A place to ponder the awe and mystery of God in everyday life.

Archive for February, 2013

Beyond Question: Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”  John 14:8-14

Questions, of course, are an essential ingredient of everyday conversation. Questions help us learn. If you’ve ever spent time with a two-year old, you know this truth! Questions also bring us deeper into dialogue. This whole series is about the life-changing and transformative questions that Jesus asked.

There are a number of good questions in the gospel of John.  Of all the questions in John’s Gospel, however, the ones asked in this reading in John, may just be the hardest to answer. Certainly they are among the most embarrassing.

David Lose shed light on this story to help us understand the shock of Philip’s question to Jesus. Enjoy his insights here. (1)

“And when Jesus says he is the way, and asks again that they trust him, Philip can stand it no longer and asks the one question no faithful Jew should ever ask. Actually, it’s a statement, a request, a plea, maybe even a demand, but underneath it all is a question: “Show us the Father,” Philip says, “and we will be satisfied.” Or, to put it more directly, “What does God look like?”  John doesn’t record this, but there is probably a collective gasp on the part of the other disciples when Philip asks this hard question.

“Moses, the model of heroic faith in the Old Testament, once made a similar request, and God put him face-forward in the cleft of a mountain and passed by and all Moses could see was the glory of the Lord shimmering around him. He was finally allowed to turn around and look only after God has passed by, so that Moses ultimately saw only the trail of the Lord’s glory or, more literally in the Hebrew, Moses could only see God’s backside.

“God is too much, you see, for us to bear – too holy, too powerful, too infinite, too full of potential and life and the future for any mere mortal to behold and live. And yet Philip asks to see God anyway. “If you want us to trust you, Jesus, just show us the Father.” That is, “What does God look like?”

“It’s a terribly bold, even inappropriate question, but I suspect we can understand where it came from. Because each of has been there, too: at our wits end, desperate for some hope that things will get better, for some reason to believe that this tragedy is not all there is. Maybe it was when the doctor told you that the cancer had returned. Or when a loved one died unexpectedly. Or when you discovered your spouse or partner has left. Or after one more miscarriage, or when you got that pink slip, or…. we can all fill in the blank from our own story.

“Each of us, you see, has also had moments where we wanted some reassurance, some glimmer of hope, that all that we had heard and learned about God is not just some false story but true. “Just show us the Father,” we plea, “and we will be satisfied.”  To which Jesus responds, not in frustration but in love, both to Philip and to us, “Have I been with you all this time and yet still you don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the father!”

All of this conversation happens on the eve of Jesus’ crucifiction.  We are on our lenten journey, moving closer to the cross, but Jesus was much closer.  He could have turned away from such a horrible death, but he gave himself into the hands of death to show his love for us. God’s love for us. We’ve seen Jesus in action; so we’ve seen God the father.

So, a question for you to ponder today is, “What question do you have for God?”  Philip asked the most bold and embarrassing question a Jew could have asked. Jesus still loved him. How about you?

Prayer for today:
Jesus, you listen with patience to our questions, our fears, our longings. Thank you for your patience and love to receive us over and over again. Open our eyes to see you, our ears to hear you, and our hearts to receive your love. Amen

(1) David Lose, comments at the South Central Synod of Wisconsin synod assembly Working Preacher,May 15, 2011

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Beyond Question: But who do you say that I am?

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Mark 8: 27-30

Well this is a question guaranteed to make us squirm, isn’t it?  It is, ultimately, a question of evangelism.  And evangelism causes most mainline Christians to cringe and get defensive and irritable.  We just don’t “do” evangelism very comfortably.  The average Lutheran invites someone to church once every 23 years.  And since it is easier to invite someone to church than it is to tell someone what trusting Christ means to me, I don’t even want to guess how infrequently we talk to others about Jesus.(1)

This is not a malady known only to Lutherans, even if we do call it, “Lutheran Laryngitis”!

Why is that?  We certainly don’t want to risk offending anyone!  Or embarrassing anyone – including ourselves.  And we don’t want to risk rejection.  We’ve been carefully taught that politics and religion are the two subjects that polite people don’t discuss.

We have confused private and personal.  And while faith is about a personal relationship with God, we were never meant  to enjoy God without spreading the Good News!  I read somewhere that many American Christians are functional atheists.  Whether or not Christ is a part of our life really doesn’t change how we live our daily lives.  God and the church are more about pop psychology and “feel good” messages than it is about a life-transforming relationship with our triune God. What difference does it make if we do or don’t believe in God?

Sadly, for many of us, it may not make that big of a difference.  We are much quicker to talk about our favorite sports team or our children or grandchildren than we are about our faith and the difference it makes.

Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

I admit it is frustrating to try and bring someone to Jesus.  You can’t just walk a friend into Jesus’ office, introduce them, and then leave your friend to glean wisdom from the creator of the universe.  No.  Jesus doesn’t arrive on demand. We can’t even all agree on what Jesus would have us do.  And yet, Jesus is always present, working to redeem us and our broken lives and communities.

Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Our relationship with Jesus is personal.  But it shouldn’t be private.  The most wonderful thing in the world wasn’t meant to be kept quiet.  It was meant to be shared.  Jesus commanded it after all.  He never gave anyone permission to keep their faith to themselves.  He commanded us to tell the world about his love and forgiveness. We bring the message.  God changes hearts.

A good starting place is to answer this question that Jesus asks us.  And then once we’ve figured out how to answer it, what will keep us from sharing that good news with others?  Often God uses the hardest experiences of our life to allow us to reflect Christ’s light in someone else’s darkness.  We may lend hope and faith to someone who is struggling until they are able to see it for themselves.  When you look back on the darkest time(s) of your life, how did the light of Christ shine in?

* Here are the questions and the prayer that Pastor Eric Burtness listed with today’s question.

* What major misconceptions about Jesus have you heard?

* Think about how you would describe Jesus to a friend who has had no connections with the Bible or the church.  Who would you say Jesus is?

Jesus, you are God with us and Son of God.  You are my Savior and the Savior of the world.  You are my Lord and the eternal Lord of all creation.  Keep me always close to you.  In your holy name I pray.  Amen.

(1) David Daubert, “A Cure for Lutheran Laryngitis,” The Lutheran, February 2007 cover story.
(2) * Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Erick Burtness copyright © Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.

Beyond Question: How Much Longer Must I Put Up with You?

Raised hands

Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you?  How much longer must I put up with you?”  Matthew 17:17

Jesus is understandably frustrated with the disciples in this reading.  They have tried, and failed, to heal someone.  Jesus knows they can do it.  But they don’t know they can do it.  And so they fail. How often do we sell ourselves short of the tasks before us because we don’t believe we are smart enough, or creative enough, or strong enough?

Every Sunday when the children who are not yet communing receive a blessing, I trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads and speak the blessing – the promise! – from their baptism: Child of God, you are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever!

I want those words to be so ingrained in their heads and hearts that they know and believe them to be true.  I wonder what could be accomplished in the world if we truly believed and understood ourselves to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  God is with us!

I love the writing from Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love, because it speaks so powerfully to this fact:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

God has been using broken and imperfect people throughout history to do God’s work.  Why shouldn’t God use us in this time and in this place?  If God can use a dead man to do God’s work (Lazarus) surely there is hope for us!  Peder Eide wrote a wonderful song about the imperfect people that God used which we can read about in the Bible.  The song will make you laugh, but it should also make you think.  Why not you?  

Noah was a drunk man, Abraham an old man, Jacob was a liar man, Leah second best.  Jonah should have followed God but ran away instead.  Martha was a worrywart, and Lazarus was dead!

As is, as is, He chooses us as His.  As His.  As His.   Infuses us as is, with never ending, love transcending all our weaknesses.  No excuses He uses us as is!

Today’s questions from Eric Burtness are:

* Reflect on a time you accomplished something that you weren’t sure you could do.  How did it feel?   *During this Lenten journey, what might God be calling and empowering you to do?

*Prayer for today:

Mighty and powerful God, forgive me for the times I haven’t done what you have called and empowered me to do.  Strengthen my faith and increase myh love for you and others.  Guide me to live out my calling each day.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

* “Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Erick Burtness copyright © Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.”

Beyond Question: Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye?

A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Luke 6: 39-42

The questions that Jesus asks throughout his ministry are meant to be transformative.  For us and, ultimately, for the world.  He wants us to reflect, to grow, to turn to God.  And all this, always, for the sake of the neighbor.

We can’t offer our neighbor the extravagant love that Jesus brings if we are stuck on all their shortcomings and faults.  If we focus on another’s weaknesses, we are likely to miss the gifts with which God has blessed them.

Our children have taught us a great deal through the years.  Our daughter, Katie, seemed to be a magnet for troubled youth when she was in high school.  It wasn’t unusual for her to invite her friends to dinner, and she knew we would usually welcome them.  I remember one evening I had prepared an especially large meal counting on the leftovers to feed our family while I was out of town for a few days.  Katie asked if some friends could come for supper.

We squeezed in around the table: our three daughters, my husband and me, and the three friends.  Katie stretched out her hands to  the friends on either side for the table grace.  One was a boy with a lot of black leather and chains, piercings, and a scary hair cut – fresh out of juvenile detention, one was a girl who I learned later had been living on the street (more piercings), and one was an honor student.  Such variety!  Katie had assured us that they were all “really sweet” kids.  “Some of my friends just look scary to hide who they are.  They’re not that tough.  You just have to look past all that to see their big hearts.”

I wasn’t convinced.  We held hands around the table for prayer.  I admit I was wondering about these young people who were seated at our table.  But as our family all said, “Amen” together, Katie beamed as she looked around the table at the meatloaf, squash, green beans, and a large bowl of mashed potatoes.  “Isn’t this wonderful?  It’s like Thanksgiving!  People I love packed around the table and a feast ready to eat!”

I looked at the napkin in my lap, hoping my tears would go unnoticed.  I was seeing the specks through the log in my eye.  My daughters had welcomed these “hard-living” youth who were rejected by so many, with open arms and genuine love .  My heart softened and we started the conversation.  It was stilted at first, but the teens opened up and I knew I was on holy ground.

Finally after two hours at the table the boy in black and silver said a little awkwardly, “Can I be excused now?  I don’t remember the last time my family ate together, and we’ve never, ever spent this long at the table talking!”

There weren’t any leftovers for the rest of the week, but I knew my family wouldn’t mind.  I watched in amazement as those teens all cleared their dirty dishes from the table at our daughters’ example.  My heart was full.  Not long after that evening, my daughter invited those same teenagers to worship.  Our congregation didn’t often have teenagers sporting black leather and chains kneeling at the altar rail for communion.  Katie ignored the stares and smiled her winning smile at the congregation as she casually instructed her friends what to do.  They really were sweet kids.

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, professor and prolific writer.  One of his quotes reminds me of today’s question from Jesus, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye?”

Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves.  We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in the light of what they suffer.                    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Eric Burtness wrote Questions to Ponder and a Prayer for Today:
* Why do you find it easier to find a speck in someone else’s eye?  What might be clouding your vision?
* Which of Jesus’ questions has been most meaningful for you to contemplate so far? How are Jesus’ questions affecting you and transforming you?

Passionate God, give me vision for what you truly want me to see.  Grant me forgiveness for being quick to judge others, give me compassion for those I encounter each day, and remove the log in my eye so I might see Jesus with fresh and clear eyes.  Amen 

* ”Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Erick Burtness copyright © 2012 Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.”

Beyond Question: Do You Believe That I Am Able to Do This?

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”   Matthew 9: 27-31

I wonder how often our unbelief limits God’s power to do amazing and miraculous things?  More than once I have prayed as did the father of the child that Jesus healed when he was asked a similar question (Mk 9:24), Lord I believe; help my unbelief!  

Or how often do we pray for something, and then explain away the answer as “coincidence”.

One summer I had the joy of doing some short term mission work in northern Manitoba in a Cree village.  That first year I was part of a group of four women: the first white team to enter the village.  It was humbling.  The other women and I spent a wonderful week teaching the children about Jesus, singing songs, and making crafts to help them remember the stories.  The children and the elders asked us to return the next year.

But that next year I spent several months away from my husband and our young daughters caring for my dad who was dying of cancer.  After his death I was exhausted in every way.  The last thing I wanted to do was plan a trip to Canada to teach in a remote village.  I just wanted to stay home with my family.  So I prayed:

“Lord, you know I’m tired.  I don’t have the energy to put a team and supplies together or raise the money we would need to go north again this summer.  So if you want me to do it again, you’ll have to provide what we need, including the $1500 for the gas and expenses.  Amen.”

And then I didn’t tell a soul.

I figured I could take that summer “off” and consider going again the following year.  But God had other plans.  People started asking me out of the blue, “Are you going back to teach the Cree children this summer?  I’ve been thinking about that ministry and want to give you a contribution toward it.”

Checks started coming in the mail.  Unsolicited.   Four women wanted to join me for the experience.  And they had access to all kinds of supplies that we would need.

When I counted up the checks, guess how much had arrived?  $1500.

So we went.  It was a good week.  Not an “over the top” week in terms of seeing people’s lives changed.  And there were challenges – multiple challenges! – throughout the week.  Like the pastor pilot wrapping the little Cesna’s wing in duct tape before we flew the last 200 miles to the remote village.  (Seriously!)  And that was after my van blew a tire on the Canadian highway and we were stranded for 12 hours on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on our way to reach the pastor pilot.  Five women, a van stuffed to the ceiling with supplies for the village, a flat tire, a flat spare tire, and a broken tire iron, with a storm coming.  (This was before cell phones.  Can you even imagine?)  The list goes on… and on!

A man asked me on my return as he heard some of the stories, “Did you ever stop to think that maybe God didn’t want you to go to the village again?”  I paused.  And for a second I found myself wondering, doubting.  And then I remembered my prayer and the $1500 that arrived without a word spoken to human ears.  And I had a moment of clarity.  Of truth.

“No,” I answered with certainty.  “God wanted us to go.  And I don’t think it was so much for the sake of the Cree children, but to prove to me that God is able to do far more than I expect, and the power of prayer.”

I read somewhere, “I don’t believe in miracles.  I depend on them!”  People always laugh when I say that, and I smile.  But for me, there is also a large element of truth to the sentence.   It seems no matter how many hours I spend at work, there is always work left undone.  Some days that is okay.  The work will wait another day.  But other days I necessarily turn to God in prayer and can say earnestly, “I’ve given it my all, Lord, and I’m out of time and strength.  You’ll have to do the rest!

I have come to rely on God when I have reached the end.  I really do depend on miracles.  And God comes through. Again and again.  I give thanks.

I could write so much more… how that has happened over and over and over again with our new Latino outreach and ministry in the congregation where I serve.  I do believe that God is able to do this!  Most days.

* Questions to Ponder:

* Name five things you are absolutely certain Jesus can do, and three things you sometimes wonder whether Jesus can do.

* What things do you believe in, even though you can’t see them?  How does faith help you see things differently?

* Prayer for Today:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

* “Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Erick Burtness copyright © Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.”

Beyond Question: Didn’t Anyone Else Return to Give Thanks?

Image

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  (Luke 17:11-19)

Giving thanks.  Hard sometimes, isn’t it?  In our congregation we sometimes use a refrain that Peder Eide started. Someone says, “God is good.”  And the congregation completes the sentence, “All the time!”  Then someone says, “All the time,” and the congregation finishes, “God is good!”

Peder Eide didn’t create the refrain out of some “happy clappy” Christianity.  He has known pain and suffering.  Up close and personal.  And he has known the faithfulness of God to provide and sustain.  Peder’s mother died in a car accident when Peder was only 14 years old, and then his father died a few years later in a house fire.  Peder has learned the preciousness of having a family to love.  “God is good, all the time!” means a lot more coming from someone I know has experienced the pain, sorrow, and darkness of life, than it would coming from someone who lives a comfortable and privileged life.

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God…?”

A member of a congregation I served taught me about gratitude journals. She kept her gratitude journal on the headboard of her bed.  Each evening, at the close of the day, she would reflect and list five things for which she was grateful.  She insisted on five.  She said one, two, and three were generally pretty easy.  But four and five stretched her.  When she had completed her list each day, she could feel her heart turn to give thanks to God.  In recognizing five things in her day for which she could give thanks, she could not help but recognize God’s hand of blessing in her life.

She kept her gratitude journals for years.  Then one day her husband was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer.  He needed surgery, chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant.  After his grim initial diagnosis, he turned to his wife and said with sincerity, “Tell me about your gratitude journal.”  He started one that day, and it was the one constant in his suitcase as they traveled many miles to the medical facility in another city where he received his care, and then to the cabin where he stayed in isolation when he was immunosuppressed.

The staff was impressed with his incredibly positive outlook.  He told them about his gratitude journal, and with it the recognition of God’s abundant blessings in his life… even then.

Gratitude journals are how I teach people to pray who have never spent much time in prayer.  More than one person has told me, “Pastor, all my life people have been telling me to pray, but no one has ever told me how before!”   Gratitude.

Meister Eckhart, a 13th century monk and mystic, wrote, “If in your lifetime the only prayer you uttered was thanks, it would be enough.”

Eric Burtness suggests for today:  Name five things for which you are grateful.  How might you make gratitude to God a bigger part of your daily life?  Consider using a journal to list the blessings you notice each day.  If there are others in your household, you might give thanks to God together before meals or at the end of the day.*

Gracious and giving God, in my busy life I sometimes forget to stop and thank you for all that you have given me.  Today I thank you for (name as many things as you wish.) And I thank you above all for your unconditional and eternal love.  Amen.*

* “Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Erick Burtness copyright © Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.”

Beyond Question: Where is Your Faith?

A windstorm swept down on the lake and the boat was filling with water and they were in danger.  They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?”   (Luke 8:23b-25a)

How often do we want to believe, but we are not sure we have enough faith.  Or any faith, truth be told.  How much faith is enough?  One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “God can’t steer a parked car.”  Inherent in those few words, is the reminder that we must keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next right thing, and God will be faithful to guide us.  But it is difficult for God’s glory to shine if we isolate ourselves behind closed doors, refuse to budge, and expect the world to come to us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor (1906-1945).  He died a martyr in World War II, for his part in the Canaris plot against Hitler.  He was a prolific, articulate, and inspired writer before he was executed in a concentration camp.  His life and his words inspired thousands.  He wrote,

“I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us resist in all times of distress.  But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.”

Faith, by definition, means we aren’t certain, we don’t know, about someone or something.  If we did it would be certainty, not faith.  But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.   

Faith seems to be easier for some people than for others.  There is even research being done looking for a “faith gene” – the idea that some of us are wired to turn to God, while others are not.  I’m not sure how that research is progressing.  We are told that faith is a gift.  And surely we can pray for God to grant us, or those we care about, the gift of faith.  I imagine such a request pleases God.

Eric Burtness wrote two questions to ponder and a prayer for today:

* Think about a difficult situation in your life that had a positive outcome.  * What or who pulled you through that difficult time?  * What or who do you rely on most?  * Where do you put your faith?

God of power and might, calm my storms, calm my mind, and calm my spirit.  Let me find rest in you.  Ease my anxiety, and let me simply “be.”  Let me rest peacefully in your arms.  In Christ’s name I pray.  Amen.

 

 

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