Monday, December 24, 2007

Would You Notice?

Would you notice something wonderful happening right under your nose, or within the "banal" things of your life?
Check out this Washington Post event

Video of it on Youtube

Merry Christmas ... and keep watch for Beauty.
- Curtis

Friday, December 21, 2007

For Sunday December 23 - Put the Wonder in Your Wander

Is a miracle still a miracle if it happens all the time? For example, the sun coming up every day isn't really a miracle because, let's face it - we expect it and it's a fairly reliable thing after all these years. But if you lived in a cave your whole life and came out one day to see your first sunrise, chances are you'd think it was quite a miracle. Or if you'd been an angel who saw the very first star and the very first sunrise, you'd have thought, "Holy of holies! That's a miracle!" Our would you? Maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal if you constantly saw God doing such things.
I don't really know where I'm going with this line of thought, or if it will really have anything to do with the sermon. Let me share a dirty little secret with you blog readers: Christmas sermons are among the hardest to write for pastors, especially year after year. How many angles and stories about the angels can you find? When it comes to Christmas illustrations, we've heard them all. People send me cute Christmas stories that they got in an email, thinking I might be able to use them. And while I really appreciate the thought, an emailed story probably means everyone else has heard it. And I've probably told it already and forgotten that I did by now! So there are some challenges in this Christmas sermon thing. There's also the feeling I have that so many people are really desperately wanting something special from a Christmas Sunday or Eve service. They're tired, they're hurting, and lots of times family "crud" comes out or gets worse around Christmas. Something about Christmas and the end of the year makes us look inside ourselves a little bit more and that isn't always a pleasant thing. We see all the stuff - addictions and habits and ugliness inside - that we pledged to get rid of on Jan 1, 2007. Yet it's still there, maybe worse. All of this can come home to roost at Christmas. So people need a good dose of hope and joy - and I feel that too. I seldom feel up to the task of throwing out this lifesaver; my rope feels too small, or I wonder if there's anything on the end of it to help at all.
And then that mysterious, heart ripping truth surprises me all over again; blindsides me like a semi-truck. Last night I was watching The Nativity Story (the 2006 version with the Whale Rider teenage girl who got pregnant right about when the movie came out). Ana went to bed, Malia got bored and went up to her room, my mom fell asleep in her chair. So I was left watching this all by myself. It's a little slow in parts, but really good too. At the risk of being a spoiler for the story, I'll tell you that Mary has the baby. Even though I've seen this story, read this story, preached on and dug into this story countless times, something ripped into my heart when I saw it happen. Mary gives birth in a dirty, lonely cave-stable, alone except for Joseph and some animals. It hurts. No epidural, no meds, no help. Joseph doesn't know what he's doing. When this baby is born, though, the shepherds and wise men soon appear, and one of the wise men says, "Eternal God, wrapped in a baby." Are you kidding? How? What kind of thing is this? Who could make it up? The compassionate genius of it levels me, knocks me out. Somehow, in a way I can't explain or really grasp, it changes everything. God becoming me and you, coming into the world in such lousy conditions means that he really, really, wanted to love us, change things, know us, invade, start a different Kingdom. It's just wonderfully absurd. And it means that there's more than just some temporary joy or hope. There's God with us. - Curtis

Friday, December 7, 2007

For Sunday, December 9 - Heaven at War

Okay, so this seems like an odd passage to choose for Advent. But really it isn't. Take a closer look. It's actually a "big picture" view from heaven, perhaps, of what's going on around the event of Christmas. Time and space are interwoven all over the place in this passage. You can't really tell what happens when. And maybe that's part of the point. Some questions to ponder...
Why is this dragon appearing in heaven? The dragon is identified as "the serpent or the devil later," but why is he in heaven if he's evil? Hmm. And what do you make of the way that the struggles and battles that are transpiring on earth - also seem to have spiritual roots in heaven?
If battles here have origins in the spiritual realm, then is it possible we're using the wrong weapons or fighting the wrong battles here on earth? Could we be sometimes fighting against heaven and aiding the dragon without recognizing it? At the very least, are we fighting with inferior weapons when we focus all of our energies and resources on the weapons of the world? Lot of questions; I'll give some of my thoughts on Sunday. In the meantime, chime in! -- Curtis

Friday, November 30, 2007

For Sunday December 2 - The Final Word

Last Sunday's sharing time in worship is still swimming around in my head. There were so many big, heavy, important needs that were shared as people requested prayer. Several cancers, surgeries, grieving parents, and worn out people. I felt at a loss to know how to pray, how to talk to God about these desperate needs.
Sometimes, in my more pessimistic moments, I wonder if worship is just a big facade. A pep rally for God.
"Pray, pray, sing a song....yaaaaaayyyyyy GOD!"
But what is real? Is it that all the other stuff of life really has the last word? That, yes, we can make ourselves feel a bit better with our singing and praying and hugs . . . but in the end is there nothing we can do to impact the way things turn out?
The Hebrews 1:1-3 passage (to the right here) puts a big "stop sign" in my pessimistic thinking. It reminds me that Christ has (is) a different Final Word to the ills of the world. Looking to Jesus, studying how he lived, praying how he prayed, worshipping him, is not just a psychological pep rally. It's more because he triumphed over the heavy important things and accomplished exactly what God sent him to accomplish - in a human form just like yours and mine. He lived with the same strength and Spirit that God extends to us. He holds out for us the "radiance of God's glory" and says, "This is for you. Live with this in you." And yet I fail to take up that glorious power most of the time. How about you?
- Curtis

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

For Sunday November 25th - The End of a Beginning

At last we are going to wrap up our series of messages, "Ten Truths to Live By." This week we study End Times! No, we're not going to have a prophecy seminar or pass out The Late Great Planet Earth or whatever is the latest book claiming to tell us when and how things will end. What we will do is take a look at several passages that talk about "the end" (or, in another way of thinking, a "new beginning").
The whole of scripture and history is really a testament to God's completion and wholeness. I often start things and do not finish them. Spanish lessons, guitar lessons, cleaning the garage, exercise programs. I can finish a chocolate bar, but not much else at times. I seem doomed to start thousands of things and finish only a few. When you or I fail to complete something we start, it depletes us because it either means we shouldn't have started it at all, or we haven't lived up to what we were intended to do. That's not God. He doesn't forget, doesn't get bored, distracted, tired, disgusted, or decide that maybe making you and me and all of creation was a big mistake after all. He always completes what he begins. This is good news.

Friday, October 26, 2007

For Sunday October 28 - A Good Heart

Maybe the biggest, most important misunderstanding many Christians have is that we have a "bad heart." Not the physical one, though that's an important topic as well, but I'm speaking of the heart mentioned in the scriptures. There are places that the bible says the heart is "deceitful above all things" or that certain folks had "hard hearts" (a condition much worse than hardening of the arteries). But something happens to the human heart when God re-enters the picture.
Here's something amazing to do: Find all passages in the Bible that talk about the heart. There are a handful that talk about someone getting a sword plunged into their heart, but most talk about a spiritual heart. There are over 500 verses that mention heart, and they have a lot to teach us about what our heart is all about. Many of us have let our hearts grow cold or distant from God and others. It's easy to do. It doesn't take any effort at all. In fact, when we don't put effort into our relationships, that's what happens - our hearts grow cold and hard. I suspect most of us have had periods of time when that happens to us. And we just let it go on and on, and one day we no longer remember what a heart of flesh looks or feels like.
A popular Christian phrase a few years ago went something like this, "Everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart." That says something true, but it seems to miss the point. We don't just have a gap in our hearts that needs filling with God, we need a whole new heart. Thoughts? Ideas? Post here!

Friday, October 19, 2007

For Sunday October 21 - Once Upon a Time

This week the oldest of my mom's 6 sisters died of a massive heart attack. The picture here is an old one of my mom's family - her mom in the middle at her 70th b-day in 1965, and all 7 of the girls gathered round. Aunt Mary is the farthest to the left.
Aunt Mary lived 86 years on this planet. There were great people of the Bible like Abraham and Noah who, the bible says, lived over 900 years. Some Hebrew scholars point out that the Hebrew language isn't concerned with time in exactly the way we are. To say in Hebrew that someone "lived 300 years" might mean that they packed the quality of 300 years into their life. Hebrew is more concerned with substance than with pure numbers and scientific data.
I believe that if we spoke of my aunt Mary's life in Hebrew terms, we might say that she lived 1000 years, because her life was so full and meaningful. Not "exciting" or "wild" but deep and solid and real. She was married to the same man, my uncle Fred, for 62 years. They had an amazing love; the stuff of stories. She raised a son and daughter to be good, productive people. She was a High School teacher for 37 years and was voted to the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame in the late 1980's (an honor given to only one teacher each year). Mary was a devout follower of Jesus Christ who never wavered in her faith or her prayers. Though life brought her times of deep sadness, she was faithful and true. She lived in a little town called Baldwin Kansas for her entire adult life. In that little town, there was a Maple Leaf Festival each year. Aunt Mary would bake dozens (according to my mom) of pies each year for the festival to raise money for various charities. This year, in October, she was scheduled to ride in the lead "float" as one of the Queens of the festival - their way of honoring her for decades of faithful service. Instead, she will be buried that day. In her wake, many waves and ripples of faith, learning, strength and love will continue to move outward.
I ramble on about my Aunt because this week's passage is all about God revealing to David that he was a part of a much bigger story than he ever realized. David is humbled and shocked that he would be a part of a plan so glorious and big. He says, "Is this how you normally deal with man?" Wow.

God's revelation to him comes after he has just felt overwhelmed about living in a big palace and not doing anything for God. Maslow would have said that David has reached the top of the hierarchy of needs and that he then looks beyond himself for meaning. Whatever the reason, he looks to God and discovers something huge. Something great. I don't know that we all get such a glimpse of how we fit into God's story. But the Story is real. Our part is important, God says. Yes, he could use others if we opt out, but if we say, "count me in" he will in ways more amazing than we might be able to understand in this life.
My Aunt Mary lived her last few years under the shadow of increasing dementia. It was a sad part of her story, but one in which family saw Uncle Fred love and care for her with such tenderness that there was meaning even in that last chapter of her life. This week as I attend her funeral and talk with family I haven't seen in years, I'm looking forward to hearing about ways she fulfilled her role in God's story -ways I've never heard about. Maybe next week I'll report some of those to you. In the meantime, remember you're a part of a much bigger story. - Curtis

Friday, October 5, 2007

For Sunday October 6 - A Revealing God

How does God show himself? A central truth of our faith is that God does, in fact, reveal himself. We even have a book of the bible called Revelation! I got to thinking about all the ways God reveals who he is, what his plans are, what he's like. And, as often happens, I started to try to put some parameters around the sermon by thinking about a defined number of ways God reveals himself. For instance, "God reveals himself in these 3 ways...." Then it hit me how silly that is - as if God limits himself to certain ways of relating and showing himself to us. In fact, it appears that God enjoys popping up in a endless number of ways. He talks through a donkey, he thunders, he speaks from a burning bush and through dreams, he whispers on a mountain, he writes on a wall, he talks through prophets, he shouts through creation, he breaths fire in judgment, he shares his heart through his Laws and through his Son; he uses dozens of people to write books and letters (the Bible)....the list goes on and on.
Having said that, there do seem to be ways that God most often reveals himself. Maybe that's what the Psalmist is talking about here in Psalm 119, which is the longest of all the Psalms. The amazing reality is, God Interacts with us. In fact, an argument could be made that the central reason God even created humans was so that he could relate to a creature that he had made like himself, in his own image.
Yet God is still elusive, or seems that way. The Psalmist said,
My eyes fail, looking for your promise;
I say, "When will you comfort me?"
Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
I do not forget your decrees.
How long must your servant wait?

Though it is so very clear that God does reveal himself, an equally strong thread through scripture is that God feels far away or hidden. That's what the Psalmist feels at times. He feels farthest away when we wish him to be the closest. Why is that? Is it simply our faulty perception, or does God really draw back - and if so, why? Your thoughts are welcome - and check out the question to the right. - Curtis

Thursday, September 27, 2007

For Sunday September 30 - A Redemptive God

Because of God’s redemptive character, he is constantly striving to make right what has gone wrong. "Redemption" these days creates images of recycle bins, smelly plastic milk cartons and rancid bottles. God redeems hearts, lives. Like holiness and goodness, redemption oozes from who God is. How that redemption works out in people is part of what Galatians is all about. Early Christians quickly forgot the basis of their redeemed life. We do the same thing.

In Galatians 3 I don’t think Paul is saying that Christians should no longer follow any of the Law or commandments. He’s saying that doing it on our own is pointless; thinking that we are justified before God on the basis of our inept obedience to God is doomed to failure.
The way of redemption that Jesus’ death on the cross opens up for us is life in the Spirit. -- obedience to God’s ways through life in the Spirit. Jesus’ death makes right what went wrong – our ability to live in accordance with God’s ways. The Galatians thought that they could earn their way into God’s kindness by their own efforts. Paul says, “Aint gonna work” (vs 2-3). He then stresses faith in Jesus’ life and death on the cross as the ticket to forgiveness, to being “justified” (vs 8, 11). But once “justified and redeemed” we are not excused from living as God intends. Rather, we are given the ability to do so – “so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” And what is the promise of the Spirit? It is given in places like Jeremiah 31 where God says,
33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."

Ezekiel 18:30-32
30 "Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

"Life in the Spirit" is living daily in tune with God's ways.
Though there is a constant current of evil around us, God is pulling his creation back in line.

Friday, September 21, 2007

For September 23 - A Just God

I like this picture. The caption, which isn't here, is supposed to read, "Liberty loves Justice." May it be so.

The passage in Luke 18 (to the right) is almost always talked about as a story about prayer. How the poor old lady prayed her way into an answer at last. "Bug God with your prayers and he'll finally have to answer you" - that seems to the the lesson most often gleaned from the passage. Luke even tells us, at the start of the story, what we are supposed to get out of it. But wait a second...though there's a lesson about persistence here, Jesus' parable really seems to be about Justice. Four times in this short story, justice is mentioned. Jesus himself says the point of the story is that God won't put off justice for his people forever - because God is just.
The prophets are absolutely packed with teaching, challenges, and warnings about God's justice and what he expects of us (Micah 6:6-8).
Passages that speak of God's righteous judgments against injustice flow from the prophets: Amos 5:23-25; Malachi 2:17-3:5; Amos 8:1-8; Habakkuk 2:2-14, and countless others.
But in our comfortable churches and homes we care more about "just us" than Justice. I know I do most of the time. I have to get jarred out of my self focus to do much about the injustices I see.
Gavin S. took me to a great New Wine, New Wineskins dinner last night where my comfort was disturbed enough to get me off my butt and at least try to go do something this morning that I knew was the right thing to do.
My wife Ana is dealing with a situation at work right now where she has to "fight" almost daily for equal services to be provided to the ELL kids she teaches. All kids who are delayed in learning qualify for special help. But that special help doesn't go to the ELL kids because it's even more work for the school staff. So a small percentage of the delayed ELL kids get extra help while almost all of the non-ELL kids get extra. Justice calls for Ana to be a voice for those who can't cry out for themselves; to see that they are given a fair shake and equal services. But it's tiring, frustrating, and sometimes seems so very pointless. Justice isn't easy. What else is new? Your thoughts, your ideas - let 'em flow like justice!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

For September 16 - A Strange God

What do we mean when we say that God is "holy?" Chances are, we have more of a gut feeling about what "holy" means than we do a firm biblical understanding of the meaning. That God is holy is a huge concept that's hard for us to get a handle on - especially since, on our own, we're not holy. It is God who makes us holy and God alone. So how can we understand something that is so foreign to us? In Hebrew thinking, "holy" is essentially a synonym for God himself (so I have read). But there are at least a few Hebrew words used to convey what holy is all about. The passage in Leviticus is an interesting one because it starts out talking about what not to eat - those bottom feeders of land. I've never had a problem staying away from bottom feeders - on land or in water. Anything that eats another animals excrement or body scraps just doesn't sound appealing to me. Kosher hot dogs, okay, but count me out for shell fish, pigs and catfish. I might try farm fed....
Anyway, the idea here seems to be not only the goodness and separateness of God, but also that being holy is at least partially about being "whole-ee." Being whole, taking care of ourselves because God is good and whole himself. Just first thoughts...more to come....
- Curtis

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

For September 9, 2007 - A Good God

What does it mean to say that “God is good” – what is good about God? In Genesis 18 we find this rhetorical question:
“Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Though we affirm “God is good,” it is one of the hardest truths to understand over the course of our lifetimes. Since the things that happen to us are not consistently wonderful – and may be thoroughly rotten - we have a hard time accepting that God is good.

Genesis 18 presents the story of God’s destruction of Sodom for their sin. God ponders, “Should I tell Abe what I’m about to do?” This action of revealing his plans is, in itself, striking. Letting us in on his purposes is no small thing. But what Ab does is equally surprising. He tries to talk God out of his terrifying plan on the basis of the innocent who will suffer too. Here we come across a truth that makes our cut and dried conceptions of God go limp: God often seems to be perplexed in his thoughts and actions. He turns and bends his plans – or at least it seems that way to us. Here in Genesis, he wants to wipe out the darkness he sees in Sodom, but he listens to the cry of his chosen servant, Abraham, who pleads with him to spare the city. Is Abraham’s sense of justice greater than God’s?

God is, in some ways, like us – or we like him. He agonizes over decisions. He listens to other ideas. Shockingly, he has regrets and wishes he had done things differently (Genesis 6:6). But he is good – how?
From our perspective, it is sometimes hard to see God’s goodness. Terrible things happen, judgments, troubles, hard times – and all of our Christian platitudes don’t get us very far. We quote Romans 8 saying, ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We hang onto that as our spiritual lifeboat, but our faith can feel like it’s taking on water fast. What then? How can we trust in God’s goodness? - Curtis

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

For Sunday September 2 - Luke 14 - "Mind Your Manners"

Humble obedience. Knowing our place in the world.
Do what you do for God - be constantly aware of his presence. He’s the ultimate host of every table at which you sit. He’s the only one from whom you need to seek approval. Freeing advice.
This passage is, among other things, simply about living everyday life for God. Attitude, the power of a quiet life in God’s presence.
Rambling thoughts...
* "he was being carefully watched" - not sure all the reasons they were watching him. Curiosity, wondering if he was really the messiah, good reasons and bad reasons. Some felt threatened and wanted to catch him in a sin or mistake.
* Jesus' felt the temptation to do what others want or expect him to. We feel that too, but to often give into it. He never does give in.
* At first the next part (vs 6ff) of the passage seems like a huge change. But it was still at the dinner table. Jesus just got to thinking about their preoccupation with his attention to the suffering man. He felt how the man was unwelcome. He knows the thoughts of those around the table.

• Jesus is so puzzling. His lesson to the dinner party guests seems to be “How to be the most honored guest at the party.” The way to get there is through humility and taking the lesser place, but the goal is still to be the most honored! Strange. Is it that, in the process of lowering ourselves, even with ulterior motives in mind, we are changed a bit? Is it simply a matter of being changed through simple obedience?
• Then he turns to the party-giver. Vs 12ff- This lesson: Don’t invite the people you really want to come. What a drag. The goal in giving a party, according to Jesus, is the reward you get later from the Big Host. Not how we think of parties, dinners.
• So he really messes with our motivations and reasons for living the way we do each day. Every action, every needs to be considered. He’s the one who gives us the honor we need; the reward we need. Do we settle for much less than what the Big Host wants to give? - Our rewards and goals are cheap compared to God’s.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What Happens in Exile

How does God use times of exile? Check out the book of Daniel, especially chapters 1-3. Daniel was one of the people taken away from Jerusalem and held in Babylon. Daniel stayed there for all 70 years. God spreads his Kingdom through such times.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Jeremiah 29

At long last Jeremiah's predictions of doom for Jerusalem and Judah have come to be. Yet amazingly, there are still prophets who claim the terrible crisis will last on 2 years and then everything will be fine. Jeremiah delivers news that no one believes, no one wants to hear -- this exile will last generations. He gives the word of the Lord that must have seemed so impossible to comprehend, "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." - vs 7.
They've been so used to praying for the destruction of their enemies and for their own relief that they can't even imagine looking or hoping or praying for something different. Those who have been sent away in exile are the people those back home in Jerusalem thought were cursed. Now Jeremiah reveals they are the ones God has smiled upon and will bless. How upside down the whole plan of God is!
Jeremiah's Letter
How tempting it would have been to write an “I told you so” letter after so many years of people not listening to his warnings! But he must have remembered himself that God said, “I told you – they wouldn’t listen.” So now the time for warning of God’s judgment is over.
This is a story about the grace and unending patience of God.

Periods of Exile
There are phases of life where we’ve been corrected, punished, or simply when things don’t go as we want them to. Likely that some of the people hauled off to Babylon were faithful people who had done well in following God. Others had listened to the prophet, and knew he was right, but had not made the changes to life they knew they need to make. Maybe they just put them off. Still others were part of the problem that brought the judgment of God upon his people. All of them are now in the same boat, living through the desert experience once again.
Exiled. Exiled from the best that life has to offer, from the brightest path of God’s plans.