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November 04, 2012

silent sermon of Hope

Pastor Brown stood to the side of the screen and asked Rae to pause the choppy video playing before the congregation. He wanted to explain what it was like to navigate the crowded streets of Waterloo, Sierra Leone. The video froze, somewhat randomly. Pastor glanced at the screen, hesitated.

There she was.

Child of God, silent on pause, eyes piercing the entire congregation, hopelessly caught in her place and culture. If the pastor wanted to raise awareness of the need in Sierra Leone, I can think of no better way to make us to feel it. For those who allowed this image to pierce their very soul, moving on with the service seemed kind of pointless.

But we couldn't just sit in church all day contemplating this little girl staring into the camera. [Right?] Pastor pressed on by explaining that with few mirrors and no technology, many requested to have their picture taken. She probably never saw her malnourished self before. She made her way through a sea of small vehicles and people, trash and stench, to the white anomaly, a total stranger with camera in a small car.

Why does she seem to be smiling? Why the look of hope and not despair? Maybe she has nothing but God. I wonder what her name is?

But I know the land of plenty. We don't smile enough. We struggle to grasp our need, hurry past blessings, betray silence, create idols of metal and wood and reputation. We are hopelessly caught in our place and culture.

Yet here we are in central PA, the ones with more stuff, knowledge, and opportunity. We are aware that for whatever reason, God has placed the ball in our court.

We will raise funds for at least one church in Sierra Leone. We will help front lines missionaries educate leaders and implement a sustainable system. We will fill and deliver a literal truck load of material goods, all the way from Harrisburg directly to the front doors of the church in order to serve and distribute in the name of the Lord.

Where it goes, for the people of Waterloo and of Harrisburg, I can only hope.

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August 30, 2012

Lord save us from hell

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 Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?

-Matthew 25:44

Some Christians believe that all non-Christians will go to hell for eternity after they die. Most of them realize that eternity is a pretty long time to suffer, especially for a person who maybe never heard of Jesus or never witnessed an authentic Christian life. So they feel compelled to share their faith and to go and make disciples of all nations.

Sharing faith with others can be awkward, expensive, and downright inconvenient. But if you don't share it and a non Christian dies, they're going to hell. So what does the cost matter if the blood of countless others is on your hands?

I'm usually a bit skeptical of this. Does salvation not come from God alone, with every individual soul laid bare before his and her Maker? Does the eternal fate of some poor widow on the other side of the earth really depend on something that I do or don't do out of my abundance (like supporting missions trips)? Isn't that an awfully self-centered way to see things?

Jesus had some things to say about hell. He told challenging parables that specifically mentioned, among other things, dividing sheep from goats and eternal torment and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It seems that he thought and taught that hell is real and some but not others would be going there.

Who will be going to hell?

I doubt that "nobody comes to the father but through me" is an indication that all non Christians will be going to hell. And I suspect that the intention of the Great Commission was more than simply telling people about Jesus so they could have a say in their eternal destiny.

So while it seems uncertain whether or not all outsiders are going to hell, Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for the religious insiders, Pharisee types who speak falsely in the name of God, the zealots who claim one thing and do another; the faithful who say "Lord, Lord," but fail to do the will of God. It is recorded in few instances that Jesus talked about weighty eternal judgments being made based on one thing alone: what we do for orphans and widows and strangers and the poor.

And to claim to be a follower of Jesus and ignore all the needs near and far is an awfully self centered way to live.

August 01, 2012

eye of the needle - so you're saying there's a chance

"The rich are at a serious disadvantage spiritually." 

I sat in Sunday school listening to the pastor comment on the brief account of Jesus and the rich young ruler. I though about the rich, most of us sitting there, how we find security, independence, and yes, some degree of happiness, in our possessions. In our labor. In our wealth.

I though about a particular rich young ruler. Well, he's not a ruler, but a friend who came to mind. Only a few weeks ago he said "I just don't see the need in it, this belief. I haven't really thought deeply about God because I never needed to."

I wanted to simultaneously applaud his honesty and consistency (in comparison to those who use god to promote their own agenda) and laugh at his naivety (in the fact that at some point life tends to kick your ass). Conflicted over which way to respond, I said nothing.

Whatever our beliefs, the fact of the matter is that many of us who happen to have been born into this society, in this day and age, with one much less two committed, nurturing, able minded parents, have won the lottery of lotteries. Of all people through the ages, we're rich beyond measure. Some would concede that it's beyond reasonable probability, but I would call it blessed.

I really can't argue with a skeptic. After all, we work hard and live responsibly. We simply act on the opportunities before us. We save ourselves, at least for a while. And we don't need this idea of God to justify helping others with the time and talent and resources that...fortune (?) has bestowed on us.

[Which is a statement no more or less consistent than saying that our lives are blessed.]

Of course this all would be different if father fortune randomly pointed his unknowing finger in another direction. If we woke up wondering whether or not we would eat today. If we befell a tragedy that removed our talents and our multiplied false sense of security. History shows that people are driven to God or to hopelessness.

How can you blame the rich?  We work and play our days away in need of nothing. And genuinely seeking God necessarily costs you at some point. There are things to let go, including the illusion of control. The more you have going for yourself, the more difficult it is to notice divine provision and to loosen the grip. It's legitimately hard, like fitting a camel through the eye of a needle.

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.

-Mark 10.27

I imagine a small crowd standing in quiet contemplation, chewing on the words of Jesus, when it hits one of his disciples, probably Peter. He looks up and shouts, "So you're saying there's a chance!"

I'm thankful for the blessings, relationships, freedom and joy of being small before God. For choosing hope over skepticism. And for Gods grace, the chance, the small passageway to true life both now and in the future.

May 31, 2012

Brought Out by the Shore

Hold on to the thread  
The currents will shift  

Glide me towards  
You know something's left

And we're all allowed 
To dream of the next

- Pearl Jam / Oceans

From the the age of 8 until about 18, my entire year revolved around the last week of July. My grandparents and some extended family took me down to Paradise City. Well, technically, we drove six eternal hours from southwestern PA to kitschy, crowded, overpriced Ocean City, MD. 

Every day was like awakening on Christmas morning, but this was a seven-day festival of doing, mostly with my good friend and cousin Jason, and the gifts never quit. We had our fill of go-carts, wave runners, water slides, and boardwalk prattle. Yet the best moments occurred during times between the scheduled touristy amusement. I wouldn’t call it waiting, but more like joy.

We outran hundreds if not thousands of breaking waves, hordes of gremlins lunging after us and withering into the sand. The building we stayed in featured a pool and parking garage for skateboarding. It had elevators, 11 stories of open balcony with close proximity to soarable items like grapes and balsa wood airplanes. We sat on the boardwalk, crafting (mostly) harmless pranks of anonymity. 

Our late teenage years at the shore where definitely a let down from all the castle building, boogie boarding, wiffle balling, sand crab catching bliss of our younger years. Jason and I became concerned with the things that young adults should be doing, too busy and mature for simple fun. 

What compelled us to move beyond the wonder of child hood and early adolescence? Was it the new responsibilities and freedoms? Too little sleep? Certainly, there’s something beneficial about boundaries and your grandparents vacation fund to help you through the week. 

One mistake was trying to recapture the same joy and feelings of the old days.Vacation fun became manufactured, more in the atmosphere and reflection on the past.  C.S. Lewis wrote that you have to be surprised by joy. Joy is never found by directly searching for it, but rather happens while doing other things. And that's exactly how pure, remembered-like-it-was-yesterday joy came upon us as children.

These days, a different set of my extended family makes a yearly visit to the east coast, just north of Ocean City MD. I stand, watching my children playing with their cousins. I reflect on the past as I witness real -time joy unfolding all around me. I'm thankful for the chance to genuinely do the simple and fun horseplay that I've been after all along.

The beauty and enormity and power of the shore make me feel small and humble.  Yet at the same time, with the land behind me sloping down to the sea, to the left and right the coast converging upon me, and the ocean rising up and out all the way to the sky in front of me, my place on the waters edge appears to be at the center of a universe.

Joy by reflection and surprise. A sense of smallness and importance. Both perspectives are true, I think, brought out by the shore.