A Mysterious God

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Why have you forsaken me? I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” – Psalm 22

Sometimes we think that if we work hard at our spiritual practices we are bound to experience God, to feel God within us. But not everyone feels God, no matter how hard they try or how much they want to. Many know only the ache of absence. The truth is that God is often silent, dark, and distant — so much so that it can be painful to be around people for whom God is cheerful, close, and chatty.

There’s an old slogan that says, ‘If God feels far away, guess who moved?’ You’re supposed to answer, ‘Not God.’ But whoever thought that up never read the psalms. Jesus, who probably loved saying “Surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life” as much as we do, didn’t pray Psalm 23 on the cross. He prayed Psalm 22: “I cry to you, but you do not answer.”

You know this, but hear it again: the Christian life isn’t about feeling feelings or acquiring spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that — a life of faith. And faith is almost always a journey through the desert and the dark. If Deus absconditus is your God, you are not a second-class Christian. You have a gift. A hard one, but a gift all the same.  Your heartache — faith’s heartache — can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine. With them you can keep company. With them, mourn. With them, persevering, wait out the darkness ’till the Coming Day.

Was there really anything else you wanted when once upon a time you said yes to a fierce and mysterious God?

Dear Lord, also known as the Hidden One, they say you are still speaking, and even if it isn’t to me right now, give me faith to trust that you are as real as the poor, as close as the suffering, as audible as the cry of the abandoned; and let me find you there, and everywhere else you send me, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

 

 

Another Building FUBAR

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…” Ephesians 4:11

This morning I put together one of those prefab cabinets, you know the ones that come with all the stuff already with it. And all you have to do is just follow the instructions and put it together. Well, no fault to the store, no fault to the manufacturer, no-fault to anything else but operator error.

When I got through, the cabinet doors didn’t quite come together as designed, pieces of white facing on the shelves were scraped off, one corner did not hold very securely, and the whole thing was a little loppie-jawed.

Those of you who know me, know that this is a common occurrence with me. You recall, I am sure, I built a doghouse for my dog but he was too ashamed to go in it. I built a toy chest for my son and it ended up becoming a wood box. I actually destroyed many of Shirley’s father’s lawn equipment tools. So much so, that he instructed me “Steve, don’t ever touch my stuff again.”

I am so happy – so very happy that God gave different gifts to different people. Imagine if I had to try to make a living building things, or taking care of lawns and their equipment? I’m so glad that there are people who can build stuff. If I would work for Brent or Rickie my job would be one of two things: either being the runner who retrieves coffee and lunch, or the one who researches and answers the theological tomes of the 2 x 4.

I am happy every time I look in the eyes of a waitress at a restaurant and know that there is a light on inside.  I know that I will get my same glass back after she goes to refill it. I am happy every time I talk with the mechanic and he’s able to tell me the real problem going on with my car. I’m happy every time I visit the doctor and I know that God has given this person the intellect, ability, and curiosity to care for the health of others. There are a lot of things in this world I can’t do. But I am so thankful that God has gifted people to do what the world needs done.

Next time you see a construction site, think to yourself: “I know Steve Martin is not out there working – and thank God for that.” But perhaps when you read a devotion you may say I’m glad he is able to do that – because many times that brings me comfort and gives me encouragement for a new day. It at least gives me a laugh.

Dear Lord, thank you for the many gifts that you have given your people that the needs of this world might be met and your people may be made whole, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

An Open Trunk

thThis week Noah is in an Animation Camp out at the Natural Science Center here in Greensboro. I picked him up around noon and asked how his day had been going? He told me that he and his partner are making this movie (Lego movie) which they have entitled: “The Zombie Apocalypse.” This may not be out in your local movie theaters this summer, but it is certainly intriguing to hear him talk about it.

As we are talking about the happenings of his day, we headed for Jay’s Deli for lunch. They sat us at a table for two by the window. We continued our conversation about the looming apocalypse, and how he was going to have little Lego figures flying through the air.

I happened to look out the window, and I noticed this car with the trunk wide open and no one anywhere near that car. I thought to myself: “I cannot believe how dumb some people are… to leave their trunk wide open right here in the middle of the parking lot.” I called this to Noah’s attention, and then it hit me – it was MY car – the trunk not just cracked a little – no, it is open all the way… like a flag on a bicycle!  Apparently, I cannot only pocket dial someone on my cell phone, I can also sit on my keys and open my trunk. Isn’t life wonderful?

It is so easy to look at the mistakes we see around the world – even up close and personal and wonder how could those people be so dumb. And then we find out it is our error… it is our sin, it is our mistake. We are really no different from anyone else. What makes us think that other people, who do the same things we do, are dumb and yet we do not apply the same standards to ourselves.

I believe the Bible tells us that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Not one of us is smarter than a fifth grader. Not one of us is perfect. Not one of us deserves to be called dumb. When it comes to kingdom living, all of us fall short of what God expects from us. But all of us do some mighty dumb things.

Next time you see an open trunk think about me, but more than that, realize that if it were not for the grace of God all of our trunks would be open.

Dear Lord, I don’t know why I do such dumb things, but I sure am thankful that you are there to forgive me, redeem me and restore me, in and through Jesus. Amen

Grace and Peace

Steve

Go Answer the Door!

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

When we were serving the church in Pleasant Garden, Shirley and Joy had a yard sale. As you know, I do not do yard sales. Nearing the end of this yard sale, a lady was browsing around the leftovers and asks this question; “Do you have anything left, perhaps inside the house?” My daughter-in-law quickly responds: “We have the lump inside.” Speaking in “womanise” this lady replied: “Oh no, I’ve got one of those. I don’t need another one.” I guess you know they were talking about me lying on the couch. And somehow without even mentioning that they were talking about a man lying on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, both of them knew exactly what they were talking about.

Today at lunch, after church, we ate at Red Lobster. Our waitress – I kid you not – was named “Krazia”. I could not believe it, but I think both parents need to be slapped. I know everyone must have nicknamed her or called her crazy.

As most of you know, the lectionary text for today was Luke teaching the disciples how to pray. Dr. Howell approached this from a very creative and meaningful way. In this text it not only talks about how to pray, but also about a neighbor coming to your door at midnight and knocking on the door asking for help. He flips this text around and places you and me, the church, on the inside of the door, and the world and its needs on the outside knocking… asking for help.

He tells the story about him and his associate walking into the sanctuary one weekday afternoon, and noticed a lady kneeling at the altar rail. She was praying, not silently but out loud. And the more she prayed the louder she got. Until she got to the end of her prayer, in which she is holding her fist up in the air, shouting at God: “God, I need some help down here”! James says we could have just knelt down and prayed with her and sent her on her way, but instead we listen to her story, we found her a place to stay, we helped her find a job, we put some friends in contact with her. In other words we answered her prayer.

Sometimes people ask if prayer works, really works. James Howell says: “It depends on if the church is listening”. He goes on to state what I have stated many, many times – that there is no reason whatsoever that there should be anyone hungry in the city of Charlotte, in the city of Winston, in the city of Greensboro, in any city in the United States of America. Because we know that the church has enough resources and enough power that hunger is a solvable problem. The problem is that the hungry, the needy, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the people who need the church are on the outside knocking, and we are on the inside sleeping – like that lump on a Saturday afternoon. We don’t hear them knocking. We don’t go to the door.

Isn’t it time we act a little Krazia and answer the door – and becom part of answering the prayers of the people of God!

Dear Lord, we thought we were the ones that were knocking and asking, but we are the church – we are on the inside. Help us to know that we are the church, and to become more like the church, get off our couch and answer the door, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Go to iTunes and sign up for the podcast of Myers Park United Methodist Church. Usually by Tuesday afternoon you will be able to listen to Dr. Howell’s sermon.

Sing To The Lord

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Your solemn processions are seen, O God…the singers in front, the musicians last, between them girls playing tambourines.” from Psalm 68:24-3

Yesterday we were at St. Pius X Catholic Church for our granddaughter’s ending performance to this week’s camp on “Little Miss SPX Pageant.” All week long they practiced walking, talent and answering the “world peace” question. Yesterday was the two hour pageant. Abby won the prize for the “Most Courteous.” I thought that was a great award. She did a wonderful job and smiled her beautiful smile all the way through.

As we were waiting to go into the old gym, we were talking with some parents in the hallway. In jest, I asked one father if he were singing today? His very quick response was “Oh, you don’t want to hear that.”

A pastor friend of mine tells that when she was young, whenever she sang in church choirs, her father always felt obliged to tell her, “You know I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” Then he would say, “When I was a little boy, I was invited out of the church choir. First they invited me in, and then they invited me out.” He would laugh, but he told me this story often enough for me to know it mattered to him. He would say that it freed him up to spend more time playing “kick the can,” but it had to have hurt at the time.

I think his church choir director confused worship with a concert. In her quest for perfection, she left in her wake a little boy who grew up to be a man afraid to open his mouth and sing.

In the psalms, we often hear about music. Sometimes the processions are solemn, sometimes they are joyful, but clearly, our music matters to God.

When the children’s choirs of four to six year olds sing at any of our churches, let me tell you, it is not a solemn procession. Amped up on donuts and the thrill of the moment, they wiggle and squirm on the steps in the chancel area of the church. They sing their little hearts out, many of them in tune. There seems to always be one little boy who sings real loud and very off key. They bring delight to everyone in worship, including God. They may not all be musical geniuses but they are learning that their voices matter to the one who created them.

Dear God, remind me that I do not have to be a concert musician to have my voice be beautiful to you. Thank you for allowing it to be pleasing to you, even when I make up my own notes. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Worship Anywhere – Everywhere

Worship Anywhere – Everywhere

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Late that night Paul and Silas were praying and singing God’s praises, while the other prisoners listened.” – Acts 16:25

A friend tells about some years ago he was with a group from his church on a mission trip in Nicaragua. He said: “We were welcomed for dinner at the home of a member of the church we were visiting. After dinner our hosts got up and sang hymns – without hymnals or accompaniment – beautifully.”

He continues: “I was really enjoying this gift until it suddenly occurred to me what was coming next. They would, of course, invite us to stand and sing too. And what would that be, “Jesus Loves Me?” “Kum Ba Yah?” We weren’t very well prepared for such sharing because we had few hymns written on our hearts. We would look around and wonder if any of our group were choir members who could take over.”

Here, in today’s passage, Paul and Silas were singing and praying – worshipping – in, of all places, jail.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re too dependent on the idea that worship only takes place in a church building. That we have to have organs or pianos to worship. Or that we have to have hymnals to sing praise to God. Or (worst of all) that you can’t worship without a “bulletin.” (OMG!)

Suppose you had to do “take-out” worship? That you worshipped the living God wherever you were – in a jail cell, around a campfire, in a home, a hospital, or on the city street? Would you be ready? What hymns do you know by heart? What Scriptures are written upon your heart? Are you ready to pray? And, in the words of Peter, to “give an account of the hope that is in you?”

In truth, worship doesn’t happen because of a church building, instruments or bulletins (!). It happens because we trust God, because we want to seek God and need to praise God. It happens because our church has equipped us with the words and ways of worship to take with us wherever we go.

Do you have worship you can take anywhere?

Write your word across our hearts, O loving God, so that when our hearts break, your word will fall into our hearts and heal us, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Teach Me, Oh Lord

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…”  – Hosea 4:6

At a social gathering two tables were set with a fountain of punch on each table. On one table, a sign read “NON-ALCOHOLIC.” On the other table the sign read “ALCOHOLIC.” The “ALCOHOLIC” sign was accidentally knocked off the table when someone noticed a conservative pastor go up to the table, fill his glass with the unmarked punch and begin to sip.

After drinking three glasses of the unmarked punch, the pastor made his way back to the table for another refill. The person who had been observing the pastor went up to him and asked: “Reverend, do you know what you’re drinking?” “No,” he responded, “And I don’t want anybody to tell me.”

Lack of knowledge is one thing. Resistance to learning is something else.

Many parents are attending Freshmen Orientation with their daughters and sons at many universities during the late days of July and early days of August. The president of a local university of great distinction told the incoming freshmen students that it did not matter what grades they had made prior to their matriculation at that university. “What matters most now is your openness to learning and your willingness to take advantage of every resource this university offers for your advancement.”

There is relevance here for everyone. The knowledge we reject is far more critical than the stuff we don’t know. Life itself is a laboratory, and life holds each of us responsible for everything vital that we refuse to learn.

Teach me thy way, oh Lord.  I want an “A” in openness to all ways of learning in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

James and Paul’s Conversation

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” Excerpt from James 2:14-26

Often parts of the Bible seem to contradict one another. A Seminary professor suggested we think of them as being in conversation. Tonight I want to mention that the short book of James is always having a conversation with the letters of Paul.

Paul emphasized the importance of faith. He reassured us that we do not have to earn our own salvation by our own good works. We can receive God’s grace as an undeserved, unearned gift.

James shoots back in the conversation with a warning. Don’t use your faith as a “get out of jail free” card. You still have to do good things in the world, and faith alone won’t do it.

Which one of these guys is right? I think they both are, and together they make for a rich conversation.

Paul is right to remind us that we don’t have to earn God’s love. We really can quit trying to be perfect. Jesus came for the imperfect people. He can save us, even after we have done terrible things. Everybody gets to grow and change.

And James is right to remind us that how we behave really matters to God. We can’t just pray for the homeless to enjoy life in heaven. We also need to think about their shelter and food in the here and now. What kind of faith would ignore people’s suffering?

Paul gets more airtime in the Bible, with all his many letters. So today, let’s give James the last word and let his challenge fill our prayer.

Dear God, you are the giver of faith. So when my belief is unsteady, lead me to concrete work I can do on your behalf. I want my faith to be alive, so rather than fixating on that faith, let me do the practical work and service that will draw me closer to you, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

The Gold Edged Bible

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”Acts 2:41

Eight men sat in a small dimly lit room in a rural Chinese village home. Seven were preachers and their eyes were glued to the Bible held by the eighth man. It was a leather-bound zippered Bible with gold-edged trim on the pages.

The western visitor suddenly became aware that the seven men were staring intently at his Bible. One of them generated enough courage to say, “What a beautiful Bible. May I look at it for a moment?”

“Of course,” he replied. The Bible was gently handed from person to person as though it was made of eggshells. They asked how much it cost. And their faces fell when they learned it was the equivalent of twenty dollars.

Then the visitor received an inspiration. He decided to make this a personal ministry project. The qualification for receiving one of these Chinese Bibles should be so high that these leaders would be inspired to greater achievement. Yet, at the same time ensure that he would not need to provide a great number.

He told them, “If a person is mightily used by God, then I will bring him one of these Bibles.”

“What do you mean mightily used of God?” the preachers queried eagerly.

Thinking fast he replied, “Those who have led at least 10,000 people to the Lord and discipled another 10,000.”

To his astonishment the preachers burst out laughing. They said, “Oh, this is too easy. There are five of us here who can now qualify for your zippered gold-edged Bible, and we know ten more.”

After his trip the visitor chuckled, “I’m bankrupt.” But more seriously he added, “I’ve been working in China with house church leaders for many years. But one thing never changes…I am literally taken by surprise during each visit at how fast the church is growing.”

Perhaps we need to take more seriously our responsibility in sharing the Good News. Can you imagine that being true of our church in America? Why not? If we will actually get serious and expect God to empower us to be that kind of leaders… nothing is impossible with God.

Thank you Lord that Your church is continuing to grow quickly in China. May that be a reality in my country as well, in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

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