Enough Already with Blaming God!

We may never know why bad things happen to good people.  I am horrified what I find when I “Google” this question.  Awful things happen every single day on Earth such as the earthquakes in Japan.  Yet, even, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara called this disaster a “divine punishment” for Japanese egoism.

We live in a sin-broken world, where tragedy strikes indiscriminately.  Yet, note these findings: [1]

  • Most Americans — except evangelicals — reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll released Thursday (March 24).
  • Most white evangelicals (84 percent) and minority Christians (76 percent) believe God is in control of everything that happens in the world, compared to slimmer majorities of white mainline Protestants (55 percent) and Catholics (52 percent).
  • Nearly half of Americans (44 percent) say the increased severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of biblical “end times,” but a larger share (58 percent) believe it is evidence of climate change.
  • The only religious group more likely to see natural disasters as evidence of “end times” (67 percent) than climate change (52 percent) is white evangelicals.

We explain bad things by thinking they came about because of something we, our parents, or society did.  Jesus does not get into a dead-end discussion about cause by taking the bait when those in the John 9 scene ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  He will not engage in this fruitless pursuit that changes nothing.

Why do we have need to pile on with theological speculation about fault?  I think we are distancing ourselves from victims of calamity.  We fool ourselves into thinking we can protect ourselves from natural disasters and unexplained tragedy by thinking those who suffer brought it upon themselves.

The more helpful question we should ask following catastrophe is: How can we bring God into tragedy? We should more often speak of a God who entered into our sphere to bring each of us intimately closer to heaven.  God inserted God self into our world to strip the power that sin has to separate us from God and each other once and for all.  God walks step for step with us as bad things happen.  The good news we declare in harsh times, is not guessing why bad things happen to good people  Instead may our world hear of a God who brings sight to the blind and makes whole that which is broken.

[1] The survey was done by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.  It was conducted a week after the March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.


Faith trusts the flow of the river of life.  It is always best to stay in the stream.  I believe in the natural current of process, which I don’t have to change, coerce, or improve.

This requires me to exhibit incalculable confidence in God, especially when troubled.  Usually, I am certain I have the ability to make things work.  So, I rush right up into my head trying to change or create the flow of the river.  This is a loss of nerve in God who loves me more than I can know.  Worse, it robs me of any ability to be present with a God who is already at work; flowing the river of life through me.

So, I remind myself on this day God is not an authoritarian who seeks selfish good.  My God is a lover who desires to shape the divine image within me.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, From Everything Belongs

Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 7:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Artists and Preachers, Bed Partners?

Artists are often my preachers.  Contemporary singer songwriter David Wilcox helped me negotiate difficult times.  Ancient works redone by Sting have soothed my soul.  Little heard artists like Mark Broussard make my two left feet dance.  Patty Griffin has been my recent artist/preacher.  She was on Austin City Limits last night (3/24/11) doing cuts from her recent album, Downtown Church.

It occurred to me that her rendition of Dorothy Love Coates “Strange Man” might be the last little bit of help a preacher like me might need to complete this week’s message based on the gospel lection passage of John 4.  Preach on Sister Patty!  Or, to paraphrase Wesley advice on preaching, “1. To invite. 2. To convince. 3. To offer this “Strange Man“. 4. To build up. And to do this in some measure in every sermon.

After all, while the context of ministry may change the message of a strange man remains the same.  Did I mention Robert Plant good sermons on “Band of Joy”.

Friends and Enemies

We are walking toward the cross in this Lenten season and the Judas story is right around the corner.  It amazes me Jesus does not treat Judas like his enemy.  Jesus calls him “Friend.”  What’s more, Jesus even tries to find the hand of God in all this.  I rarely think of that possibility first.


Caravaggio's take on Judas's betrayal

Over the years, people in churches have gotten on my case for bad theology, manners, preaching style or other various and sundry matters.  They are usually trying to marginalize their pastor in some way.  (Some I can’t blame when I look back at some of those sermons.)  In one case, I decided to confront such a person in the church parking lot.  The person craters and hardly ever spoke to me again.  Years later, I am still stewing about it.


I tried to fight fire with fire, and we both, got burned.  I took a person, who too is a child of God, and make a betrayer and devil out of him.  The chance at reconciliation went out the window by my using the violence of harsh words to defeat my enemy.

Jesus seems crazy when he says bless those who curse us, do good to them that do us harm.  Turn the other cheek.  Love our enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Seek peace and pursue it.  Put away the sword.  Pour water on fire.  Lower the temperature.  Cool things down.  These teachings seem so hard when we experience betrayal, rejection, denial, and loss.  Setting down our sense to be right is the Jesus form of peacemaking, though it goes against all of our natural instincts.

The reason this is so hard is because it seems so crazy.  Maybe crazy is just the tonic we need.  The paradox of peacemaking in our sick world is we are called to fight fire with Living Water.  After all, this Lenten road leads to a cross constructed by enemies of a Christ, who forgave them and us and us and called all of us “Friends”.

Published in: on March 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Born from Above

John’s gospel is “Tell” and then “Show”.  In the Prologue, John tells the reader Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.  This sets us up to know some things the characters in the gospel don’t know.  After this initial “Tell,” the rest of the Gospel is “Show.”  It shows what happens when the Word of God Incarnate encounters persons at points common to all humanity.  These encounters include-a leader of the Jews, a woman at a well, a man born blind, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and the High Priest and Pilate.  All show it’s a risky thing to be engaged in conversation by Jesus.

We might decide to fast at Lent.  After a fast, we feel a little weak but we are fine.  Yet, when we deprive ourselves of sleep, our ability to function; dysfunctions after one night.  Why is sleep the first thing we’re willing to sacrifice when the demands rise?  We live by a remarkably durable myth: Sleeping an hour less will give us one more hour of productivity.  Research suggests even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night unable to sleep with a fevered mind.  John uses night as a symbol as a cover for this religious person.  Reminds us even religious folk have spiritual longings not fulfilled.  Nicodemus can’t sleep; and Ambien was not invented.  Sometimes we go through times needing help with sleep.  Nicodemus suffered from insomnia because he couldn’t decide what to do with Jesus.  His thoughts were like fireworks going off in his brain: “He turned water into wine. They’re saying he is the Messiah, the Son sent from God.  I wonder if they’re right, because how can he make wine out of water if he is not sent from God?  If he is sent from God, why has he not studied with our rabbis? If he is sent from God, why is he critical of our practices?  What does that say about us?”

Jesus opens the door and is back lit by the lamps.  Nicodemus comes out of the darkness into the light, temporarily.  Nicodemus babbles, like we do in meeting someone famous.  He goes on how great Jesus is, Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher who comes from God.  He begins with group-think, “We know,” it’s safer!  As long as others think the way we do, we are OK.  The fact Nicodemus comes suggests although he says he knows; he knows there’s much he doesn’t yet know and hopes to know.  The door where meaningful conversation begins is when we realize we don’t know everything-we are ready to have a fresh experience with a life-giving Lord.

Jesus isn’t an easy mark for flattery.  “I know you want to enter the kingdom of God.  No one can participate in the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  ‘Anothen’ in the Greek can be rendered “born from above” or “born again.”  We are accustomed to “born again.”  This is what Nicodemus heard and he said, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

He’s not the only one who understands “born again” in a literal sense.  I was in Sundance Square and approached by a 30-something woman with a pamphlet; I can smell a tract a mile away.  I asked her if it had something to do with Jesus.  “Why, yes,” she said, with eagerness. She asked, “Have you been born again?’  I confess my arrogance and distaste for that kind of witnessing.  It feels like they have prejudged my faith before knowing me.  Of course, I had done the same.  Christ did not put himself in the place to judge.  The verse after John 3:16 says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, so that the world might be saved though him.”  Why is it when some tell the good news it sounds like bad news?

We expect Jesus to offer Nicodemus a clear presentation.  We’ve been told we must get our words right.  We shy away; fearing we’ll sound like a failed Toastmaster or a direct-marketing pitch.  We think the transmission of the good news depends on how we pass on the data.  Jesus’ approach to witnessing is-Nicodemus comes to Jesus.  That is not to say we should never open a conversation about matters as important as eternity.  It does suggest Jesus didn’t have the same urgency as a street preacher.  We look for times when people are open, probe, but respectfully and humbly.

Danish pastor, Soren Kierkegaard saw congregants going through motions of faith without awareness of the wonderland of grace they inhabited.  He said, “There is no lack of knowledge in a Christian land, what is missing, is a something no person can communicate to the other.”  The gospel flies under the radar of handle-able knowledge.  He became a great storyteller, conjuring images and tales that opened the mind by opening the heart.  Life in Christ isn’t about data to be collected and stored on a spiritual hard drive.  It is not about a prayer to be recited or a church to be joined.  It happens to us more than it is something we make happen.

Jesus uses doubletalk to get him past things he already knew.  He employs an image instead of an idea.  You must be born again, Jesus says.  This phrase is a cliché and a subset of Christianity.  ‘Born again’ is an emotional lightning strike that once done we can check it off our list.  It’s metaphor needing resurrection.  Jesus does so by making the distinction.

He says being born of flesh means the mother’s water breaks and out we come; or being born of Spirit-our spirit breaks and our heart is opened so God has room to give new life.  This happens at places not spotted on an MRI or plotted on an SAT.  It’s a trusting that is believing IN more than believing THAT.  This is participating in a lifelong process of losing control.  This is hard because we like knowing who is righteous and who is a sinner.  Jesus invites Nicodemus to let the Spirit of God move his spirit; to let go the control of “we know” this and “we know” that.

Jesus alludes to being lifted up on the cross.  He says, we must look up and see above him a power greater than death available to us.  At the cross we understand the one who gave his life is the one who can give life to those who look up to him.  What it means to be born from above is salvation moves from sideways knowing to upward knowing, from a human fashioned self to a divine fashioned self.  We are to keep our eyes looking up for the grace of God; revealed in ways beyond what we can know.  This is a grace that comes by God moving deeply in of our lives by the power of the Spirit.  That is flipping the card that says to God “Please don’t disturb” my life to “Enter and move do what only you can do.

This makes being born from above a frightening proposition; wind is unpredictable.  If we let the wind of the Spirit blow, who knows what, might be blown out and what might blow in?  Resentments and prejudices held might blow away.  Sorrows might waft away as a fragrant breeze bears hope.  We may feel our feet moving toward a person we don’t associate.  A fog can be lifted from persons that think their best days are behind.  A whole church could feel the energizing gust of purpose that is stronger than their pain.  This happens by saying yes to being born from above?

We don’t know if this late night encounter may have been the start of faith and devotion for Nicodemus.  I suspect he endured more sleepless nights.  Nicodemus does make two more appearances in John’s gospel.  In John 7 he makes a half-hearted defense of Jesus to other Pharisees.  In John 19 he brings 100 pounds of myrrh to help Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  As Nicodemus prepares Jesus’ body, I imagine the air thick with regret, “If only we had more time with Jesus.  Nicodemus’ story is a cautionary tale of making a decision about being born from above.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have everlasting life.  You know that verse by heart.  Do you really know it BY HEART or is it a slogan of faith?  Jesus says to religious people, “You must be born from above?”

Published in: on March 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cultivating Self Control-Matthew 4:1-11

1st Sunday of Lent

That little wheat and hops company portrays the American John Doe succumbing to impulses with no thought of consequence.  A commercial that aired originally on a Super Bowl Sunday has a would-be skydiver standing with shaky knees as his instructor throws beer off the craft to lure him into the plunge.  The skydiver and trainer stand paralyzed in disbelief as the pilot jumps out the cockpit, leaving all onboard to certain death in order to obey his thirst.  We might not jump out of a plane to satisfy a craving; we are inclined toward immediate self-satisfaction.  We’d rather JUST DO IT, than just say no.  We are well-coached in this economy and too compulsive to turn away from all of the goods that beg for attention.

Excess has become a sport and the playing fields are our homes, schools, cars, and grocery carts.  Everything is “xtreme, without an “e”.” There are extreme sports, extreme music, and extreme soft drinks just to name a few. We label even the humblest products extreme to magnify marketing efforts. It makes we wonder if are widening the scope of addictions.  Consider words we have coined by adding the suffix “-aholic” or junkie.  There is workaholic, shop-aholic, chocoholic, coffee-holic, or sports junkie, exercise junkie, news junkie, TV junkie, internet junkie, and phone junkie.  It seems our lack of self control; overdosing on cultural products in an extreme way is shaping our personal identities in untold ways.

We think self control is a human virtue needed to overcome our lesser nature and philosophers regard self-control as a high virtue.  Thus, a morally superior person is one who achieves mastery over one’s desires.  Since we normally associate self control with human behavior it is difficult us to think of God displaying self-control, for God does not struggle with lesser desires.  Self control has both human and divine qualities.

Self control is three dimensional.  There is the dimension of self-control that is the control of the self, by the self, for the sake of the self.  Then there is the dimension of self control, which is the control of the self, by the self, for the sake of others.  This second still maintains the duty of self control within the individual.  The last dimension of self control is the control of self through the life of Christ by the spirit, for the sake of embodying the gospel of Christ through our lives for our own sake and others.

On the first Sunday of Lent Jesus is tempted in the wilderness; displaying this highest dimension of self control.  Still dripping wet from his baptism, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.”  This is not the devil on his shoulder throwing out temptations, while God is on the other whispering comebacks.  The Spirit drove him there; suggesting even in the desert, Jesus is not separated from God.  He faces three perplexing temptations which have tempted all of us through time.  These temptations are about how identity can be shaped by tests of self control.

The first temptation of self control is for Jesus to follow his craving, break his fast and turn his attention away from God for instant gratification.  The tempter says, “Command these stones to become bread.”  He could feed 5000 and turn water into wine; but for the sake of his hunger, Jesus knows he can trust God, so avoids a quick fix and waits on God’s provision.

With Scripture rolling off his tongue, the tempter appeals to Jesus self control to see if he will test God’s faithfulness.  He invites Jesus to cheapen the music of creation; playing God like a violin; asking him to prove God’s power.  This tempts the human hunger to see a display of divine muscle than to wait on God’s self-revelation in the wisdom of time.  The tempter says, “Throw yourself down from the temple, for the angels will catch you.”  Jesus will not make plans based on self-interest, and expect God to follow.

Finally, the devil entices Jesus’ self control with an offer of power to make him the king, if he will compromise loyalty and worship this one who claims to hold the world in his hand.  Jesus is shown the kingdoms of the world, “All can be yours NOW just worship me.”  This was a tough test because Jesus was offered a shortcut-no suffering or cross.  Jesus exhibits self control in trusting the one who really holds the world in their hands.

This isn’t Jesus seeing what he can do as Messiah.  He’s not Harry Potter realizing he magically flings books across rooms.  Potential Messiahs had come and gone; people had their ideas about what the Son of God might look like or be.  Into this climate, Jesus entered into the wilderness.  The tempter’s first words are: “Since you are the Son of God”.  Jesus and the tempter knew he was the Son God.  The question was what kind of Son of God Jesus would be.  We can know calling, but we have to discern how we will live that call.  Implementation is hard; this is where self control matters.

Our identity is shaped by how we employ self control to face the tests of life.  This usually takes one of two forms.  Some struggle with their tests in life because they are not comfortable in their own skin.  Others struggle with their tests in life because they have customized their lives to satisfy their primary concern: themselves.  Both of these approaches make makes us prone to create God in our image to fit our personal perspective, rather than submitting to a God who is forming us in the image of Christ.

Stephen Prothero, of Boston University wrote, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National IconProthero’s thesis is we have made Christ in our own image.  He suggests there are several popular images of Jesus in American culture.  1) There is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy Jesus in our Sunday school rooms.  2) There is the image of Jesus as moral sage.  3) There is manly Jesus.  4) There’s the ‘60s counter-cultural Jesus.  5) There is Jesus as a commodity.  Each time Jesus is on a news cover sales spike.  We have made Jesus to match the countless identities of culture; making Jesus, our genie in a bottle.  Jesus triumphs over these tests to say he will not made to be what we might like to make Jesus to be.

We might want to get off the hook saying Jesus overcame temptations because he is God.  Yet, these were real tests he faced employing the self control that grew during those forty days; giving himself in a fuller way to God.  These temptations made him the Messiah we really need-one who provides, the one who is faithful and the one holds the world in his hands.  Just as Jesus’ identity was shaped as he responded with self control, so is our identity shaped as we respond with self-control in the tests of our lives.

The 40-day season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday.  Culturally, we are better at Fat Tuesday-stocking up on food and drink-than we are at Lenten fasting and refocusing.  This tendency makes us reduce Lent to a time of self improvement; rededicating ourselves to lapsed New Year resolutions-I’ll give up chocolate; lose a few pounds; and lay off the red meat.  The point of Lent is not simply to give up something.  This isn’t a season where we steer our way out of the wilderness with another self-help program in order to be a better person.  Lent is not about moderating or indulging a little less.  Lessening excess isn’t the fruit of self control.

As God’s children, we’re works in progress.  During Lent, we face intentional tests; cultivating the fruit of self control as we tell ourselves the truth about who we are.  Lent affords the opportunity to cast aside parts of our identity that have yet to identify with Christ.  It’s an authentic exercise in self control; making room in our souls to consider what in our lives needs to die and be reborn, so God can fashion us anew.  The outcome is we can find our way to live more fully into the image God has stamped on our soul.

Self control is a different sort of fruit because it is uniquely cultivated.  Self control is cultivated by working in our own gardens, nurturing the other fruits of the spirit.  Self control is a by-product of cultivating love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.  Self control is the bloom or flower of the fruits of the spirit.  What grows in your garden?

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Paying the Price for Xtreme (without an “e”)

Excess has become a sport and the playing fields are our homes, schools, cars, and grocery carts. Everything is “xtreme, without an “e”.” There are extreme sports, extreme music, and extreme soft drinks just to name a few. We label even the humblest products extreme to magnify marketing efforts. It makes we wonder if are widening the scope of addictions. Consider words we have coined by adding the suffix “-aholic” or junkie. There is workaholic, shop-aholic, chocoholic, coffee-holic, or sports junkie, exercise junkie, news junkie, TV junkie, internet junkie, and phone junkie. It seems our lack of self control; overdosing on cultural products in an extreme way is shaping our personal identities in untold ways.


Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 6:59 am  Leave a Comment