Overton park sings a tune

Verdant canopy
towering trees
singing birds
cool breeze
this forest sings a tune
to her king
awake o earth
arise you creatures
make a glad song
to your maker

What a widow's olive oil has to say to us today

There was a widow once who ran up to Elisha the prophet and laid out her story: "My husband is dead. He was a Godly man who worshiped Yahweh. But he was in debt and his creditors have come and threaten to throw my two boys into the labor camp." 

How does the prophet respond? What does a man of God do in this situation? 

Does he condemn the woman for being in debt? Does he write her a check? Does he invite her to the sanctuary for prayer?

"How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?" he asks.

Hmmm. Not the response I'd expect. Funny timing on this passage from 1 Kings 4:1-7 because in the past two weeks since arriving in Memphis I've had several men come up to me to ask for help and for money. I've been caught off guard after living the past four years within the world of campus ministry. But I suppose I had this happen in that context, too. Maybe it was, "I just failed my exam. My mom is not listening to me. I feel so alone. Help!" But, here in Memphis, I've had people approach me with tangible needs and I am sad to say I've felt full, no room for compassion. My knee jerk response is not compassion and mercy, but rather, "not now." 

So at work today when we opened this story from the pages of God's Word, I recognized the helpful timing of this story. 

Elisha genuinely wants to know how he can help, but he doesn't help in the way we'd expect. He first wants to know what the woman already has. It's a response which affirms her dignity as a woman made in the image of God. She is not a sorry charity case. She is a woman with faith, with poverty of spirit, with something already in her hands which God can use. 

"A small jar of olive oil."

Okay, God can work with this, Elisha thinks. He commissions the widow to turn around and go to all of her neighbors and ask for help: "Please, do you have any extra empty jars I could have?"

Wow, that's vulnerable. Go to my neighbors? Ask for help? Well, God's man told me to do it, and by golly, I've got nothing to lose! 

There's part of my problem. I have so much to lose, or so I think. I don't want to look undignified. I don't want to lose my time. I don't want to get used. Lord, help me. It's so much easier to feign ignorance, incapacity or to just fork over some change. 

So, the woman obeys. She collects jars. Her dearth of olive oil transforms to an abundance. 

Of course, Elisha is not the hero and neither is the widow. It's the God of Elisha and the God of the widow. The God who always has enough to go around, especially for a widow of faith who doesn't want to fall under the tyranny of injustice which threatens her sons freedom, her own well-being and the last shred of her dignity.

But, we can learn from Elisha and from the widow. Stay calm, focused, remembering that we worship a God who wants to act on behalf of widows. Don't be too quick to offer a casual handout of charity. Remember that God can involve the recipient of our "help" to use what they already have. He'll take it and multiply it. 





The Unexpected Neighbor

Knock. Knock. There stood my neighbor, dressed in his starch white Naval uniform. He had just completed his duties at a military funeral and returned earlier than usual. He didn't have a key to his house, which actually isn't his house. He and his wife and children are staying with in-laws for the time being. They just had their fifth baby and are in a time of need. His wife had the key and wasn't home yet, so he kindly asked if he could sit down and wait until she returned home in a few minutes. Of course, of course. Do you want anything to drink? Have a seat, have a seat. We began to converse and learned more about our neighbor. We learned that he has worked 300 funerals in a short period of time, in order to earn extra money to support his family, each funeral an optional opportunity for a reservist. He shared his history in the Navy and the current economic pressures he feels as he waits to see if he will be granted an extension to finish out his career in the reserves. If he is not, he will be forced to find another job, another job he confesses which he knows will pay very little. He shared about his concerns for future generations and the moral decline which is so pervasive everywhere he looks. He courageously asks if we will pray for him that he would be granted the extension so that he can finish out his career in the military and will be able to retire. He knows that any other job, with his age and level of education, will not allow him to provide for his family - especially a family which just introduced another newborn into the world. I am struck by his humble plea for prayer. This aging father, who has served in multiple war zones came to us and asked boldly for prayer believing that God would hear our prayer. He offered his hands and we joined ours to his as we stood in our living room, praying. He exited our home to greet his wife. I know that it was a privilege to be able to pray for this man, to stand beside my brother in his time of need.

What's this? What's this?

Have you seen Nightmare Before Christmas? Like a bear waking from his winter cave, the song "What's this?" stirred and stretched and sauntered out of my memory yesterday. Looking around at my new environment - new house, new neighbors, new city, new community, new colors, sights and sounds - my heart began to stir with a wonder and excitement I haven't felt for some time. I suppose all of this newness awakened the song, somewhat appropriately for this occasion as I look around at this place I now call home.

Unlike the "Christmas town" which Jack discovers where people are singing and throwing snowballs in the expectant dawn of Christmas, I am in Memphis, Tennessee. Certainly no snow here. But my eyes and ears are thirsty as they drink deeply from my new surroundings. My heart, too. I've been tired and restless of late and this move seems to be stirring me from a slumber. No, moving is not a quick fix. Our hearts are much more complicated than that. But I'm learning that sometimes you do need change. Not change for change sake, but change which turns on the hinges of something more solid and enduring. Something like a bigger vision of living life under the good and loving reign of Jesus Christ. His holy love transcends my undulating obedience and temperamental devotion. Thankfully, as I enter into this season of change, I can trust that he is bigger than the possible failures or fickleness which may be incipient in this change. I cling to the hope of his transforming grace which calls me out of the suffocating fears which threaten to numb and deaden me.

My prayer is that this "What's this?" perspective will not just be a temporary gust in my sails, but a threshold by which I cross over into a new way of living in the kingdom. May wonder and awe at my Father Creator grow within my soul like a spring ivy. May I think less about my changes and my perspective and more about what Jesus is doing around me.

Speaking of what he's doing around me, I look forward to sharing a brief story about a neighbor in my next post.


Tacitus, 120 AD, speaking of Christ

"Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea,"
Source: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt../ah/Tacitus/TacitusAnnals15.html

On our own, this is impossible...

http://bible.com/97/LUK6.31.MSG
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them ! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. Bible.com/app

Conversations on Death

This morning I attended a bioethics lecture where representatives from Carle Hospital, Urbana Theological Seminary and guest lecturer of moral philosophy from Union University addressed some of the questions facing our society today regarding aging and end-of-life care for medical and religious professionals as well as a more potent perspective for us each as humans who will face our own and family member's deaths. 

In the midst of the research, surveys, data and trends discussed, a common thread stood out like a scarlet strand amid a complex tapestry of medical, economic, social, spiritual and familial concerns: a growing expression of desire to provide & receive care in a manner which is more compassionate and humanizing and attends to the spiritual, relational and emotional needs of those who are facing death. 

Dr. Cranston, a neurologist, shared that elimination of pain is actually not at the top of the list of why patients seek assisted-suicide: it's because they are lonely, abandoned, depressed, hopeless, conflicted and don't want to be a burden on others. The panel spoke of the curious trend in which sons and daughters want medical professionals to "do everything" to save their parents from pain and death. What is "everything" possible? Do we really want that? Rather, would we do well to give attention to how to die well. 

Dr. Mitchells shared the ancient Latin prayer, "From sudden and unprovided death deliver us, Lord" which stands as a bullwark against the cultural tide - both within the church and without - where the conversation of death and preparing for its arrival has become concealed amid other more seemingly pressing concerns. All three representatives let their sleeves down in the Q&A and spoke frankly about the pressing need for us to break the cycle of silence regarding illness and death in our communities. Medical professionals can only go so far in the process of care. Remember the early church who was known for putting her own life at risk in order to remain behind in plague-ravaged cities. The ministry of simply being with people as they near the end of this physical life seems to be forgotten. Perhaps my generation needs to remember that our faith - one firmly planted in the death and resurrection of our Lord - is a faith which is not shy about death. We can speak boldly of our hope and do not need to be afraid of death, nor of sitting closely and compassionately with those who nearing the end of this earthly sojourn.

As one who lives and works among many who are young and vibrant - "far" from death it is believed - this conversation on death could seem marginal, but I am reminded of the faith of Christ-followers who have been martyred. It was not at the point of martyrdom that they prepared to die, for they had prepared much earlier. For when Christ calls a man to come and follow him, He calls him to come and die. The tragedy for our generation, for our society, would be to pretend that death is not coming for those around us and that it is not coming for us. Our earthly life is vaporous. In Christ alone, we have a victorious hope in the face of earthly death and we are called to come along side our neighbors, our families, our communities, and show them the compassion we received while we were still dead in our sins, as well as share the good news of hope which is theirs in Christ alone.

Teach us to number our days, O LORD, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.