Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stories that Shape Us

  As humans we are shaped and live by our stories. My childhood was filled with the stories told to me of our family, by my grandparents and great-grandparents. Family stories told at family gatherings and around the kitchen table. Our family stories help us interpret how life is or how life ought to be and shape our identity as a member of our extended family.

  One tradition, I remember the most in my early life was during the period in and around Memorial Day. As a family, we would travel to the variety of cemeteries where family members were buried. Many were graves of relatives who died long before I was born, but during these moments at graveside, my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents would tell me old family stories of the family members I never knew. My grandmother would often open up during these visits and tell me family stories, I believe, upon later reflection she probably regretted having told me, but they were good stories.


  As a child, I was not always as attentive to remembering these stories as I wish now I had been. Many of the stories I do remember are the ones that were repeated multiple times. As I got older, I would often ask someone to repeat a story I could only partly recall. These were the moments, when I would discover my grandmother had second thoughts of having told me the story the first time. I often asked my parents to retell me some these stories, I had only vague memories of hearing and discover no one had told them the whole story.

  We are naturally drawn to stories and once heard, we have a feeling that compels us to seek their conclusion, because stories are exciting. As we get older and enter the life of the community where we live, the church we serve, and the family we create, we gain our own personal experiences which are transformed into our own personal and family stories. As we gain significant life experiences, they begin to shape us and mold our faith and life and we, in turn, build them into our own stories. For example, I have told many stories over the years about my experiences of working as an addiction's counselor. The stories of those individuals who freely shared their stories and experiences confronting the struggles and challenges of recovery from alcohol and other drug problems helped me better understand how God works in the world and how these stories shaped my view of forgiveness, redemption, faith, love and grace.

  You remember these experiences of your life, as a narrative. The impact these experiences have upon you helps to burn into your memory all the specific details, who was there, what was said, how you felt, the relationships that developed, the lessons you learned, the moments of grace and love you experienced and so much, much more. We turn everything into a story, in order, to make sense of life and our place within it. Our stories help us navigate our world, to understand right and wrong, be grateful for grace and love experienced and to provide meaning.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Blessings, Saints and Grace

“What is unique about a moment that has the power to bless us and the potential to feed us is not so much in the power of the moment itself, but rather the quality of the presence we bring to that moment. Our presence can change an ordinary, unnoticed moment into a moment of beauty that can feed the soul. Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.” - Macrina Wiederkehr

BillLilCleggs  This past week Karen and I traveled to Logan, WV to attend a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church where I served as pastor from 2002-2008. A good friend and church member Lillian Clegg had passed away the prior Friday. Lillian had meant a great deal to me and Karen during our time in Logan and in the years after.

  Her husband, Bill who passed away last May were two wonderful members within the life of the church. Both served with dedication and joy in many aspects of the church's life, giving of themselves in the music ministry of the church, serving in the operation of the Food Pantry, and regular members of the Bible Builders Sunday School class for decades. I have only listed a few of the many ways they contributed to building up the common ministry of the First Presbyterian Church. Their service and influence was far and wide both in the church and community. When I was new to the congregation, Lil was one of a few persons within the congregation I could call when I had questions about the church's practices and customs in years past and getting to know the people within the church.

  Our trip to Logan was both a mixture of sadness and joy. We last had the chance to sit down and talk to Bill and Lil three years ago during our last visit to Logan and it was now a sad trip, because we both realized we would no longer have the opportunity to sit down and speak to them again in this life.

  There was also joy because we had the chance to once again renew friendships among many other members of the church we loved as we together served within Christ's church. Karen and I both loved and respected these individuals at the church and we missed them greatly. If not for health issues I had which made living in southern WV impossible I had intended to serve there until retirement.

  Our trip to Logan reminded me of the many blessings I have been given in my life. Particularly, the blessings of people God has introduced me to along my spiritual journey. In the life of each congregation I have served I have been blessed by the witness and service of those who lived out their lives in Christ, both locally, in the presbytery, synod and beyond and within their communities. Their witness as disciples of Christ taught me lessons in grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, hope and faith. They enabled me to reflect upon the important questions and aspects of discipleship while widening and deepening my faith and spiritual formation. They also provided me countless sermon stories and illustrations during the past 30+ years.

  When I was younger I had hoped that God would allow me the opportunity to serve a single congregation for 30+ years, but I discovered God had different plans. The plan to learn about God's people and their struggles, their sins, their hopes, their transformations, and how amazing God's grace truly is. God seemed to say to me, “Lee, you need to hit the road, I have got some wonderful people for you to meet” and what a wonderful trip it has been and continues to be. God was abundantly blessed me through all the wonderful disciples of Christ I have been privileged to get to call my friends. Friends who have left me with wonderful memories, amazing stories, lasting impressions on how to lead a life of faithfulness, steadfast love and grace.

  Grace refers to all those unearned blessings that help make us who we are. As a person who has been abundantly blessed I recognize that I am called to show gratitude and be a blessing to others. I, both strive and struggle with how to bless others and share the wonderful experience of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. How to share with them that life which can become deeply enriching to their lives by being surrounded by others within the community of faith. I see each day individuals who are attempting to find blessing in all the wrong places and in things in which only separate us from the love of God. My greatest hope and prayer is they will discover the opportunity to experience the same great blessings I have experienced. My joy and blessings have came to me through the honor of knowing a few of God's saints, like, Bill and Lil, Earl and Suzanne, Jack, Radine, Bea, Fazal and many others, each day they continue to bless me and one day our joy will be complete when we are reunited in the life to come.

  “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” — William Arthur Ward

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lenten Devotion – Day 35

Today’s Scripture: Matthew 21:33-46

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matt. 21:43)

“A very small percentage of those in the church stand behind a pulpit or sport certain kinds of identifiable clothing. The actual leadership roster of the church includes disciples ministering in every arena of life, in business, law, medicine, education, the arts, sciences, government, and religion. The objective of Jesus’s church-growth strategy was not to build a single, behemoth social institution with a limited set of ordained authorities. Instead, his Spirit was to be poured out on all flesh to effect a widening, deepening base of influence within every nation, worldview, and social institution.” ― Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth

holyweek_6429c  As we enter Holy Week, we have in today’s scripture, Jesus had entered the final week of his life. Jesus has only a limited amount of time to remove any doubts about his mission and message among both his disciples and enemies alike. It was time to increase the intensity. So Jesus lays out this accusatory parable.

  Jesus offers a parable, but a rough relationship between owner and tenant. The parable is not a story of a landlord who abuses his power and fails to care for those living on his land. The parable targets the tenants who take advantage of the landowner's trust and generosity.

  The message was clear. God is the landlord who has leased his vineyard, his kingdom, to local laborers. God leased the vineyard fully expecting that the laborers would produce a good and fruitful crop. The time comes when for God wants a report on the fruitfulness of the land he has provided to them. He wants to see faith in his promises, repentance of sins and trust in his messengers. He wants his vineyard producing a wine that leaves the boundaries of the kingdom walls and fills the entire world with the goodness of what he grows. But rather than produce a measurable crop for the owner, the vineyard's residents have sat on their hands and have nothing to show him. As if that weren't bad enough, they murdered every servants (prophets) he'd sent to represent his interests.

  "Enough is enough," Jesus proclaimed. A time was at hand, “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.” (Matthew 21:34). God is no nasty slumlord. Israel was proven itself as an unfaithful and unfruitful tenant. The time of eviction had come. The time for new tenants, faith-filled, Messiah-following, cross-focused tenants, tenants capable of producing a fruitful crop had arrived. Soon after saying all of this, Jesus would be arrested.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lenten Devotion – Day 34

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Today’s Scripture: Luke 11:14-23

“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11:20)

In this crazy world, there's an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. But in the eyes of God, they're never separated. Where there is pain, there is healing. Where there is mourning, there is dancing. Where there is poverty, there is the kingdom. - Henri J. M. Nouwen

10507509025_b87411b3d0  The gospels reveal that it was impossible for people to encounter Jesus and remain indifferent toward him. This passage shows that some people interpreted his influence and power as arising from demonic sources. Jesus exposed the irrationality of their accusation and invited them to join him in gathering the kingdom harvest.

  When those who opposed Jesus’ ministry could not discredit him through rational and fair means, they switched their tactics to slander and irrational ideas. They declared that his power came from “demons by Beelzebul.” They attributed his power not to God but to the devil. Jesus countered their attempts by presenting two logical arguments.

  First, he struck them a shrewd blow. There already existed in Jesus’ time many exorcists in Palestine, who were closely connected to the individuals who were questioning Jesus’ practice of driving out demons. So basically, he says, “If I cast out devils because you believe I am league with the prince of devils, what about your own people who do the same.” If they are condemning Jesus then they are in turn condemning their own people.

  Second, he used a logical argument. Would it make sense for the prince of devils to work against himself by driving out demons, “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (v. 18) If a kingdom works against itself it will not last long, an irrational argument.

  It is not uncommon for people who come to resent or object to something to resort to slander and rumors to paint the other person in a bad light. Evidence of this in our world is quite apparent each day. By simply examining social media, we can see people with strong opinions posting online non-existent facts or half-truths to discredit someone they disagree. They attack the person’s character, their spouse, their children, and perceived wrongs or lacks of judgment. They want to deflect attention from the work or efforts the person is making in the world by attacking them in ways to make them look bad. This same behavior existed during Jesus’ time, except today we can take our attacks world-wide in a manner of hours.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lenten Devotion – Day 33

Friday, March 27, 2015

Today’s Scripture: Luke 4:38-44

But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." (Luke 4:43)

“We preach grace, but we don’t always practice it. We talk about God’s mercy, but we don’t always want the people who need it most to know it or get in on it. We say we are in the redemption business, but the door to that redemption is often locked by us from the inside. We say, “Come in! All are welcome!” but “all” is often marked with an asterisk. How, I ask, can the world change – how can heaven come to earth – if we stingily protest against God for his grace to others, grace we have freely received ourselves? How can we pray “thy kingdom come,” and be resentful toward God and those he allows to enter the kingdom in his way and his timing?” ― Ronnie McBrayer, How Far Is Heaven?: Rediscovering the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now

Kingdom-of-God  In our scripture reading today, we have Jesus’ first mention of the Kingdom of God in Luke’s gospel. Jesus came “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities.” Jesus quite clearly states his purpose and he does this after healing Simon’s mother in-law, healing other sick people and casting out demons, who clearly knew who Jesus was. Ask anyone what they know about Jesus and most likely they will mention Jesus’s healing of the sick. Though Jesus healed and cast out demons, he also in this first mention of the Kingdom of God in the gospel of Luke states this is not his purpose for this ministry. “Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” is.

  We have been looking at what it is to enter and receive the kingdom of God as a disciple of Christ, which was a topic Jesus addresses frequently. So then based on Jesus’ parables and illustrations about kingdom, what then is the gospel? What is the “good news”?

  You will often hear others, speak about the good news by saying things, like, “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” or “If you were to die tonight, and God was to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your answer?” Though these are important questions, Jesus, on the other hand, did not approach his world with a question at all, but with a proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom of God. A kingdom that exist in the past, present and future, a kingdom is far off, but is also near, a kingdom that exists in heaven, but also is among us.

  Often churches and pastors reduce our faith to a series of decisions and transactions, and although there are decisions we each need to make as disciples, reducing the Gospel to a decision to accept “God’s plan for my life” or giving the right answer to the question of how to go to heaven seems to only comprehend part of the message Jesus was proclaiming was doing in his earthly ministry.

  The good news is about God and what God is doing. It is not about me and my doing what I think is important. It is not about some idea of success or happiness as the world might define it. For some individuals, they have reduced the gospel to what God is determined to do to fill out our shopping lists of needs and wants. This is not good news, spoken about. This good news is an announcement that things are going to be different. Back in verses 18-19, Jesus gives us more of an idea about this proclamation of the good news when he says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lenten Devotions – Day 32

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Today’s Scripture: Luke 11:1-4

“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." (Luke 11:1)

“If you pray and ask God to make bananas red, God won’t, because there is nothing wrong with bananas being yellow. If you pray and ask God to change your health, finances, relationships, employment, and possessions to make you happy, God won’t, because changing them won’t make you happy. Not only is there nothing wrong with the impermanence of the world, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is present in this world of impermanence.” ― Jim Palmer, Notes from (over) the Edge: Unmasking the Truth to End Your Suffering

Print  Based on our opening quote today. Prayer does not mean that particular personal petitions do not matter, or go unanswered. The results we might gain from prayer needs considered from a perspective beyond the particular requests we make of God and whether God answer them. Over the years, I have heard others say, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” or “We cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy.” and also, “God has given us such immense freedom that he will allow us to be as miserable as we want to be.” Prayer helps us deal with the pain, hurt and difficulties life brings our way by building our relationship with God the Father.

  The Lord's Prayer points us to the big picture and the long run of being more prayerfully focused on honoring God, yearning for God's kingdom among us, relying on God's daily providence, seeking God's forgiveness, forgiving others, and trusting God's protection. The Holy Spirit's presence in our lives sustains this focus. Though often when we pray we discover ourselves at loss for words.

  In our scripture today from Luke, the disciples of Jesus may fear this very same dilemma in finding the right words in their future, so they ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to speak to God as they would speak to a member of their own family, calling God “Father,” an expression of intimacy and familiarity and suggests that they make three requests. They should ask for bread, for forgiveness and for deliverance, and they should trust God to give them whatever they need.

  Intimacy, trust and expectation. These are the attitudes that Jesus advises his disciples to adopt as they begin to learn the language of prayer. He encourages them to approach God in the same way that they would approach a loving parent, and to trust God to hear their prayers and answer them in ways that meet their needs.

  Jesus goes on to encourage us to pray with persistence, using the language of prayer to plead for what we need (vv. 5-8). And then he assures us that God will hear our prayer and answer us, for if we human parents know how to give good gifts to our children, then “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (v. 13). But there is one important dimension to these requests that disciples need to keep in mind — all appeals need to be consistent with the words “Your kingdom come” (v. 2). God is not going to grant any request that doesn’t conform to the priorities of his kingdom of love and peace and justice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lenten Devotion – Day 31

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Today’s Scripture: Acts 19:1-10

“He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” (Acts 19:8-9)

“Jesus is not saying, “Make sure you pray a prayer of repentance, start going to church, and wait for Me to come back.” He is saying, “You can live a radically different life because there’s a new world order that just broke in, so stop walking in the direction you’re going, turn 180 degrees, and walk toward Me and life in the kingdom of God.” - Halter, Hugh. Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, David C. Cook, p. 53.

4736df353ed6c4828696b39727bca704  When Luke wrote his gospel and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the reader of both will observe that Luke had clear objectives in writing each. First, in the Luke’s gospel, Luke gives witness to the work and person of Jesus Christ, as the Son of the Living God. Then, after Jesus’ ascension, Luke begins to tell us of the work of the early church in Acts, but not just the story of the church, but he gives witness to the work and person of the Holy Spirit to proclaim, spread and invite others to enter and receive the kingdom of God. Luke begins by stating, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2) Luke tells us how the Holy Spirit worked through the early church and apostles to change and transform their world and bring others into the kingdom of God.

  The original apostles, as well as Paul, did not use the term kingdom of God as often as Jesus used it, but not because it was not important to their proclamation of the good news. Luke in his gospel, had Jesus using the phrase, “kingdom of God,” thirty-one times, then in Acts, the phrase is used on six occasions. They did understand and believe in the kingdom of God Jesus taught them, for the apostles and the early church they understood that they were currently living in the kingdom as their present and current reality. They would speak of the kingdom coming to completion at the end times when Jesus returned, but the kingdom currently existed, in part within the community, the body of Christ, but it did not end with the church, they proclaimed it and called to others to follow the “Way” within the context of their known world.

  At the beginning of Acts, Luke has Jesus speaking to the apostles about the kingdom of God before his ascension (1:3) Then, Paul and Phillip used phrases, such as, “proclaiming the good news about….” (the kingdom of God) (8:12); “must enter….” (14:22); “argued persuasively about…” (19:8); “testifying to the ….” (28:33); “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ,” (28:31)

  The use of the phrase, “kingdom of God,” may not be as numerous as Jesus, but they were not deserting Jesus’ concern for the kingdom of God. They were simply expressing the same idea in their own way and spoke of the essential elements that were experienced when one lived in the kingdom. They expressed the kingdom as, God graciously giving salvation as a free gift of grace (extending His kingdom) to anyone who will receive it (enter the kingdom) through His Son Jesus Christ, and this salvation begins now (the kingdom is in the midst of you) and will be completed in the future (the kingdom will come like a thief in the night). As Paul put it, “the kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17).