Sunday, August 17, 2014

If God Is For Us (Romans 18:18-39)

The world lost one of its most creative souls this week when comedian and actor Robin Williams made the terrible, tortured decision to take his own life.  I know I speak for people all around the world when I say his laughter, crazy characters and thought-provoking stories will be sorely missed, even by those of us who regularly disagreed with his views of the world and now find ourselves concerned about his soul.  In a world in desperate need of true love, life and laughter especially, the tragic loss of a man like Robin Williams is somehow particularly painful.

          There is a great deal of sadness and hopelessness in our world; lawless race rioting in Missouri, madness as always in the Middle East, and a funny, thoughtful man too sad to go on living.  As I’ve read the news this week and studied the Scripture text I had planned for this morning, it seems to me there are two important directions we need to take this morning.

          First of all, I feel the compulsion to say clearly, as a pastor having counselled people for many years, that some depression is not something easily cured by the right prayer, decision, sermon or Bible verse.  Sometimes some people physically cannot “look on the bright side.”   While most depression is relatively superficial, temporary, emotional or intellectual, there is a depression that is chemical and physical.  Sometimes the brain and body can get physically and chemically out of balance – for all sorts of diverse reasons.   If you find yourself in a depressive condition you just can’t seem to shake, no matter what Bible verse you quote, sermons you listen to or resolutions you make, please talk to someone about it.  You might be dealing with a form of depression that has nothing to do with what sort of Christian you are.  It can happen!

          But secondly, considering all the hopelessness in the world around us and our powerful verses today, I believe our great scripture passage should help us all clearly understand, in a world filled with sad, broken, tortured and hopeless people, where rock solid hope truly comes from.  As a preacher and grandpa, as a man who desperately longs to keep the smile on the face of this little girl, I want us to understand our passage.   

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Lure of the Easy (Matthew 16:21-28)

          Some folks have got this Christianity thing all figured out.  They’ve got the whole thing down to a nice easy formula, painlessly scribbled under their shirt sleeve for handy reference.  Believe this, do that, say this regularly and Jesus will give you an easy life without hardship…

          Many years ago, I spoke with a young Christian man running for political office.  He was visiting churches, trying to garner support for his candidacy among believers.  But when I asked him for a listing of his political beliefs and specific plans, he told me he had been told by his campaign managers to avoid getting overly specific on potentially divisive issues.  Their formula for winning didn’t include fighting for a list of important issues or standing on difficult principle – their campaign was about easy, slick strategy and carefully managed popular opinion formulas.  Christian or not, I’m really glad that guy lost his election!  We need more than easy formulas…

          It is easy to point fingers at politicians, but we all know that our politicians have become what they are mostly because we have become what we are.  As a general rule, our society is not interested in hearing hard truths and making difficult, demanding and sacrificial choices.  Forget right and wrong; the entire western world has fully embraced the lure of the easiest, least costly way – even when we almost intuitively know we’re probably going to suffer in the long run, we’ll embrace almost any sort of easy, shirt sleeve formula “guaranteeing” the least suffering.  We love the easy!

          In Matthew 16, after Peter makes his profound confession of Christ as LORD, Jesus blesses him, proclaiming Peter and his confession the rock on which the church will be built.  But then, in verse 21, the conversation takes a shocking, disturbing and very uneasy turn.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mrs. Tuninga's Flannel Graph (Jonah)

Long, long ago in a land far, far away, when people lived in the misty fog before the dawn of PowerPoint and the projection system, my Mrs. Tuninga had a flannel graph.[1]  It was a beautiful flannel graph board with blue felt and lots of different characters.  All the boys and girls in Mrs. Tuninga’s primary Sunday School class loved her flannel graph stories like crazy.  We children had lots of favorite stories, but our favoritest story of all was Jonah and the Whale.  It was a very exciting.  A preacher and prophet guy with long white hair and long flowing beard named Jonah was told by God to go preach a sermon to some very bad people called Ninevites.  But Jonah was muy, muy afraid and he tried to run away by taking a boat across a great big sea.  God got very mad at Jonah and sent a huge storm and the sailors tossed Jonah into the sea to try to get God to calm down a little.  Things looked very bad for Jonah!  But Jonah didn’t drown in the dark, stormy sea; he got swallowed by a very big fish!  And after Jonah spent three icky, sticky days inside the whale, he told God he was sorry and the fish spit Jonah out on a nice, sandy beach right near Nineveh.  Then the prophet Jonah went and talked to those mean old Ninevites; they told God they were sorry and God said “That’s okay, you Ninevites!” and everybody lived happily ever after.  The end!

I loved Mrs. Tuninga.  And I loved her flannel graph stories.

But here’s the thing – Jonah isn’t a flannel graph story.  The ancient story of Jonah isn’t a flannel graph story at all – it isn’t something any of Mrs. Tuninga’s children were old enough to hear just yet.  Not even close.  As a matter of fact, if I were to actually produce a historically accurate film of Jonah’s story today – most of you probably wouldn’t go to the film I would make.  It would be a scary film.  It would be a gory, bloody, theologically confusing film.  Mrs. Tuninga was a very faithful, sweet person and a very dedicated Sunday School teacher, but she never told us all the details of the story.  We weren’t old enough.  But we are now and we need to clearly hear and understand this story our LORD Jesus himself referred to as established fact.  Open your Bibles to the tiny book of Jonah or just follow along on the screen as I read.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-20)

In Ecclesiastes 11:1, we are told to “Cast your bread on the waters, for you will find it again after many days.”  Other translations render this verse differently, but I like the more literal ESV version.  Cast your bread on the waters and you will find it again – I like this strange rendering because, on the surface of things, it looks like a really dumb thing to do with bread!  Why would anyone take perfectly good bread and toss it in the water?  Is this some sort of biblical, pre-scientific Atkins diet suggestion?  Bag up all your carbs and get rid of them in the ocean?  Toss all your carbs into the ocean and, after many days, you will find them again?  Well, I can certainly and personally vouch for the truth of that statement!  The carbs – they do be comin’ back!  No, that can’t be what the verse means.  What the Teacher is saying is that we must be willing to faithfully risk our bread, risk our grain, risk what is valuable to us on what seems, perhaps at first blush, to be hopeless or pointless.  We must trust God enough to invest our bread that we might see a great return later.  But sometimes the water sure looks dumb…

          There’s an old Hagar the Horrible comic strip in which Hagar’s wife Helga is talking to a friend, saying, “Hagar is hopeless!”  And when her friend asks why, Helga responds, “When I told him it was impolite to eat with his hands, he asked, ‘Who’s hands am I supposed to eat with!’”

          Sometimes the people, situations and waters around us look really hopeless.  Sometimes investing ourselves, our time, our resources and our bread in the waters around us looks like a very stupid thing to do.  Some Hagars around us really are horrible!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Winning Over Worry (Philippians 4:4-9)

There is some really crummy stuff going on in the world right now, isn’t there?  When I finally got the chance to sit down Thursday and begin writing, the news was pretty ominous. Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza.  A passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, killing several Americans in addition to many others.  Microsoft announced the layoff of 18,000 people.  The situation at our southern border just got another day worse.  Our national debt (both public and private) is increasingly out of control.  Our Homeland Security is now doing “show of force” demonstrations in American towns from some odd reason.  And don’t even get me started on the declining morality of our nation!  The foundations are shaking and storm clouds are forming on the horizon.  As the wise Dave Barry once said years ago, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself!”   I’ve got every reason in the world to be crabby, worried and despairing, right?

          Except for one little thing...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Bush That Wouldn't Burn (Exodus 3:1-15)

Two weeks ago, I made a very passionate case to all of you that God is calling us to be excellent followers first, before we even think about leadership.  Considering 1 Thess. 4:11-12, we talked about ambitiously quiet lives, minding our own business and working with our hands – allowing our lives to preach the gospel ever so more loudly than our words.  This morning our Scripture passage forces us to boldly consider the other side of that conversation. 

          We serve the one, true LORD and Almighty God in the universe.  We serve the Great One in Three who spoke the world into existence and sustains our breath by His great power even now as we sit here trying to imagine and find words to describe His staggering, shattering, utterly incomprehensible power.  We live in vital relationship with the One who both shakes apart the mountains and still finds time to put beauty queen smiles on a little baby girl.  The whole earth is formed at the whisper of His voice and yet, almost every time our great God wants to accomplish something dramatic among the people of the earth, He chooses one of us to lead the effort!  Isn’t that shocking?

          Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, David, Gideon, Deborah, almost all the prophets, a bunch of lowly fishermen, rebels and low-lifes as apostles and a vicious, murderous enemy named Saul all become unlikely, rags to riches leaders and heroes in God’s plans for the human race. 

          And one of the most dramatic leadership stories, one of the most profound leadership callings, in the entire Bible is the story of a truly mighty man named Moses.  We could consider the life of Moses from many different angles this morning, but I believe the most relevant story for us to consider is the story of God’s leadership calling on the life of the great man.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Losing Jesus (Luke 2:41-52)


 I was a bad grandpa last Sunday.  In my very first opportunity to stand before a large group of people and share bragging pictures of my new granddaughter, I failed to do so.  For shame!  So here is my Reagan Olivia Shih at just two days old.  And here’s little Reagan just a couple days ago.  I know you will all feel better now…

            Sadly, my grandpa failure last Sunday is not the first time I’ve failed as a good parent or grandparent.  When Reagan’s mother, my daughter Maria, was about three years old, we took a trip to Disneyworld.  When we arrived back at our motel, after a long, hot day in the sun and sweaty crowds of Orlando, I looked up from unloading everything out of the trunk of our car to the very shocking discovery that Maria was nowhere to be found!  We were so busy collecting up everything, to include Maria’s squirming, overheated baby sister Tesia, out of the car, we weren’t paying close enough attention to our happy toddler.  Little Maria decided it was the perfect time to play hide and seek with Mommy, assuming, by some sort of odd, utterly twisted toddler logic, that Mommy knew her plans.  Little Maria found a bathroom in the back of the second floor laundry room and when she closed the door behind herself, accidentally locked herself in!  And for almost forty minutes, Monica and I went out of our minds!  Convinced we were about to see our little Maria’s face on the back of a milk carton, I began interrogating everyone within eyesight or earshot.  Finally, as I was about to call the police, my Monica thought she heard a familiar noise coming from the laundry room.  And Maria was found.

            That incident took place in the summer of 1989, yet I still remember the panic and the pain of that moment as if it were yesterday.  Our beautiful, sweet Maria was the precious light of our lives – what would we have done if we had lost her!  I can’t even imagine it. But imagine if the lost child in question was the very Son of God, the perfect child of the promise – the light of the world and very hope of the ages.  Imagine if you were humble Mary and Joseph, losing their utterly perfect, miracle boy…I can’t even imagine!

            Open your Bibles to the second chapter of Luke.  Aside from the narratives of Jesus’ birth and mythical stories not reliable enough to be included in our Bibles, this is the only story the Bible records from the childhood of Jesus.  And this is also the very first time Jesus speaks in the Bible.  I believe our story today mattered a great deal to Luke for the powerful lessons it contains for all of us to notice and remember.  Listen carefully as I read from Luke 2:40-52.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Living To Please God (1 Thes 4:11-12)

We live in a very flashy world – a world of bling.  Our world is idolatrously obsessed with money, power, prestige, leadership and celebrity.  While God’s Word has exponentially more to say about how we follow than how we lead, we live in a world where even the word “follower” is perceived negatively.  As part of a graduate school research project years ago, my research partner and I conducted a survey which asked people, first of all, if they considered themselves a leader or a follower.  We were astounded by the staggering number of people who almost took offense at the question, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I’m a leader, but I sure as heck ain’t no @#$* follower!”  Even the word “follower” was negative to them.

          And yet in the midst of all these leadership fever dreams, I hear our LORD Jesus quietly whispering to his followers, “Those who would great among you must be servants of all.”   I hear the Apostle Paul gently telling his Corinthian friends, “Follow me as I follow God.”  Only to the degree I’m following well am I worthy of being followed…follow as I follow.

          I’ve served as a leader for almost twelve years in the Army.  I served in leadership as a pastor for almost twenty years.  I’ve served in leadership roles of one sort or another virtually my entire adult life and yet my driving concern right now as a middle-aged, brand new grandpa with more years behind me than in front of me is how exactly I’m following.  The longer I serve as a leader, the more desperately I realize my need to drastically improve in my following.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Can You Get Home In An Emergency?

There are many folks who believe it wise to maintain a backpack with basic survival gear available in the trunk of their car just in case of emergency.  It seems wise to me.  The Bible tells us we are to take precautions.  In Proverbs 27:12, we read:“A prudent person foresees the danger ahead and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.”  So, at the risk of being labeled a crazy prepper, here's a good, common sense description of what might be good to include...

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