Just Life


“Jesus and his disciples went on…On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?” They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am” (Mark 8:27-29 NIV)?

Do you know Jesus? I mean, do you really know Him? This is a question we must all ask ourselves. Perhaps, like the disciples we know what others say about Jesus. The world offers endless answers to the question Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Some say He was a good, moral and ethical teacher and we should all strive to be good people like He was. Others claim He was just another prophet. Yet, others believe He never even existed.

This is the most important question we will have to answer in our lives, “Who do you say I (Jesus) am?” If you listen close enough you may hear Him whispering it. I can’t answer that question for you, and you can’t answer that for me. Yet, if we are willing, Jesus will spend time revealing Himself to us in this Lenten season. As we enter this season of discovery we need to let Jesus into our daily lives so we can answer for ourselves who Jesus truly is to us.

Lent is a unique time of the year where Christians all over the world set aside several weeks to search their deep thoughts, reflect on the direction of their lives, examine what motivates them from day to day, and contemplate how they can surrender more to Jesus. It is a somber time of wholesome spiritual reflection, self-examination, and change. It is an opportunity to reaffirm to ourselves, through the inner working of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus is. It is an occasion to contemplate how the reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection impacts our lives.

Christians go about this in different ways. For instance, some may read through a Christian classic like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Others “fast” something in their lives such as a particular food, coffee, or TV. And yet, some commit to waking up earlier to pray, read through a Gospel devotionally, or keep a journal of what the Lord is speaking to them during this season. Whatever method we use, we need to remember that they are merely tools to center us and help us focus on God.

Therefore, as we anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, Lent is also a hopeful time of joy and celebration. After all, Lent is a journey to Easter Sunday where we rejoice that our Savior has risen. He is ALIVE! And He has the power to save and transform us into His image. The fact that He is alive also offers the reassurance that He is present and ready to help answer His question, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Gracious Lord, we pray that you will help and guide us during this Lenten season. Lead us in exploring our answer to this question and who we are because of what you have done for us. We pray that this will be a season of discovery and transformation for all of us. We look forward to the glorious sunrise on the day we celebrate the reality of the resurrection of our Lord. Amen!

*Adapted from my Lenten message for a chuch newsletter.

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I don’t know what your childhood was like, but Christmas Eve night and Christmas mornings were always magical times in my life.  Connected with those moments are magical memories.  My parents were never made of money but they always saw to it that our Christmas’ were special.  We never got super expensive gifts, although I do remember that year I got a Sega Genesis with Sonic the Hedgehog or X-Men.  Yet we seemed to usually get a lot of gifts.  Even to this day, when I think there certainly couldn’t be anymore gifts, my mother dismisses herself and says, “I think I have something else downstairs that I didn’t get a chance to wrap.”  Sure enough, she always comes upstairs to the living room with another sweater, socks, underwear, or game.  One year I specifically remember getting a Transformers punching bag.  Do you remember those things from the late 80’s early 90’s?  They were filled with air and if you punched them they would fall back and pop back up again.

So here’s the question: Did you ever peak?  I only peaked once and I regret it to this day.  All I wanted this one year was a Nintendo.  The summer before we had visited my uncle’s cottage in Canada and one evening he hooked up a Nintendo.  On the screen appeared a squatty man with a thick mustache and  red overalls…I would later learn it was Mario.  He would move acrossed the screen from left to right banging his head on bricks while squashing fat diamond-shaped bird heads and would transform if he ate mushrooms or flowers.  WHAT A CONCEPT!  Why didn’t I think of that?!?  Instead of fishing being the highlight that summer, it was shooting ducks on an electronic screen with a dog who would mockingly laugh at you if you missed and battling giant lizards with a short italian plumber.  It was a glorious vacation but one our grandparents wouldn’t understand.

So that Christmas I couldn’t take it anymore…was I getting a Nintendo or not?  I snuck into my parents room, my mother was never very good at hiding things, opened the closet door, shuffled some bags…when all of a sudden a beam of light exploded into the closet, while soft angelic voices hummed the theme melody of Mario Brothers.  Dun dun dun da dun da dunt da da dun da dunt da da dunt.  There it was in all of its splendor…a Nintendo.  Sure I felt joy and unexplainable awe at my discovery, but I also realized I had selfishly experienced that moment alone and no longer had anything to wonder about. 

I experience Christmas differently now that I am an adult with a four-year old daughter and a two-year old son.  Now it is about them and the joy I receive in watching the experiences they now have.  I understand Christmas in a different way now as well.  I realize that what I have enjoyed most over all of these years is–family.  I remember laying in bed Christmas Eve night hearing my parents laying the presents out under the tree or waking up the next morning and hearing them at work.  I remember getting up with my siblings and going out into the living room to see an array of presents scattered under the tree, some wrapped some not.  I remember everyone smelling like morning because we had all stormed out of bed without changing or brushing our teeth:)  I remember mom giving instructions on what to open first and in what order.  I remember dad putting on the Macy’s Day Parade and telling us to look up and see the Snoopy, Big Bird, or Gummy Bears floats.  I remember him holding a cup of coffee with a big grin on his face because he has always LOVED Christmas.  I remember mom in the kitchen filling the air with breakfast aromas and dad putting together our toys or “just trying out” our video games to make sure they worked.  As I recall these memories I feel warmth and am holding back joyful tears.  Why?  Because more than being able to remember the gifts (which I have forgotten most of them) I remember those moments I shared in relationships with loved ones.

As I get older I realize more and more that life is mostly about one thing…PEOPLE.  If you haven’t figured this out yet you have a lot to learn and many disappointments ahead.  THINGS will never bring true joy…even though I have a Nintendo that still brings me joy to this day.  Oh yeah folks…it works like a Nintendo was meant to work.  You know, it never actually works the first time until you have developed the art of Nintendo.  This art is highly skilled and developed and only the experienced know the ancient Japanese secrets.  You pound the top of the system, you take out the cartridge and swiftly blow into the trench at the bottom, also blowing into the system itself as though you are giving it CPR.  Those who are truly the Masters practice the Game Genie Method.  This is where you connect the game to a golden attachment cartridge that was meant to enhance your gaming experience with codes and passwords…

Okay, sorry I got sidetracked.  They say, “when you die you can’t take anything with you.”  This is true but what will be waiting for you and will eventually come with you is people.  What am I suggesting?  People are forever and so are those relationships we have with loved ones.  This is our hope as Christians isn’t it?  Our hope is that when we die we will actually live in Christ and in some way we will all be together for all time.  So this Christmas season, stop to notice the details and take in the moments.  But most important of all, stop and watch the people, your loved ones, and let those moments create memories in your mind.  Dad holding his cup of coffee with a big grin on his face, mom crying as she opens the gifts the kids made for her, brother or sister, son or daughter jumping up and down with joy as they say “it’s what I’ve always wanted!”

Enjoy the conversations, the hugs and kisses, the smells of comfort food coming from the kitchen, the feel of cold winter air on your face as you walk toward a warm dwelling where you will celebrate.  The smell of pine, the feel of wrapping paper, the sounds of laughter, the taste of candy canes, and the sight of lights.  And in the midst of all of this…think of Christ.  The giver of all good gifts who is preparing a place for us that will one-up Christmas morning a million times over for an eternity.  May this message be more than just cliché for you this year, let it be reality.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!!

The Gospels all speak to Jesus being a man who often got away to be ALONE and pray.  Perhaps Luke brings this out the most.  Many scholars have pointed to the strategic locations in the Gospels where Jesus is seen praying before he casts out a demon or heals the sick.  Prayer is something that Jesus views as being an essential discipline for living a life of service to God and others.  There are many reasons why it is essential but there is one that I have found that does not get as much attention…the therapy of aloneness.

We live in a world of a constant whirlwind of people and noise.  When our calling is to be a servant of ALL, it is inevitable that we will most likely spend alot of time around people and often times be enveloped by their situations.  As honorable and necessary as this may be, we need to get away to be alone and alone with the Lord.  I believe that this is key to a successful ministry and Christian life.  There is something therapeutic about being alone and being revived and reenergized by the silence and stillness.  It allows us to refocus and regain our barings. 

Finally, I would like to mention that we need to be supportive and respectful of others’ needs for this alone time with the Lord.  I know that as a married man there are times I need to allow my wife to be alone with no children.  After a long week of working, it may feel like I deserve it more than her.  There are also times when she feels the same way, she knows I need alone time but wonders when we can fit it in.  The truth is…we need to MAKE time for ourselves and for others to just be alone.  Even if it is for an hour or two…it is NECESSARY!

Is there anyone that you could offer a time for them to be alone?  Maybe they have kids and you could watch them, or pets.  Maybe they work for or with you and you could offer to cover for them.  Usually people won’t ask for that time from us.  So don’t wait for them to or say to them, “Well I didn’t know you needed alone time…you never asked.”  Just assume they need it on this one, okay?

So I have a rather abstract thought for you today but it’s one that really got me thinking.  I’ve been reading a book called Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants, by Dennis Okholm.  Don’t ask why I’m reading it, I just read everything that crosses my path.:) That is not always a good habit but it get’s me to look in books I probably would usually shrug my shoulders at. 

There is a chapter about “listening” in the book.  You know that action that most Americans are really poor at…especially in the Church.  Everyone wants to talk but few want to listen even though the proverb says, “Be slow to speak and quick to listen.”  Anyhow, in this chapter Okholm brings up the point that most of us listen to the external but not the internal.  That is to say, we fill our ears with music, conversation, TV shows, News, the sound of cars, jack-hammers, emergency sirens, constant chatter etc. 

We hear what we are trained to listen to.  To further this point Okholm gives an example of a naturalist walking down a city street at night with a friend who lives in the city.  As they are walking, the naturalist turns to his friend and says, “I’m surprised at all the crickets in the city.” 

The friend responds, “What crickets?  What are you talking about?”

“Can’t you hear them?” the naturalist asks.

“I don’t hear anything.”

As they continue walking down the busy city street the naturalist grabs his friend’s arm and they come to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk.  The naturalist drops a handfull of coins on the sidewalk and suddenly a whole group of people on cell phones, iPods, reading newspapers and magazines in the remaining sunlight, and talking to people next to them, come to a sudden halt to bend down and pick up the change and pocket it.

We have been trained to listen to the things that our culture has informed us is important.  But are we trained to hear the voice of our Lord?  Do we hear the voice within us?  Do we hear what is really going on inside of us?  Is there anything going on inside of us?  Is there anything there?

Okholm mentions Anthony Bloom, an Orthodox metropolitan, asking if we were alone as a Christian in prison, stranded on an island, or out in an national park for a couple weeks alone on a sabbatical, with nothing but our thoughts–would we get bored?  Would you (and I ask myself as well) get bored with yourself?  Or is there enough in you to be busy and deep in thought, reflection, and conversation with yourself and God?  Or does God bore you? 

I wonder if I have enough scripture in me to remember and recite in my thoughts to keep me busy pondering and meditating for weeks without a Bible in my hands.  Do you know any verses?  What about a chapter?  A book of the Bible?  I know of people who have actually committed the entire book of Ephesians to memory.  Those people would not be bored but would be delighted by the opportunity.

What about a work of literature?  A poem?  Is there anything inside of you that you could bring up?

And have you been trained to hear the voice of Jesus?  Scripture says, “My sheep know my voice.”  Ever wonder how that works?  Probably because the sheep are in the presence of the shepherd everyday, all day.  Do you listen for the voice of the shepherd?  Would you recognize it if you heard it? 

I for one am going to commit myself to putting more in me, so that I have something to withdrawal on a regular basis.  I think it would be a great exercise to go for a walk in a quiet park with NOTHING but myself and practice listening to what is inside and see if I get bored or not. 

Let’s train ourselves to listen to what is inside and not just what is external filling our ears constantly.  Let’s train ourselves to hear the voice of the Lord.  Let’s devote ourselves to times of quiet instead of turning on the TV or radio in the car.  We turn on the radio in the car like a crackhead grabs for his baggy.  We do it out of habit…we do it without thinking…we are at times wondering how that stupid thing got turned on.  Imagine a world without all that noise.  Let’s be blessed by the sound of silence…and listen for that still small voice.

 

“… and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” –Nietsche (I am indebted to my sister for reminding me of this quote.  I must add I am aware of Nietsche’s philosophies and the irony of using him as a quote for my article.  The irony here though is…I don’t think Nietsche could hear the music either).

                How do we Christians stand against the attacks of the world, particular the reason of the “New Athiests?”  They say our God is not real and doesn’t exist.  To that I say, “We are dancing to music they just can’t hear.” If they could only experience the power of the over whelming love our hearts experience when he touches us with his gentle hands.  If they could only experience the perfect peace we have amidst the worst storms of life.  If they could only experience the impregnable joy we have when we have no reason to laugh or rejoice.  If they could only experience the belonging to a community of believers when we have every reason to feel alone.  If they could only experience the closeness we feel to a father, friend, companion, shepherd, and king when we are in the presence of the God they can’t see. 

                 What do we say to those who can not hear the music we are dancing to?  What do we say to those who have not felt the touch of the Master’s hand?  What do we say to those who have become so calloused toward the idea of God?  What do we say to those who have not experienced the power that we have experienced?  It’s that experience of God that has caused us to entrust ourselves to him; that experience that has allowed us to know that there is a God who loves us in a way that no outsider could possibly understand with all their human faculties; that experience that has evolved into a relationship that is deeper and more real than any relationship we have ever had or will ever know in this life or the next?  I don’t know what to say sometimes, except “Come. Come. Come and meet the Lord I have come to know and love; this new life; this joy; this peace; this deep, deep love.  Hear the music.  Hear the music and dance!”

 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift (Revelation 22:17 NRSV).

Obviously our culture has changed over the past two decades regarding moving in with each other before marriage.  Usually the reason given by couples is that they want to make sure they are compatible living together before they tie the knot.  It is sort of like test driving a car.  You want to get a feel for what you are getting into before you make a long term committment.  That is a pretty shallow example but the mind set is the same.

So the question is, just because the culture is doing it should Christian couples move in together before they say “I do”?

 

When I am not being a student in seminary, a husband, and a father to two little ones; I am plugging away in retail for income.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually paid me to go to school…not happening.  Anyhow, I work at a job where it is required that I, along with all of the other employees, wear a uniform.  So naturally, I stand out as an employee.  I notice that because I am an employee I am also a free punching bag.  That is to say, because I am working, people feel they have the right to treat you however they want because they are the customer and you are working for them. 

Now I don’t want to lump everyone into the same category.  There are some very friendly and respectful people and therefore customers, but the power of negativity can seem stronger than the positive experiences I have with most people. 

Yet there is one feature about humans that I have noted a lot over the past (12) years of working with the public.  People treat me and each other as though “the other” is invisible.  Often I will be working and someone will almost plow into me and not even acknowledge my existence.  It is so strange to me to treat another human-being that way.  Now this obviously doesn’t just happen at work.  If you are human and reading this (I would be impressed if you’re not) than you have experienced this.  It happens in the mall, the market place, on the road, wherever you encounter humans. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.  This attitude has found a way into the Church.  One doesn’t even have to go to a mega-church to experience this phenomena.  On the contrary, watch how many people will greet a visitor off the street in a small church.  Have you ever gone to a Church event, sat next to someone in the pew for an hour or more, then get up without ever engaging that person in some way.  I have…and shame on me. 

Maybe I’ve given that cool head nod that guys do…or offer up an empty “how are you?”  hoping that they will just respond with the same style of answer. 

 “Good and you?” 

“Oh great, thanks.” Phew what a relief.

I have been in some churches where the atmosphere is so cold and unwelcoming, that it makes a day waiting downtown at the Hall of Justice to maybe get picked for the jury seem like a family reunion.  We treat…and are treated by others as though the “other” is invisible.  Do we notice the faces of the people passing us by or standing next to us on a subway or bus stop?  Do we think about them being a real person with a real life with a real family that loves them and thinks they are important?  Do we consider them being created in the image of God?  I am guilty of not…most of the time.  But I am getting better. 

This line of thinking makes me appreciate Jesus saying, “Let the children come to me.”  That is such a powerful statement of only six words.  You see in Jesus day and in his culture…children were basically invisible.  Why the children the disciples thought?  They are nobodies.  But not to Jesus.  To Jesus EVERYBODY is a real person that needs to be loved and treated like a person.  Jesus was countering the culture that ignored the “lesser.”  But Jesus came to the “lesser.”  He ate with the sinners and publicans.  He hung out with the prostitute and widow.  All of those people who were on the fringe of society, mattered to Jesus.  Most people like to talk about the wealthy wise men that came to Jesus during the nativity…but what about the shepherds, who were nobodies too in their culture.  A great announcement and heralding came to them first. 

No one is invisible to Jesus in the Gospels…NO ONE.  Why do we think we can treat people otherwise? 

I encourage us to rebel against this culture of egocentrism.  Let’s rebel against falling into the mode of only greeting those who smile at us.  Let them all come…and shut no one out.  Maybe they ignore us because they have been ignored by others and have therefore adopted the horrible status quo.  NO WAY! Rebel against this!  Be counter-cultural!

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