Wednesday, February 27, 2008

That Talking Donkey Thingey

Numbers 22-24 has one of those richly odd Old Testament stories that is just loaded with things to ponder. The basic story is this: while the children of Israel are wandering around in the wilderness the leader of Moab gets worried because there are so many of them. His solution is to summon a prophet of God named Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. When Balaam is summoned he gets a word from God to not go, so he refuses to go. When he is asked again he agrees to go but an Angel of the Lord is sent to prevent him from doing so. Apparently Balaam's donkey is more spiritual than Balaam because the donkey can see the Angel with a flaming sword standing in the road, on the path and in the way. Balaam beats his donkey to get it moving when, much to every one's surprise the donkey speaks (Numbers 22:28) and says "what have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" In the ensuing conversation Balaam learns that his donkey is one smart and spiritually aware beastie and, eventually, his eyes are also opened and he sees the angel and hears from the Lord. He goes to Moab but blesses Israel rather than deliver the curse the leader of Moab wanted.

I find this an enormous lesson in humility. But I shouldn't be surprised. God is working his purpose out in the world and will use whatever tools are available to make his point. It is humbling to think that a beast of burden, a donkey, can have more spiritual insight than his master. I find it deeply humbling to think that on those days that I am not listening to God, not paying attention or simply oblivious, that God uses animals and even inanimate objects to get his point across. It is humbling and at the same time it is hopeful. God is working his purpose out either because of us or in spite of us.

In this story, I am reminded of another donkey. This one carried Jesus down the Mount of Olives on that first Palm Sunday. As a preacher I can imagine the shouts of Hosanna, I can see the waving palm branches, I can see the crowds thronging inward. I can imagine that the donkey must of felt pretty special on this day and may have even basked in the glow of the celebration feeling that some how and in some special way it was about him, too. I remember one preacher telling this story and stopping at that point and reminding all of us ministers of God's word, remember when the crowd shouts its approval that like this donkey, you are just the ass that carried Jesus.

That also keeps me humble.

God's peace,

Dr. BJ

Friday, February 22, 2008

Back Home and Back at it

We returned yesterday from our 10 day jaunt to Israel/Palestine. It is an amazing place to visit, we were able to tour Galilee (including a boat ride on the Sea) and visit Nazareth, Capernaum and other sites in the upper Galilee. We visited two areas in the Palestinian Authority, Jericho and Bethlehem and had three days in and around Jerusalem. This was my fourth trip and every time I go I feel like I can read the Bible better knowing the spacial relationships of things. Here are some examples:

Nazareth to Capernaum is a long down hill, rugged walk. Jesus would have made the trip many times, bypassing the larger city of Tiberius because of the Roman garrison there and that the city was considered "unclean" because it had been constructed on an older burial ground. The walk is rugged and unspeakably beautiful with the crater shaped sea of Galilee in front of you the whole time.

Nazareth to the Judean hill country (where Bethlehem is also located). According to Luke 1 and 2 Mary, Jesus mother, made this arduous trip of nearly 70 miles not once but twice while she was pregnant with Jesus. She goes the first time to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth in the hill country south of Jerusalem and the second time for the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. This journey went down the mountain side that Nazareth is located on, down the Jordan river valley to Jericho then up the Jericho to Jerusalem road (a 20 miles stretch of road that rises 4000 feet in elevation). Then through Jerusalem and on to the hill country or to Bethlehem. I am beginning to think that Mary, usually portrayed at the innocent sweet virgin Mary, had to have been one tough young lady to do all that traveling.

Palm Sunday. We walked from the Mount of Olives, past the cemetery, down to the Garden of Gethsemane and into the Kidron valley. This is the journey Jesus took on Palm Sunday. He crossed the valley and entered Jerusalem through the gate called Golden and on up to the Temple area. This whole walk took less than 20 minutes. A small boy could throw a stone across the Kidron valley.

The more I see, the more I study, the more I want to know. However, seeing the landscape, the spacial relationships with my own eyes makes the Bible come a live even more for me.

More on the Life Journals in the days ahead.



Monday, February 11, 2008

Off line for a week or so

Hi everyone:

I am off to Israel/Palestine tomorrow to view the land of the Bible and to journey with some very good friends. I will resume posting when I return.

God's blessings on all of you.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Keep the Fire Burning

I can't say that I have ever been moved by something from the book of Leviticus (it is not my usual reading and the rules and regulations generally don't move me very much). But here is a passage from Leviticus 6:12-13 that touched me in today's Life Journal reading,"The fire on the altar shall be kept burning; it shall not go out. Every morning the priest shall add wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat pieces of the offerings of well-beings. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out."

A perpetual fire shall be kept burning. I went to a small Christian college in the midwest. In the middle of the campus we had an area called "the prayer gardens" and in the midst of these gardens was a "prayer tower". On top of the prayer tower was a flame -- generally referred to as the "eternal flame" -- a perpetual symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Unfortunately, in the windy state we were located in this eternal flame would sometimes go out. Friends and I would declare the campus "ichobod (the spirit has departed)" and would do some goofy mourning thing to lament its passing.

We were playing but God's command in Leviticus that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar" is some serious business. I have walked with Jesus Christ for 35 years this March 8. I have served the Lord full time since 1982 (and if you count the college and seminary required before that this time extends back to 1974). Keeping the perpetual fire burning on the altar of my life has been, at times, very difficult.

Here are some of the things I do to keep wood on the fire of the altar of God in my life. I make space, daily for prayer. I read through the Bible every year (hence the reason for reading Leviticus). I covenant with others for prayer (my clergy covenant group; my prayer partners, the staff team I work with at our church). I make sure that my hands get dirty in serving the Lord and I try to set a good example for others through the use of my time, my talent and the treasures of my life.

Keeping the perpetual fire burning on the altar of God in our lives is what it is all about. For Christian leaders this is the biggest imperative of our lives. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, told his young traveling preachers "set yourself on fire and the world will come watch you burn." May it be so as the perpetual fire keeps burning on the altar of God in my life.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The presence of God

I am pondering Exodus 40 and Acts 12 today. What I am particularly struck by is the different way that the people perceive the presence and leading of God. Here's what I mean:

In Exodus there is the cloud of presence of God. This cloud rests on the tabernacle and so long as the cloud is present on the tabernacle they people stay where they are. However, when the cloud lifts the tabernacle is dismantled and the people move out to their new camp location. All of this is happening while they are on their way to the promised land. This is a pretty good system of communication. Cloud present we say, cloud on the move we are on the move. Noone could ever say "we can't figure out what God wants us to do." At least not in the sense of God's day to day calling on their lives.

Then we move to post-Pentecost in the book of Acts. The spirit speaks but there are no clouds. The spirit leads Phillip to present the Gospel to an Ethiopian, the spirit leads Saul to be converted -- but gives a vision to a man named Annanias (Acts 9) to come and pray for Saul so he can see again. There are no pillars of cloud nor are there pillars of fire. There is the leading of the Holy Spirit directing the early church in thier mission and work.

We don't need the bombastic clouds and pillars of fire to teach us what God is doing. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I need to listen to the Holy Spirit within me, to lead me, to guide me, and to put me on the paths that more greatly glorify him.

What is the Holy Spirit leading you to be a part of? If you are a Christ Follower, those promptings and urgings are leading you to a deeper life in God and a greater mission in the world.

dr. bj

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Golden Calf: Exodus 32

This is one of my favorite passages in the entire Old Testament because it underscores several important lessons. There is a lesson in leadership: as soon as Moses stops leading (in this case because he has gone away for an extended time to be with God) the people go back to what is familiar and comfortable. In Egypt they had the comfort of visual representations of the gods, in the desert they are told that there can be no images. In Egypt the gods seemed omnious but didn't seem to do much, in the desert God is thundering on the near by mountain. The people decide in the wilderness, with Moses gone, that they want to go back to the familiar.

The best part of the story, however, is Aaron, Moses brother. Aaron is the "second in command" and has been chosen as the "priest of Israel". The people turn to Aaron and ask for"gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses . . . we don't know what has happened to him." (Exodus 32:1). Aaron complys with their desire. He asks for thier gold earrings, he melts the gold down, he takes a tool and shapes the molten gold into the shape of a calf and the crowd cheers this idol as "the gods who brought you out of Egypt". Remember, Aaron, asks the the gold, he melts it down, he shapes the gold into a calf using tools.

The people proceed to party, revel and fall into a full scale debouch. Moses, upon returning from his time with God finds the nation prancing infront of this golden calf having broken most of the commandments given 12 chapters ago and he is furious.

Here is where human nature comes to the surface. Moses confronts his brother Aaron. "What did these people do to you that you led them into such great sin(Exodus 32:21)." Moses assumes that Aaron did what he did under duress. And Aaron lies to his brother. The story is comical (remember Adam blaming God for eating the fruit in Genesis 3? . . . "The woman YOU gave me. . ."). Aaron tells the story (remember: he asked for the gold, he melted it down, he shaped the calf with the tools): "They said make us gods who will go before us . . . So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"(Exodus 32 22-24). Aaron, in typical human fashion disavows any responsibilty in the matter. He claims, we threw the gold into the fire and this calf just walked out!

Personal responsibilty and accountabilty is a key component of Christian maturity. Too often we want to blame everyone and everything rather than assuming responsibilty for the bad stuff we have done. Mark Twain said it well: "Always tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember what you said!" No more golden calfs, own your stuff, ask for forgiveness, grow up, move forward!