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March 18, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — To the Future and Beyond!


by Sandy Bach

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:31-34 NRSV)

If only it were true right now.  Today.

What if the law was written on our hearts?  Religious wars would be no more.  Power plays would be obsolete.  Brokenness a thing of the past.  To quote Louis Armstrong, "What a wonderful world it would be."

Alas, it's not here, yet.  The law isn't written on our hearts, yet.  We're still unpredictable and stiff-necked.

As we leave that spiritual wilderness in our rear-view mirror, we wonder what awaits us.  How will your life be different?  How will it be the same?  Will you be able to make the changes and corrections to your life that you discerned while in the desert?  Will God give up on you?  Will you give up on God?  Can you let go?

Starting over is a fragile journey.  New beginnings are scary.

Perhaps you hear those voices from your past:  "You're too weak."  "You're not good enough."  "You'll fail."

The truth is that you are too weak and you can't do it without Jesus.  Don't forget his wilderness experience.  40 days without food, alone with the wild beasts and the angels.  Then Satan showed up and tried to tell him how to do ministry.

First test:  "The people are starving.  Give them bread."

"They need more than that," Jesus responds, famished from fasting.

"Show your glory and your might and your grandeur.  Do it here.  Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple and let everyone see who you are."

"I won't test God in order to prove myself."

"Okay, then.  Take over the world.  Be the ruler.  God knows you'd do a better job than any of these leaders have!"

"That isn't what I came for.  I'll take over the world one heart at a time."

We also are tempted.  Tempted to take short cuts to our goal.  Tempted to climb over others on our way up.  Tempted to tell God how it's going to be.  But, we can't do any of those things, because, honestly, isn't that what got us the desert to begin with?  It was in the wilderness that learned to lean on God and allow God's provision to sustain us?

So, here we are on the threshold.

When Jeremiah wrote these words, they were meant to comfort a people desolated in Babylon.  No one wants to be in Babylon.  We all want to be home.  Home with our family and friends and our God.  Not in what appears to be some godforsaken land where the language, the culture, the religion are different and you feel as if your alien registration card isn't enough.

So Jeremiah writes a Book of Comfort.  "The light appears to have gone out for you," he writes.  "God knows that you live in the dark wilderness known as Babylon.  But, it's not over.  God hasn't deserted you.  God doesn't abandon."

As we approach Holy Week, we, too see the light dimming.  During worship, each week of Lent, we extinguish a candle as a symbol of the Light of Christ diminishing.  The disciples gave up all hope, betraying and denying Jesus to death.  On Good Friday, the final candle will flicker out and we'll be left in darkness.

We couldn't do it if we didn't know on Friday that Sunday is coming and with it resurrection.  We can't leave any wilderness unless we can see light.

And that's the hope we also find in Jeremiah.  Some day God will write the law on our hearts.  In fact, God has begun that good work.  And we live in the yet and not yet, waiting for the final fulfillment.  That's what gives us hope: we know that God hasn't given up on us.  That's why we know that God is waiting in the future.  Resurrection follows death.

What is  your hope for a new heart?  Have you felt God at work in your life?  What gives you hope?  What takes hope away?  Write them down.  Ponder them.  Pray over them.  Give it to God.  God, in Christ, is waiting for you.

When you're ready, come out into the light of Christ.  When you're ready, meet God in the hope of the future.  When you're ready, let go and allow God to transform you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 11, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Leaving the Wilderness


by Sandy Bach

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Ephesians 2:1-10 NRSV)

After the loss of a loved one, we usually enter a season of grief.  Depending on the relationship to the loved one, it can take a few weeks to more than a year.  There are too many variables to predict the length of time.  Eventually, the griever begins to reinvent their life without the loved one; not that they'll forget him or her, but they realize it's time to start over.

This can take many forms: cleaning out closets and reorganizing the home; moving to a new home or a new city; traveling more; staying home more; taking on a new hobby; even changing jobs.

Leaving the wilderness is similar to this.  We were there because we felt a spiritual longing that only God could heal.  We remain there until God says it's time.  And as we leave the wilderness, we don't return to the old way of life.  We enter what might look like the old life, but is really changed.  Perhaps our view on the old has changed and we see what must go.  Perhaps we see what's missing and we add it in.

It'll take time.  If we're intentional about our re-entry, we'll be aware of what goes and what stays.

Several years ago I traveled to Africa for ten days.  We visited a nation that is still one of the poorest in the world.  What I found was a lack of food and water mixed with an abundance of spirituality and desire to serve Christ.  When you have nothing, all you can rely on is God.  I returned home a changed person and spent time in my own wilderness.  I knew God was at work, so I waited.  When it was time, I heard God's voice.  I immediately volunteered for a layoff and took on jobs that were well beneath what I was used to earning.

I was happier than I'd been in years.  Coming out of the wilderness, I found joy in simple things (I couldn't afford to buy happiness) and welcomed each new day as if it were my last.

I left the wilderness only when God opened me to my new way of being. I had to rely on God for each step I took.  Should I get another job or take some time off?  What kind of work did I feel called to do?  Which of the skills I'd developed did I feel called to use?

Most of all, I had to know that God was in charge.  In the wilderness I had put myself in God's hands.  Healing had occurred in the wilderness.  More than that, transformation occurred.  The Hebrew slaves left Egypt and spent years in the wilderness.  When they finally entered the Land of Promise, they were not anything like the parents and grandparents that had left Egypt.  They had worked hard and slowly shed the slave mentality.  They had learned a new way to worship and put their skills to work, creating a Tabernacle for worship, the altar, the pieces that would become symbols of what their new found belief.  They were God's children.

And so it is with us.  We leave behind us what has held us back.  We enter with a new sense of who God is calling us to be.  But, we can't do it alone.  We only succeed with God's help.  God transforms our hearts and minds and then leads us where we can grow in our new person-hood.

It's a gift of grace.  Undeserved.  Not of our own doing.  God graciously heals our broken or hurting hearts.  Our response is to meet God and allow God to be in charge (meaning, that you drop the illusion that you were ever in charge in the first place!)  We respond when we open ourselves to new things and new practices and new ways.

Grace.  Undeserved.  Not of our own doing.  God chose us before we knew God.  Our job is to recognize our need for salvation.  Coming out of the wilderness means that we acknowledge and confess that need.

Will your life be better than before you entered the desert?  Yes.  It'll be a better life because you didn't make it happen without God.  It'll be a better life because you decided to walk with God.

God's message to us is, "Meet me in your transformed life.  Continue leaning on me as I help you reinvent your life."

Do you have something you do regularly that puts Christ at the center of your life?  If not, what will you do to keep reminding yourself that not only are you not in charge, but Christ is your savior in your newly transformed life?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 4, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Follow the Rules


by Sandy Bach

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.[c]

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.   (Exodus 20:1-17 NRSV)

No matter how long we spend in the wilderness, eventually we leave.  Eventually, we come to terms with whatever has us there: whether we brought it on ourselves, or life inserted itself or evil has occurred.  Eventually, we come out with fresh perspective and a sense of God's transformative power.  We realize it's time to reinvent our lives.

Yet, when we enter into our newly reinvented world, how will we live?  We don't want to return to what we were before we entered the wilderness.  We surely want something different than what we had.  We want to be someone different.  We want our experience in the wilderness to stand for something.

Enter the "Ten Words."  Also known as "The Ten Commandments."  They are commandments, not suggestions.  But, don't get them confused with a code of ethics that, when followed correctly, will earn God's grace.  We don't earn God's grace.

The Ten Words begin with a very important statement: "I"m God."  You're not God.  There are no other gods mightier than God.  God delivered us out of slavery and continues to deliver us throughout history.  God doesn't get tired and give up.  Our friends may do that, but God doesn't.

God begins at the beginning:  "I"m God.  I delivered you.  Therefore, don't have other gods in my presence.  And since I'm present everywhere, no gods.  Period."

And, no idols.  Don't try to figure out who God is and put God into a box.  God is beyond the comprehensible.  That may seem easy, but is it?  When has the money god controlled your decisions?  Or the fear of scarcity?  How do you see the idol of greed and power played out in current events?  How many families have been destroyed because of these?

When your wallet is more important than God, you have an idol.  When your possessions are more important than anything else, you have an idol.

Don't misuse God's name.  What have we done in the name of God in history?  Think of the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Inquisition.  How do we use God's name to belittle other people: people who are created by God in the image of God?

Sabbath rest.  In our 24/7 culture, it's difficult to find rest.  There are so many demands placed upon us.  Even pastors have to be reminded that they are not the Messiah, that the ministry they serve will survive 24 hours while they lay down their plows and rest.  If you don't already do this, try it.  Take a day to do anything that you don't do the other six days of the week.  You'll be amazed at the energy you gain for the rest of the week.  Worship God in the morning and then enjoy God's creation the rest of the day.

Care of the elderly in ancient days was of critical importance.  If you didn't care for your parents, who would?  I'm often asked, what about abusive parents?  You don't have to like them or what they did.  But, you don't leave them in a dangerous place, either.

The next five are more forthright.  I trust you haven't killed anyone.  But, Jesus asked about those you hurt with your words.  Who do you hurt when you break your marriage vows to enter into an affair with someone else?  How much white collar crime exists today?  How do we deal honestly and transparently with and for others in a way that respects them?  When has your envy of a friend with a nice new car caused you to feel angry and hurt?

Basic words to live by.  Love God and love neighbor.  These words are God's way of saying, "I love your neighbor as much as I love you.  And I expect you to do the same."

These words are a gift.  They are more than a code of ethics.  They reveal God's character.  God is the power behind the exodus from Egypt.  God is the power behind our exodus from the wilderness.

God is the one who stays by us in the wilderness, who leads us out of that desert place, who doesn't dessert us for any reason.  That's grace in action.  And when we accept these Ten Words, we're accepting God's saving grace.

These words turn us inside out.  From, "it's all about me." to "It's all about God and living with God's people."

God is the power in the wilderness.  The powers of evil and wild beasts?  Somehow they lose their power because we are so in tune with God the father.

Which of The Ten Words do you struggle with?  Why?  Can you embrace the discomfort and live it?  Live with it this week.  Consider how you might better honor these words and know God more fully.

God's message is this: "Learn from me.  You are limited.  I am limitless.  When you fall, I'll pick you up."

Know that God has a plan for you.  We probably don't know what it is.  While we're discerning, God is providing sustenance.  Let go and allow God to lead you to transformation and new freedom.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




February 25, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Charting the Way


by Sandy Bach

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38 NRSV)

Mark Twain couldn't have said it better.  "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."

Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah.  In a moment of insight he understands.  Jesus is the Messiah.  Then Jesus begins a new, more advanced teaching.  AP Discipleship: "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." (v 31)

No!  No, you've got it wrong, Jesus!  The Messiah doesn't die: he rises to power like King David.  The Messiah will defeat King Herod and then Caesar and then Israel will rise again as a great nation and we'll no longer be serving others.  Get with the program!  You're the Messiah for heaven's sake!

Peter takes Jesus aside for a talk.  Like an aide to a member of Congress, he tells him to be careful, don't make waves, watch what you say.  "We'll need to tread carefully, Jesus.  Build up power among the Galileans before we move into Judea."

"Get behind me, Satan!"

What?  Peter just had a moment of insight.  He rightly answered Jesus' question.  He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  Peter the insightful disciple just became Satan?

Slow down Jesus.

But, he won't slow down.  He tells anyone who can hear that to follow him means to deny ourselves and take up our cross and then follow him.  While we're pondering that Jesus continues.  If you want to save your soul, forget it.  You'll lose it for sure.  But, if you're willing to lose your soul for Jesus' sake (not just for anything, but Jesus' sake) then you'll save your soul.

Slow down, Jesus.

But, he won't slow down.  He continues.  You can gain the world and what will it get you?  Nothing.   If you're ashamed of what I'm saying (and I wonder if he turned to Peter to say this,) than I'll be ashamed of you when I come in glory.

First Peter rebukes Jesus.  Then Jesus rebukes Peter.  Jesus rebuked demons, and acts of nature.  But, humans?  Yes, when we need to get in line.  And that's just what Jesus demands: get in line.  Get behind me.  Get in line and follow me.

We don't get it, do we?  Perhaps we don't want to get it.  Because, if we did, we'd have to give up control over everything and everyone.  Even Jesus.  Especially Jesus.

The sad thing is, Peter missed something critically important.  As soon as Jesus started talking about suffering and rejection and death, Peter shut down.  He failed to hear the good news: that he would rise again after three days.  That's important!  That's what he needs to focus on.  That Jesus will suffer and die? That's unpalatable.  But, rise again after three days?  Let's dwell on that.

Yet, aren't we so wrapped up on controlling that we fail to see the good news?  In this time that we've chosen to spend in the wilderness, I wonder if some of us are here for just that reason.  We tried to control outcomes or people or events.  And what did it get us?  Wilderness.  We tried to control our own destiny.  And here we are, wandering in the desert.

Jesus' words are hard to hear.  Just when we think we know what we need to do to get out of the wilderness, we hear Jesus speak and it doesn't compute.  Our way out becomes blurred and we may even repeat some of the same mistakes that got us here in the first place.  On this journey to transformation, Jesus corrects our flawed faith to bring us into line.

Where do you need Jesus to intervene and take control, so you can follow him?  Write it down.  Carry it with you this week.  Ponder it often.  Come up with at least one example of a place where you need God to intervene, so that you can follow the Master.  How might you follow Jesus this week instead of your own desires?

I'm saddened and sickened by yet another school shooting.  I want all children everywhere to be safe from killing and abuse and sexual predators.  I pray for an end to these events.  But, I saw a glimpse of good news this week.  Students who have witnessed the death of their friends, have taken their own action.  They are visiting with high level politicians and asking them difficult questions.

In another example, students skipped school to march on Oklahoma City, calling for our leaders to do something about teacher pay scales in our state.

These young people have taken up their cross.  They may not have all the facts.  Nor do they understand the nuances.  They'll have to figure out the details of gun control vs. the second amendment.  They'll learn that adjusting the state budget in one area will hurt another area.  They've taken up their cross.

Last week we identified ways in which we're in a spiritual wilderness.  We've charted the wilderness.  We know what it looks like and we're pretty familiar with the terrain.  This week, we chart the Way: the Way of Jesus.  And that means we let go of our assumptions; let go our need for control.  In its place we pick up that cross and journey to transformation, allowing Jesus to correct our flawed faith to bring us into line.

So, are we ready?  Are we ready to face our need for control?  Are we ready to follow Jesus?

If so, then here we go.

Everyone,

pick up your crosses and

get in line.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




February 18, 2018, 12:00 AM

Starting Over — Charting the Wilderness


by Sandy Bach

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:8-17 NRSV

It must have come as a crushing blow.

God went to so much trouble to create this beautiful planet.  God's ultimate achievement after flora and fauna and animals was us.  We humans were the crowning glory of creation.

It took fifty-five verses for us to blow it.  We got ourselves kicked out of Eden and went about our own way.  Four chapters later, God has had it.  It's time to start over again.  First a flood with only a remnant of animals and humanity saved. Then it took months and months to clean up the earth from pre-creation chaos.

That's when God did something very strange.  And that's what matters to us today.

This is the first in a series for the Season of Lent where we look at our spiritual wilderness and starting over.  Whether you're in that spiritual or emotional wilderness today or have been in the past, I hope this will be of help to you.

The wilderness is barren.  Foggy.  Filled with wild animals.  It feels God-forsaken.  It feels hopeless.  We drift from one place to another, not sure of our direction.  When we arrive, we recognize that it isn't where we thought we were headed.  We wander, unsure where to go or how we got there.  Overpowered by the powers that be.  Walled in and walled off.  Alone.  Too worn out to be scared or angry.

Once Noah and his family got off the ark, they were also in a wilderness.  They had to rebuild their lives.  Start all over again.

Jesus found himself in the wilderness.  Driven there by the Holy Spirit, he encountered beasts and angels and Satan.  He was there for forty long, unending days.  Tempted and tested and hungry, he endured.

There are others throughout history that have found themselves in the wilderness.  It's okay for them, but what about when it happens to you?  You wonder, how did I get here?  Did I earn this particular punishment?  Is God trying to tell me something?  Was there something I did or didn't do?  Or is this part of living in a dysfunctional, sometimes toxic world?

More to the point, how do I get out of here?  Perhaps if I'm very, very good, God will relent and open up the gates to allow me to escape.  Will I be here forever?  40 minutes, 40 days, 40 years: they're interminable, forever.

The thing is, when Noah opened the door of that ark and his family walked out onto the drying land, he was met by God.  And God had a message so important and astounding, that it left Noah speechless.

God took responsibility.  God changed God's mind.  God made a covenant with Noah.  Here's the strange thing: this is a covenant that depends on nothing or no one, except God.  No quid pro quo.  No, I'll do this but you have to that.  It's a unilateral covenant.

And it goes like this: "I won't destroy the entire earth with flood waters ever again.  To prove my point, I'm putting my bow in the sky to remind me that never again will flood waters destroy the earth."  It was believed that lightening was the result of the gods sending arrows to the earth with bows.  When God put that bow in the sky, God hung up a weapon of destruction.  Never again would God use it.

Jesus spent his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness with the Holy Spirit at his side.  He encountered wild beasts and angels.  But the Holy Spirit never left his side.  In other words, God was present.

So where is God when we're in our own wilderness?  Right there with us.  Look around you and you'll find evidence of God's provision.  For forty years the Hebrews received water and food from God's providence.  For forty days Jesus was sustained by God, not with food, but with power to withstand the temptations and testing.

The wilderness isn't an easy place to be.  Yet, it's a place where you can rest for awhile, where you can express anger, sadness and desolateness.  It's a place to experience God's grace.

What is or was your wilderness?  A spiritual dessert where you questioned God's existence? A place of addictions to drugs or alcohol?  A sickness of being controlled by wealth or fame or power?  A realization that your sense of control and self-sufficiency are only an illusion?

Ask yourself, how is God at work?  Whatever got you there, look around.  How is God at work to bring you to new life?

Rest awhile.  Learn from God and your experience.  Let go of your assumptions.  The wild animals will try to tell you what you need to do (just pray a little harder or have more faith) or what got you there (you know God is trying to tell you something) or how to endure (God never gives us more than we can endure.) Move away from them.  Like any wild animal, they aren't good for you.

In prayer and reflection, you'll learn more about yourself than any ten wild beasts!  You'll feel God's presence and a sense of peace will gradually embrace you.  Rather than godforsaken, the wilderness is God infused.  Rather than hopeless, the wilderness can provide a new kind of hope.

Look for grace.  Allow grace to find you.

Most of all, stay where you are.  God will tell you when it's time to leave.  For now, we'll spend the next couple of weeks in this wilderness.

After the flood, God realized that humanity simply can't live up to very high standards.  Sure, sometimes we get it.  But, after a centuries of wars to end all wars,  difficult race relations, increasing poverty, we still can't get it right.  Even when we do the right thing, we get the wrong outcome.

That's why God's covenant is so important.  It wouldn't take long for Noah to get drunk and his sons to disrespect him.  The Bible is filled with those here-we-go-again stories.  But, God looks at the bow in the sky and remembers: "I won't destroy the whole earth."  And for thousands of years, God has been at work.  Left up to us, it be a lot worse.

Listen to what God is saying to you: "I'll meet you in the wilderness.  I will not dessert you.  I will not leave you.  That bow in the sky is my reminder.  I will not change my mind.  But, I can and will transform you."

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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