Friday, August 26, 2016


Parables sometimes muddy the waters. But sometimes they hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves. This is one of those parables, adapted from Luke 15…

Once there was a man who lived in a nice, quiet town. He went through good times and bad in that little town. And always the people of that town were there to celebrate or grieve with him.
     The man worked hard. And God blessed his efforts. And so, as he got older, he found himself one of the wealthiest people in the town. He had a beautiful house, the best food, the best clothes. But his pride and joy was never in the things he had. It was in his two sons.
     They grew up with all the advantages: education, security, love. They grew into handsome young men that everyone in town admired. Their father taught them his business. He set aside a trust that they could access upon his death. But he also taught them to love the Lord, their family, and their town. 
     The older son was dutiful. He did his best to learn the business and take on the increasing responsibilities his father gave him. Sometimes he thought about what else he might do, where he might go, but in the end all he wanted was to be at home and follow his father’s example.
     The younger son was different. He was always dreaming of other places and chafing under the responsibilities his father gave him. Until, one day, he came to his father. Full of arrogance, he dismissed the father’s work and the town he loved as provincial and boring. 
     “It seems like you’re going to live forever, and I’m tired of waiting for what’s mine,” he said. “I don’t want your life. I don’t want your God. I don’t want your church. Change that trust so I can have it now. And then I’m gone.”
     His arrogance was breathtaking. And, yet, his father agreed. Sadly, he rearranged his affairs so that both his sons could take possession of what he intended to be theirs. He divided everything he had between the two brothers. His advisers were shocked, and warned him that he’d have nothing. But he shushed them and told them that’s how he wanted it.
     So the younger son left. He went to a thriving, vibrant city far away from the little town, a city that never slept, full of treasures for a young man with wealth to uncover. He explored every scene, ate in the best restaurants, became a fixture in the most exclusive clubs. And he also discovered, and enjoyed, some other experiences that just weren’t available in a small town. He had no shortage of friends, especially when he pulled out the card and paid the checks. He had known it all along: there was so much more to life than that small, dead-end town where his father and brother worked the days away.
     But, faster than he expected, the money ran out. His cards started getting declined. The clubs that welcomed him turned him away. The friends avoided him. The girls who had opened their beds to him laughed at him. He lost his downtown apartment, his car, his tabs at the best restaurants. He found himself washing dishes in steaming kitchens, collecting cans from the garbage, squeegeeing windshields for loose change. And then some things he didn’t want to think about.
     And one day, rooting through the garbage on a cold, windy street corner for a crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon can, a thought struck him. He remembered his father’s guest room. It was just a bedroom, but the memory reminded him of how his father never turned away someone in need of a roof over their head. And then he was in tears, sobbing, thinking about the home he had left. 
     It took a while. He hitchhiked, walked. Stole a bus ticket once. But eventually he was back in the little town. And there was the driveway of the house. He almost lost his nerve, but calmed himself by reciting his speech in his head. “I’m so, so sorry for all I’ve done. I’m so tired and hungry. Can I just stay a few nights in the guest room until I figure out my next step? Maybe have a few leftovers to eat? I know I can never make up for my sins, but I’ll do any work you need done.”
     And then he saw someone running toward him. He started to run away, but then saw who it was. His father. His graying father, sprinting toward him like Usain Bolt, with his arms wide, eyes wet, and a smile on his face. Before he could move, his father had him in a bear hug. He thought briefly of how bad he smelled, but his dad didn’t seem to notice. He started to recite his speech, but it was muffled by his father’s shoulder and then drowned out by his shouting.
     “Look who’s home!” he roared, to no one and everyone in particular. And then he was shouting orders to the cook, to get a feast on the table. “We have to celebrate!” he screamed. Hustling his son inside, he pushed him into the bathroom to take a long shower. There was a pile of his father’s own clothes waiting for him when he got out: his rags were nowhere to be seen. And, when he was dressed, his father told him to take a nap — in the bedroom he’d grown up in, still just as he had left it.
     That night, there was a party like that little town had never seen. His father had invited everyone. The food was abundant, the music was loud, and the party went well into the night.
     Conspicuous by his absence, though, was the man’s other son. The father found him in his own room, headphones clamped tightly over his ears to drown out the sounds of the celebration. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Come join the party.”
     The older son responded with a bitterness his father had never heard in him before. “You know, if you’d wanted to have a party for one of your sons, I can think of a better choice than that ungrateful, manipulative freeloader. You have another son, you know, who’s always tried to be loyal and responsible. Maybe you could have at least ordered him a pizza so he could have a few friends over.”
     The father shook his head, tears coming to his eyes for the second time that day. “Son, you have always been with me. And, for that, I’m happy to give you everything I have. But the celebration tonight isn’t about reward. It’s about the fact that one of the two people I love more than anyone or anything in the world, a son who everyone else had given up for dead, has come home to me.”

     Taking his son’s hand in his own, he looked him in the eye. “Don’t you see? We have to celebrate.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Prayer Is for People Like Us

…Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
     Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
-James 5:16-18 (NIV)

I can tell you one thing I’ve learned about sending your child off to college: It helps your prayer life.
     I wonder why we’re like that? Why do we mostly turn to prayer when we’re at the end of our ropes, or desperate, or our children are beyond our sphere of immediate influence and protection? Oh, we may offer some token prayers at other times, but we tend to double down on prayer when we’re out of our depth and over our heads. Why is prayer our last resort?
     Well, there are lots of reasons, aren’t there? We’re busy people, and prayer takes time. It isn’t something to multi-task. And yet that also has something to do with our priorities, our emphasis on what is urgent vs. what is important. As busy as we are, we make the time for what is important to us.
     So why isn’t prayer important enough to win a more regular place on our schedules? Maybe it’s because our world values work, doing something, rolling up our sleeves and making our lives different by the sheer force of our wills. Maybe we suspect, on some level, that the world is right. That prayer is for those who can’t actually do something to influence circumstances. That it’s for the weak, the sick, the old or very young. The incompetent. The victim. And so we imagine that prayer and work are mutually exclusive, that when we pray it’s a cop-out, a way to avoid trying to change things.
     Or maybe — and I think there might be more to this than we want to admit — maybe we don't pray because we don’t believe on some level that God would listen to us. Righteous people, sure. People who don’t swear and who know their Bibles and who give to the poor and who don’t talk about their neighbors behind their backs and would never, ever click on a dodgy website. But us? Maybe we don’t pray, in the end, because we don’t think we’re entitled.
     Maybe we get that idea, to some extent, from James. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” he says, and it’s easy to picture that guy who sits on the front row at church and is always ready to help out, or that woman who sings with eyes closed and head back and a beatific smile on her face, as though she’s looking right at the face of God. It’s easy to picture the elders or preachers or Sunday School teachers we’ve known. So, when we’re struggling or suffering or worrying, we seek them out and ask them to pray for us. And well we should, but not for the reasons we suspect. Not because God won’t hear our prayers.
     See, James qualifies what he says. “Confess your sins to each other,” he says. Because it isn’t only sinless saints who need to come to God in prayer. The rest of us need to as well: the sinners, the people who aren’t models of faith and piety and service and worship. The selfish need to pray, too. So do the bitter and angry. The profane. The greedy. In fact, even the men and women we’d categorize as sinless saints are more sinful than we might imagine. And so James tells us to own up to that. Confess our sins to each other. Know that no one ever prayed with God owing him something. Admit it; we are sinners. And what does God ask of us sinners? That we would admit our sinfulness to each other before we come to him in prayer. There is to be no misunderstanding, no misguided belief that some of us are more qualified than others. We all have the privilege of prayer handed to us for no reason other than our trust in the sinless Savior who gave up his life for us. That’s why we pray in his name.
     And when we’ve confessed, James tells us to pray for each other. Prayer isn’t just for the leaders, or the super-spiritual, or the best givers. Praying for each other is a mandate for the entire church. It’s a great responsibility, and can demand a lot of us. But we’ve all been drafted to fight for each other in prayer.
     That’s when James tells us that prayer makes a difference, that it isn’t weak or insipid or the path of last resort. It’s powerful, he says, effective. When men and women made righteous by their trust in the work of Jesus come to God in prayer, things happen. Energy is released. Stuff gets done. And, by the choice of his example, James reminds us that prayer is for everyone.
     Elijah. Elijah is his example. I don’t know what you know about Elijah, but I can tell you that his resume is decidedly mixed. There’s a widow whose food doesn’t run out and whose son Elijah raised from the dead. There was his smackdown of the priests of Baal. But don’t forget that Elijah was the guy who ran because a godless queen wanted him dead. He ran and hid in a cave, where he sulked for a while and accused God of leaving him alone to face all these threats. I’m not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I’m pretty sure I could do that. James is nice about it: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are….” 
     So prayer is for human beings like us; for real people who have bad days, who worry and react badly to stress and yell at God for not doing his job properly. Elijah’s prayer wasn’t effective because he was always a towering figure of strength. It was effective because God is powerful, and because he loves to give his people what they ask for in prayer.
     So, pray. Make the effort to pray for each other, to remember the needs people share with us and put aside the time to take them to God. If we pray for each other, we might be surprised at what God will do among us. Not spiritual giants who have progressed past the point of worrying about our kids, or struggling with doubt, or falling into sin. But people who struggle, and sometimes fail, and yet whom he loves and wants to bless.

     Prayer is for people like us.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Home Church

     Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. 
-Deuteronomy 4:9 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the church where I grew up. I guess that’s because I have a kind of unusual opportunity coming up in a few weeks. At the end of the month, I’m supposed to speak at a summer series there. 
     Well, that’s not exactly true.
     The church where I grew up was Hixson Church of Christ on Cloverdale Drive in Hixson, Tennessee, an “unincorporated community in the city of Chattanooga.” The church where I’ll be speaking is Clear Creek Church of Christ on Hixson Pike. (As a side note, people from Hixson don’t appreciate jokes about being hicks. Though I understand the temptation.)
     So a lot of folks would argue that the church where I grew up doesn’t exist anymore. That’s one way to look at it. After all, the building is in a different location and the name is different. Another way to look at it is that the church where I grew up is now a Baptist church, since the building is still on Cloverdale Drive but now has a different name. I can understand how someone might think that. 
     But here’s what I know: the night I speak, some of the people who’ll be there are the people who taught me about Jesus and encouraged me and challenged me and coaxed me along in my walk with him.  Some of them were my best friends from the time I was 5 until I was 20. I went to wakes and funerals for their family members, and when my grandmother died they were there for us. Many of them were in our home, and we were in theirs. Many of them, I’d like to think, have good memories of me. Some of them, maybe, not so much. Some who’ll be there no doubt rolled their eyes as I laughed and whispered in the pews during church. Some there will be the people with whom I was laughing and whispering. (And maybe roll their eyes at the current crop of teenagers…) 
     Not everyone I knew then will be there, of course. Some have moved on, actually or existentially. Others have taken their places. Things have changed in the 30 years or so that I’ve been away, maybe more than has stayed the same. Still, somehow, it’s the church where I grew up. It’s home.
     I’m reminded that the church, whatever else you might attach to that word, is people. It isn’t places or times, schedules or buildings or offices. I still think about Clear Creek as home because of the people who are there, and the relationships I have with them. And those people and those relationships had a lot to do with forming me into a person of faith, a lot to do with who I am even today.
     There’s a lot said and written today about what’s commonly referred to as The Church and its inability to reach the next generation. Young adults are walking away from The Church in droves, goes the refrain, and we have to do something to stop it. There is something to that. Some studies say as many as 70% of young adults are leaving the church, and that’s not good.
     But, apparently, the church isn’t necessarily leaving them. Other studies suggest as many as 80% of those who leave find their way back.    
     Life changes. The world changes. Nothing stays the same for long, it seems. When young adults find themselves in new situations, new places, faced with new responsibilities and in new relationships, it shouldn’t be too surprising that they might be absent from the church for a while. And when they come back, it shouldn’t surprise us if the churches they come back to don’t look much like the ones they leave. We can’t expect the next generation to freeze the church into a living time capsule, a walking, talking monument to those who have come before. It doesn’t mean that we’ve failed. Not if we’ve done what has always been the responsibility of God’s people: to teach the wonderful, generous, powerful, and fearful works of God to our children, and their children after them.
     All of us who are speaking this month are from the Hixson/Clear Creek church. Most of us grew up there. We all have a topic we’re supposed to address. We’re all speaking on the story of The Prodigal. 
     You remember that one, right? The story about the son who grows up and decides that life is a little too stifling at home? And so he goes away, and he wastes in a short time what his father worked his entire life to give him. He winds up starving to death in a stranger’s pigpen. And then do you remember what happens? 
     Yep, he goes home. But before that, he remembers. He remembers his father’s house. He remembers the God against whom he’s sinned. He “comes to himself,” the story says. He remembers what he’s been taught, and he finds his way home, where his father is waiting to receive him.
     Sometimes, that’s all the church can do: Be the people who the prodigals remember when they’re at their rock bottom, tell the stories they’ll remember when their own stories aren’t making sense, and welcome them home when they come limping back.
     When we don’t tell the stories of God’s grace and faithfulness, we run the risk of forgetting them ourselves. So tell and model the story of Jesus for your children and your children’s children. Do it in families, yes. But also do it in churches. Tell that story, all the time, in all the ways you can think of. Make it the theme of your Bible classes and your worship services. Tell it in your generosity toward those in need. Tell it through deep prayer and holy lives. And sometime, somewhere, a prodigal son or daughter will remember and come home. 

     He or she may even wind up being the preacher.