Friday, November 3, 2017

Reformation and Restoration is Still Incomplete

Over the past month and a half, dozens of my brothers and sisters in Christ have gathered on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm to discuss William P. Young's modern classic, The Shack.  I am thankful that so many of my fellow sojourners are willing to engage with this writing and try to grow in their faith and understanding through this interaction.  None of us are completely on the same page with one another on every issue, but because we all acknowledge that we're on a spiritual journey and that none of us has it all together (either morally or theologically), we have chosen to extend grace to one another (and Young) and give one another the benefit of the doubt.  Its amazing how much better dialogue goes when we assume the best of others, rather than the worst.

For too long, conservative Christians have shied away from exploring writings or ideas that challenge some of their preconceived notions.  I believe that much of this reluctance is driven by fear.  It seems that we are afraid that if we go down certain paths, we're on a slippery slope that leads to who knows where.  And how would we know if we aren't even willing to give theses paths an honest look?

I have no problem with someone starting down a spiritual line of thought, only to turn around and go back in the other direction once they are convinced that the path won't be fruitful.  However, to dismiss the journey out of hand before its even begun causes me to wonder if the individual may not be very secure in their faith to begin with.

As the Protestant Reformation celebrates 500 years (give or take), I think its a good time for all of us to consider what we believe, and even more importantly, why we believe what we believe.  One of the ideas that the reformers tried to promote was that the church should always be reforming.  In my faith tradition, which comes out the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, we've tried to continue to go back to Scripture in order to more faithfully become the people of Christ.  Sadly, some of the time, we've failed to follow the paths where Scripture leads when it conflicts with what we've always been taught.  If the reformers felt that we should always be reforming, I believe the restorers would have equally felt that we should always be about the task of restoration.  News flash - the task of reformation and restoration will never be complete for any of us, individually or corporately, or for the world, creationally, until we are enjoying our resurrection lives in God's renewed creation in the age to come!  So rather than fearing change, we should embrace it, knowing that growth, maturity, and transformation cannot happen any other way.

I pray that God will give us all the grace, humility, and open hearts and minds that we need to fully become the people he's recreated us to be through Christ and his Spirit. - Shay

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Best Decade Yet

When I turned 20, I was excited to finally get into an adult decade.  When I turned 30, I was excited because I felt like I might get a little more respect amongst my older colleagues.  I also began to realize that I was the age Jesus was when he began to minister.  Thankfully, I've had a longer ministry than Jesus though.  That's the only thing that I'll ever outdo Jesus in!

Now that I've turned 40, I'm excited just because its always good to turn a day, a year, or even decade older.  I have neither the dread of being in my 40s, nor am I feeling any kind of a mid-life crisis beginning to emerge.  40 just seems like one number more than 39, which felt like one year more than 38.  I can safely say that each decade of my life has been better than the last.  So, I expect the 40s to be the best decade yet! - Shay

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Faith and Gratitude of a Foreigner

After reading and meditating on Luke 17:11-19 over the past few days, here's my paraphrase and some reflections from the passage.


“As Jesus journeyed toward Jerusalem, he passed through the borderlands of Samaria and Galilee.  As Jesus entered a village, ten lepers approached, but made sure to keep a safe distance.  They cried out, ‘Jesus, Master, show us some mercy!’  Jesus saw them and said, ‘Go and let the priests examine you.’  So, they went and were made clean along the way.  But one of them, once he realized that he was healed, turned around and began to shout out praises to God.  He flung himself at the feet of Jesus and said, ‘Thank you so much!’  This one was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, ‘Weren’t there ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Can you believe that only this foreigner has paused to give God the glory?’  So, Jesus said to the Samaritan, ‘Stand up and begin the rest of your life.  Through faith you’ve been made well.’”

For the last eight and half chapters of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has had his eyes firmly fixed on Jerusalem and the new exodus that he will accomplish there.  But as he presses on towards his destiny, his eyes are also open to what his Father may have in store for him along the way.  Moving through the borderlands of Samaria and Galilee, he couldn’t find himself more on the margins of mainstream Jewish society if he tried.  And as he enters this little village, ten men who are very much on the fridge of community life, cry out to this one they recognize as their master, hoping that he might grant them mercy - hoping that they might be healed.  Jesus sees them and their plight, and in keeping with Mosaic orthodoxy, he commands the lepers to go and show themselves to the priest so that once their healing is confirmed, they can be restored back into the life of their community.  Only at this point, they’ve yet to be healed.  But, in faith, the ten obey Jesus and set out to find one of the local priests.  As they go, they are healed.

No doubt, once the nine Jewish lepers realize they’ve been healed, they speed up their pace to get to the priest and begin their lives anew.  They have places to go, people to see, things to do, and lives to relive.  They’ve been isolated from their friends and family for so long.  Jesus’ gift of cleansing will enable them to be outsiders no more.  These nine Jewish lepers have acted in faith.  They’re obeying Jesus’ and Moses’ command.  They’re doing the right thing and undoubtedly, they’ll soon be reunited with their family and friends.  They are cleansed and this is a good thing.  But nevertheless, they’ve missed out on an opportunity.  And as so often is the case, a stronger faith is found through an unexpected person.

Despite the stereotypes and judgments hurled at the Samaritans, only this foreigner takes the time to pause, to lift up his eyes and his voice in worship to God the Father, and to fall at the feet of his Master and Savior in gratitude.  We can learn so much at unexpected times, in unexpected places, and through unexpected people.  Time and time again, the strongest form of faith is found on the margins rather than in the mainstream.

Like the ten lepers in this story, we often cry out to Jesus, asking him to show us mercy and to cleanse us and heal us.  This is a good thing.  We should be quick to do so.  And like the lepers, we can be sure that Jesus sees us and hears our cries.  Like the nine, we might be quick to get on with our lives, including obeying God and doing the right thing.  Our days are filled with work and responsibility.  We’re busy providing for our families and meeting urgent needs.  We’re bustling here and there – to and fro – doing good things – doing the right things – doing even religious things.  But, if we’re not careful, like the Jewish lepers, we might fail to pause and offer God our worship and our praise.  If we’re too busy living life, even doing good things for God, we might fail to take the time to thank God’s Son for his deliverance.  We might find ourselves missing the forest for the trees.  As the Westminster Catechism reminds us, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  The means are important, but we must never lose sight of the end.  We should spend at least as much time praising and thanking God for what he’s already done in our lives, as the time we spend in asking him to do the things that he’s not yet done.  God calls us to be faithful.  But as the apostle Paul consistently tells us, God’s will for our lives is that we might also be thankful.  And one of the primary motivations for mission is to bring worship to God where it’s presently lacking.   

So, let’s keep this story in the forefront of our minds.  Let’s lookout along the borderlands of our world for those lessons we might learn in unexpected places through unexpected people.  And in the midst of living life and obeying God, let’s be sure to occasionally pause and take time to praise God for who he is and to thank him for what he’s already done.  We have much for which to be thankful and our God is forever worthy of our praise. 

     

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Torn Between

Nearly seven years ago I began writing this blog.  This is only my 160th post (a little over 20 posts a year), but it's been enjoyable to occasionally share my thoughts with those who have taken the time to read them.  There's so many great blogs and other content to absorb on the internet, so I am thankful that a few people are willing to give my voice a listen.  I began this blog a couple of months after we had moved to Dublin.  I called the blog "Near St. Anne's and the Sea", because when we first moved to Ireland, we lived right across the street from the amazing St. Anne's Park.  And just down the road from our apartment was Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea. 

After over two years, Juli and Ashlyn will get to visit both the park, the beaches on North Bull Island, and all of the other places they miss so much.  I've already had the chance to visit Dublin twice this year.  So, though I'm genuinely stoked to be able to be back on the little island I lovingly refer to as the "Garden of Eden of the North Atlantic", I don't think my anticipation can compare to theirs'.  But, I am thankful that this time around I'll be able to experience our home away from home with my family.

As I've mentioned in another blog post or two, in this life, we're often torn.  We are torn between places and people.  We are torn between the here and now and the eternity still to come.  We are thankful for what we have, where we're at, and the people we get to experience life with, but we also long for that which we are missing, the places we cannot be, and the people we are absent from.  I believe that somehow and someway, this dilemma will be resolved in the age to come.  In the meantime, we make the most of where we're at, while we're here (or there). 

For the next week or so, we'll be reconnecting with those people and places we presently long for.  And then, when we get back home, we'll be thankful to be back home.  The good news is that Jesus will journey with us the entire way.  "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20). - Shay  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Slippery Slope of Succession


One of the most famous English monarchs to ever sit on the throne must be Elizabeth I.  Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603, but how she finally came to the throne is anything but simple and smooth.  Her father, Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon and had one daughter with her – Mary.  But of course, Henry desperately wanted a male heir and he believed that Catherine could not produce one.  So he decided to get rid of Catherine, but the Pope wouldn’t allow it.  And so the King who had once been proclaimed the “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, due to his opposition to the Protestant Reformation on the European continent, took control of the English churches and created the Church of England, with the English monarch as the head.  This allowed Henry to divorce Catherine. 

In all, Henry went through six wives in his lifetime.  Their fate can be summarized with the following pneumonic phrase – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.  His six wives produced for him a total of three legitimate heirs, but only one son, the sickly Edward.  Before his death, Henry established a throne succession plan whereby Edward would assume the throne upon his death and if Edward failed to produce an heir, then Henry’s oldest daughter Mary would then inherit the crown.  Finally, if both Edward and Mary were to pass without legitimate heirs, Elizabeth would become Queen.

After Henry’s death, his son Edward, the sickly boy, reigned for only six years and then died at the age of 15 without an heir.  Edward was a fanatical Protestant and had tried to create a plan that would prevent Mary from inheriting the throne, but his plan ultimately failed, as his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, was unable to prevent Mary from taking control (Lady Jane Grey joined two of Henry’s wives with the distinction of having her head removed from her shoulders).  Mary then assumed the throne, but she only reigned for five years, and she too failed to produce an heir.  She did, however restore the Catholic faith to England and had at least 280 Protestant dissenters burned at the stake in the process.  You can toast that the next time you have a Bloody Mary!  Throughout Bloody Mary’s reign, Elizabeth wisely kept a low profile when she wasn’t locked up in the Tower of London or under house arrest.  Finally, at the end of her life, Mary acknowledged that her half-sister was to inherit the English throne.  And so began one of the longest and most successful reigns of an English monarch.  The story of Elizabeth’s succession is nasty.  And history is full of many stories like this.

Biblical history is no different.  It emerges out of real life and so, it too is full of nasty stories.  Solomon’s rise to the throne is just as bloody as Elizabeth’s.  We find the throne succession narratives at the end of 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings.  1 Kings chapters 1-2 are especially grimy – full of double-dealing and political maneuvering.  If we fail to notice the details of the text, we might assume that Solomon’s succession is inevitable – but a closer reading reveals that it is anything but inevitable.  We forget that Solomon is at least ten sons back in the line of succession.  The only thing Solomon has going for him is that his mother (another messy story) has become David’s favorite wife.  Without the quick wit and aggressive action of Nathan the prophet, Solomon and his mother Bathsheba might experience the same fate as Lady Jane Grey. 

What sets this whole process in motion is the fact that David has multiple sons and daughters by multiple wives over his lifetime.  If you want to make an argument against polygamy, read the stories from the time of Abraham through the Judean monarchy and you’ll soon discover that one wife for life is the way to go!  But back to David’s story.  Because David has produced so many potential heirs through a variety of mothers, a jockeying for position ensues as David’s life winds down.  We see this clearly in 2 Samuel in the stories of Absalom and Amnon.  And by the time we get to the very end of David’s life, as the weak and impotent King lies on the bosom of his beautiful Shunammite nurse, Abishag - Adonijah, the eldest remaining of David’s sons begins to make his move.  And he has a little help from his friends – powerful friends.  Joab, David’s ruthless military commander, and Abiathar, a priest and one of David’s trusted friends, have sided with Adonijah.  They proclaim a feast and invite all of those in their camp to celebrate Adonijah’s inevitable succession to the throne. 

But others are also making plans.  The initial conversations are not recorded for us, but presumably because she was David’s favorite, Bathsheba is promised that her son Solomon will be King.  But as Adonijah begins to press his claim, Nathan realizes that he and Bathsheba need to act fast!  They assemble their own powerful allies, including Zadok the priest, Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men, and Rei and Shimei, two of David’s closest confidants.  Most importantly, David’s inner circle of warriors supports Solomon. 

Nathan and Bathsheba hatch a plot to ensure that Solomon, and not Adonijah, becomes king.  If their plan succeeds, the power in Israel will be theirs.  If it fails, Solomon and Bathsheba will almost certainly be killed.  So Bathsheba goes before David and reminds him of his previous promise.  Then, Nathan comes in and confirms Bathsheba’s position and reiterates the fact that Adonijah is aiming for the throne behind the king’s back.  Their plan succeeds and David publicly endorses Solomon as his successor.  Most of Adonijah’s supporters realize they’ve been outflanked and so quickly move to Solomon’s side.  And Adonijah himself realizes that his life is now in danger and so he begs his brother for mercy.  Solomon tentatively grants him a reprieve from any physical harm, but he warns him that he’s keeping an eye on him. 

But all is not yet well.  Even David sees that Solomon’s throne is not yet secure.  David gives his son some spiritual advice in 1 Kings 2:1-4, but if you read further, David’s words of wisdom become much more political, if not ruthless in nature.  David tells Solomon that Joab is a threat to his throne, so the prudent thing to do is to take him out.  Not only that, but Saul still has some distant relatives that may be gunning for the throne, so Solomon must deal wisely with them.  Shimei (not to be confused with David’s confidant) is a threat from Saul’s tribe and must be killed.  It’s good to be king, but it’s far from easy.  A king must be shrewd and decisive if they wish to remain on the throne. 

After David’s death, Adonijah unwisely continues to scheme behind Solomon’s back.  He goes to Bathsheba and requests that David’s nurse, Abishag, be given to him as a wife.  This isn’t an innocent request.  Just as Absalom’s sexual union on the rooftop of the palace with David’s concubines demonstrated his power and authority to the tribes of Israel, so Adonijah’s request for David’s Shunammite nurse was a politically calculated move towards stealing the throne.  Solomon immediately sniffs this plot out and has his brother Adonijah killed.  In addition to this, Solomon follows his father’s advice and has Joab killed and forces Abiathar the priest into exile.  Eventually, Solomon finds a legitimate excuse to have Shimei, Saul’s distant cousin executed.  We then read in 1 Kings 2:46, “…the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”  So much for a smooth and simple succession. 

The throne succession narratives at the end of 2 Samuel and at the beginning of 1 Kings are not unlike the kinds of stories we read in history.  Much of what occurred is pretty icky and very political.  These stories are full of power plays, murder, intrigue, double-dealing, and back-stabbing.  And most of this behavior occurred amongst David’s own family.  These aren’t the nice and neat “flannel graph” stories that we learned from the sweet little grannies who taught us in Sunday school.  But this shouldn’t surprise us.  Biblical history is still history.  These are true stories of real people living in the real world.  The Bible is full of the stories of flawed people living in a broken society. 

And you know, my life mirrors some of this too.  I’ve never murdered anyone, but there’s a lot in my past that I’m embarrassed about.  My life is filled with mistakes.  I wish I could go back and erase some of my history.  I’ve done some pretty dumb things through the years.  I’ve not always treated other people the way I want to be treated.  And I’ve not always loved God with my whole heart. I bet your life is a lot like this too.  In fact, I know it is, because if you’re reading this, then you’re a human.  And we’re all flawed and we live our lives in a world full of other flawed people.  Our histories are not always as neat and tidy as we’d like them to be.

But you know what else – God didn’t quit working because the material he was working with was flawed.  He continued to work through broken human beings, because the last I checked, that’s all he has to work with.  David was a horrible father and much of the messiness in the throne succession narratives are down to David being a lousy dad.  But, nevertheless, David was also a man after God’s own heart and he was the greatest king in Israel’s history!  God worked in and through David and Solomon despite their flaws.  And God is at work in the midst of our broken lives too!  God meets us in the mess of our lives – he works through the broken pieces of our stories – but he’s not content to simply leave us there.  So, he sent his one and only Son to become one of us, to live amongst us, and to finally be the King that all the kings had been called to be, but failed to be.  In fact, Jesus was and is everything that all the rest of us have failed to be too.

So, it’s worth reflecting on the kind of kingdom that Jesus came to establish.  In John 18, the Roman Governor, Pilate, asks Jesus a crucial question.  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Pilate wants to know if Jesus really is a threat to Rome and their control of Palestine.  Jesus responds affirmatively, but with a clear caveat.  He says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  (John 18:36).  Jesus’ kingdom is very much for this world, but it’s not of this world.  It operates by a different set of rules and its values contrast with those of the ordinary kingdoms of this present age. 

I believe this is one of the reasons that Jesus’ contemporaries had such a hard time accepting him as the Messiah.  Jesus didn’t fit the mold of what they were looking for in a coming king.  They still envisioned the kind of kingdom that David and Solomon ruled over.  Instead of driving out the Romans, like many of Jesus’ fellow Jews would have hoped and prayed for, Jesus surrendered to them and was crucified by them.  In his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, he said things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also…If anyone forces you to go one mile (in other words, if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack for one mile), go also the second mile…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  These were not the words of a messianic figure in most 1st century Jews’ minds.  And these words are still hard for many of us to swallow.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus brought and is still bringing is not like the kingdoms of this world.  But it’s very much for people like us who are citizens of this present world.  God meets us in the busyness, the messiness, and most importantly, even the very ordinariness of our lives and brings us to a point where eventually his will is done in our hearts and our lives as it is in heaven.  We start out as ordinary people with all the weaknesses and flaws that you find in anyone’s story.  But through Jesus and through the Spirit’s work in our lives, we are in a state of becoming.  We are becoming poor in spirit (we realize we are spiritually bankrupt).  We are becoming meek.  We are learning to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We are becoming pure in heart.  We are gradually learning to show mercy, instead of justice (or injustice).  We are becoming peacemakers.  In short, we are becoming more and more like Jesus himself.  “Eventually, he who began a good work among us, will bring it to completion and our love will have overflowed more and more with knowledge and full insight so that we will have produced a harvest of righteousness, being pure and blameless on the day that Jesus returns!”  That's my tight paraphrase of what the apostle Paul says is our destiny (Philippians chapter 1). 

We all start out living lives in the old creation, but that’s our history, that's not our future.  Our future is life in the new creation.  We’re in the process of realizing that life, even now.  The writer of our story specializes in happy endings.  But in reality, they aren’t endings, they’re new beginnings.  The kingdoms of the Bible and the kingdoms of the history books will one day become the Kingdom of God.  We hear a description of what that day will be like in Revelation 11:15-17.  “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.’  Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, ‘We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.’”  May God hasten the day.  Come, Lord Jesus! – Shay

Monday, June 26, 2017

Who Else, but God?!!!


We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, knowledge, scientific discovery, and technological advancements.  Our world is often one of rationalism and reason, where the mysteries of the universe are simply there for us to unravel.  We observe the seasons and the weather, and do our best to predict the patterns of nature.  It’s not only possible to circumvent the globe in less than 36 hours, we’ve even landed on the moon!  The people at the Tower of Babel would envy us – we’ve actually made it to the heavens and we’ve learned how to translate almost any language in the world.

          The fact is, we live in a world that can be broken down into countless ologies.  If we want to understand the earth, we dig into geology.  If we are interested in how our bodies function, we slice into biology.  If we have trouble understanding why people behave the way they do, we define their actions through sociology.  And people who are obsessed with the future, sadly, sometimes gaze into astrology.  But in all of our studies, if we aren’t careful, we might ignore the ultimate source behind all that we witness in our world.  To answer the truly important – the really big questions in life – we need to wade into the waters of theology.  In other words, we need to engage in the study of God.

          Sometimes, when people begin to recount the numerous ways that God has been active in their lives, I get just a little uneasy.  If someone is convinced that God led them to the perfect parking space at the store, I begin to question if they really understand God’s overarching purposes for the universe.  But I must be careful not to become too cynical or jaded when people genuinely notice God’s hand at work in their lives.  I need to make sure that I don’t become so accustomed to the rational world in which we live, that I wind up leaving very little room for the divine presence to be seen and felt.  God is at work in our world, just as he has been at work in the history of humankind from the beginning of creation.  I need my eyes to be open to what God is doing all around me. 

          It was obvious that God was at work in the lives of the people of Israel in the book of Exodus.  But though his signs and wonders were so very clear, Pharaoh consistently hardened his heart to what YHWH was doing in the plagues and through the ministries of Moses and Aaron.  In fact, it was this hardness to God’s presence that eventually led Pharaoh and his army to a premature death in the waters of chaos.

          It’s interesting to look at this story in retrospect.  If you move from the earlier parts of Exodus to the middle, you come to a transitional passage in the 18th chapter of the book.  Here, the people are finally camped at the Mountain of God, Sinai, and Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, has journeyed to this spot because he has heard about what God has done for Moses and Israel.  Though Pharaoh was blind to the maneuvers of YHWH, Jethro is not.  He sees that something special is at work, and who else could it be, but God? 

“Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.  Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.  Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh.  Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians, when they dealt arrogantly with them.’  And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.” (Exodus 18:8-12, NRSV).

          Scripture doesn’t tell us very much about exactly who Moses’ father-in-law is, or when he becomes a believer in YHWH.  What we do know is that he is a priest in Midian.  Recent discoveries have shown that shepherds who lived in Midian around the time of the Exodus worshipped a God they called YHWH.  So, it could be that Jethro is already familiar with the God of Israel.  At any rate, Jethro sees that Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and their safe passage through the wilderness could not be accounted for by anything but God’s grace and providence.  Who else, but God!

          Who else but God could lead Israel to Egypt in the first place?  It was God’s divine providence that saved the sons of Jacob so many years before.  Who else but God could save the life of the baby Moses through a reed basket and eventually lead him into the wilderness of Midian where he met his destiny at the burning bush?  Who else but God could deal plague after plague on the false gods of Egypt and Pharaoh, while still protecting his own people?  Who else but God could strike the first-born sons?  Who else but God could save the people through the chaos waters of the sea?  Who else but God could provide the people with something to drink when they were thirsty, not once, but twice?  And when they were hungry and longing for the pots of meat back in Egypt, who else but God could provide manna to eat?  When the Amalekites came out to battle Israel in the desert, who else but God could deliver them to victory?  If not God, then who else? 

          Jethro has heard of all that God has done for Moses and for Israel.  He has seen the Almighty at work.  He cannot help but proclaim that God is both sovereign and gracious!

          Jethro doesn’t seek a naturalistic explanation for the miracle of the sea.  And according to Jethro, it’s not just by coincidence that YHWH has led his people to the Mountain of God.  There is a deeper, far reaching, theological purpose for God’s actions on behalf Israel.  (This is another step in God’s eventual reclamation of the entire universe.)  God’s wonders are plain to see, and Jethro is willing to gaze in astonishment upon them.  And with his mouth, and with his life, he offers up praises to this God!  His God!

          God’s wonders in our world are also plain to see, but are we willing to see them?  If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves more in tune with the surrounding culture, than with what God is doing around us.  Through the good and the bad, God is at work, and yet, we might sometimes fail to give him thanks for what he is doing.  When we narrowly escape an accident on the highway, do we think, “Weren’t we lucky!”?  Or, when God uses one of our friends to encourage us and to give us advice, we might be quick to thank our friend, but slow to remember the God who gave that friend to us.  When we pray to God to deliver us from some difficult circumstance, and he does deliver us, do we chalk it up to our faithfulness in prayer, or do we give glory to the God who faithfully answers our prayers?  God is working wonders all around us, but we must have eyes that are open to see all that God is doing. 

          A Scottish man named Billy Wilson penned a song in 2000 which really resonates in our age of human self-sufficiency.  The song is titled, Father I Believe and the words make a powerful point.

Who says miracles don’t happen anymore?

And who says God can only do what we afford?

Why so many spend so long trying to ignore,

Every sign of life, every sign of hope, everything before.

Such a sad affair when living to deny.

Where every work of wonderful is written off in time.

The God of old responds to faith, but now he doesn’t try.

Isn’t that absurd?  Isn’t that a joke?  Isn’t that a crime?

Father, I believe!  Help my unbelief!

And if you tell me mountains will move, then I will walk as I believe.

A Syro-Phoenician lady, wasn’t due a thing.

She came for the crumbs from the table, but she left with everything.

Lowered into Jesus’ presence, lifted out of sin.

The hearts around him needed proof, so he left with everything.

Father, I believe!  Help my unbelief!

And if you tell me mountains will move, then I will walk as I believe.

I will walk as I believe.

          Wilson’s words especially hit home with the line, “Father, I believe, help my unbelief!”  Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?  You have a little bit of faith, but you long to believe more.  We see God’s work all around us and we want to be like Jethro and let everyone know what God is doing in our lives and in the church, but we sometimes falter in our boldness.  Or, sometimes, when things don’t go as we would like them to go, we may find it hard to believe that God is still active and working.  But we need to trust that he is still working – even when we don’t see it, or when we don’t understand what he’s up to.  In these moments, we would do well to pray, “Father, I believe, help my unbelief!”

          And there are some things by God’s grace that we can do to more clearly see God’s work in our lives.  We must acknowledge that God is both sovereign and gracious.  First, by acknowledging God’s sovereignty we will be more open to let his kingdom reign into every facet of our existence.  There should be no areas of our lives that are not touched by God’s presence.  From the moment we rise in the morning, until the moment we drop our heads on our pillows, Christ’s presence should be evident in all that we say and in all that we do.  Secondly, by acknowledging God’s graciousness through our thankfulness to him and in our worship of him, we become more aware of what God is doing around us.  We should not relegate these times of thanksgiving and praise only to prayers before meals, devotionals, Bible classes, or church services.  They should be a part of every daily activity in which we participate.  Through this and the encouragement we receive from one another, we will be better able to see God and his actions in our lives and in this world.  Someone is at work in us – someone is at work in you – someone is at work in me.  And who else could that be, but God?!!! - Shay

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Musical Journey

We were on our way back from a High School mission trip to Montana when I bought my first U2 album.  The year was 1992 and I was 15 years old.  The record was Achtung Baby (actually it was a cassette tape).  Our youth group had stopped in Colorado Springs for the night, and to kill a little time before bed, our sponsors dropped us off at one of the local malls.  Most shops in malls don't interest me much, but record stores always have grabbed my attention.  I remember looking in the rock section and narrowing down my focus to one band, U2.  Having never listened to much of their music, I had become intrigued by this foreign group when some of my friends at Camp Blue Haven had played some of their songs that summer.  When I was younger, I remember seeing older teens wearing Rattle & Hum t-shirts at camp.  I had also heard people say that U2 was a Christian band. 

All of that combined to make me curious.  I really liked the sound of a couple of the songs I had heard earlier in the summer from Achtung Baby, namely The Fly and Mysterious Ways.  But having also seen the Rattle & Hum t-shirts a few years back, I was torn.  Should it be Rattle & Hum or Achtung Baby?  Going for the more recent release, I grabbed the Achtung Baby cassette and bought the first of many U2 albums.

The rest of that summer and into the autumn, Achtung Baby was on heavy rotation in my Walkman.  And over the next couple of years, I began to expand my U2 collection.  I worked my way backwards, skipping Rattle & Hum and going straight to The Joshua Tree (I bought Rattle & Hum a few months later).  As much as I loved Achtung Baby, the songs on The Joshua Tree were what I would describe as epic and cinematic.  They were the kinds of songs that could transport you to another time and place.  One of the first few times I listened to The Joshua Tree, I was riding in a car amongst the mountainous landscapes of northern New Mexico.  Later on, I remember how well the songs fit with the desert topography of my grandparents' place out in Far West Texas.  Achtung Baby introduced me to U2, but The Joshua Tree sold me on them.  It wasn't long until I had a copy of every U2 record and a couple VHS concert tapes to go with them. 

I'm not exactly sure why I grew to love U2 so much.  I've had various musical phases that have come and gone, but I've always stuck with U2.  I think it's partly down to the fact that they've always been about so much more than simply making music.  They're activists as well as artists.  And they are a Christian band, though they can't be put in a box like much contemporary Christian music.  In other words, they are a rock 'n roll band who happen to have a committed Christian faith, but they aren't what most people would call a "Christian band".  They're comfortable exploring some of the darker subjects, as well as the loftier and more uplifting motifs.  Faith must always be lived out in the real world and the vibe I get from Bono is that his faith is genuine and real.  So, I connect to U2 on multiple levels and I just really love the music they play and the songs they write.  So once I became a fan, I became a fan for life.

But it wasn't until the spring of 1997, after the release of the Pop album that I finally had the chance to see U2 live.  A friend and I travelled to Dallas, TX and caught the Popmart show at the Cotton Bowl.  I saw another show (with 3 of my cousins) on that tour in San Antonio later that year.  And then, in 2001, my cousin Brent and I drove down to Houston and saw Bono and the boys play on the Elevation tour in what used to be called the Compaq Center (this is now the home of Joel Osteen and his megachurch - Bono broke it in for Joel!).  A few months later, I introduced Juli to the U2 live experience at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.  She was impressed.

We had tickets to the Houston show in 2005, but I sold them and made a handsome profit in the process.  I still kind of regret doing that, but it was probably the smart thing to do at the time.  I was already in trouble for buying Longhorn season tickets that year!  Then on October 12, 2009, my cousin Brent and I got right up close to the stage for the 360 show in what is now called AT & T Stadium in Arlington.  Juli would have joined us that evening, but she was only 8 days away from giving birth to Ashlyn! 

So I've had the privilege of attending 5 U2 concerts on 3 different tours over the past 20 years.  This Friday, Lord willing, I'll attend my 6th.  And with this being the 30 year anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree, I'm especially excited to see and hear the sights and sounds as U2 play their most ambitious record live in its entirety.  The show will be in Louisville, KY, so it will also afford me the chance to go on a road trip, or one might say, a pilgrimage of sorts.  As Larry Mullen Jr. remarked in the film, Rattle & Hum, "It's a musical journey."  So it is! - Shay