Saturday, February 27, 2010

Well I'll Be...

You know, sometimes I run across stories in the scripture that just make me stop and go, "Hmm, well I'll be." I ran across one of them this morning. It wasn't a new story to me, I'd heard it a dozen times or more, but I read it this morning again for the first time, if that makes any sense.

The devotional track that I've been following has been spending some time in the Book of Numbers recently, and this morning, it was Numbers 21, 22, and 23. This particular story is about the Israelite's journey through the desert and about the time they camped along the border of Moab. Balak was king of Moab and he was worried, in fact, the whole country was worried. There were a lot of people camped at their back door, and only so many resources to go around.

Now Balak did what any good leader would do, he summoned a prophet to put a curse on this group of people. Nothing like a little black magic first thing in the morning, I guess. Balaam, the prophet that had been summoned, refused to go, but then God spoke and said that it was ok, but that Balaam was only to do what God said.

Here is where the story gets interesting. Balaam is riding his donkey to meet Balak and the donkey sees something and spooks. She leaves the road and Balaam beats her to get her back on course. She does this again, and again, Balaam beats her. A third time, she sees something and spooks, this time just laying down. Balaam beat her again, and she turned around and started talking! That's right, I said, the donkey talked. "Hmmm, well I'll be."

I don't know if this story is history or legend, and that is really not important. What is important is the truth within the story, and that being this; when we are headed on a path that might appear to be destructive or dangerous, God COULD employ some pretty extreme measures to get our attention. Balaam didn't listen, in fact, he argued with the donkey, but God opened his eyes and he was able to see what had spooked the donkey in the first place.

As readers of this story, we might be waiting for Alan Funt to jump out and say "Surprise, you're on candid camera!" as if this were some divine practical joke. But he doesn't, and it's not. It's another example of God offering direction for our paths if we pay attention. So, I think I'm going to take a few minutes this week and look at the things that are lying in my path, pay attention to those inner nudgings that we all feel, and see where the road takes me. I must admit, it would be cool to talk to a donkey, but I think I'll pass. As stubborn as I am, and as stubborn as they are, no good would come of it at all.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Go On, Get From Here...

Why is it that when we encounter something we don't understand, we either have to destroy it, or drive it away? I didn't mean to start out with a question, but that's what happened when I started typing.

Even as a kid, I remember times when a stray dog would come into the yard and the first thing I would do is drive it off. I don't know why, because I actually like dogs. I don't think I was taught to do that, so does that make it instinct? Is there something within us that is so terrified of the unfamiliar, or the different, that we cannot allow it to remain near? And what if that something is in no way malicious, but is only perceived as being a threat?

I've noticed a pattern as I study the gospels. There are times in Christ's ministry when he has entered a town, or a village, performed some miracle, and then been run out of town. Have you noticed that? The healing of the demon possessed man in the Gerasenes is one of those. This guy had been terrorizing the village for who knows how long. They couldn't chain him up, because he would just break the chains. He spent all of his time in the tombs and would cut himself and cry out all night. Evidently he was a real menace to society, but then Jesus showed up.

Jesus commanded the spirits to leave the man, they did, and as we flash to the next scene, and this is kind of funny for me, I picture the guy and Jesus sitting around playing cards or something like that. Something totally normal, quiet; you know, something that folks in their right mind would do.

I would think that the folks in that little lakeside village would have been tickled to death that this guy had been cured, but no, no they weren't. Maybe they were ticked that their pigs were gone (we know he wasn't on the Jewish side of that lake by this one little fact...just FYI). Maybe they were afraid of his power. Maybe they weren't sure how to deal with the no longer demon possessed, demon possessed man. We don't know, but they ran Jesus out of town.

What would have happened if they had welcomed them both in? What would have happened if I had taken in one of the stray dogs as a kid? What would happen if we began to look differently at those folks we keep away ourselves?

Maybe I'm just rambling this morning. Perhaps I should wait until the second cup of coffee to start typing, but these are some of the things I think about. There's a whole world of people who are on the fringes, kept away from somebody by something, just waiting to be welcomed in, and we can help break the cycle. The question is, can we let them stay long enough for us, and them, to see that they are people of sacred worth?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Country Music God...

Lee Ann Womack has a song out right now called, "There is a God." I'm a big Lee Ann fan, but there is something about this song that bothers me and I can't quite put my finger on it. It's a beautiful song, really. The lyrics paint a picture of creation that can only mean one thing; there is a God, and that God has been terribly busy over the millenia creating, and recreating, everything that we see around us.

Lee Ann mentions some of those things in her song and I thought I might mention a couple of them: 100 year old trees that you can't fit your arms around, watching birds fly against the sunset, fireflies, raindrops, new life, and the sound of a river running just to mention a few. She asks the listener then to "stop and think about what you don't understand," but the entire premise of the song is asking the question, "How much proof do you need?" For me, the two ideas live in tension: thinking about what we don't understand and then being asked "How much proof do you need?" I think it bothers me, not because Lee Ann Womack said it, but because Jesus said something very similar once, or at least once.

It happened in a boat one night after a very long day ministering to folks around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been teaching all day, talking about lamps and seeds, and trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. I can imagine there were many confused looks and much head scratching going on in the crowd because he was teaching in parables. Then Jesus and the guys, or guys and gals, got into a boat and headed across the lake, and somewhere along the way they were caught in a storm.

Fear is a funny thing. It can make you say funny things, and I doubt that under different circumstances, the disciples would have said what they did to Jesus. But they said it, and he responded. "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, probably half disgusted with them, and said, "Quiet! Be still!" And it was over, at least that storm was over.

"Do you still have no faith?" Was that a trick question? Was he fishing for some particular answer? Or, was he asking them, "Have you not seen enough yet to prove to you that there is a God and that Christ was his Son?" Mark tells us a little about what they had seen so far but not a whole lot. Jesus had done some healing (a leper, a paralytic) and had driven out a demon, but mostly a lot of teaching. Still, that question burns in the Galilean night air, and in my ears also.

So I asked myself some questions. "Self," (that's what I call myself,) "self, where are the times that you have questioned whether or not God cared if you drowned?" That was an easy one. I could rattle off a list of those things in a hurry. But then I asked myself, "Where are the times that I couldn't begin to question God's love for me because of the things going on around me?" Funny thing is, some things in my life made both lists. Just something to think about.

May you be filled with the knowledge that God speaks through everyday things and that Christ is in the boat with you.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Uh Oh, God is Ticked...

Have you ever felt like God has you in his sights? Most of us have at least once or twice. It's not a good feeling, but at the same time, I'm not sure it's something to really worry about. You see, I'm a United Methodist, have been all my life, and in the Methodist church we don't hear that much about God getting ticked off. At least not in the Methodist churches that I've been in. I know the stories, though, and I know there are places in scripture where God does get ticked, and I ran across one of them this morning.

It's in the book of Numbers, chapter 16. God was talking to Moses and told him to, and I quote, "Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once." (16:45) By the time it was all over, nearly 15,000 people had died because they had "become insolent and risen up against Moses." 15,000? Really God? I mean, was that really necessary?

Here's my rub with this...all of my life I have heard of the God of grace, and for that I'm thankful. God is a loving God, who desires that not one be lost. God is a gracious God, slow to anger and quick to forgive. But what do we do with stories like this? It would be easy to sweep them under the rug and pretend they weren't there, but I can't do that and remain true to my calling. So I dig, and I soul search, and I try to make sense of the fact that ALL of the stories somehow meld into one complete whole. It's not easy, and it's not always comfortable, but I'm OK with that.

The Good News is this...those stories are part of our history as the people of God, no doubt, but something happened a little later so that our story doesn't have to end the same way...standing in front of the tent of meeting, with God telling those around us to get out of the way before he hits the "smite" button.

In a few weeks, we'll see a whole different side of God, and for that I'm thankful. In a few weeks, we'll gather with a motley crew of misfits, and hear about a new covenant as we recline around a table in a borrowed room. In a few weeks, we'll be witnesses to the evils of this kingdom, and the love of another. In a few weeks, we will see beyond the shadow of a doubt, that even though there may be times we feel that God has us in his sights, it's not for the reason we may think.

May your Lenten journey be one of self-searching coupled with the realization that you are loved by God.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Board Games and Bologna Sandwiches

Let's admit it, we all have our prejudices, whether they are intentional or not; whether they are voiced or not, most of us have them. It's not always even about skin color or station in life. Yet, in an era where we are surrounded by folks wearing multi-colored "WWJD" rubber bracelets, the question is no longer "WWJD", but "What DID Jesus do?"

I graduated from seminary in May of last year, and during my last semester I needed to complete a clinical practicum. It was supposed to be in a hospital setting as a chaplain, but I knew how to chaplain the sick, so I didn't feel like that would benefit me much. I asked the professor for a change of venue because there had been another professor who had really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at life; possibly even seeing folks through the eyes of Christ for the first time.

He, along with a few others, ran a hospitality house for the homeless in Memphis. I had never spent much time around folks who lived on the street, (Ok, I had never spent ANY time around folks living on the street) and thought that this would be a good experience for me. I had no idea how true that was going to be.

This was not a homeless shelter, but it was more than a warming station. They offered hot showers, clean clothes, dry socks, coffee to knock the chill, and sugar to take all of life's bitterness away. And it was there that I was transformed.

The first time I walked across the street I was terrified. I didn't know what to expect; I didn't know how I would be received, and I wasn't sure how I would receive them. Strange faces and cold hands were waiting on the porch for the doors to open, and you could tell immediately who had found a spot in a shelter the night before, or who had crawled out of a cat hole or from under a bridge. But as the coffee started flowing, and the hands began thawing, things began to change.

I won't mention any names as to protect the unaware, but there was one gentleman in particular that I become more acquainted with. For the first few weeks I watched, almost from a distance, as he and some of the other guests would sit and play scrabble (I know, that's what I thought too, homeless people don't play scrabble). Now, there was some creative spelling taking place, but it was all in fun. And then he did it...he invited me to sit down and play a game with him.

What was I supposed to do? I couldn't sit down with a homeless man and play scrabble. But he kept inviting and I kept finding excuses..."Let me check the coffee...I need to grab some creamer...the sugar jars are empty." However, I eventually ran out of excuses, so I sat down and we began to play. Over the next few months this man became very dear to me, and even now, nearly a year later, we still keep in touch.

While the act of sitting down to play a game of scrabble was, in and of itself, transformative, the greater transformation came the day he and I shared a soup kitchen bologna sandwich. That is when it became real for me, for the first time I think, just what it meant for Jesus to sit down and eat with folks that no one else would eat with. Folks watch who we share table with, and who we share table with says a lot about who we are, but more importantly, it speaks volumes about who is influencing our lives on a grander scale.

Now, please understand that I am not equating my new friends with the "sinners" in Mark's gospel, that wouldn't be fair. I am sharing this with you so that we may all realize how a gesture as simple as sharing table with someone can affect all those involved. Not just the ones at the table, but those who may be witnesses to it as well. The playing field is leveled at the table, and that's the way it should be.

"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" The bigger question is..."Why not?"


Monday, February 22, 2010

Clogged Drains

My bathroom sink is clogged. Well, not totally, but enough that it is extremely aggravating. I have poured the drain cleaner stuff down it with no luck. I was a carpenter by trade in my former life, but not a plumber, so this just frustrates me to no end. I am forced to just stand there while the water drains out ever so slowly, with toothpaste residue hanging around the bottom of the sink, and just wait. I know the water will eventaully drain out, but the wait is unbearable for a "Type A" like myself.

But this morning I realized something. My bathroom sink isn't the only thing that has gotten clogged. Drano won't clear the other clog that I've been dealing with. I have discovered that sometimes life in general gets us so clogged up that not even the Spirit of God can get through. So what do we do then? We can't call a plumber... We can't take the plumbing apart... Or can we?

So that's where I'm at right now, taking some plumbing apart to clear the clog. I have spent the last couple days looking at the things in my life that need to be dismantled, and I'm starting with a Psalm. It's a good place to start.

"Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God... But I pray to you, O Lord, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation." Psalm 69

Sometimes, I have discovered, that before there can be a clearing, we have to realize that there was a clog.


It's on now...

Ok, it is officially first blog. First, a little about myself. I'm an outside of the box kind of guy. I think differently, I act differently, I've even been called a rebel. I'm not proud of it (all of the time), but just wanted to let you in on a little bit of what's going on in my head.

I've been wanting to do this for a long time and have just never taken the time to set it up and get started. I am taking some time now to rediscover my purpose. I graduated from seminary last year and that journey really took its toll on me, so I'm journeying to a place that once was very comfortable, but admittedly now, has become a little foreign to me.

Setting up the blog really wasn't hard, so here I am, and here's what this is about. I'll use this to post my devotionals, maybe even daily depending on how comfortable I get with this, and whether or not the devotional for that day stinks or not. I'll use this to post random thoughts about this journey we're on, and how Christ has called us to live outside of the norm...and that is where the name came from...Outside the City Gate.

You see, that's where the trash was thrown, outside the gate. That's where the outcasts were sent, outside the gate. And that is where we are called to spend some of our time. So, journey with me if you like. Disagree with me if you want. But as a brother or sister in Christ, you can't stop me from loving you.