Total Pageviews

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I see

Lent 4 (sermon notes)
Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light (Ephesians 5:8).
The connection of God to light extends beyond the boundaries of our own faith expression. Many of us have been fascinated by the books written by survivors of what has been called near death experiences. Clinically dead, somehow these people have common experiences which often times include an encounter with Light, or a Being of Light.
Whatever else we can say about such events, the Christian Bible often equates the encounter with God as being an experience of light. The Book of Revelation says that at the end of time the Light of God will replace sun and moon as our source of illumination. 1 John repeatedly returns to the theme, best expressed in the statement: God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all. (I Jn 1:5) We are exhorted to ‘walk in the light’ and be people of light. As the first chapter of John reveals, the light shines in the darkness but the dark did not apprehend it. As we read a in the Nicodemus story (3:19) the Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
John 8:12 serves as a distant introduction to today’s Gospel (John 9) when Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness but have the light of life. That chapter continues to contrast those who belong to God (believing in Jesus) and those who are of the devil, unable to hear Jesus’ word because they are not of God. As in Nicodemus, we are again informed about the difference of being from above and from below.
In that context, the extended miracle account of the man born blind who receives his sight must be understood.
Jesus apparently healed man blind people, such stories populate the Gospels. It did not take much to draw a connection between literal and metaphorical blindness. Remember Jesus asked the disciples, “do you have eyes and can’t see, ears and can’t hear?” The physical malady pales before the spiritual deficit.
The story today contrasts the reaction of the hostile religious leaders and the man born blind. He is open to ‘see’ even when in darkness. They, on the other hand, cannot discern God at work amongst them. They claim to see yet are truly blind.
In order to see Jesus we need sight. We are all, unfortunately, a disturbing blend of light and dark. As every driver knows every car has a blind spot. One can only see with effort, and even then there are places which are blocked from our purview, especially when backing up.
In this story Jesus initiates the miracle. He sees the blind man as an opportunity for God to let loose some serious love and healing. The apostles and Pharisees seem to want to blame the man for his condition. In the end, it is they who are truly blind. Jesus does no theological speculation on the whys and hows of the man’s condition. Jesus simply does an intervention. (a good model for church ministry, everything is a chance to glorify God as opposed to endless wrangling and explanations for things beyond our mental models)
In our search for Jesus we must not follow the path of Jesus’ adversaries. We must acknowledge our blindness, for He said, if you were blind, you would have no sin. The chilling judgment, But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.
God has unleashed Jesus, the Light is in our dark world. It is our task to confess our blindness and seek Him, He who seeks us first. That journey, especially in Lent, is a way of repentance and conversion. In the end, He has the power to release us from our maladies. This is why to turn to Him. He alone is our hope and salvation.

Perhaps we are all blind, but hopefully not deaf. My prayer is as you confess to Him your sin that you will hear Him speak comfort, hope and peace: "I love you enough to die for you!"

Friday, March 28, 2014

Multi-faceted Reality

In training the desired result dictates the mode of exercise. Some folks want to have a beach body, while others have a more functional or competitive motivation. Most agree that what you train at is what you get better at. (Lifting weights has minimal benefits for running a 5K) With minor disagreements it is generally thought that lifting very heavy objects 1-6x produces strength, lifting heavy 8-12x makes one stronger but also bigger and 15+ is for endurance. Obviously the actual weight needed depends on a person's individual strength (doing fifteen presses with ten pounds may be a heavy work out for a tiny, sixty year old woman, but next to nothing for a twenty year old athlete). There has to be some work involved to accrue benefits. (by analogy a baby's book on Jesus is not going to be the recommended material to embrace to grow in knowledge of the Lord for a 'churched' adult)

Someone who wants to get very strong, therefore tends to train in the lower range. Body builders go for the middle range. Obviously there are other factors (nutrition and sleep) but generally this is what you will usually be told. A repetition is one movement. A set is an isolated bundle of repetitions. (Repetitions done in sequence without resting in between, once a set is complete then one rests) The volume is the number of total repetitions times the number of sets (e.g. 3x5 or 2x12). Intensity has to do with how hard the person is working (compared to maximum effort). High intensity leaves you winded, heart pounding and shaking. Frequency has to do with how often each week someone is engaged in training.

Intensity can not be sustained over long periods of time. No one can lift their maximum poundage more than once or twice. An increase in duration requires a decrease in intensity. Many advocate mixing things up so that on a regular basis you mix high intensity with moderate intensity. It gives the body time to rest and the central nervous system needs some down time as well. There is a limit on what you can do. There is also an optimal range for improvement. So the question of efficiency enters the equation. How to get the most result with the least amount of time is a practical question.

Some years ago I read an article in a running magazine titled World's Fittest Fat Man (or something to that effect). It detailed, with photos, a pretty amazing case of a man who looked obese, yet ran consistently long distances and was involved in very demanding marathon races. The question was, how could someone running so far on a regular basis look like this? The answer was 'conservation of energy.' In other words, he did not move much the rest of the day and his calorie intake exceeded his daily energy output. Anyone trying to lose weight by 'running' has had the moment after a "long run" (for me it was an eight miler) when they do the math and realize that the last exhausting hour was worth one snickers bar. It is devastating to learn that you (a normal person with a normal life) just cannot burn off enough calories exercising to be able to eat anything you want. So what about spirituality?

In spiritual disciplines, we also have some high intensity and low intensity options. We must make choices based on our natural preferences (it is hard to stick with something you hate doing), the goals (sometimes unpleasant things are required to become what we want), and the needs we are addressing (in response to the call of God and the cries of others). Just as a normal guy cannot walk in the gym, hoist a hundred pounds over his head for two dozen repetitions and repeat that for five sets, so a normal person cannot just enter into a mystical communion with Christ and illicit all manner of visions and spiritual blessings. That is not how it works.

Long periods of intense, focused prayer are exhausting, mentally and emotionally, as well as exhilarating (just like exercise). However, most of us need to build slowly and brief moments of intense are more likely our limit. And in addition to that, like the "fat fittest man" we need to remember that the rest of the day matters. An hour of power to start the day needs to be supplemented by moments of low key prayer and meditation. However, snatching a minute here and a minute there needs a foundation of more extensive focused discipline. [that is if you want to grow spiritually]

You cannot spend thirty minutes reading the Bible and praying and then spend your day forgetting about God. You have to be kind and generous, have a listening heart and practice service all day long. Sometimes we are not on-task, we are not consciously aware of God, but that does not matter as much IF we are living a life consistent with our prayers/spiritual disciplines.

Most of us cannot schedule hours and hours of exercise each day, and many of us could not sustain such a rigorous schedule if we could; our bodies would break down (and relationships would suffer, as would work, etc.). However, if your schedule does not allow for more than ten minutes twice a week, you cannot get healthy and strong. Likewise with the spiritual disciplines. For most of us it requires a daily effort. Some "moderate" exercise daily (thirty minutes) is the base. So, likewise, a daily regiment of prayer (meditation and listening, too) is needed. If we have set a time(s) each day to do this, then perhaps once or twice a week we can hone in for the more "intense" prayer.

One disclaimer, unlike physical improvements, spiritual growth is harder to discern and measure. One can see a belly disappear, or recognize that six months ago I had trouble lifting 100 pounds and today I can lift 150 ten times. With spiritual advancement it is not always observable (although others tend to be able to see it). Here is where the analogy breaks down. The spiritual is about union with God in Christ (not self perfection). Obviously growth is part of the deal (one will know more and be better) but it is not the goal. God is. So I hope the analogy is not creating confusion. We continue later...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What am I doing here?

Using physical training, I want to look at spiritual training to identify cross-over insights.

Probably the first question is "What am I doing here?" Most of us do not give serious thought to such questions, and when we do we often do not think through the consequences of what we think we believe. For example, in physical training we need to decide what our goal is. Am I trying to "look good"? Do I want to be physically healthy? Am I older and just want to be able to walk up and down the steps without losing my breath? Am I an athlete trying to reach the next level of excellence. Am I concerned with strength, endurance, speed, power---or just beauty? [we will come back later to the issue of 'team' in sports and faith/spirituality]

While it may seem silly to ask such questions, we assume it is obvious, at times we make choices which do not match up with our real goals. For example, in only the rarest of cases can someone be both an endurance athlete (running long distances) and extremely strong (lifting heavy things). One can get stronger and increase endurance, but no one can reach her/his maximum potential at both at the same time. The amount of running done diminishes one's muscle mass needed to become "big and strong." And anyone who has ever seen a marathon knows that there are no two hundred fifty pound Kenyans streaking across the finish line. Even if we "know" that, we may still measure ourselves against the criteria (why can I not lift three hundred pounds and also run six miles in under forty minutes?)

People are all born with natural inclinations and an upper limit on what they can achieve. The world's fastest men were born with the potential to be fast. They would have been faster than most people even without training. Their hard work makes them elite, but be clear, some folks are born slow and even with extensive training can only become "less slow"! Now our genetics do not mean we should give up hope for progress. It does mean, however, that we must measure success based on our own growth and not by comparison to others.

So it is important to decide what I am trying to do physically and then make sure my choices match up with my goals (if I am trying to run a 25 minute 5k then I need to be running regularly).  Whatever the goal, one needs to create a baseline measure and find out the distance between "where I am" and "where I want to be." And always, keep in mind, it has to be realistic. A fifty year old man cannot look at a twenty-eight year old Kenyan and say, next year I want to beat him in the St. Jude's Marathon (well he can say it, but it isn't going to happen). However, he can say I want to finish!

Spiritually, we all have predispositions as well. Some of us have challenges that others do not. Some of us were born with a natural propensity for certain things. When it comes to God, we are not all created equal (even if we all have equal value in His sight). Assessing our goal (what is it you are trying to become) and our current progress (where am I now) are important in that. And our goal must be set in dialogue with "the call." That is a vital part of all this. Just like a doctor can tell us "you need to lose weight and get your numbers (blood pressure or blood work) in line" or our daily life demands require that we get stronger to lug around a baby or carry groceries, so God calls us to more, or the church needs more, or the community requires more from us.

Now spirituality is both an activity in which we engage and a gift received. I do not want to imply it is all on us. But, in the end, we have no control over what gift God chooses to bestow on us. It is, after all, a grace. However, we have control over what we choose to do with the gifts already give. That effort is what the spiritual disciplines is all about.

Tomorrow we will look at some different approaches to training body and soul. Today it is enough to ask the question, "what do I think God wants me to be? what do others need me to be? what do I desire to become?"

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Physical mirrors Spiritual?

The human being is multi-dimensional. Our body impacts our spirit and the spirit impacts the body. The mechanism for that is not understood. Science knows that beliefs, for example, have real physical impact, medicine is always blind tested for that reason. Yet, the connections are not always easy to tease out. The connection of mind to brain, feelings to chemical reactions, etc. are a mystery with widely divergent explanations.

I do think, as we focus this Lent on growing in our relationship with Jesus, that one thing we need to get clarity on is what think we are doing when we do that. The spiritual life can be a nebulous concept. Most people tell me that they are not religious, they are spiritual. Most people do not seem to have much idea exactly what that means. (At least when I ask them they do not seem to have much content to share.) Of course, in the end we still will not exactly know what we mean, but we can grow in clarity.

The last year I have become more focused in my exercise. I have always tried to maintain an exercise routine and always included aerobic and weight lifting in that. I had a basic idea about what to eat and knew I needed rest. However, that has come under scrutiny in the last decade. What was supposed to be good for me (always eat breakfast, include lots of grain, avoid fat) now seems to be in conflict with much research. [of course, the research has not always been clear or in agreement] However, based on my weight loss I can attest that what I was doing was much less successful than what I am doing. (There is something to that in any evaluation!) Also, the types of things I do when weightlifting includes two movements which are often identified as "dangerous!!!!" They are not dangerous, if done right, and in fact have done for me exactly what I read they would. They are the best compound movements for the whole body, in fact!

This is not a blog on my routines. It is, however, a thought experiment which will matter in spirituality. If the body does mirror the soul/spirit then what I learn from one may be helpful with the other. For example, if we need thirty minutes of vigorous exercise each day, then is it fair to assume thirty minutes of prayer is also recommended? If we need to work on flexibility, strength and endurance does it not make sense that a soul should also learn those three things? And if so, what does that mean in spiritual terms? If a work out partner increases the benefits of exercise, what does a prayer partner do? The list goes on and on. I will try to address the parallels at some future point. For now I want to look more closely at one thing I have learned: complexity.

The general idea in training is to grow. Adding a little more each time means the body must continually respond and get stronger or have more endurance. But the people involved with this on a serious and scientific basis are able to look at the interactions on a cellular level. They start the research on amino acids and different kinds of chemicals and proteins and my brain goes on overload. I am not a biology person and I am also not a competitive lifter or body builder. I accept that I will never attain to such elite excellence. I do not have the time to devote to the level of knowledge in order to comprehend this at the deeper level. Even so, it has broadened my understanding about the deeper meaning of the words "eat healthy" and "train."

It has made me wonder, though, about the processes of the spiritual life. What exactly are we doing in prayer and study, in worship and fellowship, in discipleship and ministry? True, one can function with a "basic idea" about what is going on. That basic idea is enough to make one "generally healthy". But what if we see our bodies are still relatively weak and flabby despite our "exercise"? And in most cases we do. And what if our 'souls' seem to mirror that as well? what if our spirituality, whatever it is, does not make us much more than functional. Is it Jesus' goal that we be "okay, I guess" in the life of the Spirit. Is "not all that bad" really the abundant life He has come to give?

So I would like to journey some into the question in the days ahead. Tomorrow we will wander around the idea of Goals.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Being Found

Lent 3 (John 4)
Our focus since Ash Wednesday has been ‘seeking Jesus.’ I have asked you to make that a constant prayer focus, in simple and direct ways. “Reveal yourself to me--Lord Jesus I seek Your face.”
Last week we looked at the proper way to seek Jesus based on John 3 and Nicodemus. But in truth Jesus seeks us first. He was sent by the Father to save us.
Today’s Gospel illustrates someone who gets found by Jesus. On a simple narrative level, the plain reading of this chapter provides two straightforward "take-aways".
·        Jesus encounters an outcast (In Jesus' culture these are substantial barriers: she is a woman, a Samaritan and a person of ill repute); this is why she draws water in the middle of the day when all the other woman come in the morning and evening.She was an outcast in her own village as well as beyond the social interaction with any Jewish Holy man.
·        Jesus KNOWS her situation, yet He offers her life.
·        Therefore, we can be confident that Jesus offers us the same no matter what state we are in!
Secondly, we see her response
·        Having encountered the Kingdom of God as mercy and promise, she goes and tells others.
·        The others come to Jesus and based on their own encounters come to faith as well.
·        One viable model for evangelism is to point to Jesus and trust that He will bring people to faith (especially family and friends)

So, understand Jesus loves you dearly and has come for you to offer you life and once you have found life in Jesus wants you to direct others to Him. Simple and neat and clean.
Now let’s do a spiritual reading for deeper meaning.
*Jesus is alone, the disciples are gone. It is noon. He asks the woman to give Him a drink.
See the connections to the Cross? John 19:16-17 ‘they took Jesus and carrying His cross by Himself’ ; John 19:14 ‘it was about noon’; John 19:28 ‘I am thirsty’  The water is His gift from the cross, remember when the soldier pierces His side with a spear? That living water, bubbling up, is Jesus' own life poured out!
See Kingdom/marriage covenant? Symbolically, the five husbands draw to mind the five senses. She is a symbol of the human soul married to the Flesh (carnal) by the five senses. The flesh never satisfies. The last man, who is “no husband” represents Satan. If we are not “married” to God eventually we live with the counterfeit, the anti-husband: Satan. God offers covenant, Satan makes no self-gift in our relationship with him.
The well and thirst are spiritual images of human longing and fulfillment. The shallow wells which we covet and fight over do not quench our thirst, do they. What thirst is deep in you? What do you naturally seek? What is the source of that thirst?
Health? Security? Relationships? Peace? Joy?
Our core desires are never fulfilled. We get angry and frustrated when we drink the stagnant waters of temporary and partial satisfaction. Our parched souls scream out, “I want Living Water!”
Jesus offers the living waters. That is the HOPE that can keep us going. Dry and thirsty though we be, there is a deeper well, a well full of living waters, a well that will bubble up within us. It only begins now; we shall enjoy the fullness in the Kingdom on That Day. So take heart. The promise is true, look for Jesus!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

More Connections

On Friday we had time of reflection and prayer over the morning prayer readings. In our lectionary we are hearing from Mark each day, so we found ourselves at the end of chapter 4. Based on the basic principles for reading Scripture and we were able to encounter God in a myriad of ways in His Word.

The basic story (plain sense) is a time when Jesus was asleep in a boat during an awful storm. The apostles complain that He does not seem to care if they perish. Wakened by them He calms the storm and asks why their faith is so weak. It ends with the question, "Who is this guy?"

In applying any text to ourselves we always end up using analogical interpretation. Parallels between the boat and church/us, the storm and troubles, and our weak (or no) faith and Jesus' power simply come naturally to most readers. The reader can connect the dots: we all seem to waver in faith when confronted with life's big challenges. The message: Trust more, worry and complain less. Jesus has power.

When the reflection got a bit more challenging was when we began to look for the Jewish Bible texts which Jesus was "filling" (the Bible word, which has become 'fulfilling' in Christian jargon).

The first step is probably easier if we are asked, "what other boat and storm stories do you remember?" Few mention Jonah, most say "Noah!" Noah and the ark... What is that story ultimately about? I would argue it is a Re-Creation text. The parallels in language make it pretty obvious. God allows/causes the world to return to its original state of chaos (preserving a remnant who are faithful) and start all over. Once we make that connection it is easier to make the next step and "hear" echoes of the creation story as well.

This is not allegory. In allegory the representation of one thing by another is pretty straightforward and univocal. Allegories are not hard to see through. With typology, the similarities are there, but not in a wooden way. There are some aspects which will not fit, as they would in an allegory. Typology tends to be paradoxical at times, and also analogical. Analogy allows us to show something is the same, even while remaining different. Or the other word, "spiritual" meaning, (which is different from the contemporary use of the word 'spiritual') which says that the material world in which we live is a veil to an unseen reality which we can know only partly. It is mystery revealed (apocalypse, revelation, unveiling) though not fully explained. SO we can know more than we understand...

At creation the Spirit of God hovers over the waters; or does it? The Hebrew word ruah also means breath or wind. [As does the Greek pneuma]. The word elohim is the plural for God (El frequently appears even in our English translations, especially in names). If you look at the Blueletter Bible it will define the word as God. However, a closer look reveals that in the King James Bible it is translated in another way (great- 2x, mighty 2x and exceeding 1x). So, this raises the question, does it actually say "a mighty or powerful wind was blowing on the waters"? And if so, the Jesus story is now more obviously connected to creation.

The saving ministry of Jesus is often spoken of in terms of reconciliation. And what is reconciliation? It is a return to a previous state of positive relationship. I can forgive someone but not be reconciled. I can decide not to "hold it against them" but that does mean I have returned to a previous situation of closeness and trust.

Jesus' ministry is a re-creation. What God "failed" to accomplish with Adam and Eve, or Noah, or Abraham, or Israel, or King David, or Ezra and Nehemiah---has finally been established and begun in and through Jesus. As Jesus calms the storm we see, in this small story, a bigger story of the God who ordered chaos at the beginning of time (something John makes obvious in chapter 1 of his Gospel using the noun "Word" in place of the verb "said"). Mark unveils a deeper reality. It is not easily discerned, but once we 'see' then we understand.

Jesus encounters a demoniac on the other side, a man uncontrolled and uncontrollable, living in the tombs (death) without family or friend, a land occupied by the Roman army (Legions is both a demonic and military reference); He encounters a man whose spiritual state reflects the turmoil in the sea. And in the end, literally riding  piggyback, the same demons plunge into the chaotic waters, the home of their disordered ways.

I would never claim that such a reading is needed to know and love Jesus, nor does one have to believe it to be saved. However, as we see that the Divine hand at work in the whole Bible has provided all manner of messages for His children, it is fun and a joy to say that the veil has been lifted in, though, by and with Jesus.

In the daily chaos of our lives the sleeping (long dead) Jesus may seem to be unaware of our plight and uncaring about our need. We may even curse the night and lose faith. But always, even in His silence, He is a reminder that we need to trust. "Hush, be quiet, be still." These words, spoken to the storm, are equally desirable for my/our troubled souls.

We long to know: All is well. All will be well. And all will be well beyond your imaging.

At the Gospel's end an angel said, "Why seek the Living One among the dead?"
Jesus is not tired or slumbering any more. He is, in fact ready to speak the word, to cast out the demonic (in nature, in political oppression and in the troubled soul of each individual.) We know this because the Bible tells us so. Hopefully this helps to see that word in a place where it might not have been so obvious!

to see the dictionary reference go to