“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

How Jesus, the Savior, did come for to die.

For poor, ornery people like you and like I—

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” –Appalachian Carol

 

Young people teach us many important lessons. For example I recently learned from our 7th grade confirmation class they can readily distinguish between reality and movie magic. Our lesson for the evening was “Moses” and we watched the trailer for the upcoming movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”. When I pointed out, (gently, I think), some inconsistencies with the film clip and biblical witness they were quick to respond, “It’s film magic! It makes for good cinema!” Party poopers. They stole my thunder right out of the gate. Yet, these kids readily understand that simply because they see it in a movie, on TV or the internet does not make it true, factual or authoritative. We are, however, taking a class trip to see the movie.

We can see nearly anything our beautiful minds can imagine through the wonders of movie magic and good cinema. Couple that with graphic images regularly on any news outlet and there’s not much we cannot visualize. On-screen visions can appear so realistic we become, to certain degrees, desensitized to the real thing. What happens to our sense of wonder and awe, especially when we consider our lives before the Almighty? Perceptions of God’s activity in our midst can be passé, visions might be ho-hum, our reading of scripture possibly becomes just another fairy tale filled with fake-movie-magic.

Still, I’m convinced our hearts and souls long for awe, wonder, the mystery of the Divine. I see it in each generation, whether the elderly senior preparing for the final journey home or the small child singing to Jesus with glee and great hope. We human creatures possess a longing for the Divine, for wonder and mystery, for something which takes us beyond our own selves.

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December may quite possibly be the month created for just such a thing. Weeks of Advent waiting prepare, shape and mold us for the depth of a silent and holy night. The season is one of great joy, families and friends reunite, we mourn and grieve the ones not in our midst, whether from miles or the veil of death between us. This month may well be the one which most prepares us for awe and wonder.

“To you this day is born in the city of David, a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” could be the most awe-inspiring words ever shared. The Almighty, the Ancient of Days now in human flesh, entering our existence in the most humble of manners. May your heart be softened to the wonder of the Christ-Child, and may your wandering be filled with renewal and joy.

One of my favorite movies in recent years is “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, and adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, set in rural depression era South. In fact, it’s led me to re-read “The Odyssey” and enter once again into this classic tale. The main character in the movie is one of three escaped convicts, who travel back to his home in search of treasure.

As in Homer’s epic, these characters have a host of lively encounters and danger filled adventures throughout their travels. The main character, (taking the role of Odysseus) says repeatedly throughout the quest, “Everybody’s looking for answers!” The phrase becomes quite the mantra in the journey.

Everybody’s looking for answers…in some way or fashion. The zaniness of this movie reminded me of that simple fact; we don’t know everything, and we’d like to understand more than we do. It is part of human nature.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”—Hebrews 1:1-4

The writer of Hebrews gives us a reminder of how God spoke in the past, how God speaks now, and how we might expect God to speak to us in the future. Now that the Son has delivered the ultimate answer of our salvation, we trust that his Holy Spirit will continue to reveal this word of grace and mercy until the end of this earth.

I suppose it’s true—everybody’s looking for answers. The best one I’ve heard is that “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…had made purification for sins.” The News is just that Good.

I am an Adrian Peterson fan. That’s not entirely popular at the moment as his is certainly a flawed human being and has much to straighten out in his existence. Still, I admire him. Here’s why. It is not only that he is one of the top running backs in the history of the National Football League nor because he plays for my lifetime-home-team but that he is possibly the toughest to ever pound the gridiron. Each time facing adversity Peterson rises to the challenge with focus and determination. Case in point: after shredding his knee at the end of the 2011 his career may well have ended. Conversely, while expectations for 2012 diminished he carried his team to the playoffs in one of the most outstanding seasons in history. That’s toughness, both physical and mental.16846_323468214615_5551878_n

Now he faces another strange challenge. He offered plea of no-contest to child abuse charges after he admittedly disciplined his son with a switch. Excessive. Brutal. Picture documentation was disturbing showing welts and bruises over the boy’s body. Whether he plays again is in the hands of league officials and this storied career may end, due not to injury or age but behavior. Peterson declares all along he disciplines his children, (several children by several women), only as he himself was disciplined.

This, too, is disturbing and raises questions for me regarding our celebrity crazed society. We love our stars, are fascinated by their rise and fall, and hang on their words and actions. Adrian Peterson has some serious issues; he needs help. Public outcry is for punishment and I agree such behavior should not go without consequence. I am also one to say it is not enough. He may never play football again but is a young man with a long life before him. If the NFL offers only consequence without help for a troubled human being they should only feel shame. This man needs help to understand it is not right to beat a child, with switch or hand or paddle. He needs guidance to figure out bringing children into this world through several mothers while daddy goes his merry-screwing-way is unconscionable.  The NFL, all other sports organizations—pro and amateur—indeed, all humanity must take off the kid gloves to both deliver consequence and helpful teaching. I’ll be fine if Peterson is reinstated, but only if the guidance is provided that he may grow into the good man he’s shown to be on the football field.

After all, Peterson learned an unacceptable behavior from his father. It must not continue. The children of America are watching. What will we teach the next generation?

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”—Jesus, Mark 10:14

“I have labored in vain,

 I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,

and  my reward  with my God.”—Isaiah 49:4

With something akin to total recall I remember the time, place, and the event quite vividly. It was November 1997 and I was at a junior high youth gathering in Bemidji, MN. Now, if you have ever attended such an event you know that sleep is only optional. Being a part of the youth organization board which hosted the event, after a few days I was beyond simple fatigue. Hence, the defenses were already down a bit, and the unsettled portions of my life bubbled to the surface.

About 1:30am I retired to my hotel room and had a few quiet moments to myself. Back home life in the parish I served wasn’t bad, it simply appeared that my calling there neared its end. The direction I thought we were headed together turned out to be vastly different from my expectations. The feeling was of complete failure. How could I misread things so badly? Why didn’t I do this or that differently? What about my leadership was so terrible?

At this period in my journey I knew God was stirring something new for me, and really, I didn’t like the sensation. The unknown, all that was uncertain, every bit of new possibility was filled with fear, not excitement. So, back in that hotel room I plopped down in a chair, grabbed my bible and prepared for a bit of devotion and prayer. In an oddly providential manner, the pages of the Holy Writ opened right here, Isaiah 49, and my eyes landed on verse 4. “I have labored in vain…”

Like the rush of a violent wind these words swept over me. You try so hard and yet there appear to be no fruit to your labor. So it often goes when working in the kingdom of God. As the sower in Jesus’ parable one can only cast the seeds of love, compassion and the Gospel’s power and then pray for the Holy Spirit’s work.

I re-learned this valuable lesson once again on a recent journey to Ethiopia. For the past five years our church connects with ministries in Addis Ababa. The first few years involved a difficult project in a government-owned orphanage. Challenges prove to be nearly insurmountable and may be unsolvable. However, our recent connection is with a child development group called Onesimus, working with street kids. Estimates are 100,000 children living in the streets. These talented and faithful workers get the kids off the streets, hook them up with family if possible or find other housing means, get them into school, and basically give them a better shot at life.

We first visited in May 2012 and saw some wonderful pieces of this ministry. Our congregation and its members now provide sponsorship dollars for the program and make personal connections with the children. What we witnessed this last month was miraculous—we are privileged to participate in a ministry that is truly fruitful and really works. What Christ does through this program is transformational and genuinely changes lives. It is humbling and rewarding to partner with Onesimus.

Once again God smacks me in the back of the head as if to say, “See, I told you so.” Surely, when our cause is with the Lord the rewards are manifold. One must trust the Spirit is at work, even when our human eyes see something different.

God is faithful, and that is enough. Maybe it’s just enough encouragement to keep this poor soul faithful, too.

Today I stand with bothfeet in some different worlds. Last Wednesday, December 25, I left with 19 other adventurers for a two week trek to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We connect with a ministry called Onesimus Child Development Association, which provides a structured environment for children living in the streets to restored family situations, housing, education, and most of all, hope.
Today we Americans are ready for a new year, yet in Ethiopia, anticipation is of another sort: Christmas here is not December 25, but January 7. Today we are between Christmas for part of the Christian world, while others under our Tent-of-Faith are yet a week away from their celebration. We travelers place bothfeet in both worlds, as our relationships are what really count, not arbitrary numbers or dates.
A few of us tossed around this type of wonderment yesterday. It is hard to explain to many people why we make this journey. A great number ask us, “What will you do there?” The reactions are priceless when you respond, “Nothing.” In general, we don’t build anything, remodel, paint, fix or construct. We play with children. We learn from this ministry’s staff. We hear of hopes and dreams. We forge and foster relationships. That is what we are going to do on this journey; we are going to be.
This is so difficult for the majority of folks in the Western world. In the past I’ve told potential explorers that if they wish to go on an adventure such as this so that they will get something out of it, stay home. If you would like such a journey so you can go and save someone, stay home. So why go? If not for me, and not to save them, why? This stuff befuddles so many back home. Part of the confusion arises from the West’s colonial and missionary past, as we’ve not viewed the relationships as equal but rather lopsided. Something like, “We have so much great stuff, and aren’t we wonderful bringing it to the ‘Dark’ Continent.” Yes, there is much to learn, much to share for both parties in the relationship. Yet, if those pieces are goals of the relationship, we now successfully objectify the other. And that is not cool.
You go for the journey’s sake, not an outcome. You go for the love and joy shared. You go because to not go is not an option. In this instance you go for the flesh and blood incarnational encounter. The encounter and the relationship are the focus, not the outcome or what anyone ‘gets’ out of the deal. This is the place where true joy finds us. Truly, this is where God finds us as well. Not for either of us to come out ahead on a transaction but to fully enjoy an abundant life in relationship.
Sure, we live to praise, love and serve God through love and service to our neighbor. But this all flows from the fullness of encounter. Perhaps living with bothfeet in such places may enrich our sojourn on planet Earth.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf given the options of either a time of celebration or contemplation of deep, dark places, which would you choose? I would certainly look for the party. There is far too much darkness in this world, why give it any more of our time? Still, there is a fine line between looking away from the dark and plain, simple denial. Moments arise in our days when we must take a good and honest look at what is wrong with the world and our lives, even come to terms with our own mortality.

People who identify themselves as Christian are inching toward the week to end all weeks. By most identifications we call the week “Holy”. The drama begins Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem carried by a donkey. Events then unfold in the happenings of Maundy Thursday, (Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest), Good Friday, (trial and crucifixion), and of course Easter Sunday, (resurrection). We mark our remembrance of these events as they are central to our faith.

Each year I’m a bit surprised, however, with the ratio of worshipers on Palm Sunday and Easter, and those who arrive on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Certainly I understand that mid-week services are not our norm, and people are certainly busy. Given that this is our big week, however, I can’t help but wonder if a big part of the vastly greater numbers on the two Sundays has something to do with our aversion to the real difficult parts of faith. Death? Betrayal? Arrests and beatings? Give me a good celebration any day.

A number of years ago a friend made the powerful Holy Week observation in his comment, “Well, this is the week we live for.” How very true. He died much too young on an Easter Sunday not long after this statement. He lived fully and knew how important it is to observe this Week and contemplate the deeper issues of faith and life, perhaps even that which makes us uncomfortable.

Check out the full events of this week to come. As one of my favorite restaurant proprietors often says, “You give it a try; we’ll see what happens.”

Storytellers always have a perspective, a slant, a certain viewpoint from which to tell their tale. It’s with this in mind that my viewing of the History Channel’s “The Bible” is rife with disappointment. Although I absolutely love viewing the images and stories come to life, I’m afraid these storytellers missed the point. The production value is top quality, but they’re telling the wrong story.

The storytellers in this series tip their hand in what they choose to tell as well as with the tales they omit. Last weeks installment spent an inordinate amount of screen time on Samson, and the most recent episode gave us way too much time on the Babylonian Exile. Specifically disturbing was the telling of the tale through the perspective of Daniel. “The Bible” provided far more material about Daniel than could ever be squeezed from the Holy Writ. (Seriously, the Book of Daniel was not written until 400 years after the Exile. It was also offered as an apocalyptic vision of hope for 2nd Century B.C. Judeans persecuted by the Greek-Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes). We are shown nothing of King Solomon, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, nor the tremendous importance placed upon the Jerusalem Temple. Wow, astonishing.

We’ve also not gained the true perspective of why the people endured the Exile in the first place. All the biblical prophets agree it is for one reason and one reason only; unfaithfulness. Repeatedly we’re told of empty and meaningless worship, going through the motions, ignoring the poor, the widow and the orphan, and worshiping the pagan gods of their neighbors. Indeed archaeology supports the fact–90% of Israel worshiped pagan deities 90% of the time when the Exile occurred. How did this shows producers miss this? We’re only given the perspective that the enemy is always from the outside, not from within the hearts and minds of the people. Good God, even the angels are decked out in military regalia.

Greatest of all the faux pas of this production is the portrayal of humanity’s standing before God. Both individual and nation, we are led to believe, we receive blessings if only their faith is strong enough. This could not be further from the biblical witness. Time and again, both individual and nation are shown to lack, to be full of flaws, shortcomings and foibles. Yet through it all, God is one who remains faithful, even when the people come up short.

Folks, it’s always best to read this for yourself. I mean the whole thing, not just bits and pieces, but take the biblical narrative as a whole. Without this, you’ll probably get the wrong story.