Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Brother Like That

Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and John Harbaugh, head coached the Baltimore Ravens, faced each other in the 2013 Super Bowl (interesting side note: James and John are described in the Bible as brothers of Jesus). John’s team won.

I saw a report on The Today Show the next day of a news conference in which John Harbaugh described his brother as "the best coach in the NFL”. He said, “what he has done in past two years is incredible.” In fact he spoke mostly about his brother in that report.

It reminded me of the story of a man who was facing hard times and his car stopped working. He couldn’t afford to have it fixed. His brother stepped in and gave him a car.

Someone who heard that story exclaimed, “Wow, I wish …”

Let me pause here. I’d like to ask a question. I’d like to ask how you think that sentence ends?

I think most people would say, “I had a brother like that.”

The sentence, the way I heard it, ended “I could be a brother like that.”

Moving beyond our own interests to serving the needs of others is central in the Christian life. It living our response to what God has already done for us. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

Friday, February 1, 2013

The One Who Needs Me the Most

This year two brothers will face each other as coaches of rival teams in the championship game of their sport for the first time in American sporting history.

Jim Harbaugh will coach the San Francisco 49ers and John Harbaugh will coach the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl 47.

They played each other in 2011. The Ravens won. After the game their parents went beneath the stadium to the locker rooms.

Their mother, who had sat stoically through the entire game, not wanting to show anything that could be interpreted as favoritism, said that as she and her husband walked past the Ravens locker room she thought, “We really aren’t needed here…” (LA Times, January 24, 2013). But when they arrived at the 49ers locker room and found their son, by himself with his hands on his head, in coach-mode, they knew that was where they needed to be.

It has been argued that all living things are hard-wired to favor the strongest offspring as they are the ones most likely to pass on their DNA. That may well be true, but human being can be and are more than their wiring.

It can also be argued that in the Christian life, we are more like the mother who, when she was asked if she had a favorite among her children answered, “Yes. The one who needs me the most.”

Jesus came to those who needed him, to those who knew their need for a savior. “’Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners’.” Matthew 2:17b

Our Normal Is Jesus

Someone posted a graphic on Facebook that I shared at worship last month.

The top showed three people huddled together in heavy winter clothes, looking miserable, captioned “50° in San Diego”. The bottom showed three people in shorts and light tops having a picnic, captioned “50° in Wisconsin”.

Having grown up in Wisconsin and having visited San Diego, I can attest to the only somewhat exaggerated truth in that graphic.

We get used to things in our environment. They become our normal, our “tradition”.  We like them because we just do, and we are unable to think critically about them.

We need a standard outside ourselves to know what it real, what is true.

Jesus is that standard. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.” John 14:6

Light Into The Darkness

I mentioned to one of the “Sandys” in our congregation that this was not a good month for people with her name.

Between the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the sorrow of Sandy Hook Elementary School, this has been a horrible month.

Christmas comes with lots of cute ways that we celebrate it, but they are cultural.

Read the Christmas story in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John and try to understand it as it is.

It is the story of a young rejected family, hunted and alone, except for the odd, smelly shepherds and the terrifying angels.

It is a cold night for God become human flesh as a BABY.

And yet God comes in the midst of dislocation and suffering.

God brings light into the darkness.

And, though the darkness is still around the light, it has not overcome it.

Given First

One of our members at Faith Lutheran Church in San Dimas asked the rhetorical question before our Thanksgiving-eve worship service, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people were camping out to get a into churches like they are to get into stores?”

I’ve heard of people who do go church “shopping”. Some are looking for the place at which God is calling them to witness and serve.

Others are doing what shoppers line up for, getting the greatest benefit for the lowest cost. They are making a consumer decision.

At Christmas, we offer the best deal imaginable, but it comes at a cost.

God has become human flesh in Jesus Christ. His death was the punishment for our sin. That was the cost.

God has given salvation to all who accept the gift.

That's the deal.

The Christian life is our response to the love of God given to us first in Jesus Christ.

Mark Luther

Sally and I go to a fund raiser for the dinosaur museum at the Webb Schools in Claremont every year near the end of October, and we meet our friend Mark Luther there.
Mark is a direct descendant of Martin Luther.

How he knows that is a long story, but it is remarkable to shake the hand of someone who carries the DNA of Martin Luther, as it usually happens, just before Reformation Sunday.

We carry the spiritual DNA of Martin Luther as Lutherans now 495 years after the beginning of the Reformation.

Martin Luther called the whole church to reestablish its Christian DNA in the Bible as our only authority, and in salvation through faith alone through God’s grace alone.

That movement continues, and we are a part of it.

Hope and Trust

Sally and I were at a dinner, following a regional worship service Sally had planned and led last month, in a participant’s back yard in Pasadena.

As I scooted my wooden folding chair under the table, I somehow managed to pinch the skin under the fingers of my left hand inside the chair.

My legs were now under the table, their weight on my hand, so I could not get up.

There were people all around me and, well, there is no graceful way to extricate one’s self from this kind of awkward social situation.

I shifted my weight to the other side and pushed my chair back with as little facial expression as I could manage.

We sometimes face decisions where there is no good alternative.  Something bad will happen, no matter what we do. We must simply choose the best alternative, and act.

How wonderful, therefore, that we are saved by faith through God’s grace.  We can act, if not with perfection, with hope and trust in God.

Be Ready

Sally and I were on a “stay”-cation for a week-and-a-half in August.

One of the things we did was watch the movie “John Carter” on DVD.

It was released this year by Disney and was based on an early 20th century comic book character.

The movie lost around $200 million dollars. I wanted to see why.

I had read reports that it was a marketing problem.

But, I don’t think that was the main challenge.

In my opinion, it was s storytelling issue.

It is rare for us to be asked to tell the story of why we are Christians, and we often only get one hearing. Our telling needs to be ready and it needs to be real.

Peter said, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” 1 Peter 3:15b-16a

Olympics & Victory

The Olympics had been going on for centuries before the birth of Christ.

The apostle Paul was a citizen of the Roman empire, as well as a citizen of Israel, having been born in Tarsus.  His status gave him access to the Roman world that a non-citizen would not receive.

He knew the culture well, and sprinkled sports metaphors throughout the letters that are included in our New Testament.

He writes, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-25

God has won the victory for us over sin, death, and the power of the devil. He has given us the imperishable prize in Jesus Christ.

We point people toward Him.

Exactly the Same

The Maasai tribe in Tanzania, West Africa are cattle herders. The group with whom we are partners have been forcibly relocated several times, and are devoted Lutheran Christians.

In some ways they could not be less like us, but in other perhaps more important ways, they are exactly the same, brothers and sisters in Christ, sinners saved by God's grace.

Herb Hafermann, the missionary we have helped support, emailed that when this evangelism-oriented congregation experienced a number of challenges, including the loss of their church building, the death of a German missionary, and the death of a young boy who accidentally ate poison berries, their faith was opposed by “a radical Assembly of God group that regularly preaches that the Lutherans are not saved and actively attempts to re-baptize the Lutherans.”

This is not the way is should be among Christians. In any case, we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  Galatians 6:2), not exploit them.

Please pray for the Christians of Tanzania as we seek additional ways to help them.

Certain Hope

Sally and I were at the event of a philanthropic educational organization for women to which she belongs, one to which spouses were invited.

The MC told a story about Harry Truman.

The speaker said that one day, the head of president Truman’s council of economic advisors came to present a report from the council.

He said, “We think stocks will rise. But, on the other hand, they could go down.” And, “We think that interest rates will go down. On the other hand, they could go up.”

President Truman turned to his chief-of-staff and said, “Next time we hire an economic advisor I want one with one hand.”

We all long for certainty in life, but all we can know beyond the mechanical measurements of our world is hope.

This hope is a kind of certainty, one that never disappoints.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.     Romans 5:1-5

That's Grace

A couple of days before Easter, Sally and I went to Target late at night to pick up a few things for our Easter celebration.

I swim on an adult swim team and don’t like to work-out with more than a PowerBar in my stomach.

I needed some, and I had a coupon, so I brought a box to the check-out stand.

The checker, however, told me that I needed to buy two boxes to use the coupon.

There was no one waiting behind us, I was thankful, so I ran back into the store for the box and when I returned she scanned it and snorted, “This coupon has expired.

“But (I was wearing my clerical collar), I’m going to give it to you anyway.

“You look like a guy who’s going to need a PowerBar this weekend.”

That’s grace.

Jesus’ coupon had expired on Good Friday, but he took his life back.

That’s Grace: the promise of his unearned love for you and for me, and for all who live by faith in Him.

A Good Example

One of our musicians told me a story recently about going to a gas station and finding that the car in front of her had blocked both the remaining pumps in front of her.

She had to pull a U-turn and she wound up directly adjacent to the driver.

She looked at her, as she pulled out the hose nozzle and said, “You know, love and human compassion would indicate that you only use one pump space.

The driver said, “I don’t feel either of those things.”

Our musician was stunned and turned back to gassing her car but then replied, “What you just said makes me feel sad. I’ll pray for you.”  Apparently, it was not what the other driver expected.

The driver’s head snapped around and she said, gently, “Thank you.”

She hadn’t received a lecture on kindness, but an example.

That’s discipleship.


Gas prices are up. It has been said that they will continue going up and remain high into the summer.

This effects our direct personal costs. We see it every time we go to the pump. Have you noticed that the more expensive gas is, the faster it burns? At least that’s the way it seems to me.

And when we have to fill-up from an empty tank, the cost is stunning!

Rising gas prices also effects the cost of everything that requires transportation by gas-consuming engines.

The cost for energy is high in our lives of faith as well, and it seems to be getting higher and effecting more areas of our lives.

Who among us has not found it difficult, even costly, to live our lives of faith with spiritual energy?

This season of Lent we will focus on the work of Jesus Christ, who spent everything for our redemption. He emptied himself for us.  And we seek to follow Him.

Being Shaped

I have a pair of work gloves that are just about as comfortable as work gloves can get.

They’re old, but they’ve been broken-in by projects that have shaped them to my hands.

Eventually, they will wear out and I’ll need a new pair. The new ones will feel clumsy until they too have been formed to my hands by work.

In the same way, God enters into us and shapes us.

We are clumsy at first, but the work we do at God’s guidance shapes us to Him until we feel as comfortable as, well, old gloves.

That’s when danger begins.

It is when we get comfortable with God that we are also wearing out.

Part of the Christian life is seeking to always grow, which means that we are always learning to be a new creation, always being shaped to God’s will.

Our Response

I’ve met visitors to our church over the years who describe themselves as “church shoppers”.

One of my colleagues, when told this replies, “Well, I hope you find a bargain.”  That's what many are seeking.

Some people are genuinely looking for the place to which the Holy Spirit is calling them.  Others, in our self-affirming materialistic world, are making a consumer choice. They are looking for the greatest personal benefit, at the lowest personal cost.

Grace, the selfless unconditional love of God gives exactly that. The Christian life, however, is to embody that selfless, unconditional love for others.

Christ was born, and is born in us.

Our response is a genuine, redeemed life lived in a Christian community, where everyone contributes with equal joyful sacrifice, to sharing Christmas with the world.

The Heart of Christmas

Christmas has been celebrated for almost 2000 years. Cultures of great variety have chosen to mark the birth of Christ in ways that reflect who they are ever since.

As God became human flesh, so our faith is embodied in ways that reflect who we think we are as particular groups of human beings.  We embody the presence of Christ in particular ways.

What does it say then when our holiday “officially” begins with Black Friday, followed by Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Free-shipping Friday, last minute, clear the inventory sale days, and so on?

We talk about the commercialization of Christmas, about keeping Christ in Christmas, and about having a Merry Christmas holiday.  We advocate for words, but the heart of Christmas is in their meaning, and how we live that meaning.

We say it every year.  Our culture's celebration of Christmas leaves little room for Jesus. Change will come when we live our faith as a focused celebration of Jesus. Let’s pray for that this year.

God's Promise of Grace

At the end of 1 Samuel, after Saul, a generally terrible king of Israel has died ignobly, we read that the Philistines deliver indignities to his body and “fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.” (31:10b)

They wanted, among other things, to show everyone he was dead.

When dictator Moammar Gadhafi recently died ignobly, we read in our newspapers that his body was put on display by forces fighting against him, where people pulled his hair and taunted “him”.

They wanted, among other things, to show everyone he was dead.

We marvel at the violence of the Old Testament era, and yet we are not very far from it.

I am comforted that God does not first require that we get things right.

God deals with us as we are.

But, God never leaves us as we are.  He give us a way out through repentance and mercy in Jesus Christ.

That is God’s promise of grace.