It takes a season

Our Easter Sunday text, Luke 24:1-12, left us amazed, perplexed, and wondering along with Peter and the others.

Discovering an unexpectedly empty leaves us with a lot to ponder. Hearing news about that empty tomb sounds at first like nonsense. A bodily resurrection gives us a lot to process.

So I am glad Easter is a season rather than just a day. I need time to wonder.

What Kind of God is This?

People from all around the small community in Washington gathered to search for Cody, the eleven year old boy who had been missing for several weeks. Alarmed neighbors. Frightened classmates. Concerned friends. Helpful strangers. They all gathered, listened closely to the instructions on where and how to search, and then scattered to cover as much territory as possible.

One person was obviously missing from the search, the boy’s father.  He “lawyered-up,” refused to talk to anyone about his missing son, and skipped the search. The father and his girlfriend even refused to attend the candlelight vigil. The community rallied to find the boy. The boy’s father refused to search.

Can you believe it — Dad skipping the search for his missing son?

Maybe now is a good time to remember what kind of Father we have. Take a moment to read through Luke chapter 15 and reflect on three pictures of God.

God is like a shepherd who searches for that one lost sheep until he has it safely in his arms (verses 1-7). When he finds it, He rejoices with his friends and neighbors.

God is like a woman who searches for the valued silver coin she has lost until she has it back in her hands. (verses 8-10). When she finds it, she joyfully celebrates with her friends and neighbors.

God is like a father who patiently and persistently watches and waits for his son to come to his senses and return from the far country of sin (verses 11-32). He won’t stop until his son is back in his arms. Little does the son know that while he is traveling down the road toward home rehearsing his plea for forgiveness, his father has been looking down the road to the far country while going over plans for the welcome home party. Talk about a blow-out celebration — the best robe, the ring, the sandals, and the fattened calf.

What endearing pictures of God! I don’t think I will ever understand a father skipping the search for his missing son. How can a father’s heart be so apathetic? But more and more I am grasping the Father God who loves us so much that He never stops seeking, searching, waiting, and watching for us. More and more I am understanding our God initiates and leads the joyful celebrations of heaven. The more I know Him, the more I want to joyfully celebrate right here and right now.

After all, when you know the Heavenly Father who would never skip a search, why would you wait until heaven to celebrate with Him?

“It gots to be….”

For years Mary had abused drugs. It began with alcohol. Then she began smoking marijuana. In no time she was smoking crack cocaine. But her drug of choice was heroin. After being scared of the needle that first time, she lived for it.  Eventually, she would die for it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Mary and I sat in my office talking about life. I shared some of my struggles. She shared hers.  As we sat and talked about life, she eventually opened up about what was really on her mind. She recounted the years of shooting heroin. She recounted weeks living in a “shooting gallery” where addicts gathered to satisfy their cravings. She told details about her first time to sell her body for a fix, and mentioned the hundreds of times that followed.

Mary wiped tears from her eyes as she told me she had HIV/AIDS. Since she was dying, she needed to talk to someone about her soul. She needed someone to listen. So she sat in my office and she talked.

She talked, and I listened, trying to be fully present in the moment. She talked some more, and I listened, trying to care about her as a person rather than be entertained by the lurid details of her story.

She talked and I listened. But I confess, at some point I was ready for her to finish dumping her feelings so I could tell her of God’s love. I had good news for her. Good news of God’s grace.

And that’s when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Mary surprised me by telling me of her desire to repent. Unfortunately, her idea of repentance–of coming back to God–seemed warped.  She did not talk of God’s love. She never mentioned God’s grace. She didn’t say a word about God’s desire to forgive.

“It gots to be the Church of Christ!” Mary said with conviction.

“It gots to be!” she repeated twice for emphasis.

Sadness filled my heart as I processed her words. Here was a woman who desperately needed God’s grace, but instead trusted in her membership in the right church. In that conversation and dozens that followed, I tried to tell her of God’s grace. She always responded, “It gots to be!”

I would love to tell you how she finally came to the end of herself and reached out to God, trusting in God’s grace. But, honestly,  that’s not how the story ends.

Mary’s “repentance” consisted of renewed acknowledgement of her identity in “the one true church,” as she said. She never stopped shooting heroin. I frequently saw fresh needle tracks on her arms. I always suspected the prostitution continued, though she never did admit it. Her repentance was never expressed in a broken heart or behavior change.

Her idea of  “repentance” was simply to say, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!”

Mary died a very proud member of the Church of Christ.

Mary was not the first person to ever have this misunderstanding of repentance. She won’t be the last. But I still think of her every time I read John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Luke 3:7-14.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Have you ever confused repentance with being “children of Abraham?”  Have you ever cried out, “It gots to be the Church of Christ!” like Mary? Perhaps we need to ponder the words of John. If God can raise children of Abraham out of stones, I think God can raise “the Church of Christ” out of stones, too.

“The sacrifices of God are  a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.”
Psalm 51:17

Searching for Words

reflections on Luke 1:5-25

The story has been handed down faithfully, investigated in detail, and written carefully. The story of God sending Jesus to walk among people. The story of  God partnering with people and gifting people that there might again be oneness between God and humankind, and oneness between human beings. And the story begins with some strange unexpected twists.

Zechariah has been trained to fulfill his priestly duties. He served in the priestly order of Abijah. He married a woman who was from the priestly line of  Aaron. Finally Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of God and burn the incense. He had dreamed of this day, after all, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. There was a sense of holy anticipation of the moment when he would burn the incense before God.

Zechariah was chosen by lot that day, but there were plenty of days when he didn’t feel very “chosen. ” While Zechariah and Elizabeth were an honorable couple with a clear conscience who were careful to obey God, they had no children. They dreamed of having children. They prayed for God to give them children. But the dream was dying, the prayers unanswered, and they found themselves living in a desert of barrenness.

Maybe the years of disappointed waiting explain what happened that chosen day in the temple. Maybe hearing the judgmental whispers of people around town had taken their toll. As the incense burned and the crowd outside prayed, Zechariah was startled by an angel who appeared just to the right of the incense altar.

This angel, who seems to be well-acquainted with his life situation,  assures him his prayers have been heard. The angel knows them by name and actually says “Zechariah” and “Elizabeth.” The angel introduces himself by name. Gabriel brings a message from God, a joyful message about Elizabeth giving birth to a son who will be great in the sight of God. Gabriel reveals the son’s name is to be “John.” Gabriel reveals the son’s mission is to turn the hearts of the people back to God and to soften the hearts of parents to children. God wants to be one with people. God wants people to be one with each other. God is going to work in, through, and with Zechariah’s son to bring about this oneness. John will prepare people for God. Even skeptics will be transformed.

Zechariah’s response was not what I was expecting. “You really expect me to believe this stuff about a son? We have been trying for years. Elizabeth and I are just too old for this.”

Here is an honorable person with a clear conscience who has carefully obeyed God. Here is a priest in service to God who has a supernatural encounter in the one time and place you would most expect him to have one. Here is a man who has, with his wife, experienced disappointment and disgrace for years. And here is a man who when encountered by God’s messenger in God’s temple with God’s message of good news responds with unbelief. And so Gabriel tells Zechariah he will not be able to speak until after the baby is born.

Zechariah was in the sanctuary longer than most priests. In fact, the people gathered to pray outside the temple were beginning to wonder what was taking so long. When he emerged people saw his inability to speak and his gestures and concluded he must have seen a vision.

It wan’t long before Elizabeth was celebrating her pregnancy, “God is kind! God has done this! God has taken away my disgrace!” While Elizabeth was giving voice to her praise, Zechariah was still searching for words.

Almighty God,

You are worthy to be praised–
Your desire to be one with people is pure love.
Your desire for people to be one is heaven on earth.

Thank You for listening to me–
When I do not understand.
When I cry out to You in pain and disgrace.

Thank You for loving me–
When I lose heart.
When I am surprised by Your presence.
Even when I don’t believe.

Thank You for Jesus–
For the good news of Your love.
For the death, burial, and resurrection.
For the body of Christ who lives today.

I find myself startled.
I find myself searching for words.

In Jesus’ name,
AMEN

Write Your Story

reflections on Luke 1:1-4

Luke was not the first to write the story of Jesus. In fact, there were many accounts floating around, many of them based on descriptions shared by eyewitnesses. But Luke wanted people to have a sense of certainty about what they had been taught about Jesus.  So he carefully investigated everything and carefully wrote his account of the story.

Today there are many stories about Jesus floating around. Aloof Jesus. Irrelevant Jesus. Domineering Jesus. Hateful Jesus. Genie Jesus. Insensitive Jesus. Golden Jesus.

Do we share Luke’s concern that people meet the real Jesus?

Are we willing to carefully read the story? Are we willing to carefully write our story about Jesus?

Truth is, whether I want to admit it or not, I am writing my story about Jesus every day. And so are you.

We write with our lives. Each encounter we have with people communicates to them our story of Jesus. Christians wear the name of Jesus. So what people see in us they attribute to Jesus. People form their understanding of Jesus by watching people who wear the name of Jesus. That means we need to carefully read the story. We need to carefully write our story — so they might see Jesus. Real Jesus. Caring Jesus. Listening Jesus. Reaching Jesus. Touching Jesus. Healing Jesus. Compassionate Jesus. Bold Jesus. Praying Jesus. Tender Jesus. Crying Jesus. Crucified Jesus. Resurrected Jesus.

People are looking. People are searching.

Write your story.

Let them see Jesus.

To the glory of God!

A reflective prayer based on Luke 1:46-55

God our Savior,
We glorify You, Lord.
We rejoice in You, Father.

You have seen our needs
and have been mindful of us,
doing great things for us.

We declare that You are the Mighty One.
We honor You as the One who pours out blessings.

Your mercy
Your strength
Your mighty deeds
Your power
Your providence
Your help
Your noticing
Your remembering
All bring us to overflowing praise.

We love You, God!
Bring us Together to praise You
as a family of Your own children.

In Jesus’ Name,
AMEN.

A Season of Prayer: Repentance

Last week I began a new season of prayer that has led me to spend several days inviting God to search my heart and reveal to me any way in my heart that is offensive. My goal is to begin this season of prayer with a time of repentance.

This morning I spent time reading in the fresh language of The Message the familiar story of the lost son in Luke 15.

God’s Word has captured my heart today with three questions that I pray will about through the day.

1. Have I grown dissatisfied with being God’s child? Am I restless and demanding of my own way with God? Have I made demands of God that will serve to lure me away from my Father and my family to a far-away land? What fuels my dissatisfaction?

2. Do I grasp the faithful, enduring love of the Father? Do I allow that love to draw me back to God? Do I take time to ponder how God celebrates relationship with me? If God loves me like this, how can I go on sinning?

3. Will I allow the sulking of some who “don’t get it” rob me of my joy? God wants to joyfully celebrate. The older brother wants to sulk. Will I let God or the older brother determine how I live? Have I allowed the spirit of the older brother to slip into my heart to the point where all I do is rant about him rather than joyfully celebrate God?

Take a moment to read the story…and join me in prayer.

Luke 15:11-32 (The Message)
The Story of the Lost Son

11-12Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

12-16″So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

17-20″That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

20-21″When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

22-24″But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

25-27″All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

28-30″The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

31-32″His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!'”