Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thinking about Rocks

On Sundays this summer, we started doing a children's sermon during the morning worship service. Here's how it works. One of the children brings something in a black box (something that fits inside, is not alive, and is approved by mom or dad). I open up to box and use the object to teach a Scriptural lesson. This can be challenging.

This past Sunday, Alexandra brought a piece of coral rock in the black box. I talked about God being our Rock and Fortress and Jesus being the Rock on which we build our lives. Of course, I've been thinking about rocks all week. (Funny I've been thinking more this week about the kid's sermon than the "adult" one.)

I came across this brief article by George Grant in Approaching the Throne of Grace: A Parish Presbyterian Church Prayer Booklet. This is what I wish I would have said, but then it wouldn't have been a "children's sermon":
I was reminded of a well-known English nursery rhymne
Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockleshells,
All in a garden row
when I decided this year to put in a vegetable garden. I thought it would be a wonderful idea to have fresh vegetables. I knew the soil would need to be prepared, holes dug, and plants placed with growing room between them. What no one warned me about were the rocks. They were everywhere! Little ones, medium ones, big ones, huge ones--an ever-growing pile of rocks, which all needed to come out so the plants would be able to sink their roots deep in the soil. I spent a lot of time breaking and digging up rocks.

It got me thinking about the rocks in the soil of my relationship with God--not the Rock on which we stand, but the rocks that get in the way of my prayer time with God. I have rocks of pride, covetousness, defensiveness, doubts, temper, greed, fear, right things done for wrong motives--the list goes on. Some days it seems like I have a rock garden, but the huge boulder in the middle is self-justification. Just as a shovel is needed in a garden to remove rocks, a confession is needed for spiritual rocks.

As Christians, we need a time of confessing our sins to God in prayer, both privately and corporately. Without it, we are likely to think either better or worse of ourselves than we should--either way it is about us. Prayer can become an exercise in self-focus and self-justification.

Confession, though, reminds us of who we are and Whose we are. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins" (1 John 1:9). Grace removes the boulders of self-justification, allowing us to be fruitful gardens. There will always be rocks this side of heaven, and as grace grows they'll be moved also.

How does your garden grow?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ever Green and Full of Sap

I love old people. One day I will be old and I hope I will still be loved. (To my eleven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, I am old and they still love me.)

Have you heard the story of "The Wooden Bowl"?
A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year grandson. The old man's hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather's shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.

The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. "We must do something about Grandfather," said the son. "I've had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor". So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed their dinners together.

Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather's direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.

The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, "What are you making?" Just as sweetly, the boy responded, "Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when you get old." The four year old smiled and went back to work.

The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took Grandfather's hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.

"Honor your father and mother" is a command that we never outgrow, but is too often neglected. Our youth-oriented culture doesn't square with most of the cultures of the world throughout history. The aged have usually been revered. And is Scripture there are specific references to the godly aged.
[The righteous] still bear fruit in old age; they are ever green and full of sap...
Psalm 92:14

Eugene Peterson comments: "The life of faith does not deteriorate or wear out. The longer we praise God, the more vigorous we become. There is a flourishing of faith that properly comes to its most lively expression in the later years." I've seen this many times over. Some of my favorite people on the planet are godly men and women that have continued to "grow in grace and the knowledge of God" well into their 80s and 90s. They are "ever green and full of sap."

Bill Iverson is one such man (pictured above). I saw him recently at our church's General Assembly in Nashville for the first time in 8 or 9 years. He is still "vigorous and flourishing in the faith." He is still actively sharing the gospel with others and busy helping to plant a church in downtown Newark. His son (a missionary in Japan) and his grandson (a missionary in India) were also there. I had to introduce Heather and my kids to him, and without hesitation Bill started playing ball with my three-year-old Ellie.

I love old people!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Life Flows through Relationships

“Death creates an economy that makes life precious. One of the ways of naming that preciousness is friendship.”
--Stanley Hauerwas

Heather and I just returned from a two-week trip to Nashville and back. Along the way we lost luggage, fought colds, ate everything from Kentucky and Tennessee BBQ (I think TN won) to Georgia's best blueberry pie, did loads of laundry, and saw lots and lots of friends (although I am beating Heather in the "Facebook friend" challenge, she in reality has way more friends than me--and I'm OK with that--really!). Even when we were "by ourselves" at the Country Inn and Suites, our friends from Cape Coral were just across the hall (and I'm very OK with that--really!).

Oliver Claassen, a pastor-mentor of mine, once said that ministry flows through relationships. I've found that to be true. My version is that life flows through relationships. (I don't think Oliver would mind my edit.) Think about it--you would not be alive today if your mom and dad didn't have a relationship--good, bad or indifferent. Despite the dysfunction in your family, it still took two people to produce you.

Jesus showed how life flows through relationships by using a vineyard as an illustration (John 15). Jesus taught that He is the vine and His Father is the vinedresser. We are the branches. If we abide in Him, we will flourish and bear fruit. Apart from Him we will wither and perish. Here are Jesus' own words:
"If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you." (John 15:6-7)

I think that most of us want to ignore the first part (v. 6) and dare not believe the second part (v. 7). The bad news is that because of sin, none of us have stayed. We have all strayed. We are all runaways. We are all toast. The good news is that Jesus stayed with us. He remained. He was obedient even to death--to conquer it and bring new life. Now if we abide with Him, we'll have it. Everything connected to Jesus will be renewed. Real and lasting life flows through a relationship with Jesus.