Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Will Lift My Eyes Psalm 121

I remember a very sweet woman who was a member of one the churches I served early in my career. One afternoon I was visiting with her and ask her if she had travelled much in her life. Sitting there in her favorite chair she told me; “ships can sink, planes can crash, and cars can blow a tire – but my rockin’ chair ain’t been nowhere and has never put me in danger.” There has always been something about a trip that make people pause and take account. For the one going there is great anticipation and excitement, but also the reality that they are moving out into the unknown. For the one staying back, there is the sureness of separation and the uncertainty of a loved one’s safe return. My mother has had a tradition for as long as I can remember. Before any of us headed out on a trip she would pray a simple prayer. “Lord, grant them travelling mercies, put a fence around them and make them safe.” This little prayer always seemed to make her – and us – feel a little better about the journey that awaited us.

This ancient psalm probably first found its place as a traveler’s psalm (1), kind of like my mother’s simple prayer. With the passage of time the Psalm took on a larger role. At the top of Psalm 121 is a small notation that it is a psalm of ascent. This designation links this psalm with others that were pilgrimage psalms, claimed by the pilgrims as they made their way to and from the Temple. This journey carried huge religious implications and was no small task. By the time of Jesus, Jewish pilgrims would travel from across the Roman Empire, joining travelling caravans slowly but surely toward Jerusalem and the Temple. Travel was both difficult and dangerous. But, for the Jewish pilgrim, the prospect of bringing a sacrifice to God in the Temple grounds – of being in the presence of God - was worth the effort and the danger. “No wonder, then, that the group of pilgrims, singing this psalm as they made the ascent to the “City of God, were tremendously excited.....The pilgrims were met at the gate of the Temple by elders who welcome them in the Name of the Lord.” (2)

Bruce brought our focal Psalm to life in song moments ago. Now the Lai Baptist Church add their voices and honors the passion as they sing, “The Greatest Gift.” (LBC Choir sings in Hakha)

Thank you for sharing with us. I truly appreciate how your story of faith and the heart of this Psalm come together. This short Psalm has spoken with power throughout history."It has contributed a phrase to the Apostles’ Creed and, except for Psalm 23, with which it shares the same fundamental message, Psalm 121 is probably recited from memory as often as any other in Psalter when people of faith reach of words of assurance amid the trials and turmoil of the life journey.”(3) So, this morning, in many languages, and from many cultures, we join the grand procession of pilgrims and the cloud of witnesses throughout the history of the church coming to hear that God welcomes us and is worthy of our trust.

Moments ago we heard Bruce sing: 1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—From whence comes my help? 2 My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. As a child my family used to visit my grandparents in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was always struck with a sense of awe when I saw the Smokey Mountains in the distance. There was a powerful beauty and in my child’s mind I could image that God lived in the clouds that covered the mountain tops. The early Jews would recall the presence of God at Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. They would have remembered Mount Nebo, where when they wandered in the desert God gave them the water they needed. There also is an important pair of twin mountains between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan in Samaria—Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. It was at these two mountains that Joshua assembled the tribes of Israel to instruct them in the Law of Moses and where they heard words of God’s blessings and curses. This Psalmist looked up into the mountains and knew that the God who created everything and everyone was with him.

The Psalm sings out; 3 He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, He who keeps Israel Shall neither slumber nor sleep. This part of the Psalm used to ring in my ears when Beth and I lived in Thailand and would witness people standing in front of a short open brick structure just outside a temple or shrine and throwing fire crackers in. The firecrackers would explode with a deafening pop. Their purpose was to awaken the spirits so that the worshipper’s prayer might be heard. It was a similar experience to the Old Testament story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal found in I Kings 18. In the end he taunts them that perhaps their god is in deep thought, or busy, or travelling, or asleep. The Psalm tells us with great assurance that God is never asleep – but is always watching over us.

The Psalmist sings out; 5 The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, Nor the moon by night. Perhaps the promise of God as my keeper and as a shade from the blazing heat strikes me more personally in these dog days of summer. Gary England predicts a week of near triple digit temperatures for the city. The promise of protection and for the shade of God’s presence would have struck deep in the heart of the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem through the heat that claims the region. But they would have also understood that the image was more than shade from the daily sun, it was a promise of protection for that which could consume them. Are there places in your life where you feel the heat of stress and the need for God’s great protection?

This short but powerful Psalm ends with a promise of protection for our soul; protection from the temptations that call us away from God; protection from the path that directs the pilgrim –and us - in the wrong direction. 7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. 8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in From this time forth, and even forevermore. The Psalmist knew that God would preserve them; not only for the day that day of their pilgrimage, but for the whole of their lives.

OK, I recognize that you are not heading out on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. But, we are on a pilgrimage of faith. I am thankful for this psalm of unqualified trust in the Lord’s help.(4) There are times in our life when we need to know that we are not alone. God is on our pilgrimage with us. We do not have to face critical moments in our lives alone. God is there to protect us. We do not have to face the heat of stress and the on the blazing burn of pain alone. God is with us in our going out and coming in – all the time. We can lift up our eyes to God and know that our help comes from one always in tune to our needs and our woundedness.

Like the pilgrim of days gone by, we are invited into the presence of God. Let us lift our voices in praise, our hearts in prayer, and our spirits in song. It is an invitation to transcends language, culture, or color. It is an invitation open to all who will hear it and respond. Let’s not waste a moment. Let’s rush to God wanting and waiting to hear with joy “welcome in the Name of the Lord.”

(1) James Limburg, “The Autumn Leaves: Pages from the Psalter for Late Pentecost,” Word and Word, Luther Seminary. St. Paul , MN, 12/3/93, p.277.
(2) George A.F. Knight “Psalms: Volume 2,”The Daily Bible Study Series, (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1983),p.264
(3) J Clnton McCann, Jr., “Psalms, Volume IV” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Abingdon Press:Nashville, 1996), p.1181
(4) James Luther Mays, “Psalms,” Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press, Louisville, 1994), p. 390

Friday, July 30, 2010

Malt Shop Memories

In a matter of hours the music ministry here (FBC OKC) will stage the first of a two night production of Malt Shop Memories. While those gathered dine on Malt Shop fare, they will be invited into a musical experience that will draw them back to the days of doo wop and early rock and roll. I am glad for the great muiscal talent that make events like this weekend's possible. I am also thankful to be a part of a church family who knows how to play and have fun together.

I am looking forward to the night and a room filled with friends, music, laughter, and fun. Hope to see you there.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sent Luke 10:1-11, 16-17

The message below is offered as a the climax of a service where hymns and choruses, dramatic Scripture reading, and grand choral piece supported with a small chamber orchestra that all focus on hearing God's voice and responding to God's call.

Many of our youth will recognize the title for the message this morning. It is “borrowed” from this summer’s Falls Creek theme. While the foundation for this message was laid long before our week at Falls Creek, I cannot help but be shaped by what happened there. (Looking at youth) You and your story are a vital part of what we are doing here this morning.

Likewise, there are others in our midst that have had summer experiences that should impact how we hear our focal passage for the morning. Paul and Barbara Calmes and Joe Hodge, would you please join me on the platform?

Interview of Paul and Barbara Calmes on recent trip to China
Barbara, what triggered your and Paul’s trip to China?
Paul, you two are very busy doing missions all over the globe. Why would you add a trip to China to your already busy schedule? Paul, can you tell us what the result of the trip is and how our church can be involved?
The core of the story is that a call from a former colleague has created the opportunity for the birth of a new international church in a city of 4 million in China with no English speaking church available for the large expatriate population and many English speaking Chinese.

Interview of Joe Hodges on the birth this week of Western Winds Cowboy Fellowship
Joe, this week Beth and I joined you and Dee Onn for a gathering in an open barn complete with hay in the corner, horse stall, and country gospel music. How about tell the church what was going on. Is this something you had been dreaming of for a while?
The core of the story is that a new cowboy church has been born despite the initial reluctance of the one who will serve as church planter. The way God has worked in this process is remarkable.

At Falls Creek a number of our youth heard God call, come and follow me, and they followed. Paul and Barbara heard God call then half way across the globe to help open new opportunities for ministry. They heard the call and responded. Joe and Dee Onn heard a call to begin a new church in the heart of their community. They heard the call and responded. This kind of call and response emerges from the heart of the gospel story. This morning’s focal passage invites us witnesses into the sending of the 72. 1After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.

The NIV uses the number 72, other translation use other manuscripts and use the number 70 instead. But whether the number is 70 or 72 the point was clear. This was more than the 12, those Disciples we learned by name. No, this is the larger body of followers, an early version of what would become the church. While the 12 were among them, these were the everyday followers, people like you and me. This commissioning, this sending out, is an early picture of what the call means for us this morning. We have been tempted to think that the only ministers and missionaries are commissioned by God. This is not the case. This morning we join the story of the 72, the sending of the church into the world.

Before they are sent out Jesus offers a commissioning prayer. 2He told them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. This has always been one of my favorite prayers because Jesus invites the crowd around him to open their eyes and see the needs, the brokenness, the lonely, and spiritually isolated who need redemption found only at the feet of God. In another Gospel we hear the words “the fields are white for harvest.” There are many, so many, living apart from God…and so few reaching out to them. The prayer is for God to send more workers into the harvest fields. Part of what I love about this prayer is the next word – this one little word – is the answer to prayer. That word is Go! Jesus invites the 72 to claim their place as a part of God’s response. When you pray for your family, for our community, for God’s work in the world, have you asked if God wants you to be a part of the answer?

Jesus understood that sending people out was no easy task. Jesus tells them, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Jesus claims a power image of that would have struck both the heart and the minds of his hearers. The wolf was the ferocious predator of the lamb. While they were being sent in the power of God they would face opposition, even danger. God promises to go with us and to empower our witness, but the promise does not mean that way will always be an easy one. Luke does not record Jesus providing specific directions on how the 72 were to handle any opposition they might encounter, only the reality that they were called to go and the way could be complex. When many see the prospect of opposition they abandon the task. The call of God pushes us to be faithful, to go, even in the face of opposition.

Jesus’ next instruction is telling. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals;. He wanted the 72 to understand that they did not need to take anything that would weigh them down, or give them sense that they could rely on their own means. He tells them to leave behind their money, their food, and even their sandals. Go out with nothing – serve only in the security of God’s power, trust God’s provision. When the villages saw them coming empty handed and barefoot the 72 would have been seen in sharp contrast to the Roman soldiers and the elaborately clad priests. Their simplicity would allow them to be seen as common people and allow them to move from village to village in haste. We hear this echoed as Jesus continues; do not greet anyone on the road. He wanted them to go out with a sense of singular purpose. They were to prepare the way for people to receive Jesus.

The rest of the passage we heard Ryan read for us earlier in the service lets us hear the instructions Jesus gave on how to find people of hospitality. These directions presume that the sharing of the gospel is born in relationship. They were to eat with those that received them; to offer healing and caste out demons so that they might know the power of the presence of God. We also hear hard word for those who choose who would reject them and the news of the Kingdom of God. These words become even harder in verses 12 through 15 when Jesus claims the words fitting of an Old Testament prophet and pronounces words of judgment on places that would chose the path of rejection. There is hope for these places. In the chapter just before this grand commissioning text Luke tells the story of the Samaritan opposition to Jesus. We know the in the days to come these same Samaritans will come to Jesus and we will hear Jesus use the story of the Good Samaritan as a model of compassion. I have witnessed too many moments when those who seem to have rejected God’s way claim Christ. We cannot let opposition or even the potential of rejection dissuade us from hearing and responding to God’s call.

The passage for the morning ends with the grand report of the 72. They had fanned out across Galilee and they witnessed the power of God. Did you notice their response was not an inventory list of villages or people who responded? In the verses that follow we hear Jesus offer a prayer of thanksgiving for how the 72 responded. Jesus also offers the 72 a powerful word of blessing. Ultimately this story is not the story of how the people in the villages responded; it was about how the 72 responded to the commission of Jesus. These 72 gathered around Jesus on a dusty road in Galilee and listened as Jesus issued a call to go out as his witnesses. He told them they would go out in the power of God but they would have to go out empty handed and would face opposition and rejection. I have to believe that some gathered in that circle must have had butterflies in their stomachs, worried about what would happen if they responded to God’s call. But, they heard, they responded, and they were sent out.

Their call is ours. It seems we are tempted to turn a deaf ear to God’s call because we worry we are not qualified, or do not have the right resources, the right education, or even the right words. God’s call is to hear and respond in a single purposed faith and go empty handed – trusting the rest into God’s hands. While some of the stories will be dramatic ones like we heard from the Calmes and from Joe Hodges. Sometimes they are simpler stories like those who decide to hear and respond to God’s voice at Falls Creek. Our task is to hear the call God has for us, whatever the task – whatever the scale, and to respond. The call to say “yes” to God’s call is not age, education, or experience dependent. It is about you and me- wherever we are in our life and walk - hearing God’s voice and offering the words of Isaiah, “Here am I, send me.”

Friday, July 23, 2010

Considering Elie Wiesel's "Night"

I carry a deep appreciation for the power of words and for the capacity of an author to move us from where we are to another place. I normally find the journey compelling and enjoyable. Today I sit at my desk claimed by conflicting emotions. Elie Wiesel's book Night carries the reader into the time defined by Adolf Hitler, the SS, and the dark reality of concentration camps. I want to be able to say that I like the book, but that it not the emotion that claims my heart. It is probably more accurate to say that I am stirred and disturbed by the words and images that flow from the pages.

Wiesel draws us close to the nameless SS solders who in their silent consent to follow orders with an inhumane efficiency and brutality become as culpable for the deaths of the Jews as those who issued the orders. One cannot help but feel the soulless sense of evil that empowers one group in humanity to try to destroy another. It seems that the dark black uniforms reflected the blackened hearts of those who claimed them.

The smell of death, the heat from the flames, the agony of memory, and the grief of loss permeates the lives the whose who were condemned to life and death within the barbed wire fences. It seems one of the victims of the horrific story is faith. The deep cry echoing in the darkness called people from the strength of the Torah into the abyss of abandonment and doubt. Like the original translator, I could not help but hear both the promise and desperation in a poignant moment in the text:"For God's sake, where is God?" And from within me, I heard a voice answer: "Where He is? This is where - hanging here from this gallows."

I came to the book anticipating the SS solders and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I was less prepared for the images of formerly friendly neighbors joining mob driven by hatred. I was unprepared for the picture of the everyday German people tossing crumbs into the passing cattle cars to see the starving inside battle for a just a taste of substance. I was equally unprepared for the stories of some of the Jews turning on each other for the sake of individual survival. But, in the dark night of human suffering born in racism we should not be surprised by anything we find.

There is a part of me that is thankful that I read Night. It helped me better understand one of low points in human history. There is another part of me that grieves that I read Wiesel's story. It painfully reminded me of the remarkable power of evil and the ease with which some embrace this power. It stirred me to think about other places where people cry out, waiting and praying that someone might hear and respond. Finally, as I walk away from the text I must claim a song of thankfulness that the darkness of night gives way to the the light of the dawn. The story of the Jewish people and balance of humanity did not end in Auschwitz or Buchenwald. Morning did come. My faith reminds me that the ultimate story of humanity is not found in death but in the power of life born in an empty tomb.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New cowboy church born last night

We gathered in an open barn with hay stacked in the corner. There were horse stalls behind us that had been cleaned out and the horses put out to graze for the affair. Country gospel music swelled from guitars, a mandolin, and fiddle. The hamburgers was good, the company was better. Last night the group voiced joy at the formation of Western Winds Cowboy Fellowship that will minister in the Choctaw-Harrah - Jones area, just outside the OKC metro area. Joe Hodges will lead the new church. He lives in the area and has a pretty good track record in ministry. The folks seem to embrace Joe and are ready to launch this new endeavor with him. While the crowd for this first conversation numbered about 20, the list of those who want to be involved seem closer to 40 to 50. A group of 15 or so could not be there - there was alfalfa to be brought in before nightfall. Last night was a good start to what I believe will be a grand and meaningful ministry story.

As I drove home last night I could not help but think of the other congregations we have help to birth or gain footing in their development over the past five and a half years. There is an emergent style church (Convergence) who reaches into a young arts community that claims one style of ministry and worship. The Cowboy Country Church in Chicksha claims another. The United Myanmar Baptist Church claims Burmese as their worship language, though those who worship in its midst speak seven other distinct languages. The Lai Baptist Church also emerges from the refugee population from Myanmar, but are worshipping in Hakha and are a home church worship group right now, led by a single guitar. The Sudanese Christian Fellowship worships in Arabic in a style that best fits their faith cultural traditions. A bilingual Hispanic ministry has begun its journey, starting as a Bible study group. The timing for it to claim a unique worship expression is still on the horizon. With these images singing in my mind I thought about the worship style that shapes the FBC OKC congregation on Sunday mornings and that speaks to me with power. All eight of these congregational groups worship in very different ways, but each speaks authentically to the community it serves. While we claim one faith, one Lord, one baptism, we are each uniquely worshipping in ways that let us come to God with our whole hearts and with a style to helps draws us into God's presence. I celebrate the birth of a new congregation - one more body of believers - seeking to be the people of God in the way born out of the essence of who they are. Thanks be to God

Grace and Peace, Tom

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sermon Podcasts Now Available

One of the congregations members at FBC OKC worked with the church staff member who serves as our webmaster to nudge me closer to 21st Century communications. Thanks to their efforts my weekly sermons are now available in a podcast format. While you can find the core text of each sermon within the stream of the blogs offered on this site, you can now also look at the right column of the site and see the sermons ready to hear online or download. The same link is also offered on a couple of different places on the church website ( The first sermons available are a couple of weeks old, but they are serving as our experimental versions to see what modifications we may need to do to make the sermon ready online as quickly after the worship service as possible. Let me know what you this option of value to you and how will you use it? Tom

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the Presence of God Genesis 28:10-22

It is one of those stories that have been told in children’s Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible Schools for as long such things have been in place. It is the story of Jacob and his dream of a staircase or ladder that connected heaven and earth. It is hard to forget Jacob. Jacob was a manipulating, conniving, thieving kind of guy. He was the fair skinned weak kneed younger brother (by moments) of the huge, powerful, hunter brother Esau. Jacob is the guy who demanded his older brother sell him is birthright – his place in the family – for a bowl of soup after a long day of hunting. Jacob is the guy who dresses his arms with animal fur to deceive his nearly blind father and claim the father’s blessing that rightly belonged to his older brother. Jacob was a scoundrel! But he was a scoundrel that God would decide to redeem and use to shape the story of people of Israel – and by extension our story as a people of faith this morning.

Our story for the morning picks up soon after Esau realizes that that he has been cheated from receiving the blessing due the eldest son. Instead of hearing words of encourage, affirmation, and familial blessing from his father Isaac, Esau hears words that promise a life of curse. Esau was mad!...and rightfully so. We hear him mutter to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob. While Jacob was a conniving thief, he was not a stupid conniving thief. Using the excuse of seeking a bride, Jacob heads out on the run. Geoff McElroy, Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Rome, Georgia, writes a blog on this passage and notes something interesting, something vital, in understanding the story.
Jacob’s interests to this point in the story are strictly material: his desire for the birthright and inheritance of his brother prompted his actions, which lead him to flee to protect his physical life. Jacob finds himself in the desert with no means of shelter or sustenance other than what he might find as he goes. The text emphasizes Jacob’s status as destitute and cut off, of being in a place of exclusion and exile, by noting that the only thing he had to provide comfort in the night was a rock for a pillow. No blanket or tent or other means of comfort; just a hard stone on which to lay his head.
Wow! What an image. The conniving one who thought he had gotten everything he wanted, found himself with nothing. Isn’t interesting that sometimes it takes a moment like this one – when everything we think we have or need is lost – only to find what really matters.

Outside the city walls of Luz, in the shadows of the desert exhausted he finds a flat stone, lays his head on it, and falls to sleep. Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway [a] or ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Can you imagine what must have been racing through his mind? Until this moment we find no record that Jacob has done anything of value. There are no stories of conversations with God or even any indication that Jacob has claimed any kind of relationship with God. Now, in the dark of the desert he sees a ladder tying heaven and earth together. It is amazing how many different Jewish and Christian interpretations have been offered to explain the ladder. But, to be honest, even if the childhood song of “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” is playing in your mind, please join me in shifting from a misplaced focus on the ladder to the central focus on a broken man in great need of a moment in the presence of God.

Here is the part that changes everything. At the top of the staircase or ladder Jacob sees and hears something remarkable. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: "I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. This scoundrel found himself in the presence of God. The voice from heaven lets him know that Jacob is a part of an important family tree. His grandfather and father before him we people of the covenant – people who claimed a unique relationship with God. In the verses that followed God repeats the covenant he had shared with Abraham and Isaac. God tells Jacob that he will be with him -that his descendents will be dust of the earth – everywhere – that he would claim the land God had for him - and that Jacob would be blessed to be a blessing.

Jacob did not understand that the birthright and the blessing that he had claimed in deceit would lead him to the feet of God. 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17 He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Did you hear the first thing that Jacob thought?"Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." If Jacob had thought about God before that moment he probably thought that he had left God behind when he ran. He probably thought that the God of his father and his father’s-father was probably left behind in the land he has just days or weeks before called home. Jacob’s response made it clear that he could not imagine that God was there – with him in the desert – with him where he had nothing – with him where his only bed was the ground and his only pillow as a stone. Here in the midst of nothingness God was present with him.

We can be tempted to think about this place being where God is. While it is beautiful, what makes it the home of God is that God’s people dwell in it. Sometimes we have experienced the presence of God in a special place or moment. When we gather in worship we move through the motions, but long to experience that kind of presence of God again. While I was with our youth at Falls Creek I heard them sing a song in our cabin worship that spoke with power to this kind of desire. Let me invite them to come and share the song with you – listen closely to their voices as they call us toward the presence of God.

YOUTH SING “The Motion” by Matthew West

This might hurt, it's not safe
But I know that I've gotta make a change
I don't care if I break,
At least I'll be feeling something
'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life

I don't wanna go through the motions
I don't wanna go one more day
without Your all consuming passion inside of me
I don't wanna spend my whole life asking,
"What if I had given everything,
instead of going through the motions?"

No regrets, not this time
I'm gonna let my heart defeat my mind
Let Your love make me whole
I think I'm finally feeling something
'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of this life

Repeat Chorus followed by…
take me all the way (take me all the way)
take me all the way ('cause I don't wanna go through the motions)
take me all the way (I know I'm finally feeling something real)
take me all the way

Did you hear them as they sang; “I do not want to go one more day without Your all consuming passion inside of me”? Once Jacob had experienced the presence of God he did not want to every miss it again. We cannot let anything, even our comfortable pattern of going through the religious motions, stop us from experiencing the power of the presence of God – the kind of presence that makes us reorder our priorities and reset our lives.

Our story finishes: 18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear 21 so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God 22 and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth."

Jacob’s response is a good model for us to consider when we seek and experience the power of the presence of God. Hear that Jacob’s encounter with God called him to worship. He grabbed anything and everything around him to mark the place and the moment he experienced the presence of God. Jacob’s encounter with the power of the presence of God made him realize his dependence on God. Jacob had to choose to trust in God’s provision rather than trying to connive and manipulate his way through life. He could trust God and trust in God for all he needed. Jacob also understood that a part of his worship would be to return an offering to God – not out of debt or obligation – but out of a sincere desire to honor God will a portion of everything that he had.

Can you imagine what our worship might be like if everyone of us came to this moment grabbing everything we can find – and bringing every part of our life story – to this moment so together we can celebrate a God who loves us and call us His own? Can you imagine how our lives might change if we began to truly depend on God – to trust God with our futures – rather than depending on ourselves? Can you imagine how our giving might change if we choose to respond to God in generosity born in God’s provision for us, rather than coming with a bookkeepers approach to religious debt and obligation? Surely God is in this place and in this time of worship. Let us claim this moment in the power of the presence of God. Let us claim it and be forever changed by it. Amen

(1) Geoff McElroy, Genesis 29:10-19a, Desert Scribblings, available at on July 12, 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Celebrating and a bit sad

This morning I take my 16 year old daughter to the airport at DFW to head for a missions immersion experience among refugee ministries in Canada. I find that I am both celebrating and a bit sad. I celebrate that Elizabeth already claims such a passion for those on the edges of culture. She will be working with new comers from seemingly every continent on the face of earth. The next three weeks will offer her the opportunity to learn volumes about other cultures and will get to see some great models of ministries of Word and Deed. She will get to work with one of my favorite CBF missionary couples, Marc and Kim Wyatt. She will get to get her hands dirty doing the everyday chores that make ministry possible. She will get to live cross-culturally and experience the wonders of a new land. She will get to push herself spiritually and physically and discover a wide breadth of the gifting that God has placed within her. She will get to be defined by how she serves rather than the age on her birth certificate (one of her great points of excitement). I can hardly wait to see how God works in her and through her.

Having shared all of these areas where I celebrate what awaits her, we will still miss her profoundly in our home. This is the longest she will be out on her own, flying solo. It is another one of those grand steps toward adulthood. It is a journey filled with mixed emotions for parents. So, as her pastor I celebrate. As her father I celebrate....and as her dad, I find that little twinge of sadness as she loads her suitcase in the car.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Monday, July 5, 2010

Freedom: Alive in Christ Romans 6:1-11

I love July 4th. I love to see houses adorned with the Stars and Stripes, to hear stories of small town parades, and I love – I mean I love – to watch fireworks. I become like a little kids all over again ooing and awing with every burst of color. I am thankful to live in a nation where a dream is still possible and freedom still claims the day. But, I recognize that not everyone claims the same kind of freedom and joy that defines my life.

Max Lucado tells a story that I want to share with you. It comes from the young days of his ministry and invites us into a very personal encounter. He begins; Let me introduce you to Leo. I used to eat breakfast at a Cuban restaurant near my house. It was a brief, brisk walk and a good opportunity to think out my plans for the day. My thoughts were interrupted one morning, however, by a spry, unabashed old gent sporting a golf cap and dirty work pants. (He didn’t look his sixty-six years.)

“You a student, son?” (I guess he saw my Bible and notebook.) “I’ve got some college textbooks for sale.” I followed him into an empty house cluttered with lamps, books, end tables – all for sale. He was moving, he explained, “I need to get rid of this stuff.” One topic led to another. Soon we were sitting and talking, Leo with his questions about the pope, the Bible, and “souls”; and me with my questions about Leo.

His history was colorful: “a depression kid”; sold franks at Yankee Stadium and programs at Madison Square Garden; a taxi driver in Miami. Yet although his life was full of experience, his face was void of joy. He spoke of how “you can’t trust nobody no more. It’s a hard world.” When I tried to leave, he insisted that I stay. He was hungry for conversation. His fifth and last child had just left home. He said nothing about his marriage, though family portraits covered the wall. “I want to move . . . somewhere,” he mumbled.…. To Leo, life was very real. To Leo, life was very empty.

Maybe, it was unfair that I asked such a painful question, but I asked it anyway: “If you could live life all over again, would you?” He looked at me and then at the floor. “No,” he said sadly. “I don’t think so.” It’s hard to be without light in a dark world. (1)

The story has a tragic flavor. We want to live lives of joy. We want to live lives of meaning. We long know peace and happiness. We want to know real freedom. Not just a Fourth of July kind of freedom with flags and fireworks – but the kind of freedom that gives us hope, faith, and that beckons us to get out of bed and step boldly into life. This morning we heard our focal passage read in four languages. It is a powerful reminder that the quest for freedom is not limited to these shores and calls us to something beyond a waving flag and a summer picnic with ice cold watermelon. This morning I invite you to discover a freedom that will last well after the final firework has faded from the sky. . It is the kind of freedom that Leo missed, the kind that promises you light in a dark world. It is the freedom you can only find when you are alive in Christ

Our passage emerges from the heart of the Paul’s letter to the young church in Rome. It was a church that faced a world much like ours emerging context. Paul wanted to church to know the strength of faith that could offer them the strength they needed to live out their faith in the midst of a culture they looked on them with doubt. Paul begins our focal passage with that incredible rhetorical question. 1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? The reality is that some actual raised this question. They wanted to see the grace of Christ abound. Paul wanted the hearers of the letter to be clear. So, without a pause he answers; 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Last week I mentioned the role between baptism and identity. We hear the same theme echoing in this passage. Paul wanted to make relationship between baptism and the choice to identify with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. How we identify ourselves matters. You can see its importance in every culture of the world. We see it in the carefully placed brass rings used to extend the neck of women in a hillrtibe people living in Northern Thailand. We witness it when we see people claim tattoos, either the ones used by African tribes to show the journey to manhood, or the ones used in our own land to identity you with a particular group or place. We see it when we look at someone’s left hand and see a ring – instantly identifying the person as someone committed to another. Identity matters. Paul wants it clear that our identity is born in our relationship with Christ both in his death and resurrection. It is a Kingdom focused identity. Lesslie Newbigin once said that if you do not see the kingdom it’s because you are facing the wrong direction. One must do a U-turn -- the literal meaning of the Greek word for repent. For any of us "walking dead," baptism is the moment in time when we get our new ID, the card that says we are "the alive in Christ." (2)

This identifying claim of being alive to Christ is the invitation to transformational freedom. That kind of freedom that offers life in a dark world. Hear again verses 5 thru 7. 5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul is determined to show us how to move from death to new life, and from sin to righteousness. He is aware that many of us are still stuck in doomed and dangerous patterns, and he wants us to break free of anything that can hurt or destroy us. So he begins with the question, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:2). It’s a good question. How is it possible for us to persist in sinful behavior, now that we are baptized followers of Jesus? Paul insists that our baptism in Christ Jesus was a baptism into his death, and he says that since Christ was raised from the dead then we, too, have been raised to “walk in newness of life” (6:3-4). It really doesn’t make any sense for us to go on sinning, since our old sinful life is now dead, and our new resurrection life has begun. Problem is, we still sin. (3)

The good news is that while we still battle sin, we are no long held captive by it. It is not suppose to claim us or define it. Paul does not mean to suggest that believers are no longer capable of sinning, but rather that sin no longer has a dictatorial grasp on the believer’s life — Christ has staged a coup and now rules in sin’s place.(4) I remember that soon after we arrived in Thailand there was a dramatic failure of government and the rise of a new one. It all happened while I was getting a haircut. One government was in place when the haircut began and another was in place by the time the last trimmed hair was brushed from my shoulder. This is the way it is with Christ. When we embrace him as savior there is an instant change in the leadership of our lives. Quicker than the time it takes to get a haircut the slavery to sin is replaced with the real freedom found in Christ. This life of faith offers us forgiveness and stages a funeral from our old self….from the life that weighs us down with guilt, sin, frustration, anger…..the old self…..washed away in the baptismal waters…..from the captivity of sin….and in claiming the identifying symbol of baptismal waters we find real FREEDOM in Christ Jesus.

8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Brad Braxton, a leading African-American scholar proclaims; When we are dead and alive, transformations are bound to occur. When we are dead and alive, we are ever reminded that the chief goal of the Holy Spirit is not excitement but transformation. When we are dead and alive, something on the inside starts working on the outside, and there will be a change in our lives. If we take seriously Paul’s words in Romans 6, every day there should be a funeral in the life of the Christian. None of us have been completely conformed to the image of God, but every day, we ought to lay to rest something that is not like God, which hinders us from having a closer walk with God. What do you need to lay to rest today? What do you need to bury today? A bad attitude, jealousy, animosity, an unforgiving spirit, doubt, feelings of shame, or inadequacy. If there is something that is prohibiting your spiritual growth, I dare you to look it squarely in the eye and say, "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Rest in peace."

At the same time that we are burying the negative, we ought to celebrate the glorious resurrection of the positive things of Christ Jesus in us. In Christ, funerals are always penultimate. Death is but a comma in salvation’s story. The resurrection is the final exclamation point. (5)

I love his imagery of the grand funeral for sin and the great celebration of the freedom we find in and through our relationship with Christ. It is time to bury anything; any attitude, any addiction, any action that separates us from God or others. It is time to bury the sin that has enslaved you and claim the joy that That through Christ we are no longer slaves to sin but free. Our focus will be on authentic liberty found in Christ – a freedom that is that not only defines our way of life but our eternity

This morning I invite you as those who are called to be dead to sin and alive in Christ to claim your unapologetic indemnity in Jesus and the freedom that God intends for you. The life, death, burial, and resurrection found in gospel story of Jesus paved the way to real freedom – real life- life now and life forever- as children of God. It is time to live as the freed people of God, a living witness a people alive in Christ

(1)Max Lucado, On the Anvil, (Wheaton, IL :Tyndale House, 1985) pp.25-26
(2)Bill O’Brien, “Dying to Live” The Christian Century, 2005.
(3)“Fatal Fixation,” available online at on July 3, 2010.
(4)Commentary from Fatal Fixation,” available online at on July 3, 2010.
(5)Brad Braxton, “Dead and Alive” available online at