Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lament or Pop Song Lyric?

I know not all the people reading this are parents of teenagers like I am. But I would guess that most of you have heard of pop/country singer Taylor Swift. Swift has created a musical empire by singing songs focused on breakups and love gone wrong.

I’m a volunteer youth leader at my church. It’s a wonderful job to have, especially after 30+ years of working full-time with teenagers. I like the freedom of just showing up and helping out. My usual task is to lead the games and this past week I purchased a game show from a youth ministry website called DownloadYouthMinistry. The game was called: “Taylor Swift or Lamentations.” The powerpoint based game highlighted lyrics on the screen and the contestant had to identify if the words were from a Taylor Swift song, or Lamentations in the Bible.

The game is not as easy as one might think. Swift has written some pretty powerful lines and Jeremiah penned some pretty contemporary insights.

Running the game on Wednesday night got me thinking about connections between loss and lament. In the book of Psalms, laments far outnumber any other kind of songs. When people feel loss and pain one way to deal with it is to write and sing a song; that’s certainly what Taylor Swift has done. As a friend who was studying counseling once said to me, “One thing that all humans share is an experience of loss.” I’ve never forgotten that. Laments are praises in the time when God seems hidden and absent. It’s also the freedom to let God know exactly how we feel without holding anything back.

Biblical laments can be personal or communal and generally follows a 6-step process:
  1. Address to God
  2. Complaint
  3. Confession of trust
  4. Petition
  5. Words of assurance
  6. Vow of praise

Read Psalm 42 which is a personal lament. Notice how it is written in poetry, as a song.

1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
   so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
   When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
   “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember
   as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
   under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
   among the festive throng.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God.
6 My soul is downcast within me;
   therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
   the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
   in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
   have swept over me.
8 By day the Lord directs his love,
   at night his song is with me—
   a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock,
   “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
   oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
   as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
   “Where is your God?”
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
   Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
   for I will yet praise him,
   my Savior and my God.

I know that with the beginning of the school year most people are excited and ready to go. Loss and lament can often seem far away. Yet I also know that as the term goes on, as family situations unfold, and as circumstances come up; many of us find ourselves experiencing loss of some type. Rather than bitterness, I hope we’ll turn to songs of lament to help us express ourselves. No matter who the author: Jeremiah, King David, or Taylor Swift.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hope for the Journey

Psalm 39:4-7 New Living Translation (NLT)

4 Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
   Remind me that my days are numbered—
   how fleeting my life is.
5 You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
   My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
   at best, each of us is but a breath.” Interlude
6 We are merely moving shadows,
   and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth,
   not knowing who will spend it.
7 And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
   My only hope is in you.

This passage “jumped out” at me this morning when I came to it as part of a daily reading plan. I had already been thinking about the brevity of life after a conversation this week with a friend who had recently lost a parent.

I spent almost four years as a pastor of an older, established congregation. This congregation had a significant number of older people, and during my time there I participated in more funerals than I can count. One personal take-away for me during this time was a constant reminder that I needed to count my days and realize that each day, each moment, was important.

Why this reflection as part of a devotional for Tabor College? Shifting the focus a bit from the end of life to pursuing studies; like our students, I also completed a degree while working full-time, juggling family life, and constant studying. I know how easy it can be to focus exclusively on the end goal. “Just get it done” can become all one lives for during this time.

And this is important; focus toward the end goal is critical. But sometimes I think it’s just as important, just like a driver who momentarily looks down at the instrument panel to gage speed, temperature, and to check the gas; that during an intense period in life it’s important to look down, and evaluate the brevity of life and to take some time to stop and celebrate. Go to the movies, play with our children, read a (fun) book on the back deck.

After listing what could be seen as a bunch of negatives, the Psalmist reiterates that his hope is ultimately in God alone.

May we be people who hope in God. Who look toward the goal, but also glance down and see the good gifts all around us.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How do you smell?

At the same seminar where we discussed not weighing a chicken (see last week’s blog post), we also talked about how we “smell” to others.

During the seminar one of the participants, a North American, shared about a time when he was in Africa as part of an international group, on a 3 hour drive, sharing a small, packed, windows that didn’t open, non air-conditioned minivan. For this person, the strong smell of body odor in the van was almost unbearable.  However later, when the storyteller was talking with a fellow passenger, the fellow passenger stated, “It was so difficult for me to sit next to you on that trip, the smell of the cologne you had on was unbearable.”

For those of us from North America, we work hard each day to make sure we smell good when we leave the house for work. I have a 15 year old son who thinks it’s appropriate to use a half a can of body spray every time he passes his bathroom (ok, maybe not half a can, but you get the picture). We can smell him coming before we see him most times.

Thinking of how we “smell” reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2:14b-16a.

Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. 15 Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. 16 To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.

I really like this text even though it troubles me too. I like the idea that believers in Jesus bring not only words and deeds but also a “smell” when interacting with others. I hope and pray that the smell I bring will be one that is easily recognized as a sweet, life-giving perfume.

At the same time the passage troubles me because I know from college biology classes that sometimes a flower or substance needs to be broken and crushed in order to release a smell. I don’t know about you but I don’t like that possibility; like most of us, I want an easy life. But if we were to read further in the book of 2 Corinthians one would see that for Paul, suffering, beatings, and persecution was not the exception, but the norm. Could this be why he “smelled” so good?

The text is also clear that we can’t control how people respond to our smell. For some, it’s life-giving and sweet. For others, it’s the smell of death and doom. I was thinking about Paul’s historical context a bit this week. Imagine the scene with Caesar conquering a country. A victory parade is given using flowers, incense, etc. For those who welcomed the conqueror, the parade would be a joyful time, but for those enemies who had fought against him, the parade coming down the street may smell completely different, instead it is the smell of an upcoming execution.

We can’t control how people respond, but we can control how the “smell” reaches them. We can treat each person as unique, loved, and special. A number of years ago, Tony Campolo wrote a book titled, Following Jesus without Embarrassing God. Campolo’s basic premise is: if we’re honest, we Christians sometimes behave in ways which must make God look ridiculous to those outside the faith. If the book were being re-written today it might be re-titled: “How do you smell?”

May we be people who bring the perfume of life into every situation we encounter.  

Sunday, August 03, 2014

"Don't weigh my chicken"

“Don’t weigh my chicken”

Last week I was at the national conference of US Mennonite Brethren, my denomination and the founding faith community of Tabor College. While at the Conference, I attended a seminar led by the Executive Director of the Mennonite World Conference- Cesar Garcia. The session shared about the interconnectedness of Mennonites around the world.

As he spoke about the global contribution of each country, one of my fellow session participants told a story from his experience. While in Africa, one of his hosts used the phrase, “Don’t weigh my chicken” implying that a gift, no matter how small should be received with gratefulness and thanksgiving.

I’m currently reading through the Bible in a year using one of the many pre-set guides, and my reading this week was about Hezekiah’s restoration of the Temple. 2 Chronicles 31 tells the story of the people of Judah bringing their gifts to the newly restored temple.

In verse 3 Hezekiah, the king, brings contributions which are listed and are what one would expect from a king: varied and numerous (see also 30:24). Verse 5 continues the story with the “regular people” 5 When the people of Israel heard these requirements, they responded generously by bringing the first share of their grain, new wine, olive oil, honey, and all the produce of their fields. They brought a large quantity—a tithe of all they produced.  

It seems that people brought what they could, and it added up fast! The story goes on to state: ...and they piled them up in great heaps. 7 They began piling them up in late spring, and the heaps continued to grow until early autumn. 8 When Hezekiah and his officials came and saw these huge piles, they thanked the Lord and his people Israel!

I thought about this story and the story of the chicken and was reminded of a meal I shared with a community of Mennonite Brethren in the mountains of Colombia, miles from any city. I was with a group of North American’s who were hosted for lunch by a small village. As the plates of food were brought out we asked, “Where did all this food come from?” and were told, “We each brought something and put it all together.” And what they put together was an amazing feast.

“Don’t weigh my chicken.” What gift do you and I have that could be used to contribute to God’s Kingdom? May we be people who don’t worry about the size, rather we rejoice that when our gifts are combined with others, just like Hezekiah’s people, it creates a huge pile.