Solving Big Problems

tigers-boulder-plaque Pious platitudes and self-help advice on how to cope with life’s challenges are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to think lemonade when life dumps a load of lemons in your lap, but when the obstacles blocking our chosen or desired path in life are a million times bigger than a lemon it’s a lot tougher to know what to do.

I never know when inspiration or a life lesson will appear, but I got one recently when I least expected it. I was watching the Phoenix Open golf tournament on TV and learned about an unusual golf moment that occurred at that event 6 years ago. I’m a big golf fan; so I’m not sure how I missed this for that long, but here’s the story.

There is a plaque in the ground near a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up with a large boulder blocking his next shot toward the par 5 green. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking an unplayable lie and a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well. Two earlier interpretations of the rules of golf were relevant to Tiger’s predicament, and he wisely appealed to a tournament official for a ruling. The first ruling states:

“23-1/2: Large Stone Removable Only with Much Effort
Q. A player’s ball lies in the rough directly behind a loose stone the size of a watermelon. The stone can be removed only with much effort. Is it a loose impediment which may be removed?
A. Yes. Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play (Rule 6-7).”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But there was one large problem. Remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #2”
“23-1/3: Assistance in Removing Large Loose Impediment
Q. May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?
A. Yes.”

Now many serious golfers may have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends and fans to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help. With a bit of effort they were able to roll the stone away, and Tiger then had a clear shot to advance his ball toward the green.

If you’re thinking “So what? This is just a silly game rich people play for ridiculous amounts of money!” I get that. I also know Tiger is a controversial figure; so please bear with me and suspend whatever feelings you have for him as a person or a golfer. The life lessons I got from this story would be true no matter who was involved. One of the reasons I have persevered for decades as a not very good golfer is that the game has taught me more times than I care to remember how important it is to take responsibility for my mistakes, try to keep my composure when I hit multiple balls into the same lake, learn from the past, let it go and move forward and deal with the current circumstances I can’t change.

This particular story reminded me that we all encounter obstacles, large and small in our lives. Some of them look as insurmountable as a 2000 lb. boulder, and when that happens we have choices. We can give up, take whatever penalty is involved, and proceed. Or, we can stop and assess the situation and explore whatever alternative solutions there might be that are at first not apparent. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she is a problem solver. I, on the other hand, am more of the “this will never work, I give up” school.

One of the reasons I give up too quickly when life drops a boulder in my path is that I tend to only rely on my own resources and knowledge to look for solutions to a problem. That is very ironic since I spent 18 years promoting and teaching collaboration earlier in my life. (I’m sure there are psychological issues at play here, but as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “I’ll worry about those tomorrow!”) I do know that to ask for help carries with it a feeling of weakness or inadequacy for me. There’s a little voice in my male ego that says I should be able to figure this out on my own, and far too often it seems easier to just give up than to admit I need help.

I know how foolish that attitude is, and the Tiger Woods rock story helped me see that again. First of all Tiger realized the big rock was not “imbedded” in the sand. Too often I see a big problem and assume it is unsolvable when it really isn’t. Secondly, if Tiger and his caddy had tried to move that rock on their own it would have been hopeless. Even if his playing partner and his caddy joined in they would have been wasting their time and risking injury. But by drawing on his knowledge of the rules and the resources of others at hand the problem was solved. None of those people who helped move the rock could play golf as well as Tiger. Even in his declining years he still scores better than most of us amateurs can ever dream of. But the combined strength of the crowd provided something that only they could offer at that moment. Sure Tiger could afford to hire a back hoe to come in and move the rock, but that would have broken the rule by delaying play. He knew the rules and he knew to ask for help first from the rules official and then from the gallery.

So, even if you have no interest in golf or Tiger, we can all remember the next time an illness, a family crisis, a problem at work, or in the community, or even routine problems like car trouble, or frustrations with technology that won’t work—don’t surrender to the problem too quickly. Problems are often not as “imbedded” as they appear. Assess the problem, inventory the resources at hand to address the problem, know what’s possible, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you want to see a video of Tiger’s friends in action go to

Life as Improv

drama masks
As a retired pastor I have often joked that I cannot find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible, but not being employed by a church during busy and important seasons like Holy Week reminds me of both the benefits and challenges of being “retired.” It is certainly nice to be more relaxed and not put in an extra-long work week with preparation for 3 or 4 worship services on top of dealing with routine responsibilities and any pastoral emergencies. It’s great to have more time for personal and family activities that pastors sacrifice even more than usual during the busiest times of the church year.

On the flip side retirement often lends itself to a feeling of being less relevant and important, maybe like being the maid of honor or mother of the bride, though I confess I’ve never been in either of those roles. And speaking of roles, I was reminded today of Shakespeare’s line from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…” Some days retirement for me feels like I am still on stage but I no longer have a script. Some days I have trouble remembering which act or scene I’m in or even what play. I miss cues and interactions with other actresses and actors who are no longer in the cast.

When I was a child I had a blind trust in my parents and others in authority to direct my life and give me wise counsel. I made my way through much of my education playing the part quite well of one who learned my lines and fed them back to teachers on exams. With age comes an increasing realization that life is more improv than memorizing lines or taking direction. Many of my mentors have made their final exit from this stage of life, and the need to write my own script and take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of my life without a boss or other authority figure directing my play is both intimidating and liberating.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of God as the great director or playwright of our lives. It sounds comforting to think God has predetermined our fate and knows the outcome of our lives. But then we realize the terrible cost we pay for that escape from freedom and responsibility. If we surrender our free will to a notion of such a controlling God or any false gods we become more like puppets than actors and lose the very essence of our humanity.

Life as improv means cutting the puppeteer’s strings that bind and control us, being open to new challenges as adventures to be embraced instead of wasting our time looking for a script to tell us what we should be doing at any given stage of life. We humans don’t come with an owner’s manual. Lots of people try to usurp the role of producing and directing our lives for us, but ultimately the stage lights go up again every day and we get to improvise.

Unfortunately religion is often used as a tool to stifle creativity and freedom. Yes, we need guidance and direction from a higher power, but we do not need a micro-manager for a God. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be viewed as a guide book or a rule book, but in reality they are really a collection of scripts from the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith journey. We can learn from the lives of the heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (and also from the villains who show us what not to do). But their lives and contexts are not the same as ours. We have to write our own scripts that account for the unique circumstances of the scenes we are called to perform in the 21st century. That does not mean we start from scratch. The basic guidelines for living a faithful life of integrity don’t change. Very few of us can memorize a long script or recite multiple chapters and verses from the Bible. But the essence of God’s direction for our lives is neatly summarized in key verses. Among the favorites that I fall back on when I can’t remember my part or all my lines are these:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Those words do not dictate stage directions for what I should do in a particular situation, but they describe the quality of the character we are all called upon to play no matter what our role is. The roles change from time to time as Shakespeare tells us, but how we are to play our parts is very clear. God as director says, “Love me and love your neighbor.” The details and nuances of how we do that is where we get to improvise.


As the season of Christmas continues into a new year, my hope for the birth again of God’s messengers of peace in unexpected times and places, even here and now, lives on in spite of all the bad news 2015 has been able to muster. And to that end I share a short story I wrote years ago and included in my book, Building Peace from the Inside Out.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Matthew 5:9

Sally was sitting next to the window over the left wing of a 737. The lights of the city would have been pretty as they left O’Hare, but a snowstorm was brewing and the clouds quickly engulfed the plane. Sally was going to spend Christmas with her grandmother in Richmond, Virginia. She was a little scared. She was 14, and this was her first flight by herself. In her nervousness, she had neglected to use the restroom at the airport; so as soon as the seatbelt light went out, she was out of her seat.

In her haste Sally bumped against the brief case of the man in the aisle seat, knocking it off his lap. She reached down politely to pick it up for him, but he grabbed it quickly and gruffly warned her to be more careful. When Sally returned from the restroom she apologized again for the brief case incident. She tried to strike up a conversation with her seat mate. He was in no mood to talk. Sally put her IPod headphones on and turned to the window. There was nothing out there in the darkness but one blinking red light, way out on the end of the wing. Sally thought it was bouncing up and down way too much.

“What makes grownups so darn grumpy, especially at Christmas?” she wondered. But her thoughts were rudely interrupted by an explosion in the rear of the plane. They began to lose altitude rapidly. Everyone panicked and screamed. NO one heard the captain’s voice over the P.A. system urging everyone to “please remain calm.”
The next thing Sally remembered was coming to in a snow covered field. She was 300 yards from the flaming wreckage of the plane. She seemed to be OK except for some cuts and bruises. The man who had been sitting next to her was a few yards away. He was badly hurt and calling for help. Sally was tempted to ignore him but knew she couldn’t. He was barely able to talk, but Sally understood that he was still concerned about his brief case. Wondering what could possibly so important about that stupid brief case; she half-heartedly began to look for it as she searched the area for other survivors. The fire was too intense to get close to the plane. She saw no other signs of life.

Sally found a briefcase. She took it back to the man, but it was the wrong one. She was about to just leave and go for help, but the man pleaded with her. He was desperate. So she looked again. This time she found the briefcase under a piece of the fuselage. She took it to the man, and he motioned for her to bend down so she could hear him. He said he had a very important letter that had to get to Washington. He stressed how urgent it was, begging her to promise him she would see that was delivered. He fell back unconscious before she had time to respond. She took the letter and put it in her coat pocket, half wondering if he was on the level.

Ambulances came. Sally was taken to a hospital where she learned she was in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Her cuts were cleaned and bandaged. The doctors said she had suffered a mild concussion. The next morning she remembered the letter. It was still in her coat pocket. Sally decided she would try and find the man before she opened it. When she asked about him, the nurses told her there were only two other survivors. They were both women.

Back in her room, Sally opened the letter. It was a very official looking dispatch from the CIA in Los Angeles, warning the President about a plot to assassinate several foreign heads of state when they visited Camp David for a summit conference after Christmas. If the assassins were not stopped the possibilities for starting World War III were staggering. Sally was overwhelmed. She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t sure who she could trust. If the letter fell into the wrong hands…. She wasn’t sure what might happen. But she did know that she had been charged with delivering it, and she would.

Sally asked the nurses when she could leave the hospital. She discovered that because she was a minor, they would not release her without parental consent. Sally tried in vain to convince the charge nurse that she had to leave. Seeing that was hopeless, she simply went back to her room, got dressed and left after the night shift came on duty.

Sally’s cell phone had a GPS on it that would have been really helpful had she not lost it in the crash. So resorting to older technology, she picked up a map at a convenience store. She discovered she was 60 miles from Columbus, the state capital. There must be an airport there, right? She had also lost her purse and had no money; so she decided to hitch a ride. Being young and attractive, she didn’t have to wait long for a ride. She was really glad to get out of the sub-freezing weather when a man in a Beamer stopped for her. She would have been more comfortable with a woman or a couple but was in no position to be picky.

The man seemed friendly enough. In fact he had ideas of being a lot friendlier than Sally wanted. A few miles down the highway, he turned off on a county road and tried to force himself on her. Sally resisted so fiercely that he finally just slapped her hard across the face, called her a bitch, and pushed her out into the cold. Sally didn’t mind at all. She was just glad to be rid of him.

Two hours later, nearly frozen from wandering in a blinding snow storm, she saw car lights coming toward her. She flagged the car down and discovered it was a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy, of course, wanted to know what Sally was doing there. She told him that she needed to get to Columbus. He insisted on taking her to the hospital to make sure she was OK. She protested but to no avail.

Sally didn’t realize she had gone far enough to be in different county. She was relieved to discover that she was not going back to Bellefontaine, but to another town called Marysville. The ER staff there treated her for frostbite and gave her a good meal. They could not understand why she was in such a hurry to be on her way. Sally tried making up a story about a sick uncle in Columbus who needed her. Didn’t fly. Finally, she decided she would just have to tell them the truth. She did. They laughed. So, reluctantly, she decided she had no choice but to show them the letter. That would convince them. But the letter was gone. It had fallen out of her pocket somewhere in the snow.

Sally began to feel trapped. The trauma of the crash, the cold, the exhaustion—all began to get to her. She had to get that message to Washington. The peace of the world depended on her, and these stupid people wouldn’t even listen to her. She began to scream at them hysterically.

The next morning, Sally woke up staring at the cold, barren walls of a Columbus psychiatric hospital. She was confused and scared. She tried the door to her room. It was locked. She pounded on the door. No one came. She was about to cry when she suddenly became aware of another person in the room. Sally had not noticed her roommate sleeping in the other bed—an African American girl, about Sally’s age. The sign on bed said “Paula.” As soon as she was fully awake, Paula gave Sally some very important advice: “Hey, girlfriend. You keep that up and they’ll put you on the back ward for keeps. You gotta play it cool if you ever want out of here.”

Sally was still frightened, but she recognized the truth in Paula’s words. Sally told her story to Paula. For the first time she found someone who believed her. Paula suggested that Sally try to call Washington; since there was no way of knowing how long they might keep her here. Paula told Sally she would show her where there was a pay phone when they went down to the dining room for breakfast.

Paula introduced Sally to some of her friends at breakfast, and Sally began to feel a little less scared and alone. But her frustration soon returned. When she tried to make her call, an attendant pulled rank on her—said she had an important call to make. And the attendant was still there talking when it was time for the patents to go back on the ward. Sally tried to convince the nurses to let her go back down that morning, or to let her use the phone in the nurse’s office. They refused. They laughed at her and said they were sure the president could wait until lunch time to talk to her.

Sally was about to lose her temper again, but Paula managed to calm her down. They spent the morning talking. Sally was surprised how quickly the time passed. After lunch she hurried back to the phone. She got as far as a White House operator who dismissed her as a crank call. She tried the local FBI office—same response.
Sally was ready to give up. She was beginning to question her own sanity. But Paula had been hard at work. She figured Sally would have a better chance if she could get to D.C. in person. Sally agreed but had no hope of making it in time. Paula did. She got the nurse to let Sally go with her to Occupational Therapy that afternoon. Paula told Sally what she had planned. They had to go outside to get to OT. Paula said she would distract the attendant so Sally could slip away. Sally begged Paula not to do anything foolish. Paula gave her the address of a friend who would help her get to the airport.

There was not time for further discussion. The only good-bye and thank you Sally could give Paula was a squeeze of her hand as they walked downstairs. As soon as they were outside, Paula screamed and took off running. The attendant went after her. Sally froze. She wanted to know what was going to happen to Paula. But one of the other patients knew what the plan was. She gave sally a friendly shove and told her to get going while she could.
Sally left reluctantly, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as she walked toward where Paula had told her the front gate was. She was still worried about Paula. She was also amazed at the lack of security. There were no guards, just as Paula had promised. Sally got on a city bus, trying hard to act calm. She knew for sure that everyone would recognize her as an escaped mental patient—even though she didn’t look a bit different than two days before—it seemed like two years—when she left Chicago.

The bus driver told her where to change buses to get to the address Paula had given her. It was in the University district, which was nearly deserted during Christmas break. Sally had forgotten all about Christmas. She found the apartment on 11th Avenue. It was in a run-down neighborhood, and Sally was uneasy. It seemed to be getting dark awfully early, but then she had lost all sense of what time it was. A huge African American man answered the door. He was about half drunk and Sally started to leave. But then a much friendlier face appeared.

As soon as Sally mentioned Paula’s name, Billy, the sober one, invited her in and asked what he could do to help. Sally told him her story. Billy agreed it did sound far-fetched. But like Paula, he sensed something in Sally’s eyes and her voice that made him trust her, in spite of his doubts. In a matter of minutes, Billy called the airport and Sally booked on a flight leaving for Reagan National in two hours. He said he knew someone who worked for United Airlines who pulled some strings for him. Otherwise things were all booked up with Christmas travelers.

After sharing some warmed-over pizza, Billy drove Sally to Port Columbus in his ’92 Cavalier. It was better than walking, but not much. Billy’s friend, Tracy, met them and produced a one-way ticket under an assumed name since Sally was not a fugitive in 3 counties. Tracy also used her airport ID to get Sally around the security check point. Billy slipped her a little cash to live on when she got there. Sally promised she would come back and repay him when she could. She was also hoping to see Paula again.

This flight was uneventful. Sally relived the nightmare of the last two days. For the first time since the crash she thought about her parents and her grandmother. They would be worried sick! But there was nothing she could do about that now. She would call them as soon as her unbelievable mission was over. And then she fell into a deep sleep of exhaustion.

Sally woke up as the plane was on its final descent over the Potomac. For a scary minute she thought they were going to land in the river and said a little prayer of appreciation when the wheels touched down safely on the other side. She was in Washington at last—exactly 48 hours later than her original flight should have been…. But that was all past now. She was here. Surely somebody here would listen to her. They just had to.

Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning, Micah 6:1-8

Many years ago I overheard a dinner table conversation between my in-laws that stuck with me. This was back in the days before bucket seats and consoles with gear shifts and cup holders began dividing the front seats of cars like the Berlin wall. For those who don’t remember those good old days, the front seat was a bench seat and dating couples could snuggle up close to each other while driving. We didn’t need cell phones to be guilty of distracted driving. My in-laws had been married for many years at this point, and my mother-in-law was reminiscing about their dating days and how she used to sit over in the middle right next to her beloved. And she asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Her husband got a mischievous grin on his face and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

As we consider how we find our way back to God the first thing we need to remember is that God isn’t the one who moved either. And our text from Micah addresses the question of how we make that journey.

We sometimes move away from God because we are searching for purpose and meaning for life in a scary confusing world. What is our passion, our purpose for living? What gets us out of bed in the morning saying? And how we answer that question is one of the keys to finding our way back to God when we feel lost and like running away.

The most familiar verse in the book of Micah is one attempt to wrestle with the search for the meaning of life and our relationship with God. Micah 6:8 says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? That verse is Micah’s reply to the question raised two verses earlier – “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” This is familiar format for an entrance litany as Jews prepare themselves for worship – asking what must we do to please God, to make ourselves worthy of God’s presence and blessing?

Part of our struggle when we feel removed from God is centered in that basic question – am I good enough? And when we feel like we are not, what does God do about that? When we mess up do we get what we deserve from God? I hope not. And if we feel like we don’t have a clear purpose for our lives or we are failing to achieve it, it’s hard to feel all warm and fuzzy about God.

What is your why for living? Unless we can answer that question we are just going through the motions in some kind of cosmic rat race, and that feeling of meaninglessness is not conducive to closeness with God.

Micah prophesied at the beginning of that time when Israel and Judah were in the deep trouble that eventually led to the Exile. The Assyrian empire was threatening their very existence; the rulers of Israel had put their trust in foreign alliances instead of in the ways of God, investing vast sums in armaments instead of taking care of their own citizens, going into crippling debt by borrowing from the Assyrians. Sound familiar?

Listen to how the NRSV introduces the book of Micah: “Micah offered a theological interpretation of the dizzying events near the end of the 8th century: the fall of Samaria, the expansion of Jerusalem fueled by emigrants from the north, and the international situation made unstable by an aggressive superpower, Assyria.” So this question about the meaning of life and what we must do to please God was not some idle Sunday School discussion topic for Micah – it was a matter of life and death, and it still is.

Micah begins chapter 6 with an Imperative – “Listen up people to what the Lord says.” He then portrays the situation of Israel being on trial for breaking her covenant relationship with God. Then follows a quick review of God’s salvation history with Israel. Micah begins with the seminal event in Israel’s history, how God chose Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Secondly he highlights a much less familiar, at least to us, story of Balaam’s encounter with King Balak of Moab during the long wilderness journey of the Exodus, and wraps it up with a reference to two cities representing the crossing of the River Jordan, Shittim on the east side of the Jordan and Gilgal on the west in the Promised land.

If you’re like me, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan are familiar stories, but the Balaam and Balak reference, not so much. We’ll come back to it because it’s a really cool story, but for now let’s just say Micah uses it to remind the people of one of many times during the 40 years in the wilderness that God rescued the Israelites and helped them overcome obstacles and enemies that stood in their way to freedom and promise.
So with a God who has done all that for his people, people are asking why have things gone so sour? Their world is going to hell in a handbasket. They feel abandoned and alienated from this God who has been their deliverer and savior for centuries.

They need to remember, God isn’t the one who moved – God is faithful and just forever; so when we feel separated from God, the question is what do we need to do to get back next to God.

Micah responds by turning to the question of worthiness and atonement. Verse 6 says “With what shall I come before the Lord.” How can I find my way back to God? And then follows a litany of sacrifices that gets increasingly ridiculous – the best calves, 1000 rams, 10000 rivers of oil, and first born children. You see, the Jews are big on laws. We’re familiar with the top ten list from Mt. Sinai, but those tedious books of Leviticus and Numbers that we don’t often read spend a lot of time explaining the 10 commandments and trying to legislate specific rules and regulations for daily life in order to fulfill what God requires. There are 613 laws the Jews tried to live up to –- and they didn’t’ have any apps to keep track of those. So obviously, being the imperfect fallible human beings they were, they needed a way to make amends with God when they messed up, which was often.

And their system for getting back in God’s graces was offering sacrifices to God. These were ritualistic acts of worship, but as Micah and the other prophets point out, to attend church regularly and perform all the necessary rituals doesn’t mean squat if you go on living unjust, sinful lives the rest of the time.

So finally we get to verse 8 where Micah summarizes what the faithful life looks like in three short phrases – what does the Lord require? – do justice, love mercy or kindness, and walk humbly with God. That’s the way to a life of meaning and purpose, that’s the way back to God. It’s not just something we can do but encompasses who we are called to be. I heard a wonderful sermon once that took its theme from a Frank Sinatra song, “Strangers in the Night,” and in particular from the profound refrain to that song that just says, “do be do be do.” The preacher said if you change that phrase and take out the “be” all you have left is “do do.”

We are not human doings – we are human beings, and faithful living is a holistic process that encompasses all that we are, not just some segmented religious part of our life. Micah lists justice, mercy and humility, qualities that include active doing – working for justice, treating others with mercy and kindness as a way of being –not out of sense of duty or obligation, but simply because in a faithful, loyal relationship with God, we take on those qualities of being.

Pope Francis is a fascinating example of what Micah describes here. The Pope is beloved by so many people because of his humility. He has rejected the usual pomposity of his office, traveling in a little Fiat, taking time to listen to a little girl trying to keep her immigrant parents in this country, spending time with the homeless, washing stinky feet. He walks the walk and because he does so he can also advocate for justice in the halls of Congress and get a standing ovation for the golden rule from a badly broken and partisan legislature.
Francis has been criticized for being too political, but that’s where justice has to happen, in the political arena where too often the rules that perpetuate poverty are passed by the powerful for the benefit of the powerful.

We sometimes use separation of church and state as an excuse for not getting our hands dirty in the messy business of politics, but that’s a misunderstanding of the first amendment to our constitution. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It doesn’t say religion can’t influence the making and implementation of the laws and policies we live by. In fact Micah and the prophets and Jesus are all very clear that God wants laws that are just and that part of the free exercise of our faith is to help make that happen.

Speaking of church and state, let’s go back to King Balak and Balaam for a moment. The whole story is in Numbers 22-24, and I’d encourage you to read it. It is no accident that Micah uses this story in this section about justice and mercy and humility. The short version of the story is that the Israelites are on their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land and one of the many hostile territories they have to pass through is Moab. King Balak sees the vast number of these illegal immigrants heading into his country and orders the prophet Balaam to curse them and drive them away. (Sort of like building a big fence?) But Balaam consults a higher authority, and God tells him, don’t curse these people for they are blessed. In a humorous scene, when Balaam’s faith wavers a bit his faithful donkey sees God’s angel blocking their path when Balaam can’t see the angel, and the donkey prevents Balaam from giving in to King Balak.

Three times Balak pleads and begs with Balaam to curse the Hebrew people, trying to bribe him with great wealth and power, but Balaam holds fast and tells this powerful ruler that he must do and say only what God has told him. Instead of cursing the Israelites he blesses them and they continue on their way toward the Promised Land.
What does the Lord require of us? Balaam and his donkey’s kind of courage and steadfast faithfulness – refusing to give into unjust, unethical demands of the world, even when it would seem to benefit us to do so. And how do we do that? By walking humbly with God as our constant companion and spiritual guide.
Finding God’s meaning and purpose for most of us is not about one burning bush moment. It’s a journey not a destination. It’s about a total body of work, a life of working for justice for the least and lost, of being kind and merciful to everyone, and doing it all not to earn brownie points with God but to simply share God’s love with the world.
John Wesley famously said when he was kicked out of the Church of England, “The World is My Parish.” And he took his ministry to the streets and to the open fields where people who did not feel welcome and worthy in the church were looking for their purpose and trying to find their way back to God.

On this World Communion Sunday, when our world seems to be on the way to the same destruction that befell Samaria and Jerusalem, the Word from God is this: Listen up People, I have not moved, trust my ways. Do not be overwhelmed or despair. I know your sins and they have not driven me away and never will. Don’t worry about paying for your sins, that has already been done by Jesus Christ, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be Christ-like in humble, merciful service, to work for justice in whatever part of my world you are in – I’m right here with you always.

Benediction: May God grant us the vision of Balaam’s donkey to see that God is not the one who has moved. God is on this journey with us to empower and lead us. By our own strength we cannot live just and merciful lives all the time, but if we humbly walk with God, he will show us the way. That is our purpose. Let’s go.

Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence,

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)

Going with the Easter Tide

Eastertide 50 daysEastertide = the ebb and flow of the ocean level on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Not exactly! But that’s a more likely answer than most people might give if asked for a definition of that word. Eastertide is in fact the liturgical season in the Christian calendar that begins on Easter Sunday and ends seven weeks later on Pentecost. (April 5 – May 24 this year). Just as Christmas doesn’t officially end till Epiphany, the season of Easter lasts much longer than the peeps and chocolate bunnies, but one would never know it to observe most Christians or most churches.

The standing room only crowds last Sunday will shrink to a “low Sunday” attendance like that first big drop on a roller coaster, the lilies and Easter finery and decorations will be gone. It’s almost as if Jesus goes back into the tomb like the groundhog that sees his shadow on February 2nd.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and ironically one of the hardest things for Christians and non-Christians to believe. St. Paul says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (I Cor. 1:23). The original version of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, ends with the women fleeing from the empty tomb “because terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).

Do we do the same thing by failing to move into Eastertide with no significant changes to our way of living? Do we struggle with the resurrection because it defies all scientific and logical experience we’ve had with death? We’ve all lost beloved relatives, even pets that leave a huge hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, they don’t come back.

So often we approach Eastertide from that perspective, and it keeps us from being able to trust the unbelievable news that resurrection is real, that it can make a lasting difference in our lives. We want to change, we want to live by faith, we want to take that leap of faith; but we don’t want to look foolish, we don’t want to be disappointed.

I remember a day many years ago when I was a student at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I don’t remember details of what happened in class that day, but I remember the ecstatic feeling of something extraordinary being said or done that transformed deadness in my heart and soul to a new enthusiastic spirit-filled joy. As I was leaving class that day I came out the front door of the building where we had met onto a large front porch of one of the beautiful Georgian buildings there so excited and full of life that instead of going left and down the porch steps I ran forward and took a flying leap over the large hedge that grew along the length of the porch. As I was air-born I remember suddenly realizing I wasn’t sure what was on the other side of that hedge.

So it is with death-defying faith. Faith is not intellectual belief – it is radical trust in a wild and crazy God who rolls away any boulder that keeps us imprisoned in doubt and fear, that keeps us from taking the leap of faith. When we play it safe, when we go along to get along, when we refuse to challenge political, economic, and environmental practices that kill dreams and perpetuate injustice, we are in effect rolling the stone back in front of the tomb and trying to keep Jesus from challenging the status quo of our broken world where fear silences faith. Just celebrating Easter Sunday and ignoring Eastertide is like locking the barn door after the horse has already escaped. It’s too late. God’s verdict has already declared life the victor over death and nothing we do or fail to do can ever put that genie back in the bottle.

One of my all-time favorite statements of what Easter living means came from the late Dwight Loder who was my bishop here in Ohio from 1976-1984. In a sermon he preached in the mid-1980’s Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. Jesus was not resurrected for the church. Jesus was resurrected as the church.” Faith in resurrection is so much more than a personal assurance about our own salvation and eternal life. If we as individual Christians and collectively as the church, the body of Christ, fail to be changed by Easter, we are sending a terrible message to the world and to those longing for Good News that it’s back to business as usual after Easter Sunday.

Don’t believe it. Those frightened women at the tomb and Jesus’ other followers were scared into silence for a while, but God wasn’t finished with them. God always has the last word, and the stories in the Gospels during Eastertide are even more remarkable than the empty tomb. Skeptics could say the tomb was empty because someone simply came and took the body away. But the risen Christ appears over and over again to those who have eyes and ears to see and believe — on the road to Emmaus, in a locked upper room, on the beach. He continues to challenge his followers to be living witnesses that his spirit endures as the resurrected, life-giving, justice and peace promoting force for all that is good and pure in a world dying for Good News.

Easter Sunday is over, but Eastertide has just begun; and the life-giving Holy Spirit is waiting in the wings to blow into our lives with full force on Pentecost if we dare to believe. Resurrection is a spiritual event and how we live our lives in the crucible of the here and now is a witness to the world that we have either had our Easter fling and retreated back into the tomb, or we are boldly living as resurrected people. Easter people witness by every decision and act we take that the tide has turned and the light of the world has not and will never be extinguished by the darkness of death.

By the way, the landing on the other side of that hedge was nice soft grass; so it was OK to leap. And the message of Eastertide is “Go ahead, it’s safe to trust in Resurrection!”

Giants vs. Grasshoppers, Numbers 14:1-10

“Giants vs. Grasshoppers” is not a metaphor for Kentucky vs. Hampton in the NCAA tournament, and yes I know there is no mention of giants or grasshoppers in Numbers 14 – but I promise you they will show up soon.

We are still in the murmuring/complaining section of the Hebrew’s wilderness journey, but before you complain about how long we’ve been there during this Lenten season, let me assure you that we’re almost finished. The Hebrews are now on the banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land God has promised them – but that has not stopped the complaining, it has in fact raised the level from murmuring to murderous threats against their leaders.

To understand this new level of frustration, we have to go back and see what happened in chapter 13. When the Israelites finally near their destination after 40 long years in the wilderness they discover that there are already people living in their promised land. And just as the Israeli’s and Palestinians today have very different opinions about whose land this is, we’ve got a problem. So Moses and Aaron decide to send some spies across the river to scope out the situation and see how big a problem there is. They pick 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes, to do reconnaissance, and when they return from their mission, the spies have good news and bad news. The land is indeed fertile and beautiful, just as God has promised, but the bad news is the current occupants are very powerful. And here’s where we hear about the giants and grasshoppers. The vast majority of the spies agree that the people living in the promised land are an overwhelming foe and to take them on would be like grasshoppers going battle against an army of Giants.

And that’s where Chapter 14 picks up the story. The whole congregation we are told raises a loud cry and weeps. They ask Moses, again, “Why have you brought us here to die by the sword? Our wives and children will become booty. Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”

Isn’t that how we often feel in the wilderness? When we think we’ve almost achieved a hard fought goal and someone else gets the promotion, or a serious illness derails our plans for retirement, or a tragic accident turns a family’s life upside down. Granted we may need to cut the Israelites some slack. Remember these poor people have been traveling in difficult circumstances for 40 years! To realize how long that is, think about how long ago 1975 was. Diana and I were on a trip two years ago to China and our return trip involved flights from Shanghai to Beijing to New York, and then an 11 hour bus ride back to Columbus. All tolled we were traveling without a break for 36 hours, and I can tell you we were not the happiest of campers. I can’t imagine 40 years!!!

Sometimes when a goal seems impossible – when the mountain is just too high to climb, when our patience and endurance are at the breaking point, we just want to throw in the towel and give up. Take us back to Egypt – things were better there. Really? Sometimes memory plays tricks on us. There was a book out a few years ago titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. One of the things Coontz says in her book is that while we tend to romanticize the 1950’s as a period of peace and prosperity before all the turmoil and conflicts of the 60’s and 70’s, we forget how oppressed women and minorities were, and that beneath the façade of domestic tranquility there was a hidden unrest. Coontz’s evidence for that is that valium and other popular drugs for depression and anxiety came into widespread use during that decade. It wasn’t all “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

Fear distorts our memories of how things were in the past. As the theme song from the movie “The Way We Were” says, “What’s too painful to remember, we sometimes choose to forget.” That’s what happens to the Hebrews. They are so disappointed and fearful about the challenges and obstacles they see before them, they are ready to give up when they are so close but so far from their goal. Someone once told me that there are no trophies for running a 99 yard dash – you have to finish the race to win the prize.

We’ve also noticed in these murmuring chapters in Numbers that complaining is contagious. The text says, “The Whole Congregation” is ready to give up. When I was a kid and wanted something my friends had – a new toy or the coolest clothes – or if I wanted to go somewhere that I knew my parents probably would not approve of, I would often tell my mother, “But everybody else has one! All the other kids at school are going!” Her response was often, “Name Three.” And more times than not I couldn’t. End of discussion. So do you think “the whole congregation” might be an exaggeration?

Actually we know it is, because among the 12 spies there is a minority report. Two of the twelve, Caleb and Joshua, have a different take on the situation. They have seen the same evidence as the other 10. They all agree the land is flowing with milk and honey and would be a great place to settle. They all agree the people living there are a formidable problem. But Joshua and Caleb come from a perspective of faith instead of fear. They say, “If God is pleased with us – if we don’t rebel against the Lord, God will deliver on his promise. If God is on our side, nothing else matters.”

And how do the people respond? Verse 10 says, “The whole congregation threatened to stone them.” Dreamers, visionaries and prophets often meet with that kind of reaction – think Copernicus or Galileo. Psychologists explain it this way. When someone has a vision of reality that is very different from ours it creates what is called cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy way of saying discomfort because things don’t line up the way we think they should. That can create fear and the need to do something to relieve the dissonance.

For example, we can choose to just ignore the problem, as in denial of climate change. Or we can remove ourselves from the situation–end a relationship, quit a job, move to a new home, etc. But on rare occasions where the dissonance is extremely high, things can turn violent, and history is full of martyrs like Jesus, Gandhi, and Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many less famous ones who have met that fate. And that’s what Caleb and Joshua are facing on the banks of the Jordan. If you read on in Numbers you will discover that God is much happier with Caleb and Joshua’s faithful response than the 10 other spies and the rebellious congregation. Because of their fear and complaining none of the latter group will be allowed to enter the promised land, but Caleb and Joshua are rewarded for their courage and faith and lead the new generation at last to their new home.

I was talking with a woman a few weeks ago who was dealing with a terrible family crisis. She was feeling like a grasshopper facing gigantic new challenges. When I suggested she just take things one day at a time and break the problems down into smaller pieces, she said, “I know, Steve, I tell other people that all the time. But I can’t live that way. I have to be in control and know what’s going to happen.” That’s the way we all would like life to be, but it simply isn’t.

And because it isn’t we all need faith and the support of others who are facing the giants with us. One of the problems with us rugged individualistic Americans is that we aren’t good at showing our own vulnerabilities and letting others in. We keep up a good front even when we’re dying on the inside. Another old Barbra Streisand song, “People,” describes that situation very well:

“We’re children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children.”

I was listening to a webinar the other day about transitions in life and was struck by a comment from Robert C. (Bob) Atchley, Distinguished Professor of Gerontology (emeritus) from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who said, “All of life is Assisted-Living.” Think about how true that is. We use that term “assisted-living” to describe a level of care for elderly people, but it describes all of life. None of us would have come into life or survived infancy and childhood without someone to care for us and teach us. But somewhere along the line we get the notion that we don’t need parents anymore telling us what to do. We move out into the wilderness of adolescence and adulthood on our own, yearning for independence and self-sufficiency. That personal quest is a necessary part of growing up and sometimes it feels great, but when faced with giants, it feels oh so very lonely.

Feeling alone and isolated in the wilderness is a major theme in the movie “Into the Woods.” The song “No one Is Alone,” sung by the Baker and Cinderella, both of whom have suffered terrible losses in the woods, addresses that issue this way:

“Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.”

People of faith know who is on our side. And people of faith also know that we need to be there for each other. Jimmy, a little boy was scared one night by a thunder storm raging outside his bedroom window. When his father came into his room to comfort him he assured him by reminding him that he had learned in Sunday school that Jesus was always with him. Jimmy said, “yes, I know that Dad, but sometimes I just need someone with skin on them.” We need to be those skin-covered people for each other, especially in the wilderness times of life, but if we pretend we don’t need each other, thinking that we can avoid our problems by ignoring them – we cut ourselves off from the very support we need.

I want to finish today by talking about another kind of wilderness experience – one that is voluntary. When we think of the wilderness we often think of it as times of crisis, dealing with unexpected problems, but the wilderness can also be a time of intentional withdrawal from the distractions of daily living to get a better perspective on life – to see the bigger picture. Lent is a good time to do that, but any season of our lives will work. Someone once told me it’s hard to remember that your goal is to drain the swamp when you are up to your waist in alligators. Times of solitude for prayer and refection are needed when we get out of the swamp and see the bigger picture to remember or clarify what our purpose in life really is.

That’s not easy. We are all busy with multitudes of responsibilities. We need to intentionally build time into our schedules regularly to stop and evaluate where we are on life’s journey, to make mid-course corrections, to let go of regrets, guilt, grudges and other burdens that weigh us down. This is especially important at critical times that are rites of passage from one stage of life to another – adolescence to young adulthood, mid-life crises, career changes, new relationships, empty nesting, and retirement. Rather than jumping from one phase of life to another the way our culture says we “should,” taking time off to reflect on what God wants us to be and do is critical.

There is no need to be afraid of choosing to go to the wilderness because no one is alone. We journey with an eternal God who ultimately conquers all giants. Time in the wilderness is time to sort out priorities about the legacy we truly want to leave for future generations; to remember our real goal in life isn’t more stuff and wealth. The legacy we want to leave is faith and values for a life that is truly abundant in the deepest meaning of that term. Our real promised land is a life of peace that passes human understanding, and reaching that goal comes from saying “no” to the majority, who let fear rob them of their goal, and trusting and obeying the still small voice of God that says “put your money on the grasshoppers.”

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, March 22, 2015

What Are We Full Of?, Jonah 3:1-5, 10

This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.

Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.

Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?

We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.

Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.

I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.

In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.

We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?

It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.

It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.

Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.

The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”

Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.

Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.

When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.

So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.

My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.

Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.

What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.

[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]

Human and Divine Collaboration, Judges 4:1-7

I preached this sermon at Northwest UMC on November 16, 2014

As is often the case in the biblical narrative, in Judges 4 Israel is in deep do do, and this time even deeper than usual. The enemy threatening Israel this time is not Kent State or Indiana. The Canaanites are not some distant enemy as previous foes in the era of the judges have been – these are next door neighbors, and they are armed as no foe of Israel’s has ever been armed before – with 900 chariots of iron. Those chariots indicate a big change historically as humankind is moving from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. There were benefits to those changes, but it also meant people had bigger and better ways to kill each other.

In the midst of all that change there is a predictable pattern to this story that readers of earlier chapters of Judges have seen before. 1. Ehud, the former judge has died. The judges were a series of leaders of Israel during the period before the monarchy was established. They were prophets, spokespeople for God, and when a vacuum in that leadership occurred with Ehud’s death Israel again goes astray. It’s a classic ‘when the cats away the mice will play’ scenario. The text tells us simply that Israel did evil, which leads to step two in the pattern. 2. Bad things happen. The text says “God sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan.” I don’t believe God is a puppeteer who directly causes bad things to punish wayward people; we have freedom of choice. But I do believe there is a natural order to things that results in painful consequences when we are unfaithful to God’s will.

When there is a lack of leadership and vision, as Proverbs tells us, the people of God perish. And when we are in trouble we come to phase 3 in the pattern, we cry out to God to save us. And (4) God raises up a new leader or leaders who help save the day.

When I first looked at this lectionary passage my first reaction was to look elsewhere for a text – especially when I read the rest of Chapter 4 which is full of more twists and turns than a Cedar Point roller coaster. But then as I thought about Ebola and ISIS and some of the other messes our world is in I realized this pattern is still with us today. When we forget God’s ways we face seemingly insurmountable problems. What do we do when that happens? It seems to me we need to do two things: (1) we need to admit we’ve got a problem, and (2) we need to ask for help from other people and from God.

When our granddaughter Kaitlyn was a baby her parents taught her some very simple baby sign language. Most of the signs were pretty obvious – like one for “I’m hungry,” or “no more,” but my favorite was the one for “I don’t know.” There’s a ton of stuff a one-year old doesn’t know, and they aren’t hung up on pretending they know things they don’t. So I would play a game asking Kaitlyn questions I knew she would not be able to answer, and she would laugh and do the sign for “I don’t know.” Why is it that as we get older we are reluctant to ask for directions or to ask for help with some question or project that is beyond our scope of experience or expertise? Judges tells us that King Jabin had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for 20 years before they realized they better ask God for help!

Rugged individualists that we are, and this may be more of a male problem, I admit, we often add time and stress to a job by our reluctance to simply admit, “I don’t know.” One of my favorite stories about that kind of attitude is described in this letter from a man writing to his insurance company to explain an insurance claim:

“I am writing in response to your request for more information concerning block #11 on the insurance form which asks for “cause of injuries” wherein I put “trying to do the job alone”. You said you need more information, so I trust the following will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade and on the day of the injuries, I was working alone laying bricks around the top of a four story building when I realized that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to put them into a barrel and lower them by a pulley which was fastened to the top of the building. I secured the end of the rope at ground level and went up to the top of the building and loaded the bricks into the barrel and swung the barrel out with the bricks in it. I then went down and untied the rope, holding it securely to insure the slow descent of the barrel.

As you will note on block #6 of the insurance form, I weigh 145 pounds. Due to my shock at being jerked off the ground so swiftly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Between the second and third floors, I met the barrel coming down. This accounts for the bruises and lacerations on my upper body.
Regaining my presence of mind, I held tightly to the rope and proceeded rapidly up the side of the building, not stopping until my right hand was jammed in the pulley. This accounts for the broken thumb.

Despite the pain, I retained my presence of mind and held tightly on to the rope. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighted about 50 pounds. I again refer you to block #6 and my weight.

As you would guess I began a rapid descent. In the vicinity of the second floor, I met the barrel coming up. This explains the injuries to my legs and lower body. Slowed only slightly, I continued my descent landing on the pile of bricks. Fortunately, my back was only sprained and the internal injuries were minimal.

I am sorry to report, however, that at this point, I finally lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope, and as you can imagine, the empty barrel crashed down on me.

I trust this answers your concern. Please know that I am finished “trying to do the job alone”.

Back to our Scripture: Deborah appears as the next Judge of Israel, and she is the one to whom the Israelites finally turn to for advice. She summons a general named Barak – did you catch that? I’m not making that up, that’s what it says in verse 6. So no matter what your political preferences, don’t get hung up on his name. Barak is just one of God’s agents in this drama. Deborah gives him explicit directions on how to confront the Canaanites, who, where, when, how, and promises him that God will deliver Jabin into his hands.

If the story ends there it would be sort of like a very predictable Hallmark movie. Sure, God wins, God always wins, with or without our cooperation; but whom God uses and what happens along the way raises some surprising and difficult questions. In the verses immediately after Deborah guarantees Barak a victory, he says a curious thing, Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And Deborah said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera (Jabin’s Commanding General) into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:8-9)

If someone guaranteed you success at a difficult task that would save your people and make you a great hero or heroine, wouldn’t you do it? Barak’s refusal to go without Deborah raises questions the story doesn’t answer. Is he insecure about his own leadership ability? Is he lacking in faith that God will truly prevail against this powerful enemy? We don’t know, and Deborah’s reply only adds to the intrigue. She says, OK I’ll go, but you aren’t going to get the glory – a woman is.

In the sexist world of that time, that could be a real put down. A real leader wouldn’t need help and certainly not from a woman. But as a judge, Deborah is God’s representative –maybe Barak just wants her along as assurance of god’s presence. We don’t know. We also may think we know that Deborah is tooting her own horn, assuming she is the woman in question who will get the glory for this victory. Don’t jump to that conclusion too quickly.

The battle with Sisera’s army is waged and it’s like Pharaoh’s army at the Red sea – no contest. Verse 16 says, “All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.” But here comes the next twist in this tale – one person did escape we are told. Sisera jumped down from his iron chariot and fled on foot, He seeks refuge in the tent of a non-Israelite woman named Jael, who is the wife of an ally of King Jabin.

Warning, here’s where the story gets a bit R-rated but not in the way you may be thinking. Neither Sisera nor Jael have romance in mind. He is just looking for a safe place to hide, and Jael, even though she is not an Israelite, welcomes him according to the customs of hospitality for strangers we find in Hebrew Scriptures. She shelters him, covers him with a rug, and gives him a drink of milk. And then when he falls asleep she turns on him in a most inhospitable and brutally murders him by driving a tent peg into his temple.

What are we followers of the Prince of Peace supposed to do with that gory detail? As my granddaughter would say, “I don’t know.” But at least one mystery is solved – Jael shows Barak what she has done, and we realize that she is the woman into whose hands Sisera has been delivered, not Deborah. But the bigger mystery of why Jael did what she did is left unanswered. Barak and Deborah just sing a victory song and give thanks to God for delivering them from their enemy. And we the readers are left to wrestle with the moral dilemma of whether the ends justify the means, even when God has ordained the victory.

The ambiguity is because the Bible is not an answer book. It is an interactive narrative of God’s actions in human history. Issues are raised in Scripture that are uncertain and complicated because life is complex. God’s middle name is ambiguity because there is always something mysterious about God’s nature that will forever be beyond the grasp of our finite minds. In our human condition we will always see in a mirror dimly.

But having said that there are some lessons we can draw from this curious story. This is a story about human and divine collaboration. Deborah, Barak and Jael all three play critical roles in this story, but none of the three can claim total credit for the victory. All of them contributed and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Harry Truman once said, “We can accomplish great things if no one is worried about who gets the credit,” and that’s what happens here. Like any team effort, the contributions of every player are necessary for success. Imagine the scientific and international collaboration it took to land a spacecraft on a comet 300 million miles away!

A second take away from this story is that God uses unexpected actors to accomplish God’s goals. And not just in this story. God is very consistent. No matter whom God taps to carry the ball at any given time – uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes, adulterous kings or sneaky self-centered rascals like Jacob – God wins. When God sends a redeemer to deliver Israel from the exile in Babylon, God doesn’t choose an Israelite – but Cyrus, King of Persia, as in modern day Iran! And the ultimate redeemer – because we know the story so well we forget what a surprise that peasant kid born in a barn was.

God wins – always – but that does not eliminate the need for human responsibility and accountability. We can’t just sit back and wait for God to take care of us. Deborah promises Barak the victory, but he still has to round up his troops and confront the enemy. God’s ultimate victory is a given. The question is when that victory comes will we be among those on God’s side. If we want to be part of the victory we have to do our part.

To be sure that happens we need to be open to God’s leaders from unexpected places. Like Deborah, a female leader, heretofore unheard of in the Hebrew Scriptures where Noah and Moses and the patriarchs are always the prime actors. Judges is a book full of strong women, and sometimes, like men, they make mistakes or behave in questionable ways, like Delilah or Jael in this story. But the point is that God can use us all if we are willing to trust and obey what we believe God is calling us to do as best we can discern.

And that’s the final lesson learned here. Human collaboration and shared leadership is necessary and sorely needed in our day. To say the least I am skeptical but still praying for collaboration and compromise to break out in Washington D.C. instead of the partisan bickering and backstabbing that accomplishes nothing. To achieve that dream more than human collaboration is needed. Collaboration with the will of God that supersedes human pettiness and selfishness is required if we are to face the complex issues our nation and world must confront.

We need leaders with vision who speak the will of God. Who are those leaders today? Look in the mirror, it might be you! Pray and really listen to what God is asking you to do to make a difference. We spend so much of our prayer time telling God things God already knows instead of listening for what God wants us to know.

When we take time to listen to God, even in the midst of all life’s challenges we can embrace the mystery of God wrapped in faithful assurance of the ultimate outcome. We can dwell in God’s peace that passes human understanding that enables us to act faithfully without knowing the details of what happens in short run because we do know who holds the future.

Life is like a game of tag. When God taps us and says “You’re it!” we can say like Barak, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go, but you have to go with me.” And God will.

Thanks for Not Nice People

Can you name all 12 tribes of Israel? No, don’t Google it. Many years ago I had to admit to my church youth group that I couldn’t either. We were at a summer mission work camp in Virginia where instead of just giving each work team a number or a letter, some creative soul decided to name each team after one of the 12 tribes of Israel. You will recall from the book of Genesis that those tribes were named after Jacob’s 12 sons. The challenge to name all 12 arose because at our work camp we only had 10 teams; so two of the tribes were not named.

Inquiring minds want to know these things, and it provided a teachable moment. So in the church van on the way back to Ohio at the end of the week we asked our youth if any of them could name the two missing tribes. No one could, of course; so we invited the kids to pull out their Bibles and see if they could solve the mystery. It was a great way to keep them occupied on the long trip home, and turned into a much better spontaneous Bible study than most I have planned in advance.

While digging around in Genesis the youth found a lot of interesting R-rated stories that they had never learned in Sunday School. They discovered that those 12 sons of Jacob came from 4 different women, and Jacob was only married to two of them. Yes he had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and if you don’t know the story of how that happened, it’s very interesting drama in Genesis 29. The youth also found tales of incest and adultery, and other stupid human tricks that would make good soap opera episodes.

After they had shared several of these unseemly stories with each other, one of the young women turned to me and said, “Those aren’t very nice people! What are they doing in the Bible?” Excellent question and the answer is that fallible human beings are all God has to work with. It’s like when Jesus’ critics asked why he ate with sinners. Because if he didn’t he would always have to eat alone!

What I love about the biblical narratives is that they are not sugar-coated Hallmark movies but honest stories about how messy life is. The characters (in every sense of the word) are just like you and me, and the good news is that there is a place in God’s story for all of us, from Abraham to Zechariah, from Bathsheba to Mary Magdalene, not because of our many faults, but in spite of them. Thanks be to God who is faithful, especially when we aren’t.

By the way, the two missing tribes were Zebulun and Issachar.