Docility

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa, March 27, 2016

We often associate docility with weakness and assertiveness with strength, but the opposite is true when it comes to living the Christian life and responding to the Holy Spirit. Too often we are like a toddler fighting against a parent who is trying to lead it by the hand. We pull away. We protest. We pout. We make ourselves miserable, resisting God’s will for our lives.

When the Navy told me I would be mobilized and deployed to Djibouti, Africa for a year, I didn’t want to go. Djibouti is hot, miserably hot, and a year is a long time to be away from my family. I prayed that God would give me the grace to accept his will in this matter, even if it’s not what I want. Guess what! He did. This deployment has turned out to be a blessing, not a curse as I had feared. It has taught me a lot about God.

Docile submission to God’s will is a key to spiritual growth. This is a lesson I am still learning. I spent weeks planning an Easter trip to Mogadishu, Somalia with the goal of leading worship for a handful of American and European troops stationed there. The logistics were complicated since there are currently no commercial flights to Somalia due to safety concerns. The commanding general allowed me to borrow his plane – a Beechcraft C-12 twin turboprop aircraft. We took off on Friday, March 25, only to turn around after 45 minutes and return to base due to mechanical problems. After that my trip was canceled. I spent Easter weekend at my home base: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

Instead of grumbling and complaining, I accepted the change as part of God’s plan and asked him to show me opportunities for service. I wasn’t on the preaching schedule, so I attended all of the Holy Week services both Protestant and Catholic. On Saturday, much to my surprise, I was asked to preach the Easter Sunrise service and assist with the main Protestant service. Because my plans changed, I had some unexpected and meaningful opportunities.

As I continue to learn the importance of docile submission to God’s will, Proverbs 3:5-6 come to mind: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” My hope and prayer is that we will all grow in this grace.

Leave a comment

Filed under devotionals, holidays, personal

Lenten Journey

Grand Bara

Grand Bara Desert, Djibouti, Africa

Today is the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty day period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter. It recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he was tempted by the devil. The number 40 in the Bible is symbolic of testing. Not testing like an exam, but testing like a refiner’s fire. Not only does the spiritual journey of Lent remind us of Jesus’ ordeal, but I can also see a parallel between his journey into the Palestinian wilderness and my journey into the Djiboutian wilderness.

The Bible passage for today, Luke 9:28-43, has two seemingly unrelated miracle stories: the Transfiguration and the Healing of a Demon-Possessed Boy. One takes place on a mountaintop, the other on the plain. One is a private miracle witnessed by only three disciples, the other by a large crowd. In one miracle Jesus himself is changed, in the other Jesus changes someone else. In one God speaks from heaven, in the other a demon speaks from the one he possessed. One provokes fear and silence, the other amazement. Despite the stark contrasts, these two stories are complimentary, not contradictory. They represent the two journeys of the Christian life: the inward journey of prayer and the outward journey of service.

The background to the first miracle, the Transfiguration, is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21). Yet Peter resisted Jesus’ prediction and even rebuked Jesus for saying he must be killed then raised to life. The other disciples didn’t have any better understanding. Before the Resurrection they shared the Jewish view that the Messiah would be a conquering king who slays the wicked, not a suffering servant who dies for them.

Jesus chooses three disciples – Peter, James, and John – to witness his Transfiguration. Luke tells us, And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:29-32). A cloud then covers him and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Moses and Elijah are significant, because they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. The point is that both the Law and the Prophets discuss the death of Jesus, even though the Jews – including Peter – failed to understand.

The purpose of the Transfiguration was twofold: to remove the offense of the cross from the disciples’ hearts and to give the disciples hope that the body of Jesus will be raised and glorified after his death. The miracle gives us the same hope for our own bodies. In the Book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (Phil. 3:20-21).

In the second miracle story Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy with epileptic seizures. The disciples hadn’t been able to cast the demon out. Presumably these were the disciples who weren’t with him on the mountain. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there is a special focus on the poor and needy, the outsiders and the neglected. This story demonstrates Jesus’ love for those at the margins of society.

Lent invites us on a spiritual journey into the wilderness. Our sins are exposed and by God’s grace removed. Jesus is the Light of the World. His light not only reveals our imperfections, but cleanses and transforms us. We cannot encounter God without being changed. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29b). The more time we spend with God, the more we become like him, and the more his light will shine through us and on those in darkness.

During Lent God invites us to become intentional about both the journey inward and the journey outward. What would our lives would look like if each one of us took God up on his invitation? What would our church look like if we all did? I’m not exactly sure, but I’d love to find out!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under sermons

Mary Christmas

436px-Francesco_Salviati_004

David Dances Before the Ark, Francesco Salviati, 1552-1554

Mary Christmas! It’s not a typo. No Mary, No Christmas. Know Mary, know Christmas. When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the “Son of the Most High” in her virginal womb, her “yes” – her “Fiat” (let it be) echoed God’s “Fiat Lux” (let there be light). Mary’s consent allowed for an even greater creation than the first. The original creation brought forth the sun, which sustains earthly life, but Mary brought forth the Son God, who gives eternal life.

Mary is the new Eve. Just as we are all children of Adam’s spouse, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Mary is not only the new Eve, she’s also the new Ark. As in the Ark of the Covenant, which most people know from the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark was the most sacred object in ancient Israel – a wooden box overlaid with gold whose lid, the Mercy Seat, had two golden angels with wings unfurled. It was both a container for holy objects and a piece of furniture fashioned after God’s directions and placed in a room called the Holy of Holies, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Philistines captured the Ark in battle but returned it after God sent a plague on them. When it was returned, “the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:2). Second Samuel chapter six narrates the happy occasion when King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. The parallels between this passage and the story of the Visitation in Luke 1:39-45 are striking.

The recovery of the Ark and the Visitation both take place in the hill country of Judea. In both stories there’s a similar response to a new arrival: “King David [was] leaping and dancing before the Lord” (2 Sam. 6:16), and “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). David and Elizabeth ask similar questions. David says, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Elizabeth says, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43).

Finally, the contents of the Ark and Mary are similar. The Ark contained the original tablets upon which God wrote the Ten Commandments, the “covenant” from which it derived its name. It also held a pot of manna and the rod of Aaron, which miraculously budded. Three objects: God’s Word, God’s bread, and the God-given symbol of High Priestly authority. Similarly, the expectant Mary contained the One who is God’s Word (John 1:1, 14), the Bread of Life who like manna came down from heaven (John 6:31-25), and our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14).

As we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, let’s remember that because of Mary’s “yes,” allowing herself to become a vessel for God himself, it’s both a Merry Christmas and a Mary Christmas.

1 Comment

Filed under devotionals, holidays

Hospitality

Welcome

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day and I’m tempted to say all the many things I’m thankful for. Instead, I want to share something that God’s been teaching me lately. We all know about the benefits of prayer, Bible study, and worship for growing in the Christian life. These are all important. But one of the most important spiritual practices in the New Testament is often ignored: hospitality.

Have you ever noticed how often the Gospels tell us that Jesus was eating a meal with people when he taught them? Learning and teaching during mealtime was a practice embedded in Jewish culture. To this day the Passover celebration takes place during a meal – called the Seder. In this meal the story is retold and questions are asked and answered about God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people from Egypt. The Passover Meal is the background for the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus identified the bread and wine with his body and blood. The early Christians celebrated this meal daily in their homes (Acts 2:42, 46).

Jews extended hospitality not only because it was part of their culture, but they did it to be obedient to God and his Word. The book of Proverbs even says hospitality should be extended to one’s enemies: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22).

Jesus used the language of hospitality to describe the Kingdom of God. It’s like a great banquet to which many are invited he explained on one occasion (Matt. 22:1-14). On another he told a parable about a host going next door to borrow food from a reluctant neighbor as an illustration for persevering in prayer (Luke 11:5-13).

In his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus even ties hospitality to salvation: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:34-35). What is Hospitality? It’s giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It’s inviting strangers in. It’s treating people as if they were Jesus Christ himself, because in a sense that’s who they really are.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “Martin the Cobbler” found in his book What Men Live By that illustrates this point. It concerns a man who was told, through prayer, that Christ was going to visit him on a certain day. He went about his business as usual; he was a shoemaker. His first customer was a prostitute; the second, a mother with a sick child; and the third was an alcoholic. He hurried around trying to be hospitable to these people, offering them a kind word and something to eat, as well as fixing their shoes. When evening came he was rather disappointed, for it was time to lock up—and Christ still hadn’t come. He was very unhappy until he heard a voice saying, “But I had come, in the person of each of the people to whom you offered hospitality today.” (Doherty, Poustinia, p. 84) If Christ were to visit us today in the form of a homeless person or a Syrian refugee, how would we receive him? Would we show him hospitality? Ignore him? Or worse, treat him with contempt?

Hospitality is reciprocal. It’s both giving and receiving. When Jesus sent out the 12 Apostles to preach he told them not to bring any provisions so they’d be forced to rely on the hospitality of others (Matt. 10:9). That requires both faith and humility.

But Jesus wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done himself. Although Jesus was God from all eternity with all the riches of heaven at his disposal, for our sake he humbled himself in the miracle of the Incarnation by becoming human. He didn’t arrive in this world as a full grown man capable of providing for himself, but as a helpless baby who had to be fed and burped and changed.

It’s just as important to accept the hospitality of others as it is to give hospitality. To do this, we have to be humble, flexible, and open. It also means that we can’t always be in a hurry, ready to rush off to the next task.

Hospitality isn’t just a matter of good manners. It’s a way of life and an attitude of the heart. If we consistently practice hospitality, we’ll be walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

2 Comments

Filed under devotionals, holidays

No Strings Attached

GiveDirectly3

I’m considering entering a no-strings-attached relationship with strangers. I’m not talking about sexual promiscuity. I’m talking about charity. For all of my adult life I’ve had a rule against giving money directly to the poor, because I feared they would use it buy drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy things. I’d rather give to my church or an established charity such as the local food pantry, which hands out groceries, not cash. However, over the years I’ve become frustrated by the amount of money most charities spend on infrastructure, staff salaries, and even investments and cash reserves. Because of overhead costs only a portion of what one gives goes directly to the poor. I’m also realizing that it’s arrogant, judgmental, and paternalistic of me to assume that the poor would squander the money, and therefore, I must create safeguards to prevent my donations from being misused.  

Recently I read about an innovative charity called GiveDirectly. It’s the first charity dedicated exclusively to cash transfers. They identify people in extreme poverty in the African countries of Kenya and Uganda, then transfer money to them via mobile phone. Crazy, huh? Maybe not.

This radical method of charitable giving not only preserves the dignity of the recipient, but there’s also good evidence that it’s working. According to a January 2014 article published by The Independent, “An evaluation by Innovations for Poverty Action found that a group of the charity’s recipients in Kenya – who received about $500 over up to 12 months – increased their asset holdings by almost 60 per cent, compared with those without. Recipients saw a 42 per cent reduction in the number of days their children went without food and lower stress levels, among other things.” In this case a handout is actually a hand up.

Some may object to cash transfers on the grounds that they discourage individual initiative and encourage laziness. However, given in the right amounts and over a limited period of time they do neither. The money simply raises recipients above starvation levels of poverty, so they can begin to focus on more than getting enough calories to eat.  

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t a panacea for the poor. People also need health, safety, education, justice, and economic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty. But it’s one tool that seems to be helping raise the standard of living for some very disadvantaged people in Africa.

The idea also makes me think that with a little creativity and courage we could accomplish the goals of our local charities in the US more efficiently and effectively. Traditional brick-and-mortar approaches are expensive and labor intensive. We need creative solutions using available, lower-cost means. For example, instead of staffing and operating food pantries, we could give grocery store gift cards to those who need food. Rather than maintaining soup kitchens we might provide restaurant gift certificates to the hungry. We could pay rent to provide housing for the homeless rather than spending wads of money building and staffing shelters. Following the GiveDirectly model, we could even use cash transfers to get money to the needy quickly and inexpensively. What would lose? In a word, control.

One reason we hang onto labor-intensive and expensive-to-run models is that we want to control the means of our charity and feel good about ourselves in the process. Handing a bag of groceries to a poor person brings a sense of satisfaction while giving us power over the recipient of our generosity. I remember volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where patrons were subjected to a DMV-like waiting room experience, then when their number was finally called, they were required to listen to an evangelistic appeal before they could receive their food. Families in homeless shelters often live under rules we wouldn’t put up with. Unconditional giving might make us uncomfortable, but it restores the dignity and freedom of those we’re seeking to help.

The idea of giving with no strings attached sounds radical, I know. But it’s not nearly as radical as what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Leave a comment

Filed under issues

True Happiness

Beautiful smiling cute baby

It’s become a joke in my family. I’ll see something I want and say, “If I had that, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” It started almost a decade ago. Our family would shop at Nichols Hardware Store in Purcellville, Virginia which sells a little of everything, including furniture. There was this beautiful and expensive wooden rocking chair. Every time we went into the hardware store, I’d go sit in the rocking chair and say, “If I had this rocking chair, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” My wife bought me the rocking chair for my 40th birthday (appropriate, huh?), but it didn’t really make me the happiest person in the world. My happiness meter went up a tick on my birthday and then went back down to its usual position, between “somewhat satisfied” and “somewhat dissatisfied,” if you were to put it on a Likert scale.

The same thing happened with my job teaching history at the Naval Academy. I said, “If I get this job, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” I got the job. I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me the happiest person in the world.

Maybe you’re like me. You thought if you get that new thing or that new job or that new relationship you’d be happy. But after getting it and once the newness wore off, you were generally no happier than you were before. That dissatisfaction –that restlessness – we feel inside isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing because it can lead us to what truly satisfies, just like thirst can make us drink and hunger can make us eat.

God has put in each of us a longing to be happy. But getting what we want doesn’t satisfy this longing. Jesus begins his first great sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, with a litany about happiness called the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). The Beatitudes are eight blessings, which appear in a shorter and slightly different form in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6:17-49). Each Beatitude begins with the formula “blessed are . . .” and then describes the ones who are truly blessed. The word “blessed” can be translated “happy” and often is. The passage teaches the paradoxical and surprising truth that God’s favor is granted to those whom society regards as objects of pity: the hungry, the grieving, the persecuted, and so on.

The words of the Gospel are so familiar to us today, that we often forget how shocking they were when Jesus first spoke them. The hearty working-class folks, the farmers and fishermen, who made up the bulk of Jesus’s audience didn’t lay down their tools and trudge up a mountainside to hear someone tell them to be nice and keep their noses clean. They came to hear a controversial preacher say revolutionary things that turned society’s values on their head.

Jesus had a habit of saying crazy-sounding things such as:

“The first shall be last and the last first.”

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

“Love those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus points out that the truly happy people aren’t the up-and-comers but the down-and-outers. Not those who have their religious act together, but those who are spiritually needy. Not those who are always upbeat, the Polyannas of the world, but those who are overcome with sorrow and grief. Not those who have the world by the tail, but those who are usually overlooked and underappreciated. Not those who are self-righteous, but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not those who exact revenge on their enemies, but those who turn the other cheek. Not those who have an unblemished record of purity, but those who are pure in heart. Not those who have already found peace, but those who strive to make peace.

Luke’s version is even more radical. Jesus says it’s not the rich who are happy, but the poor. Not those who have enough to eat, but those who are hungry. Not those who are laughing, but those who are weeping. Not those who are loved, but those who are despised.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ends the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12).

Most of us aren’t very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want when we want it. We aren’t very good at patiently enduring hardship for the sake of greater rewards down the road. But that’s exactly what the Christian life is all about.

The ones who are truly happy are the ones who “store up treasures in heaven” rather than on earth (Matt. 6:20). To have that kind of long-term goal, we have to believe that God is good and that he rewards those who humbly accept whatever suffering and adversity life brings them.

When Jesus sat on that grassy hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and was about to preach his sermon, What do you think he saw as he looked around? He was surrounded by his fellow Galileans – working-class farmers, fishermen, and maybe even a few carpenters like himself. I imagine he saw men with calloused hands and sunburnt faces. Women with calloused hands, their brows furrowed with anxiety. Children pulling on their parents’ sleeves saying they’re hungry. What expression do you think he saw in their faces? I think he saw worry and pain and sorrow. I think he saw sadness in their faces. And that’s why at the beginning of his greatest sermon he chose to talk about true happiness.

He wanted to dispel the myth that they would be happier if they had more money, more food, better clothes, more status, and fewer problems. Jesus knew that happiness doesn’t come from getting things we don’t have but from recognizing and appreciating what we do have, even if what we have is a difficult life.

I wonder how those working-class farmers and fishermen reacted to Jesus’s words about being happy even when your circumstances are unhappy. Did they scoff and dismiss it as pie-in-the-sky rhetoric? Or did they find comfort in his teaching that true happiness doesn’t come from riches and success, which none of them had or could hope for? I think at least some of them found great hope in Jesus’s promise that those who experience pain and suffering can be happy because their reward is coming.

It takes great courage to be happy, especially when faced with difficult circumstances. It’s easy to give into discouragement and despair. My hope and prayer is that we will all set our eyes on God and his kingdom as our ultimate reward. If we do that, we’ll truly be the happiest people in the world.

2 Comments

Filed under sermons

Advice from Me to Myself

79c29

Your mind is spinning around
About carrying out a lot of useless projects:
It’s a waste! Give it up!
Thinking about the hundred plans you want to accomplish,
With never enough time to finish them,
Just weighs down your mind.
You’re completely distracted
By all these projects, which never come to an end,
But keep spreading out more, like ripples in water.
Don’t be a fool: for once, just sit tight.

Excerpt from “Advice from Me to Myself” by Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887)

Leave a comment

Filed under poetry