Elton John, a young sprig, cedar fruit, birds of every kind, and the church.

I didn’t think I was ready.  And most days, I still don’t know if I am.

The year was 1998.  The song that lasted the longest that year at #1 on the Billboard music charts was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” The fashion was…well, if you Google “Fashion in 1998” the first hit will be an article in Glamour Magazine (if you didn’t get your copy in the mail) that is entitled:  “9 Fashion Trends from 1998 that are Just as Relevant in 2018.”  Take out your pens and pencils.  If you’re wearing “logo wear,” “microfloral dresses,” or small, symmetrical sunglasses, you’re trending.

Back to 1998…

In 1998 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.  I had passed a series of ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church.  And I had interviewed in a variety of places, including Columbia, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  It was this campus ministry in Chattanooga that I felt God’s call.  And the leaders there called my wife and me, married a little over a year, to pastor this ministry that met on sixty folding chairs in a living room one block off of the University Tennessee-Chattanooga campus.

I wonder: What makes three years of studying Bible, Greek, Hebrew, church history, a handful of preaching classes, youth ministry classes, plus passing a few exams—what makes all of that make someone ready to lead a group of people?  What makes all of that qualify someone to teach the Word of God to a group of 18-22 year olds.  A group that over the next sixteen years would grow to over 400 people in worship and small group meetings.

I was twenty eight years old when I began serving in that ministry.  I was, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel—a tender young sprig.  I had only been a believer in Jesus for 12 years at that point.  And now leading a group of people in what it means to follow Jesus.

How many of us have found that God works just like that?  That the periods of growth in our lives come when we think we are not quite ready.

Can you think back on those times in your life when you were young at something or inexperienced at something—it all felt new and tender and vulnerable—and God, or a boss, or a coach, or someone else said, “I want you to go here and start this.  I want you to lead this.  I want you to serve here.”

I’m told that when you are wanting to transplant a vine, or a tree, you look for a new branch—one article I read said a branch less than a year old would work best.

Which brings me to this passage in Ezekiel 17:

22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”

Now all of this about a tender sprig growing into a strong cedar–what this text in Ezekiel 17 was about is a very specific situation.

What God was saying through Ezekiel then was about Israel, and the kingdom of Babylon that had put them in exile.  God’s people had experienced the king of Babylon coming to Jerusalem and snapping off a portion of God’s people like a sprig from a tree and taking them to a foreign land.  Here, God says He Himself will take a sprig…but instead of that sprig withering away, it will grow.

One of the things I love about God’s Word is that these words—written to a particular people, in a particular situation, for a particular purpose—these words are living and active—and the meaning then still has meaning now for us.

Jesus knew this.  He knew the Word of God, and many of the people he spoke to knew these Scriptures as well.  So when Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed—would grow to the largest of garden plants so that birds of every kind would nest in its shade—when Jesus spoke those words and said “birds of every kind nesting in its shade,” do we think this was a coincidence?  One of the things we need to know about Jesus—that when he spoke, not a word was wasted.  Do we think for a moment that he wasn’t wanting to call others’ minds to these days of Ezekiel—so that when Jesus said “birds of every kind will nest in its shade,” those that knew Ezekiel’s prophecy would know that Jesus was talking about a kingdom–and a kingdom people.  A kingdom that reflects every kind of bird finding shelter under a strong tree.

What is God’s kingdom?  I think one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard was from Dallas Willard:  Where God’s will is being done.

“The Kingdom of God: It is present wherever what God wants done is done.”  (see more here)

Contrast that with our kingdom:  Where we strive to make what we want done done.  How much of our time and energy are spent trying to make our own kingdom grow?  Trying to arrange our lives in order to make our will be done as much as possible.  How is that working out for us?

Is it any wonder Jesus taught us to pray, “YOUR (God’s) kingdom come, YOUR (God’s) will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

Jesus in his parables sought to point out that God has always been about making His kingdom grow—by making His kingdom people grow.  So he used parables about seeds growing to large garden plants, nets and fish, weeds and wheat, and much more.

Back to Ezekiel, who has a parable of his own.

That strong tree begins with inauspicious beginnings.  A tender shoot.  But the Master Gardener, God Himself, is the one who takes the sprig.  NOTE: If you read all of Ezekiel 17, you’ll notice that kings are the ones who try and plant their own sprigs.  But here, God is the one who cuts and plants.  He knows what He is doing.  That might be the first principle for us desiring to make shade for others—let God do the planting.  Let God do the planting.  This sprig has been planted by God in a particular place—it grows.  With branches that spread out.  And it bears fruit— I had to look that up:  Does cedar really produce fruit?  I hadn’t seen it recently at a grocery store.  Well, I guess a cedar does bear fruit.  A dark blue berry that is usually eaten by squirrels and birds.  But Native Americans used it as an herbal remedy for arthritis and nausea.  Don’t try this at home.  In any case, the tender sprig becomes a strong cedar, spreading out its branches, bearing fruit, making shade for birds of every sort.

The church where I serve has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years.  Fifty years ago, the elders and leadership of this church moved from a beautiful space at 36th and J Streets to plant something new here on Carlson and H Street.  Before that, 14th and O Street, where the first church was built at a cost of $500 with labor donated, and then rebuilt on 15th and O for $10,000.

Fremont Presbyterian 15th and O

Each of those moves in our history were inspired by God to grow something new, to give something new, to go somewhere new, to be something new.

Aren’t the words of Ezekiel for us as well?  That we are planted here to grow branches, bear fruit, so that birds of every kind—people of every culture, race, and language—can gather and find a home?

Will we continue to grow, to deepen our roots in this community and city?  Will we be a strong cedar, under which birds of every kind—people of every race, language, and culture—can gather and find shelter and hope?

As only God’s Word can do:  when you look at these verses through the lens of the gospels—the story of Jesus—we find remarkable parallels.

A man, a young shoot from the family line of King David.  Who the night before his death said, “Let this cup pass from me…but not my will be done, but yours be done.”  He was a man cut down in the prime of his life—tradition has it at age thirty-three.  A tender sprig placed up on the hard wood of a cross.  Lifted up and planted down upon a mountain in Israel.  A shameful death.  But that death has brought life.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection continues to grow in its depth, spreading out to all nations—as people from every nation, every culture, every language are finding forgiveness and grace.

The words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel are coming true:  All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.  May we join in God’s kingdom work by making shade for all peoples.  Amen.

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Stop Throwing Shade–Start Making It

We live in a world abounding with people throwing shade.  That is, people publicly expressing contempt and scalding critique for others.  It isn’t just, “I disagree with this person.”  It goes into those areas of contempt and bitterness and rage.  We see it on the news, on social media, in music, in film.  It’s everywhere.

What about instead of “throwing shade,” we began to make shade?  A good kind of shade.  Shade, like from a tree, on a hot day.  That cools you, protects you, shelters you.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to grow in my relationship with Jesus–meaning I want to learn how he lived, how he spoke, and model my life after his. Over the years, I find myself walking through different stages.  And, that I often re-enter these stages as God is showing me something new.  We can talk about the seed stage—where we are asking questions, having doubts, not sure of what we believe.  But there is something there, waiting to sprout.  We can talk about the sapling stage:  where the small seed of faith begins to emerge from the soil of our lives, and we surround ourselves with the things we need to grow:  community, the Word of God, an understanding that we will face pruning and trials, and more.

As we grow, we enter a new stage:  When we make shade. Jesus talks about God’s kingdom being like a mustard seed—that grows until the birds make their nests in its shade.  The church where I have served the last four years has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years.  Those those years, we have made shade for others—in ministry with an elementary school and a people group in Ethiopia, with college students at nearby Sacramento State, and some more recent partnership with people in Haiti and Jamaica.    Our Fremont Nursery School has a longstanding reputation in our community to care for children well.  We are making shade for others.

There is a community side to making shade for others.

Yet there is also a personal side to making shade.

This is the stage in which we have grown—have understood that God has given us a story, a journey, and certain experiences in our lives.  God has given us gifts, and we find that others are being blessed by our gifts, and our story.  People may be gathering in and around us.  It may be formal or informal.  It may be in having a cup of coffee in your home with a struggling neighbor or friend.  It may be in a work setting, or a volunteer setting, where you are finding yourself leading others.  But you begin to notice that the gifts that God has given you, the story God has given you is a source of encouragement, hope, rest and comfort for others. Making shade is also challenging others to grow as well.  Like the branches of a tree that are growing, reaching out from their center, so too followers of Jesus can grow and reach out from their center of faith to bless others.

I think what we will discover when we look closely that Scripture paints a picture of what God desires for a people who call on His Name.  That they would grow—and that when they grow—not in numbers necessarily, but in depth, influence—becoming more like Jesus each and every day—when God’s people grow, they affect others.

Look at Psalm 80.

Psalm 80:8-11

You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.

   You cleared the ground for it;

it took deep root and filled the land.

10   The mountains were covered with its shade,

the mighty cedars with its branches.

11   It sent out its branches to the sea

and its shoots to the River.

This is the story of Israel.  The book of Exodus especially chronicles the part of the story in Psalm 80.

A nation of people who escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt.  God rescued them.  God brought them through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to a Promised Land.  After tumultuous times, they enjoyed a golden age of their nation under the reign of King David.

There are also hints to the story of Jesus.  In a few weeks, we celebrate his birth believing he was, and is,  God come to us in the flesh.

He and his family had to escape to Egypt.  When he returned to his homeland, he said, “I am the vine.”  We are the branches.  If we stay with him, we will bear much fruit.  We will be agents of healing and reconciliation, speak good news to others, and proclaim that God is here.

There are even more echoes from Psalm 80:8-11: on a hill called Calvary, Jesus spread out his arms on a tree.  The land became dark.  Who knew that the shade of that day would bring forgiveness and new life for all who would call upon the name of Jesus?

Israel’s story, and the story of Jesus—is our story.

The Exodus was Israel’s rescue story.

What’s your rescue story? Where has God rescued you?

God cleared the ground and planted Israel.

God has planted you somewhere.  Even prepared the conditions for you to thrive and grow.

We’ve been rescued and planted.  Planted for a purpose.

I wonder how many of us have lost sight of that purpose? Are you disillusioned with your faith?

Have you tired of the same old routine?  Attending church, attending to your own relationship with Christ, trying to supplement with Bible study, prayer, and church events like spiritual multi-vitamins?  Hear me:  there is nothing wrong with those things.  It is how we grow.  But eventually we need to understand that our growth has a purpose.

Where are you providing shade for others?

Remember who you are called to be.

God has always intended that His salvation for a people, would make a people.  And that that people would extend the reign of God to all peoples.

God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, to bring salvation, to all peoples. 

Examples abound in the Bible:  God says to Abraham:  You will be blessed, to be a blessing for all nations. (Genesis 12)

And in the prophet Isaiah:

“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6

[By the same token, it is too small a thing for us to exist for ourselves, or even for the church.  This is too small a vision for our lives.]

Jesus says:  You shall be my witnesses…even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Go and make disciples of all nations…(Matthew 28:19)

The list above is not exhaustive, but represents a familiar refrain.  God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, who would bring salvation to all peoples.

A friend named Oldson Duclos preached at our church a few weeks back, and spoke of “Common people doing uncommon things for the common good.”  I love that.

Even though we know these Scriptures, I think we have lost this idea in the evangelical church.  Somewhere along the line, we made the gospel into a message of individual salvation.  And that the task once we had a knowledge of our salvation was just to “stay saved.”  We somewhere lost the message of growing in Christ.  And we lost the message of growing together to become a people who bring salvation to all peoples.

But the trajectory we are on, if we can trust the Scriptures, is that there will one day be wholeness, peace, and new creation, and all peoples will bear witness to it.

Hear this from Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

Have you ever wondered:  How did that multitude get there?  From every nation, all tribes, peoples, languages?  Then ask yourself:  How did you get to where you are?  How did you get to your place of faith?  (I’m guessing someone else had something to do with it!)

God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, who would bring salvation to all peoples.  We’ve been invited to grow into a people, whose branches will spread out into the world.  And as we grow, we’ll be making shade, instead of throwing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Toto’s “Africa” taught me.

I hate Toto’s song, “Africa.”  But it has taught me that you never know what you’ll be known for.

If you were used to this blog being somewhat of a tiny source of wisdom or biblical insight, just skip this one. This is just purely for fun.  There is one Bible thing at the end.

For sixteen years of my life, I was a college ministry pastor in Tennessee.  We used to serve lunch every Tuesday for college students, and one particular day, I got into a conversation with a young man who was a leader in our ministry who happened to run sound. This will be an important detail later.

For some reason I’ve always hated this song. I don’t know if it hearkens back to the days of 1980s high school dances, where it was one of those horrible songs that wasn’t quite a fast song, wasn’t quite a slow song. In other words, it wasn’t dance-able.  Please try and stifle the laughter if you are trying to imagine me dancing.

What I recall about the conversation with this young student was this:  He was trying to make a case for how “deep” the lyrics were, something probably about existential angst and what-not.  He was 18, maybe 19.  You remember those years right?  To his argument about how deep the lyrics were, I simply laughed.  I made the case that if you listen to the lyrics, they make no sense.  Just Google “Toto Africa lyrics.”  Read them carefully.

I’ll wait…

See what I mean?

The guy is obviously confused.  For one, he thinks the girl arriving on the 12:30 flight is “salvation.”  Good luck.

Or, is the guy saying that the stars guide him toward some sort of cosmic salvation?  Good luck with that.  Is he into horoscopes?

He interrupts an old man.  He says something about “it waiting there for you.”  What is this “it”?

I know what some of you are thinking.  Ah, this is art.  The lyrics can be interpreted on many different layers, and is open to your interpretation.  Blah blah blah.  I just want something in music that is understandable (and perhaps danceable…stop laughing.)

Let’s keep going.

After the chorus where the guy seems to go all macho and say he could overcome 100 men to stay with the girl, and he takes it upon himself to bless the rains in Africa, we come to the second verse.

Enter the wild dogs.

They are longing for solitary company.  So Dr. Dolittle/songwriter can now understand wild dogs and their cries.  Wild dog whisperer. Awesome.

WARNING: EXTREME TURN IN LYRICS COMING!

The writer says he must do what is right. As sure as a mountain rises above a plain.  But wait, as sure as an African mountain rises like a mythical Greek mountain of the gods above an African national park/ecosystem.  Not sure of the metaphor here.  (But I’m thinking someone is going to spend some time on this and come up with something that sounds like a 18 year old college student with existential angst).

WARNING:  RED FLAG!

Just when you were picturing a mountain like another mountain over a plain, the song gets dangerous.  “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become.”  Ok, wait.

Let’s just say this.  If one of my daughters were to come home and say, “Hey Dad, I just met this guy, and he said to me, “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become,” I’m telling her, “Run.  Run far away.  Never look back.  As sure as a real mountain like another mythical mountain rises above a real plain, you should run far away from that guy.”  To which my daughter texts her friends and says, “I think my dad is losing it.”

So the song finishes with chorus, chorus, blah, blah, blah.

A friend recently posted that in three different interviews, the writer of the song gave three different answers about what the song was really about.  Hmmm.  You think?

At this point, some of you may remember something about the conversation with the student, who was the sound guy at our college ministry.  Yeah, about that.  So, after the aforementioned argument/heated conversation, said sound guy decided to take it upon himself to play Toto’s Africa after each one of our worship services.  I would say a blessing over the students, “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  And then it would kick in.

Do do do do-do do duuuu.

“I bless the rains down in Africa.”

This happened, it felt like, for something like…I don’t know…10 years?  Maybe more?

Now, what is funny/torturing-to-my-soul, is that some bands have come out with remixes of the song–Weezer, for one.  Every time someone remixes it, a former student will send it to me, or post it on our Facebook alumni page.  Ha ha.

Or if they hear it at their kid’s junior high dance.  Or if they hear it by chance.  Or if it came on in the car.  Or if they were running far.

To which I want to say, a la Dr. Seuss:  “I do not like Toto’s Africa.  I do not like it here or there.  I do not like it anywhere.”

I thought I escaped this when I moved to a new ministry position in California.  And I told my teenage son the story.  And he told one of the guys in the youth group…who happens to run sound.

I was especially not-gratified to hear that the ministry I used to serve–The House, Chattanooga, Tennessee–still plays Toto’s Africa after their services sometimes.  One of my dear friends who still works there overheard a conversation between two students walking out of the service.

“Isn’t this song like really, REALLY old?”

“Yeah.  Wonder why they play it?”

Yes, anonymous young college student.  I wonder why anyone plays it.

So the title of this blog was what Toto’s Africa Taught Me.  Some of you may be wondering what the answer is.  What did Toto’s Africa teach me?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

What did getting in an argument with the sound guy teach me?  Lots of things.  A whole lot of things.

Oh, and you’ll never know what you’ll be known for.

P.S.  Proverbs 6 speaks of six things the Lord hates.  I always thought six sounded incomplete.  Seven is a number of completion.  I have an idea, Lord, for your number 7 thing to hate.

Proverbs 6:16-19

There are six things the Lord hates,
    seven that are detestable to him:
17         haughty eyes,
        a lying tongue,
        hands that shed innocent blood,
18         a heart that devises wicked schemes,
        feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19         a false witness who pours out lies
        and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

20 And a song you can’t dance to, and can’t understand.

I wore a tuxedo to church.

I really did.  Just a few days ago.

It was one of those late at night ideas when I was thinking about how to communicate the truth of what God has done for us.  In a way that is visible.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I have been preaching out of passages in the prophet Isaiah for a few weeks now.  This past week, it was Isaiah 61:1-11.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim liberty to the captives…
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
      2     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor   (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this at the beginning of his ministry (see Luke 4).  Implicit in this is that God’s Spirit is empowering him.  God has called him to these tasks.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus lived as one living for something else…rather, someone else.

As Christians, our story starts and ends with Jesus.  We learn from watching Him live out that mission—and our mission is shaped by His.  We are to be those that bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, set free those bound in prison, and proclaim God’s grace to all who will listen.  His way of being—slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in forgiveness—his ways become our ways. Jesus ended the reading in the synagogue right there.  But the passage goes on:

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3  to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
   the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
   that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4  They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.  (Isaiah 61:2-4)

This is where the tuxedo comes in.  A transformation takes place:  God changes their clothing from one of mourning to celebration.  Over a garment of despair, a garment of praise.

When I wore my tux to church that day, it was amazing the reactions I got.  I saw people whispering amongst themselves, and they were all trying to guess where I was going after church.  “Must be a wedding,” some of them told me.  One joked that I must not have had anything else clean to wear.

But then here is this abrupt shift of metaphor from the outfitting for a wedding to the tending of a garden.  From the haberdashery to the arboretum.

The changing of clothing from despair to praise is for a purpose:  So that they might be oaks. Oaks not for themselves.  A planting for the display of God’s splendor.  I continue to marvel at the fact that God chooses to make Himself known through His people.

I talked to our junior high group a couple of weeks ago about God being just.  And I shared with them a talk I heard by Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission.  Haugen said, “God’s only plan for showing the world that He is a just God, God’s only plan for this…is us!”

In a similar fashion, I see here that God’s plan for showing the world what kind of God He is…is us!  We are a planting for God’s glory.

Why God’s glory?  Is God an egomaniac, seeking words of affirmation like an insecure teenager going to their first dance?

God’s glory is seen in a human being fully alive,  said the church father Irenaeus.  Perhaps translated more properly:  “Life in a human is the glory of God; the life of a human is the vision of God.” [cited here]

And the vision of God we see is a being that is with and for us.  He created us in His image.  He became one of us in Jesus Christ; willing to sacrifice Himself for our salvation.  Glory of God is for another.

Another reason why God’s glory is worth pursuing:  Because the glory of human beings is fleeting.  It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.  When we see a human being seeking their own glory, don’t we reel back at that display?

But the glory of God is with us, and for us.*

So we shall be glad to be a planting for God’s glory.

God has planted us as a church on a particular corner in a particular city.  As a group of people.  Not just a building, but a people.

There was a question that was asked amongst us last week:  “When people drive by this church, what do they think of?  How are we known in this community?”  People first get to know us by things that we do.  Events we hold for the community.  They are open doors to greet and welcome people into our midst.  But this passage is a challenge for us to ask ourselves, “What are we displaying?”

We are to be a display of God’s glory and splendor.  Somehow, in the way that we live, the way that we speak, what we do—is supposed to be for the praise of God—people should see the character and heart of God in us.

And, we become the rebuilders and restorers.  Of beauty.  Of fruitful and fair commerce.  We become those that engage in righteous practices in law and government.  We create art and culture that is honoring to God and others.  We become teachers that treat each person with dignity as they are made in the image of God.

Isaiah has more to say…

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6  but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
   you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7  Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
   therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
   I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9  Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
   all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.  (Isaiah 61:5-9)

We will be called priests and ministers.  That does not mean that all of us will do the things that we think ministers do.  That is, work one day a week and talk about the Bible.

Instead, the image is that our way of living will be like a clothing—that when we are seen in the world, people will say, “They represent God.”

Tucked into this is a message of good news:  Instead of shame and dishonor, God will bless.  Shame can traumatize all of us.  Most of us hear this promise of God–that we shall represent Him–and say in our minds, “Not me.  I couldn’t possibly be someone who represents God.  Look at what I’ve done.  Look at what I’m still doing.”

Listen:  the Bible is NOT full of stories of men and women who completely overcame their brokenness and THEN God used them.  It is full of stories that God showed His power and might through their brokenness, and in spite of their brokenness.

God will make the wrong things right.  He hates robbery and wrong, He loves justice. And, this passage seems to be telling us–we will be the children of God that help enact that justice.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
   for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
   as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11     For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
   so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.             (Isaiah 61:10-11)

At our church, we’ve been using this imagery of a tree to talk about our relationship with God.  Seed, sapling, providing shade for others, and then a sower.  The sapling stage of our life is when the seed of faith has broken through the soil, but our relationship is still in need of certain things to help us grow strong.  In those sapling stages of our life:  God tenderly begins to tell us this:  We begin to discover that our life with God isn’t just for our own happiness.  There is pruning that takes place that isn’t pleasant.  But in the end, we emerge a stronger tree—a more righteous oak.

In this sapling stage we begin to understand this:  that while God is for us, life isn’t about us.  We begin to understand that our lives can be a song of praise to God.

In this passage is this idea of us all needing to surround ourselves with praise.   “I will rejoice…my soul shall exult…praise shall sprout up before all nations.”

Why praise?  When we call upon the name of God, the promises of God, something happens within us.  There are scores of medical studies that show that having a positive attitude, positive thoughts, can help immensely in the battle against disease, illness, even cancer.  Do we think that singing praise to God would have the same effect?

Beyond those positive effects, we praise because God is worthy of it.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about the conditions that are needed for us all when we are at the early stages of our faith—this sapling stage of faith.

  • We need the water of community.
  • We need to be deeply rooted, planted straight, strong, level.
  • We need to rest and trust in God’s grace in times of weakness.
  • We need the word of God, to be reminded of His promises to us.
  • We need praise.

In the end, this beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 tells us this:  We get new clothes.  A new identity.  A new life.

God gets a song.  (Sounds like a bad deal for God doesn’t it?)  We get a new identity, a completely transformed life—God gets a song?  But that song is our life, fully lived out for Him.

We need to worship.  We need to be reminded that seeking our own glory leads to emptiness, seeking God’s glory leads to abundance.

When we take all of the main parts of Isaiah 61, we have the fullness of the gospel message.

  • Someone once came, preaching good news to the poor, free those in prison. God did those things in the person of Jesus.
  • When we follow Him, listen to His Words—we are changed.  Changed for a purpose.  We become rebuilders and restorers.
  • People will see God because of us.  Not only because of how we talk, but how we live, and what we do, and how we do it.
  • So we gather in rejoicing in praise.  We need this rejoicing and praise.  And every nation, every race, every language will see justice and God’s glory.

It wouldn’t be practical to wear tuxedos and gowns every day.  After a while, people would stop paying attention anyway.  But I pray our lives would reflect the love, peace, mercy, justice and grace of God.  And we would stand like oaks of righteousness, displaying God’s splendor to the world.

 

*I am grateful to Scot McKnight and his book, “One.Life:  Jesus Calls, We Follow” for this insight about God being with and for us.

When the Trees Go To…Worship?

ent

Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.

 

Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”

 

What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 

 

*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of Discipleship.org.  

The Miraculous and the Mundane

The phone rang…

“I just had an idea, and wanted to share it with you.”  Unfortunately, in church circles, this is often how someone levels a criticism at you.  I braced myself.  But I trusted this person on the phone, so I listened.  He went on to suggest that I begin writing–perhaps just a brief synopsis of what I had spoken on the previous Sunday.  He admitted often forgetting what I had said just days before, as the demands of work, family, and the overall busyness of life drowned out a few moments of clarity on Sunday.  I breathed easier.  I took it as a compliment of sorts.  That he wanted to be reminded of the things I was saying during his week.  He mentioned often having to travel, and how others as well might be missing what is said in a given week.  That this brief synopsis might be able to continue the conversations we’re having as a community.  I agreed.

I went on to confess to him that I had once started a blog.  (As of this writing, it has been almost 18 months since I last wrote).  But I had gotten lazy with it, wondered if anyone was reading, and just needed to be disciplined again with it.  I told him that his phone call might just be what I needed to start it up again.  (Thank you!  You know who you are…)

So here we are.

To begin, ask yourself this question:  How tired are you of waiting on God?

Have you been looking for God to work in only certain ways?  Have you been looking for the miracle, when He might be doing something in the daily-ness of your life?  Or, have you given up on the miracle?  Meanwhile, could it be that God is doing exactly the thing you aren’t expecting, the thing you gave up on?

This past week, I talked about a story found in the gospel of John.  The resurrected Jesus appearing on the shore, his disciples fishing all night, catching nothing.  He tells them to put their net on the other side of the boat, and voila, net full of fish.  At this point, one of the disciples knows this is Jesus (they don’t recognize him from being 100 yards off shore).  Peter jumps out of the boat, rushes to the shore.  The rest of the disciples bring in the boat and net full of fish.  They find Jesus has already cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish over a charcoal fire.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.

I spoke about three of the sentences found in this story.  One spoken by Peter, one spoken by John, and one by Jesus.

“I’m going fishing.” 

Peter says this.  We don’t know why, though commentators love to speculate about what was going on in his head.  He had given up fishing for a living, followed this rabbi/teacher Jesus of Nazareth around for 3-plus years, saw him do amazing things, say powerful and provocative things.  He saw this man he called Lord arrested, flogged, and heard* he was crucified–a horrible, shameful death for a criminal. He then is there when Jesus appears to a locked roomful of disciples.  What do you do with that?

“I’m going fishing” represents all the times in our lives that we return to the thing we knew how to do when we don’t know what else to do.  When we grieve the loss of something or someone, we at some point have to return to the “normal” things of life.  We may seek out the thing that brings us comfort because we know how to do it, maybe without thinking.  None of us really know how to grieve.  We go “fishing.”

“It is the Lord.” 

John says this.  He says it when Jesus tells them to cast the net on the other side.  The disciples do this, and the net is full of fish after a night full of no fish.

A night of fishing without Jesus yields nothing; a moment of listening to Jesus yields a net full of fish. 

John recognizes that only Jesus does this kind of thing.

“It is the Lord” represents those times in our lives when we see God show up in the only way that God does.  It is so unique to our situation that we know it is Him.  He does something that reminds of a previous event or chapter in our lives.  And it is nothing short of a miracle.  It is an abundance out of nothing.  One moment–nothing.  The next–abundance.  It is the Lord doing that.

“Come and have breakfast.”

Jesus says this.  It’s a marvelous picture, really.   The God of heaven and earth in the flesh, the One who made all things, the One who suffered death and was now alive, cooking breakfast for some Galilean fishermen.  The Bible doesn’t say where Jesus got the bread or the fish.  Yes, I know he could have just spoke it all into existence. “Let there be bread and fish,” and poof! Fresh baked bread and fish.  But there is this detail of the charcoal fire in the story, and for me, that throws out that idea “Jesus makes a magic meal.”  Can you picture Jesus walking the streets early that morning?  Buying bread from someone that He knew baked it just right?  How about Him walking down to the shore?  Can you picture Jesus gathering sticks, starting the fire (how did they do that back then?), slowly stoking the fire just right to cook the fish perfectly?  Warming the bread on stones next to the fire? I can see it.

“Come and have breakfast” represents those times in our lives when God is simply inviting us to sit down, let Him provide for our daily bread.  After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray that?  The picture is deeper.  God inviting us to have a conversation with Him.  An unhurried conversation over a simple meal.  And those opportunities are there for us every day.  In the mundane moments of our lives.

It’s a beautiful story.  A miraculous catch of fish.  And a mundane meal.

God shows up in the both the miraculous, and the mundane.  May we have eyes to see both.

 

 

* The gospels do not record Peter as being at the cross, though some speculate he looked on from a distance based on Luke 23:49:  “But all those who knew him . . . stood at a distance, watching these things”

 

If you build it…they will have a home

It’s a variation on a line from what is now a classic 1989 movie, Field of Dreams.  Starring Kevin Costner, the story revolves around a man who is told by a voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn fields.  The voice tells him, “If you build it…they will come.”if-you-build-it   Since that time, I’ve heard people borrow that line for all kinds of things.  I’ve heard it as justification for building a sports stadium in a city and a new church auditorium.

But I’ve never heard it for the homeless.

Our church is getting an opportunity to be a part of something new here in our city.  A fellow pastor and friend is leading the way.  Drawing upon what places like Austin, Texas is doing (click here, and click on the video on that page), we get to be a part of a tiny house village for the homeless.  It’s called Compassion Village.  compassion_edit-1-1000x600Our friends at E49 Corporation have been bringing together engineers, lawyers, fundraisers, carpenters, contractors, and others for several months.  With the partnership of a local church, St. Paul Church of God in Christ, there is a plot of land on which up to 20 tiny homes will be placed.  I had the privilege of meeting the pastor there, Pastor Larry K. Joyner.  With pride he showed me how he has transitioned room after room in the church to store food that he and a team of people give away each week.  A building on the back of the property, once used to house foster children, will now be re-purposed into apartments and bathroom and kitchen facilities for the residents of Compassion Village.

On Sunday, April 30th, our church is changing what it does on a typical Sunday.  Instead of our usual three services, we are gathering for one service, enjoying a meal together, and then getting to work.  We’re calling it, “Rebuilding Hope: The Compassion Village Project.” Some will be building and painting the two tiny homes we have committed to build.  Others will be knitting fleece blankets and hats.  We’re inviting families to serve together, painting rocks with messages of hope on them, to line the pathways of Compassion Village. Some will travel to the site of the village to work on projects to prepare the site and re-purpose the existing building.

We’ve reached out to existing ministry partners that have been serving the homeless for years, and on that Sunday, we will help with needs they have.  We’ve learned from these friends, who have been pushing for a “housing first” model for years.  We’ve learned that 13 years ago, our city’s leaders put together a vision and plan that talked about “housing first” in order to put an end to chronic homelessness.

I love that we get to do this.  The church looking to bless the city, as that city looks to help solve the problem of housing for the homeless.  The prophet Jeremiah once said, “Build houses and live in them…seek the peace and prosperity of your city.”  The building is just beginning…

Praying Without Charade

For the last three months, our church has been studying the book of James.  These words have been hard-hitting. James has talked to us about doubt, anger, appearances, fear, ambition, selfishness, and wealth.  This quote reflects the theme well:

“This letter (James) to the leaders of the early church is incredibly significant because it pounds away at one consistent message: faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  George Barna, Growing True Disciples.

James chooses to end the letter by talking about prayer.  Whether we find ourselves in trouble or bursting with joy, we should pray.  If we are dealing with sickness, we call upon those leaders that God has put in our lives to pray over us, and the Lord will raise us up.  When burdened with sin, we offer prayers for forgiveness.  In all parts of our lives, James is saying, we are invited to pray, and have others pray for us.

Elijah-Peter Paul Rubens

Angels Give Bread and Water to Elijah         Peter Paul Rubens 

He reminds us of the prophet Elijah, whose life and ministry can be found in I Kings 17-2 Kings 2.  Elijah was such a powerful figure in the history of God’s people that when Jesus was carrying out his ministry, many believed he was Elijah raised from the dead (Matthew 16:14). James reminds us of Elijah because his life was marked by one amazing work of God after another.  It is as if James is saying, “God has worked this way, and God does work this way.  So whether you are in trouble, happy, sick, or need to confess, ask God in prayer.”

Going back to the quote from George Barna;  “faith that is not wholly integrated and consistently lived out is a charade.”  Combine that with all the situations that James mentions here.  All of life:  joy and sorrow, sickness and health, confession and forgiveness—live it all before God, asking Him for help.

Is this our first instinct?  That when things go wrong, or things are going very right, that we go to God?  Do we believe that God hears?  More than that, can we believe that God will answer our prayers? I’m reminded of the words of the hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”:

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our every weakness, Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Questions for reflection:  Where is it you need to go to God?  What aspects of your life have you been resistant to take to God in prayer?

What the book of James taught me about making money.

I will never read James 4:13-15 without smiling at the memory. I was 22 years old.  I had just finished an internship in college ministry in Boulder, Colorado.  I thought that God might be calling me to more ministry, and I needed more training.  That meant seminary, and a three-year Master’s degree. The problem was, I had a lot of student loan debt from collSeattle Skylineege.  I thought to myself, “I’ll go back to Seattle (my hometown), find a job, make as much money as I can, and pay off the debts.  Then, I could think about going to seminary.”  I told a few family members and friends my plan.

 

The thing was, I couldn’t seem to find a job that paid me a lot of money.  Instead, I found two jobs in two churches!  One was making copies at what had become a “home church” for me, University Presbyterian Church.

Folding machine I made $7 an hour, with an impressive title of “Production Coordinator.” I ran the copy machine, helped stuff the church newsletter, cut flyers, and folded the bulletins with a machine that may have been developed during World War II.  (folding machine to the left may be exaggerated for dramatic effect. I don’t recall mine being so shiny.)

The other job was as a part-time youth director for a church in the south part of Seattle.  I developed an after school program for kids in the neighborhood, most of whom had never stepped foot in a church.  At the same time, I shared a house with five other twenty-somethings, all of us committing to live out our faith in Christ, being good neighbors, and helping with the kids in the after-school program.

My original “plan” didn’t quite work out.  And it was in that year that I came across these words in James 4: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”…Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will.” I couldn’t get away from the fact at how much the words of James echoed exactly what I had said a few months earlier.  It was as if the Lord was writing to me through this letter. I learned that year that my plans should be written in pencil.  And that the Lord might have different plans.  Those experiences I had that year in those two churches and with my housemates were ones I wouldn’t replace.  And that the Lord’s will (the word literally means “wish/want”) is better than my plans.

Question for reflection: What about you? Has there been a time that your plans were replaced by the Lord’s wishes, and you’re glad they were?