Posted in Different Moments, Different Scriptures

awe-full freedom…

I have vague memories from my childhood of sitting on a blanket on the rooftop of a vehicle, in the midst of a large crowd of people facing the sky. There were antique cars patterned on the blanket, and it smelled like a combination of my grandparents and a summer field. The collective “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” of the people around me, along with the giant “BOOM” from the sky compelled me to join their upward stares, and enjoy the show as well. It was beautiful. It was loud. It was explosive. All of the chaos, anxieties, and individual issues faced by each person melted away by the tiny colorful fires blooming across the evening sky. We were united in that moment by the shared experience. The commonality of awe, wonder, and even humility as we felt each “BOOM” with a reverb that shook us to our bones.

As we (in the US) approach the Holiday weekend, there are some who are so grateful for particular Freedoms today, they’d throw the celebrations without wanting to get stuck in the mire of humility or contemplation.  There may be others, repentant of our country’s’ difficult and painful past, who feel there is little cause for celebration.  Still others, focusing on our present need to continually reform and heal, who want to trumpet their particular cause in the direction of healing.  There are important reasons to listen to and value each of these voices.  We are thankful for the freedoms many of us are able to enjoy.  We confess they didn’t come easily, but in many ways painfully on the backs of previous generations.  We also confess that we struggle to distribute the enjoyment of such freedoms equally even today.

As a pastor in a denomination with “FREE” in our title (Free Methodist), I have definitely come to appreciate the word.  We have been liberated from patterns and penalties of sin, and made New Creations, which sets us free from the sources of anxiety and division that threaten to chain us down/apart.  But as someone who has served in a post-communist country, I’ve also been reminded that the word “Freedom” carries a variety of meanings – not all of them positive.  When a conquered country is told they should be grateful for the “freedom” they now have – to not need self-governing – this is no great gift of freedom at all.

With these things in mind, I find it important to pause briefly and reflect on the Freedom I am most thankful for.  A freedom shared globally across every culture and nation.  A freedom that offers to shape & impact our policies at home and abroad.  A freedom I pray is found and experienced by every individual and community.  It’s the merciful freedom we’ve been given to be aware and moved/drawn in by the present and active Love of God, revealed by Jesus Christ, empowered by His Spirit.

There is something about watching fireworks that reveals our experience as a humanity gathered in awe of the wonder and divine power of God.  We can easily get distracted by the smaller details in our environment, but there are moments that compel us all to look collectively at the wonder and beauty of God’s creation, His powerful authority, His gracious Love, or simply His abiding presence.  When we look toward Him together, united in such a moment of wonder, we converge in our reflection of His light in ways that offer to illumine our lives anew.  It is beautiful.  It can speak powerfully to those who are willing to listen. It can transform and provide explosive catalyst for something New.  Abiding with our attention directed toward the fullness of God together can melt away (or give proper perspective) to all of the chaos, anxieties, and individual issues faced by each of us, as we gather together.  We are united (and sent) by such a shared experience.  It has the potential even to humble us, with reverbs we feel in the very core of our being – offering us a New identity…

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36

And as we climb down from the rooftops of automobiles, heading back into the world with eyes still impacted by the dazzling flashes of His Love, we notice that as we freely join such Love – the moments of awe continue…

Posted in Different Scriptures, Uncategorized

Your Kingdom Come (a long post)

Matthew 6:10 “Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (NRSV)

I remember praying the Lords’ Prayer when I was young, and really enjoying this verse.  Of course, I learned it in King James, so it was “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done.”  It was poetic that way.   I’m not sure I ever spent much time wondering what it meant though, because everyone around me wasn’t too worried about the Kingdom of God Coming – even thought that was what Jesus had taught us to pray.   Instead, everyone seemed more focused on “Thy Kingdom is where I’m going to arrive”.

The focus, then, was less on the Kingdom – and more about me.

It’s interesting for us to note, that nowhere in the Lord’s prayer does it say, “And Jesus, let me get into Heaven someday.”  The emphasis here is not on an individuals’ eternal security and destination.  The emphasis is on a restored and healed relationship here and now.  The emphasis is not about where we will go “someday”.  The emphasis is on how we join together in praying God’s Kingdom arrives “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So what does this mean?

There’s a story I remember hearing around the campfire many times growing up.  It seemed to be a favorite, and I’ve changed it a little…but I think it gives us a great way…a parable…of thinking about the Kingdom of God.

Many years ago in a world similar to ours, there were no humans yet.  The world was filled with animals and creatures of every kind and size.  They couldn’t get along, and constantly fought over who was the greatest creature in the land.  The bear argued that he was the greatest, because he was huge and strong, and could defeat anyone in battle.  This led to huge arguments and chaos, and God couldn’t take all the noise.  So God decided to throw a blanket over the entire sky, making it completely dark for all the animals.  The fighting continued.

Finally the bear who had been bragging about how tough and strong he was, decided he could climb up to the sky and rip the blanket off.  He commanded the snakes to weave themselves together tightly and rigidly, in order to form a tall ladder he could climb.  Sure enough, they formed a giant ladder, and up he began to ascend, one rung at a time.  As he reached the top of the highest rung, he took a gianst SWIPE across the night sky.  As he did this, he lost his balance and fell down, down, down…SMASH onto the ground.  They say his snout used to be long, and when he fell he landed face first, which is why his snout is so much smaller today.

Next the elephant and the moose began to fight about who would try next.  They both felt like they were the obvious next choice, and as they fought, they rolled right over the beaver’s tail – which is why it’s still flat today.

The fighting continued until the Jaguar was able to get everyone’s attention.  Now in those days, the Jaguar was one of the prettiest, dazzling, filled with color animals in Gods’ creation.  He felt pretty sure of himself and his ability to draw attention from both creation and the blanket.  He felt like he could simply climb the ladder and command the blanket to fall, and down it would come.   The other animals thought this option at least stood out as unique, so they voted on trying it.  As the Jaguar climbed, he took his time.   He smiled to the left, making sure all the animals were looking up at him, admiring his colorful coat and his bravery.   He looked to the right, making sure the animals were all appreciating the way he skillfully climbed, and the way his eyes glowed with such an adventure.  As he slowly made his way up the ladder, he was taking so long that the snakes began to lose their hold.  They shook and trembled at the confidence of the Jaguar, and eventually lost their hold – and the Jaguar tumbled down, down, down, WHAM!!  As the Jaguar hit the ground, his colors fell off in every direction, bringing color to what we call the wildflowers today…and leaving the Jaguar completely black.

Next, the voice of the vulture rang out above the others.  He reminded them of how incredible a flier he was.  He offered to fly up and tear down the blanket.  Without waiting for other to agree, he pushed off and began to flap his wings.  WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH – he was flying so hard and so fast, he didn’t even realize how close he was getting.  Finally POP!  The vulture’s head burst right through the blanket.  The animals below could only see the vultures body, and could see he was struggling, because all the heat from the sun was concentrated on his head and neck.  He was pushing hard as he could to get his head back through the blanket, and finally he freed himself and fell down, down, down, BOOM.   The animals gasped when they realized the vulture had lost his beautiful long head feathers, and from then forward the vulture has only a red bald wrinkly head.

The animals complained, “We’re going to live in darkness forever!!”  As the cries quieted down, they finally heard the soft, timid voice of the hummingbird.  He was offering, “Um….hey everyone. I know I’m not the biggest, or the strongest, or the wisest…and I’m not sure I could tear down that giant blanket.  But I think I could do something.”

The hummingbird flew up and poked one small hole in the blanket, and light began to shine through.   He flew over a bit, and POP, poked another hole….then another, and another, and another.    As the light began to shine through, all the other animals were silent.  Slowly they began to talk, and be thankful for the light.   They began to laugh, and smile, and see the value in each other.  As God saw they were beginning to get along again, he removed the blanket.  But he knew they might forget what had happened, so every night he replaced it as they rested, so they might look up and remember what had happened that night.  The bears’ swipe still exists, we call it the milky way.  The hole from the vultures’ head, we call the moon.  The first hole poked by the hummingbird was the biggest, and we call that the north star.

It’s a silly story, although it’s whimsical and filled with imagination. We know scientifically, it’s not true, and yet it helps give an illustration to the words from our scripture.  We join Jesus in praying, “Your Kingdom Come”.

We know that God’s Kingdom that Jesus talks about here is not something we’re “waiting for”.  Even within this prayer, Jesus says, “On earth as it is in heaven.”  That means God’s Kingdom IS, RIGHT NOW, fully in heaven.   So when we pray for the Kingdom of God to come, we’re not praying for a point on a timeline to arrive.

We’re not praying for a traditional “KINGDOM” the way that we think, with all our Disney Movies, and Braveheart, and Game of Thrones.  We’re not praying for a giant walled city to plop down on earth.    When the word “Kingdom of God” is used in scripture, it often means where the “REIGN AND RULE of GOD” exists effectively.  Those places where the dominion of God is made manifest.

We are just like those animals.   We look at the world that exists around us.  We see the darkness that has come because of sin.  We know that just on the other side of what is visible – is the realm where God is fully present and Lord over all things.  We join with God in the mission of proclaiming the Reign and Rule of God in and through our lives.

We use phrases sometimes to get each other excited about what is happening for the sake of the Kingdom.  Our family was excited to join the Kingdom work in Hungary.  We may even say things like “Break new ground.”  or “Take new ground.”  or “Gain new ground for the Kingdom”.  But in reality – we know that by his death and resurrection, Jesus has become Lord over all things seen and unseen.  Listen to the words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

So here’s the truth: The Kingdom of God has arrived.  Jesus knew everything was about to change, and was announcing the Kingdom was “at hand”. It’s just on the other side of the veil, and the veil is thinner than you and I might expect.

The only problem is – the world has spent so much time living under the blanket of darkness, and figuring out ways to become “okay” with it.  How do we respond?

It’s not about being filled with pride about the strength of our movement or numbers.  It’s not about planning an event that climbs the ladder and takes a giant SWIPE on our own abilities to remove the darkness.

It’s not about getting distracted, figuring out the best ways and strongest ways to make the biggest impact, all while accidentally stepping on others underfoot – as the elephant and the moose, to the suffering of the beaver.

It’s not about becoming so focused on one person and their amazing gifts at attracting attention, or making Jesus “look good” so that everything becomes built on their abilities…like the Jaguar.

It’s not even about “aiming high” and trying to fly higher than anyone has ever gone before – and sticking our necks into places where we might get burned – based on our own desires – really healthy desires, to remove the blanket.  We may just find ourselves burned out, like the vulture.

Instead, humbly, Jesus calls us to be people who pray.  People who, like the hummingbird – recognize the Kingdom is already there, just beyond the veil.   It’s not my job to remove the entire veil.  But it’s within what God has empowered me to do – to join God in the Kingdom arriving in many small ways, shaped just the way God has created me.

So how do we join God in doing so?  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, living as the presence of Jesus on earth still today, looking to the Father as Jesus did – we join in acts of Love, offering grace, and inviting others to know the Love of God not just as theory or theological fact – but as tangible and transforming presence.  Proclaiming by our very lives, that there is a reality just beyond the world we’re presented with.  There is a system of power, and a way of life built on love that goes deeper than any pattern or system our world is familiar with.  It’s not about us transforming reality, but about us helping the TRUE reality to arrive as we offer ourselves to God fully.

It’s not about you starting a Bible study, planting a church in your neighborhood, or volunteering 20 more hours a week in what happens at church.

It’s about you seeing your neighbor, your enemy, or that person you walk by every day and usually pretend not to make eye contact – but this time, actually seeing them with the eyes and heart of Jesus.  Proclaiming in that moment by the way that you respond, that the Reign and Rule of God’s Love is more important than any other system, any other social influence, any political correctness, or even more important than what is expected of you as an evangelical Christian in America.

It’s about the Reign and Rule of God being more important than any other identifier we claim.  It’s about the Kingdom of God becoming more important than our nationality, more important than our brokenness, more important than our egos, or our bank accounts, or anything else we might be tempted to make decisions according to.

Yielding all of these things, we submit ourselves to make decisions according to the Kingdom of God.

This sounds mysterious.   It sounds so mysterious, we might even be tempted to use it as an excuse.  Well….shucks….how am I supposed to know what GOD would do in this situation?  God is so mysterious and otherly.  You know what I’ll do for now?  I’ll pray about it.

Unfortunately, “I’ll Pray About It” has often become our way of saying “I’d rather not do anything sacrificial or uncomfortable about it right now.”

Thankfully, we aren’t left in the darkness when it comes to how the Reign and Rule of God are proclaimed and arriving in our visible reality today.  It’s the next phrase of Matthew 6:10 – YOUR WILL BE DONE.

It’s a command, an imperative statement.  It’s simple and humble, and completely different than the ways people were used to praying to their Gentile Gods.  There were plenty of Jews, who’d been taught forms of prayer to God.  There were also many Gentiles in the crowd, who were used to attempting to “bend the ear” of their god that this prayer was worth hearing.   They’d swear upon this or that, or make great sacrifices and declarations.

In contrast, the prayer Jesus teaches his followers…not only to pray, but to live lives shaped by – is this: “Let your will be done.”

We know that God’s will is not mysterious and unknowable.  We have that promise in Romans 12:1-2.  “Therefore I urge you, my dear brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So even though there may be moments of discovering how God’s will is to be worked out in our individual lives, homes, families, churches, and situations – we know the overall will of God.  We know what God desires, and the ways of the Kingdom – because we’ve seen it revealed in the life and words of Jesus Christ.  We read just a few moments ago – Jesus – “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”.  We have the words of Jesus himself – “the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing.”  So if we want to be involved in doing the things that Jesus would do, it’s important to pay attention to what His Love looks like – both in the days recorded in scripture – and as the body of Christ works to reveal His Love through the Church today.  Not to mention, simply to serve “The Least of these”, whom Jesus has said “whatever you’ve done for the least of these, you’ve done for me”.

This is the will of God.  It doesn’t have to be a GIANT SWIPE across the sky.  It doesn’t have to be, becoming political or social medial leaders or influencers in order to shape public policy, or get a million likes on a status update.  It doesn’t mean we have the most popular church in town that all the (fill in the blanks with whatever the current target audience is) want to go to.

It simply means….who are we, and what can we use to proclaim the Kingdom of God’s Love today?   Not on our own strength, but humbly stepping forward and saying – “I know there’s an unseen reality here that is much more substantial than the reality we see and perceive, and I’m going to live according to it.”

But that’s hard sometimes.

We live in a world of Bears, and Moose, and Elephants, and Jaguars, and Vultures.  When Jesus stepped up to live in a way that proclaimed “Thy will be done”….he spoke those words in a prayer of tears….asking the Father if there was another way besides submitting to a long, anguishing death on the cross.  When we humbly offer ourselves to God….and say God, allow my life to be shaped by this prayer…..we offer ALL of ourselves.   Our goals, our desires, our pride, our comforts…..ALL.

We bring it to the altar, and say…..God….I’m not the strongest.  I’m not the wisest. I’m not the (whatever)-ist.  But I can do something.  I know your will as revealed in Jesus, and I know your Kingdom is right here….right now.  Use all of me, to help make that visible.  Use all of me, to proclaim your Lordship here.  Use all of my family, my resources, and everything I previously thought was mine…..to make one more place where the light of your Lordship can shine through.

Your Kingdom come….on earth, as it is in Heaven.

And we have a promise that one day, the veil between earth and God’s full Kingdom presence will be worn so thin, nothing will hold it back as God completes what He has already started.

Remember – we’re not waiting for His Lordship to become a reality – He IS ALREADY Lord of all things.  What we’re waiting for….and what we’re actively involved in participating with every moment of our lives – is making that Lordship known, proclaimed, and visible as His Love transforms lives and communities even now.

Will we offer Him everything toward that end?   Will we pray this prayer…and allow it to shape our lives, as we’re called to “pray continually”?

Posted in Different Scriptures

When reality changed (changes)…

When I was growing up, I loved reading fantasy fiction books about realms where supernatural things happened. Life was difficult at times. There was a season where my dad was in prison, and we didn’t have much money. I wasn’t one of the “cool kids” in school, wasn’t good at sports or band, or even academics. So I loved to “retreat” sometimes by enjoying a story about magical places. I might even spend time imagining – what if I had some sort of power? What if the world I know could be transformed by something I could do?

I would wonder: what if the supernatural wasn’t just for books and movies – but existed here in our world? This past Sunday was a special day in the church – a day we call “Transfiguration Sunday”. It’s a day we often talk about Jesus ascending a hill in front of Peter, James, and John, and crazy things happening. They saw reality, transformed by Heaven.

I chose the “other” passage from Sunday’s readings, from the Old Testament. It is the final moments shared by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. It’s good for us to remember – Elijah is the prophet who had the showdown with the prophets of Ba’al – and saw God consume his altar with fire. He was getting too old to continue. Elisha would go on to do great things, and even gave a widow a jug of oil that never ran dry. But at this part of the story, he was still young, and wanting to follow Elijah.

Elijah and Elisha began this passage, in a place called “Gilgal”. This was the place Joshua first camped with the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan River, as they were entering the promised land. He set up an altar there, with 12 large stones to remind God’s people of His faithfulness.

Then they traveled to Bethel. You’ve probably heard of Bethel before, as the place where Jacob saw angels coming and going on a ladder. (Genesis 28) It was a place that reminds us that God is connecting the realities of earth and the realities of Heaven.

Then they traveled to Jericho, where God proved His presence with the people of Israel by crumbling the walls, in an amazing first victory as they began to receive and inhabit the promised land. Elijah was taking Elisha – and they’re taking us today – on a tour that reminds us of the Faithfulness of God – that Heaven and Earth aren’t just connected – but God is establishing His reign and rule in Earth as it is in Heaven. God is crumbling strongholds that previously existed, and claiming new territory as His Kingdom.

Next, they went to the Jordan River. The Jordan always seems to symbolize “crossing over into something new” in scripture. Elijah was preparing Elisha, inviting Him to enter into a new season of life. They were followed by 50 other prophets – people who spoke with God’s heart and vision into the world. Perhaps Elijah wanted some privacy, as this is a moment not meant for everyone, so he hits the water with his coat – and the Jordan splits, allowing them to walk across.

Now, I’ve never split a body of water larger than a puddle. But God splitting a large sea or lake seems possible. But for God to split a large FLOWING body of water, like the Jordan River, or the Danube, seems impossible. The water is always flowing – from upriver, and to downriver. So here, just like in the book of Joshua, we can imagine the water piling up and flooding out on one side – while drying up slowly on the other. Just as it happened when God’s people were leaving the wilderness, and entering into a new season of God’s provision in the land He’d promised Abraham long ago.

After they’d crossed (we can assume the water began to run again, as the other prophets didn’t seem to follow), Elijah turns to Elisha and asks “What can I do for you before I go?” Elisha responds, “The Spirit you have – what God is doing through you – I want a double portion of that kind of living.” Elijah thinks back – probably remembering all the times his life had been threatened or difficult. He says, “you have asked for a difficult thing.”

Not long after, as they were still talking, Elijah is separated by chariots that were blazing with the glory of God – Elisha could only describe them as being “of fire”. Then a windstorm comes, and seems to swallow up Elijah, and Elisha is so overcome by awe, and with grief, he rips his clothes. He had seen – literally, the transformation of reality. The flowing water had parted – this is not something that we’re accustomed to seeing in our physical world. He had seen chariots blazing with God’s glory, and saw Elijah taken away – he seemed to be swallowed up by the wind.

My question is – did reality change for the 50 prophets on the other side of the river in those moments too? Do you think they noticed the transformation of those moments? If they didn’t, does that change the reality of what happened?

Today, I want to invite you as Elijah invited Elisha. To consider the faithfulness of God. I want you to remember the way God’s reality and the reality we know are connected even here and even now. I want you to know that God’s desire is to crumble walls that we have built up – walls that made us feel safe, or comfortable, or strong on our own. I want to invite you to this moment – this Jordan Riverside moment. Because right now, God is parting the waters and asking you to come across with Him. To leave behind yesterday. To leave behind the ways you trusted yourself, or things of this world. To finally be set free from what has been holding onto you for so long. To know God’s looking into your eyes, and asking, “Do you know what I’ve done for you?”

When Jesus came – he also entered the Jordan River. God was declaring – now humanity is entering into a new reality I’ve promised since long ago. Where all land becomes my “promised land”, and the Spirit of God will be poured out in all directions. In that Spirit, we live today in the promised land of relationship with God – no matter what the reality of our world declares.

Knowing that God has transformed our reality by the love and life of Jesus Christ – how does God invite your life to be transformed this week?