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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, & You Tube - 2:57AM

This is a post I just read - "Heavenly Father, please, please, please send hope."

And this, from an epilepsy support group - "How do you fight the depression that comes with this bullshit condition."

Also from the epilepsy group - "Do you all swim?"

And then this post - "Please pray for my friend ____.  She had an accident and is now paralyzed."

My own issues - can't sleep and am walking through a third straight night of lonely insomnia.  And, yet I can't help but wonder if my condition is a summons from God to me, God calling me to prayer.  There are a lot of hurting people out there.

Monday, February 24, 2020

“A Hillside way of Life” (Exodus 20:1-19)

watch it here -

Image result for exodus 20

February 16, 2020

            Let’s play guess the quote.  I’ll read it and you guess who said it and the source. 
            “Mos Eisley spaceport.  You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  We must be cautious.”  - Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars:  A New Hope.
            “I confess, it is my intention to commandeer one of these ships, pick up a crew in Tortuga, and, raid, pillage, plunder, and otherwise pilfer my weasley black guys out.”  - Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

            Both quotes precede a story of a ragtag band of heroes descending into chaos space to throw together a team of rogues who will help them fight a corrupt empire.  The agents commissioned to maintain law and order, the Empire in Star Wars, and the British navy in Pirates of the Caribbean have turned out to be cruel and untrustworthy.  So, the heroes, Will Turner and Luke Skywalker, turn to a pirate, Jack Sparrow, and a smuggler, Han Solo, for help.  When the established order turns out to be evil, our movies heroes seek salvation in those who survive and even thrive in disordered madness.
            It’s Darwinian.  Who survives?  The fittest.  Survival is the goal and there’s no overarching power or ultimate goodness to turn to for help.
            I don’t know if life ever feels like that to you.  Bills stack up faster than your income.  Mistakes and bad decisions cut you off at the knees.  The people you hope will help you turn out to be unreliable.  And sometimes the friend you counted on becomes part of the problem that’s vexing you.  Where do you turn?  Your job?  The university?  The government? The challenges before you seem utterly insurmountable.  And then your health fails.  A period of recovery and a massive hospital bill are added to your rising stack of burdens. 
            Does it ever feel like the universe is out to get you?  A Darwinian would say no it is not.  The universe just hums along and natural selection determines who will survive and possibly thrive.  There’s no purpose.  Whether you are suffering or flying high, whether your life is an ever-worsening agony or a sun-sparkling joy, there is no greater purpose. 
            To this bleak fatalism, Star Wars or The Pirates of the Caribbean propose that hope and abundant life must be won through deadly, authority-defying quests.  These movies are fun, but miss something we see in Exodus, something important.
            Exodus is a story of God and His people.  In the face of struggles that make it feel like all the universe is out to get us, we keep in mind that there is an ultimate good overseeing all.  This ultimate good is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom we know through the crucified and resurrected one.  He is over the story and in the story – both the Exodus, and the story of your life.
            Remember the 10 Commandments come in the midst of the story of God and God’s people.  Instead of just listing them, one-by-one, to feel the force of the commands, enter the story.
            Exodus 2:23-24 - “The Israelites groaned under their slavery [in Egypt], and cried out.  … Their cry rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham.”  This story’s hero won’t, like Luke, turn to a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy;’ Moses doesn’t even know he is the hero until God calls him.  Once he is called, then his only source for help is the God who called him.  Even then, after embarking upon the journey, several times, Moses tries to get out of it.
            Exodus 5:22-23 – “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?  Why did you ever send me?  Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people and you have done nothing.”  How does God respond to his exasperated prophet’s accusations?
            “You shall see what I will do to Pharaoh.  I am the Lord … God Almighty.  I have heard the groaning of [my people].  I have remembered my covenant with their father Abraham.  Tell the Israelites I will free them and bring them into the land I promised them.”
            I don’t recommend barking at God, “Hey, you up there!  You’ve done nothing to help me.”  I won’t give pastoral sanction to such an approach to prayer.  But I also don’t recommend against it.  God’s best interactions with us come when we are honest with Him.  Moses was at his wit’s end when he said those things and God knew it.  God welcomed his outburst.  God responded to it with promise.
            So, whatever approach you take to prayer, be fully honest before God.  Don’t endeavor to pray well.  Pray transparently.  Pray from all your anger, frustration, pain, hurt, loss, and disappointment.  If those real emotions bubbling up in you lead to unholy words, then direct those profane words to God.  And then be ready to receive God’s response.
            God did what He promised.  He led Moses and the people to the shore of the Red Sea, and then through it on foot, walking the dry ground in the middle of the Sea God had parted in his limitless power.  That impossible trek behind them, God led the people to the foot of Mount Sinai. 
            Exodus 19:17-19 – “Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.  They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.  … Moses spoke and God answered him in thunder.”
            In the desert wilderness, dependent on God for their very existence, seeing this fiery display of raw power, the people understand how horribly awesome God is.  They also understand they are his possession.  They’ve been rescued from slavery to serve, love, and worship God – this God; the only God.
            They will be different than all other peoples.  Other tribes created carved statues, and then worship the things they made.  Other nations were ruled by kings, however good or evil the king might be.  These people, in this Sinai moment, clearly see that they are called to be different.  Later, they will forget and build a golden calf for themselves and worship it. Later, it won’t be enough for them that they are God’s and they will demand a king even when God tells them the king will ruin them.  For now, though, they see who they truly are – God’s.  It is enough. 
            After the miraculous deliverance, after the promise of covenant, after the display of might in the fire descending on the mountain, then God gives the 10 commands.  The first four deal with the relationship we have with God.  The final six govern how we relate to one another in society.  Taken together, they serve as bullet points for the two great commands of Jesus: love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.  How do we live out these commandments of Jesus within our daily lives and our social lives?  Stay within the boundaries drawn by the 10 commandments. 
            We see how to live.  But it only makes sense in relation to what God is doing.  In Israel, God, working through the exodus and then the prophets and priests is constituting a people.  God creates a nation unlike any other.  This will be a nation of priests that shows the world how to live in relationship with God.  This vision comes to fruition in the final chapters of Isaiah, where God welcomes the world into His embrace as the kings of the world come in drove to Israel seeking God. 
            The world is chaotic and governments and strongmen and systems of control, supposedly providing order, are as oppressive and untrustworthy as Star Wars or The Pirates of the Caribbean present them to be.  Within a world in which Egyptians enslave Hebrews and force them to build pyramids, God calls out a people to be his own.  God constitutes a people to live in the world, fallen as it is.  His people are to be beacons, pointing the way out of chaos and into order and Shalom for all humanity.  The commandments give humans the ground rules for the Hillside way of life.
            What conditions do you experience in the hardest parts of your daily life that show the world is still fallen?  In Jesus Christ, God shows you the path to peace, order, and love, and God is a trustworthy, merciful overseer.  Know his commandments, live by them, and see how different things look and feel. 
            Walter Brueggemann calls the hillside way of life delineated in the commandments a “viable alternative to Egyptian slavery” (p.184).  Imagine leaning into the Kingdom of God as Jesus describes it – Jesus the one whose life and teachings brought the commandments to fulfillment.  How is the Kingdom of God a viable alternative to the life you’re living now?  From our current situation, how do we lean in to that Kingdom? 
            We approach God with hands open and hearts ready to receive.  Michael Fishbane describes a “divine pulse of giving and care” that is the “eternal truth” of the hillside, Sinai (p.129).  When we try to live on our terms, by our own rules, cut-off from God’s rule, then we are cut off from God’s love. We have consciously turned away from the divine pulse. 
            We begin sensing that the way of life to which God calls us, regulated by the commandments, can truly come about when we receive.  From God we receive rebuke, forgiveness, joy, love, hope, strength, words and wisdom, warning, redirection, and so many other gifts.  Receiving is a humble posture, so it is the perfect one to adopt before God.  Resisting our need for self-reliance, we come before God receptive and willing to be formed and molded.  God constitutes us as a people – His people called to tell His story.
            Our town is as fallen and chaotic as anywhere.  I love our town.  I love my neighbors, both the committed followers of Jesus and the disregarders of Jesus.  Our town needs the story of salvation.  God has placed us here to tell it.  Every time someone believes and turns to Christ, he or she joins this covenant community, and enters God’s way, the Hillside life. 
            So, we close seeing that like Luke Skywalker or Will Turner we face dangers and we have struggles.  For us, help does not come from Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, whom we find in some rogue-filled saloon.  Our help comes from the Lord.  This world is his and so are we; we are his possessions.  We come before him with the offer of humble worship and the readiness to receive whatever He gives.

Brueggemann, Walter (1997.  Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Fortress Press (Minneapolis).

Fishbane, Michael (2008).  Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology.  University of Chicago Press (Chicago).

Martens, Elmer (1981).  God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology.  Baker House Books (Grand Rapids).

Monday, February 10, 2020

“A Hillside Fight” (1 Kings 18)

Image result for Elijah Mount Carmel

 watch here -

Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Ahab was one of the kings who ruled in ancient Israel.  His actions as king hurt the people he was responsible to rule and disrespected the God he was supposed to serve.  God saw it all.  Ahab was more wicked than the evil kings who preceded him.  And as if it had been a light thing for him to insult God by repeating the rebellious, disobedient ways of his predecessors, he then took as his wife Jezebel of the Sidonians.  Disrespecting Yahweh, Ahab followed Jezebel’s lead and worshiped the false god Baal. 

For her part, Jezebel attempted to have every prophet of God in Israel killed.  She would have succeed had not Obadiah secreted 100 prophets away in caves, unbeknownst to her.  This was not the later prophet Obadiah for whom Biblical book is named.  This Obadiah was Ahab’s own palace manager.  Jezebel could not murder the prophets he saved.  Nor could she get her hands on the prophet, Elijah who foretold the crippling drought.  His clear spiritual authority infuriated her and confounded Ahab.  Yet Ahab persisted in defying God.   

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria.  He made an Asherah pole, which God had strictly and repeatedly forbidden.  This Ahab, called to lead in God’s name, did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him (1 Kings 16:29-33). 

            In the third year of the drought, God sent Elijah to face the wicked king.  They stood before one another and the king barked at the prophet, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel” (18:17)? 

Elijah would not be cowed.  “I have not troubled Israel” he retorted, “but you have.  You have forsaken the commands of the Lord” (v.18). 

Forsaken God’s commands; disregarded God’s way.  Do we do that?  Read through the Old Testament, and over and over, the tension that afflicts ancient humanity comes when individuals turn away from God and to their own wisdom and their own cravings. Driven by a lust for power and security, they abandon faith. 

In the garden, Eve reached for her own autonomy instead of abiding by God’s boundaries and keeping her hands off the forbidden fruit.  She tried to rewrite the rules, replacing God’s leadership with her own.  Adam dumbly followed.  It repeats over and over; one takes the initiative and disobeys God; others sin by following along. 

Throughout the book of Judges, feeling threatened by powerful neighbors, Israelite tribes turn away from proper worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; instead, they worship idols – statues representing Ancient Near Eastern fertility gods.  Israel does not yet have a king in the book of Judges, but when the story shifts, and the nation becomes a monarchy, the pattern of rejecting God persists. 

We know nothing of worshiping idols.  Were someone to set up a statue, declare it to be god, and call us to worship it, we would mock them as superstitious and pre-scientific.  Yeah, that’s not God.  I know the guy who made it.  Joe.  He’s got a studio in Carrboro.  He’s a great sculptor.  I might pay a lot for one of his pieces and use it to decorate my home.  Yeah that Joe’s a real artist.  But, he’s not a god-maker.  I’m not worshiping something he created.  That would be stupid.

Fine!  But, do we ever, in our lives, put things in the place that should be occupied by God?  Do we relegate God to the seldom visited corners in our lives?  Yes, God has a voice, but do the choices we make show that we have reduced God’s voice?  Do we live as if we think we can decide whether we will ignore God or listen to God?  Would an examination of our lives, an audit of our values, reveal that we see God as being at our disposal instead of us existing to love, worship, and serve Him? 

Idolatry appears silly to 21st century sensibilities, but Idolatry at its base is simply the willful rejection of God’s authority.  Compartmentalizing our lives, locking God into a closet, we commit modern day idolatry.  When we see God as something we can pull out to decorate the house at Christmas or Easter or someone long ignore we can to turn to when we desperately need to ‘throw up a prayer’, then we willfully reject God’s right to reign over our lives – the entirety of our lives. 

Elijah had something for Ahab.  Each one accused the other of troubling Israel.  Elijah took it beyond just a verbal boxing match. 

Get them all together! He told Ahab.  Assemble your prophets of Baal, the ministers who lead worship around the Asherah poles.  Bring them all to the top of Mount Carmel.  And bring the people too, because, we’re going to rumble on the mountain top.  Bring everyone to see a hillside fight.

Ahab obliged.  The prophets trooped up with Ahab in audience.  The people amassed and Elijah approached them.  He wasn’t impressed with the king or with the religionists of Baal-worship.  Elijah was there for Israel, for God’s chosen people.  He looked right them as he asked, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, then follow him” (18:22). 

Joshua, from several generations earlier comes to mind.  When the people had first settled the Promised Land he said to them, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors or the gods of the Amorites.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).  The words of the resurrected, glorified Jesus come to mind.  In Revelation 3:15 he told the church at Laodicea, “Because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” 

The Lord Jesus demands that we be all in or not at all; he has no use for halfway faith.  Our faith might be imperfect.  We might mess up daily.   Jesus has grace for that.  We are saved and born again because of how much love he gives, not because of how much faith we show.  Our all-in faith doesn’t provide salvation; our all-in faith indicates that we see who Jesus really is, Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

It was on.  Elijah set the terms and the company of Baal prophets accepted.  Atop Mount Carmel they killed a bull and set it on an altar.  That was the easy part.  Next, they had to call on Baal to rain fire from heaven to ignite and consume the offering.  From morning to noon, they cried out, “O Baal, answer us” (18:26).  The thing about false gods is they can’t answer.  They aren’t real.  Baal’s prophets danced around the altar, desperate to show up Elijah and be found acceptable in Ahab’s sight.

At noon, Elijah was really feeling himself, so he taunted.  Think smack talk is vicious from today’s playground court basketball players?  Prophets invented trash talking centuries before anyone knew what basketball was. 

Elijah says, Come on guys, call a little louder.  He is god, right?  Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere.  Maybe he’s wandered off.  Could it have been Taco Tuesday around the Asherah pole and old Baal overdid it and now he’s ‘indisposed?’  Could that be it?  I know, I know, he’s asleep.  Shout louder.  

They did.  The prophets of Baal fell into a frenzy.  They took out swords and blades and began slashing themselves.  I can’t tell you how glad I am that self-mutilation is not part of our worship tradition.  It was part of theirs.  The hours dragged on and the prophets of Baal wailed and raved and their blood flowed and their horse voices dissipated like campfire smoke in the air as the day grew shorter. 

My turn, Elijah said, and he invited the crowd in close, and they stepped forward.  He prepared his bull, laying the carcass on the altar for the Lord.  A trench was dug around the altar and four jars of water were poured over the offering, drenching it.  This was repeated, and again.  Twelve jars of water soaked this offering.  No way was it going to go up in flames. 

Elijah prayed.  O Lord … let it be known that you are God in Israel.  O Lord, answer me, so that these people will know you are God.  God did.  Flames from God don’t worry about how wet the kindling is.  The bull was consumed.  The wood was consumed.  The stones were consumed.  Do you know how hot fire has to be to consume stones?  The dirt was consumed and so was the water in the trench that had been dug around the altar.  The people fell on their faces because that’s what you do. 

Then the dark turn in the story.  We must not ignore or try to rationalize it.  Elijah commanded the people to slaughter all the prophets of Baal.  They did.  For a moment, they literally cut the syncretism and idolatry right out of Israel.  A Bible reader’s only good response is to be horrified and troubled by the violence of Elijah.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5).  Why did God condone violence in Elijah’s day and promote turn-the-other-cheek peace in Jesus’ day?  I can’t answer that this morning. I just urge you to see the tension and sit with it and not rush to resolve it.   Elijah won the hillside fight of 1 Kings 18.

Another hillside fight concerns us.  This one is fought every time we gather and every time each of us as individuals make the choices that order our lives.  It’s based on a question.  I’ve posed many questions this morning.  This is the one to remember and it doesn’t come from me. 

The words of the true prophets speak beyond their own lifetimes.  This is from Elijah to each one of us.  Imagine yourself sitting with the prophet.  He’s agitated, but also focused.  He wants your full attention.  Forget about what you’re doing right now, thinking about lunch after church.  Put out of your mind the “to-do” you’ve been compiling these last few minutes.  Those of you who’ve been dozing?  Wake up from your catnap.  Elijah has a question you and I need to hear and take serious time to answer. 

“How long will you limp along carrying two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him.  If something else rules your life, give yourself to that.”  Wrestling with the question – that’s the hillside fight we must enter.  We cannot hedge our bets.  Faith is not betting it all on Jesus; or hedging, betting some on Jesus, and some on other things.  Faith is acknowledging Jesus as Lord, realizing our only hope for life comes in receiving forgiveness from him, and then submitting to him everything in our lives; every relationship; every dream and ambition; every penny in the bank account; ev-ery-thing.  He’s Lord over all.

We conclude with an invitation as we do every week.  Don’t try to answer Elijah’s question right now.  If you really want to wrestle with it, if you really want to consider making God Lord of your entire life, all the time, then during this invitation time, come to the steps, kneel, and pray looking to the cross.  Ask the crucified, risen Lord Jesus to begin helping you reorder life so that He alone occupies the center and life flows from who you are in Him.


Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A Spiritual Discipline for 2020 – Renounce Worry

Image result for "do not worry about your life"

“It’s a problem-free phil-o-so-phy …”!  Disney fans know this!  “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.  It’s a wonderful song, and it may even help me remember the spiritual discipline to which I have committed.  ‘Hakuna Matata’ can work as a mnemonic as long as I also remember that I am not actually committing to a “worry-free philosophy.”  Such a way of seeing isn’t really possible, I don’t believe.
               When I talk about seeing without being anxious and living worry-free, I am talking about a spiritual discipline rooted in the way of Jesus.  “Do not worry about your life.  Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25a, 34a).  Rather, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (v.33).  In His commentary on Matthew, theologian Stanley Hauerwas insists that these instructions from Jesus only make sense when they remain connected to who Jesus is.
               In other words, I commit to these words of Jesus and to refuting worry not as an act of my will, but instead as an expression of my dependence on him.  All spiritual disciplines lead to the disciple reiterating her or his dependence on Jesus.  Why can I actually be free of worry?  Because of who Jesus is and because I remain in close connection with him.
               Thus, refuting worry as a spiritual discipline will always include prayer; it will always include study; it always includes worship; it will always include evangelistic conversations.  Why?  I remain in close connection to Jesus through prayer, study, worship, and evangelistic endeavors.  Refuting worry is not a philosophy.  It is a declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord in the New Age.  And furthermore, with his coming in human flesh, with his death and resurrection, the new age has started.
               We live in the days when the old age, the age of sin and death, and the new age, the age of the eternal kingdom of God overlap.  Following Jesus, we lean in to the new age. 
               Wednesday, February 26, Lent begins.  That night we will have an Ash Wednesday worship service to begin our church’s journey to the cross.  I pray that my personal life will be define by this theme: “Fear not!  Jesus is Lord.”  During Lent, I encourage all Jesus-followers to prayerfully examine their lives and to commit to spiritual disciplines will draw each one’s life into alignment with the way of Jesus.