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.