Friday, March 30, 2012

Learning Peace from the Cross

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.                         —Isaiah 2:1 –4

“Learn war.”  That’s an interesting phrase.  When I was little I just assumed that we would always be at war.  By the time I was old enough to be aware of what was going on we were in Vietnam.  When we lived in Alabama I remember hearing that our next door neighbor’s son was killed in Vietnam.  We would stay in Vietnam throughout most of my childhood; it was on the front page of the newspaper every day and on the news every night.  There were war shows on T.V and WWII movies in the theaters.
Then I went to school and learned American history, and it seemed that America just moved from one war to another with just little pauses in between:  the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  And when Vietnam ended and we were no longer at war, I learned about the Cold War.  The Cold War?  You mean even when we weren’t at war, we were at war?
So you can understand as a kid I just assumed that we would always be at war, that peace was just a temporary lull between wars, an exception to the rule, the brief time when the audience clapped while the orchestra switched music and got ready to perform the next piece.
And when in Sunday School these verses from Isaiah were quoted, about swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and nations not learning war anymore, I just figured that was some idealistic utopia that wouldn’t really happen except in heaven, when all the good people would gather together and there wouldn’t be any war anymore because all the bad people would be in hell.  But on earth?  On earth we learn war, because there are lots of bad people out there, and until God kills all the bad people, we gotta learn war or else the bad people will kill all the good people.  That’s how one child growing up in the ‘60’s made sense of things.  Can you blame me?  Is that a childish way of looking at things?
Then would come Christmas, every year, and among all the feelings and experiences—feelings of anticipation, of excitement, of joy, all of which climaxed on Christmas Eve, the hardest night of the year to fall asleep—on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the one feeling that was most present was a feeling of peace.  I mean, my brothers and I never fought on Christmas Eve.  We were united in our excitement, united in our plot to get Mom and Dad up as early as possible.  We never were jealous when one of the others got a cool gift.  We played together with each other’s stuff, we shared and played nice with each other.  Oh, we might have argued on the 26th of December, but never on the 25th.  All hostilities ceased.  My brothers and I beat our swords into plowshares.
Christmas is like that, isn’t it?  I mean, you can’t read the Christmas accounts in Matthew and Luke without encountering this longing for and promise of peace.  It’s in the prophecies about the Messiah’s birth.  The angels proclaim glory to God and peace on earth.  Messiah is called Prince of Peace.
We don’t think of peace at this time of year, not when the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus is front and center on our calendars if not in our minds.  But as important as it is that we not “learn war” anymore, it’s equally important that we learn peace, and peace is not something that can be learned in the absence of “all the bad people.”  Peace is something that can be learned only in the presence of enemies.  So among all the things that the cross  teaches us is how to be people of peace in the presence of our enemies.  Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom was of this age, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.  But my kingdom is not of this age.”
Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem with an army.  With an army, he probably would have died; without one, death was a certainty.  But the cross teaches us that there is a death that leads to more death, and there is a death that leads to resurrection, life—and peace.  We need to learn the lesson of the cross, for it’s the only way we can learn peace.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


What does it take to be happy?  For a lot of people, happiness depends on their happenings. If their happenings don't happen to happen the way they happen to want their happenings to happen, they're unhappy!  Some people spend their time organizing their happenings to make sure everything happens the way they want it to happen. The assumption is this: if they can make everything happen the way they want their happenings to happen, they'll be happy.  There are two problems with that: you can't do it, and even if you could, you'd probably be bored.  Alexander the Great got everything happening his way. He conquered everything and then sat down to cry, because he was so young and there was nothing else to conquer.
The Greeks had a word for happiness: makarios. This word describes what they perceived as being the experience of the gods. The Greeks had lots of gods, and the gods were sort of magnified human beings. They had all the failings of human beings and all the strengths. For Greeks, the gods had it made. The word makarios found its way into the New Testament, and it's translated "blessed" or "happy." Jesus picked up on this word, and said some stuff that will absolutely blow your mind. Listen to what he said:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness."   Jesus is saying that happiness, or fulfillment, or makarios, that having everything just wonderful, comes not from having everything. It can come through being poor, through mourning, through hungering, through thirsting. It can come through being persecuted for righteousness' sake. That's exactly the opposite of what we think is the road to happiness.  He’s teaching us that we need to learn to be happy even in those things that happen that are outside of our control.
One of the great myths people believe is that if we are in charge, we should be in charge. It is a ridiculous myth, because nothing could be further from the truth. Ecclesiastes 3:2 says, "There's a time to be born and a time to die." It’s a reminder that we are not masters of our own destiny. You were initiated by birth, and you had nothing to do with it. You'll be terminated by death, and you'll probably have nothing to do with it. In between initiation and termination is the rest of your life, and you’re not in complete control there either. 
It only takes a second for irresistible, unbidden circumstances to occur. If we're trying to organize these irresistible, unbidden circumstances, if our happiness depends on our happenings happening the way we happen to want them to happen, we have our work cut out for us. How on earth are we going to make sure that we never mourn and always dance? How can we make sure we always laugh but never weep? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could just make sure that we're always born and never died. Unfortunately, we can't do it.
There are things that we can make happen in our lives.  We can plan, execute, evaluate, and enjoy.  And we should.  And there are things that happen to us that are outside of our control.  We didn’t plan them, and can’t control their coming and going.  Sometimes these things are good, and we can take them as evidence of the existence of God.  And sometimes these things aren’t so good, and we wonder where God is.
Ecclesiastes 3:14 says, I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 
That’s it, isn’t it?  There are things that we can control, and there are things that we can’t control, and therein lies the space for God to happen in our lives.  In that moment that we realize that we are not in control of some of the most important moments of our lives, there is opportunity to learn to stand in awe before God.  We learn to revere God.  We learn to worship God.  When we begin to recognize that God can work, not just in spite of, but in and through all the irresistible, unbidden things of life, there's a possibility of a deeply rooted sense of hope.  If we can learn to stand in awe of God and begin to recognize that he can bring a certain beauty into all the circumstances of life, there's hope for an abiding happiness.  And maybe we begin to learn that if God works in the circumstances we can’t control, he’ll also work in the circumstances we won’t control.  In other words, in giving up things that we are in fact in control of, we create even more space for God to work.
And the more that God is at work in our lives, the happier we will be. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Enlarging our Dreams

Sometimes our dreams are dwarfed by our own limited perspectives. We may have a dream in our hearts and believe it’s God-given. Later we may discover God’s dream is much larger than the dream we have in mind. The Bible contains numerous stories of God trying to get his people to dream larger dreams. God’s dreams usually exceed the capacity of our imaginations. God’s dreams are far more creative and far more encompassing than we could ever imagine. The apostle Peter had a dream and later discovered that God’s dream exceeded his own dream. God dreamed of a church where all people would be welcomed. Since the beginning, God’s dream was that all people would worship Him together with joy, regardless of gender, age, race, class, appearance, weight, and all the marks that we use to include and exclude.
God wanted to created a church, where, in the words of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” God’s dream for his church is inclusive. God didn’t want there to be racial distinctions, class distinctions, or gender distinctions. God told our spiritual father, Abraham, “All peoples on earth shall be blessed through you”! (Gen. 12:3). God is crazy about you, and about each and every one of us. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you’ve done.
But leaders in the early church had great difficulty embracing the scope of God’s dream. Church leaders in the New Testament allowed cultural prejudices to limit the membership of the church to a select group of people. When the church first began in Acts 2, it started as an outgrowth of Judaism. The church that began at Pentecost was composed of people within Judaism who came to believe in Jesus. They limited their picture of the church to include only Jews. Yet, God’s dream from the beginning was that from this one group, everyone would be made aware of God’s love. Peter and other church leaders failed to grasp the dream. In an effort to reach only people like themselves, their dream was dwarfed.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on these narrow-minded church leaders, because each and every one of us here have our own prejudices. Some of us carry racial prejudice. Probably many more carry class prejudice. Some are prejudiced against people who are overweight. Others are prejudiced against people who speak with a southern accent, subconsciously equating a twang with a lack of intelligence or sophistication.  I have prejudices I’m not even aware of yet. Prejudices sneak up on us.
Often we think in terms of race, class, gender, culture, ethnicity, patterns of speech, weight, appearance, etc. We tend to include or excluded on the basis of these non-essentials. I don’t mean our backgrounds are unimportant: they matter. But these things don’t determine our worth or our eligibility for God’s kingdom.
Acts 10 is the story of God’s enlarging Peter’s dream and, in turn, enlarging the church’s dream.  It is a turning point in the history of the church, because in Acts 10 we see the first Gentile become a full-fledged member of the church.   That  doesn’t sound like a big deal because most of us are Gentiles.  But in the first century this was a big deal.  In first-century Judea there was a huge gulf between the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews hated the Gentiles, and the Gentiles returned the favor. Among the Jews there was exclusivism. They identified themselves as “God’s chosen people.” And as God’s chosen people they forgot that their role was to bless all people. Instead of loving others, they hated them. The Jews said that help should not be given to a Gentile woman in labor, because that would only bring one more Gentile into the world. They regarded the Gentiles as sinners and didn’t want to be polluted by contact with them.
In the book of Acts, God made it clear that He wanted His people to reach out into Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and the uttermost parts. But his people stayed in Jerusalem. What happens? Persecution comes to the church. Listen to Acts 8:2: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Where did God want them to go? “Judea and Samaria.” But the church didn’t want to go there. But when the persecution came, they had to go there. Yet when they got there, they were reluctant to reach out, and God had to remind them to reach out to those who were different.
The church isn’t to be worldly, but it is to look like the world in all its rich diversity.  The Kingdom of God is not characterized by bland sameness.  We may feel more comfortable around people exactly like us, but the Kingdom isn’t for our comfort, but for our transformation.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

From Childish to Childlike

Do you remember what your biggest fear was as a child?  Maybe the monster in the closet or under the bed.  I was talking with a friend the other day and somehow we got on this subject, and we both agreed that the thing we hated the most as a kid was getting picked last in sports.  Think about this: when I was a kid, Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam, blacks were getting lynched and being beaten in my home state of Alabama, and bomb shelters were being built in case of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, and my biggest fear was being picked last in kickball.  Man, those were the days.
There comes a time when you realize that when you became an adult you traded some things away and it was not a good trade.  Some things you gave up as childish weren’t so bad after all, and some things you took on as an adult weren’t so good after all. 
You grow up watching your dad shave every morning and thinking how cool it will be when you get to do that. Then you get to that age and after a week, maybe two, you realize: this stinks.
You grow up just dying to have your own car, then you got one and realized that there’s a vacuum hose that goes from your bank account straight to your car. 
There are a lot of things we gave up as childish that were really pretty cool after all, and some things we took on that seem real adult, but are really pretty childish.
Jesus had to deal with this adult childishness all the time from his own disciples.  Listen to this verse from Luke 9:  An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.  This is the kind of stuff that adults worry about.  As adults, we want to be important. We want to live great lives, accomplish great things.  We are status seeking. I want my 15 minutes of fame, my name to be newspapers, my face on the cover of magazines. I want to be important. And I think if you look at our history, you have a lot of people living that out too.  Even if we don’t think it’s possible, we still want it.
As kids, we had a certain set of games that we played. And when we became adults, we traded those games for a new set of games.  You can call it climbing the ladder. You can call it whatever it is. But we change and play a new game in order to be important and to be known.  That’s the game the disciples were playing, and to Jesus it was backwards.  As children we played tag, the object of which was to avoid being “it.”  But as adults we all want to be “it.”  The Man.  The Big Kahuna.
And it’s childish, really.  And Jesus calls us from childishness to childlikeness. 
But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, "Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest."
Every amusement park, no matter how crummy, has at least one really cool ride where there’s always a long line.  So you wait in line for a long time, and you get up close, and there’s this thing that every kid hates to see: the cartoon cutout.  You know what I’m talking about?  Just before entering the pavilion with the rails that force the line to go back and forth, there’s the cartoon cutout, and you have to be at least as tall as Barney Rubble in order to ride the ride.  If you are shorter than Barney Rubble, you don’t get to ride, and the college kid the park has hired to be the Barney Rubble Enforcer is there to send you away.  And every one of us has seen the kid who stands up next to Barney Rubble and stretches himself as tall as he can but he’s not quite tall enough.  And while big brother or sister gets to go on the ride with Dad, this kid has to hang back with Mom, or Grandmom.  And it’s like Jesus has his own cartoon cutout right in front of the kingdom. And he says, “Let him in anyway.”  In Matthew’s version of this event, Jesus is even more blunt.  He says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  “Unless you’re shorter than the Barney Rubble cutout, you don’t get in.” Jesus always turns everything upside down. And you’ve got to sit there and think about this for a second. 
Either Jesus has an incredible sense of humor, and he’s playing a great joke and just totally teasing these guys about their ambition. Or he’s saying something pretty profound: that as adults, we have missed something, and that when we start arguing for ambition or for power or importance, we’re missing out on what really is key. I think what he’s saying is that if you really look at what is important to God, kids are closer to it than we are. That’s what I think he is saying. I think children, in what they value in life and in people, are closer to what God wants and how we should live than adults.  In the way they live life, in the way they love people, in the way they worship God, I think they get it right.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Listen Up

In the weeks leading up to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, you see a change in his demeanor.  There’s more sadness, he’s perhaps more confrontational yet less optimistic that people are going to get it.  The crowds dwindle, his disciples argue more, and the religious authorities seem to be painting a big target on his chest.  Though individual lives, and many of them, have been touched and changed, on the whole not much has changed in Israel.  The crowds that flocked to him now seem to spurn him, now that he’s not entertaining them with miracles all the time and has begun talking more and more about suffering, persecution, sacrifice, and even death. 
All that would be OK if he’d talk about it in the context of throwing out the Romans—everyone knows that revolution and war involve sacrifice and death, but we can handle that as long as you promise victory in the end.  But Jesus keeps saying things like, “"My kingdom is not from this world.”  What do you mean, not from this world?  What other world is there?  And so people start peeling away.  Early in his ministry John the Baptist asked Jesus a question from prison: Are you the one, or should we look for another?  And more and more people are looking for another.  More and more the disciples are becoming prime examples in missing the point.  They jostle for position, anticipating the time when Jesus will become king and start handing out jobs in his administration.  They are sure they will all be in his cabinet, but who will be chief of staff?  Who will be secretary of state, and who will have to settle for Health and Human Services?  And I’m sure all of this is exceedingly frustrating to Jesus.  After all this time, all his teaching, and it’s like nobody was really listening.  They all heard what they wanted to hear. 
One time I gave a talk to a group of good God-loving Christian guys, and one of my key points was about equality in the Christian home, that the husband being head of the household didn’t mean greater privilege and getting to make the final decision but was about servanthood and the responsibility to serve first and sacrifice first for the family.  And afterward a couple of guys were slapping me on the back and telling me what a great job I did and how they agreed that the problem with the Christian family was that men weren’t asserting their authority in the home.  And I thought, “Were they listening to me, or were they in some other room listening to a guy who looked like me  but was saying the exact opposite of what I was saying?”  They heard, but they heard what they wanted to hear. 
That’s so frustrating, and I’m sure Jesus felt that same frustration.  But in spite of it all, Jesus never quit, he just kept going.  And as I look at the final weeks of Jesus’ life, there are a lot of characteristics you can see, but none stick out to me more than his dogged determination.  There’s a turning point in Luke’s gospel, right around the end of the ninth chapter, where it says that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  It’s a picture of dogged determination, of unrelenting focus.  There’s a showdown coming, and rather than turn away, Jesus sets his face, leans into the wind, grits his teeth, and refuses to be distracted, dissuaded, or derailed.  He is absolutely determined, and he is relentless in his march toward Jerusalem.  And then in Luke 18:31-34 we read:
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.  For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon.  After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again."  But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Seriously, they didn’t understand what he was saying?  OK, granted sometimes it’s difficult to understand some of the cryptic passage of the Bible–but not this passage. Here Jesus speaks plainly. He doesn’t employ apocalyptic language, or use a parable with a hidden message. He says, “I’m going to Jerusalem.  I’m going to be mocked, insulted, criticized, spat upon, and beaten.  After that, they are going to kill me.  I’m going anyway.” 
They hear what they want to hear, and when they don’t hear what they want to hear, they hear nothing at all.  Just babble.  Stuff that doesn’t make sense.  Nonsense.  That’s why Jesus repeatedly said, “The one who has ears to hear, let them hear.”  It takes more than ears to really hear.
It took courage for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it wasn’t just a possibility that he would die but that it was a certainty.  And it takes courage for us to hear what he says and do what he says.  It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus.
And really good hearing.