Wednesday, March 30, 2005

March Reading List

Here are some of the books I've consumed over the last month (in random order)

Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale. My wife thinks I'm strange for reading books on grammar and syntax before bed, instead of watching "Blind Justice" This is an excellent book. It is fun to read and full of practical ideas to make your writing sparkle.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. If you are into that "Zen" thing, then Goldberg's writing guide may provide a brief flash of enlightenment. Her chapters are mostly recapitulations on her main theme: To be a writer, one needs to write. I used some of her exercises in my sermon writing and found pleasant results.

You Don't Know Me by David Klass. I picked this up at Borders while my family and I waited in line at a Mary Pope Osborne book signing. The book captivated me, and I had to finish it that night at home. I love how Klass' sentence structure and word choices change from bouyant to terse, depending on the state of the main character's soul.

Simpicity: The Freedom of Letting Go by Richard Rohr. His writing is sloggish, and I like the older edition better than the update. However, his chapter on identifying the problems in the Church is prophetic and moving. Rohr's Franciscan spirituality reminds us that growth comes through letting go.

My friend Ken is recommending In Praise of Slowness. It is on my wish list. Let me know if you have read it.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/006054578X/qid=1112192522/sr=2-1/ref=pd_ka_b_2_1/104-9775105-8342323

"Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit" -- Luke 23:46

Even though we now celebrate the season of resurrection, I thought I would share my reflections from last week's Trumbull Interfaith Committee's Good Friday Service. I was assigned Jesus' final word from the cross: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

It is the very end, the end of the ordeal, the end of the suffering. Jesus dies alone on the cross, tortured, exhausted, abandoned by his friends, forsaken by God, gasping for a last breath and gathering strength for one final cry. (1) Jesus dies with the words of Psalm 31 on his lips. However, he only quotes half the verse. In a loud voice Jesus says, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” but he doesn’t say the second half of the verse: “Redeem me O Lord, God of truth.” The writer of Psalm 31 prays for deliverance from enemies, saying, “You, Lord, are God of the covenant. I trust you. Come, keep your promises, and rescue me.” Does Jesus have this in mind as speaks his final words?

We like to disinfect death. Go to a funeral, and death is discreetly mentioned. You remember the dead person’s life with an optimistic celebration. You get lively music, humor, and a nice spread of food. No one wants to think about that moment of death. The Lord’s death also gets sanitized. We are told that his last words are the final recommitment of his submission to the Father’s will. To the very end, Jesus persistently obeys God. But, what if his last words are really a final cry for help? What if Jesus is scared? What if he doubts? What if he thinks, “Father, I’m a good Son. I have always committed myself into your hands. Come and rescue me.” What if Jesus draws his final breath as a prayer for deliverance from death. And it doesn’t happen.

Or does it?

On Good Friday, there is no deliverance from death -- it’s not God’s way of doing things. God doesn’t deliver Jesus from death. God delivers Jesus through death. Christians need to wrestle with this just as Jesus did. We are not often rescued from life’s pain. However, as we struggle through the dark times, we announce our trust in a God who calls his sons and daughters to new life on the other side of death. (2)

“Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” Jewish mothers taught their children to pray these words before bed. As darkness fell, children learned to lay themselves before God. And on Good Friday, as darkness descends and the Son of God dangles on a cross, Jesus prays those memorable words and then dies like a child falling asleep in his parent’s arms. (3) Maybe in that moment Jesus knows he can trust in life beyond the grave.

How about you, Christian? Life pitches pain and doubt, and grief, and loss, and horror at us. What do you do when darkness falls and you face your deepest fears? What happens when you pray for relief, and it feels like God ignores your wounds? Hear the words of Christ. “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” His words are also our creed. They belong to the living as well as the dying. If we can’t learn to practice trusting God in the living of our lives, then we have not learned what it means to fully live. (4) It does take practice. Living a full life of trust and faith means seeing, and hearing, and feeling sure signs of God’s presence during life’s pain. Faith does not need to be the casualty of our woundedness. So, practice trusting in God. God promises to deliver his people through the darkness and into new life.

Sources:
(1) Good Friday Worship Service, The Seven Last Words, http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/a-gdfr-sn.php
(2) Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983), 263.
(3) William Barcaly, The Gospel of Luke (Edingurgh: St. Andrew, 1956), 301-302.
(4) William Mays (quoting John Calvin), Psalms (Louisville: Knox, 1989), 144.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

God's Total Body Workout -- Hands & Knees

Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Seeing it might make you reconsider the old saying that all mountains in the East are just foothills in comparison to those in the West. Mount Katahdin is the most difficult non-technical climb in the East, and many of the trails have a tendency to go straight up. The most spectacular route involves taking the mile-long Knife Edge, which combines 2,000 foot drops on either side of the trail. It's definitely not a trail to get caught on in bad weather.

Our boy scout group chose a beautiful day to backpack to the summit of Katahdin. At the foot of the mountain flowers were beginning to bloom and a warm gentle breeze filled us with confidence as we went to tackle the Knife Edge. The trail that meandered through the pine forest eventually gave way to gravelly climbs on steeper slopes. However, once we got past the tree line, it seemed as if the mountain’s fury was not going to let us pass. We put on our raincoats and continued the climb. At one point, climbers need to use iron hand and foot grips to navigate the trail that goes straight up the rock face. As we climbed, the storm worsened. Stinging rain, driven by wind sheers began to shred the raincoats from our bodies. We were on our hands and knees, clinging to the side of the mountain and trembling with the anticipation of the unexpected. We slowly made our way back down the trail on our hands and knees, never making it to the Knife Edge, but learning to respect the Mountain. Of course, at the base of the mountain, life was beautiful and verdant.

As I think back to that time, I remember the story of another mountain climber named Christian. Scanning the narrow trail before him, he saw that it went straight up the hill. He knew that a steep and exhausting climb awaited him. He stepped over to a spring and refreshed himself with its cool water. As he cupped the water in his hands and raised them to his lips, he contemplated what lay before him. There was no denying that this would be a backbreaking climb, but he had no choice but to follow it. Friends who were with him asked, “Why exhaust yourself with such a difficult climb when it would be so much easier to simply go around it?” Saying that, they a different path around the mountain and were never heard from again. As they walked away, Christian stood before the steep hard path. Then Christian began to climb the Hill of Difficulty.

John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, describes the scene this way:

"I looked then after Christian, to see him go up the hill, where I perceived he fell from running to going, and from going to clambering upon his hands and knees, because of the steepness of the place."
As followers of Christ, we all have our own “Katahdins” –- our own “Hills of Difficulty” -- over which to pass. Maybe you are, at this very moment, crawling on your hands and knees through the difficulties of life. Once you could run through life with triumphant faith, at other times you could walk even through the valley of the shadow of death with quiet confidence, but now you have come to a place of extraordinary difficulty where you no longer have the strength or speed to make it. Maybe you are crying out,
"Lord, let my knees find a resting place, let my hand hold on to some projecting crag of promise so I won’t totter and fall.”
We’ve all been there. We climb into a spot where we only make a little progress, and we think it’s enough just to hold our ground against the desperate difficulties of the path before us. When we are in this place, hands and knees are essential.

This is out last set of exercises in The Bible’s Total Body Workout: strengthening our hands and knees. How do we tone them up, how do they get us through difficulty, and how can we use them to honor God?

In Scripture, hands and knees are connected to each other. Where we put our hands and knees shows how we are responding to the presence of God. In times of trouble, knees shake and hands tremble. They physically express the weakness of the heart. We describe a person in overwhelming danger as wringing his hands in despair, and as feeling her knees knocking together in her moment of terror. The hands and knees become week and unable to move. As In this case, the hands and knees show that the person has surrendered to fear. Faith has seemed to disappear. That’s why the prophet Isaiah encourages the spiritually frozen people of Israel with these words:

“. . . strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have week knees. Say to those who are afraid, ‘Be strong and do not fear for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you’” (Is. 35:2-4).
How do we begin to strengthen tired hands and steady shaky knees? One way we do it is in worship. The Bible talks about hands and knees bowed before God in reverent awe. The posture of our hands and knees is an outward expression of the heart. In the Bible, raising hands demonstrates our gratitude for who God is and for all He has done. Raised hands are a sign of our surrender to God's reign in our lives. In the psalms, the Hebrew word translated “praise” means to extend the hands. Therefore, the act of lifting our hands is a Biblical expression of worship. The same goes for the knees. To kneel before God is a sign of humility, meekness and submission to the King of kings. When anybody would come before a king, he would kneel in respect and submission. When we kneel before the King of the universe, we are showing God our respect for His royal authority and submission to His reign and rule. In fact, the Greek word for worship is proskuneo, which means to prostrate oneself, to kiss the feet of a conqueror–literally, to bend the knee.

The Bible is filled with examples of people raising hands and kneeling before the Lord. The Psalmist pleads, "Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (Psalm 95:6). When King Solomon, the powerful heir of King David, submits to God in prayer, the Bible says he "knelt down on his knees before all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven" (2 Chronicles 6:12). The fact is that kneeling before the Lord is not optional, for "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11). In other words, all people, whether they are believers or unbelievers, will one day kneel before God, confessing that Jesus is Lord.

In The Bible’s Total Body Workout, strong hands and knees carry us through difficulty. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to get over our hills of difficulty is by bending the knees and raising the arms. When life gets hard, we fall on our knees, not in fear or fatigue but in prayer. With hands lifted up and yielded to God we say, “God we cannot do this alone, but you can strengthen our week hands and feeble knees.” With knees bending our bodies in humble submission we say, “God, my way is not working. The path I’m on is too hard. I am tired. I am afraid and alone. I can’t crawl another step on this hill of difficulty. I bend my knees, lift my hands, and I give myself to you. I surrender to you. I worship you and rely on your promises.” There, on your knees, you become mighty.

Why do we think that we will make it on our journey when we neglect prayer and worship? We would be better to expect a plant to grow without air and water than to expect a heart to grow without prayer and faith. If we want to grow in grace, if want to comprehend the heights and depths of God’s word, and know the love of Christ which passes all understanding, then we take care of our knees and ask God to make them strong –we ask God to fortify our hands thy so that they won’t hang down.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

God's Total Body Workout -- The Tongue

In his book The Way of the Heart, The late Henri Nouwen writes about our word-rich society.

Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: word softly whispered, loudly proclaimed or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence (45).

Our whole society depends upon words to convey thoughts, ideas and feelings. In our culture we are brought up thinking words are just harmless sounds. We teach our children to chant: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me. However, in the minds of the ancient Bible writers, words have power. Words create, heal and save. Words inspire. Words curse and judge. Our words have the power to show love, or hate and indifference.

What does The Bible’s Total Body Workout say about our tongues? How can we exercise the tongue for spiritual growth and fitness? To gain a handle on our tongues, so to speak, read these words from James 3:1-12

Before we even get to chapter 3, James mentions the tongue a number of times. Look at James 1:19

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick tolisten, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Seven verses later James says,

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tightrein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

And then half way through chapter 2 he says we should, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom”

James has much to say about the use and abuse of our words. He uses three illustrations to make his point:
The tongue is like a bit in the mouth of the horse,
a rudder on a ship,
and a spark that ignites a wildfire.

James reminds us that the tongue might be elfin in appearance, but it has enough influence to control the entire body The tongue cannot be tamed. Like a coiled cobra, the tongue will strike out with deadly precision when its cornered or angered. The tongue is temperamental and explosive. It is as deadly as a razor –sharp sword or an arrow laced with poison. Even when it isn’t speaking, it can stick itself out in a gesture of rude dismissal[1]. The best we can hope for is to allow God help us exercise some fearful control over it. The Bible’s Total Body Workout gives us some ideas on how to warily gain control over our word:
“Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” -- Proverbs 4:23

Our words will only be as encouraging as our minds and hearts allow. In many ways, our tongues are a litmus test of our spiritual maturity. Do you remember those little strips of litmus paper we used in chemistry labs? Litmus paper is used to detect the presence of acid or alkali. Like litmus, the color and features of our words point to of the acidic nature of our minds and hearts. Words reveal what is inside of us – the places where our minds like to dwell the most. This includes the books and magazines we read, the shows we watch on television, the web sites we visit, the people we associate with, and how we spend our leisure time Our words are the mirrors of our hearts and reveal our will and morality.

If we want to enjoy significant spiritual growth, we need to work on what we do and do not say. Spiritual maturity requires a tamed tongue. Proverbs 13 reminds us that the one who guards the lips guards one’s life. The question is how do we do it? Read Ephesians 4:29

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, that it may benefit those who listen.”

We begin controlling the tongue by exercising encouragement. We use our words to build up everyone around us.

Paul spends some time in Ephesians chapter 4 exploring Christian maturity and unity. He tells how we can continue develop in Christ through faith and obedience. Then he asks his readers to “speak the truth in love.” Paul does not present his readers with alternatives. He does not say that we may choose to either speak truthfully or to speak lovingly. He asks us to do both at once - to speak the truth in love.

I once heard that love without truth is sentiment, and truth without love is dogmatism. The Christian’s aim is allow one’s words to articulate reality. The right words must be words of truth. The right motivation is love stemming from obedience.

In the book Encouragement: the Key to Caring, Larry Crabb suggests that we should, “carefully select words that are intended to influence another person meaningfully towards increased godliness.” A preacher once shared a simple acronym to help us think before we talk. It was the word THINK: Is it True, Is it Helpful, Is it Inspiring, Is it Necessary, Is it Kind. Before you speak, think through this list. If you score 5 out of 5, it’s OK to talk; if you score 4 out of 5 speak with caution. If you score 3 or less, don’t open your mouth. Our priority is to build others up! By the way, the list of those who need encouragement includes spouses, children, and parents. If what you are about to say is not True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind, then keep it to yourself.

Beside a churchyard, along a windswept hill in England is a cemetery with Arabella Young’s tombstone. The elements have almost erased the inscription, but if you look closely and take your time you can read her epitaph:

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the Twenty-forth of May, Began to hold her tongue.”

One day our tongue, like Arabella Young’s, will cease to move, but in the mean time the question remains--what will we do with it here and now? Will we use our tongues to praise God, encourage the fainthearted, and tell people that we love them? Or will we use our poisonous pink tongues to curse, blaspheme, and spread discord, rumors and gossip?

This week our spiritual exercise is to THINK before we speak. The truth does not come cheap, nor does it always come easy. Yet, the bottom line is that we should seek the right words, stemming from the right motivation. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what we say doesn’t matter. It does! The tongue may be small but it is powerful. What we do with it makes a mountain of difference.

God's put a new song in my heart. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

God's Total Body Workout -- The Feet

Here are some of my favorite bumper stickers:
· Your kid may be an honors student, but you’re still an idiot.
· I brake for no apparent reason.
· Forget about World Peace. Visualize using your turn signal.
· He who laughs last, thinks slowest.
· Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math.
· Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
· I love cats...they taste just like chicken.
· The more people I meet, the more I like my dog.
· Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep.
· Work is for people who don’t know how to fish.
· Hard work pays off in the future. But laziness pays off right now.
· It’s lonely at the top, but you eat better.
· Always remember you’re unique, just like everyone else.
· There are 3 kinds of people: those who can count & those who can’t.
· Why is “abbreviation” such a long word?
· Ever stop to think and forget to start again?

Some bumper stickers are funny, some are informative, some make you think, others make you mad. In any case they can be a reflection of the direction in which the person is traveling in life. When it comes to bumper stickers, the words on the outside of a car are often an indicator of who's on the inside of the car. In the same way, the words that come out of our mouths can be an indicator of where we are headed in life.

What we say and where we are going are connected. From the Bible’s perspective, when it comes to our spiritual health, our feet are connected with the mouth and the heart. Consider these words from the Apostle Paul:


Romans 10:9-15 (New Living Translation)
For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They all have the same Lord, who generously gives his riches to all who ask for them. For “Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
The world needs our feet. I’m surprised I’m even writing this to you because I think feet are disgusting. I definitely have a foot hang up–a piece of information that’s probably more than you needed to know about me. I can think of several words to describe these floppy appendages on the ends of my legs. The words ugly, hairy, smelly and grungy are a few that I would choose.

But despite their flaws, the world needs our feet.


Our feet can carry us to the grieving, hurting, needy, lonely, and friendless – to the blind, the prisoners, the poor and oppressed, and those who do not know Jesus Christ. Our feet bring us into contact with those who need to know how God’s grace and our faith can make a difference in life. The world needs our feet.

Here’s my problem: I don’t want to my feet to bring me into contact with friendless, the blind, the prisoners, the poor and oppressed, and those who do not know Jesus Christ. I would rather have my feet bring me to my comfy chair so I can relax while I read a good book. I would rather have my feet bring me somewhere where I don’t have to think about the pain and suffering in the world. Life is easier if I let me feet lead me to places where I can deny the reality that there are people perishing without Christ.

And anyway, if I were to go to the suffering and poor in spirit, I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know what to say. How is little ol’ me going to make a difference? And there’s another problem -- the term “congregational evangelist” sounds like an oxymoron. Maybe we should let the Baptists, Nazarenes and Pentacostals put the gospel shoes on their feet.

On the other hand, people are not always going to automatically call on God. Someone needs to go and someone needs to talk. In fact, not just anyone–WE need to go. As Isaiah says:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7 7, NIV)

Did you get that? God can take these obscene feet of ours and make them beautiful! It’s important to understand that in Biblical times they didn’t have email or fax machines or phones. So in order for leaders to relay messages to their hearers they sent messengers. Often times the messenger would travel by foot for miles to get the message to his hearer.

Does Trumbull Congregational Church and/or the UCC make distinctive claims about Christian faith? If so, what are they? What are these articles of faith important for others to hear?

Who are the people who need to hear and respond to our unique witness? Where do we have to go to meet them?

Look up these verses. What do they have to say about the relationship between our feet and our hearts?

Proverbs 6:16-19

Psalm 44:18

John 8:12, 11:19

2 Corinthians 5:7

Matthew 9:1-6

The ancient Greek myth of Phidippides serves as an example. In 490 B.C. Persia's fleet of 600 ships loomed off the Greek Shores not far from Athens. According to legend, the general of the Athenian troops sent his fastest runner, Phidippides to ask for help from Sparta. Phidippides ran for two days and two nights to reach Sparta, about 140 miles away. He gave the message to the Spartans. The Spartans agreed to send troops, but not until after their religious festival was completed in nine days. Phidippides ran back to Athens, but the general couldn’t wait that long, so he ordered his troops to advance on the Persians. The Persians were no match for the Athenians and 6,400 Persians were slain. The general then ordered Phidippides back to Marathon to spread the good news. The distance between marathon and Athens was approximately 25 miles. Phidippides made the distance and managed to gasp the word “Rejoice!’ before he collapsed and died. The first marathon was completed.

You can imagine what people would be thinking when word got out that a messenger was bringing word to them? Their hearts would pound not knowing if the news was going to be tragic or good. When the news was good the messenger became the most popular person around. People would say the messenger’s feet were beautiful. The word “beautiful” in this context does not mean “lovely in appearance” — thank goodness. It means “in time” or “timely.” It was as if the people were saying, “your feet brought you just when I needed to hear something good.”

There are people all around us in desperate need of some Good News. They are going through a trying time. They don’t need to hear you say, “Suck it up” or “Hang in there” or “Come to our church and hear a good sermon.” They need to hear Good News. From YOU! Jesus loves us and cares for us. Sin and death are defeated, and we can be right with God. And as hard as it is to take the first step, I love it when I hear someone say, “Your feet brought you just when I needed to hear something good.” Where our feet bring us shows the condition of our heart. That’s why The Bible’s Total Body Workout exercises our feet for spiritual health. How you walk and where you walk to is an indication of how your relationship with Christ is going.

What is the Good News? If you had to summaraize the Gospel, what points would you include?

Indeed, our heart, feet, and mouth are all connected. Our heart gives us the will to go. Our feet respond and bring us. And our mouths speak the Good News. An active heart leads to an active mouth, which also shows itself in active feet. And active feet are beautiful to God—when they are active for Him! Or, to put it another way, look at the words of another bumper sticker:

Dance With Your Heart and Your Feet Will Follow!
When is the last time someone said to you, “Your feet are Beautiful”? What are you doing to bring Good News to the people around you in your daily life?

I must admit, I am not always proud of where my feet take me. At times, my feet and I have chosen the path not lit by the Word of God. I also suspect I have not always been in the position of passionately listening at the Savior's feet. Nor have I always humbled myself to others, failing to “wash their feet” with love and service. Notwithstanding, my prayer is that Isaiah’s words will one day describe me:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
I would be thrilled if my future epitaph read,
“Matt Braddock: a man with beautiful feet.”
For the story of Phiddipides, see http://www.lakepowell.net/marathon.html

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