Sunday, July 17, 2011

Surely the Lord Is In This Place...And I Didn't Know It.

The story of Jacob in the reading this morning begins with verse 10 of chapter 28 of Genesis and says that “Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran”.  Jacob didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I wonder what’s happening in Haran tonight.”  We have to go back a few verses into chapter 27 to see that Jacob was leaving one of the most dysfunctional families in the history of the world!  Jacob had conspired with his mother to steal his brother, Esau’s, blessing from their blind father.  Esau had threatened to kill Jacob and their mother learned of this. So, she convinced her husband that the women in the area where they lived were not really good “wife material” and suggested that he send Jacob to another land to marry a woman there (one of his cousins I might add.)  When his brother heard that his father “didn’t like the women in the area that they lived,” even though he was already married, he went out and got another wife from another country just so his brother would not be one up on him.  This family’s story is full of jealousy, deception, manipulation, competition, anger and hatred…and THIS is the family that God chooses to make His covenant with!  We should all feel like maybe there is just a bit of hope for us in our relationship with God at this point!
When Jacob deceives his father into giving him the blessing that should have gone to the first-born son, his father is trying to determine if the person in front of him really is his first-born son, Esau, and he asked a question about how the son was able to bring him a meal of wild game so quickly.  Jacob, who was pretending to be Esau, said, “Because the Lord, YOUR God granted me success” in my hunting (Gen. 27:20).  It seems important to note that in that moment, Jacob does not claim his father’s God as his own.  By the use of the word, “Your”, Jacob distances himself from God.  For those of us who grew up with religious parents, there seems to be a time when we began to question the reasons for the faith that our parents professed.  As a parent of teenagers, I have had the experience of listening to my children as they question the God that we have worshipped as a family. 
Jacob’s family was also full of difficulty and struggle.  There are times when events in our lives cause us to question the God that we have grown up with.  There are times when our difficulty and struggle may cause us to question even God’s existence.  There may be times that we don’t know how to reconcile the world around us with the God we thought we knew.  God becomes YOUR God or THEIR God.  It is another’s God, but we are not sure what God is to us.  It seems that it is in this kind of state of mind in which Jacob leaves his house and heads out to his uncle’s house in Haran.  This where our reading picks up this morning.
Jacob is traveling by himself towards Haran.  As he travels, he has time to think.  He could be reflecting where he is going and wondering what he will encounter or who he will encounter.  He could be reflecting on where he has been.  He may have thought about his brother and his brother’s threats to kill him.  He may have thought about his own actions in deceiving his father with the help of his mother.  Maybe he felt guilty…or maybe he didn’t.  Either way, he was out in the middle of nowhere and all alone.
As he reached the end of the day, he settled in a place called Luz for the evening.  He apparently had no tent or such supplies and simply lies down with his head on a rock.  The vision that Jacob has is of, what is called, a ladder between earth and heaven.  It could be a stairway or a ramp, but it is some connection on which angels are ascending and descending between earth and heaven.  The movement of the angels signifies the fact that God is aware of the things of earth and God interacts with the world.  The angels take reports and messages up and the angels bring the words and actions of God down.  So, it very much could be that Jacob is confronted with his own actions.  God certainly demonstrates full knowledge of who Jacob is as he offers to continue the covenant with Jacob that He began with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.
Jacob awakens from his dream and I just love what he says.  He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”  Jacob had never really known his father’s God and what he did know seemed to be tied with his family and his father.  Jacob had left his family and perhaps believed that he had left his family’s God too.  In this strange place, away from his family, and all alone…Jacob met God.  Just like there are those times when we find ourselves questioning God, I hope that there have also been those moments when you find God in the most unexpected places.  Sometimes we experience God when we are all alone and pondering our life, but we may also find God on a hike in the woods or walk on the beach.  We may experience God in a concert hall as a gifted performer demonstrates mastery of her instrument.  We may experience God in a coffee shop or restaurant in the presence of a friend with whom we find connection and acceptance.  Sometimes we experience God in a regular moment that is suddenly transformed into a holy moment and we realize, “Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
It is possible that we could even be surprised in this place.  Though it is place of God, we sometimes come here with other things on our mind.  We come here thinking we know what to expect.  It is possible that we might just take for granted the words from the texts and the communion of the saints.  Maybe, just maybe, there are times when we experience God here in ways that we have not before and we say, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it.”
When we have those moments, we should do what Jacob does.  We should do something to remember that moment and that place.  Jacob renamed Luz and called it “Beth-el”.  El is one of the names of God and Beth-El means “House of God”. It was Jacob’s way of noting that he encountered God there. 
 My wife has several containers of Shells and sand that are in various places in our house.  They are there to remind her of the many trips we have taken to the beach.  It has almost become a family cliché for us, but when we are at the beach…at some time while we are there…my wife will say, “I think God lives at the beach.”  For her, the beach is a “Beth-el”.  The sand and the seashells in our house are not traditional religious symbols, anymore than the rocks that Jacob used, but they are a reminder that “God is in this place.”

What is your “Beth-El?”  Do you have one?  What reminds you of the moment or moments when you experience God?  Has there been a time when your language changed from “Your God” or “Their God” to “MY God.”  Have you had a moment in your life where you have felt close to God, but it wasn’t a place you expect to find God?  Or have you ever been surprised to actually find God in place where you took God’s presence for granted?  I love those moments in my life when I can say, “Surely the Lord is in this place…and I didn’t know it.”  I pray you have you have such moments in your life.  Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

There's Why We're Here and Then There's Something Else

At First Baptist Church, Nashville, our Pastor’s family has been dealing with some personal issues; issues he has shared with thechurch.  These issues have led to “Pastor Frank” taking several weeks off from the church.  This morning another “Pastor Frank” filled in for our pastor.  With the National Assembly of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Nashville this week, Rev. Dr. Frank Thomas of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis filled our pulpit.  As he began his sermon, he said, “I realized I may have been called here for one purpose, but maybe I am here for another.”  After that, he led the congregation in a beautiful time of prayer for our pastor and his family.  Dr. Thomas indicated that his family had also struggled and he felt led to support the pastor and our congregation in this way.  After the time of prayer, Dr. Thomas brought us a most thought-provoking and moving message around the servanthood of Jesus that centered around the “Basin, the water pitcher, and the towel” that Jesus used to wash the disciples feet.

The beauty of the servanthood message was that it was presented with an act of servanthood.  There were at least two thoughts that immediately came to mind.  First of all, the word preached is never as meaningful (or meaningful at all) without the act of service that communicates the authenticity of the message.  However, an act of service that is designed to solely “earn” the right to speak is hardly authentic.  A person who demonstrates genuine humility in service that comes from a place of transformation may have the right to speak of love, transformation, and servanthood as no other.  It seems rather trite to simply say that “faith without works is dead” when what we mean is that if our faith does not make a transformative difference in how we live our lives on a daily basis, it is completely lacking in any authentic significance.  Demonstrating care and compassion with humility surely must come before any explanation of WHY we might live such a life…if any such explanation is necessary.

The other thought that stays with me from the experience in worship today is that what we think we are supposed to be doing and what God thinks we are supposed to be doing may not be the same things.  However, instead of this becoming a source of stress as we try to figure out “the real truth” of things, we simply have to be open to seeing the opportunities before us and the willingness to act on them.  The prayer for the Pastor’s family was not in the program today, but it certainly did not feel like a waste of time by the time it was done.   I wonder how many times in my life, I have been frustrated by what I thought was an interruption or a distraction that, if I had been open to it, could have been an opportunity for blessing.   However, one of the things that I think about the ministry of Pastoral Care and counseling is that Pastoral Care givers often provide a time for reflection and care that is not on the agenda.  When someone has received bad news of some kind or is dealing with difficulty, so often there is an established way of “treating” the difficulty or “dealing with” the difficulty.  The Pastoral Caregiver, however, allows for a time-out from what is “supposed” to be happening to find out what is really happening.  The person who may be used by God does not get so bogged down in their role, duty, for function that they can’t shift gears when needed.  This morning, the “preacher” shifted gears.  He named the hurt out loud and took time to address it.  We need to be open to being used by God in just such ways.  Learning the patience of letting things be what they are, rather than trying to make them be what we think they should be is a challenge, but a path to great blessing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What Will They Say About You?

"Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."        Philippians 3:12-14( NRSV)

Several years ago I attended the funeral of friend.  During the funeral several people from my friend’s life were able to share their reflections about the man that he was.  Each person knew my friend in a different area of his life – work, family, etc.  Without exception, each person described my friend in exactly the same way.  They talked about his kind heart, his religious faith, his friendship, and his sense of humor among other wonderful traits.  I was struck by the fact that it did not matter which part of his life was being talked about, he was described in exactly the same way.  I wondered if people in every area of my life would be able to do the same for me.  I wondered what I would need to change now so that when I die, people would be able to say those kinds of things about me.  This experience was just one in line of events that have shaped me in the last 15 years, but one that I return to in my thoughts again and again.

At the time of this event, I realized that I took some relationships for granted and tended to let my guard down a bit when I was with certain people.  I could be irritable or short with those people while I tried harder not to be with others.  During the last decade, I have sought to try to be the same person in every area of my life.  Those that know me know that can count on honest and direct feedback from me, but that I also try to demonstrate love and care in what I do.  The odd thing about seeking to live life this way is that I am very aware of every time that I fail.  Whether it is being impatient with one of kids or a stranger in traffic, I immediately know that I have fallen short of my ideal.  I know that I fall short because I constantly hold the ideal for myself.

Because my life has been so profoundly affected by experiences of the unconditional love of God, which has become the highest good for me; seeking to love God because of the love God has shown to me and seeking to love others as I have been loved.  Having an overarching goal for life means that when I encounter an event, encounter a person, or a problem, I try to figure out how to live out the goal in that moment.  Again, there are so many times that I fail, but I keep on trying.  Some that I know struggle because they set unrealistic goals for themselves or they get bogged down in self-criticism when they fail.  The beautiful thing about God’s grace is that it means that when we take a misstep, we can simply adjust our stride and just take our next step in the direction we want to go.  There are some missteps that have consequences that we must live with, but God walks with us through those and can help us learn from those if we are open to that. 

As the country song says, I want to live my life so “The preacher won’t have to lie when I die.”  I don’t want others to have to lie either.  I also want the satisfaction that I have done the best that I can.  Even though I fail every day, I never want to lose sight of where I want to be and where I want to go.  Don’t know what brought this to my mind today, but was reflecting on it this morning and just wanted to get it out.