Monday, November 30, 2009

The Paradox of Expectation

As Advent begins, I think of one of my favorite Advent quotes from Henri Nouwen. I share it with you in hopes that you have a blessed Advent.

The paradox of expectation indeed is that those who believe in tomorrow can better live today, that those who expect joy to come out of sadness can discover the beginnings of a new life in the center of the old, that those who look forward to the returning Lord can discover him already in their midst.

You know how a letter can change your day. When you watch people in front of the wall of mailboxes, you can see how a small piece of paper can change the expression on a face, can make a curved back straight, and a sullen mouth whistle again ...

A life lived in expectation is like a life in which we have received a letter, a letter which makes him whom we have missed so much return even earlier than we could imagine. Expectation brings joy to the center of our sadness and the loved one to the heart of our longings. The one who stayed with us in the past and will return to us in the future becomes present to us in that precious moment in which memory and hope touch each other.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for the Pilgrimage Itself

Thanksgiving prayers rarely go below the surface. Have you ever paid attention to them? We thank God for food and for plenty, for family and friends, for our nation, and for freedom. We thank God for the good stuff.

But the original American Thanksgiving was not about riches and bounty. It was about gratitude that comes from making it through extremely difficult times to follow the heart. Half of the people on the Mayflower died from disease. They were a half dead and almost starved, barely managing, rag-tag band of pilgrims looking for a place where they could escape persecution and practice religious freedom. And by God, they made it! So they paused to acknowledge their blessings with a feast.

The beatitudes remind me that blessings are much deeper than the things we like. Hard things are blessings because they are things that draw us closer to God. Gratitude is being thankful for the pilgrimage itself.

What would our faith be like if we revived the way of the pilgrim? A pilgrim is one who hasn't yet found what we're looking for. This Thanksgiving, don't just thank God for what you have or for what makes you happy. Give thanks for where you've been and where you're going, and for the journey itself with all its bumps and bruises. True gratitude sees a bigger picture.

As a pastor, I feel like a pilgrim. I serve in a culture that is dispassionate about religion and in one of many American denominations that are highly anxious over the decline of their institutions. Yet the good news is Christianity is not dying. It's simply on a pilgrimage of its own. In church history, transformations have always happened right under the noses of those dedicated to the very institutions they built to preserve previous transformations. And that's how we come back to the spirituality of Jesus.

It's the pilgrimage that matters. Give thanks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jesus Dropped By My Office

Jesus, thanks for coming to visit.

I was in my office reading Isaiah 42 during morning prayer, reflecting on the Messianic hope that you would be a light to the nations. I was contemplating how the Methodist bishops were right, calling us to see the mission of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ "for the transformation of the world." Your Word is clear. You came to touch the blind, the prisoners, the poor, and those in darkness.

Vicki tapped on my door, and there you were, in the face of someone who needed gas and food. She apologized for interrupting me but I'm so glad she did. I helped you with some food from the pantry and took you to the gas station. I asked you to pass on the blessing to someone else and you thanked me. The timing was too perfect for me to ignore it. You visited me to see if I really believed what I was reading.

His name was Joseph but I know it was you. It as a mysterious visit from you when someone asks for help. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, you said "when you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me." Not for you, not on behalf of you, but unto you. When I'm left asking "when did I see you," I remember those who drop by, looking to me with your eyes.

At the church, we follow protocols to keep abuse from happening. We participate in a cooperative program that offers financial counseling and coordinated assistance. It's important to be good stewards in a way that helps us touch those who truly have need. I send larger needs to the cooperative, but I usually help with a little food and gas.

As it turns out, this guy is suspected of stealing tools from a car the parking lot. I know that he probably did. I wish I had remembered to take down his information just in case there was a problem. I usually do.

The missing tools certainly test my resolve that it was you that dropped by. You are teaching me that aside from practical realities, there is a deeper matter of the heart. As far as my relationship with you, I hope that I saw him for whom he truly was deep inside. The parable teaches me that when I stand before you one day, you won't judge me for being too generous with someone who might abuse it and you won't critize me because I let somebody take advantage of me. You will make the claim that when I did for the least of these, I did it unto you.

Joseph is one of your children, the reflection of your glory. His looked at me with your eyes. Maybe he just doesn't know that you are within him. But I knew.

You came to visit my office the other day. I am blessed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Might As Well Have Fun

I thought this was both entertaining and fascinating. Why not have fun doing the things that we do? Is not life full of mundane tasks such as stair climbing? Why not make it enjoyable?

What about life in the body of Christ? How can meetings, stewardship, and accountability be fun, while we are at it? Here it is, enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Living Stones" Lyrics

A friend recently asked if she could use my song "Living Stones" at a retreat and I was honored. It occured to me that I don't have the lyrics anywhere on my blog. I offer them as a gift for your meditation.

"Living Stones"

Just ordinary stones, placed by ordinary hands,
Become like living stones when used according to the builder's plans.
I wonder how these stones, so rough and simple, become so beautiful
When placed into a greater plan.
The designs of human minds bring life into ordinary stones.

Just ordinary bread, baked by ordinary hands,
Becomes like living bread when blessed and broken by the pastor's hands.
I wonder how this bread, so plain and simple, becomes so beautiful
When placed into receiving hands.
The designs of heavenly minds bring life into ordinary bread.

Just ordinary lives, made by extraordinary hands,
Become like holy lives when blessed and broken by the master's hands.
I wonder how these lives, so rough and sinful, become so beautiful
When placed into a greater plan.
The designs of heavenly minds bring life into ordinary lives.

Just ordinary stones and ordinary bread,
Our ordinary lives become living stones instead.

Copyright 2000 by Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Father, Forgive" - The Coventry Cathedral Story

Creatively responding to violence is a huge challenge for Christians. Those who were taught "blessed are the peacemakers" are called to pray and work toward reconciliation in the spirit of Christ. Last night at choir rehearsal, I heard a most inspiring story as we acknowledged Veteran's Day and appreciation for all who have served our country.

Coventry Cathedral was bombed on November 14, 1940, by the Nazis. The building was destroyed and ruins remain beside the newly constructed cathedral to this day. When the priest initially assessed the damage, he was filled with emotion. The words of Jesus, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," resonated in his mind. For him, the "them" included not only the Nazis but all of humanity, so he felt that walking the road of blame would not bring healing. As a result, the shortened phrase "Father, Forgive" was inscribed on the wall by two charred roof timbers that had fallen in the shape of a cross. This phrase has become part of their ongoing vision for reconciliation ministries.

Each Friday, worshippers gather in the ruins at noon to pray the litany below, and I encourage you to make it your prayer today. You may find more at the Coventry Cathedral website.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Father, forgive.

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father, forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father, forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father, forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father, forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, and the refugee,
Father, forgive.

The lust which dishonors the bodies of men, women, and children,
Father, forgive.

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father, forgive.

Be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Worshipping the Works of Our Own Hands

Lord, in the first chapter of Jeremiah you spoke a word expressing the brokenness of your heart because the people "worshipped the works of their own hands." You were speaking of their hand-made images and gods, yet I wonder how often we, or I, do the same.

Our own creativity becomes our own push to achieve, to get somewhere in life, to mean something to somebody, to be noticed. I make music, write, preach, and lead programs and ministries. When I am at my best, it is simply to serve with the gifts you have given me. When I am at my worst, I am more attentive to the work of my own hands than in the work of your Spirit.

I live in a culture that worships the work of its own hands. We admire those who are "self made" and we value people based on what they produce. Even church leaders beyond the local level seek to solve the delimmas of the modern church by pressing everyone to work harder or fix our problems, rather than praying that you, oh God, will open our eyes to what new thing the Spirit is forging. We are fixated on our own hands, Lord, and our hands our too full to receive your gifts.

In chapter 9 of Jeremiah, you invite us to become a people who do not boast in our own wealth or power or wisdom, but to "boast in this, that they understand and know me." You are our Lord, you are the source of all love and justice and healing. You delight in being known more than in the work of our human hands.