Tuesday, September 23, 2014

That's Important to Me

     The country and gospel singers, Joey and Rory, have a song that I enjoy.  Joey said on one of the Gaither TV programs that she was reflecting on her life before and after she married Rory and ended up writing a song titled, "That's Important to Me."  In it she sings about many things like paying  our bills and staying out of debt, telling the truth and being real, and feeding my family a home cooked meal.  "That's important to me," she says.

     As I thought about this it occurred to me that what is important to us changes somewhat from time to time.  What's terribly important at age 16 is not so important twenty years later.  What's important to me when I have a young family is not the same as when they are grown and gone and I have reached senior citizenship.

     And yet, are there not values, actions, relationships that are always important to me?  Some that never go away, that always must be respected?  And then I asked myself, is there one, or perhaps two or three core values that rise above them all and are most important to me?

     Maybe that is what Jesus was getting at when someone asked him about the greatest commandment and he replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ... The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:36-39).  Which reminded me of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13, "But now faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love."

     It becomes even clearer when we ask, 'what put Jesus on the cross?' and John answers: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son ..."

     When Paul told the Corinthian church that he was "determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2) it must have been because he saw love there most of all.  Yes, Paul knew all of the big theological words for it -- propitiation, redemption, ransom, and others -- but all of them fade into the background, overshadowed by love.  It is the power of love that Jesus spoke of when he said, "If I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).  It is the magnetic power of love that draws us to him even now as we come to the Lord's Table.

The 17th century English poet, George Herbert, said this eloquently in a poem titled "Love (III)":

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lack'd any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful?  Ah, my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes by I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them:  let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

Love invites us here, to His Table.  That's important to me, as I am sure it is to you also.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The One Body

        "Several years ago popular church of Christ author Carl Ketcherside told of two elders who shattered the morning worship service when the got into a fist fight at the communion table.  They not only belonged to the same central Missouri church, but they were sons of the same parents.  Theirs was a classic case of sibling rivalry gone amok.  They had been growing angrier with each other for several months as each man accused his brother of pressuring their aged mother to change her will in favor of himself.

        On this Sunday, when one went forward to serve at the Lord's Table, the other also went forward -- to accuse him of being unfit and to order him to sit down.  Before the members could quite grasp what was happening the brothers' fists were flying.  They had to be physically separated.  The church chose up sides, some favoring one brother, some the other.  It took a generation to repair the damage."*

        Paul doesn't mention fist fights in his letter to the Corinthians but he is dealing with a similar situation.  He refers in chapter one to how they were choosing up sides and pleads with them to be united in one mind.  Their divisions were bound to affect their observance of the Lord's Supper.  It was their custom to observe it as part of a communal meal but they had robbed it of any meaning by their divisions.  Thus, he wrote in 11:20, Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.  The way they conducted the meal and the communion actually perpetuated the divisions.  Consequently, he drew a radical conclusion in 11:27,  Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.  To partake in an unworthy manner is to join with those who are guilty of crucifying the Lord.

        He goes on to give this urgent advice to all who would escape being guilty of crucifying the Lord, Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,  for he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not discern the body rightly. 

        His use of the word "body" here does not refer to the physical body of Christ but to the church as the body of Christ.  To discern the body rightly is to see it in its beautiful unity and harmony.  One of the founders of the Christian Churches, Thomas Campbell, back in 1809, used this imagery of the body in a foundational document to describe the effect of division in the church of his day.  He saw the divisions as a sword thrust into the body of Christ mangling and rending it to shreds.  He too was pleading for the unity of Christ's body.

        The divided, warring world we live in today needs a model of unity, of peace and harmony.  May it see this in us when we gather around this table as the body of Christ.

*Carl Ketcherside related this story in Christian Standard (Oct 30, 1977).  LeRoy Lawson used it in a communion meditation in Christian Standard (Feb 4, 2007).
       

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Be Still and Know ..."

If I came to this communion table barefooted and with my hat on yo might wonder what was wrong with me.  It would be a sign of something but probably not of reverence.  But when Jewish men go to synagogue or to pray at the Western wall in Jerusalem it would be most irreverent to go with head uncovered.  When Muslims enter the Mosque they leave their shoes outside.  Muslims consider this a form of reverence and trace it back to Moses.  They point to Exodus 3 where the Lord told Moses, "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground."

Certainly, it is not the only sacred place where we can meet God but, if we are indeed standing on holy ground when we meet our Lord at the communion table, what does reverence require of us?  Are certain ways of dressing more or less reverent than others?  Or are certain behaviors more or less reverent than others?  Should we adopt certain actions like kneeling, genuflecting, or bowing our heads to the floor?  Is standing all of the time more reverent than sitting?  How do we express reverence, or do we even think about it?  Maybe that is the most important question.  Have we forgotten all about being reverent?  How should we "remove our sandals" and acknowledge that we are on holy ground?

Think of Moses again.  Before removing his sandals he had to pay attention.  Apparently, the bush was not directly in front of Moses because he said, "I must turn aside and see this great sight."  He could have kept right on leading his sheep and not taken the time to pay attention.  He could have thought, "Oh, how pretty.  I will have to come back some time and look at this more closely."  Turning aside from our every-day activities and putting ourselves in a receptive position is an appropriate, even essential, act of reverence.

But he also had to listen.  The bush did not explain itself;  it had no subtitles.  He had to listen to the word from God.  And to listen he had to shut up, to be quiet.  Maybe this is one key way to express reverence.  When you are in the presence of God be quiet and listen.  Be silent, get rid of the world's noise and distractions.  That's what I have to do if I want to hear Frances.  We sit only a few feet apart in our family room but for me to hear what she says the TV sound must be turned off.  Distractions and competing noise is more than my hearing can handle.  I think we all may have a similar problem when it comes to hearing God speak to us.  We need to turn off competing noises and listen carefully.

That may be why the Lord says to us in Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God."  And the prophet Habakkuk reminds us, "The Lord is in his holy temple.  Let all the earth keep silence before him."  Or, as Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, "There is a time to keep silent, and a time to speak."

Perhaps when we come to the Lord's Table it is a time to be silent, to listen, to focus on the Lord, to think about our relationship with him.  Must we always have some music playing, or something else to distract us, or in a sense, entertain us?  Can we not sit quietly before the Lord and listen for his still, small voice?

This is holy ground.  Please join me in listening, in being quiet before the Lord, as we remember the one whose pierced body and blood are represented in these elements.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

CELEBRATE FREEDOM

On the 4th of July, but other times as well, it is good to remind ourselves that God created us with free will and gifted us with the freedom to use it.  But, of course, we had to foul things up.  When Adam and Eve sinned it opened the door to all kinds of captivities that profoundly affect our liberty.  As Paul put it in Romans 6, we became slaves of sin and slaves of uncleanness.  It is a terrible thing to be a captive.

May Angelou describes it in her poem, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," this way:

A free bird leaps on the back
Of the win and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange sun's rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage.
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

In 1776 the politically "caged bird" broke out and declared his independence and so we celebrate freedom each Fourth of July.

The children of Israel were like a caged bird for hundreds of years in Egypt.  But finally God gave them freedom and they have celebrated it ever since in the Passover meal.  Their celebration meal includes four cups of wine which was considered a royal drink and symbolized freedom.  The use of four cups is based on God's promises in Exodus 6:6-8 where four terms are used to describe God's action in achieving their freedom.  First, "I shall take you out"; second, "I shall rescue you";  third, "I shall redeem you"; and fourth, "I shall bring you out as my people."

The third cup is referred to as either the cup of redemption or the cup of blessing and it was probably when they came to this place in the meal when Jesus took the cup and called it "the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you."

When Jesus began his ministry he saw that all people, not just Israel, were like birds in a cage, captives of sin and death.  The first thing he did was to give a defining speech in the Synagogue of Capernaum when he quoted Isaiah 61 and said, in part, "He has sent me to proclaim releases to the captives and ... to set free those who are oppressed" (Luke 4).  Then, as his ministry reached its climactic point, just as he was about to give his life to set the captives free, he gave us a way to celebrate our freedom.  Not with war-like rockets and firecrackers, not with loud, blaring noise, not with some stirring extravaganza, but with the simple elements of bread and wine.  And so let us celebrate our freedom, made possible by his body, given for us, and his blood, shed for the remission of our sins.

Monday, May 26, 2014

REMEMBERING FALLEN HEROES

On Memorial Day and on this Sunday we remember fallen heroes.  The news keeps us painfully aware that war always produces fallen heroes, and I'm sure that we all agree that they deserve to be remembered and honored.

Our national remembering  began when General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed May 30, 1868 to be a day of Memorial for soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War.  Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  However, the southern states did not recognize this day and observed other days for honoring their dead until after World War I when Memorial Day became the day to honor those who died fighting in any war not just the Civil War.

In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, "In Flanders Fields," contributed her own short poem that led to wearing poppies in honor of those who died:

We cherish too the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

At this particular moment, at this table, we focus on a fallen hero whose life was given in the greatest battle ever fought, and whose blood, as the poem says, "never dies."  Every human war ever fought is simply a microcosm of the deeper, greater spiritual war that goes on behind the scenes.  As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the ... spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."  We are still engaged in this struggle and we come today to remember and to celebrate the fallen hero who won the decisive battle.

It has been said that every war has a decisive battle.  In the 2nd World War the decisive battle came on D Day and the successful invasion of France.  While many battles were yet to be fought, the war was essentially won with that battle.  There were many fallen heroes on the beach whose sacrifice ultimately led to victory.

Today we remember another fallen hero -- but with a difference.  He fell, but rose again, enabling Paul to say in Romans 5:10, "If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, so much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by his life."  Reconciled by his death -- saved by his life  Death and all of this world's sin and evil met its match on Calvary when Jesus Christ became our fallen and risen hero.  We celebrate victory won for us by our fallen and risen hero.

Therefore, on the first day of the week, on each resurrection Sunday, when we break bread and drik the cup I like to  think it is accompanied by those described in Revelation 5, "... myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might  and honor and glory and blessing."  As you take the Lord's Supper this morning, listen for the Hallelujah chorus.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Thet Magnetic Christ

It seems that people are drawn to winners and not losers.  As an Oregon Duck fan I can testify to that.  After we moved to Eugene in 1978 I began attending the Oregon football games with my brother, Gilbert.  In those days we could park on the street, walk a few blocks, buy our general admission tickets a few minutes before game time and easily find seats in the appropriate area.  Since Autzen Stadium was only about half full we could move at half time to better seats in a reserved section.  Then the Oregon team did something that changed all of that.  It started winning and even went to the Rose Bowl.  The more it won the harder it was to get good seats.  People are drawn to winners, not losers.

When Jesus hung on the cross he sure looked like a loser.  His disciples, at least the men, all fled and one even denied knowing him.  Matthew, Mark and Luke say that a few women watched from a distance.  John speaks only of Mary, a few women, and the beloved disciple being nearby.  It looks very much like Jesus was a loser, and losers are not attractive.

Was Jesus wrong then in what he says in John's Gospel about his death?  Three times he spoke of being "lifted up" and the last time actually said, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself" (Jn 12:32-33).  He said this to indicate the manner of his death.  Why does he use this language of being "lifted up"?  What does it mean?  In John's Gospel Jesus often uses words with double meaning, as when he talked to the woman at the well about water.  She thought he meant regular water but he spoke of a water that quenches thirst forever.  In this case, Jesus knew that the word "lifted up" could also mean exalted.

Jesus knew this, in part, because he also knew Isaiah's prophecies so well.  When he began his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth He used the words of Isaiah 61 to define it (Luke 4).  And here he uses Isaiah 52:13 to reveal what the cross meant to him.  I think he chose his terminology deliberately in order to echo Isaiah's words as he begins this beautiful servant psalm: "Behold, my servant ... shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted."  The psalm goes on to picture the exalted servant but not in terms of worldly exaltation.  Instead, he describes the suffering servant of God in words that have become very familiar to Christians everywhere:  "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows ... he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."

For me, Paul summarizes it best in Philippians 2 where he describes how this apparent loser was transformed into magnetic majesty:  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We come to the table, therefore, on this resurrection Sunday to draw to the uplifted Christ, to see him lifted up on a cross, but also to see him lifted up as our exalted Lord and Savior.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE SONG WE LIVE BY

        It is not uncommon for a poet to describe life as a song.  For example, the 16th century English poet, Edmund Spenser, concluded each stanza of a poem with the refrain: "Sweet Themmes runne softly, till I end my song" (Prothalamion).  What is our song?

        One of my favorite novelists, Wendell Berry, is also a poet.  In one poem he reflects on life as he sits in a cemetery.  It begins, The valley holds its shadow.  My loves lie round me in the dark.  There, in that dark valley of graves he considers where his life is going.  Then, in the last stanza he says.

Sitting among the bluebells
in my sorrow, for lost time
and the never forgotten dead, 
I saw a hummingbird stand
in air to drink from flowers.
It was a kiss he took and gave.
At his lightness and the ardor
of his throat, the song I live by
stirred my mind.  I said; 
"By sweetness alone it survives.*

                                                       What is the song we live by?

        A praise song that I really like, one that we sometimes sing in our worship, is titled "10,000 Reasons."  Do you remember this part?

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes.

        But what is our song?  And what is it about?  The world has a lot of songs to offer.  There is the seductive melody of materialism.  There is the exciting anthem of applause and fame.  There is the blood-stirring drumbeat of conflict, competition and war.  But those songs have no hope in them.  Their promises are empty ad those who sing them end up singing the blues.

        What is the song that the people of God have always sung?  We can hear it after the Lord saved Israel from the Egyptians when Moses and the people sang:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation" (Exod 15:1-2)

        When Isaiah looked down the long corridor of time and saw the Messiah coming he said, You will say in that day, ... behold, God is my salvation.  I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation" (Isa 12:1-2).

        What is our song?  Certainly one expression of it comes from John's vision of the Lamb, standing as if slain, and he reports in Revelation 5:9, "they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.'"

        The Lord's Supper reminds us that the song of our life is one of praise for the Lamb who has given us redemption and victory over evil and the forces of evil.  And so we go from this table, saying with the song writer,

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
let me be singing when the evening comes.