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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Mission From God - Obadiah 1-2, 10

            “We’re on a Mission from God.”  Quick, name the movie!  It was Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers (1980) who used this line to justify their zany, law-breaking antics.  In way that only he could, John Belushi delivered that line and since then, fans have tried to repeat it, saying it just as he did.  And those fans have failed. 
            Iconic – that movie and Belushi’s delivery of that line; this is ‘iconic’ in American movie lore.  But is the line anything more than a pretext to “put the band back together?”
“We’re on a Mission from God.”  When someone in real life and not in a fictitious story says, “We’re on a Mission from God,” what do they mean? 
Mission from God.  Are people really sent on missions from God?  Does God actually talk to people and with purpose?  Are there real, actual people in the world in which we live today, in 2014, who are truly on a mission from God?
You are reading the ‘honest talk with God’ blog, which you know is written by a pastor who travels to Ethiopia every year believing he is on a mission from God.  So, you know my answer to the previous question is of course yes!!  Yes, God calls people.  If you have read posts of mine on this page, you know I believe followers of Jesus Christ as always on a mission from, even in the normal places of our daily lives.  In my role as a preacher and spiritual encourage, I implore people to think about their lives in terms of mission. 
Live with purpose.  Think about and do two things constantly: (1) Announce that Jesus Christ is Lord, God in the flesh, savior of all (and all people need salvation).  And (2), in every relationship and venue of your life as a Christ follower, find opportunities and ways to tell everyone who will listen than in the coming of Jesus, God’s final, eternal Kingdom has arrived and will be fully inaugurated as His second coming.  Whatever Christians do, our lives are to be lives announcing that Jesus is Lord and His Kingdom has come.
But, does this overarching purpose help us understand what it means to be on a Mission from God.  Kingdom is the long range vision, but how do I understand mission today, as I live right now?  In this particular piece, I won’t directly answer this partly because all my writing is an attempt to answer this question.  So I will look toward how the average 21st century American lives out the Christian mission, but I won’t offer specifics.  Rather, here I want to address God’s invasiveness and assertiveness and most importantly, God’s authority.  All this is a response to my reading of the writings of the Old Testament prophet Obadiah. 
This of course raises a serious question.  I have already said that the core elements of the mission to which every Christian is called are the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus and the announcement of God’s Kingdom, seen in Jesus’ coming.  Put more simply, we say, “Jesus is Lord,” and live as citizens of the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20).  Obadiah prophesied, probably, in the 6th century BC, shortly after Judah was overrun by the Babylonians.  The leaders of Judah were either killed or taken as slaves into exile in Babylon where they would stay through the end of the Babylonian empire and into the Persian period, a span of 70 years.  Those left in Judah, the poor and landless were derided and taken advantage of by their distant kinsman and geographic neighbors, the Edomites.  Obadiah’s short prophecy is a word of God against Edom for Edom’s sin of piling on God’s people when they had already clearly been punished by Babylon.
Obviously, Obadiah has a very specific context – 6th century BC Judah.  The target of Obadiah is Edom, the recipient of a very angry word from God.  Is it not obvious how removed this is from the early 1st century AD, when God came in human form, died for the sins of all, and then, through the empowering Holy Spirit began a church movement that truly transcended the nationalism that would divide Judah and Edom.  In Obadiah’s day, Edom was condemned for evil committed toward Judah.  In Jesus’ day and because of whom Jesus is and what he did (crucifixion, resurrection), all are called to God – Edomites, Judeans, Babylonians, Americans, and everyone else.  So how does the person who is “in Christ” learn about God from such a specific and ancient prophecy like Obadiah?
Obadiah was on a mission from God.  Unlike Jake and Elwood, Obadiah was a real person in history, not a goofy movie character.  Obadiah may seem like he’s unreal because he is so removed from present-day cultural understandings.  And there are scholars who question what we can really know about the man for whom the prophecy is named.  But, I trust that while Obadiah as a historical person is basically unknowable, there was someone by this name who live in Judah during the exile and spoke this angry prophecy.  Equally, I believe that while he came before Christ and likely had no idea that Christ was coming, Obadiah’s words were Holy Spirit inspired, so the truth about God transcends Obadiah’s specific historical situation. 
He begins, “The vision of Obadiah.  Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom” (Ob. 1).[i]  “Lord God” comes from ‘Adonay Yahweh.’  Yahweh ties to Moses’ very first encounter with the Lord.  And Adonay denotes God’s sovereignty, God’s absolute authority.  Obadiah gives the highest attribution to God he could give.  In other words, his mission comes from the top.  The Contemporary English Version renders this “The Lord gave Obadiah a message about Edom.”  It was not a happy message.
Even so, with it, the first connection to Jesus becomes clear.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see God acting in history.  The sovereign God, the ruler and creator of the universe, is at work.  The evidence is what Jesus said and did, and who Jesus is.  Similarly, though in a much more localized way, when Obadiah speaks his prophecy, God is acting in history.  In both cases, it is same God.  So all who worship and follow that God ought to listen, learn, and live according to what is said.
The nations report that God is summoning them, calling them to battle against Edom (end of verse 1).  “The Lord said, I will make you the weakest and most despised nation” (Ob. 2). 
Imagine you are an ancient Edomite walking in the ruins that once was Jerusalem.  The city, after being burned by Babylonian forces, is not much more than rubble.  But this firebrand of a prophet stands on a toppled bit of rock that serves as his pulpit.  A crowd has gathered and you join him to hear the angry man’s sermon.  Only, to your horror, you realize he’s reporting that God has judged you, the Edomite, and sentenced you for destruction.   How does that feel?  Do you dismiss him as a desperately crazy Jew?  Does his word spike your heart with fear? 
If we step back and receive Obadiah’s word as word of God (and we should do just that) we have to ask: why is such divine vitriol leveled against this small ancient Middle Eastern people?  Obadiah tells us.  “You were cruel to your relatives, the descendants of Jacob” (Ob. 10a).  “You stood there and watched as foreigners entered Jerusalem and took what they wanted. In fact, you were no better than those foreigners.  12 Why did you celebrate when such a dreadful disaster struck your relatives?  Why were you so pleased when everyone in Judah was suffering” (Ob. 11-12).
As Jerusalem burned, Edom cheered.  Certainly this goes back to the enmity between Esau (for whom Edom is named; Genesis 25:30) and his brother Jacob (whose 12 sons were the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel).  From the time the younger twin stole the birthright from the older (Genesis 25:29-34); the peoples descended from each man have hated each other.  Additionally, for Edom it would have appeared advantageous to side with the might of Babylon.  But Edom forgot the might of God and their own heritage.
Here we cite another connection.  When we are in Christ, we are the people of God.  If we, Christ followers, forget who we are and live as people of the world, we will suffer for it.  This is put beautifully in 1st John 1:5-9.
Jesus told us that God is light and doesn’t have any darkness in him. Now we are telling you.
If we say that we share in life with God and keep on living in the dark, we are lying and are not living by the truth. But if we live in the light, as God does, we share in life with each other. And the blood of his Son Jesus washes all our sins away. If we say that we have not sinned, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth isn’t in our hearts. But if we confess our sins to God, he can always be trusted to forgive us and take our sins away.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his message isn’t in our hearts.[b]
            God is the light.  To receive Jesus and then return to darkness is to deny our very selves.  It is abominably stupid and abominably bad.  We are in Christ so we are in the light and should live in the light and according to the light.
            The Edomites were not Jews, but they were cousins.  They were not descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau.  They knew who God was and is.  They knew the stories of how God sees.  They joined the bully, Babylon, piled on the victim, Judah, and turned their own backs on God. 
            What if, when Babylon invaded, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to stick it to Judah, Edom did the opposite?  What if Edom had mounted their war horses and come to fight Babylon and aid Judah?  Would Edom have been slaughtered too?  Maybe.  It would have been a fool’s errand for anyone to stand in the face of Babylon’s might.  Maybe they would have joined Judah in exile.  Maybe Edom would have been steamrolled.
But maybe, and I think more likely, God would have noticed Edom’s courage and faith.  God would have laid protection over Edom as God saw them stand for God’s purposes and God’s people.  Maybe Edom would be now renowned for their faithfulness. 
Instead, Edom is a footnote in the Old Testament.  The prophet Obadiah rails against Edom, but how many people, especially Christians, even read this book, the shortest in the Old Testament?  Edom, because of giving in to the impulse to heap cruel taunts on her beaten rival, is in the crosshairs of God’s wrath and the story is told in a book of the Bible that the lectionary ignores and few believers read.
But we should.  We should read Obadiah.  This prophet in a small but forceful voice asserts that God is Lord – the Lord who sees every sin and deals with each one.  God is Sovereign.  The Old Testament message is that Judah went to exile for her sins.  Yes, Babylon was the vehicle, but God was the cause.  In time, God dealt with Babylon.  And for God, a side story like Edom was as worthy of attention as the main event. 
We do not slip past God’s notice, not ever.  From Obadiah to Jesus, we have noted two points of connection: (1) we, like the Jews of ancient Judah, are the people of God.  Because of Jesus, we are the people of God.  (2) Like Edom, also descended from God’s chosen one, Abraham, we have a choice.  We can live in reverence of the God we know to be true (live in the light as 1 John 1:5-7 says), or we can act as if God is uninvolved.  Edom chose this second option and as a result fell under the judgment and verdict Obadiah delivered.
When we read Obadiah and hear it as word of God, we recognize that the prophet is on that mission from God.  His mission is to proclaim God’s authority.  He promises that in the end, justice will be served and God’s chosen will be with God on God’s mountain (Ob. 21).  However, those who oppose or taunt and deride the broken and fallen, God will judge and punish them.  Obadiah was sent to declare these things with prophetic authority.
We are left with our imagination.  What would it have been like if Edom has stood with Judah?
We are left with questions.  Are we guilty of acting as if God could care less about how we live?  Are we ignoring, failing to help or even heaping pain upon those around us who are already beaten, already hurting?  Are making the choice Edom made which landed Edom in the path of God’s anger?
Finally, we are left with our imagination.  What if?  “What if” questions should always accompany our reading and living of scripture.  What if we read Obadiah, imagine Edom, and then imagine how the story would go if Edom had done the opposite and instead stood with God’s people?  What if we today, diligently search until we see where God is active and who God loves, and what if we go there and love them?  What would the prophet say to us if we acted the opposite of how Edom acted?

[i] Obadiah is comprised of just 1 chapter so I list only verse numbers.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ways to Read the Bible

Pathways for Encountering God in the practice of Bible Reading

1-Memorize Scripture (January 5)

2-Read the Bible Through in a Year (blog - January 7)

3-Keep a “God Notebook” (January 12)

4-Write your Life Story, Find a Life Verse (January 26)

5-Read Bible Commentaries (blog – January 27)

6-Read the news and take it to the scriptures; read the scriptures and take them to the news (blog – February 1)

7-Read the Bible as Story (adaptations, e.g. Wangerin’s The Book of God)(February 2)

8-Take the Bible to Bed with you; meditate on a Bible verse as you fall off to sleep (February 9)

9-Pray the Scriptures (February 16)

10-Study a Specific Bible person (such as David or Moses or Peter) (February 23)

11-Anchor yourself (Fenruary 24) – see the article about Antoinette Tuff -

12-Read Comparatively (Exodus-Deuteronomy; 1 & 2 King – 1 & 2 Chronicles; Synoptic Gospels; 2 Peter & Jude)

13-Ask questions (on a Monday, read a passage – come up with five questions; spend the rest of the week exploring those questions) – make sure the questions are impactful; questions about topics that matter

Above All - the Bible (2 Timothy 4:9, 13, 16-21)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Imagine with you are in solitary confinement.  No human contact. You get three meals a day, but other than that it is you in that room with your thoughts.  Nothing else.  But, the warden says you may have one thing, any one thing of your choosing.  What would be the one thing you’d want?  You don’t how long you’ll be there.  You’re feeling like you are going crazy.  What one thing would get you through?
The Apostle Paul was in a lonely Roman cell.  Scholars supposes this was his final stop before being executed for saying that Jesus and not the Roman emperor was Lord and ruler of the world.  Paul would never relent.  So, he was probably executed.  While he waited, he was allowed visitors and he asked Timothy to come.  In 2nd Timothy 4, he writes, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”
He wanted those papers.  Why?
Today we conclude an 8-part series of talks about entering the world of the Bible.  We want to get into the Bible.  We want to get the Bible into us.  Ultimately, we present ourselves to God so that God might shape and mold us.  One of the ways we know how God is working on us, around us, and in us, is in our meeting God in the Bible. 
To be formed by what the Bible says, we have to know what the Bible says.  Each of us reads differently.  For this reason, I have proposed different pathways into scripture.  Some may not be helpful for you.  Others might be just what you needed. 
The final Bible pathway I recommend is based on the people we meet, the characters in the Bible.  Select someone whose history we know through their place within the Biblical story, and go into detail in studying that one’s life.  For example, you might decide to read up on King David.  Where is his story found?  You’d want to read 1st & 2nd Samuel, the opening chapters of 1st Kings, and 1st Chronicles.  You’d read the Psalms.  You would go to the New Testament to read all the places New Testament authors refer back to David.  After reading the texts, you might enjoy reading a commentary, either popular or academic.  This will help you understand in depth the individual you are researching and it will help you learn about God as you research David.  If Moses is your choice, you’d begin with Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  It doesn’t have to be a favorable character.  We learn just as much about God from the antagonists.  Maybe you want to study up on Judas Iscariot.  You’d read the four gospels and then commentaries.
The pathway into Bible I commend this morning is to enter the Word through study of a particular person. Moses, David, and Judas Iscariot are examples.  There are dozens of others.  The Apostle Paul is a good one.  He was the main figure leading the spread of Christian faith in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  In the closing chapter of 2nd Timothy, we find an aging, tired Paul who is near the end
Many experts believe a second generation of believers wrote 1st & 2nd Timothy and also Titus, and the scholars offer reasons for arguing that Paul had nothing to do with these letters; the letters were written in his name but by someone else, long after his death.  I believe 1st & especially 2nd Timothy are from Paul.  Whether they are composites of several things Paul taught, said, and wrote over the years, or he originally penned the letters, I cannot say.  But I believe the content of both 1st and 2nd Timothy is originally from the Apostle Paul.  The sentiment in the last chapter of 2nd Timothy is too personal to not be.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

9Do your best to come to me soon,

13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

16At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 19Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20Erastus remained in Corinth; Trophimus I left ill in Miletus. 21Do your best to come before winter.

          Paul says in verse 3 people have “itching ears.” If people today don’t like a church, they search until they find one that makes them comfortable.  If church doesn’t do it, there are other religions.  If they can’t find one they like, they can come up with their own. 
This everything-fits, take your pick, all-you-can-eat-buffet approach to religious truth was driven home to me several years ago.  I was alone, driving on the West Virginia turnpike.  I picked up a hitchhiker.  The guy had a back pack and sleeping mat.  He was grateful that I stopped.  His body order suggested it had been a while since he had showered.  It was a sunny summer day, we were cruising through the beautiful mountains of West Virginia, and I mentioned to my passenger that I was a Christian.  He wasn’t interested in the topic at all.  His tone changed.  He did not want to be evangelized.  He said, “I worship God in my own way.”
What does that mean?  I have heard other people say that.  “I worship God in my own way.”  Does the person create his own God?  That’s how Paul saw it.  He told Timothy, “They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (4:3-4).  That’s the world Paul saw Timothy working in.  That’s where Timothy was to be God’s man, and it is where you and I are to be the people of God. 
So what does Paul advise Timothy?   “5As for you, [Timothy, and us, 21st century disciples] always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (4:5).  It’s not’s easy, but it is what we are given.
Worship God in my own way; Paul could not imagine such blasphemy.  He laid out his life to do things God’s way.  By the time we land at the end of 2nd Timothy, Paul knows his life’s mission is near the end.  “7I have fought the good fight” Paul says.  “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7).  The apostle is exhausted, but not discouraged.  He is charging to the end, embracing his chains, and rejoicing that he is privileged to suffer for Jesus.  He will stay rooted in the scriptures which he believed were completely fulfilled in Jesus.  For Paul, word and Jesus were connected and he, Paul would always do things God’s way, not his own way.
However, the apostle who displayed so much bravado, at the end, felt vulnerable.  Three times, he begs Timothy to come. 
9Do your best to come to me soon,

13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
21Do your best to come before winter.

It was cold and lonely and Paul was out of strength.  He was scared.  Even as he anticipated his Heavenly reward, which he didn’t doubt, he still had an earthly need – companionship.  In that moment of weakness, he didn’t play the hero.  He called out to his friend, his son in Christ, his closest tie besides Luke to the Christian community he had given his life to.  He called out and said, come.  I need you.  Come. 
And he did not want Timothy to show up empty-handed.  “Bring the cloak that I left … also the books, and above all the parchments.”
In ancient prisons there was not much provision for the inmates.  In freezing weather, they froze.  Without visits by friends bearing food, they often went hungry, even to the point of starvation.  Paul does not mention a need for food to Timothy.  Maybe another friend was providing that.  He does ask for his cloak.  But, above all, he says, bring the parchments. 
These were likely scrolls that contained the Psalms and probably the Pentateuch – the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Maybe the parchments included the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Remember, in the first century, they did not have bound books as we do.  They had scrolls.  Paul wanted the word of God with him as he whiled away the days in the dark, cold, damp cell.  Another cloak would be nice, but above all, bring the parchments.  Paul needed the Bible. 
Paul always had the kingdom in view, and accomplishing things of kingdom value is what he stressed to Timothy (and to you and me).  He said from the outset, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you” (v.1).  He gave everything he had to serve Jesus, trusting that when he was completely empty God would fill him.  All those summons to Timothy, the request “Come,” – it comes from Paul when he was empty.
In following Jesus, you and I will experience power like we’ve never imagined when we are filled with the Spirit.  There will also be times we come up empty.  Those are the moments to lean on one another and dive into the word.  If I could stress any one thing it is our need for scripture.  Christians don’t always see it.  We go along, attending church, not really reading the Bible much at all.  And our faith is impoverished.  And the church – the local church and Christianity worldwide – suffers for our lack of Bible awareness. 
We need each other and we need the Word.  Paul was shaped as a disciple by the word, as his reading was guided by the Holy Spirit and his living of the word happened both in the context of fellow disciples and in the world to which he was called to preach.
You and I are not “Apostles” in the way that Paul was.  We have jobs and go to homes.  We do not travel about where Christianity has never existed.  We live where people have heard of Jesus.  There are churches on every corner.  We are secular and ordinary compared to the great apostle.  But Jesus does not see it that way.  In Jesus’ view, you and I are as important as Paul was.  The things that made him who was in Christ are what define us as people of God –individuals and a church body.  We are every bit as called as Paul was. 
Paul was not great because of his preaching skills.  He was a great orator but others were too.  Paul was not remarkable due to his incredible intellect.  He was truly a genius, one of the geniuses of history.  There were others.  Paul was not great because of his indomitable will.  His will was unbreakable.  But we could say the same of General Patton.  Paul had incredible focus and drive.  So did Hitler.  What distinguished Paul was his commitment to God’s kingdom and his recognition of his own absolute dependence upon God. 
Food?  Sure, that would help.  My cloak, please, bring it.  But above all, bring my parchmentsI need the Bible.  I need to go into it in this, my weakest moment, my time of failing. 
Do we see it?  Do we look into our own lives and see our strongest and weakest moments?  Do we experience the highs and especially the lows?  In examining our lives, do we see how much we need God?  Are we aware of how short we come without God’s word?
We live in the age where we can get the Bible in a dozen versions, with annotations and notes.  That is a gift we must use.  Above all, turn to the word.  Read it with your family, every day if possible.  The daily repetition shows your children how important it is.  Read with other friends, fellow disciples.  Read it in solitude.  Read when times are going well.  Read when you feel depressed.  Read it in large chunks, getting the flow of the story.  Read just a verse, the same verse, over and over and over, hearing and feeling the depths of divine wisdom. 
We close with an adaptation from the Gospel of John that reiterates the truth; God has given the Bible as a gift and when we accept and enter into this gift, we become new people, blessed people.
John 20:31 - “[This Gospel] is written so that [upon reading] we will put our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. If [we] have faith in him, [we] will have [eternal] life.”


Monday, February 17, 2014

Pray the Scriptures (Lamentations 1:1-4)

Sunday, February 16, 2014
          This book of the Bible is referred to as ‘Lamentations.’ Can it possibly contain any hope? Actually, yes.  We will get to that, but not at first.  It would not be appropriate to begin there.  We must never rush to Easter, skipping Good Friday along the way. 
Lamentations is one of the places the Bible declares bad news bad news that must be acknowledged out loud.  Too many voices in Christian circles fear pain, so they bury it.  In the face of sorrow they pretend nothing is wrong.  They talk of God’s goodness and how God has a purpose in all things. 
The Bible rejects the impulse to skip over the painful moments of life.  The Bible names it all – disappointment, loss, death.  I am one who is guilty of not wanting to face darkness.  I want to stick with what feels good and hope pain will go away if it is ignored.  What I share in this message is my experience of being confronted by God.  God had had enough of me turning away from the ugliness of sin and pain that fills real life.  Through praying the scriptures in Lamentations, God brought forcefully face to face with things that demand lament.
In my quiet times of prayer toward the final months of 2013, God’s confrontation was intense enough that to spare myself many days, I just played online games instead of having prayer time.  I should not have done that.  But, I did.  There were, though, enough times that I turned the computer off, opened the Bible, turned to Lamentations, turned inward, found God in the deep parts of myself, and there, I was confronted. 
For me the beginning of this portion of my walk with Jesus was our youth grip mission trip to Atlanta.  The week in that city brought me face t0 face with the black-white divide in America; the face of urban, inner city poverty and toughness of life in that context; my own tendency to retreat to the safety of my cozy life in the suburbs.  I want to follow Jesus.  Atlanta pried open doors inside me, doors that had been locked.  Without those doors being opened, my discipleship was severely reduced.
While we were Atlanta, July 2013, another important American city, Detroit, declared bankruptcy.  I sat at breakfast preparing for a day of tutoring belligerent inner city Atlanta sixth graders in reading.  I saw the story of Detroit’s demise in the Atlanta newspaper.  I felt a chill.  Detroit is a city that matters to me.
Detroit is marked by mile roads that run east-west, lines on a map marking how far you are from the center of the city.  Fourteen mile road is 14 miles north of downtown and 15 miles is a mile north of that and so on.  By the time you get to 14 mile you’re actually out of the city.  We were in a suburb.  My mom had grown up on 7 mile in the city limits.  We moved away from the Detroit area altogether, to Virginia, in 1982.  I was 12.  My grandmother stayed in Detroit on 7 mile until she died in 1994. 
The city experience post World War II prosperity in the 50’s, post Civil Rights Movement upheaval in the 60’s, and terrible decline in the 70’s, 80, and 90’s.  As the city changed, Grandma’s life did too, or it should have.  But, she did not change her habits and thus, she was mugged.  One Christmas Eve while we were all out, the house burglarized.  The crime rose, yet this little old lady defiantly held onto her life there.
She, came to America as an immigrant at age 13.  She was an English girl surrounded by Americans.  When she and my grandfather began life on 7 Mile, their family was one of the few gentile families in the neighborhood.  Most of my mom’s school friends were Jewish. 
The neighborhood changed and by the time we moved to Virginia in 1982, the Jews had migrated to the suburbs and Grandma was among the last of the white people still there.  She would not move.  There is nothing bad about an English woman surrounded by Americans or a gentile living among Jews or a white among blacks.  American, Jews, and black people are all beautiful, wonderful people.  I simply point this out to illustrate the city’s changes and my Grandmother’s steadfast commitment to honor the life she built – a life built on faith and indomitable intestinal fortitude.  She was always a minority and never felt like it.  7732 West 7 Mile Road was her home. 
Sitting in Atlanta in July of 2013, almost 20 years after Grandma’s death (of natural causes at age 84), I read of Detroit’s plight in an Atlanta newspaper, and it hit me very personally.  And to read of it while doing God’s work in another large American city with black-white racial tension amplified my emotions.  When we returned from Atlanta, I needed to do something with those emotions.  Talking to someone did not feel right.  Who would understand why I, a Chapel Hill resident, went to Atlanta, and got emotionally messed up by the news from Detroit?  It doesn’t even make sense as I type it.  I needed to talk to God; real, deep conversation.  I turned to lectio divina, an ancient method of praying the scriptures. 
A disclaimer: if you are well-schooled in Lectio Divina, then you know more than I do.  I don’t know if what I did would satisfy a ‘Lectio Divina’ purist.  Someone may hear what I have to share and say, “Hey!  That’s not how you do Lectio Divina!”  All I can say in response is this is how I did it, and God spoke to me. 
Returning from Atlanta and thinking about Detroit and thinking my own place in American culture, I had thoughts for which there were no words.  I needed help expressing what I was thinking and feeling because I could not identify it until I expressed it.  And I could not express it.  So, I turned to Lamentations and my own attempt at praying the scriptures.  What I offer this morning is my testimony of my own personal experience.  This is what I did starting in late August, 2013.  I kept up this routine (when I wasn’t retreating to Facebook video games) until the end of the year.
The first step is reading the passage that will guide you into prayer.  God lead me to the book of Lamentations. 

Lamentations 1:1-2 (CEV)

Jerusalem, once so crowded,
    lies deserted and lonely.
This city that was known
all over the world
    is now like a widow.
This queen of the nations
    has been made a slave.
Each night, bitter tears
    flood her cheeks.
None of her former lovers
    are there to offer comfort;
her friends[
a] have betrayed her
    and are now her enemies.
The people of Judah are slaves,
suffering in a foreign land,
    with no rest from sorrow.
Their enemies captured them
    and were terribly cruel.[b]
The roads to Zion mourn
because no one travels there
    to celebrate the festivals.
The city gates are deserted;
    priests are weeping.
Young women are raped;[
    Zion is in sorrow!

I was in a quiet place, no distractions.  I read the entire passage out loud.  I closed my eyes and took four deep breathes.  Then I repeated, the entire passage followed again by four slow, deep breathes.  I did this four times.  This was my reading of the passage. 
The second step is meditating – thinking deeply about the text.  After reading, I looked over the passage and chose one word or a phrase.  Then, I would go over it and over it and over it some more, in my mind.  I spent an entire week on the first five verses of Lamentations.  Each day, in the meditation portion, I devoted my thoughts to a different word in the passage. 
The reason Lamentations was so fitting for me in this exercise was the phrase that began my meditations on day 1.  From verse 4, “the roads to Zion mourn.”  I chewed that phrase us.  The roads to Zion mourn … the roads to Atlanta mourn … the roads to Detroit mourn.  I was filled with sadness and helplessness and the Lamentation gave me the words and the framework to not only speak but name what I was speaking as I lifted it to God.  I thought of every city I have encountered.  I have actually done a lot ministry work in down town areas: Roanoke, Richmond, Washington DC, Kombolcha (Ethiopia).  Ironically, I have not done any in Detroit and only one week in Atlanta.  But, I have lived my life in Detroit.  So as I focused on the phrase, I thought of cities.
I also though of every occasion for mourning and grief I have known.  What is it like to grieve?  What are cities like?  What does it mean, the road to the city mourned?  The thoughts ran together in me as I mediated from Lamentations.
The first step was reading; the second was meditating.  The third step was spoken prayer.
Eugene Peterson writes, “It’s one thing to be listening to … Jesus preach the Beatitudes on a grassy Galilean hillside.  … It’s quite another to realize that God is speaking to me [as I sit alone with no one else around].  I am speechless; or I stutter.  How do I answer God?  But answer, I do, for the text requires it” (quote adapted from Eat this Book, p.103).  And God invites it.  And the Holy Spirit helps.
In my reading and meditating, God had helped me name it – sadness over loss and over the death sin inflicts on cities – cities I have known.  Next, I had to pray.  Thinking about the grief, I prayed for those kids we met in Atlanta.   I prayed for the CBF missionaries who don’t leave after a week.  They live there in that tough place and share their lives with those troubled children.  I prayed for the people who broke into Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve.  I don’t even know if those crooks are still alive.  God knows.  How desperate must your life be that you spend Christmas Eve breaking into others’ homes?  I prayed for the new mayor in Detroit, for the street children I have seen in Addis, for the poor kids I work with each year in Kombolcha and the city kids I used to work with in Washington DC.  I prayed for the people in our city, Chapel Hill, those for whom our HillSong teams have built ramps and removed trees and help in other ways.  I poured my heart out before Heaven.  What I said in those prayers was been shaped as I listened to the Word of God in Lamentations and meditated up on it.
The third step, spoken prayer, is unstructured and carries on as long as it needs to.  God is a patient, encouraging, inviting listener.  God receives all these prayer.
I ended with the fourth step.  This is where I listened to God.  At the the end of the spoken prayer, I would take a deep breath.  I had the word in me.  My own experiences and memories were awakened.  Everything I dumped on God in my spoken prayer was out there.  I took another deep breath or maybe a few.  I quieted down my mind, and sat in stillness. 
I sat comfortably, but not so relaxed that I might fall asleep.  I wanted to heighten my senses, my mental alertness and my listening.  I asked God to speak into the silence.  The constant flow of my own thoughts interrupt, but I don’t beat myself up over that.  I understand that that happens.  I imagined my thoughts as a river and I let the distractions flow through my mind and return to the silence.  Usually, I practice this silent contemplation for about 5 minutes.  Sometimes I spend much of the time forcing distractions out of my mind.  Other times, the intensity of God’s presence is such that I don’t know where the time went.
When my 5 or 10 minutes of silence was up, I recited the passage one more time.  I thought once more about the roads – the roads to the city mourn; or whatever my phrase was for that day.  I thought about it, took a final deep, intentional breath slowly exhaling.   Then I got on with the day. 
The prayer and the word stuck with me.  Again Eugene Peterson: “contemplation means living what we read, not wasting any of it or hoarding any of it, but using it up in living.”  Everything I have shared this morning about praying the scriptures culminated in me seeing the world through Jesus-tinted lenses. 

Now, that season in Lamentations is complete.  My care for the city is awakened.  As Lent and then Easter draw near, I realize now God is confronting me anew.  Just as God forced me to deal with my disregard for issue like racism and poverty, now God is forcing me to deal with another topic – spiritual laziness.  I will continue the practice of praying the scriptures, but not Lamentations.  I am now going to move to 1st, 2nd and 3rd John for my practice of praying the Word.  God is in the process of shaking me awake. 
The process of praying the scripture I have shared is one anyone can practice.  If you want to, but don’t know where to start, contact me this week.  I don’t know what would happen in our church life if 20 HilllSong people were praying the scriptures with this focus and intensity and raw confessional honesty.  Or 50 or 100?  We could find out.  Would you try it, 30 minutes a day, from now until Easter?  What is God going to say to you?  There’s only way to know.
One last thing; if you plan to begin where I did, in Lamentations, don’t give up before you reach the middle of chapter three.  Even in that book that serves to remind us how important it is to be honest about the pain in the world, there is also hope.

Lamentations 3:22-24(CEV):

22 The Lord’s kindness never fails!
If he had not been merciful,
    we would have been destroyed.[a]
23 The Lord can always be trusted
    to show mercy each morning.
24 Deep in my heart I say,
“The Lord is all I need;
    I can depend on him!”
This God of Lamentations, the one on whom we can depend, whose mercies never fail, is who we meet when we pray the scriptures.  God is why we pray, so my urging to each one of is that we make space for Him.  Pray the scriptures so that the word of God takes us to the heart of God.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

‘Power’ Lacks Credibility

Review of the Book The Power of a Half Hour  
Tommy Barnett, WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2011

I do not recommend Tommy Barnett’s The Power of a Half Hour.  I assume the author uses ’30 minutes’ as a metaphor for organizing one’s life into manageable chunk.  Thirty minutes is a round number and it ‘hour’ rhymes with ‘power,’ so it makes a good title.  However, the author never really acknowledges that half an hour serves a metaphor.  Throughout the book, every meaningful movement of life is reduced to half-hour increments.  From authoring books to raising millions of dollars to mountain-moving prayers, it all happens in 30-minute segments
Urging people to live disciplined lives is great.  Providing a model for how people can live disciplined lives is great. The notion that I might learn how to be more disciplined upon reading this book is why I chose to read it.  I am seriously disappointed.
Life simply is not something to be reduced to 30-minute blocks.  Some meeting demand more time than that.  Most relationships require more investment than 30 minutes.  The author provided 30 chapters (of course, 30), and in each there was one or multiple stories of amazing accomplishments that were achieved simply by a 30 minute encounter.  It simply is not believable.  I don’t doubt that what Barnett reports happened.  I absolutely doubt that it happened as he described it.
Another problem I have is the endless run of successes, all of which are followed by some version of you (the reader) can enjoy similar success by simply following the 30-minute prescription.  If happy marriages, growing churches, superior physical health, and financial stability could be had by simply breaking life into 30-minute blocks, more people would follow the formula.  But life cannot be lived according to a formula.  Disease, broken relationships, sin, weather catastrophes, and a 100 other unpredictable things show the sheer absurdity of breaking down life into 30-minute chunks.
Again, I have no problem with Barnett’s notion of organizing the way a person or organization spends time.  It is good advice.  But it is impossible to stomach the good advice because he wraps it in a presentation of a too-good-to-be true story.  He ignores the real life interruptions that make the successes he swears will come to be impossible in many situations.  He would read what I wrote and declare “the impossible” can be accomplished in 30 minutes!
I believe he has had a successful life.  I believe he is a disciplined person and a talented person.  I believe his background, the sociological conditions where he did his ministry, relationships forged by his father long before he even grew into adulthood, and his own gifting and commitment all play a part in his prosperity and success.  I believe most of the things that put him where he is are not transferrable to other people.  And I don’t think he recognizes that.  I think he believes others can have what he has if they just do what he does and live as he does.  It is akin to Michael Jordan telling a mediocre basketball player, ‘do it the way I do it.’  The analogy is crude, but it gets the point across.  That mediocre basketball player could practice for 1000 ½ hours and he’s not going to be like Mike.  Similarly, a reader of this book could try to do all that Pastor Barnett has suggested, and at the end of his numerous 30-minute ventures, he will be very frustrated. 
Tommy Barnett has undoubtedly been God’s vehicle for great Kingdom works.  Many people have been blessed through ministries he has led.  He’s done some very good things.  Writing this book is not one of them.  There are more helpful, edifying ways a reader can spend 30 minutes.  I recommend passing on The Power of a Half Hour.

Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.