian Christians. There were those who were insisting that, as new Christians, these believers should keep the Old Testament Laws. Along came Paul who preached a gospel of grace through simple faith in Christ. That left a big question: What was the purpose of the law then?

The purpose of the law served (still serves today)as a reminder - a teacher if you will - of a greater need. It leads the believer to a place of readiness to meet Christ. Since no one could ever really keep the law, God put in charge of us to bring us to grace.

This week, I am preaching from Chapter 3 of Galatians. It is all about Grace through faith in Christ. And it is a reminder to me, that all my attempts to live by a legalistic set of rules in life only reminds me that I am - to use St. Paul's words - the "chief sinner." I sometimes feel I am about as good at living the Christian life as I am at swinging a golf club. I need help. I need Jesus. I need grace.

A friend of mine just posted a quote on her website from Ann LaMott's book "GRACE (Eventually):Thoughts on Faith. I like it because it speaks to me about this amazing thing called grace and my utter need:
“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Ann LaMott knows what she is talking about. Her life's experience has not been the sheltered, rosy, prosperous, smooth-sailing life we sometimes associate with Christianity and with Grace. It has been messy, difficult, and rocky at times. When she met Christ, she was at the low part of her life and she wandered into the back of a church, curious and seeking anonymity and what she found was redemption. In her book "TRAVELING MERCIES" she recounts that her view of religion; of Christianity; had been one of negativity and legalism. Yet Jesus met her where she was at and didn't leave her where he found her.

Law only takes us so far. Yet it has a purpose. It leads us to the place where Christ meets us with this mysterious thing called grace and there, he begins to transform us.

So whether you are in Africa, on a golf course, stuck in a drab office, sitting anxiously at the bed of a loved one in the hospital, reeling from economic strain or broken relationship, "grace will meet you where you are at and won't leave you where it found you." Hard times, legalism, rules, life - they are all ways God uses to lead us to his grace.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Tis Grace Hath Brought Me Safe Thus Far"

John Newton lived an amazing life. Born in 1725 as the son of a Merchant Ship Commander his life was spent at sea from the time he was a mere eleven years old. When he was 19, he was pressed into her majesty's service aboard the HMS Harwich - a British Man-of-War. Finding conditions of military service harsh, he deserted and was soon recaptured. As punishment, he was assigned aboard a slave ship where a friend of his father's found him and asked him to serve on his ship - a slave trader. Soon he captained his own ship and began transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to Great Britain.

One dark night, during a particularly violent storm, he was convinced that the ship would be sunk. Though he had been trained as a child in religion, life had long since convinced him that he had no room in his life for God. But this night, he cried out to the Lord for mercy and later, as he reflected on his prayer and the ship's deliverance, he admitted that this had been "his great deliverance." That day was May 10, 1747, a date he remembered each year as the "day of his humiliation when he submitted his will to that of a higher power."

Though he continued in the slave trade for several more years, he was known to have been kind to and treated the slaves on his ship with more dignity. It wasn't until sometime later, after he had become a minister of the Gospel that he repudiated slavery all together.

When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, he chided them that even though they had experienced grace in their salvation, they had fallen back into a way of life and practice that was law-based, not grace-based. "After beginning with the Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:3,5)

It is when we are in the storms of life that we realize our helplessness and we cry out to God for mercy. And God in faithful, abiding love hears and answers our prayers. God gives us grace so that we can say with John Newton "tis grace hath brought me safe thus far." However, once the storm is passed, that is when we - or at least I - tend to think that God's grace is no longer needed and that we can safely navigate through life on our own "compass and wind."

A new friend of mine was recently injured in a motorcycle accident. In that accident, he suffered a broken neck and spinal cord damage in roughly the same level that I experienced 13 plus years ago. Living through this trial with him, I have reflected a lot recently on the mystery of "why and how" God's sovereign grace restored and healed me to the extent he did. I don't have an answer to that question and it haunts me. Yet I believe somehow, God's grace not only saw me through that time in my life, it calls to me yet today, reminding me that my life belongs not to me but to the Lord. "Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far."

It's also grace that will lead us safely home. God's grace is not like a chicken pox vaccine or a tetanus shot; kind of a one time cures all salve. Yes, Christ Jesus' work on the cross was a once for all sacrifice through which we have life with God. But that grace needs to be applied daily. We live in grace. Paul reminds us that "the righteous will live by faith: faith in Christ, and by the faithfulness of Christ. It is our daily bread. It is the air we breathe. It is the substance, hope and gift that energizes and equips us to live lives that make a difference in the world.

Think of your own life of faith as we continue our journey through Galatians. What is the balance of power in your priorities and life-choices between grace and law or works. Are you motivated, like the Galatians had been seduced into believing, that the Christian life is defined by the things we do make ourselves look religious or make us feel better about ourselves.

The Gospel is all about the grace of God and what Jesus has done for us. In gratitude then - not in an effort to win brownie points or rack up "spiritual frequent flyer miles" - we seek to live lives that reflect God's grace in the world to others.

If we live under law, the reflection others see is of joyless obedience. If we live under grace the reflection of Jesus people see is that of God's love for the world and of joyful gratitude.

John Newton, during the later years of his life, served as rector first for the church at Olney in Buckinghamshire. In 1780 he became rector of St Mary Woolchurch in London. His preaching was powerful and the church became so crowded that people often couldn't find a seat. It was there, under the preaching of grace by Newton, that William Wilberforce was touched and became a leader in the movement to abolish slavery.

Grace truly had brought Newton safe through that May 10 storm at sea and through to the end of his life. And it was his confidence, that in spite of being blind and in old age, grace would lead him safely home.

Having begun by grace, am I one who reverts back to law and works as if to somehow earn God's favor? I pray not. I pray that somehow I would live by faith in every circumstance and that my life would reflect, not my effort but the marvelous grace of God through the finished work of Christ.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Well, we've come to the end of our spring series of presentations on Worship and Justice. Someone asked me today if we were "ever going to have another sermon?" While not every one of our speakers has been an ordained clergy, I told this person that each of the presentations we had heard the past nine weeks was, indeed, a sermon. I was reminded of the quote attributed to St. Francis of Asissi who said

"Preach a sermon everyday, and if necessary, use words."

Each of the speakers we have heard has brought a challenging message to our congregation about what it means to live as a Christian in our world of hurt, need and injustice.

It's not about us after all.

No, it's not about hearing a comforting, reassuring message of how much God loves us when we are so overly saturated with God's blessings and love, we hardly pay attention anymore. It is not about sitting in a comfortable pew and getting our weekly dose of "spiritual Benadryl" spooned out. It is about laying our lives out before God in such abandonment and devotion in our worship service that the moment we leave the doors of our church, we are servants who preach sermons about what we think of God every day.

Sometimes those sermons reflect more of our concern about God taking care of us and prospering us.

But perhaps, just perhaps, worship is more than that. Maybe genuine worship is coming alongside a teenage mom and introducing her to a Christ who loves her unconditionally, even when she has been ostracized by friends, family and society.

Maybe genuine worship is taking a refugee family in and helping them find employment, learn how to shop in our stores, and navigate all the complicated systems of government so they can find the help they need.

Maybe genuine worship is handing out food at the local food bank; or counseling at a camp for teens and children who are terminally ill with HIV/AIDS. Maybe worship is more authentic when we are shoulder to shoulder with Nicaraguans who are in need of dental and medical care or Africans who lack safe water and basic schools. Maybe worship is best defined by our financial support of an orphan or of an organization that works to free young girls from the sex slave industry in the far east.

Where would Jesus be most comfortable? In one of our cultures prescribed worship services or somewhere out in the world; beyond the walls of the church building we call home. Would Jesus stand with us in those places of great need along the borders of our country or in the walled areas of Palestine, or in the home of an African teenager who is trying to hold a family of four other children together because her parents have both died? Would Jesus be out pounding nails to build someone a house, or touching the sick, visiting the poor, homeless, weak and imprisoned? Hmmm. I wonder.

So next week, we go back to more "expository" sermons, plumbing the depths of St. Paul's theology of grace and justification and what it means to live in the freedom of the spirit instead of under the curse of "law." That will be good. I am sure we'll learn lots. But it won't be as meaningful if we forget all the lessons we have been taught about meeting the needs of the world's people and working to be agents of God's transforming grace.

So, bring your Bibles. Settle in. But don't get too comfortable because I think you will agree that Paul echoes most of the thoughts we have focused on the past few weeks: genuine faith and worship result in an engaged life of service and compassion.

In the mean time, preach a sermon every day this week and if necessary, use words.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

LOVE, HOPE, COUAGE - Reach Ministries of Tacoma





Reach Ministries of Tacoma is the focus of our services this week at Calvary. REACH is an organization that doesn't just undestand the stigma, pain, fear and dispair that assaults a child, who, through no fault of their own, have contracted HIV/AIDS, it seeks to do something about it.

Providing opportunities to experience life as children and to show the unquenchable, unconditional love of God, REACH touches the life to these children and their families through advocacy, mentoring, camps and high school programs.

The worldwide pandemic of HIV/AIDS is not, in contrast to common misperception, exclusive to homosexuals, intravenous drug users or people in Africa. It is a reality that affects many - often innocent children and youth. The effects of the disease and its associated life-threatening illnesses are made worse by the isolation, loneliness, fear and stigma they experience.

REACH seeks to network and mobilize medical professionals, individuals, and groups to donate their time and resources to serve those in need in the name of Jesus.

One day, when Jesus was just beginning his public ministry, a man with leproosy came along and begged him, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." (Luke 5:12ff) Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. You have to understand, leprosy was the first century equivalent of HIV/AIDS in many ways. Lepers were considered unclean. People feared and ostracized them, fearing they too might contract the disease by touch or association. Lepers, it was believed, were being punished for sin. For Jesus to reach out in love, compassion, grace and power to touch and cleanse the leper was radical. No conditions. No prerequisites. No judgment. No stigma.

HIV/AIDS victims are similarly ostracized, judged and feared. Yet so many have been stricken with this disease through no fault or act of their own. An infected partner or parent, a contaminated transfusion needle, or some other cause has left children in modern day leper camps as orphans or victims.

REACH offers the touch of Jesus. REACH offers Christians the opportunity to be the tangible, visible expression of Christ's love. Or, as Mother Teresa once said, "to be a small pencil in the hand of God writing a love letter to the world."

Last fall, I had the chance to stand surrounded by over 100 children in a small village outside Lusaka Zambia. Dirty hands and faces reached out to touch and to be touched. Over half these children were either single (one parent) or double (both parent) orphans due to HIV/AIDS. No doubt, some of them were infected as well. My heart was broken to see how starved for love and for touch these kids were.

The reality is that we don't need to go overseas in order to positively (pardon the pun) affect the life of a child who is, in some way, a victim of HIV/AIDS. There are opportunities for that love, that compassion, that grace to be shown here in our own backyard.

James says, "religion that God finds acceptable and pur is this: to look after the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." REACH MINISTRIES is practicing religion that is pure and acceptable to God. We can partner with them by showing the love, hope and courage that comes from knowing and following Christ.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Christ Centered Social Services

- you are a battered or sexually abused wife and mother who needs a safe place to stay;

- you are a family of 6 and are facing the possibility of having to choose between paying your electric bill or putting food on the table;

- you are homeless, living with all your possessions in the back of your car. The weather is cold and rainy;

- you are stranded in a strange community because your car broke down and you don't have the means to get it fixed or to put gas in it;

- Your monthly income doesn't stretch far enough to meet all your needs;

- you have a job interview but don't have appropriate, clean clothes to wear;

- you are struggling with depression or an addiction and you don't know where to turn;

IMAGINE - It's difficult isn't it. In fact, you may not even notice the nameless, faceless people that exist in our community under those or other dire circumstances. Maybe you shrug them off by saying, "They've made bad choices in their lives. What they need to do is take responsibility and begin to pull themselves up "by their own bootstraps."

IMAGINE - Imagine that there were no place for someone to go to for help? IMAGINE!

----------------- or ----------------

IMAGINE a centralized, unified agency where people could get food, receive job counseling, find help with utilities, get emergency, safe shelter, find a warm, loving, group of volunteers and paid staff that really care and have the resources to help with your needs. IMAGINE!

I have good news. You don't need to imagine. There is such a place and such a group of people right here in Enumclaw. Plateau Outreach Ministries is a unique agency that exists "to provide Christ-centered social services on behalf of the churches of the Plateau Ministerial Association. Over the years of its history from very simple beginnings in the basement of Calvary as Plateau Care Corps, it has grown and morphed into an amazing, flexible, efficient, loving place where people - young and old, male or female, brown, black or white, rich or poor, can go to receive the love of Jesus in tangible expression.

Samaritan Project provides rental and utility assistance. The food bank hands out groceries every Wednesday. More Pennies from Heaven sells quality used clothing, household items and other unique items at unbelievably low prices. Not only do the proceeds from those sales go to help underwrite the costs of running such a ministry, it also provides people with the dignity of being able to purchase needed items at a resonable price.

Networking with other social service agencies - both non-profit organizations and government agencies - POM is able to meet just about any need a person or family may have. They do so with the love of Jesus in the face of ever-increasing need. What makes this ministry most unique is the way the entire community has embraced it. Receiving funds from churches, other agencies and ngos, the city of Enumclaw, individuals and corporate grants, POM exists as a true expression of the unity of the Body of Christ and of the Heart of Jesus for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the aliens and strangers living in our midst.

Kimberly Fish is the Executive Director. She is an incredible person with a heart for people and a heart for the Lord. She epitomizes, in my mind, what it means to let our faith and worship of God translate into tangible, life-transforming acts of witness and grace. She is speaking at Calvary this Saturday and Sunday - May 29,30.

I hope you can come at 7:00 pm Saturday or 9:30 am Sunday to hear more about this incredible ministry and the ways you can support and volunteer to be a part of its gospel witness in our community.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The World At Our Doorstep

When I was growing up as a self-absorbed kid, somewhere around 1956 or 1957, I have a distinct memory of my parents opening our small home to a family that had moved to the US (in particular, the Denver area) from a strangely named country called Hungary. I knew little about it except that it was in Eastern Europe and that a dish my mother used to prepare for dinner was called Hungarian Goulash. I suppose for a kid of 6 or 7 that was probably quite a bit to know.

This family sat around our dinner table telling us stories of the bloody revolution that had been taking place as Hungarians sought to break free from the brutal, and even bloodier rule of Stalinist Russia. Thousands - maybe more like tens of thousands - they said had been killed and even more arrested.

This family had been granted assylum in the US and somehow had been sponsored by Corona Presbyterian Church, the church my family attended in Denver. I was mesmerized by their stories and wondered what it would be like to be a refugee; someone displaced by war and persecution and forced to flee to another country for safety. That was my first introduction to the problems faced by refugees and I remember that this family's parents were well-educated professionals who were forced to accept menial, low-paying jobs. They were barely able to survive.

Today, the problem of refugees is staggering in number and in need. According the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2009 the number of refugees fleeing to other countries stood at 16 million. An additional 26 million were considered "internally displaced peoples," meaning that they had been forced to flee their homes and villages but were still needing assistance in their countries of origin.

In the last 20 years, our country has struggled to define what qualifies as refugee status granting temporary assylum in our country. Generally speaking, if a person has fled their country for reasons of economic, political religious persecution or from danger of war. Considering the fact that over 90% of the world's population lives on $2.00 or less USD per day, it is a pretty broad definition.

My ancestors were refugees. The fled England because of religious persecution and went to Leydon Holland. They were expelled from there as well and so they hopped on a little boat known as the Mayflower in 1620 and came to the new world to establish a new life, free from the tyranny of persecution. You might be familiar with that story.

In 1974, after the fall of Saigon and the takeover of all of Viet Nam by the communists, there were literally thousands of refugees pouring into the US being sponsored by families and churches. Seattle received a large number of those refugees who had fled because of the persecution and imprisonment that educated and religious Vietnamese people were experiencing.

When we lived in New Mexico during the 1980s the issue of immigrants fleeing the economic and war conditions of Central America had become a real problem along the southern borders of the country and many churches were offering sanctuary for those refugees. It became a real political hot button and continues to be so today as our Southern Borders continue to be a gateway for thousands of Latino immigrants - both from Mexico and points south. The new Arizona Law has shed the light of the nation's press and commentators on this issue and it also is a hot topic right now.

This Sunday, Cal Uomoto from World Relief will be speaking at Calvary regarding the refugees who populate the Puget Sound Region and the different kinds of ministries that are being offered to help these peole adjust to their new homes, surroundings and strange culture. Just in Seattle Presbytery alone we have worshiping fellowships made made up of Korean, Indonesian, Persian (Iraq and Iran) Latino, Ukrainian, Kenyan and Ethiopian refugees. Their needs are complex and real. World Relief is addressing those needs. For those who may read this prior to Saturday or Sunday, I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the refugee situation in this region. The World is at our door more than ever before

The Bible reminds us to welcome the strangers and the aliens living among us for once "we too were aliens."

Friday, April 23, 2010



These words from the ancient prophet Micah boldly hang over the entrance to the headquarters of FOOD FOR THE HUNGRY where my son-in-law Ryan works. Those who work there are reminded each day that God's purpose and desire for his people is not to blithely or routinely go through the external motions of worship without a sense of our call and responsibility as God's people to serve others in the world.

Mark Labberton, in his book "The Dangerous Act of Worship" suggests that most Christians and most churches today have mistakenly focused on avoiding "false dangers" when they worship. In our consumeristic culture, for example, we tend to worry a lot more about managing a safe, relevant and comfortable worship that salves our hearts. The result is that the Church has fallen asleep to the purposes of God and the needs of the world. Instead of being a factor that strengthens us to go out into the world to be the church, worship has become a "one-hour martinizing" to take care of our individual spiritual needs for the next seven days until we can come back in to get another dose of spiritual balm.

There is no doubt that being in the presence of God should and does remind us of God's saving acts through Christ and his unquenchable love for us as individuals. But somewhere along the way we have lost our way. Like the children of Israel wandering through the wilderness on their journey to Caanan, the Church (large C but also small c or local church) has lost sight of God's call to be a transformational covenant people blessing others. Instead, we have focused on self and on safe worship.

Dr. Labberton challenges that view in his book. And I knoow that he will challenge us this weekend when he speaks at Calvary at both our Saturday night and our Sunday morning services. Someone once said that the goal of preaching is "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." I am sure that there will be a little of both as we hear this prophetic call to service and to justice.

This morning, as I was anticipating our weekend services with Dr. Labberton, I was reminded of a quote from the essayist Annie Dillard in her book "Teaching a Stone to Talk."
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

I had always read that quote with the perspective that worship should be exciting and energizing; that is should just really pump up and encourage the believer through a dynamic liturgy of singing, prayer and preaching. Today, however, I thought of it more in terms of this call to look outside the walls of our weekly church service. It is a reminder that true worship is an encounter with the living God and it is something explosive and dangerous because when we truly worship, we are so transformed that we will also be a transformational force in the world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

FAITH IN ACTION - A phony platitude or the real presence of Jesus in our community?

There will not be a regular sermon to post this week unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective). Instead, the members, friends, partners, and children of Calvary are once again joining with Christians from a number of other churches on the Enumclaw Plateau to serve our community in a tangible way. To my disappointment, this spring's FAITH IN ACTION Sunday falls on a week when I am in Chicago (Wheaton to be precise) at a conference entitled "JESUS, PAUL, AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD: A theological dialogue with NT Wright."

As I often do when I am at a conference like this, I have to once again say "I feel like I have been trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose." Lucky for you that even though my brain and heart are full to overflowing with stuff I have been thinking about for a long time, I am too mentally exhausted to write about it all.

There are three reasons I chose this conference to use up my study leave and study allowance for this year. First and foremost, it is within a short driving distance - albeit one frought with heavy Chicago traffic and tolls - to my daughter Melissa and family's house in Des Plaines. More than just a place to stay, playing crosswords and Guesstures with Davis, having lunch with Melissa, going to Wisconsin to see Jerry at work with his church's Jr. High Youth Group are all wonderful, fun, exciting additions to my itinerary.

Second, it is at Wheaton College. The past three days have been a trip down memory lane as I have walked around the campus. Even though it has grown and changed dramatically, waves of warm nostalgia have washed over me continually as I walked the halls of the Conservatory, sat on a bench, soaking up sun on front campus near where Judy and I spent many a romantic moment "studying." On Thursday, during the afternoon session of the conference I actually sat in the very seat in Edman Chapel I had been assigned as a Junior. I had to keep looking back up to the balcony to see if there were still monitors taking attendance for required attendance. I bought a cap in the College Bookstore (used to be the dining hall) and peered in some of the classrooms of Blanchard Hall and walked into the lobby of Smith Tower. Wow! Just talking about it brings the feelings to the surface. I wish Judy were here to share it with me.

Third, and ostensibly the real reason for taking in the conference, is that it has centered around the scholarship, writing and theology of NT Wright. My library now includes 5 of his books and that number is sure to grow. He is, perhaps, the brightest star in Evangelical Christendom's sphere of scholalrship and thought as far as lucid articulation of the Gospel. In particular, his book SIMPLY CHRISTIAN is, in my opinion, a wonderful and readable apologetic for the faith. His newest book AFTER YOU BELIEVE is on my "to buy" list as soon as I get home.

What does all this have to do with FAITH IN ACTION (which is what today's blog is supposed to be about? Namely this. During today's afternoon panel discussion two questions arose in relation to Wright's theology of resurrection and eschatology. The first question is "so what?" (or what difference does the resurrection make?). The second question was "Where is Jesus now?"

Wright's answer to the second question went something like this: Jesus is in heaven. period. But it is wrong to assume that heaven is some place far away. Instead, Jesus is in heaven and heaven is very close to our world. In fact, they intersect. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," Jesus taught. That didn't change when Jesus rose again and ascended. Instead of being in some remote, distant celestial "place" the reality of heaven is just beyond our sight. The Gospels, Paul and all the prophecies draw back the shades that help us to see that the reality of Jesus' lordship and kingdom is more real than thinking of it as being in some cloudy, pearly-gated, golden-streeted locale billions of miles away (In a galaxy far, far away to quote Star Wars).

In particular, heaven intersects the realities of our earthly existence at numerous levels. Of course the Holy Spirit is present with us daily. But, according to Wright, and I agree with him, Jesus is relly present in the worship gatherings of the community of faith; in the observance of the sacraments; and whenever God's people are in the world serving the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives and healing to the sick persons and systems in our world that he (Jesus) will one day set completely to rights when he comes again.

"So What?" It is legitimate to ask. By living in right relationship to God, we live in Christ. And by living in Christ who has brought all things together in him through his death and resurrection, we, who have been declared right with God, bear a responsibilty and privelege of radically and really bringing the righteousness and justice of his kingdom to bear. Jesus is wherever His people are living out the reality of our faith and salvation in a needy and hurting word.

Even if you can't be a part of our official FAITH IN ACTION Sunday, as a "Christ-one," you can live everyday by putting your faith in action. And in doing so, the Kingdom of heaven will be near - nearer than you realize.

Time to finish my caramel latte and wander back for the evening session. More when I get back to Enumclaw later next week. Blessings!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

YOUTH SUNDAY @ Calvary Presbyterian April 11, 2010 preached by Ben Auger, Calvary's Director of Youth Ministry

You should know that I’m a teacher by trade. I was in English teacher for years, I’m currently a substitute teacher in our schools, and even in our church it’s my responsibility to teach young people about Jesus. So as a teacher, I usually don’t give speeches, but lessons. So try to think of the next 20 minutes as an interactive lesson.

Let’s start our lesson with an exercise. I’m going to show a series of quotations. Think about each one and which one best describes your views on God and salvation.

"To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath God promised forgiveness and a great reward," (Surah 5:9).

“Salvation is reached through acts of worship, based upon devotion and love for God.” – Bhakti Hinduism

“Through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” 3rd Article of Mormon Faith

Before we get to your answers, I have one more question:
How many of your have heard the phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.”?
Which book of the Bible does that come from?

Now, back to our exercise. The question was: Which statement best describes your view of God and salvation. I hope the first one didn’t describe your viewpoint. That’s a quote from the Koran; it’s what Muslims believe. So if you chose statement two then you’re … in full agreement with a lot of Hindus. So congratulations to those who trusted statement three … because you’d get along just fine with our Mormon friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

So we’re left with this: “God helps those who helps themselves.” Did anybody flip through and find where this quote is in the Bible? You might have found it under the Book of Hezekiah on the list of things that aren’t actually in the Bible. This is a quote from Ben Franklin.

Sorry to play such a mean trick on you all. I promise no more tricks – just truth from now on.

So how is the story of Jesus unlike any other worldview?
What would the Bible say about Ben Franklin’s quote?

Romans 5:6 – “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.” So does God help those who help themselves? Not according to this Bible verse.

Regardless of whether we knew it was in the Bible or not, I think we all try to live by this motto. I think we’re doing all we can to be worthy before God. We’re working hard to make sure our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds by the end of our life. As if it’s a matter of willpower, we try really hard on our own to make it to heaven.

If this describes your approach to life, I hope I can convince you to give it up. It’s time for us to give up trying to earn our spot in heaven.

This month we’ve been talking about Mormons in youth group on Wednesday nights. We’ve learned so much about all of these rules and regulations they must keep. It’s a life of slavery to a set of rules: no caffeine, modest dress, frequent church attendance, and no less than 10% giving. We learned that to be saved, one must obey a set of laws and ordinances. If that describes you, then we need to change from the Mormon approach to life to the Christian approach.

In the Middle East I talked with some Muslims about God, salvation, and the afterlife. A Muslim explained to me that to be saved, you must give complete obedience to God, following all his commands. On the day of judgment, God will weigh your good deeds and weigh your bad deeds. If your good outweighs your bad, that you’re good to walk through the gates. If you have too many bad deeds on your resume, then the other thing happens. If that describes your way of thinking, then we need to change from the Muslim approach to life to the Christian approach.

In Thailand, I stumbled upon a bunch of picnic tables full of Buddhist monks, offering their wisdom and insight. They explained that life is so full of suffering. I agreed. He said that if we eliminate selfishness, greed, and wickedness from our life, then our suffering will end. He said if we concentrate hard enough, we can eliminate these bad things from our life, then we can achieve salvation. If that describes your way of thinking then we need to change from the Buddhist approach to life to the Christian approach.

You should know that I asked this monk, “Do you know anybody who has escaped suffering through this method you describe?” His answer was straight up “no.” I was too polite to respond, “Don’t you see a problem with that?”

What does the Bible tell us about our approach to life?

First, we’re told that we’re utterly helpless. We don’t have the willpower to be good. We can’t do enough good to outweigh the bad. And our spiritual bank account is so dry that we’re bankrupt.

What’s so unique about the story of Jesus?

That while we were utterly helpless, he helped us. That while you were a slave to sin, you were set free. That while you were bankrupt, your debts were cancelled. That while you were held ransom by Satan, you were purchased at a great price. That while you were dead in your transgressions, you were made alive in Christ.

Have you ever admitted your helpless? Have you ever admitted you’re bankrupt. Have you ever realized that your spiritually dead in your wrongdoing? If so, then why does everybody have a bookshelf full of self-help books? We can’t call ourselves sons and daughters of God and live life with a self-help approach.

I’m going to show you a video, and I want you to guess which guy is Jesus, and which guys are the other people I talked about.

***Show Video***: A man fell in a hole

Pray: Father, we recognize that you are the master of everything, and we – the masters of nothing. We used to be helpless in this hole, yet you helped us out, and still we live like we have to do enough good, or else we go back into the hole. Or, Father, some of us have never left that hole. Even though we’re helpless, we try to dig our way out on our own. God today we admit that we need your help and when you ask us if we want to be free, our answer is “yes.” Yes, we want you to save us from the hole and we want to live life with dependence on you, and not ourselves. We love you, and we commit our lives to you.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Luke 9:18 - 27; Romans 8:1 - 11

There are lots of things you thought you understood and had figured out. In the end, you discovered that what you thought was true was not really true. For example, I heard a true story this weekend. A home owner - who shall remain nameless - heard a lot of ruckus and as they looked out there was three people, dressed in black and wearing ski masks out in the yard. He thought it was a group of teens that had been burgling houses in the area was about to break into their house. But that wasn't reality at all. It was just a bunch of Presbyterians sneakily skulking around placing pink flamingos in the yard. Things are not always what we think they are.

Easter - It's the grandest switch in history. The authorities thought they had killed Jesus. The Romans were glad to be done with the uprising his life caused. Pilate had washed his hands. Soldiers had beaten him within inches of his life then executed him using the most painful, tortuous method known in history - a specialty the Romans were very good at.
Just to make sure he was dead, a Roman soldier thrust a spear in his side and fluid from his lungs mixed with blood flowed from the wound. He was taken down and pronounced dead. If anyone knew what death was it was a Roman Soldier.

The Jewish religious leaders thought they had quelled the challenge to their authority. This young rabbi from Galilee who had stirred up such a fuss would bother them no more. After he had been taken from the cross, he had been placed in a stone sepulchre, a large stone was rolled in front and the tomb was sealed and guarded by a squad of the Praetorian Guard.

Even his followers spent the days immediately after Jesus' crucifixion mourning his death. They wrapped his body. They embalmed it with spices. They placed it on one of the carved rock ledges of the tomb. They saw the stone rolled in front of the tomb and sealed with Pilate's royal seal. They witnessed the placement of an armed guard, placed there because even the authorities had heard Jesus' claim that he would rise again.

The disciples, for fear of reprisals and arrest themselves, they were hiding out in an upper room with the doors locked.

That was Friday. Little did they know that what they thought had happened was quite different than what really did happen. Yes, their rabbi and lord had died. But dawn broke that first day of the week and things changed. Sabbath was over. It was time to go and do a more thorough job of caring for the body of him who they loved and followed. In sorrow the women went, not knowing they'd find the tomb empty and the grave clothes rolled up.

Various stories began to circulate trying to discredit the news. Jesus' disciples had stolen the body; Jesus really wasn't dead, he had only swooned; in their grief the women and the disciples just imagined they'd seen Jesus. Many of those stories still circulate today. The authorities claimed the disciples had stolen the body. Others tried to spread the rumor that Jesus' followers had gone to the wrong tomb by mistake. None of those rationales hold water really. Nor do any of the more recent arguments of skeptics. In fact, those who have seriously investigated the Easter event have found that it is the only answer that makes sense of what happened in the following months, years, decades and centuries since

Many people have attempted to disprove Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Frank Morrison investigated thoroughly, looking at all the historical evidence and ended up writing a book entitled "Who Moved the Stone?" The stone that had been moved from inside the tomb, in spite of the Roman seal and the armed guard was the one telling proof that could not be denied. He became a convinced believer.

Lew Wallace, the governor of New Mexico and a staunch atheist, set out to do the same; to disprove the resurrection. What he ended up writing was an incredible story of the risen Christ called Ben Hur. More than a historical docudrama, the story was a sort of autobiography of his own life. Before believing in Jesus and his resurrection he we disbelieving and angry, struggling against God. He didn't believe in the resurrection. After his own historical investigation of the evidence however, he not only came to believe in the evidence intellectually, but it changed his life.

CS Lewis, a literature professor and philosopher attempted to investigate with the intent of disproving the claims of Christianity and he was "Surprised by Joy." He became perhaps the most convincing apologist of the Christian faith in the 20th century.

Lee Strobel, a lawyer, used to examining evidence and seeking the most logical and plainest answer to that evidence ended up writing "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Easter"

Perhaps the plainest proofs of all was the changed lives of the disciples. History tells us the fates of some of them: James was beheaded in Jerusalem. Matthew was killed by a sword in Ethiopia. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead. Luke was hanged in Greece. Peter was crucified upside down. Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India during a missionary trip. Jude, the brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. No longer cowering in fear, they became bold witnesses willing to be martyred for their absolute certainty that life had been snatched from the claws of death.

The power and courage to spread Jesus' gospel came not because of the example of Jesus' death but because of his victorious triumph over sin and death. Life came from death.

God's plans and purposes were then, and are now, upside down and contrary to the way humans plan things. To become the greatest, one must become the least. To be exalted one must humble him/herself. To receive the blessings of heaven, one must become poor in spirit, meek, and starving for spiritual fulfillment. To find your life you must lose it.

It was not the powerful, or the religious, not the self-pious or the in-crowd with whom Jesus identified. It was the leper, the cripple, the poor widows, the lowly fishermen and shepherds. The king of the universe who created all things became a human being and humbled himself, becoming a servant and giving his life on the cross.

But that didn't stop him or his powerful reign in the hearts and lives of his followers. In fact, his death, as much as his tormentors thought had ended him, became the pathway to his exaltation as Lord and Savior. A humiliating, torturous death and a humble burial in a borrowed tomb were no less fit for God than was the manger stall at his birth. In God's economy the simple, the small and the foolish things of the world become the power of God to salvation. Life is found through death. God has turned the tables on death.

Aslan said it best in the LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE - She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

The deeper truth of the gospel is that, indeed, a willing victim did give his life in the place of traitors. The stone table cracked. Death began working backwards. It is not the way you think it is. Living comes through dying.

The Easter message we need to hear is that it is in dying that we too find life. As followers of Jesus, he called us to deny our self, take up a cross and follow him. When Peter made his bold assertion of faith in Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus blessed him and changed his name. However he made sure Peter understood the way things really were to be. When Peter tried to talk Jesus out of going to the cross, he was rebuked by the Lord who told him, " are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man." (Matthew 16:23)

Then, in almost the same breath, Jesus turned to all the disciples and told them this: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Mt. 16:24,25)

In order to live - truly live, we must die to self. We have to know that the ideas of culture, the things of mankind, are contrary to the reality of God's kingdom. That is true physically and spiritually. Our mortal bodies must put on immortality. To do that, the mortal has to die. Jesus said (John 11:26) I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me will never die, and even if he dies, yet shall he live." That is the promise made sure in the Easter event.

We can make Easter about all sorts of things can't we? It can be about chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. It can be about new clothes. It can be about a once a year pilgrimage to church. It can be about ham dinners or spring flowers or the newness of life in nature. But the reality is that Easter is about the fact that life - real life, eternal life - comes only through dying. It comes because of the death of Jesus, which he then triumphed over by rising from his tomb alive. It comes because - as the Bible tells us, this same spirit that brought again our Lord Jesus from the dead is at work in us. (Ephesians 1:19,20 cf)

Recently, there are many here at Calvary have experienced the chilling, seeming finality of death. A spouse, a father, a son or daughter, a grandparent has been taken from this earthly life. All the things we knew and loved about that person are no longer physical realities. We can't hug them and tell them we love them. We can't call for their advice or for a favorite recipe. They are no longer there to take care of the checking account or working to bring home an income. They are not sitting across the table from us at dinner, or laying beside us at night.

The natural assumption is that death has triumphed; that death is the reality of the way things really are. But that is not so. Just as the angel told the women when they came to anoint the body of Jesus, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen just as he said!"

You see, that is what we do isn't it. We look for life in what we think that reality is. And yet there is a deeper reality, a deeper magic if you will, that reminds us "we who are in Christ and who believe in him will never die. Even if we do, yet shall we live."

This same principle applies to our earthly life and purpose. We can spend all our time and resources pursuing earthly pleasures, filling ourselves with good things, enjoying the status of wealth and prosperity, health and power. Our lives, quite frankly are often defined by earthly accomplishments and attainments. But the way Jesus defines the quality of one's life is by dying to self and taking up a cross as we follow him. Real life in Christ takes a different turn as we begin to follow him. We begin to care more about the things and the people he cares about than we do about the things the world considers important.

Robert Ramey, in a small devotional booklet entitled "The Cross Bearers" made this point clearly. He said "cross-bearers look for the crucified in the lives of the poor and needy."

Mark Labberton makes it as well when he says we have fallen asleep in worship and we have not been tuned into the things that matter most to the heart of God.

In our sermons about the seven deadly sins, we said that all of them, pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony and greed are not deadly because earthly things are themselves bad. They are deadly because they believe the lie that says self is most important; that self is God; that taking care of and primping over and gathering stuff for ourselves at the expense of others and of devotion to God is sin - deadly sin.

The cross shatters the power of those desires. The empty tomb fills the believer with a different power and a different life. Paul says that "he had been crucified with Christ." (Galatians 5:19) But he also said that we (believers and followers of Jesus) have been raised with Christ. Because of that, we are to set our minds on the things that are above where Christ is seated and not on the things below.

That is why Jesus said if we want to find our lives we must lose them for his sake. if we want to follow him we need to deny self, take up his cross and follow him. We need to care about the things and the people that Jesus cares about. We are to die to self in order to live to Christ.

I know you don't want to come hear me work my own issues. But I have to share a couple of examples from my own life. And just because I have experienced lessons of this truth in the past, doesn't mean that I don't continue to struggle against my own selfish ambition and desire today. I do struggle. It is a daily choice I have to make as to whether I will deny myself, take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Please forgive me for sharing two examples from my own life though. Perhaps you can identify with them and be encouraged that even your pastor deals with such things.

When I graduated from High School, I had the world by the string. I applied for and received offers of scholarships from two very prestigious music schools in the state of Colorado. I took a lesser scholarship to what I considered a better school - The University of Northern Colorado. In particular, not only did they have an excellent jazz program, they were also known as a very strong school for music education.

During my freshman year, I was pursuing what I considered was my life's dream - to be a professional jazz musician. One late February night of 1969, I was confronted by the risen Lord in a pretty dramatic fashion and experienced what I can only describe as a call to full-time vocational ministry. At the time I assumed it would be in music ministry. To make a long, long story a little shorter, I sought out some counsel and guidance from a few very trusted mentors and friends and I decided to apply to the McCallister Conservatory at Wheaton College. I felt that there I would be able to combine an excellent music program with a more thorough Biblical and theological background. After submitting an audition tape I was accepted and in the fall of 1969 I flew back to the Chicago suburbs. I was sure I was going to be the big fish in the pond at this small liberal arts college. I had never sat less than first chair in any band I had been in and I was certain I would be a star. When I got there, I found the competition was intense and that there were some incredibly talented musician at the conservatory. I knew I had to practice harder than I had ever practiced. I was placed in the Concert Band (not the Symphonic Winds) and ended up sitting several chairs down from the top. In addition to all my classes, I spent hours in the practice room determined to climb back up to the top and show how great I was and how lucky they were to have me. About mid-year, something happened and I completely lost my embouchure. My tone was fuzzy and my range was no where close to where it used to be. By mid-term, the conductor called me in and told me he was going to cut me from the concert band and move me to a lower band. I was devastated.

Didn't the Lord want me to serve him by using music? I began to pray and question where I could best be used. I began to realize that music had been a source of pride and self-advancement for me and that if I was really serious about giving my life to the Lord, I needed to be open to some other area. My music career was over.

About that same time, I met some friends who had begun going downtown Chicago every weekend to serve in an urban setting. They had established a coffee house ministry in an old abandoned house scheduled for Urban Renewal. It sat right at the nexus of three of the most disparate sections of the city. To the North was Old Town - a hang out for the hip sub-culture and a gathering place for runaways, drug users, and prostitutes. To the East was the Carbini Green Housing Projects where 20,000 people lived in low-income, rat infested, tenement apartments. Gang violence, muggings, drugs, race riots were common occurrences in and around Cabrini Green. To the west was the near north side of Chicago known as the Gold Coast where the extremely wealthy lived in high rise condominiums and ate in fancy restaurants. It only took me one evening walking the streets and talking to people; inviting cold, lonely runaways back to our house; sharing the gospel along with a simple meal, or a hot cup of coffee for me to be hooked. Sometime I can share some of the incredible stories we experienced there.

The point was that once I gave up my prideful hold on my plans and said, Lord whatever you want me to do and wherever you want me to serve - that is where I want to be. And that decision changed the course of my life and ministry.

Since then I can enumerate 15 or more times when I have had to make a conscious decision to step back from pursuing my own goals, dreams and ambitions and say - Lord, what is it YOU want of me. I want to follow you. Perhaps the most graphic example was 13 years ago after we had come to Enumclaw and fallen in love with this church and this area. We were so excited and so determined to come. I was going to turn this church on its head and it was going to grow and become a large, even more influential church. We were so excited about coming here. Less than three weeks later, as I was making final plans to leave New Mexico and move to Enumclaw, those plans seemed all of a sudden shaky at best. In the midst of all the stuff that occurred after my accident, I once again came face to face with the realization that coming to Enumclaw, couldn't simply be my plan and my selfish ambition. It it was to happen it had to be the Lord's doing. I had to let go. I had to die to self.

The most amazing thing is that often, when I have done that, the doors have been opened to follow original plans. But I had to let go of them first. My life and my choices were not my own any longer. I had died. And it was through dying to self, through dying to my own selfish choices and ambitions, that I have found life.

I don't know about the places in life that you struggle to let of. I can't begin to tell you where you need to let go and die to self. It may be your family, your career, your reputation, your financial security, or even your health. The Easter message is that things are not always as they seem. It is in dying to our ambition and lock on our own goals and dreams that we find a newer, a deeper, and a different kind of life - one that is guided by and strengthened by the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from death to life.

Some of you know the bitter sadness of death and loss in your life. This year has been difficult as you have lost friends or loved ones. Their absence, their dying maybe seemed to signal the end of life as you knew it. For them, the message of Easter is that they, through death, have been brought to life eternal. For you, the pain of loss and the process of grieving have meant that you have had to hang on to Jesus in ways that you never did before. And your life is different. But you have found that even through life's most difficult trial, you have found a deeper life in Christ.

Before us today stands an empty cross. In the first century, the cross stood as a symbol or Rome's absolute authority and power. It was a graphic reminder of the cruelty that human beings can inflict on another person. It is a symbol of death, and many people today, want nothing to do with a cross. But things are not as they seem. The cross is not a symbol of death. It is a symbol of life. It is a visible reminder to us of the victory Christ Jesus accomplished through his death, and ultimately his resurrection. He conquered our deepest fears and our most cruel enemy. Today, as a signal that you want to die to self and live in Christ anew, I ask you to take that piece of blue ribbon that you were handed as you came in and place it on the cross before you leave tonight. That ribbon is a symbol of your life and your ambitions, your accomplishments and your pride. It represents the sin that keeps you from knowing and living in the new life that Jesus promised. As you place it on the cross, know that it has been put to death so that you may know what it truly means to live.

On Easter morning, when the disciples thought all had been lost - the came to the glorious truth that all was not as it seemed. The symbol of death was now a symbol of life; The cross was empty, the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive. Jesus is alive. He is Risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.