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The Jesus Way

Way and not the wayJeremiah 6:16-21; John 14:1-14

As most of you know, this spring and summer I was a delegate to two denominational conferences—our United Methodist General Conference, a worldwide gathering in Tampa, and the Western Jurisdiction Conference which took place in San Diego (I know, two terrible places to go for conferences, right?).

While at these conferences, delegates heard disturbing news about the United Methodist Church. Here are some of the numbers:

  • Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
  • Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
  • Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period. 
  • Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
  3. Worship that connects across generations
  4. A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership 

The vast majority (85%) of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. do not meet these criteria for vitality.

The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed. 

That’s some pretty sobering news for the UMC. The General Conferences response to that was to do, well, nothing. Two weeks and $1500 a minute of discussion led to know significant changes or initiatives for changing the church’s focus. The denomination’s logo was plastered over everything from banners to mugs to t-shirts: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But it’s pretty clear that we’ve forgotten how to do that.

I’m pleased to report that our congregation is part of the 15% (some may debate the pastoral leadership part, however). Our average attendance has grown by 20% in the last year. We confirmed 20 youth this spring, and our membership is over 600. Those are good signs that we are bucking the trend. But even with those good numbers, I really believe that congregational “vitality” is less about the numbers than it is about the outcomes.

A few years ago I attended a conference at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area – one of the biggest churches in the country. They have 21,000 in average attendance each week (we would be a Sunday School class!). By all the metrics they would seem to be wildly successful. A couple of years ago, though, the church’s leadership began to wonder whether their large numbers of people were actually having their lives changed, growing deeper in their relationship with Christ and their love and service toward others.

They engaged in an internal self-study called Reveal which showed that even though large numbers of people attended the church, few reported a significant change in their spiritual attitudes (love for God and others) and spiritual behaviors (evangelism, tithing, etc.).

What they discovered, however, is that there is really a spiritual continuum along which people tend to move, and the deeper one grows in relationship to Christ the more their attitudes and behaviors change to reflect Christ. That makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: no one moves along that continuum unless they are invited to do so, and no one moves along that continuum unless there is a disciplined process to help them get there one step at a time.

The bottom line? Disciples of Jesus aren’t formed by accident or osmosis. You can’t be formed into a disciple of Jesus in just one hour a week, no matter how dynamic the worship service is (and Willow Creek has smoke, lights, and escalators!). Disciples get made because the church makes disciple-making its number one priority. The more disciples that get made, the more the church reflects Christ, and the more the church reflects Christ, the more impact it will have for Christ’s kingdom in their communities.

The irony is that Methodism was born as a disciple-making reform movement in the larger Anglican church, which was dealing with the same complacency and decline that we see in our own denomination. John and Charles Wesley developed and employed an intentional method for making disciples in small groups where people could receive instruction, support, and encouragement for moving deeper in their love for God and their commitment to the way of Christ.

It’s clear, though, that Methodism has lost this way and the only solution to revival is to recapture a laser-like focus on making disciples—disciples who are following, living, and teaching the Jesus way. And, you know, I think Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church can be a catalyst at the forefront of that revival. Over the next several weeks I am going to show you how I think that can happen—a vision that God is laying on my heart and the hearts of others to get back to our core mission of making disciples!

To begin, then, I think it’s important that we establish a framework for understanding what a disciple of Jesus is all about. Jesus established the process when he called his own disciples, gathering them around himself for three years, teaching them, challenging them, encouraging them, correcting them, and demonstrating to them how the power of God would come from God through Jesus to them and then from them to others.

Jesus was and is the Word of God made flesh, as John tells us in chapter 1, and through him we learn what it means to be fully human and fully in relationship with God. Through him we also learn what it means to be a disciple and carry out the mission of God in the world. Through him we learn what God is like and how we might become more like him. Genesis 1, the first book of the Bible, tells us how we were made in the image of God. We tarnished that image through sin. Jesus shows us how we can reclaim that image again and reflect God’s glory to the world.

Jesus invited those first disciples into his life with the simple invitation, “Follow me.” I think it’s interesting that they dropped their nets or got up from the tax collector’s table to follow him without asking at that point, “Where are you going?” It was an invitation to be a disciple who is “on the way” somewhere—to be on a journey.

The whole biblical narrative is a traveling story. God calls Abraham to go on a journey from his homeland to a distant place where God’s promise awaits him. Moses is called to lead his people on a journey from slavery to promise. Israel travels in exile to Babylon, far from home, where God teaches them a new way of living. The Bible is always inviting people to be “on the way” and in Jewish wisdom tradition, the “way” or “path” is the lifestyle of the person who lives under God’s wisdom. Proverbs 2:6-9, for example, talks God’s wisdom “guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones” who will “understand righteousness, justice, and equity, every good path.” Our Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah taps into this tradition, where true “rest” for the soul is only found by walking on the “ancient path,” the “good way.” To be with God is to be “on the way.”

Of course, there is also another “way.” Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.” God’s way is always contrasted with our way in Scripture. It’s right there in our Old Testament lesson, too, where Jeremiah calls the people to take the good way, God’s way, the ancient path, but the people say, “We will not walk in it.” A key biblical question is always this: Which way will you walk? God’s way or my way?

During my morning devotions I have been reading a wonderful little book by the 20th century missionary E. Stanley Jones, and one of his statements really grabbed me one day on vacation. He wrote,

“All of life becomes a choice between the Way and not-the-way. That applies to individuals and nations—the smallest and the largest. There are no exceptions anywhere.” The way of God vs. our way, which is not-the-way. Indeed, says Jones, God’s way is the way we were made to walk in the beginning. “The Christian way is the natural way—the way we were made to live,” he says. “Sin is unnatural. Yes, it is the customary but not the natural. If it were, we would bloom under it. Do we? On the contrary, sin is sand in the machinery.”

 One of the major problems in our churches is that we’ve comprised the Way with not-the-way. Our churches have bought into the consumerism of the culture, the sexual ethics of the culture. Christians have merged the Jesus way with the Republican way or the Democratic way to the point that the Jesus way often has no correlation to the way outlined in Scripture. It’s no wonder our denomination is in trouble. We’re not on the way.

Jesus leads his disciples on a very specific way that is natural to him and invites them to see it as natural for them, too. He lives it right in front of them, but now, as he departs, they wonder how they will be able to continue to live that way, God’s way. Jesus does not mince his words. There is his way and not-the-way.

That’s when Jesus gives us this famous sentence in John 14:6. “How do we know the way?” Thomas asks. He is asking about geography. Jesus says, “I am the way, and [I] am the truth, and [I] am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is talking about the way of being, the way of God. I am the way to God the Father’s way, I am the way to God’s truth, I am the way to God’s life. If you know me, you will know him. If you follow my way, you will be following his way.

To be a disciple is to be one on the way to the Father through Jesus. Too often Christians have assumed that what Jesus is saying here is about the way to heaven, but the context reveals that it’s much deeper than that. Jesus is revealing to them the way to the very heart of God, a relationship with God that is life-giving to them and, through them, life-giving to others not just in the future, but in the present. You want to know God, to see God, to do the work of God? You must follow the Jesus way. There is no other.

It’s interesting, though, that Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the “way;” he is also the “truth” and the “life.” Len Sweet argues that what Jesus is doing here is giving his disciples a natural progression for continuing on the way: first, belonging (the way), then believing (the truth) and then behaving (the life). This is reflected in the life of Jesus’ first disciples gathered around that table. First, they were invited by Jesus to belong to his traveling entourage, then Jesus taught them the truth about himself and about God’s kingdom, then he sent them out to live his life until his return, being his Body for the world.

Notice that this is a process, a continuum, an intentional movement for making disciples!

Eugene Peterson explains it this way: “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Belief in the Person of Jesus is always tied to acting in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus without the person of Jesus quickly becomes one philosophy among many, while the person of Jesus without the way of Jesus turns him merely into a religious icon. And yet, this division is what’s happening in the Church today. We have lost the way and the truth that leads to life.

John Wesley would have been appalled at this. His expressed his greatest fear for the church:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wesley’s fear has become realized. It’s going to take a revival to change that.

Wesley was the one who called the early Methodists to live what he called a “practical divinity”—a marriage of piety and compassion, word and service, belief in Jesus with the works of Jesus. Ken Collins, a Wesley scholar, says that Wesley had a “conjunctive theology” that was more both/and than either/or. It’s the same theology of Jesus who never separated faith from action.

My friends, if we want to know the heart of God, if we want to do anything for his kingdom, this is what we need to recapture—to be on the way of discipleship, the way of Christ. We’ll talk a little bit next week about how Wesley did this and how we will be working at it here at TLUMC. The future of our church lies in the DNA of our past—not just our Wesleyan past, but in the very framework Jesus gave his disciples around the table. We’ll talk about that some more next week as we look at the Methodist way of making disciples.

For now, though, the question I want you to be thinking about over the next few weeks is this: Are you on the Jesus way? Are you learning the Jesus truth? Are you living the Jesus life? What drives the rhythm of your life?

We’re going to be giving you some opportunities to reflect on this over the next several weeks. This week you’ll receive a mailing outlining our fall campaign, which is designed to help you take steps on the way to faithful discipleship. The six markers of prayer, Bible reading, worship, witnessing, financial giving, and service aren’t the ends of discipleship, but they are some of the means. When we take Jesus’ invitation to follow seriously, these are the ways we take the steps. I urge you to look that over this week and think about the next steps that Jesus is calling you to take in your life.

This Saturday, Joe and I will be sharing some detail about a vision for TLUMC to become a focused, disciple-making church in the Wesleyan tradition. Want to show you the way that we think Jesus is calling us to be on the way. We’ll meet from 8:00 to noon, maybe not that long, but we want to give you a chance to hear and respond. At least come for breakfast served by UMM! We have a chance to be part of a fresh a movement of God and I hope you are excited about what God is up to here. I’ll also be sharing some of this next Sunday if you’re unable to make it on Saturday.

You know, the name of the first Christian church in the book of Acts was called, “The Way.” That may not be our name, but may it be our passion as Christ’s church here at Tri-Lakes. Let us be a church on the way!

 

 

 

 

 

Gideon: Hearing God’s Call

Interview-in-progressJudges 6-7

A lot of people are looking for jobs or career changes in this economy. The whole process is stressful…looking for the right job, checking out the ads, doing the networking. But probably nothing is as stressful as the job interview – having to prove yourself over and over to someone who doesn’t know you at all.

Job interview stress can sometimes make us whacky. I found this list of things put together by some corporate CEOs of things that people actually did in job interviews:

  • A balding guy abruptly excused himself and returned to the office a few minutes later wearing a hairpiece.
  • An applicant came in wearing a Walkman and said that it was no problem to listen to me and music at the same time
  • Another stated that if he were hired he show his loyalty by having the company logo tattooed on his forearm.
  • Another interrupted to phone his therapist for advice on answering specific interview questions.
  • This one takes the cake: An applicant asked who the lovely babe was, pointing to the picture on my desk. When I said it was my wife, he asked if she was home right now and if I’d give him the phone number. I called security.

Job hunting and hiring can be tough!

But what happens when the job comes to you…out of the blue? That’s what we’re going to focus on today as we look at the story of Gideon. Gideon is an Old Testament “Giant” because his story gives us some insight on how God calls people, how God offers jobs to people like us.

One of the persistent questions I get asked is “How do I know what God is calling me to do?” It’s a great question – and one that needs some examination and evaluation. As I read the Gideon story, I see at least 6 ways of knowing that a call is from God (there are probably more). How do you know if God is calling you to do something?

1.  It comes to you when you weren't looking for it (6:1-12).

Gideon is an average guy just trying to eke out an existence, hiding his grain from the marauding Midianites when the angel comes looking for him to give him a mission – in this case a military mission. Gideon is quick to respond that he is not the man for the job (verse 15 – My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family). He isn’t looking for glory, doesn’t have a Messiah complex.

But that’s the point. God isn’t interested in Gideon’s resume, but in his availability. Time and again in the Bible we see God calling the most unlikely people with poor qualifications, inadequate social skills, and less than stellar communication ability to do his work and lead his people.

If you read the Bible closely you’ll see people constantly telling God that they don’t have the goods. Take Moses, for example, who was scared to death to speak in front of people. Did you know that when people list their greatest fears, “public speaking” is number one? Death is number two! That’s why Jerry Seinfeld says that most people at a funeral would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

But it’s these scared people that God tends to pick for the big jobs – people who were minding their own business when God showed up. They weren’t looking for it, but God is looking for them – for people in whom God’s strength can be shown through their weakness.

There’s a great saying that goes, “God doesn’t always call the qualified, but he always qualifies the called.” That’s so right. God isn’t interested in your resume, but in your availability. In verse 16 God assures Gideon “I will be with you”. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff – your small self, your small abilities, your small vision. Just let me work through you.

When you least expect God can use you, look out.

2. It requires you to take on more responsibility (6:13).

In verse 13, Gideon  complains, “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hands of Midian.”

One of the interesting questions I often get asked is, “If there’s a God, why is there so much suffering in the world? He ought to do something about that.” Well the answer to that is simple. God has done something about it…he made you.

Look at the reply in verse 14: The Lord turned to Gideon and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

For whatever reason, God has decided that his biggest jobs need the participation of people like you and me. Some say that’s because God is really weak, if there is a God at all. God simply won’t or can’t do it. I think just the opposite – God chooses to use us to change the world because we matter to God. That God calls us is an affirmation of our worth.

But that call also requires action on our part. The Pareto or 80/20  Principle says that in any organization, 80% of the people do the talking while 20% do all the work. When God calls you, it is always to become one of the 20 percenters – to take responsibility for the world around you. To see where God is at work and get on board.

How many times have you said, “Somebody oughta do something about that?” Well, the story of Gideon tells us that more often than not that somebody is you!

3. It is for the benefit of someone else (6:14)

I remember my first chapel in seminary. There I was, a shiny new student, expectant that God was going to bless my socks off in ministry and that everything was going to be great. And then the dean of the chapel stood up to preach, paused a long moment, looked us in the eyes and said to us first-year students: “Men and women, when God calls you into ministry he isn’t doing you any favors.”

Yikes. But it’s true. God does not call us into ministry for our benefit – it is always for the benefit of someone else. Because God chooses the least qualified among us, there’s no room for narcissism…your call is not about you. If God is really calling you, the evidence will be in the impact that call has on other people, serving them, building them up, leading them to God. That call may exact a high cost from you, may even be dangerous (it was for Gideon), and it requires an uncommon faithfulness. But ultimately, we can only realize a call is from God when realize that in following it we won’t become the primary beneficiary.

How is God wanting to use your life, your time, talent, resources, to serve someone else?

4. It moves you out of your comfort zone (6:25-35)

It’s interesting that Gideon’s first task is to tear down the altars of the god Baal, who was worshipped by the peoples of Canaan and, in their faithlessness, by many of the Israelites. God commands Gideon to first get rid of the idols of Baal closest to home – to tear down the Asherah pole (a symbol of fertility), cut it up, and burn it on an altar. Problem is that this is his own father’s property. Gideon obeys God’s command, but does the work at night. The next day, the rest of the family and the people of the town are furious – wanting Gideon’s head. This was a necessary first step, however, in bringing the people back to God. Gideon is called to risk even his own life to make that happen

You can usually tell if a call is from God if it’s something that’s difficult to do. When I served with Randy Jessen in Colorado Springs, he had a way of testing whether what we were doing as a church was really in God’s plan. When we’d set goals he’s always ask us as a staff, “Well, is it scary enough?” In other words, does this take you out of your comfort zone? Is it a seemingly impossible task? Will it upset the status quo? Then it’s probably from God!

5. It passes the "fleece" test (6:36-40)

Gideon wants to confirm that God is really calling him to lead the people. So he asks for a sign. He puts a fleece (sheep skin) on the threshing floor and says, “God if you really want me to do this, make the fleece wet and the ground dry.” Next day, it is. But Gideon still needs more convincing – “OK, now so that I can be really sure – make the fleece dry and the ground wet.” Next day it is!

That seems a bit presumptuous to us. For most of us, signs of God are not so obvious. We’re not really prone to angel visitations or wet fleeces, but I think the operative principle here is that when God calls us, it behooves us to make sure what we’re hearing. How do we do that?

There are a couple of ways that we can “put out a fleece”. We start with Scripture – knowing that if God is calling us the task will be consistent with his Word – and that means the WHOLE word, not just a singular verse. Many horrific things have been done by people because “the Bible said so.” I just finished reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” which is largely about men doing heinous things because “God told them to.” History is full of such proclamations. Gideon recognized, as should we, that receiving a call from God is not to be taken lightly and must be thoroughly investigated!

We need to look deeper. It requires some study on our part to get the whole witness of Scripture. Probably the best guidepost in that is following Jesus’ example, walk in his footsteps…can’t go wrong there.

 I John 4:1-3 says, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…”

It’s incumbent upon us to listen to God’s call, but also recognize that not every nudge we get is from God. We need to “test the spirits” and check them against God’s perfect word in Christ. 

Next, we sometimes get our fleece from the witness of other people. Usually if God is calling us, that call will be affirmed by a variety of others who can sometimes see what we can’t see. They act as a checkpoint for us.

A lot of people ask me to describe when I decided to be a pastor. I didn’t! I  was working as a youth director in a church in Bellefonte, PA – quite happy doing that. Had some opportunities to speak and teach in the church and enjoyed that. One day, the senior and associate pastors pulled me into the office and told me, “We’ve decided that you need to go to seminary. God is calling you and you’re not hearing him.” Over the next months, I had several similar but unrelated conversations with people who said, “When are you going to seminary?” Even though I hadn’t put out the fleece, there it was!

The point is that there are many ways in which God gives us “signs” and marker points on our journey. Asking questions, consulting with people we trust, looking closely at our gifts and priorities are all ways that we can “put out a fleece.”

6. It is something too big for you accomplish on your own (7:1-21)

So now Gideon goes out to do the thing that God has called him to do – to save Israel from the Midianite raiders – whose numbers of camels are “greater than the sand on the seashore” – in other words, there were a lot of them. Gideon assembles an army of about 32,000 – still probably not enough but a sizeable force. And then God tells him – “You have too many.” Too many? Tell the ones who are afraid that they can go home – 22,000 do. Now there are 10,000 left. God says to Gideon – still too many. Take them down to the river. The ones who lap up the water from their hands, keep those. The ones who kneel to drink, send them home. (Probably the ones lapping water from cupped hands demonstrated that they were alert – could drink and still keep a sword in their hands).

That leaves Gideon with 300 men to do the job. Oh, and by the way, they won’t need the swords – you’ll just, at the right time, smash some clay pots, raise torches, blow trumpets and the enemy will be defeated. Not exactly a proven Pentagon-like strategy.

But it works. When Gideon and his men execute the plan, the Midianites are thrown into confusion (psychological warfare) turn on each other and flee. Mission accomplished.

Why do it this way? God tells Gideon in 7:2 it is so that “Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her”. It is God’s power, not Gideon’s or the people’s that will save them.

Gideon’s story, as well as many others in the Bible, tells us that the tasks God calls people to are never something that they can accomplish on their own – it takes the power of God revealed in and through those who are willing. If a task seems overwhelming or impossible, it’s probably from God – and an opportunity for God’s power to work through you. 

If you’re feeling weak or inadequate, know that you are ripe for a call from God!

I love Gideon’s story because it tells us that no matter who we are or where we find ourselves, God can use us, call us, equip us. Each of us has a mission, a calling, a purpose. What’s yours? Maybe it’s as simple as being a Christian example for your kids, maybe it’s righting some injustice in the world, maybe it’s to pour out your life in the service of others, maybe it’s to build resources that further God’s Kingdom…maybe it’s to full-time ministry.

Gideon was called to stand in front of a great evil that was threatening his people. We have seen this week, once again, what evil can do. The theater shootings in Aurora leave us feeling afraid, wanting to hide in our own version of a winepress. But God calls us to face evil with love, to be obedient, and to see where we fit in God’s ultimate victory over that evil. We may feel, like Gideon, that we are the least of people, but it’s those people through whom God does his greatest work.

Oh, by the way…following God’s call is the reason that there is a Bible in nearly every hotel room. The Gideons took their name from the Bible character because of his obedience. The two guys who founded the Gideons, John Nicholson and Samuel Hill met when they were forced to share a hotel room in Wisconsin one night in 1898…read the Bible together…and got a call from God to provide Bibles for travelers. A big job…but we all know about the Gideons!

That’s being available when you least expect it!  I encourage you to listen hard to God. Don’t settle for just doing a job – spend your life in following God’s call! And when you least expect God to use you, that’s when he will!

 

 

 

 

Jonah: St. Schadenfreude

Slide-wide-jonah-1

Photo credit – Mark Retzloff. http://markretzloff.com/portfolio/branding/jonah-sermon-series-presentation-slides/

Well, we have been enjoying our Vacation Bible School this week and the theme “Operation Overboard.” As I was thinking about that, one biblical story certainly came to mind—perhaps the original “Operation Overboard” in the story of Jonah.

Jonah, of course, is a well-known sea story. A quick summary: Jonah is a prophet called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria (remember we talked about Nineveh last week – the capital of a violent and powerful empire, the enemy of Israel). Jonah was to go and proclaim God’s wrath on the city and call for its repentance.

But Jonah has other ideas and instead of traveling by land to Nineveh (the only way you can get there from Israel) he catches a ship to Tarshish, going in the other direction.

Well, a storm comes up and the sailors fret about who has angered their gods to cause the storm, so they cast lots to see who the guilty party is and, of course, the lot fell to Jonah. Jonah knows he’s the problem, having run out on God, so he tells the sailors to cast him into the sea whereupon Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (a whale), spends three days in its belly, and then gets spit out on dry land going toward Nineveh. God wasn’t taking no for an answer, clearly.

A lot of people come up with questions about Jonah. Like, is this story really historically true? Well, there is a story from 1891 about a British whaler named James Bartley who fell into the mouth of a sperm whale that was attacking his ship, but survived in the whale’s body for 15 hours until the whale was got and gutted by his shipmates. This story, however, is considered by most historians to be a sea story with very little basis in fact. Scientists do know, however, that a person could fit into a large whale’s stomach, so it may be possible (Mythbusters, anyone?)

But the swallowing of Jonah isn’t really the key part of this story, though some think it is.

It’s like the teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.

The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.

The little girl said, 'When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah'.

The teacher asked, 'What if Jonah went to hell?'

The little girl replied, 'Then you ask him'.

The story of Jonah, however, illustrates a much bigger point. When you read Jonah closely, you begin to realize that the real crux of the story, the reason that Jonah gets on a ship instead of heading to Nineveh, isn’t because he’s afraid of dying there, it’s because he’s afraid that his message might be successful!

Imagine Jonah emerging from the whale’s belly: bleached white from the stomach acid, clothes mostly burned off, seaweed wrapped around his head. He grudgingly goes to Nineveh and walks across it for three days, but his message is only this: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Not exactly a scintillating sermon.

I mean, you can’t be much less enthusiastic than that. Where’s the detail, the reasoning, the long poetic explanations of the other prophets? Seems like Jonah, despite his rescue from the deep, is doing everything he can to fail, sabotaging the mission.

Why? He doesn’t want Nineveh to repent! Well, remember the history, the description of what Assyrian Ninevites have done. They are ancient terrorists. Jonah doesn’t want them saved, he wants them destroyed and the threat removed. He wants God to smoke them. He doesn’t want dialogue, he wants destruction! So he does as little as possible to at least give the appearance that he’s doing God’s work and then leaves the city, wanting to get a front row seat for God’s judgment on his enemies.

But lo and behold, the Ninevites get it. Even Jonah’s poor preaching is effective! They repent, turn to God, and God spares them.

Now, as a preacher, I wonder about this. Sometimes when I am least prepared, it’s then that the sermon is the most effective. But whether your preaching is stellar or stupid, you hope that people will respond. But not Jonah.

Listen again to what he says to God. Instead of being happy because of his effectiveness, Jonah is angry (beginning of chapter 4): 4: 1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Jonah’s mad because God offers grace to his enemies!

This reminds me of a word that is becoming more in vogue these days. It’s a German word, and German words sometimes capture larger concepts.  It’s Schadenfreude – defined as pleasure at someone else’s downfall. Jonah has schadenfreude in spades.

He has it so much that as he sits outside the city and pouts, he’s completely furious at God and waits in vain for the city to go up in an apocalyptic cataclysm. He sits so long that God, in his grace, gives him a shade bush. Jonah is happy for the bush, but still not happy about Nineveh not being in flames. God sends a worm to kill the bush, and then God sends the wind and the heat, but Jonah still isn’t moved.

Now, look at the next exchange (4:9): God says, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah says, “Yup, angry enough to die!” That’s pretty angry.

You know I think this is one of the most evocative stories in Scripture because it speaks to us right where we live. Just flip on the radio, TV, internet, newspaper, and you see this kind of anger all over the place. Blogs and twitter pages spew all sorts of vitriol about people and politics. Caustic talk show hosts rile up people with their demonizing of those who don’t agree with them. People who claim to be Christians post some of the nastiest invectives on social media about people and politicians. Anger is the first response of most people to any issue that catches them sideways. The more media we use, the more anger we see. It’s bad and it’s getting worse, particularly as the election campaign heats up. So what’s going on here?

Well, it’s Schadenfreude. Columnist George Will has even said that schadenfreude is the new 8th deadly sin. It’s become a national pastime.

Jonah is its patron saint. See, this isn’t so much a big fish story as it is a cautionary tale. When we’re caught in schadenfreude, we’ll never see the purposes of God for the whole world—a world that includes our enemies.

Look at what God says to Jonah, whose angry about Nineveh, angry about the bush, angry about everything (4:10): “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being at night and perished at night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

That’s how the book of Jonah ends, that question hanging there.

You know, I wonder if God isn’t asking us the same question. “Why should I not be concerned with (insert name of people you disagree with here)?”

Turns out Jonah is really a story about grace—God’s unmerited mercy and favor. We preach grace, we teach grace, but do we offer grace? Do we believe that everyone really is a child of God and that God cares for them even when we disagree? Can we quit pouting and spewing for a season and actually listen to each other?

I’m as guilty of getting the rants as anyone else (usually about theology and sports), but knowing that, we need to be calling one another to change.

And, if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to take some steps, particularly during this politically charged season we are about to enter. Now, I’m usually not a political preacher. I tend to function and think as an independent, but here’s a suggestion. First, I want to challenge you turn off the talk radio, the nasty Facebook posts, the pundit-driven TV no matter which side you’re on. It’s full of Jonahs, be they liberal or conservative, religious or irreligious, who have planted themselves in the shade to comment on the hoped-for destruction of the other side. I would also urge you to think before you post that derogatory cartoon or that one-liner that excoriates someone you don’t agree with, or if you’re reading them constantly then turn that off, too. Think about having a dialogue instead of diatribe. You can choose to stop listening to and reposting the Jonah jabber!

Instead, I want to urge you to start listening to God. My hope is that through our exploration of the Scriptures you’re getting a better picture for the kind of world that God created this to be. Are you catching God’s mission for the redemption of the whole creation, of care for the poor and vulnerable, God’s vision for making the wounded whole and mending the brokenhearted? Can you see that the idea is never that we get God on our side but rather that we get on God’s side?

Oh, it’s so much easier to gravitate toward the poles, the extremes rather than centering ourselves on the Lord. It’s not the blowhards we need to listen to, but the still, small voice of God. Rather than rubbing your hands in glee over the potential downfall of your rivals, why not pray for them instead?

Now, whether the story of Jonah is historical or not, we know that Nineveh eventually did fall in 612BC. I talked about that last week sermon. But what you may not know is that there is still a very small but very faithful community of Assyrian Christians who trace their spiritual lineage back to Jonah. In the midst of dark days and menacing times, God still cares, even for those who might oppose us.

So should we. Christians should be a listening people, a grace-filled people, a people who love as God loves. That’s not easy in an angry, schadenfreude-filled world, but it is our call.

How can you begin this week to be a prophet of peace? Who are the people you can’t stand the most and, as a disciple of Jesus, how will you bless them instead of cursing them? What words can you offer that will build someone up instead of tearing them down?

 

 

Why Nations Fall

 

Statue_planet2 KINGS 17:7-15

At the end of the movie Planet of the Apes (the original with Charlton Heston), Heston’s character and his female companion are riding a horse down a beach—ostensibly toward freedom, when they come across something sticking up out of the sand. The closer they get, the more Heston begins to realize that it’s a familiar icon—The Statue of Liberty. He had thought he was on a different planet, but now he realizes that he’s on earth, but thousands of years in the future. And his country, and all its symbols, are forgotten—dispatched to the realm of archaeology.

Hard to imagine that ever happening, isn’t it? It’s virtually impossible for Americans to think that symbols like the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument or Mount Rushmore or the White House would ever be forgotten or lost, only to show up thousands of years later in an archaeological dig, with future people trying to figure out what it all meant.

But here’s the thing: people of every civilization in the history of the world have thought that their way of life, their symbols, their icons could not possibly ever be forgotten or ruined. And yet, history teaches us that every civilization, every dynasty, every empire eventually winds up as an archaeological curiosity sticking up out of the sand. Travel in the sites of the old world and you see it over and over again—the ruins of Egypt, Greece, Rome: great civilizations, great empires, but now just broken columns and crumbling architecture.

The stories we read in 1 and 2 Kings in the Bible are illustrative of this principle. There’s a lot of detail here about the different kings and wars of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah—Kingdoms that, no doubt, the rulers and people thought would last forever. But these texts tell us that within the course of a few hundred years these kingdoms would be at best reduced and, at worst, wiped out. But, then again, so would the kingdoms and empires of their conquerors.

This period in biblical history corresponds to the rise and fall of two great empires in the ancient world: The Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Babylonians you’ve probably heard of, but the Assyrians are less well-known for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

The Assyrians were a factor on the world stage for some 1700 years and, in many ways,  were the Nazis of the ancient world. They conquered most of the Ancient Near East including the northern Kingdom of Israel, and they did so with a cruelty that would seem to be unmatched in history. Listen to how one Assyrian king named Ashurnasirpal describes his treatment of a defeated people:

“I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to the stakes round the pillar. . . . Many captives . . . I burned with fire; and many I took living. From some I cut off their hands and fingers and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers; of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living, another of heads, and I bound many heads to posts around the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire; the city I destroyed, I devastated.”

These are the kinds of writings you find in Assyrian ruins– endless boasting of military conquest. This was the original terrorist state and they ruled for almost two millennia.

But then, suddenly, the Assyrian empire was no more. Having stretched their empire too thin, the Assyrians were vulnerable to attack. The neighboring Babylonians and Medes, who had been subject to this Assyrian cruelty, took the opportunity to finally revolt and laid siege to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and, in fairly short order, destroyed it completely. A world power was so devastated that just two hundred years after the fall of the city, the Greek historian Xenophon visited the site and encountered the ruins of the enormous fortifications of Nineveh and none of the locals could tell him who these fortifications belonged to. It was the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand—the Assyrians were simply gone, wiped out. And no one cried. The prophet Nahum would write, “Nineveh is in ruins. Who will mourn for her? Where can I find anyone to comfort you?” (Nahum 3:7).

The answer, of course, is no one—the Assyrian empire, the most powerful empire of its time, fell virtually overnight.

The Babylonians were the next power to rise, but their time in the driver’s seat of the ancient world was relatively brief—less than a hundred years—but long enough to conquer the southern Kingdom of Judah and take away many of its citizens into exile and slavery. But the Babylonians themselves would soon be conquered by the Persians, who were then conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, whose empire eventually became the outline for the Roman empire.

You get the picture. These empires come and go, and the Bible portrays this continuous shift of power as a kind of human folly. Yes, God uses other nations to judge Israel and Judah, but then these nations are in turn judged themselves and taken over by others.

What’s it all mean? Well, I think one of the main points of these texts is to teach us that our reliance on our own national power and longevity is grossly misplaced. Reliance on Kings, military power, nationhood, boundaries, monuments, conquests, and the like ultimately leads to forgotten monuments sticking up out of the sand. Nations and empires fall and the Bible wants to teach us that our deepest loyalties, hopes, dreams, and aspirations need to be given to a higher purpose.

Historically speaking, empires fall for a number of reasons. Edward Gibbon, who wrote the seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late 18th century, said that there were eight different reasons for the fall of that empire and, by association, the fall of any empire. You see those reasons listed here:  a decline in morals and values, poor public health, political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay, inferior technology and military spending. Look at any empire that’s fallen in history and you can trace it to a combination of these causes. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list and look at my newspaper, I see it happening to us already! Cullen Murphy’s recent book Are We Rome? is an interesting study on how our own country is ticking off everything on Gibbons’ list.

But while these may be socio-economic reasons why nations and empires fall and wind up on the scrap heap of history, the Bible offers another reason that would seem to trump all the others. Look again at the text we read early from 2 Kings 17. The writer lays out the real reason for the decline and fall of Israel and Judah:

“All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God…They worshipped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them…They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

See, for God the problem of nations and empires isn’t that they’re not managing themselves well, it’s that they don’t realize that they are subject to a greater authority. When people begin to worship their symbols, their prosperity, their military power, their economy, and their pride, they make those things into gods that, ultimately, will lead people collectively and individually to ruin. 

God, however, calls people of all nations and races to a higher way of thinking—an allegiance to a greater Kingdom and a most powerful ruler. Fidelity and faithfulness to God is the key to eternal longevity. It’s fine to be a citizen of a country like ours, but God calls us first to be citizens of his Kingdom—a Kingdom that encompasses the whole world for all time.

Jesus would talk about this often in the New Testament. In fact, most of his teaching will be about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God (also known as the Kingdom of Heaven) isn’t about a place faraway in the clouds, but is focused on a present and future reality on earth—that God is King now and his reign will be made manifest in the future. What the Israelites consistently forgot, and what we forget, is that we have all been called to be citizens of God’s Kingdom and subjects of God’s reign and rule first and foremost because, after all, only God’s Kingdom is eternal.

Paul wrote to the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Now, some clarification about that (and here’s where context helps). In the first century AD, Philippi was a Roman colony—a place populated by Roman colonists. They were citizens of Rome, but no one was expecting to eventually go back to Rome to live. In the same way, Paul says, we have our citizenship in heaven, which is a way of saying that our allegiance and loyalty is given to God, but we live in on earth and in earthly kingdoms. We are not to expect that someday we’ll go “back” to heaven, but rather that we are to populate and colonize earth with the life of God. I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: the point of the Bible and Christian faith is not about getting people into heaven, but about getting the life of heaven into people so that they can live the life of God’s Kingdom on earth.

That life has certain markers and characteristics. 
•    Faith and allegiance to God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer of humanity and all of Creation
•    Moral, ethical, and spiritual practice (i.e. Mosaic Law, Sermon on the Mount)
•    Transcends boundaries of nationality and race
•    Emphasis on community of all nations “under God”
•    Living in the present with an eye toward the future

Life lived in God’s Kingdom has an eternal dimension. Regardless of whether our countries and kingdoms come and go, when we put our faith and allegiance in God we begin to see our lives as having a larger purpose that reaches beyond borders—a purpose that can never be buried in the sand. We are participating in God’s mission of redeeming the whole world.

A few years back I was standing at the door after church like I normally do, and a woman cornered after a worship service. She was deeply offended by the absence of the American flag in the front of the sanctuary and missed the “Christian” flag, too (An aside: Who came up with that flag, by the way? Was there a first-century Betsy Ross somewhere in Asia Minor? But I digress.) The woman began the conversation with a finger pointed at my chest saying, “My son is a Marine, and you should be honoring this country by having the flag up in the front.”

Well, I’m a veteran, too (Army), and I certainly understand her passion. I have saluted the flag, displayed it in my own home, worn it on my sleeve, proudly served my country and, while I was fortunate to never have experienced the horror of live combat during my 10 years in the infantry, I knew I could have been called on at any time to sacrifice my own life for what that flag represents, as many have done and continue to do. The Stars and Stripes have been a significant symbol in my own life.

But there are places where that symbol is less important than others. I may sound heretical to some of you, but I’ve come to believe that one of those places is in the church.

The U.S. Flag Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Section 175.k states, “When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience ….” When I exegete that passage of the code, it seems to me to be saying that in a public meeting place, the flag should have the greatest position of honor to the right of the speaker. And, in most cases, that’s exactly where it should be as the prominent symbol.

The way our church is set up, however, there is another symbol of “superior prominence” immediately to the right of the pulpit that is hard to miss and seems to cry out for the place of honor. It’s the cross, of course — the center of focus for just about every worship space in all of Christendom.

While the flag reminds us of the sacrifice of men and women who gave their lives in defense of the United States of America and its freedoms, the cross reminds us of a Savior who gave his life for the whole world. It reminds us, too, that if we are truly following Christ, then our primary allegiance must be to his Lordship, no matter where we live. Patriotism has its place, but it is always less prominent than the place of discipleship. When we come into a place of worship, we’re called to recognize that we are citizens of the kingdom of God, first and foremost, and Americans second.

So I gently reminded the proud Marine mom that morning that I celebrate her son’s service and respect the flag so much that I didn’t want to violate the Flag Code (or at least my interpretation of it). In this place, I said, we always pledge allegiance to a greater symbol first. In here, it’s always “Dependence Day” because when we worship, we recognize our full dependence on God to save us. That’s why the cross is our symbol of superior prominence.

Indeed, we say a pledge of allegiance every week—the Lord’s Prayer. Think about how that goes:

Our Father in heaven: We acknowledge God is the original founding father of the whole world. It’s his name that we hallow and him that we worship

Your kingdom come: It’s God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world, that brings ultimate peace and wholeness to the earth. It is a kingdom that seeks to make life on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread: We acknowledged that everything we have comes from God.

Forgive us our trespasses: Where the world seeks revenge and power, God offers forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. Only God can ultimately deliver us from evil—no army, no nation. Only God, in the end,  can truly conquer evil, sin, and death.

For yours is the kingdom: not ours. Forever. Amen (so be it).

Someday, all of our monuments and achievements will be fodder for future archaeologists. What will last? Only God’s kingdom will matter.

So, which Kingdom do you want to serve?

 

 

A Re-Rooted Life (A Sermon After the Fire)

Yellowstone tree1Isaiah 40:1-9

A few years ago we took a family vacation to Yellowstone, which is an amazing place unlike any other. It was a fun place to explore with its geysers and steaming landscape, its wildlife and amazing vistas.

One afternoon we were down in the West Thumb geyser basin and Rob and I hooked on to a guided ranger walk on the boardwalk that goes to a wide variety of various hot pools, fumaroles and geysers. As we walked we noticed this clump of dead pine trees there in the middle of all those thermal features. When we got to a certain point the ranger asked, “Now, why do you suppose those trees are dead or were even growing here in the first place?”

He went on to explain that Yellowstone sits on top of a super volcano – a caldera under which hot molten rock lies just two miles below the surface – a “hot spot”. As a result, things are constantly changing at Yellowstone – they have an average of some 2,000 earthquakes there every year, most of which are imperceptible to us but happen none the less. The ranger said that the constant movement of the earth makes constant changes to the pools and geysers there in the basin and throughout the park.

He said, “These trees started out as happy little seeds who blew into this area and said to themselves, ‘What an awesome spot! We’ve got a view by the lake, it’s warm, bit of a breeze. Let’s plant here.’ So they did, and thrived and grew to be about 10 feet tall. All was well until an earthquake in the early 90s. The shifting earth caused a once dormant hot pool to reignite and begin pumping out 200 degree water on the slope above this little family of trees. Over time, the hot water streaming down the slope scalded the trees, leaving a monument to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But then the ranger said something that stuck with me. “I just goes to show you that you have to be careful where you put your roots because things can change – change is the only constant out here.”

I have thought about that ranger’s words often. Be careful where you put your roots because the landscape can easily change.

We can all except that life brings change with it. We would just rather it be predictable change. We might call that “continuous” change – change that’s expected: kids grow up, we grow older, the seasons come and go…that’s change we can handle. We may not like it, but we can expect it. Given the right conditions, we can expect a tree to grow in its place.

But it’s the other kind of change that often really throws us—the unpredictable change that interrupts our lives in ways we didn’t expect. We might call that “discontinuous” change, or non-incremental, sudden change that drastically alters the landscape of how things have been done and understood for years.

In just the last week we’ve seen all kinds of discontinuous change. The Waldo Canyon Fire, of course, has altered our local landscape permanently. Many people have been living in different homes this week and will be living elsewhere all because of it. Today is also the day that United Methodist pastors officially start new pastoral appointments (mine is two years today). I’ve talked to many friends who have moved their families, trying to sell and buy houses, etc. all in a shot time. In the last week I’ve also visited someone in the hospital who hadn’t planned on being there, a family going through trauma with an adult child. Last week we were talking about fall programming here at the church, this week we’ve been talking about relief efforts.

On an on it goes. Change is happening to us every day whether we like it or not, whether we cause it or not, whether we fight it or not. It can shift the very landscape under our feet.

So the question I want to address with you this morning is this: With all this change going on, how do you know where to put your roots?

In Isaiah 40 we read the prophet’s words to Israel about a big change that was coming. Isaiah warned the people that they were going to be invaded and taken away from their homeland as slaves in exile. This passage, also often read at funerals and, ironically, at Christmas time, is a word of hope in the midst of that warning. Seismic discontinuous changes were coming and Isaiah urges the people to prepare a “way for the Lord” – leveling mountains, smoothing out rough places – a metaphor for changing their ways and allowing God to come among them.

But then come these words beginning in verse 6:

All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

Catch that…surely the people are grass – planted, rooted, like those trees – subject to environmental changes, temporary, tenuous, vulnerable, prone to whither and fall. we are all in the process of change – we’re all in the process of dying. In fact, the only time you stop changing is when you die.

But in the midst of all that change there is one and only one constant: God – “The word of the Lord stands forever.” Everything changes but God and God’s faithfulness. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament puts it more succinctly in chapter 13 verse 8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

The only thing that really lasts, then, is God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the only thing we can truly count on is God’s faithfulness and our relationship with God – a relationship that helps us see beyond ourselves, beyond our lives, beyond the changes and crises we experience every day, even beyond death.

To put it simply: Our roots must be firmly planted in the rich soil of God’s love for us and the knowledge and practice of his Word. Anywhere else and you’re bound to end up in hot water.

The Psalms, the prayer book of ancient Israel, begin with this idea of rootedness. Look at Psalm 1:

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers; 
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night. 
They are like trees
   planted (rooted) by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. 

It goes on to say that the wicked are like dry “chaff” that blows away because they have no roots. Those who are rooted in God’s faithful love are those who bear fruit with their lives and don’t whither in the face of adversity.

If your faith is dependent on circumstances, on sameness, on routine and ritual, or even on a certain person, a home, a job, a particular church or pastor, know that those things are always changeable and have a tendency to whither. It’s only the word of the Lord, the faithfulness of God that sustains us over the long haul.

Now it’s important for me to say here that while God’s nature is changeless – or “immutable” as a seminary prof would say – at the same time, God is a change agent – always creating, always at work in the lives of people, always calling people like you and me to be change agents in remaking and renewing the world. Simply having faith in God isn’t enough – we have to act on that faith and live it out, working to be change agents ourselves. For whatever reason, God wants to partner with us to make the world a better place for his glory. We can only do that when we are rooted, joined together, connected to him.

A farmer purchases an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise. The fields are grown over with weeds, the farmhouse is falling apart, and the fences are collapsing all around. 

During his first day of work, the town preacher stops by to bless the man’s work, saying, “May you and God work together to make this the farm of your dreams!”

A few months later, the preacher stops by again to call on the farmer. Lo and behold, it’s like a completely different place — the farmhouse is completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there are plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields are filled with crops planted in neat rows. “Amazing!” the preacher says. “Look what God and you have accomplished together!” 

“Yes, Reverend,” says the farmer, “but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone!”

We musn’t let God work alone! To embrace God is to embrace change, knowing that with God, as Paul said, “All things work together for good.”

That’s good news and a reminder that change, even painful discontinuous change, can be a catalyst for new life and new opportunity.

While we were in Yellowstone I noticed a lot of other trees. There you can still see the devastation that was wrought by the huge forest fire in 1988 when more than 739,000 acres, 36% of the park, burned. Just about anywhere you go in the park you see the blackened trunks of lodgepole pines sticking up out of the ground or cast like matchsticks on the now thinned forest floor.

FR-66But what you also see is a lot of green…a carpet of small pine trees now springing up amidst the burned out giants. It’s quite stunning, actually, to see the resurgence of these trees coming back – some say even more brilliant and beautiful than before. At another ranger program we learned why this was happening. See, lodgepole pines actually need fire in order to thrive. Lodgepole pine cones are very tightly closed and will only open when exposed to intense heat, as in a forest fire. Only when exposed to heat and destruction do the pine cones open up and let loose their seeds, which then are planted and thrive in the now rich soil. Fire – destruction – change – can bring new life and new opportunity for growth.

It’s hard to imagine that after this week, but we were living a story that I think illustrates that beautifully. My friend Dave Hiester and his family moved last week from Utah to begin a new pastoral appointment at Wilson UMC here in the Springs (at Vindicator and Centennial). They moved in on Friday. On Tuesday, they evacuated ahead of the flames of the fire that was roaring down the mountain. While they live in Rockrimmon and their home wasn’t in immediate danger, the Wilson Church certainly was, standing right next to Flying W Ranch.

The Hiesters came and stayed with our family while they were evacuated and we watched the news and internet intently. Tuesday night I saw this picture (that's Wilson in the lower right hand corner):

Wilson umc - fire

We thought it was most certainly lost along with many of the homes around it. Several members of Wilson lost their homes. On Wednesday, however, a CSPD officer who just happens to be the son of our lay leader called and told him that, miraculously, the church was still standing with green grass all around it!

I said to Dave that while this isn’t how you want to start a new pastoral appointment, it’s also a dynamic opportunity to be a beacon of light and life in the midst of pain and destruction. The Wilson church is rooted in that neighborhood and they will be a source of hope. As they worship for the first time today (at Trinity UMC), that’s what they are focusing on even as several of their members have lost their homes. They are grieving with their neighbors about what was lost, but they are also bringing a new rootedness to their community.

You know, I think that’s what every church has been called to be—fire or no fire. As Joe said so powerfully last week, we are the church of Christ who is always seeking ways to bring new life, to bring God’s kingdom, into the world. We can only do that if we are deeply rooted in God and his Word.

Burnt bible pageAnother lesson we learned at Yellowstone is that it’s always the trees that have the strongest roots that survive a fire. It’s those who are rooted deep in God and his word who will see discontinuous change as an opportunity in the midst of challenge. That rootedness take Is a daily process of nurture and growth.

May we be a people whose roots are deep, nurtured and bearing fruit for God’s kingdom!