Sunday, September 28, 2008

A word of hope

In my reading early this morning I came to Zechariah chapters 1-3. These chapters give a word of hope to the post exilic leaders trying to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. God speaks through the prophet to tell the governor and especially the high priest, that if they are faithful and true to their calling (keep the law and God's commandments) they will be successful. There are enemies all around and the devastation of the previous 70 years is hard to ignore and yet the word from God is a word of hope.

I have come to believe that a word from God is always a word of hope. Even when the word contains censure or rebuke or correction, the word from God is a word of hope because it always calls us to a hopeful and better way of thinking -- a better place. Jesus is the word of hope to a lost and broken world, the Bible tells a hopeful story of God's amazing love for humanity and the world he created. A word of hope.

I my day to day life I find a lot of people trying to live without hope. I am reminded of the character Red in Shawshank Redemption who tells Andy "hope is a dangerous thing, hope can kill a man in here!" (In here was the Shawshank prison). I'd like to suggest that hope is an amazingly powerful weapon. Hope gets us out of bed in the morning, hope helps us hang on just a little longer, hope sends us (where angels fear to tread) into places and situations that are bleak and desperately hopeless. Hope is what motivates us to change, to grow, to embrace new things, to learn and study, to engage in new ventures, and, most of all, to surrender our lives to our creator in hope of redemption and new life.


Dr. bj

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blessings and Cursings

Twice in 24 hours I have encountered different Bible passages that talk of blessings and cursings -- can't be a coincidence so I've been thinking about it.

The first passage is Luke 6, Luke's version of the Beatitudes. In the more familiar arrangement of the Beatitudes (from Matthew 5) we find a series of "Blessed are the" and the list includes peacemakers, poor in heart, etc. As I understand the culture of Jesus time the polar opposite is assumed. Therefore, blessed be the peacemaker it is assumed that the warmonger would be not blessed but cursed. In Luke 6, we get the parallels spelled out. Blessed are the poor -- cursed are you rich; Blessed are you who mourn -- cursed are you who rejoice; and so forth. The life of faith is a life of judgement. We have to make choices. We can either choose to live a blessed life or we can choose to live a cursed life.

The second passage is in James 3. This came up in my Monday night Bible study last night. James tells us, in a passage about learning to control our tongues, that blessings and cursings should not proceed from the same mouth. And, yet, how often is this case. How amazingly easy it is to say "God bless you" walk out the door, get in our cars and pronounce hell fire and damnation on all the other drivers on the road (or at least one or two in particular). How can the same source, our very lips and tongue, produce what uplifts and what drags down? How can the same organ, the mighty little tongue, be a source of hurt and healing almost simultaneously? James says, a fountain cannot produce clean and brackish water at the same time.

Once again, as my life is transformed, I get to choose. Will I be a blessed person and live a lifestyle conducive to that blessing? Will I be a blessing to others or a curse on the lives of others?

Be a Blessing,

Dr. BJ

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Spiritual Growth

In a series of messages on The Christian Home, I am speaking about Christian growth for adults. We talked about children and the importance of Sunday school being a "discussion primer" for parents. We talked about youth ministry and the importance of helping youth discover and utilize their gifts in ministry. How do we help adults become "spiritual self feeders" and help them move to maturity.

There are four "B"s to remember:

1. Be a worshipper. The first key to Christian spiritual growth is to learn to give time and attention to the private and public worship of God. Daily prayer and meditation fuels the power of weekly (or more often) community celebrations of God's grace and mercy. Worship is "loving the LORD our God with all our heart, soul and strength."

2. Be a member of the family. Contrary to some contemporary American understandings, Christianity is a group and community experience. In order to grow I have to learn to live my life in community and in convenantal relationships. I have my covenant group of others pastors (see their blogs listed above); I have a covenantal relationship with my prayer partners; I am in covenant with the other United Methodist clergy in my Annual Conference and so on. Being a member of the family means I will participate in large and small group events with other Christians.

3. Be a student of the faith. Jesus says to go and baptize . . . teaching them. . . Learning the words and way of God is vital to spiritual growth. Learning how to connect and stay connected with the holy, learning how to recognize the voice of God in the din and confusion of the modern world, learning of the experiences of God recorded in the past -- these are all ways we are students of the faith. Read the Bible, study the text and learn with others.

4. Be a servant. Every Christ follower is called, gifted and sent into Christian ministry. EVERY Christ follower! I grow spiritually when I learn to give back, to "get in the game", to get my hands dirty trying to make a difference in the lives of others. Ministry is what Christians do for each other in community. Mission is what we do in the name of Jesus for others.

Being trumps doing. I believe too many of us try to "do" before we have attended to our "being". If we will be worshippers, members, students, and servants -- we will "do" God's will.

Be a blessing


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tears in Heaven?

I was reading in Revelation 21:1-4 this morning as part of the my daily "Life Journal" reading and came across this odd little passage. It says that there is a new heaven and a new earth (that's good the old earth is not working out so well). It says that the dwelling of God will be with people. I like this thought and, as a Christian, I already believe the dwelling of God the Holy Spirit is within the hearts and lives of every believer. It says "and God will wipe every tear from their eyes." I read that and all I can hear is Tom Hanks character in "A League of Their Own" complaining to the umpire "there's no crying in Baseball!" Wait, there's no crying in heaven! How can there be tears in heaven?

Most of us think of heaven as a place of complete and absolute bliss and most of us also tend to see tears as a sign of sorrow and/or mourning. I see something else here that moves me. I have seen in my 52 years and in my 35 + years of walking with Jesus that joy, unmitigated, unimagined, unexpected joy often leaks out of my eyeballs. Could it be that God is not wiping tears of sorrow and grief but tears of joy? Could it be that this is one last unthinkable expression of how gracious, forgiving, loving and awesome the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ really is?

C.S. Lewis' titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. What a great title! I think I will title mine Overwhelmed by Joy. I am always open to and looking for surprises but when I find myself in the loving, forgiving, presence of the living God I am undone, overwhelmed, and totally surprised by the impact of being surrounded by joy. I have a long way to go and am still quite the miserable sinner but I am learning to live into Joy, even when it leaks out my eyeballs.


Dr. BJ

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I just finished reading Ezekiel 37. This chapter is one of the more well known passages in Ezekiel, it has been preached about, taught, pondered and even sung about ("dem bones, dem bones"). The story is of Ezekiel being shown a valley filled with dried up bones. He is told to prophecy to the bones, to preach new life into them and to preach to the wind, the breath, and the spirit to return to these bones that have dried out and give them life again. As he preaches, the bones come together, flesh is restored, sinews reappear and finally the breath returns and what was hopeless lives again.

Someone once said that we can live for 3 weeks without food, three days without water, 3 minutes without air . . . but we won't last 3 seconds without hope. Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning tells of concentration camps survivors and how they survived. All of them had a story of hope -- they could see themselves beyond the horrors of the present moment. Hope had given them a vision, a picture of a preferred future. This hope allowed them to live through today to get to tomorrow. Frankl's own story of hope was to see himself delivering a lecture on concentration camp survivors and he writes he could see himself standing in a famous lecture hall in Berlin delivering the lecture and his findings. This picture kept him going.

And I stand with Ezekiel looking at seemingly hopeless things, like valleys of dry bones, and I too wonder, "can these bones live." I work in a denomination that is aging, shrinking and slowly dieing and I find myself powerless and occasionally apathetic to do anything about it. Can these bones live? I see many lives on a daily basis -- kids getting lost in drugs, families being torn apart, friends making one really bad relationship decision after another, people struggling with life threatening and life debilitating illnesses; I read e-mails from friends in Zimbabwe and have conversation with Pastor Joseph of the Karin tribe in Burma as he tells of persecution and violence against his people; and I hear the question: "Can these bones live?" I look at a world bent on violence and its people, oppressors and oppressed alike, searching for some ray, some glimmer, some fragment to hold on to.

I hear Ezekiel's solution. "Hear the word of the Lord!" A fresh word from God is always a word of hope. It is a word of hope for restoration, a word of hope for renewal, and it is a word that allows us to see a fresh picture of a preferred future. Denominations, congregations, kids, friends, and families alike "Hear the Word of the Lord!" What was believed to be lost beyond hope is never lost. As a Christian, I am a person of the resurrection. I believe the dead will rise again, I believe all is never lost. I can believe this because I am part of something that was here before I was born and will be here when I return to dust -- I belong to God. I hear the word of the Lord, and that fills me with hope.

Find hope, live into hope and be hopeful,

Dr. BJ

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Life of Productivity

I ran across a disturbing bit of research a few months ago. According to the research the two likeliest groups in our society to commit suicide are: 1) Men over 65, and, 2) teens. It is an odd statistic that makes me ponder "why these two groups?" Here's what I think. American culture values productivity above all else. This is seen in our status symbols of what money buys -- big house, big car, lots of toys, freedom to travel, etc. But for some odd reason men over 65 are told they cannot be productive anymore (we call this retirement -- taking their leisure, etc) and teenagers are not yet allowed to be productive according to the standards of our culture. Now, I understand the importance of child labor laws and all of that and, frankly, think "making money" is a pathetic lowering of what productivity could be -- perhaps we need a better definition of productivity.

Look at the Bible. Abraham was 75 when he was called. Moses was 80 when he was sent back to Egypt. Jesus was roughly 30 when he started his public ministry and there are stories of men and women making a difference and answering the call of God well into their so called golden years. But take it the other way: Jeremiah was called in his early teens. Timothy was a young man (so young that Paul has to remind him not to allow others to despise him because of his youth). Mary, Jesus mother, was likely a young teen when found out she was chosen to bear the Son of God. The Bible gives no such age boundaries for service and ministry.

I have often argued, usually to no avail, that there is no such thing as retirement from the faith. When we get older there may be different forms of ministry and mission our work might take but the truth is if we have moved to the sidelines, spiritual and missionally, in our retirement years we have moved into unfaithfulness. The other extreme is equally important. The Church needs to recognize and call forth the gifts of our youth and encourage, allow and deploy them in their service to God.

There is no too young and no too old to follow Jesus or to make a difference in this world for Jesus sake.

Dr. BJ

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Life in Exile

I am reading the prophet Ezekiel in the Life Journal this week. One thing that struck me, and I had never seen before, is the timing of Ezekiel's writing and prophetic work. He is writing from Babylon between the sieges of Jerusalem. In 597 BC, Jerusalem is laid siege by the king of Babylon and Judea becomes a vassal of the Babylonian kingdom. Ezekiel must have been carried off to Babylon at this time because he writes of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and her final punishment. Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem again in 587 BC and this time destroys the city, tears down the walls and carries off who ever is left into exile.

What was life like in exile? What were the spiritual conditions of this pause in the destruction of Jerusalem? How was Ezekiel's message of doom, death and destruction received by this in exile? by those who may have heard it back in Jerusalem? And, what, if any, relationship did the prophet Ezekiel have with the prophet Jeremiah who also lived through this 10 year gap in time? Life in exile. Away from the things that nurtured and among people who don't understand the traditions, life must have been difficult. This is the environment that produces Psalm 137 "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept . . . . how could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" One of the saddest images in all of the Old Testament.

Exile. Here's an odd thought. If heaven is my true home. If, when I became a Christ follower I joined a rebel force that is not of this world am I not also in exile -- even if it is a self imposed one? Yet, unlike Psalm 137, I am commanded to sing the Lord's song in my time imposed exile. Somehow I am living into eternity while still stuck moving moment to moment through time.

Fellow exiles for Christ we need each other for encouragement, for help, for hope, for life itself.


Dr. BJ

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

September (Birthday) Musings

The first week of September always seems to mark a time of renewal, re commitment and reconnection for me. The first marking is the back to school thing. From the age of 4 (turned 5 the next day) through 17 I was back to school -- John M. Barnes Elementary, St. Mary's, back to John M. Barnes, Evergreen Elementary, Simpson Junior High and good old Flat Rock High School -- every September for 13 years. There was new clothing, new classes, new teachers, new books, and all the excitement of beginning something new and different. But the four years after High School were no different -- the week of Labor Day marked back to College. And, as if not to be outdone, the next three years after college saw me marking Labor Day as the time I began and continued through my Seminary training. So, from my 5th Birthday through my 24th Birthday, every single September was a "back to school event." Needless to say, that gets ingrained in the soul. I want to go out and buy new shoes (I did last week), I want to buy new books (again, last week), and I want to start some new classes, new educational experiences -- I'm working on it.

The first week of September also marks my Birthday (Friday this year, September 5 every year). When I was in Elementary School this always bummed me out because the "birthday party tradition" usually wasn't established in the class room yet and my birthday was usually glossed over (or was the day school started or the day before or after). I have a long standing tradition of reviewing my journal the week of my birthday. I am not sure if this is wise because it always reminds me of how far I still have to go spiritually. I read through my struggles and failures and occasional successes and victories, and I am reminded of my humanity, my brokenness and how far I have to grow to be the kind of person I think I am and to become the kind of person God is calling me to be.

So, here I am, in the midst of new beginnings (can I get a compass and protractor?), while taking time to reflect on the year now past (how long will I struggle with SOSM (the same old stupid mistake?)? I will be 52 this year (or 48 since when I hit 50 I decided to start moving backwards). All in all it was a good year. I traveled to Africa with my 3 very best friends. I finished my Doctor of Ministry (graduated in December). I visited Israel/Palestine (again). I have seen the church I pastor move deeper in its mission connection. I am part of a new call "to Radical Christianity" that is getting some traction.

I am making plans for how to invest the next year of my life (got tired of "just spending time"). How will I stay connected with God? How will I be a better husband? How will I keep growing and learning? How will I be a better Pastor and leader? What is the next stage on the journey?

I don't have those answers yet. All I know for sure is that I need to make each day matter and live each moment as if it were my last.

Happy Birthday to me.

Dr. BJ

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Musical Revelation

I am currently reading Ezekiel and Revelation (with an occasional Psalm) in the Life Journal. This morning as I read chapter six of Revelation I was struck, once again, by the background music of this extraordinary book. Revelation, an apocalyptic work written by John of Patmos toward the end of the first Christian century, was written to bring comfort and hope to people who were enduring devastating persecution because they were Christ followers. Most of us get hung up on trying to figure out what Revelation predicts and in so doing we miss the spiritual significance of taking the book at face value.

The music is amazing! There is a chorus of singers chanting and calling out "Holy, Holy, Holy" the place were the traditional hymn by that name gets its primary text. There is another huge group of singers singing out "He is worthy to receive glory, honor and praise." Not to be outdone we find another group singing "For he alone is worthy" and on and on it goes. I have been told by my teachers that a lot of the work of eternity is worship. As I read the Bible I see that a significant part of this worship is music.

What is interesting to my somewhat scattered mind is that each of these passages seems to have a different musical beat in my heart. One is pounding rock and roll, in another I hear the mathematical precision of Bach, and in a third the beat is distinctly salsa in feel. When I read Revelation my heart hears music and my soul wants to dance. Who cares what seven headed ten horned beasts means? I want to get up and move. I want to join the worship, sing my heart out, throw my crown, fall on my face . . .

In Africa, a few years ago, I learned an African proverb that said if you can talk you can sing and if you can walk you can dance. In the book of Revelation the music makes us all want to call and move.

Revelation 22 promises a blessing to all who read this book. I am convinced part of that blessing is in the rhythm of the beat. Are you in the dance of worship?

Dr. BJ