Love is Not a Dream

Read Matthew 5:38-48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'” (Matthew 26:52)

worldJust when Spring has finally sprung, just when warmth and life start to come back to the earth, just as people start to prepare for new hope and new opportunities for living life, a tragedy occurs that reminds us of how fragile and precarious life is. Today, as I was busy amid my day’s worth of work, a notification from the NY Times popped up on my iPhone, telling me that there were two explosions that went off during the Boston Marathon. As it turns out, these explosions were purposefully set off to harm, maim, and kill people. And the mission was accomplished. As of this writing, at least three people were killed, dozens maimed, and an entire nation is in a state of shock and panic.

Even following such tragic events like 9/11, all of the shootings that have happened and other devastating events, we still wonder who in the world would want to hurt innocent people. How can people be so cold, so calculating, and so vicious?  Why is it that the human race seems to be hellbent on blowing itself up? How should we respond to these and other acts of terror?

Before we answer those questions, let us think back to the world in which Jesus was born in. Christ was born into a world that is just as harsh as the world in which we live. He was born in a country that was occupied by a cruel and merciless Empire. He was born into a world that scourged and crucified its opponents. He was born into a world that shunned the poor and honored the greedy and powerful. It is into such a world that Jesus was born, and he was bound to experience the cruelty that this world had to offer.

Yet, what was his response? Did he respond out of fear? Did he respond out of hatred? Did he respond based off of his emotions? How did Jesus react with the world around him? What was his response to the cruelty, injustice, and horror that he was faced with everyday of his life?  The answer is as simple, and yet as profoundly irritating, as can be. Jesus responded with love.

Many, when hearing this, may think that I am just spewing a Christian cliché. Some may even go as far as to say that Jesus’ teachings work in theory, but not in real-world situations. After all, if we let people get away with murder, they’ll just keep on murdering? How does love solve the world’s problems?

The answer is, it doesn’t. But then again, neither does responding in hatred, violence and fear.  There is nothing that we can do to stop people from harming us, should they choose to. And a consequence of living in this broken world is that we run the risk of being caught in the fray of evil. And if we are honest, we sometimes perpetuate evil ourselves.

But we are not called to change the world; rather, we are called to change ourselves. We are called to rise above the fray and to love people, even when they don’t deserve to be loved. We are called to reach out to the starving, the naked, the angry, the disenchanted, the sick, the imprisoned, and all of those who are desperate people caught in desperate times. We are called to be the very presence of God in the lives of those who are desperately in need of the presence of God. In the end we have a choice, to react in fear or to react in love, to give in to the reaction the world is seeking after, or to embrace the reaction God desires of us. The choice is yours.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Love is only a dream if you refuse to make it a reality.

PRAYER

Lord, we lay our fears down at the foot of the cross and pick up your love and your grace. Help us in this endeavor. Amen.

 

The Bedrock of Faith

Read John 20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

BedrockOver the course of the month of March, my family and I sat down to watch the Bible series, which aired for five consecutive Sundays on the History Channel.  The last two and a half episodes were centered around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is during those episodes that we become acquainted with Thomas, one of the twelve disciples.

In the series, the shaved headed Thomas always looks dour and disgruntled. He always seems to be warring with his being a disciple and the things Jesus is teaching. He is never fully convinced of who Jesus is, or so he appears, and the miracles just don’t seem to be convincing him.

Even when Jesus appears to him in the upper room, following the resurrection, Thomas still refuses to believe. “No, I can’t believe it,” Thomas exclaims, “It can’t be real.”  Even as Jesus is standing right before Thomas, he is shown to be doubting the reality of what he is witnessing. In fact, in the TV series, it seems that Thomas isn’t doubting at all…he just simply doesn’t want to believe.

While the series wasn’t entirely true to the character of Thomas, as Thomas never refuses to believe the reality of the resurrection when Jesus is standing before him in the room, it is a fact that Thomas has become known to us as the doubter.  And in his doubt, it seems that often times the Bible, and we people of “faith”, seem to look down upon him for having his doubts.

What’s more, often times we, as Christians, look down at people who struggle with doubt.  We act as if we are so sure about everything.  We say  amongst ourselves, “Oh come on! How could you not believe?” Perhaps we feel good about ourselves in doing so. Perhaps it gives us a sense of comfort to know that we are standing on a faith of solid rock; yet, even if that is the case, we are only left with a false sense of security.

Even the most solid rock in the world can be utterly cracked and disheveled by a major earthquake. There is nothing on this earth that stands the test of time without experiencing uncertainty and doubt.  I can be said that the life that denies the existence of doubt denies the very nature of what it means to be alive.  After all, what do we know? Honestly, what are we so sure of that there is no room for doubt?

The truth of the matter is that there is no life lived that has not experienced doubt. Thomas is not the weakest link in Jesus chain of disciples, he is one of the strongest links. He refused to believe something just because someone else told him it was true. He had to experience it for himself; it had to become real for him in order for him to accept it.

When we stop to think about it, one would have to say that, in fact, one cannot truly believe something unless they have experienced the truth of it. Mary had the privilege of witnessing Jesus outside the tomb, why then would we deny Thomas the experience of witnessing Jesus? Why would we want to deny anyone, including ourselves, the opportunity to personally witnessing the presence of God in our lives?

The next time you have doubts, be honest with yourself. Embrace those doubts and ask the necessary questions you need to ask.  Recognize that doubt is not your enemy, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Come to the understanding that doubt is the bedrock from which faith springs! Know that you are not alone in your doubts and that from your doubts your faith shall rise.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Doubt is the bedrock from which faith springs.

PRAYER

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief. Amen.

The Public Servant

Read Matthew 6:1-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

il_fullxfull.252262749There once was a public servant who spent his entire life serving the public who continually voted him in. He was a decorated war hero who enlisted in the Army when he was eighteen. Following his military service, he put himself through college, then law school, and became a prosecutor who cracked down on criminals in his city. After years of service, he entered into the political arena and was elected to hold many different positions, including the mayor of his city.

One day, the mayor pulled up to city hall and found a car parked in such a way that his reserved parking spot was blocked. The mayor just couldn’t believe it! How could someone park in his spot! Didn’t they know who he was? Didn’t they know that he was the mayor, that he had spent his entire life serving the public, that he had earned that spot and was entitled to have it?

In a rage, the mayor called the chief of police directly and demanded that he take care of the situation!  “Get one of your boys down here and tow that car!” The mayor demanded. The chief of police, not wanting to stoke the mayor’s anger any further, immediately sent an officer to tow the car. Even upon the car being removed and getting his spot back, the mayor was seething over the incident.

Walking into the city hall, the mayor saw a woman sobbing profusely with a woman with another man sitting and sobbing next to her. “What’s going on,” the mayor asked?  The city clerk responded, that woman works here. She just found out that her son got into a car accident on the way to school and died. She called her husband who just came about ten minutes ago. He parked outside, ran in and as been with her since.” The mayor’s heart sunk. He just realized that the car he had towed belonged to the poor husband who had just lost his son and came to be with his wife.

As Christians, we spend day after day trying to do the right things. We go to church, we serve others (to the best of our abilities), we work tirelessly on building a legacy of faith for our children and their children. We come to expect things to be done a certain way, and we feel entitled to have it done the way we want because we have worked hard and earned it! We may find ourselves getting angry when we perceive that things aren’t “the way they should be” or that “we aren’t getting the respect we deserve.”

But why is it that we are doing what we do? Are we doing it to garner attention for ourselves? Are we “serving” so that, in the end, we might be served? Do we as Christians, as followers of Jesus the Christ, really believe that we’ve earned our keep and that we deserve or are entitled to preferential treatment? If so, Jesus says that we will get our reward.

We will garner attention and throw hissy fits when we don’t. We will look good to all of the right people, and we will trample the insignificant under our feet. Yet, if that is what we are doing, let us also be aware that we are trampling the very heart of God under our feet. Let us not wake up one day and come to realization, as the mayor above did, that we are no longer the person we envisioned ourselves as being; rather, let us join Christ in turning our own standards upside down. Let us start to see that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Let us realize that we are never done serving and that God has called us to be agents of GRACE not benefactors of entitlement. Let your sense of entitlement go, in all areas of your life, and be filled with the Grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’. – Erma Bombeck

PRAYER

Lord, let me not ask what you, and others can do for me, but what I can do for you and for others. Amen.

 

Power to the People

Read Matthew 28:18-20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

DARK KNIGHT RISESReleased in the summer of 2011, The Dark Knight rises was visionary director Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Dark Knight trilogy.  The trilogy follows the story of Bruce Wayne, who as a boy, watched the cold-blooded murder of his parents right before his innocent eyes. That night, the innocence of that boy was stolen and the person known as Bruce Wayne died.  As he grew up his need for vengeance grew and ended up, as an adult, taking the law into his own hands and deciding to fight against crime and corruption.

Thus, the Batman is born.  Yet, Bruce Wayne does more than just fight crime. As he combats criminals he realizes that, as only one person, he can only do so much. He also learns from some wise people around him, that he is not truly helping anyone one if does everything for him. Thus, the Wayne develops the Batman as a symbol for the people of Gotham. This symbol not only represents impartial justice, but he represents the need for empowerment. The Batman’s sole purpose is not to fight crime for the people, but to inspire and empower the people to rise up and put an end to the corruption.

In the film, the Dark Knight rises, the Batman does just that. He becomes a symbol for the people to look to and find hope. He becomes a symbol for the people to rally behind. He becomes a symbol for the people to step up and replace.  One of the most inspiring parts of the film is when the Batman can be seen, in broad daylight, fighting along side the people.  In this part he is not the highlight of the scene, rather he is just one of hundreds of extras doing his part with the rest of them.  What a powerful message to send to people in this day and age where we are on the constant look our for political leaders and local heroes to come in and save the day, as opposed to stepping up and doing what we need to do to save the day ourselves.

The church is no different.  We often look to God and ask for God to come in and save us, for God to come in and right the wrongs, for God to do what it is that we should be doing ourselves.  Yet, in comes Jesus of Nazareth who sets out to be more than a magical miracle worker; rather, Jesus’ purpose was to become a symbol for us that would give us hope and empower us to join him in the mission of bringing hope, healing and wholeness to all who need it.  Christ not only comes in and “saves us” but is a symbol that we too can rise up with the Son and be an agent of salvation in this broken world.

To be agents of salvation we must first understand what salvation means. It does not mean getting people to verbally profess what we believe to be the way, the truth and the life. Rather it means for us to allow God to work in us, through us and in spite of us in away that connects others to the hope, healing and wholeness (aka grace) that God wants them to receive. We are called to not only preach the Gospel with our mouths, but to preach it through our actions.

If someone is starving the Good News is food. If some one feels alone, then our presence would be good news. If someone is naked, clothing would be good news. For those who are lost spiritually, representing the presence of God is good news. Rather than waiting around for Christ to come in like a superhero, we should be actively seeking to rise up with Christ and work side-by-side with him to combat hopelessness in our community. This is what Christ has empowered and equipped us to do. It’s time to join the risen Son!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” – Batman

PRAYER

Lord, continue to empower and equip me to rise up alongside of you for the glory of your Kingdom. Amen.

A Forest of Crosses

Read Matthew 2:13-23; John 21:1-19

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

CrucifixionA father, a mother and their young three-year old boy are making a long and dangerous trip home. They had spent the past few years in hiding and decided that it was finally safe to return home. There wasn’t much certainty of what would be awaiting them upon their return home; however, they knew that they could not stay away forever.

As they finally reach their homeland, they are entering a hell that they cannot even begin to anticipate.  Their young son looks up, wide-eyed and frightened, left speechless by what his innocent eyes were witnessing.  The mother looks up and gasps, calling her husband to look up. Above them is a forest of crosses, erect and grotesque. To each of the crosses are lifeless corpses, blackened with the decay of death. The bodies are rotting and are torn open from the pecking beaks of birds and the gnashing teeth of jackals and other scavengers that have made a feast of the flesh.

I am guessing that many of you are probably pretty disturbed by the image that has just been painted in two short paragraphs. If so, just imagine what the how scarred the little boy must’ve been to look up and see the sight of those bodies nailed to a forest of crosses. Hundreds of them set in their places to send a message of fear to anyone who dare resist the law of the land. This little boy, whose name is Yeshua in his native language of Aramaic and whose known by the Greek translation of that name (Jesus), would never forget the images of the crosses that foreshadow the way he is ultimately going to die.

This is the scene of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returning home from Egypt in the History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.”  And there can be no doubt that Jesus’ life in ancient, 1st Century, Palestine, would have been riddled with such horrific images. Jesus grew up in a world where the word “peace” equated to a cruel, merciless, and torturous death.  In Jesus’ world, there were was no democracy, there were no civil “rights”, and there was no middle class. There were only the haves and the have-nots.

When we hear Jesus telling his disciples that if they wish to be his disciples they need to deny themselves and pick up their crosses, let us not forget the image above of the forest of crosses filled with the rotting, decaying stench of corpses.  Jesus wasn’t talking about putting on a silver or gold necklace when he said “pick up your cross”; rather, he was talking about the Roman means of capital punishment.

As we move closer to Holy Week, and ultimately to Good Friday (the darkest day in the Christian calendar) let us reflect, not only on the sacrifice that Jesus made, but on the sacrifice Christ is calling us to make. If we are going to be Christ’s followers, if we really believe in Jesus’ message, then we will be willing to lose it all…no matter how bad it hurts…for the sake of Christ and his Good News.

While, I cannot tell you what your cross is, or how you are to bear it, remember that the only way to get to Good Friday is to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. The only way to get to Easter, to get to your own resurrection, is to die to all that you believe you are and to embrace who God proclaims you are.  The only way to truly live, is to die to whatever is holding you back from giving your all to God.  For most of us, this “dying is metaphorical”, but that doesn’t make it any less real.  We are called to die to ourselves, and be resurrected in Christ Jesus so that we may bring God’s hope, healing and wholeness to those who are in desperate need of the life that God has to offer.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

To deny yourself does not equal self-neglect; rather, it equals the recognition that you are not “YOUR” own.

PRAYER

Lord, I surrender myself to your will. Use me in a way that will bring about your Kingdom here on earth. Amen.

 

Growing in Grace

Read Matthew 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:8)

vbc_gig_screenWhen I was in my later teens, I went through a period of trying to identify who I was as person. I knew who my parents told me I was, I knew who the church thought I was, I knew what society expected me to be; however, I needed, as do all young people, to discover who I was.

For many years, the church was a place I found my identity in; yet, as I was going through this period of change, the church became less and less so. I got tattoos, pierced my ears, and started to change from the little boy everyone knew me as, into something different. And of course, different is not always a welcome thing. I remember the looks I got when I first walked into church with my newly inked skin. I was proud of them, clearly some of my fellow church members were not. It’s not that anyone said anything nasty to me, but I could just tell by the way they looked at me.

So, to make a long story short, I walked away from my Christian faith for many years. That does not mean I stopped believing in God, or in a higher power, but I sought for that connection in other things. I started to have a negative perception of the church as a whole as a result of my previous experiences. That was sad, looking back, because most of my childhood years in the church are fond memories for me.

Thankfully, the story does not end there. While some of the reactions I got from some of the members of my church were negative, there were other people in the church who did not look at me, or treat me any differently. The pastor of my church at the time, kept on embracing me and treating me with the same respect and dignity as he always had. He patiently answered questions, invited me to be a part of different ministries in the church, all the while allowing me to find out who I was as a person.

One of my Sunday School teachers was another person who kept on loving me despite my changes, as did some of the other church members and, of course, my parents. Despite my walking away from my Christian faith, I could not walk away from the impression those people, and others, left on me. Despite my focusing on the negative that happened, I still could not wipe away the miraculous positive reinforcement that those people had on my life.

And those experiences, in part, inform who I am today as a pastor and spiritual leader. I have come to learn over the years that even just a little grace goes a long, long way. It’s like a mustard seed, that starts off as the smallest of things but grows into a giant tree, sheltering the birds of the air from the desert sun. Grace is the doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. At firsts it looks small, distant and hard to enter, but as you journey closer to it you realize it is a door wide open, and all who enter it will be changed forever.

As Christians, we are called not only to receive grace, but to be bearers of it. In fact, if we are to grow at all as Christians, we are to grow in grace. It is so easy for us to fall into legalism and judgmentalism, for that is the way of this world; however, though we live in this world, we are called to transcend it. We are called by God to extend grace to all, even to those whom we feel don’t deserve it. After all, who are we to judge who deserves God’s grace. Let us err on the side of grace and extend that grace to all people, no matter how different they might be. You just never know who’s life God will touch as a result of that grace.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“If we are to err, and err we shall, then let us err on the side of grace.” – Rev. Alec C. Park

PRAYER

Lord, help me to extend my grace to all people. Soften my heart that I may bear witness to the undeserved grace you have given to me. Amen.

A Phantom Lesson

Read 1 Corinthians 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

'phantom-of-the-opera'-at-25-offers-a-special-showThe chamber is dark, hollow, desolate. All that can be heard are the echoes ringing through the darkened chasm and corridors like sounds of moaning bellowing through an old, dank mausoleum.  The song of two lovebirds pierce the ears of the silhouette of the man left behind in the chamber; their words of loving devotion will haunt him for the rest of his days.  Yet, he knows that what he did was right. He knows that he could not hold on to her any longer. He knows that he shouldn’t have held on to her at all. After all he loves her, and it was his love for her, for his precious angel of music, that brought him to the realization that she was never his to begin with.

This is how Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera ends. It is my favorite Broadway musical and it tells the tale of a deformed man who masks his deformity and masquerades around the Paris Opera House, extorting money from the Opera House owners.  He also is teaching a young woman, by the name of Christine Daae, whom he loves.  He pretends to be her father’s ghost or, rather, her father’s angel of music.  You see, Christine’s father died while she was a child and, before he died, he promised to send his angel to her. It was kind of her father’s way of assuring his child that he’d always be with her.

But the Phantom took the words of her father and used them in a way that manipulated Christine. He desired her and wanted her to not only be the most renowned and beloved Soprano in all of France, but he also wanted her to be his bride.  Needless to say, that plan fell through and the Phantom ends up kidnapping her after he realizes that she’s fallen in love with another man.  That man pursues them in order to save Christine, but he get caught by the Phantom and Christine is given the ultimate choice: either she marries the Phantom or her lover dies.

What kind of love does that? Where does love go so wrong that someone would force you into making such a choice? How can the Phantom claim to love Christine and put her into such a horrifying situation?  Somewhere in the midst of rage, those questions must have penetrated the Phantom’s heart.  Christine chooses to marry the Phantom in order to save her lover and the Phantom realizes that, even if she does marry him, she will never love him. So, he lets both her and her lover go. He does not harm either of them; rather, he lets them go and sinks back into the shadows of his lair…never to be heard of again.

Why did the Phantom not carry on with his vengeful plot? Why didn’t he kill Christine’s lover and force her to marry him? Why did he let them go? Because he loved her and true love does not force its way. Paul describes true love in 1 Corinthians 13, except that this love goes beyond eros (the kind of love that the Phantom, Christine and her lover were all feeling). The love that Paul writes of is perfect love…the love of God.

The key to this kind of love is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it lets go.  I have often heard people say that you have to hold on to what you love; however, true love lets go.  God would love for us to send the love back; however, God lets us go so that we may be free to love whoever and whatever we want.  If we were forced to love God, it would not be love.  This Lent, take a page from God and learn to let go in the areas you find yourself struggling to hold on.  In doing so, you will find that LOVE is truly guiding you!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Letting go does not mean giving up; rather, it is giving in to the understanding that LOVE will find its way.

PRAYER

Lord, guide me to surrender all of the things I hold on to. Teach me to let them go. Amen.

<3 Yourself

Read Matthew 14:22-23; Mark 6:45-46; John 6:14-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.” (Proverbs 19:8)

HeartHave you ever stopped to notice how busy you are? Or have you ever stopped to notice how busy everyone around you is? This world is non-stop business, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and three hundred sixty-five days a year.  The world keeps on turning, spinning on its invisible axis, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

Before we know it, years have gone by, our kids have grown up and we are wondering where the time went and not sure where we were when all of life blew past us like a jet plane.  We hear plenty of catch phrases like, “Don’t let the world pass you by”, or “Don’t take life for granted”; yet, we often do take life for granted because we simply are too busy to do otherwise.

As a pastor of a church, a district youth director, a chaplain, a husband, and a father, I certainly know too well what being busy is all about. Each one of those titles bears with it a whole host of different duties that give me plenty of places to be and plenty of things to do. In the midst of all of the stuff that I have to do on any given day, it seems so easy to forget the one title has always defined who I am. The title of being ME.

How easy it is to forget that, in the midst of all the stuff each one of us has to do, it is important that we not forget to care for ourselves in the process.  After all, God created us, not to be eternally busy, but to enjoy God’s creation. If we are a part of God’s creation, then it certainly follows that God created us to enjoy ourselves. But how many of us truly spend time on ourselves?  How many of us truly take time away from our jobs, our chores and our families to spend quality time with ourselves? My guess is not too many of us.

But God is calling us to spend time with ourselves. God wants us to get to know who we are, to intimately spend time building a relationship with innermost selves. Jesus certainly knew this. If anyone was busy, Jesus was. Between preaching and teaching and healing and traveling and all of the other amazing things, Jesus was just about as busy as anyone could get; however, he also had no qualms about going up to the mountaintop to be alone and to pray.

God is calling us to do the same. There is nothing wrong with being busy, and there is certainly a lot of work for all of us to do; however, there is something wrong with not taking care of ourselves. And if we do not take care of ourselves, we really have no business trying to take care of others.

That is why, since January of 2012, I have made a point of taking care of myself. I run, I compose music, I write poetry, I sketch using charcoal, I hike and do a lot of different activities that get me in touch with myself.  I have made it a part of my spiritual discipline to be alone and to care for me.

The question is not if you can do it…but will you do it? God wants you to get to know yourself, to spend alone time praying and meditating on Scripture. God wants us to not only be in relationship with God and with others, but to also be in relationship with ourselves.  It is only then that we will be able to find the strength to do all of the other things God is calling us to do.  Think about it. God is calling you to relax a little and enjoy being you! After all, you are a part of God’s good creation! So praise God and enjoy yourself!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” – Lucille Ball

PRAYER

Lord teach me to love myself just as much as you love me. Then send me out with that love so I can share it with others. Amen.

A biweekly devotional