25 November 2013

Weather the Storm

This weekend promised to be an exciting one. An arctic front blew through Dallas Thursday night, bringing with it the promise of rain, and the possibility of ice, sleet, and/or snow. On Friday, the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for the North Texas area from Sunday afternoon through Monday. Local news channels sent teams to Lowe’s and Home Depot to interview employees and customers about last minute provisions like covers for outdoor plants. Other crews populated grocery stores, looking for folk stocking up on water, batteries, and canned goods. As a minister, I immediately began to worry about worship attendance. I even asked on Twitter for predictions about Sunday’s weather:

Who's got weather predictions for tomorrow? Obviously every preacher expects sun and no precipitation.
Many colleagues posted status updates on Facebook like this: “It may be cold and yucky outside, but inside it’s warm and dry in church! Come on down!”

So we waited out the storm of anxiety (the actual storm didn’t show up Sunday morning). The Parents of Faith class still had its annual pre-Thanksgiving meal, which Christy, the boys, and I enjoyed very much (thanks again for the invitation, Kathy!). After lunch I walked to the car—it had rained recently and there were ice patches on my grill and mirrors. When I picked up the family we headed home, hoping to beat the freeze. We made it. I encouraged Christy to stay home from her planned study meeting with her classmates. And we waited. It never snowed or iced in our neighborhood. Late in the evening the Winter Storm Warning was downgraded—but there would still be a chance of ice, and some schools delayed opening until 10:00. Even this morning I was still anxious enough that when I woke up at 5:18 to the sound of drops I pulled out the phone to check if Richardson ISD was closed or delayed. Nope. Just another wet, though cold, morning.

Weather adventures are part of the fun of living in Dallas. Our climate can produce thunderstorms in the summer, tornadoes in the spring, and obviously, winter weather in the... well, winter. Or not. Part of the job requirements for on-air TV folk is the ability to pull on a parka or raingear at a moment's notice and hit the streets. Every weather person seems trained to heighten our anxiety (and their excitement) while at the same time hedging bets-- the models may change-- you never know... So I was amused, and somewhat excited, to hear that Matthew, a senior at Custer Road who is planning to attend OU next fall, will study meteorology. I can't wait to follow his career with a combination of anxiety and excitement. His mother told me he first learned the US states with his dad, studying weather patterns across the country in the Metro section of the newspaper. How is that for a sweet mental image this dreary Monday morning?

I am not going after our faithful meteorologists. The math and science involved in weather prediction has to be at a very high level. I am poking fun at our-- my-- need to check the 10-day forecast every hour to make sure nothing strange will happen. Or to amp up our excitement about the possibility of strangeness. And the disappointment this morning when it was just another cold, wet day.

This morning's devotional included this verse from the well-hidden prophet Nahum: "The Lord is good, a haven in a day of distress" (Nahum 1:7).

This week, as Thanksgiving is celebrated, let us be thankful, beyond the stuff we've been provided with, for the constant presence of God in our lives. Weather patterns and predictions will come and go, and may disappoint us by not showing up. So enjoy your Thanksgiving-- and the haven God provides-- regardless of the weather. We'll be in Bay City for a few days-- and according to my weather app, things will be sunny or partly cloudy, cool or warm.

19 November 2013

Gravitational Pull

The other day I saw Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I was very nervous at the beginning, because the 3D animation was so realistic-- I thought I would be pushed beyond my virtual reality threshold-- and that is VERY low. But after a few minutes I knew I would be OK. 90 minutes later I was exhausted, emotionally and spiritually. I will not get in to plot details or spoiler alerts here. I'm not even going to review the movie, although I thought it was very good. I want to think about one particular moment in the film, which I thought really revealed what the movie's main theme was. To set it up, after a very challenging space walk, Sandra Bullock's character is out of oxygen. She just barely gets into the space station airlock and releases the air inside. She spends a few moment weightlessly floating in a circle, breathing in and out. The she holds this pose:

Now compare that image to this one:

The space station is a womb for her. It's the place where she reclaims life.

There's a big message there for Christians, and I thought of it while I saw Sandra Bullock hold the pose. Jesus was visited at night by one of the religious authorities, Nicodemus, who was curious. He and the others had heard of what Jesus was doing and teaching, and he proactively sought Jesus out to learn more. Jesus did not see this encounter as an opportunity for debate, but as another way to extend his reach. Jesus' mission was to save as many folk as possible. So he says to Nicodemus, "Unless someone is born anew, it's not possible to see God's kingdom" (John 3:3). Nicodemus misunderstands: "It's impossible to enter the mother's womb for a second time and be born, isn't it?" (John 3:4). No, says Jesus. But he doesn't give up: "...everyone who believes in [God's Son] will have eternal life" (John 3:15).

So faith in Jesus is the womb that leads to renewed life. Just as the space station is the womb that leads to new life for Sandra Bullock's character in the movie.

What are the signs that we are slipping into critical stages spiritually? I can think of several:
1. Lack of intimacy in our relationships. How would you describe your relationships with your significant other, children, close friends? Are they healthy or non-existent?
2. Burnout in ministry. Are you so busy that you are not fulfilled in your service to others? I see lots of Facebook posts from clergy friends about "successful" days. What the heck does that mean, anyway? How do you determine success in ministry?
3. Absence of joy. The Christian life ought to be a wellspring of new life within us. But when we are overloaded with outside concerns our spiritual life is usually the first to suffer.

There are tons more, and I am fairly sure I have exhibited just about all of them over 20+ years of ministry. The good news is that the airlock is within reach, and there are no objects raining down upon us, making the stretch nearly impossible. And the really good news is that getting into the airlock, where safety is real and restoration is possible, is not dependent on our own strength anyway. Christ is there, awaiting our return, pulling us back into relationship-- just as gravity holds us down and prevents us from flying away.

So may you find nurture and renewal in the loving arms of Christ. May you re-enter that womb and receive the life sustaining energy-- and breath-- you need to live as a faithful disciple.

Take deep breaths. And linger in that moment as long as necessary.

05 November 2013

The Circle Is Now Complete

Last Sunday everyone studied the same material in Custer Road's small groups and Sunday schools: a stewardship lesson I wrote on Paul's use of the word charis in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9. Here are some highlights from that lesson, as well as a real world example of life application. Central to the lesson is the idea of reciprocity. In Paul's world, as well as our own, this was an important concept. You do something for me, I do something for you. From a Christian perspective it's God does something for us, we do something for others. Reciprocity.

In 2 Corinthians Chapter 8 and 9, Paul gives us some of the New Testament’s most profound teachings on generosity and giving. One of his goals in ministry is to honor the legacy of the Jerusalem church, founded by the original apostles, who empowered him to be an apostle. Paul’s ministry was focused on Gentiles (non-Jews), while the ministry of the original apostles was primarily focused on Jews in and around Jerusalem. So Paul encouraged his fledgling congregations to contribute to a “generous undertaking” (2 Cor 8:6) for the Jerusalem mission. Some of his smaller, less affluent churches had already contributed—but the Corinthians, a larger and wealthier group, had not yet joined. Paul uses the Greek word charis, usually translated “grace,” throughout his plea to motivate the Corinthians to increase their generosity. Paul uses charis in Chapters 8 & 9 several times. Briefly read each verse and search for the word. It is variously translated as “grace,” “generous undertaking,” “privilege,” generous act,” “thanks be to God,” “blessing,” and “thanks” (2 Corinthians 8:1,4,6,7,9,16,19; 9:8,14,15). Let's rewrite the text using grace for charis each time. And look for the theme of reciprocity.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the grace of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this grace among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this grace. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

But grace be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have. For he not only accepted our appeal, but since he is more eager than ever, he is going to you of his own accord. With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us while we are administering this grace for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our goodwill.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every grace in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness* endures for ever.’
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.* You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Grace be to God for his indescribable grace!

Last week I noticed that my gift to CRUMC was placed in my box, not the Financial Officer's. Hmmm. This presented an occasion for debate: I had given the gift online, yet the check actually came back to me-- a mistake by the volunteer who distributes mail. So was the gift already given in spirit? Could I just tear up the check and think of it as an act of reciprocity? To top all this off, Teresa Stroup, our Financial Analyst who processes checks, and her husband David happened to be in this exact lesson last Sunday. When I mentioned the check sitting on my desk, she said, "Yeah, I haven't seen it." I gave it to her yesterday, I promise.

Preaching and teaching on Christian stewardship isn't a very popular task for the church and its preachers, which is unfortunate, because the Bible spends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to educate us. And yes, worship attendance was down a bit last week. I, for one, love teaching and preaching about stewardship, and I appreciated very much Kory's sermon and leadership in sharing his own experience and understanding of Christian giving. As Paul shows us above, grace not only comes from God, down some sort of cosmic one-way street. He uses charis at least hour different ways to illustrate this:

We receive grace from God (8:1, 9; 9:8, 14)
We are invited to share grace (8:4)
Our gifts become grace for others (8:6, 7, 19)
And we return grace to God as thanks (8:16, 9:15)