Friday, December 14, 2018

Redemptive Roundup (Matthew 3:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



We are moving thirty years ahead from the Wise-Men’s trip to Bethlehem where they came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus. We find ourselves beside a stream with a man that has taken up the vocation of a prophet, in the spirit of Isaiah and Elijah. He is rough and stern. He demands transparency from those that come to him confessing and demanding baptism of purification. He warns them that the day of judgment is coming but that God is merciful. He goes on to tell them that being a child of Abraham is not enough to escape God’s eventual judgment. God is going to judge us from the heart and not by our ethnicity. He also tells them that one is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit which is much stronger and purer than what he is offering. In other words, they are in the vortex, the crucible of danger and they need to repent from their dishonorable ways. John the Baptist proclaims a message of preparation while being a formidable advocate for God and for the coming new world.

Why does Matthew draw us into this story on the heels of Jesus’ birth? It is simple. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world is now on the brink of becoming real. The child is now coming into his own. He comes to John the Baptist demanding that John would baptize him. But why? Why would the chosen child need baptism? It is a complicated question, but it is a part of his purpose. Jesus is not coming to judge others; he is coming to love and let the love judge the hearts of others. John’s words burn with fear and apocalyptic intention. But when John says, “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit”, he is announcing a different kind of reason for repentance. That reason is that Jesus’ message will burn the hearts of people with his offer of love instead of his message of hellfire. Both have their place but Jesus wants to save people from themselves so they will be able to see God through a different prism.

Jesus’ purpose is to bring redemption to the world. John is rounding up all those who would listen to him. He pronounced a future where God will sift people through his truth and there will be people who will be found wanting. When religious leaders would come he wasn’t really excited. Before they came to offer their repentance he said, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His point was unless you change your behavior you will have no part of this new redemptive world. Don’t count on being a Jew to save you. Those days are over.

This message is a far cry from the stories of Jesus’ birth that are filled with hope. There are no angels announcing “peace on earth” to people of good will in John’s message. Even when he announces “the one coming that is greater than I” it seems as though he is presenting someone who will be more exacting in their judgment on others. But what do the words mean “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Redemption is not complete unless people change. Confession is not enough. By baptizing people in the Holy Spirit Jesus is opening up their hearts through the spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is truth. What John is getting at and what Jesus demonstrates is the building of a community that is based on humility. The spirit of truth stands before them and they are judged by their own convictions. In this way Jesus’ judgment is greater than John’s. It is also more impactful in the world. By Jesus creating people that stand under their own judgment through the spirit of truth the world then has a chance at peace.

We all know from experience that when we are confronted with the depth of our sinful self, realizing the pain we have caused, we are our most exacting judges. The gift of the spirit is the gift of life because it is the gift of freedom. So John is right that Jesus’ judgment in some way is more powerful. His judgment comes with the possibility of real change in people’s lives and therefore opens up the possibility of the experience of redemption here and now. After all, redemption is the experience that our sins are forgiven. The spirit of truth is not only revelatory but it is healing as well. When the spirit comes into our life we not only hear the words of condemnation, but we hear the words of forgiveness. Thus begins a life of renewal and hope. This is the purpose of the Christ child. He brings peace on earth because he brings truth and forgiveness.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Babel: A Brave New World (Genesis 11:1-9) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



The world received a new chance in Noah. Not only has God decided not to destroy the world again, but God also made a covenant with Noah to protect and enhance justice in the course of human relationships. There is a new hope that humanity will improve its place in the world creating relationships of goodness, grace and forgiveness.  But in just a few pages of this new history things fall apart.

Most of the stories in Genesis are character sketches of individual of faith. In them God places trust, confidence and covenant. It is through these important people that God’s plan and judgment is revealed to the people of God. But in the story of the Tower of Babel the narrator steps back to look at the cultural landscape after Noah to see a dangerous pattern developing.

The migration of the mass of people continued east until they came to a large plain with everything they needed. Instead of setting up an altar to God they decided to build a tower to rival the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted admiration, power and security which they would get themselves without the help of any divine power. By their striving and willful self-reflection they desired fame, unity and political strength against God. They wanted what Adam and Eve wanted---freedom. But what they received was punishment.

God’s response to this new endeavor of humanity was not affirming. God saw it not as a rivalry, but as a dangerous experiment that will end in evil. God says, “Soon they will be able to do anything they desire.” God’s meaning is clear. The same behavior and violence that was in the world during Noah’s era will soon return with a vengeance here in the land of Shinar. However, unlike the world during Noah’s time this world is organized. They have teams of laborers and elites who tell them what to do. The leaders are providing the message which is one of power, freedom and security against anything outside themselves. They will soon exclude, demonize and abuse people who do not come under their shared vision.

What made their attempt at becoming this powerful nation so dangerous was that they all had the same language. They shared the same internal ways of interpreting the world through this common language, and were able to communicate with the same understanding of their experience. This common use of language was a powerful tool to build unity, which could be a good thing. But in the hands of those that use it to build a fortress of exclusion and justified abuse against others, it turns devilish. For this nation of people “sameness means rightness and power.” 

This, of course, is an old sin of the communities of the world. Diversity, while it may be publically tolerated, is internally unacceptable and fearful and must be eliminated. We even have a word for this---stranger. The word comes from the naming of others who are different as strange. Once we are able to use this label with complete acceptance in the community then we are able to discriminate, exclude and even worse. God saw this inevitability as harmful and shameful. Instead of destroying the world God took the opportunity to scramble their languages. In fact the word used in Genesis is “confuse.” God’s intent was to bring confusion into the experience of the world through language for the purpose of avoiding more abuse, and the possibility that humanity will find tolerance instead of hate. But God created anxiety and fear to establish a dependent experience. 

In Jesus the world was opened up to a new vision of tolerance and righteousness. Through his ministry we have all learned that those we have labeled as not worthy are worthy in God’s eyes. Therefore to walk in the vision of God we must learn how to see others as worthy as well. Jesus ate with those others saw as sinners, evil and unworthy. He was called out for it, but it didn’t stop him. He continued to show the heart of God to the victims of communities that say, “sameness is rightness.”

Then on a day when Israel celebrated a festival called Pentecost, the world was given an opportunity to share in God’s vision for the world. After the resurrection the disciples went out to preach, having received the power of the Holy Spirit, when something unique happened. Those from every nation were able to understand what Peter was saying. God had broken down the walls of language which God created to stop the possibility of harm to others. Now he is restoring common understanding through the Spirit. They were one in God, but only through the Spirit. Under the direction of the Spirit and in the guidance of God we are made one. We are an invisible Kingdom without walls with a mission to break down more walls of indifference derived from the faulty ideologies based on that evil assumption that “sameness is rightness.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

Noah: Man of Sacredness (Genesis 8:20-22) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



Noah’s story was not that of an old man who built a boat, but of a man who built a whole new world alongside and after an evil and corrupted one. Vigilance, cunning and an endless expenditure of energy and faith were needed to maintain his place in the world. Noah faced a world filled with people engaged in the lust for power, which they used to force and intimidate those around them. Their evil divided the world corrupting any decency they might have had. They became leaders over groups of people building a society that was devoid of justice but a kind of servitude to the heroes of the world.

He faced a world that didn’t temper their actions through knowledge of God in which justice and love were part of their consciousness. They instead confirmed if their actions were right by the rules of survival and need of the leader who brought fear to every person.

He faced a world that had grown up on lies because they had negated the truth. Justice was defined as fulfilling my need. Anyone who took that away from the group deserved punishment.  All this negation led to violence.

For years Noah found a way to live among this system of abuse and evil. To do this he not only needed to be courageous, fearless, but he needed to be wise. He had to show he was not a threat to them while proving that they needed him in some way. The only way he and his family could have survived was through the constant spiritual direction from God. Noah managed a life among people who had lost their sensibility toward others, and used violence as a means to settle disputes, which perpetuated the illusion of righteousness by excluding others from their community.

In the midst of all this chaos Noah also managed to build a ship. He, also, built a life of integrity with God and others. He built a family with this same integrity while he built this ark. He stepped out of his role as a farmer and rancher to spend his time building a boat. I don’t think they had invented the term “mid-life crisis” during his era but I am sure they had a similar word for him, as he began this project. He became a man who was on the outside, even with his family. He was the man in his garage tinkering all day trying to build something nobody understands, like a computer, software program or an invention that no one see’s the relevance of. Therefore, his courage was not only his ability to negotiate his neighbors evil but his families’ ridicule, as well.

This is the side of Noah we know well. But he was also a man of sacred understanding. He is not only a man of action he is a man of silence and quiet before God. During his voyage he was alive to all the necessary tasks to maintain life on the boat. Animals, family and damage to the boat needed to be attended to. There was little time, most likely, for worship or prayer with the kind of silence and intensity he was used to. But when they landed, the waters receded and it was safe to get off the boat. The first thing he did was to build an altar to worship God. 

It was time to show his gratitude, take time to listen to his own heart and to listen for the redemptive purpose of God. He was not interested in God’s new ethical demands for this new world, he was most likely interested in what God’s purpose was for him and this new world. He needed to listen as best he could in the silence of worship to figure out how to live out his life. As a man of action he figured out how to survive; as a man of sacredness he needed to figure out where God was walking in this world and follow him.

Being grateful reveals our inward understanding of God’s gifts to us. The reason for building the altar was to allow this inward understanding of God to show itself.  Noah did not build this altar because of duty, but because he felt an overwhelming desire to stand before God in the most humble way he knew how. The narrator said that God was pleased with Noah’s worship. God was so overtaken by Noah’s heart reaching out in hope, God promised never to destroy the earth again even though the human heart is filled with evil. Noah’s vulnerable and open heart reached God’s heart touching it with the gratitude of a man who loved God above all things. God wanted to protect that genuine heart, therefore God promised never to destroy the earth and then instilled the basic covenants of justice that would guide humanity to more honorable relationships.

Behind justice and mercy for every living thing stands the necessity of worship. In order for our hearts to remain open and turned to the world with grace we first need to be silent before God. We need to build our altar in whatever fashion we like. For some it is sitting on a patio, walking down the street, sitting in our car or standing on top of a hill. Whatever altar you build it must be visited for it to be the kind of reminder useful for spiritual development. 

We cannot afford to be like many leaders in the Old Testament who built altars for the people but never visited them. When this happens we forget our purpose. Paul reminds us of this truth when he says in Romans 12:1-2, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Present yourselves as living sacrifices unto God which is your reasonable worship.” The only way to maintain our spiritual perspective is to visit our altars which then remind us of where we are and where we are going.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Prayer: Wrestling with Selfishness (Luke 22:39-46) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



Christian inwardness is our chance to throw off the less than spiritual forces in us and put on the power of the spiritual goodness of God.

The world is becoming less compassionate and sensitive to the lives of others says one of our leading sociologists. This insensitivity arises from a kind of moral blindness created by an acquiescence to what we call normal. Instead of reaching beyond the banality of the world to our created purpose we accept the easy way. We were created in the image of God to care for each other and the world; yet we seem to be getting in the way of following that divine purpose. We don’t seem to have time for God, let alone the other people in our lives. The driving force behind this ever increasing loss of the other is our own selfishness. This is not new in the world of relationships, it has haunted us from the very beginning of our consciousness. Adam and Eve, as our historical and abiding parents, reveal to us that our problem is rooted in our own desires. These desires, most of the time, turn to fulfilling the self alone, not the needs of the other. It is difficult for us to get out of the way of our own self to find our true selves in God.

When we enter into prayer we must lose ourselves in this encounter in order to benefit from the relationship. We must be honest, open and authentic in this encounter with God to have any chance of speaking to us in the silence. We must get out of the way in order to come away from our time with God a changed person. The change that God is looking for in us is to become more aware of who God is and what God wants. From Jesus we know that God wants us to embrace the lost, the victims, the suffering of this world. God wants us to become more compassionate by losing our self in the divine wisdom and mercy. Selfishness prevents us from benefiting from our encounters with God. When we continue to allow our mind to control our prayer life with thoughts of what we want alone, then God can only speak to us in yes or no language. This limits God’s ability to speak to us in the silence. We push God into a corner without entrance into our life.

Dietrich Bonheoffer writes in 1942, “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me.” When we forget that our prayers are to reach beyond our inner walls of separation we remain selfish, instead of a selfless expression of what Jesus calls us to be. The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane continues to teach us the real heart of prayer. In the garden he is wrestling with his destiny, his purpose in life. His suffering was because in following his purpose it meant his death. His struggles culminated in his cry to his Father, “Take this cup from me.” Like all of us who face such things, we would cry out to the one who can change the direction of our history. But Jesus wants something else more than his own life. He wants to do the will of God. So the last word was not “Take this cup from me,” but “Not my will but thy will be done.” This is not just a set of words that show respect to the power of God. This is a change of being in the world with God. His inner life and vision of the world is in step with God. This is the benefit of prayer in a world that is losing its sensitivity.

We are often led astray by the advice of Jesus and the apostles to ask God for what you want and he will be happy to grant it. Those who are true prayer warriors know that it is not all about asking, it is about stepping out of the way so you can hear and see where God is moving. Prayer as only asking becomes one sided because we only hear our own voice. That is why the Psalms must be reevaluated for more than just expressions of wants and gripes with God. They must be seen as the tensions of the self that is in danger of becoming the louder voice in the relationship. These prayers are not prescriptive for our behavior. They are the soundings of both the false self and the real self trying to come to grips with the presence of God. Therefore when the Psalmist demands of God to kill his enemies or to make their enemies suffer, he is acting from that selfish part of his inner world that needs to be heard but then also healed. The worshippers are called on to sing and pray these liturgical writings, not to put them into practice by killing their enemies, but to bring the pain behind these words to God and wait for healing.

Prayer is a wrestling with God, as Jacob did, but it is also a wrestling with ourselves. We are called upon through the process of prayer to get out of the way so God can have his way. Prayer is drawing closer to God and those around us. Compassion and sensitivity are the end result of this wrestling.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Nothing But Love (I John 4:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



Most people want to be loved and want to give love back. But history is filled with the stories of tragic stories of those that tried to give their love but, within the process of giving, they failed in reaching their desired purpose. They instead were mocked or dismissed. Upon this knowledge they feel lost and unwanted. We miss giving the very thing that is worth giving away. But why do we miss this opportunity when we know that it is what we want to do? When we know that giving this one precious gift will add to our life and to those we give it? The useful and truthful answer is that our understanding of our self and our flirtation with our image is the ultimate obstacle, as well as the indifference of others. Some may say that it is our upbringing, our tragic experiences or even our biology. But this observation seeks to dismiss those that do not show love because we were not given the capacity by nurture or biology. I don’t want to diminish those that struggle with illness and damaged psyches, but encourage all of us that with God all things are possible.  If this is the case, then we can’t be fatalists who tragically call God into question for making us with these flaws and the misguidedness of giving. Love is a free act that must be measured by the sacrifice we offer it and the hope it produces.

Paul, the Apostle, says, “Love does not seek its own.” To say it another way, “Love’s obstacle is an obsession that is hindered by the self—our false self---that tries to engage the faces of culture instead of the face of God.” When we are working on how we look before others through the template of cultural protocols we miss the genuine presence and life of the other. Instead we are thinking about how we look before others. When this is our major concern all our relationships are tainted with concern for our own image. We are called to get over this practice of obsessing on our false self for the practice of finding the true self in others and in ourselves. When we can’t get over ourselves we are unable to see the real person in front of us. We need a new spiritual focus to overcome this constant habit.

Jesus and Paul’s teachings on love understand that love is an inward movement before it is an outward display. Both point to the need for an inward change in our self perception before we can properly move to a relationship of mutuality and trust. In order to do this our first relationship of change must be with God. Before we can truly extend the love of God and our love to others we must first be educated by the only true teacher---God. Our relationship with God educates us toward recognizing and embracing the uniqueness of others. When we begin to see the other’s distinctiveness and not judge it, we are moving from our false self into a truer perception of the world.

We see Jesus take his listeners through this education process in two important stories. First, there is the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. These two men, that don’t see one another but instead have their own inward concerns, go up to the Temple to live out their religious duty. Neither one has a spiritual concern for the other, but both have their own interests in what is happening.  The Pharisee has his religious concern and pride about who he is in relation to others. He does not see others for their distinctiveness but sees them only in comparison to himself. He cannot love the Tax Collector because he really cannot see him. His time with God has not proven to be a valuable experience. He has not become a person who can love others. The Tax Collector cannot see the Pharisee either because he is concerned about finding God in his inward self. His relationship with the world cannot be established yet because he needs to engage God and be educated.

Both these men have turned inward. But the Pharisee did so to elevate himself over others. He operates from his false self that he has received from his culture’s promise of admiration. The Tax Collector has moved inward in order to shed the falseness and destructiveness of his life. He knows that it can only be done through a relationship with God. His repentance is his desire to be educated by the one true teacher. Therefore, he is in a position to actually love once his education is complete.

The other story is the Prodigal Son. The Father sees the son as someone worth loving. In order to do this he must put out of his mind all the other voices from the community and his family. He doesn’t allow any of them to be obstacles to loving his son. His inward journey has resulted in accepting what is true about God and what is true about his son. From this experience the son has a chance to change his perception of himself and others.

The process of being able to love is what John was trying to convey to his church in his letter I John 4:13-16. He says, “My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Dying to Self: Its Purpose and Meaning (Mark 8:34-36) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



I’m always amazed that Jesus pressures his audience and his disciples to accept some new level of direction for living. He never lets you rest in some banal or cozy concept of life, he pushes forward to a greater capacity to see life in some exciting way, in God’s way. For instance, life is not just finding happiness; it is finding a way through the hang-ups and spiritually oppressive dimensions of life to find freedom. He is never complicated, but always simple. He doesn’t make you jump through mental puzzles but presents this new life simply. He says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” It is up to us to figure out what he means by “self” and “deny” however. All we have to do is reflect on what it is we desire instead of God. Once we can imagine it and come to grips with it then we are in a position to contemplate our real selves. We can reach beyond our immediate concerns that trip us up. We can let go of the dreams that link us to dissatisfaction and failure, not to God.

To deny ourselves is not to hate ourselves but to love ourselves in God and our purpose. We are not to think that we need to get rid of all our worldly possessions and live without pleasure.  We are to think about what it means to be a true self in the world. This can only be understood through the life of contemplation. We will miss Jesus’ call if we stay too long listening to the enticements that turn us to the satisfactions of life and not the hope of life. Contemplation breaks the dark spell of the spin of affirmation and admiration we seek in order to make us happy.

So much pain and suffering goes down the road of acquiring and seeking admiration. We are constantly disappointed in that adventure. I can’t help but think of the movie Citizen Kane in light of Jesus’ call to follow him. Here was a man with everything given to him. Somewhere in his life he wanted to do the right thing, he wanted to help humanity. But his inward life was so damaged by his childhood that he could not find a way for the emptiness of his to be filled by something other than power. His whole life was driven by this desire to be admired but it could never fill him up. He was constantly dissatisfied. At the end of his life all he wanted, amidst all his money and fame, was his childhood. The mysterious last words of his life reveal what he really wanted, but couldn’t get out of his way to get---his childhood. Of course his last words were---Rosebud. This was the name of his small sleigh that he used to ride in his happy moments of childhood. He couldn’t get off the road to fame; collecting things or his desire for admiration long enough to reflect on what it is that is important. We all have a bit of Citizen Kane in us, which is why Jesus says so clearly, “Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.” 

It would be a mistake to think that only a few people can achieve what Jesus requests. That it is only for the courageous and well disciplined that enter monasteries without the distractions of modern life. We would do a disservice to the hope of Jesus if we do. Jesus believed that anyone can turn their life around, deny themselves so they can follow Jesus with clarity and integrity. We can’t let ourselves off the hook by saying that Jesus only meant this for a few. He meant it for the economically challenged and the ones who have all they need. He meant it for the emotionally damaged and those who have more stable emotional life. There is no excuse for not pursuing his admonition to “Take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him.”  Saint Francis was not an extraordinary man in this regard; he was instead a humble man who followed the vision of Christ simply and beautifully. His story can become ours as well. 

To deny ourselves can be understood as we look at the way Jesus lived his life. He lived his life according to the purpose he was called. In order to achieve his purpose he had to think outside the box of what it means to live in his beloved community and under the direction of God. To achieve his purpose he needed put aside the need to fulfill all the desires inside him. He needed to put aside seeking admiration of his fellow community, build his wealth and to think of his self before others. To do this he needed to discoverer his true self and his real purpose in life. Then he directed his life toward that purpose. This is our task as well. To deny ourselves is not to limit our pleasure, but to increase our pleasure in God.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Solitude: Gateway to Freedom (Psalm 46:10) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke


We often think of solitude as a monk in a tiny room performing his prayers or a person who decides to run away from the world living in the desert or the mountains. In other words, someone who lives away from the world, away from people. It means finding your way in the world alone; deciding what to do and living without others. But this is just the geography of what we think solitude is. Solitude is not about geography or about absence of contact; it is rather a spiritual reality that has nothing to do with being alone. We often set solitude up this way so that we don’t have to face the reality of what it is: which is being alone with ourselves and God. It means facing our inner selves, our regrets, our weaknesses and our true self. That is why when many of us who decide to just be with ourselves for the day or to just spend a few minutes reflecting on meaningful things find something else to do. Soon as we sit down or walk down the street our minds create possibilities of action that we must race back to. Before you know it we are back in the same habitual actions that are not guided by any meaningful direction.

Solitude is not loneliness, either. Loneliness is a world of sorrow. But solitude is a world of enlargement and joy. Solitude is a way of retracing steps with God and finding a way to take future steps with God. Psalms 46 is an expression of the purpose of solitude. The Psalmist begins his journey of solitude stating his experience of God’s protective nature. And then at the end he says “stand back and be still and know that God is God.” What he is requesting of the worshipper is to remove himself from the everyday activities, be still and think about God’s protective nature. Think about God’s love, mercy, grace and parental qualities and then engage God accordingly. We cannot address God accordingly except through what we learn in silence and solitude after bringing into these moments scripture and our reflection.

Think about how you chose your friends and how you stay friends. It is usually after spending hours and hours together doing things together and an equal amount of time being alone with your friend and exploring for intimate thoughts. The strengthening of the relationship is done within these intimate moments. The strengthening of the relationship comes as a result of love and builds itself so it can even withstand the hurt and pain of the other. Friendships that can be easily destroyed by a few words, even though words are powerful, it is a weak relationship. However, friendships that withstand the storm of disagreement are based on love. Solitude, and the desire for solitude, is a desire for love. For it is only in those moments that relationships can be strengthened.

We seek solitude because we seek the other, God. It is the beginning of the journey to be open, receptive and letting go. We can’t do this unless have a sense of trust and goodness in the other. The story of the Canaanite woman who had a sick child illustrates the desire to know the other. Jesus came into a region of the country that made his disciples uncomfortable. These were people they considered not worthy of their company. Jesus began teaching and soon a woman came screaming out of the crowd. She wanted Jesus to heal her child. She knelt before him, screamed at him and finally went up to him face to face. She pleaded with him to come to her sick daughter. Jesus said abruptly, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” This is what many Jews called the Canaanites. Instead of getting up in anger she agreed with Jesus, but added, “Even the dogs get the crumbs.” Of course she did this because if there was a chance of her daughter being healed she wanted to take it. But there is another side to this. She engaged Jesus because somehow she knew him. She knew that he was more compassionate than that statement. Jesus told her to go home because her daughter was healed. Then he said, “I haven’t seen such faith in all Israel.”

She found more than her initial desire. Stepping into solitude is like stepping into the unknown. We, more than not, get more than what we are seeking  in silence. What we find in these moments is more ease in being open, we learn to be more receptive, which then gives us the strength to let go of our false self. This woman found more than she wanted. She found a friend and a new image of God who loves, is gracious and kind. She found more reasons to seek solitude to find the God of Jesus. But if she returns to her old habits of prejudice and bitterness she will soon lose what she found in that moment.

God is reaching out to us everyday saying, “Be still and know that I am your friend. Be still and let me help you. Be still and get to know me.” To do this we must seek solitude.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Finding Breath to Praise (Psalm 150) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



To praise anyone, especially God, you have to step back from yourself and then immerse yourself in the glory of that person. It is in many ways like learning to sing. Many rock and roll singers have short careers because they don’t understand how to sing. They can’t step back from the affect their persona has on the crowd and they forget to breathe, to find the right pitch and diction. Singing is an exercise, a physical appreciation of body and soul that brings forth the depth of passion in the song. It means pushing everything else away from your mind and body, all the anxiety and fear that can close the throat and hurt the pitch. It means first learning to breathe and feel the air as a wonderful gift of life moving through your body to provide the perfect sound. You have to stand back from the pain of your life, the fear of your life, and the doubt of your life before you can see what is truly worth praising.  These are breathing lessons of the heart. We need to learn to breathe again to feel the freshness, the freshness and the exuberance of the air. To praise God we need to breathe: we need breathing lessons.

Praise is not easy; it finds itself stuttering off the tongue. It is born out of the things we see, the things we pay attention to not necessarily from passion. Praise comes from the flowers that smell beautifully, the trees the stand majestically, and the people in our lives that stand courageously. Praise is observation before it is inspiration. In order to stand before the world to praise a God that many find objectionable, we need to learn to pay attention. Praise is beyond wanting; it is listening without wanting anything for ourselves. Praise is beating the drums because there is nothing else to do. It is strumming a guitar with melody and vibrant excitement because you have lost yourself in the sound of the chord. When things become pedantic, there is no praise, there is only precision and personal enjoyment. But when the keys excite you, and when the strings compel you, and when the breath through the trumpet brings you joy, then you are on your way. It all begins with breathing lessons.

Imagine yourself as a Jewish person in the 8th century B.C. You have lost your homeland, but your heart yearns for the times you sang with your family, you sang with your friends in the temple to the delight of your heart. Then you are removed from this experience. You try to sing but you need to learn how to do it under a new king and a new God being praised all around you. So you go into your houses and in the fields, when your captors are not looking, and you sing your songs. Your breathing was free; your mind was captivated with the hope of going home. And then you find yourself transported home to the temple with the songs of tradition. Would not you want to free yourself from the shackles of your captors and sing with the triumphant sounds of praise? You praise God because of the hope in your singing, the hope in your breath. All this takes new breathing lessons to praise God.

What are these breathing lessons necessary to praise God?
· Praise does not begin in the noisy atmosphere of the busyness of life. It begins as we step back from this atmosphere and listen for the distinct voices that form the chorus of sound. It is paying attention to the voice of stillness, the voice of patience, the voice of goodness, and the voice of wisdom. It is listening to the wind through the trees that may frighten but also ignite a sense of life and power.
· Praise is perfected through the practice of listening as we learn to breathe again with the breath of God. As the confusion inside us begins to calm down and we breathe in the fresh air of God, our mind begins to attach itself to the ways of living that honor God.
· Praise is set loose in the act of living or as in this Psalm, the act of playing. On the drum we raise up from our silence and set loose the joy of praise. As we strum a chord it raises a smile on our face because of its wonderful sound. In the same way, when we live harmoniously with God and others there is a smile arranged in our heart which is the praise of God.

For the Psalmist, one of his goals in life was to “rediscover the breathing lessons” that can produce a wonderful sound. That is what he wants for his life: to find the spiritual harmony between himself and God.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Uneasy Pilgrim (Psalm 121) by Rev. Steve Locke



I think it fair to say that the Psalms are addressed to Israel and about Israel’s spiritual vision. The subject of the Psalms almost always turns to God and God’s power, right and protection of Israel. These nationalistic prayers need be deconstructed for those of us who have a faith that is centered in Jesus. It is up to us to deconstruct these Psalms from their nationalistic direction for the spiritual empowerment of individuals that stand outside Israel’s tradition. It is especially important to do this when we consider the “Pilgrim Psalms” that begin with Psalms 120. We must dig deeper to find the treasure in these Psalms that will provide spiritual direction. Psalms 121 directs our attention to God’s protective and providential nature. But it is not just for Israel. As we have come to believe through Jesus and Paul these prayers are for all of us, from different traditions. They are to be used by us with full confidence that they are useful tools to unearth the way of God in the world.

For these Pilgrim Psalms we need to ask the basic question, “What do we need from God to start our pilgrimage?” The answer to this question is the reason Psalm 121 is so popular.  It says that what we need for any pilgrimage is to know God is walking with us protecting us from harm, that God will keep us from evil and will help us from going astray. In other words, first we need to have faith that God cares for us and will enter into our life as we ask for traveling mercies. Second, we are counting on God to protect us from the evil things of this world, which come from individuals and forces beyond our control.  Third, we pray to God to help us stay on the path. We need help in keeping the goal in front of us instead of getting sidetracked into things that detour our purpose.

Imagine that all of us were taking a pilgrimage to Louisville, which happens to be the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Each year Presbyterians from around the country would prepare to go to three days of seminars and lectures designed to strengthen our spiritual life. Those that were going from this church would get together and plan our itinerary. We might stop over in Las Vegas for a night, or we might decide to visit New Orleans along the way. Some of us might decide to go to the Bourbon Country or to some other entertainment place.  And because it was such a big event there would be signs along the way advertising cheap lunches, cheap motels and everything else people might want. All these distractions are hazardous to the journey. 

It was the same for Israel.: roads were filled with advertisements, with temptations and with those ready to take your money. Psalms 121 was written with these hazards in mind. It laid before the people of Israel, as it does us, the profound need to pray and keep praying as we look forward to the day. All the strategies and plans we make are useful but the most useful thing we can do in each day of our pilgrimage is to pray for the protection and care of God. There are dangers in each day that are unforeseen, known and ignored. Prayer helps us stay centered throughout the day so that we not only reach our destination but also grow in our faith through this experience.

Our help comes from God, not from all of those promising protection along the way of our journey (The Hills).  God will help us from the pressures of the day and the craziness at night when we have time to think about the temptations all around us (sunstroke and moon-stroke). God is concerned about your life and where it is going along this road to spiritual discovery (keep you from evil). If we keep this in mind we will be living out the prayers of Psalms 121.

But this Psalm is not only for pilgrimages or journeys, it is for each day. Each day is filled with enough possible danger and evil to handle. Each day has enough distractions in it that can set us adrift from our goals. But also in each day is the chance to engage our faith to meet these temptations and challenges. As long as we bring God with us on our journey throughout the day we will succeed in completing God’s purpose.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Honest Hearts (Psalm 32) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke



“We are lived by forces we pretend to understand,” says W.H. Auden. Auden was a poet of the last century whose most important poems were in a work entitled, “The Age of Anxiety.” He understood that we act, feel and make decisions by forces we don’t often understand but think we can fix through intelligence or will. We think we can fix our grief by just keeping busy without going through the pain. We think we can fix our depression by just listening to “positive thinking” tapes and upbeat music. We think we can fix our spiritual deadness by reading scripture all day but without going through the pain and suffering of the humiliation of confession. To move past these emotional walls to fix our life is the gift of faith given to us by our relationship with God. Through faith the forces of anxiety and fear can be diminished to engage a more honest approach about our life, and not only more honest but more courageous. This is what is necessary to negotiate these forces we don’t always understand.

David was a person who found help in exposing his sins to God and then to his nation. It was through this process he found a way out of the trap of trying to fix everything. He was a political leader that was trained to fix what was wrong on the surface by discounting it with political rhetoric. He could make his bad press go away. But he could never do that with God. Therefore he gave his heart to God and then divulged to Israel his lessons in humility. He did not try and engage the forces he didn’t understand, instead he gave to God the simple truth of his sin; a force which he not only didn’t understand but knew how it destroyed his life. In order to destroy sin from his life he needed to give it God. He said in his song to the temple musicians, “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be---you get a fresh start. . . Count yourself lucky---God holds nothing against you.” This understanding does not arrive by contemplating God’s nature, it comes from his deep remorse and love for God that drove him to humiliate himself to God and nation. From there he gets a fresh start. It only comes to a person when the cycle is broken.

Sin is a power that is not completely understood except when it leads our life to unimaginable grief. But only then do we understand its consequence on how it convinces us to change our behavior according to its designs. We understand our devastation through sin but don’t necessarily know what sin actually is.

The only quest that we have when sin comes into our life is to break through its falsehoods with honesty. To be honest helps break the cycle of lies by transparency. An honest heart breaks the cycle of deception, manipulation and the unending task of rationalization. David says, “When I kept it all inside my bones turned to powder . . . the pressure never let up.” His point is that when I tried to hide my sin, when I tried to fix it by myself I entered an eternal circle of pain.  “But when I let it go, it gave me the power to address God and make a clean breast of things.”  I was free to live for God, not bound up with lies which only made me think of trying to get out of things. It only brought misery that could not be fixed.

David’s poem of confession and heart break is a courageous act of coming clean. But it is also a poem for the nation that might provide them a second chance at making an “honest heart” in all of them. What David did in this Psalm is to help them not be afraid at opening their lives before God. They needn’t worry about retribution by coming clean with God and each other. They can look forward to a life of freedom. By his courageous act of confession he tried to help his people throw off their painful bondage of guilt and find a life of salvation and grace with God.

Eventually, David moves past his days of hiding his sin to actually deciding to let his life become an open book to God, to the public and even himself. He had to admit his pain and sin so he could move past his continual pain of guilt that he couldn’t fix. His last phrase is an address to the nation just for this purpose. He says, “Celebrate God. Sing together----every one! All you honest-hearts, raise the roof!” He wants to raise the roof in celebration because there is nothing like the freedom of being known by God and being forgiven. Once we celebrate we will not be bound to “live by forces we pretend to understand”, we can live without fear.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Faith in a World of Hostility (Psalm 3) by Rev. Dr. Steve Locke




“Enemies past counting...” This is a phrase expressing the fears in the mind of those who feel the world pressing in on their comfort and convenience. What kind of enemies? Are they the enemies of politics or the enemies of war? They could even be the enemies of society that try to lay claim upon reputation and position. Since we know that this is a Psalm of David, after the death and treason of Absalom, his son, we should surmise that the enemies are those that try to lay claim to his position, as King. David laid out before God his pain with bitter emotion. This event is enmeshed with suffering and pain attached. His experience of the pressure upon his life is real, but in the Psalm there is no realization of his part in his son’s disloyalty. Indeed there may not be any part, but the pain of his loss as a father is specifically expressed. We, of course, do not know that he was an ineffective father, but given the circumstances and his remorse it might have led him to that conclusion.

Because his remorse is somewhat subdued I assume that he is talking to the nation, and not to God through intimate conversation. He wants to bolster the nation to believe in God and to secure their faith in order to engage the future. He is not willing to engage his sin or inability as a father; he wants to give the nation a new direction of hope. They know that his son betrayed him and the nation but he addresses only the interest of his people and not his despair. Their interest is, according to the king, that their enemies have been crushed. David expresses his pain as a king who feels the pressure of the responsibility, and of his enemies. They have suffered, they have reached out to God, and they have looked for the resolution that would bring this all to an end. God has fulfilled their desire.

Enemies are all around them but who is the enemy? David knows and the nation knows. Everyone is hard pressed to find a resolution of their pain other than in God, who is already working in David and the nation to find a new future for everyone. David narrates his pain of being attacked but it has already happened. Therefore he is providing the nation a way of coming to grips with treason and with betrayal. “There are enemies,” they are on every side and in every corner of our lives. “But you God shield us,” from the terrible forces that try and defeat us. This of course is the reality we hope for every day. We believe that God’s vision will survive and that he wants us to succeed.  This is our hope, this is our daily endeavor.

Reading the Psalm, like reading our life, depends upon knowing what is going on around us. When we do then we are able to speak with clarity and purpose. We are able to assess the situation and respond accordingly. Spirituality is not acting according to a template, but according to what God desires for us in that moment. It is this moment that the Psalms press us toward. They force us to listen to God instead of making rules for ourselves.

Enemies are those that act against us, often because of provocation from us and others. We create enemies by position, personality and actions. Enemies are not always those that are wrong and they are not always right. We must look past our position and our ideology to assess who comes against us. Humility is not a spiritual trait devoid of political will. It is a necessary trait to determine how to respond in the face of anger and hatred that seeks to destroy us.

The one thing that spirituality cannot succumb to is to dishonor God by a lie. David did not lie. He told the truth as a king. He gave the people a statement of truth to indulge their national hope. This is a Psalm of security and of personal acknowledgment of the power of God to do what is right. We struggle to see the truth, but it is hazy until we understand the vision of God. “Real help comes from God. Your blessing clothes your people!”  It is this belief that allows David, the nation and us to get up each morning with renewed hope that we can enter the world of enemies. But we miss the point of the Psalm if we think God wants us to demonize our enemies. We are not always right and our enemies are not always wrong. The Psalm points us to God and God pushes out the door to live and learn among our friends and enemies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Do You Have Enough? (Luke 12:13-21) by Rev. Dr. Bryan Kile



Let me start with the title: Do you have enough? Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: enough what? Enough of anything? Enough money? Enough space in your house? Enough stuff?

Many people think that if they could only win the lottery, they would have enough money; they would be set for life. People who win the lottery think they then have enough. But does that kind of money really solve all your problems? I read where 70% of lottery winners lose it all within seven years.

Someone has suggested that we have become a culture of clutter. The comedian, George Carlin, is quoted as saying that “the essence of life is trying to find a place to put all your stuff.” The self-storage business has certainly capitalized on that thought. According to the Self-Storage studies, in March of this year there were approximately 50,000 self-storage facilities in the United States. They note that, at the same point in time, nearly on in ten US households currently rent a self-storage unit. That has increased from 1 in 17 in the last 25 years—an increase of approximately 65%.

I know from personal experience. When I retired ten years ago and moved to Houston, we downsized from a house with a two car garage to a townhouse with a carport. We took ten Jeep Cherokee loads of “stuff” to the Hospice Thrift Shop in the area we were moving from. We never missed a single thing.

What I have said so far about money and possessions is nothing new to you. You have known it all your adult lives. You just didn’t want to admit it, but what is really important is to take a look at life from a godly viewpoint. Or as Ray Charles put it, “Live every day like it’s your last, ‘cause one day you’re gonna be right.” In other words, collecting stuff is not what will be important on that last day of your life. You can have barns full of “stuff” or banks full of money, and it will make no difference to you. I mean face it—have you ever seen a hearse pulling a u-haul trailer?

I believe the man in Jesus’ parables missed the point. The Lord prospered him, but he wanted to keep it all for himself. He forgot the Old Testament command to tithe. I believe it is better to eliminate some of the “stuff” and give more to the Lord’s work.

I read about a professor at USC who studied people’s attitudes about money over a twenty-five year period. He found that “many people are under the illusions that the more money we make, the happier we’ll be. We put all of our resources into making money at the expense of our family and our health... The problem is we don’t realize that our material wants increase with the amount of money we make. The study discovered happiness was related to:
·         Quality time with loved ones,
·         Good health,
·         Being friendly,
·         Having an optimistic outlook,
·         Exercising self-control, and
·         Possessing a deep sense of ethics.”
·         Duh! Isn’t that what Jesus was teaching 2000 years ago?

You see, in this parable, Jesus is talking about more than money or possessions or “stuff.” Jesus is talking about a higher calling in life. He is teaching that real happiness comes from a completely different way of life. Remember what the first question of the Westminster Catechism is? “What is the chief end of man?” Or, to put it in modern language: “What is the chief purpose of people’s existence?” The answer is: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

So what is it that is important for a happy life? Three things: First and foremost, is your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Second is a good relationship with others, and third is an optimistic outlook on life. “Stuff” and money don’t even make the list.

When you have a good relationship with God, when you walk daily with Jesus Christ, you’re well on your way to personal satisfaction. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus started out with what we now call the “Beatitudes.” Each one starts, “Blessed are those who...” I’m not encouraging you to repeat all nine of them, but I would encourage you to look them up later today in Matthew 5. You will notice that not one of them mentions “things.” When Jesus was saying in those beatitudes is that your trust in God is what will bring blessings to your life. When you are walking hand in hand with Jesus, day by day, life becomes a joyful time, a time of celebration.

We should be celebrating every day: celebrating the fact that all is forgiven, celebrating the fact that God loves us and cares a great deal about each and every one of us. We should be celebrating the fact that victory is certain because of our faith in Jesus Christ. And that, my friend, is a promise!

Paul tells us that Christians should be cultivating the “Fruit of the Spirit” in our lives. Those nine fruit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NCV) Did you notice as I read those that every one of them is a positive, uplifting, happy characteristic? They are all part of celebrating the joy of Christian living.

The second thing that makes for a happy life is our relationship with others. Over the years, I have talked with many people who were miserable. When we talked about what it is that is bothering them, it almost always comes down to a troubled relationship with someone: a spouse, a child, some other family member, a neighbor, a friend. Your relationships with others are important to your happiness. Dr. Bernie Siegel has written extensively on healing from a spiritual standpoint. His writing isn’t necessarily Christian, but summing up briefly what he reports, it is clear that people in good relationships, especially marriages, are happier and live longer.

The Apostle Paul gives us some good advice for keeping happy relationships. He says, “Wish good for those who harm you; wish them well and do not curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and be sad with those who are sad. Live in peace with each other. Do not be proud, but make friends with those who seem unimportant. Do not think how smart you are.” (Romans 12:14-16 NCV) Jesus reminds us what to do when we have a disagreement with someone else: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-244 NIV)

You see, healthy relationships are so important to our personal health and well-being. It is important to maintain friendships and family relationships in good condition. Let’s face it, our own happiness depends on it.

Now, I know there are some who are saying, “Well, I just can’t repair that relationship, it’s too far gone.” It’s not too far gone. With prayer and God’s help, you can make it right and you and the other person will be better for it. Remember what Jesus told Peter when he asked how many times he must forgive someone else? Peter thought he was being pretty magnanimous when he suggested forgiving seven times. Jesus said, forgive seventy times seven. And that didn’t mean 490 times. It was a Hebrew way of saying as many times as necessary. I believe that as Christians, it is incumbent upon us to be the one to make the effort, to take the first step toward reconciliation.

A teacher asked her students to list what they thought were the present Seven Wonders of the World. The students cast the most votes for:
1. Egypt’s Great Pyramids
2. Taj Mahal
3. Grand Canyon
4. Panama Canal
5. Empire State Building
6. St. Peter’s Basilica
7. China’s Great Wall

While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one student was still working on her paper. She asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, “Yes, a little. I couldn’t quite make up my mind because there are so many.” The teacher said, “Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help.” The girl hesitated, then read, “I think the Seven Wonders of the World are:
1. to see
2. to hear
3. to touch
4. to taste
5. to feel
6. to laugh
7. to love”

That child was on the right track!

The third key to our happiness is to maintain an optimistic outlook on life. A study of 1,000 people aged 65-85 points to the importance of a positive attitude in dealing with life. After almost 10 years of follow-up, researchers found that people who described themselves as optimistic had a 55% lower risk of death from all causes, and a 23% lower risk of heart-related death. Optimistic people tend to be more physically active, drink less, and smoke less. They cope with stress more effectively. While one’s attitude toward life isn’t everything, it does make a crucial difference in dealing with life. And who has more reason for optimism than Christians?

Christians have real reason to be optimistic. We have been given promises that remind us that no matter what may happen today, tomorrow with Jesus will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. We have an eternity of joyful living to look forward to. What better reason to celebrate and give thanks to God? The Bible says, “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.” (Psalm 68:3 NIV) Paul put it this way, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13 NIV)

The rich man in today’s parable had as optimistic outlook on life. But, it was based on how much “stuff” and how much money he had, not on the promises of God.

Haddon Robinson, the eminent preaching professor, tells a story similar to this parable of the rich fool. A man in today’s society opens a newspaper and discovers the date on the newspaper is six months in advance of the time in which he lives. He begins to read through the newspaper, and he discovers stories about events that have not yet taken place. He turns to the sports page, and there are scores of games not yet played. He turns to the financial page and discovers a report of the rise or fall of different stocks and bonds. He realizes this can make him a wealthy man. A few large bets on an underdog team he knows will win will make him wealthy. Investments in stocks that are now low but will get high can fatten his portfolio. He is delighted. He turns the page and comes to the obituary column and sees his picture and story. Everything changes. The knowledge of his death changes his view about his wealth.

I’d like to close with a personal story about change toward wealth and “stuff.” When Linda and I were called to the last church I served, we were living in a big house in a lake waterfront community. We needed that big place to house all our “stuff.” The place was killing us financially. When I took the call to serve the little church in a little town called Jones Creek, Texas, we put the house on the market. We felt fortunate that we were going to be living in a church-owned manse and not having to carry an additional mortgage payment. We had a few folks look at the house at the lake, but not a single offer. One day, I was looking over our finances and said to Linda, “You know, we are struggling financially, but we are not tithing. I believe we need to start tithing.” So we did that. The next Sunday we put a check in the appropriate amount in the offering. That day, when we got home from church there was a message on our answering machine. Remember those? It was the realtor. She had a contract on the house. It sold and we closed a few weeks later.

You see friends, it doesn’t matter if you have a lot or a little, whether you are wealthy or poor, or if you have storage units filled with stuff or not enough “stuff” to fill the space you live in. What is important is that you are walking with God in a relationship with Jesus Christ. If there is anyone here today who is not walking with Christ as their Savior and Lord, anyone who is not celebrating the love of Christ, please talk to me at the door today. You see, if you’re not walking with Christ, you don’t have enough.