Archive for July 2010

Sounds from Iringa 2010!

July 28, 2010

I’ve uploaded songs from our trip to Tanzania! Click on this link to hear songs of worship and praise from our sister congregation at Ikengeza and the Lutheran Cathedral in Iringa. Enjoy!

Prayer: If at first you don’t succeed…

July 26, 2010

Children’s Time: Giving a sermon on prayer is a lot like teaching a class about driving a car or sailing a ship. You need to know something about it before you get behind the wheel. And yet, you’ll never quite get the hang of it until you get in and drive. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray… but in the end they had to practice it. They had to take time to be with God in prayer, thanking and confessing, asking and listening.

One of the pastors in my online text study did a Google search on the internet for prayer. He found:
11,800 News related results for “prayer”
431,000 video results for “prayer”
12.8 million blog results for “prayer”
16 million book results for “prayer”
21.7 million image results for “prayer”

Prayer is on the minds of a lot of people, across denominations and among all religions.

Genesis 18 – Abraham’s haggling with God
In this story, Abraham barters with God to save the city from being destroyed. “What if there are 50 righteous in the city? 40? 30? 10?” Each time God says, “I will not destroy the city for ‘X’ amount of righteous people.”

We just spent a couple weeks in Tanzania, where everyone barters in the local marketplace. In Genesis, it doesn’t seem like God is too good at it, though. I bet Abraham coulda gotten him down to “one” faithful soul in Sodom, and even thrown in a new tent and a few goats out of the deal.

Apparently 10 wasn’t enough. As it turned out, whole city was wiped out. Only Lot and his family were spared. It kinda bothers me that the welfare of an entire city rests in the hands and hearts of 10 people. This week’s Psalm 138:8 implores God, “Do not abandon the works of your hands.” No matter how loathsome, hang in there with humanity, O God!

And as we see the destruction made by human hands unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, we know we are not perfect.

To be sure, Sodom and Gommorha were cities steeped in violence. There was no true hospitality to found there among her citizens. Still, it’s a chilling indictment, to know that not even ten of them were worth saving in God’s eyes.

As with the law, such terrible texts drive me to ask, seek, knock for that divine intimacy the disciples craved when they said: “Lord, teach us to pray”

Luke 11 – Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray by giving them what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.” He then tells them a story about a man who goes to visit a friend after dark, in search of bread to serve his houseguest. The moral of that story is simply to “Ask, Search, and Knock.” It’s the persistence that pays off.

We were watching an classic episode of Laurel and Hardy the other day (The Bohemian Girl) and there’s a scene in which Stan and Ollie are helping a little girl with her bedtime prayers. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” she begins. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If… if… if… Oh, what comes next?” Stanley whispers the ending to Ollie:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Amen.”

The problem with that answer is that it sets prayer up for success or failure. “Am I doing it right?” “Is this the way to address God?” “Is it long enough?”

What makes for a successful prayer? If it comes true? “Ask and it shall be given you.”

That seems straightforward enough. But what if I don’t get a pony and I’ve been praying for it for a long time? What if I’ve figured out how to pay for it and the feed and how all my friends will benefit from it – and I still don’t get that pony?

It seems that Jesus knows what we need most – even though he doesn’t quite spell it out. Through prayer we receive the Holy Spirit, living within us and guiding us on our way.

Really, as time goes on, that’s what we need the most: God’s Spirit to direct our days.
I’m reminded of the four-fold practice of lectio-divina, praying through the scriptures:

Reading (you will seek)
Meditating (you will find)
Praying (you will call)
Contemplating (the door will be opened to you)

Or this formula from a southern preacher (I don’t have a source on this)
I reads myself full
I thinks myself clear
I prays myself hot
I lets myself cool

Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies that our two best prayers are, “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” (p. 82). So, however you pray – don’t give up! Try, try again! Not so you can “get it right” but so you can “get close to God.”

Let us pray: O God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. Draw us close to you each day through the power of your Spirit, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Mary & Martha Measuring Up

July 22, 2010

Children’s time: What are some things you can measure? How tall you are; what time it is; the temperature; the rain; how much money you have, etc. Are there some things in life you can’t measure? Things like courage, love, patience or compassion. What about just talking with a friend… walking in the sand… digging a hole in the dirt with a stick… maybe not even saying a word at all… those are the things that are just as important as doing a good job and working hard at something you can measure. Mary and Martha learned that in today’s lesson. Martha was busy doing all the work and Mary was busy sitting next to Jesus. Both are important: doing something for Jesus and being with Jesus. But Jesus said the better part is just being with him. And that’s what we’re doing right now – in worship – being with Jesus.

How’s your to-do list coming along? Do you make a list each day of the important things you need to take care of? Some days it seems like I hardly make a dent in that list. Like Martha, I become distracted by many things.

Just last Friday, I had one of those “Martha Moments.” I was supposed to go to camp and pick up kids, but I had a buyer interested in my car and decided to stay in town for that. Meanwhile, I was planning a wedding rehearsal that night and had gotten a call that a member had died at Unity Hospital.

It’s on days like this that I wonder if my worries will get the best of me. And I can see why Martha blew her top with Jesus: “A little help, here, Lord! Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Don’t just stand there; do something!”

Ironically, last week it was the do-er who was the hero. The Good Samaritan set aside whatever he was doing that day to help the man left for dead on the roadside. Jesus praises the doing, saying, “Go and do likewise.”

But today, it’s the one sitting there doing nothing that’s the hero. Jesus says to Martha: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Doing nothing is a radical concept in American culture. We’re taught from an early age that our value is in our performance – in how well we do on standardized tests – in our performance at work – in sports and in music.

You can measure your performance at work.
You can measure what’s in your bank account. But you can’t measure what Mary’s got.

You can measure what our worship attendance is.
You can measure how many days it took BP to seal off the leak in the Gulf of Mexico!
But you can’t measure what Mary’s got – this immeasurable love of Christ.

This is what Mary is doing – just sitting there with Jesus – she’s paying full attention to him. What is that like to “just be” in the presence of God? Isn’t that what every worship service ought be about? Resting in the presence of God? Steeped in silence and prayer? Singing songs of praise and thanksgiving!

I mean, sure, there’s a lot of doing going on in worship – we do our best to participate – to give of our offerings and tithes – but the whole point is to be with God together.

Whenever we stop what we’re doing to sit at the feet of Jesus, we’re allowing him to set the agenda.
Here’s where we learn the key signature of the faith.
Here’s where we learn to keep God’s tempo.
Here’s where we learn to let our hearts beat to a new rhythm – to be led beside the still waters and green pastures that renew our faith and life.

Author and theologian, Paul Tillich, makes the distinction between finite concerns and ultimate concerns. He says that Martha has focused on the finite – all that can be measured and that has no real lasting power. What is finite will come to an end eventually. Toys will break, cars will rust, even our bodies eventually sag and wear out.

Mary, on the other hand, focuses on the infinite – the ultimate concerns of life. How can you put a value on those things that don’t wear out? Like the courage of someone who has inspired you; the smile that sustained you in a weary place; the joy of singing and brightening someone else’s life for even a moment.

When we went to Tanzania last month, there was a lot of listening going on – of taking it all in – of worshipping with our sisters and brothers at Ikengeza. There wasn’t a specific project we worked on. We can’t say that we built a school or raised a barn. Some might think that’s where the real action is: in pounding nails and painting walls.

And, while there is value in all of that, our main goal was to get to know these people. To hear their stories of faith and courage. And to see what we might be about together in ministry. There will most likely come a time when we will be able to send a work crew to help with some building needs, or farming needs, or the water project. But just as important were the times we stopped all our doing and danced with children at an orphanage, whose parents had died of AIDS. Or, when the bus got stuck we had some extra time to be Mary and to listen to our friends in new ways.

My hope is that we might pay attention to what is of ultimate concern, rather than spending so much time on the things that will pass. Let’s balance our to-do list with our being-moments. Let’s relish the time spent with Jesus (through prayer and worship) as much as we relish doing his work in this world.


Who is my neighbor?

July 15, 2010

Children’s Time: share items brought back from Africa (jewelry, paintings, hand-carved gifts, currency). Even though everything is quite different in Tanzania, we are still neighbors. We share the same earth on which to live. We share the same faith in Jesus with our friends at Ikengeza. In just a moment I’ll be preaching about Jesus’ story: The Good Samaritan. I want you to be listening for ways you can tell who is your neighbor.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

From a young age, we’re taught to “be good.” To “keep our nose clean.” “Good on ya, mate!” Even that classic film, The Wizard of Oz, has a scene where Dorothy scolds the wizard, now exposed: “You’re a very bad man!” “No,” he replies. “I’m a good man, just a very bad wizard.”

Before we jump into this story of the Good Samaritan… a story we’ve heard so many times before… let’s be careful that we don’t make it just about being good. There’s a lot to learn here about who our neighbor is, too.

This story tugs at the heart of who we are. It lays pure suffering right at our doorstep to see what our reaction will be. Today – the tragedy isn’t happening to someone else – it’s not down on the gulf or in some tornado-stricken town out-state. It’s you in this parable. You in the ditch. You walking along the roadside.

And sometimes you just have to go all out. All or nothing. I’m betting this Good Samaritan didn’t take a long time to decide what to do. He just did what he was hard-wired to do. Someone was in need and that was that.

There’s an old saying: “Those who agonize never act.” And, “Those who act don’t agonize.” Now that’s a simplistic way to put it. Surely, some decisions need to be weighed carefully. But in this case, the Samaritan didn’t agonize. He acted with mercy and compassion. His neighbor was whoever happened to be in need in his midst.

Two years ago when we were beginning to talk about a trip to Africa with our church, I brought it up with my wife, Sandy. What would she think if I went away for 3 weeks on this mission trip? And it was quite clear in her mind from the start: all or nothing. Either we all go or none of us go. In other words: “You’re not leaving me with the kids for a month to go half way around the world!” So, we decided to all go. And it was a wonderful experience for our family and for the other adults who journeyed with us.

So many of you shared this experience with us in the planning, fundraising, and with the website we created to journal about the trip. For that, I am grateful. We’ll have much to share in the days and weeks to come. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of our many differences… it really is a small world after all. Our neighbors can be across the street or around the globe!

In our gospel lesson today, it’s a lawyer who is going to learn something about being a neighbor. In some sense, he “knows it all.” Some translations refer to him as a “religious scholar.” So, before you start thinking about your favorite lawyer joke remember that we’re talking about the Law of Moses here. And it’s also important to remember that the lawyer isn’t necessarily “out to get Jesus.” It was quite common for people to “test” their rabbi with questions. He even refers to him as “teacher.”

In the lesson before this, the 70 evangelists have returned rejoicing in their ministry – so excited to share all that has happened with Jesus. And he says: “I thank you God that you have revealed your will to infants (these disciples who are so new to the faith) and hidden it from the wise and learned.” (In the Message translation of this passage, the word used for “wise” is “know-it-alls”) That’s the context in which this lawyer stands up to test Jesus. He’s one of those guys, wise and learned in the faith.

And his question deals with the big stuff: how we get into heaven. (Or, in his words: “inherit eternal life”) Jesus has him answer his own questions. He knows the greatest commandment: to love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself. But when he asks Jesus: “Who then is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him a story.

“Let’s say you’re robbed and beaten – stripped naked and left for dead along the road. Several people pass you by, except for this Samaritan. He alone cleans up your wounds, takes you to an inn for the night and foots the bill for your care. So… which one of these is a neighbor to you?”

It’s a no-brainer. But the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word: “Samaritan.” Jews and Samaritans didn’t mingle with each other. They were seen as Gentile outsiders – unclean – to be avoided at all cost. So, he answers: “The one who showed mercy.” And that’s good enough for Jesus. “Go and do likewise.”

This isn’t so much a story about following the example of the Good Samaritan – as it is about knowing who’s fit for ministry. We all think it’s the teachers of the Law who are qualified – the pastors and seminarians. We look to the wise ones for guidance and direction. We think there’s no way we could teach Sunday school or confirmation because that’s best left to “the wise and learned.” And Jesus sends out fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and harlots. He’s not interested in your credentials as much as he is in your compassion. He’s not even so interested in your “being GOOD” as he is in your “telling the GOOD” God has done for you.

If you go away today thinking the story of the Good Samaritan is simply about being nice to others – stopping along the roadside to help change a flat tire in the rain – then you’ve missed the whole point.

Martin Luther King once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve!” The greatness of this story is that it helps us to see who our neighbor is – and to show compassion to them, regardless of their stature or rank in life. In his sermon entitled: “The Drum Major Instinct” Dr. King goes on to say:
“The church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he’s a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he’s a Ph.D. The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he’s a lawyer. And any church that violates the “whosoever will, let him come” doctrine is a dead, cold church, and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.
When the church is true to its nature, it says, “Whosoever will, let him come.” …It’s the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior.”

You see, this lawyer (the Bible says) wanted to justify himself. He wanted to stand behind his credentials, rather than stand behind Jesus. He identified more with the GOOD in the Samaritan than the neighbor who was foreign to him.

And we know, that any good we do, we must acknowledge that it comes from God. Left to our own designs, we are bound to be led astray. There is no way we can “be good” without the goodness of Christ in our hearts!

As the words from our first lesson in Deuteronomy ch. 30 remind us that when prosperity comes to us, it is because our hearts have been turned to God. From verse 10: “Turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you… the word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

My prayer for us all today is that we will be hard-wired with compassion – fit for ministry based on God’s Goodness, rather than our own.

Let us pray: O God, we thank you for our neighbors. Open our hearts with mercy to help those in need among us. We ask it in the strong name of Jesus Christ, your son our Lord. Amen.

More Pictures of our Trip!

July 9, 2010

Click on this link to our church website to see more photos of our trip to our sister congregation at Ikengeza!


July 6, 2010

Yep, we’re back after a one-day flight delay! Thanks so much to all who helped make this mission trip possible. Stay tuned for more pictures and updates from our trip. Right now, we’re just getting our days & nights back on track. Much to share and celebrate regarding our sister congregation and the people of Tanzania. Blessings on your summer. Check back for further updates!


July 3, 2010

Here’s a video of our visit to Iringa and the Neema Crafts store and restaurant.