Leave It All at the Cross

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

(God said) “… They shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Hebrews 8:11b-12

Scripture says if you are in Christ, you are a new creation. My question is are you?

A lawyer moved into the community, hung out his shingle, and buried himself in his new practice. In the morning the townspeople saw him walk to work; in the evening he reversed the process. He was always alone; his head always hung low, and his shoulders always stooped. Even more, his face always seemed to show a sense of ongoing and profound sadness.

One day the lawyer confessed to a Christian artist that when he was just starting out, he had committed a grave error. That sin from yesterday was still, even now, weighing him down. The artist listened, but he gave no guidance or suggestions … at least not then.

Weeks later, he invited the lonely lawyer to come to his studio and see a newly completed painting. The attorney arrived and was surprised when he saw himself in the picture. Yes, it was his likeness, but it was somehow different. In the picture he had his shoulders back, his head lifted up, and a look of hope was shown in his smiling face.

Behind him in the background of that picture was a hill, and on that hill, an empty cross. At the foot of the cross had been placed, along with many others, a great, heavy package. The artist was implying that the lawyer had left his burden at the cross. At the cross he had found forgiveness and peace, which had made him a new creation.

The artist affirmed the lawyer’s interpretation of the painting.

But the artist went deeper when he pointed to the other packages at the cross. “These,” he said, “were packages that once belonged to other people.” Although he didn’t identify which one, the author acknowledged that one of those boxes had been his.

The boxes were different in size and content, but they had this in common: they had all been left at the cross.

That picture is one for all of us since all of us need to know that when Jesus is your Savior, when your sins are washed away, you become a new creature. Now I don’t know what that good news does for you. I can tell you what it did to the lawyer.

Carefully, he considered, “Is this how God wants me to look? Can burdens really be left at the cross? Is it possible?” Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of God’s grace — the lawyer became a new creation.

Dear Lord Jesus, you carried the sins of the entire world to your cross. Since your work has been successfully completed, help us realize it is impossible for us to carry forgiven sins a second time. Thanks for all you have done and continue to do, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Asking or Doing

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“If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?” – Jeremiah 12:1-13

Jeremiah has come to God full of earnest questions and feelings about the unfairness in the world. “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? Because of the wickedness of those who live in it even the animals and birds are swept away…”

People come to me with questions like these all the time, and when they do, I sit with them at length, brow furrowed, nodding sympathetically and listening deeply to their experience of suffering in this vale of tears.

God, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have time for all that touchy-feely stuff. “Nobody wants to hear your whining, Jeremiah,” God says. “Instead of asking all these questions, why don’t you put on your big boy underpants and get ready for life?” Not very empathetic, but I for one think it may be good tonic for those of us who sometimes spend a little too much time feeling feelings instead of doing deeds.

I’m not saying that talking about our stuff isn’t important. But I am pretty sure that God didn’t choose a people, lead us out of bondage, save us in the desert, incarnate as one of us, get crucified, and resurrect himself in order to help us process our feelings.

Jesus said, “You ought always to pray and not to faint.” Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger women and men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, but for power equal to your tasks. Then, the doing of your work will be no miracle – YOU will be the miracle, and every day you will wonder at yourself and the richness of life that has come to you by the grace of God. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Take a Look in the Mirror

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1:5

Every now and then someone will ask me: “How do you know that you’ve been called to be a minister of the gospel?”

I could tell the long story of my calling and my running from that calling until I ran right into Jesus. Perhaps I could answer in the words of Howard Thurman: “I learned to follow the grain in my own wood.” That my calling was in the grain of my being… I needed to recognize that it is there.

Discerning the calling in your life has a lot to do with getting to know yourself.  For me, the calling of God has always echoed in the chambers of my consciousness.

Listening to your own inner voice can at times be more daunting than listening to the voices of others. Searching for all the answers outside of ourselves always gives us an excuse to postpone the hard work of introspection and self-evaluation.

A clinical psychologist once told that her greatest aim is help people to listen to and pay attention to themselves. She says that when a person becomes cognizant of himself and his self-conflictedness, he is well on the road to psychological health.

Could it be that our greatest discoveries are really the discoveries we make about ourselves? Could it be that that the greatest challenges we face are actually the challenges that are innate to who we are? Could it be that the discernment of our life calling is really an invitation to explore the deeper meanings  of our own lives?

A young seminarian went to hear a lecture by Howard Thurman. He wanted him to sign my book (‘Jesus of the Disinherited’), but more importantly, he wanted him to give him some spiritual guidance. Our young seminarian said: He looked at me and wrote these words in my book: “You know the path. Walk in it.” Being told what Iwealready know was not really what we are looking for, but it does make us begin to take more seriously and to look more closely at the man in my mirror.

Dear God, it is amazing how our journeys in life keep leading us right back to ourselves  and right back to you.  Help us to follow your leading in and through Jesus. Amen. 

Grace and Peace

Steve

Am I Normal?

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

Rebekah called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother is consoling himself by planning to kill you… Flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while—until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him.” – Genesis 27:42-25

In a town called Normal, Illinois, there is a lovely sculpture in a park that features a husband and wife embracing and looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, while their young children sit contented on their laps.  The sculpture is entitled, “The Normal Family.”

The only trouble with that image of family life is that none of us live in a place that could be described as Normal. That may be why that sculpture is regularly vandalized—the vandals are striking out at an idealized image of the family none of us can live up to.  As a mother once told me, “The only thing normal in our family is the knob that says Normal on the clothes dryer.”

In contrast to that sculpture, the Bible does not hold up an idealized picture of family.  Instead, the Bible depicts families with rival siblings and tension between the generations.  There is marriage and betrayal, children who refuse to honor their parents and parents who hold back a blessing from their children.  There is love expressed in many of the families of the Bible, but there are also heated arguments and stony silences, slow-boiling resentments, and rifts as wide as a canyon.

So when I hear reference to biblical family values, I wonder:  are they talking about the rifts and alienation or about the sibling rivalry and bitter resentments?

Catholic author Richard Rohr tells a story of Navajo rug weaving.  These beautifully handcrafted rugs are perfectly structured, except for a corner on each rug where an obvious flaw can be found.  When he asked why flaws were allowed to remain in such otherwise perfect rugs, he was told, “This is where the spirit moves in and out.”

Our families, and the families depicted in the Bible, are far from perfect.  They are flawed.  Yet it is exactly in those flawed places that the Spirit of God can move and where we can catch a glimpse of grace.

Dear God, may your Spirit move in and out of the imperfections of our lives. Where there are flaws, let there be grace, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Jesus Wept

1174831_10151632886487947_607091026_n“Jesus Wept!”

I never thought I would hear what I heard on TV News tonight… not in North Carolina… Not in America.

It seems that in Raleigh – our State capitol – it is against the law for churches to feed people – homeless people in downtown Raleigh – especially one area of Raleigh. It is true. Over the weekend three churches were feeding the homeless downtown and a policeman came up to them with the warning that if they did not stop feeding the homeless he would have to give them a citation. He would arrest the church for feeding the homeless in an open place in downtown Raleigh. 

This is the  same Raleigh who voted (legislature) to end extended unemployment and reduce the amount of they would get overall. Don’t they know that if you take support away from those who are unemployed they will become homeless – there will be more homeless people? Cutting the funding to Community Colleges which get more people back to work quicker than the four-year colleges, and making it even harder to get help through government sources just adds to the problem. For them it seems to be about money and not about people.

Here is what Raleigh is more worried about… in the news piece the business owner being interviewed said “these homeless people could hurt their business.” Isn’t that what it is really about… money and not compassion… possessions and not people??? I think “Moral Mondays” and “Moral Wednesdays” should turn into “Moral Everyday.”

Even more severe is the news coming from Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia’s proposed new homeless program called “Columbia Cares” is giving the homeless in the city of Columbia three choices: 1). Agree to be relocated (out of the city to a rural area) to a homeless shelter; 2). Leave town on their own, or 3). Be put in jail. This to be built homeless shelter is not funded and the council expects the churches to take care of the homeless.

Do you hear what they are saying: “We don’t want people to see that there are homeless people in Columbia – don’t stain our pristine look – get out of sight – especially the historic district. And the money to support them is to be a “Budget-Neutral” situation. That means the city is not going to pay for it.

Haul them out-of-town, make it illegal to be homeless and feed homeless out in public. Doesn’t the legislatures of North and South Carolina realize that we are called to help those in need. 

I have done a lot of things wrong but I, knowingly, have never pressed that button to make it against the law to feed the poor in a public area. I think my finger would catch on fire.

I pray that people’s voting fingers catch on fire the next time they vote for anyone who voted for this law (those who take that safety net from the poorest of the poor).

I honestly believe Jesus looks down on our lawmakers and what they are doing to the poor and those of us who remain silent, and his heart breaks. Jesus not only wept at the death of a friend, I believe he weeps every time we ignore those in need.

Dear God, if there is anything that makes Jesus weep it is our blindness when the poor come around and we want to run them off rather than care for them. Lord, we need some help down here now… our government is going crazy. Touch our hearts and melt them… cause the scales to fall from our eyes till we can see the poor and take steps to help them in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

I Just Can’t Believe in God

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Lord, why do you stand aside, why hide from us now the times are hard? The poor [are] devoured by the pride of the wicked, [they are] caught in the wiles the other has devised.” – Psalm 10:1

Who can believe in God in a world where there is so much innocent suffering, in a world where injustice is a vivid, ugly reality? 

A wonderful man is addled by Alzheimers, an eight-year-old is dying of cancer, there’s yet another outbreak of gun violence, and arrogant creeps rake in the dough or profit on war. Really, who can believe in God?

Sometimes, it seems, we imagine we’re the first generation to ask such questions, the first people ever to see how much awfulness there is and conclude, “I just can’t buy it; who can believe in God? Not me, not any longer.”

Truth is, people have been dealing with these challenges to faith for forever. Check out Job or Jeremiah or today’s Psalm 10. And that’s just for starters.

One of the really startling things, in fact, is that often it is the people of the deepest faith in a living and loving God who are also the people who ask the hardest questions about suffering and injustice, and take the biggest risks to challenge what’s wrong.

It takes no great courage – especially if our own lives are comfortable and secure – to declare ourselves too enlightened – given all the suffering and injustice – for faith in God.

Faith worth its salt mean facing – and acting against – evil and injustice while yet daring to trust in the living God. Courage is facing that which challenges meaning and yet affirming that life has moral meaning and living that faith daily.

Dear Lord, thank you that you keep believing in us, and that through Jesus you continue to refute all the evidence to the contrary. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

God Always Helps

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through His grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

The teacher who was working in the children’s hospital was asked to visit a boy who was in a burn unit.

His regular instructor had said, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework, so he doesn’t fall too far behind the others.”

The hospital teacher went, but she wasn’t prepared for what she found. The boy was in a clean room. He was swathed in bandages and in incredible pain. As gently as she could, the teacher introduced herself and the purpose of her visit this way: “I’m the hospital teacher. Your teacher at school asked me to help you with your nouns and adverbs.”

The next day a nurse asked the substitute teacher: “What did you do to that boy?”

Before the teacher could offer any explanation, the nurse continued: “We were worried about him. But ever since you visited him yesterday, his entire outlook has changed. For the first time since he came here, he’s actually fighting. He’s responding. He’s got a new lease on life.”

What had happened?

The boy eventually shared he had given up. He felt hopeless and helpless. But when he thought about the teacher who had come to see him, he realized the school wouldn’t waste its time, money and concern by sending someone to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy.

Would they?

Pretty perceptive, don’t you think?

Now it is just possible that you, or someone you know, has suffered a loss, or feels lonely, or is suffering under pain that is unrelenting. It is equally possible that a voice, an unwelcomed, unfriendly voice is saying, “You’re alone. You’re lost. Nobody cares or can do anything to assist you.”

If that is the case, may I suggest to you that while you may feel hopeless and helpless, God is not. Just as the boy knew that no one would waste a teacher’s time on a dying boy, you should know that God would not sacrifice His Son for a sinner who was beyond the scope of His love and ability to forgive, restore and make whole.

The truth is there is no such person. In every situation and circumstance of life God can and is willing to help.

Please, please do not let the evil tools of discouragement, depression and doubt drive a wedge between you and the Lord who loves you. Jesus is there, always. He has answers. He who has lived, suffered, died and risen to save your soul can help you even now with every earthly concern and catastrophe. Believe it. There comes a time when no message is more true or more needed.

Dear Lord, I give thanks I have limitations and You do not. That means when I encounter that which is humanly overwhelming You can still help. Truly, there is no sin too big for You to forgive, no situation so hopeless that the peace of my Savior cannot correct or conquer it. In Jesus’ Name I pray. Amen. 

Grace and Peace

Steve

Cheers to the Church

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”  excerpts from Acts 2:37-47

I heard the strangest story that we, in the South, could never comprehend. It seems that in a northern city at one congregation this pastor, from the story, served covered-dish suppers at church did not attract many people, but she said that when we started having them in people’s homes, the attendance doubled. People loved seeing church members’ living spaces, after all those years of only seeing one another at church.

My question was that the only reason attendance doubled? Well, the truth of the matter was that some people also liked meeting in homes because you could serve beer and wine. But they were drinking wine in the book of Acts, too. From the beginning, the church knew that worship is central, but it’s also good to get people around the table, laughing, eating, having fun and praising God.

To learn about the earliest Christians, who might have known Jesus and the apostles, read the book of Acts, written by the author of Luke. Like the other gospels, Luke is about Jesus. Acts is the next chapter – what happened after Jesus ascended and left regular people to build the church.

Remember: the church has not always been a building on Main Street. Acts shows the church trying to form itself, long before newsletters, building use schedules, church covered-dish suppers and capital campaigns came upon the scene. And from the beginning, the church ate together, casually. They spent time worshipping at the temple. They also gathered in people’s homes, to share a good meal and a glass of wine. And that was church, too.

Cheers.

Dear Lord, help me and my church to delight in one another’s presence, whether we are in the pews or around the dinner table, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

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The One in Front Of You

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.’  But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing…'” – Luke 10:38-42

We Try to keep a clean house. We really don’t care if you leave moisture rings on the end tables, and we don’t go all Mommie Dearest if the grout’s not clean. I’m just saying that we’d rather vacuum once a week than wait till the dust bunnies overwhelm us.

It turns out that the only thing the world likes less than a messy house is a clean one.  A fellow clergyperson – a normally kind, lovely one – once said in our living room, with clear conviction, “If your house is in order, then your priorities aren’t.” Another otherwise kind, generous-hearted person told us with a straight face that a tidy house is always the result of a misery-making, unhealthy compulsion. Yet another confided that other people’s clean houses make her feel bad about herself.

Now, unless you hoard cats and have visible tufts of asbestos floating around, or make me stop to put on special booties and walk through a cloud of de-lousing powder before passing through your hermetically-sealed front door, I really don’t care much at all about the state of your house.  So why, I wondered, did these people care about ours?

Then I realized that they’re actually in the same boat as Martha. They’re having a conversation with someone who’s not there – their neat-freak parents, society, the ad agency employed by Clorox Clean Ups – and it’s not going well.  We all have this malady in one form or another; some days I feel like the only people I ever actually talk to, regardless of who’s standing in front of me, are my wife and a kid who once said a very mean thing to me in fifth grade. And that’s what Jesus was talking about. It’s not about clean or unclean houses; it’s about learning to talk with who’s in front of you instead of who’s not.

Dear God, help me to remember who’s right in front of me and who’s not, and to talk to the one who’s really here, in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

Ask, Seek, Knock

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” – Luke 11:9

Do you believe that? I have known a few people whose prayers have gone unanswered. Jesus’ words might not be exactly what they are leaning on as they try everything they can think of and nothing seems to work. And yet I have also known a few people who were doing great, except they were dying. Their spirit and attitude were strong. They bring hope to others, even though their own situation is rather hopeless.

When Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you,” he did not say exactly what it is that will be given. When he said, “Seek, and you will find,” he did not say exactly what it is that you will find. When he said, “Knock, and the door will be opened,” he did not say what will be on the other side of the door.

The hardest part of prayer, for me, is surrendering to the mystery of that to which I pray. Our prayers may not be answered in the way we wish. Sometimes I am simply not okay with that. But I believe God is okay with me not being okay with God. I believe God will answer prayers, but in God’s own time and in God’s own way.

In our prayers it is often we who are transformed, no matter the outcome of that for which we pray. And then, disarmed of demands and expectations, we find ourselves able to welcome the acceptance and other blessings that we didn’t even know to pray for.

Dear Lord, Thy will, not mine, be done. For Sweet is Thy will, sweet is Thy will. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Steve

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