Sunday, September 14, 2014

Our Ely Crew!

Waiting (Psalm 27)

When I was fourteen years old, I anxiously looked forward to the day when my voice would deepen into a nice resonant, Ray Thielbar bass and my face would sprout a nice, thick, evenly growing crop of utterly manly beard hair.  At fifty-three, I’m still waiting for puberty.

          At about sixteen, after giving up on my silly, Vikings middle linebacker pipe dreams and going to Haiti for a mission experience, I began waiting for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to call and let me know that Dr. Graham was hoping I would take over his preaching ministry.  Still waiting on that phone call…

I’ve spent my whole life waiting on one thing or another.  Sometimes the waiting has become so utterly intolerable, I’ve actually given up on things.  This week I may possibly lose my blog domain name because I just can’t stand the thought of waiting one more minute for Google to get its act together!  I’m increasingly convinced the entrance to hell will be a huge waiting room where people will sit tightly packed into a windowless, sweaty, smelly computer cube farm for a few centuries while loudspeakers politely announce, “Thank you for calling Google.  And congratulations for even finding our number!  Your business is very important to us.  Please continue to hold as we utterly ignore your computing crisis.  Have a nice day!”

          I hate waiting!  Hate, hate, hate waiting!  I hated waiting so badly when I left the Army that I made a promise I would never stand in line again.  Good luck with that sort of resolution!  On Saturday, Monica and I will get on a plane to Virginia in order to spend a week with family.  I’m looking forward to every minute of next week except the air travel part.  Ugh!  Wait in line to check in.  Wait through the security line for an utterly dehumanizing, paranoid and comically pointless TSA cavity search.  Get stuffed into a cramped, toxic and stuffy tin can with a hundred or so other miserable, waiting drones and wait for another few hours nervously nibbling mini pretzels and Dixie cups of Pepsi.  Wait for luggage at the other end, hoping against hope we won’t be waiting for a few days while the airline retrieves our wandering, wayward stuff from Topeka or Tennessee!  Quite honestly, I would very happily spend five days in a car over five minutes on an airplane, because I’m not waiting in a car (especially in my Hemi Hyundai).  I’m traveling.  I’m moving.  I’m making progress; living large, snarfing my donuts, curly fries and cheeseburgers.  I’m watching the utterly fascinating and beautiful world pass by my windows and I’m not waiting for anything…unless, you know, I get stuck somewhere and have to wait…

          I hate waiting.  I hate waiting!  So you can imagine my difficulties when I come across verses like the one at the end of our Bible passage this morning.  In Psalm 27:14, like an exclamation point at the end of the chapter, we are told: “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”  Great!  I spend my whole life waiting and now I’ve got to wait on God too?  Great!  Just great!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Soar Like An Eagle (Isaiah 40:21-31)

Our famous scripture passage today talks about soaring like an eagle.  Isn’t that just a gorgeous image?  Who wouldn’t want to do that?  I know the Bible doesn’t say anything at all about people becoming angels or getting wings when we die, I know all the comforting claptrap we hear at funerals about flying and getting wings is unbiblical, but I sure wouldn’t mind if the flying stuff were true.  I would love to fly.  Super Kevin!  That would really take care of my little, commuting to the UP every weekend issue, wouldn’t it?  I would absolutely love to soar like an eagle, wouldn’t you?  Isn’t this just one of the most beautiful images in the book?

          But then there’s reality…

          As most of you know, my current day job is a customer service position with a company selling clothing, safety gear and equipment to people who work mostly outdoors.  And my good company sincerely cares about giving excellent customer service to our customers; I take pride in knowing they genuinely do desire to give astounding customer service.  And good service is made a little easier for us since a great many of our customers are elderly farm families who just aren’t comfortable ordering over the internet; a lot of nice, gentle old farmers and their wives.  Most of our customers are truly wonderful, but a few of them can be really awful; some of them famously awful.  I took a call this week from a woman so terrible, so horrible her name is very well known among my coworkers.  When I discussed her truly awful phone call with others the next day, one coworker joked, “That woman doesn’t need astounding customer service; she needs an exorcist!”  I promised I would forward him all her calls in the future!

          How am I supposed to “soar like an eagle” when I’ve got to spend time with people like that?  Remember the old saying I’m sure many of us are already thinking right now: “It is hard to soar like an eagle when surrounded by so many turkeys!”  I know that’s a very judgmental and arrogant perspective.  For one thing, that joke assumes I’m not regularly a turkey myself!  But life sure does feel that way a lot, doesn’t it?  LORD, I would love nothing more in the world than to soar like an eagle, but right now, I’ve got a lot of turkey junk keeping me grounded.

          And let’s be brutally honest about our turkeys here, shall we?  My petty, customer service turkeys are just the very tip of the iceberg on this soaring issue, aren’t they?  How do you soar like an eagle if you’re trying to live a good Christian life in northern Iraq these days?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

This Terrible Church (1 Cor 1:1-9)

As a pastor, you regularly hear horror stories about churches – stuff going on, pointless and petty arguments that just never seem to get resolved.  Bad teaching and bad behavior –  sometimes church stories can be really terrible.  Some churches are downright embarrassing!

I will never as long as I live forget the stories I heard about this one church.  Man!  Let me tell you something true – this one church I heard about was spectacularly terrible.  They were fighting about exactly which leader they were going to follow.  They were all trying to impress each other with how smart they were and nobody would back down.  They were all about prestige!  And all these wise, sanctimonious “holier than thou” arguments were going on even as this church had unrepentant sexual immorality taking place among the church people!  Can you imagine?  Ugh!  I won’t even go into the gory details there!  This terrible church had its church people actually dragging each other into civilian courts over their grievances.  They were arguing about what foods they should eat and which ones they shouldn’t.  They were arguing about how people should dress.  They would get together to periodically celebrate the LORD’s Supper and instead of a beautiful, quiet time of repentance and reflection, the whole thing become just another fancy dinner party where some people ate like pigs and others ate nothing at all.  This terrible church was arguing about which spiritual gifts mattered and which ones didn’t – which people were important and necessary in the church and which people just weren’t.  And their worship services…oh man, don’t even get me started!  Their worship was just a chaotic mess!  Anybody wandering in from the street wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on!  This terrible church was messed up in almost every way any church could be.

But do you know what?  Heaven help me, hearing all this terrible stuff, I was digging around for more information on this terrible church and how it got the way it was [how not to do church, you know?] and you can just imagine my surprise when I found a dusty old letter from a prominent, itinerant church planter who actually seemed to love these people!  I just couldn’t believe it!  After having heard all the utterly terrible stuff about this church I’d heard around town, I couldn’t believe the way this old guy Paul opened his letter to these people…

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.