“Allow Me to Introduce Myself” – Jesus

Imagine you are an actor, who has moved to Los Angeles, is sharing an apartment with four other people, working odd jobs, and waiting for your big break. One day your agent calls. A famous director is looking for someone to play a role in his new major motion picture. The audition is at 3:00.

So, you call your part-time employer, tell him you’re going to miss work today, and you go in for the audition. You’re given a script with the lines: “Don’t even think about it. Please. Please. You’ll ruin everything.”

You ask, “So what is this scene about?” and are told, “The Director isn’t telling anyone. Just do your best.”

You don’t know if your character is a scientist, working in a lab with highly explosive material or a spouse whose partner has threatened to file for divorce. How can you know how to act if you don’t know the story? That is the same kind of problem many people have in trying to live as a Jesus-follower: They don’t know what story they’re in. Our text will help us understand our story. This message is based on John 1:1-18, and is meant to open the new series, Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Jesus. Each week of the series, we will be introduced to a truth about Jesus from the Gospel of John, revealed in Jesus’s fascinating “I Am” statements.

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I thought I’d be telling you all about my skydive adventure. Friends and I were scheduled to jump Sunday afternoon at 4:00. I left church quickly after the 11:00 worship time concluded, changed clothes and was getting ready to go out the door and to the airfield – about an hour’s drive or a little more.

While I was bustling around, the phone rang: the jump had been cancelled, due to rain and wind. I rushed back to church to let people know – so many were planning to go to the airfield to watch – but most everyone had already left.

So here I am, waiting again for this Sunday’s jump. The weather forecast is not encouraging – a 40% chance of rain – but I’m hoping we’ll get to jump this time. If not, we’ll try for the next week.

The problem is, I used the jump to raise funds for a wonderful non-profit (if you’d care to give or just want to know more, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jumping-for-beginnings-care), and now I haven’t jumped and may not be able to jump this Sunday either, if the weather does not permit.

All this waiting. I’m not great at it. When I make up my mind to do something, I want to go right at it, not wait for it. The singer/songwriter Michael Card must know that experience for he wrote the line, “Waiting is the most bitter lesson a human heart has to learn.”

But everyone must learn wait. There simply is no other way to become the full, mature, joyful people God intends us to be. Waiting to jump out of an airplane is nothing compared to waiting for your child to be well, your next job to open up, a relationship to be healed, or God to guide you. We all must wait, and waiting is one of God’s most effective tools in shaping us into compassionate, confident people.

Henry Nouwen learned something about waiting from his friends, the trapeze artists known as the “Flying Roudellas.” They told Nouwen that the “flyer” (the one who lets go) must remain as still as possible and wait for the “catcher” to pluck him out of the air. One of the Roudellas said to Henry, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” That would ruin everything. Instead, he must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.

Waiting on God is like that. We don’t catch him – as if we could! – but we trust him to catch us. And he will. Moses said of the LORD that he is “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.”

If you are left hanging today, keep still and let the Lord catch you. He won’t miss.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you all about jumping out of an airplane next week!

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You Aren’t From Around Here, Are You?

“How y’all doin?”

On a trip to Tennessee and North Carolina, my wife and I heard that line again and again. It reminded me of being in Boston, only there it was “How-ah-ya?” or “How-ya-doin?”

I love languages and dialects and so, while we were in Boston, I told my wife I just had to try “How-ah-ya?” on somebody. It took me awhile to work up the nerve – I was afraid of ruffling some New England feathers – but finally tried it out on a clerk in a store. “How-ah-ya?” I asked. My son, who was living in Boston, said I got it wrong. It sounded like I was from the Bronx.

In North Carolina I never did get up the nerve to try “How y’all doin?” I wasn’t sure what the penalty is for impersonating a Southerner and I didn’t want to find out. I certainly didn’t want people thinking I was making fun of them.

There was a young woman who grew up in our church in Michigan, took a job in North Carolina, fell in love, and wanted to get married. She asked if I would come down to officiate at the ceremony, which I was honored to do. When she moved to North Carolina, she talked like any other Michigander but within a few months, she sounded like she had lived in the South all her life. She can say “How y’all doin’?” with the best of them.

At her wedding in North Carolina, I met another Michigander who has acquired a southern drawl. When I mentioned it to her, she said when she meets a real Southerner it only takes about thirty seconds before he or she says, “You’re not from around here, are you? Where are you from?”

There is nothing wrong with a Michigan girl picking up a Carolinian accent; it’s even charming, in a way. But it is a problem when a follower of Jesus, a citizen of the kingdom of God, picks up the mannerisms and attitudes of what the Bible calls the “kingdom of darkness.”

It is God’s intention to use the distinctive character of his people to woo others to himself. The Bible speaks of differences in a Jesus-follower’s language, desires, dress, and, more broadly and more importantly, openness to others in an attitude of love. God intends to use these differences to stimulate people to say, “You aren’t from around here, are you? Where are you from?” Then the Jesus-follower can tell them about God’s kingdom and its good king.

St. Paul drives this point home in his letter to the Romans. He writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world. . .” Paul understood that constant exposure to the behaviors and, more importantly, the attitudes of the culture around us can have a negative effect. We can pick up the accent. Without knowing it, we can begin to think like the people around us – people who do not acknowledge the reality of God’s presence nor submit to his authority.

So Paul says, “Do not conform” or, as J. B. Phillips famously paraphrased it, “Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” Its mold turns out people who are angry, frightened, and greedy and God does not want his people to be so molded.

The trouble is that we do not know when we are conforming. Our vision blurs when we try to look at ourselves. We adopt attitudes that belong to what Paul calls “this present evil world” without trying and without realizing we have done so.

That’s why Christians need one another’s help. They need people who can speak truth in love – and both parts are critical, truth and love. The man or woman who has friends who love him or her enough to (gently and graciously) point out when he or she slips into the world’s accent is blessed indeed.

Such people are almost never just Sunday acquaintances, they are confidential friends. People who desire to live the Jesus-way need those kinds of friends. They help their fellow Jesus-followers recognize when the accent they have unconsciously adopted does not fit what they truly want to say.

Everyone should have such friends.

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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Jumping for Joy

Photo by Eun-Kwang Bae on Unsplash

A couple of years ago, doctors discovered two 90 percent blockages in my heart, sent me for a heart cath, and inserted two stents. When I told people what was going on, I discovered that many friends and church family members had been through the same kind of thing. People were coming out of the woodwork, telling me about their blocked arteries and their stents.

A couple of weeks ago, I began telling people that I was planning a skydive for Sunday, September 15. Once again, people began coming out of the woodwork, telling me about their skydiving experiences. People I would never have guessed had jumped told me about multiple jumps. A friend in her sixties told me she jumped 275 times, was a member of an all-woman competitive jump team, and had broken a limb and ruptured and eardrum while skydiving.

Well, I’m not planning on breaking or rupturing anything, but I am planning on jumping this Sunday. If I can, I’ll get some pictures to share with you.

People keep asking me why I’m jumping. I am using the jump as an opportunity to raise funds for a great non-profit in our town, Beginnings Care for Life. (If you want to support Beginnings, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jumping-for-beginnings-care. Even a gift of $5.00 will help!) I’m using the jump as a fundraiser, but that is not why I am jumping. I am jumping for joy – for the joy of flying, the joy of freedom. I expect this jump to be FUN and to give me a new glimpse of the great things God has made.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll be scared to death. But then again, maybe I’ll have the time of my life. Next week, I’ll let you know how it went.

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Jesus Stories

Kevin Looper preaches from Mark 4 and 5, with insights into who Jesus is and what he is like. In the heart-pounding adventure of the turbulent night at sea and in the heart-stopping horror story centered around the tombs, Kevin points out the startling insight that the disciples (in the first story) and the demons (in the second) were afraid of Jesus and that Jesus was afraid of nothing!

Listen and enjoy, and build your faith!

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Do you have a religious preference?

“Do you have a religious preference?” That is what the nurse asked after leading me to the exam room where I was to meet the doctor. There were other questions I wasn’t expecting, questions health care professionals ask nowadays, like: “Do you feel safe in your own home?” But it was the question about religious preference that struck me.

It sounded so odd. “Do you have a religious preference?” as if religion was sold at Baskin-Robbins and comes in thirty-one flavors. Maybe I should have asked her to put down the religious flavor of the month.

I know we live in a religiously diverse culture where it is no longer possible – and never was appropriate – to assume everyone is a Christian. To do so belittles people of other faiths and lessens the value of one’s own. I wasn’t taken aback by the question itself but by the way it was phrased.

Can you imagine people debating which religion is best the way they debate which ice cream is best? “I can’t believe you like vanilla. It’s so boring.” “You’re one to speak. All you ever get is chocolate. Why don’t you try something different, like butter pecan?” Only it would be, “Why do you like Christianity? That is so yesterday. Buddhism is what’s hot now.” “Buddhism? You’ve got to be kidding. How can you like that?

I find it hard to understand people who think of their religious faith as a mere preference, whether they identify as a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Scientologist. I’d much rather spend time with an atheist who believes he is right than a Christian who doesn’t really care.

Most of the religions I know something about – and there are many more I know next to nothing about – were founded by people who believed they were right and others were wrong. The idea that all religions are equally true can only be held by people who: (1) believe in many gods, like the ancient Greeks; (2) believe in no gods, like the modern atheist; or (3) no longer believe in objective truth. Since very few people in our country believe in many gods, and only a small percentage believe in no gods, it is the loss of belief in objective truth that is driving the changes we are seeing.

To say that Islam is true for you and Christianity is true for me and atheism is true for her, is to rob the concept of truth of its meaning. I suspect when people say things like that, they really mean that Islam or Christianity or atheism works for them, which is quite a different thing from saying it is true.

In “God in the Dock,” the great twentieth century English thinker C. S. Lewis complained “The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort.”

As if religion were an ice cream flavor. Or maybe a health food.

If Lewis found it difficult 70 years ago to get people to think it terms of truth, what would he find now, when our computers have drop-down menus, our gas stations have five varieties of fuels, and a choice of options is a cultural requirement? Personal preference is in the ascendancy, truth has passed its prime.

Consider the debate on climate change. While there are people on both sides of the debate who want to talk truth, most skip that step and go straight to the consequences. The consequences may be dire but people don’t change their behavior over the threat of consequences. They change because they’ve become convinced of the truth.

All this brings me back to the nurse and her question, “Do you have a religious preference?” I answered simply: “Christian,” but I wish I’d said, “I don’t have a preference but I do have a strong conviction.” I believe in Jesus because I am convinced he spoke truth; because I am convinced he is true. I know of no other reason to believe.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Now You See Me (John 14:1-12)

People read about God’s wrath in the Bible, hear how Jesus died in our place, and bore our sins, and conclude that an angry God just had to punish someone and Jesus (who is not angry) didn’t want it to be us. So, he deflected the blow and took the punishment. People don’t usually put it that crudely but that is how many people understand what happened.

This summary of the good news sounds a lot like bad news, but because there is truth mixed in with the falsehood, people swallow it whole. The worst part of it may be the heretical way it separates the Father and the Son into a kind of good cop/bad cop team. Instead of seeing a Father who is determined to rescue his children, we get a God who is determined to hurt them. Instead of the biblical understanding that sin is ruining us, we get a God who will ruin us. Fortunately for us, the Son, who in nicer than his Father, intervenes. Otherwise, we’d all be toast.

That is heresy. The Son is not the good cop and the Father the bad cop because they are both good and neither one is a cop. This teaching does one of the greatest disservices possible: it makes it almost impossible for a person to fully trust the God and Father of Jesus. How can you trust someone who only yesterday wanted to destroy you?

But the Father and the Son are of one mind. The Son hates sin every bit as much as the Father, and the Father loves sinners every bit as much as the Son. What the Son says, the Father also says. What the Father does, the Son also does. (Remember John 5:19: Whatever the Father does the Son also does.”) There is not and can never be, as St. Anselm put it, any division in the godhead. Or, as Jesus put it: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

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Why Bother? The Problem of Prayer

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

Why should people bother to pray? For many people, both religious and irreligious, this question does not seem to have a satisfactory answer. They still pray when desperate – who doesn’t? – but even then, they can’t see the sense in it. If God already knows everything that is going to happen, if he has already decided what he is going to do, our prayers are irrelevant.

I recently corresponded with an intelligent man who has concluded that “Christian belief is illogical.” One of the reasons for this is that the Christian God “exists outside of time” and so has always known what will occur in every moment within time, effectively making what we call free will impossible. And if free will is impossible, how can the Christian God hold people responsible for their actions and beliefs?

I think there are answers to these questions, or at least there are reasons to question the validity of the questions, but one can immediately see how this understanding of God would undermine prayer. If “what will be, will be,” praying is an exercise in futility.

One way Christians have responded to this problem is to say, “We don’t pray to change what is going to happen but to change ourselves,” but this answer seems quite inadequate. If nothing changes because of our prayers, then, perforce, the person praying does not change either. If prayer can change the person praying, then it can change other things too.

The biblical writers and the people whose stories they told saw other problems to prayer but not this one. They took for granted that their prayers made a difference. If they prayed, something would (or at least, might) happen that would not happen if they did not pray.

Perhaps they were just more naïve than we are. They didn’t have an Einstein or a Bertrand Russell confusing them about the nature of time and God’s relationship to it. The term “confusing” is not ill-chosen. There is still no general agreement on the nature of time either in Einstein’s field of theoretical physics nor in Russell’s field of philosophy. Indeed, Russell and his Cambridge colleague J.M.E. McTaggart could not even agree on whether there is such a thing as time.

So when we say that prayer is a problem because God “already” knows what is going to happen we are not treading on solid ground. We do not understand the words we are using, including the word “time,” nor do we understand God’s relation to it. This remains one of the deepest mysteries of existence.

It is better to come at the problem of prayer from the perspective that God created a world that was good, as the first chapter of Genesis says repeatedly, but not complete. For the good work of creation to reach its fulfillment, God made creatures capable of interacting with him, and one of the ways in which these creatures interact with God is through prayer.

If we approach prayer from the perspective that God created a world with space in it, a world in which either one thing or another can happen while remaining within God’s overall plan, this particular problem of prayer goes away. In fact, we begin to see that this arrangement is a necessary condition for the fulfillment of God’s intentions for a mature humanity.

If we approach this problem of prayer from a richly biblical perspective, that God has made room in the universe for our prayers to change things, it goes away. But other obstacles remain.

Two of the biggest are, to put it baldly, God and us. God’s will and his ways will always be an obstacle to prayer for the person who does not know God or share his interests. But to the person who is getting to know God (who is “growing in the knowledge of God,” to borrow St. Paul language), God’s will and ways become an invitation to pray.  

Prayer, for such people, becomes an adventure and seeing answers to prayer – sometimes quite remarkable – a source of joy. This is precisely the life God planned for us and the one Jesus taught his followers to expect: “…my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name … and your joy will be complete.”

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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Why Would I Jump out of an Airplane at 14,000 Feet?

Photo by Sean Mungor

The answer to the question in the title is: Because I want to. I’ve wanted to for decades. When I was younger, I often dreamed I was flying. In my dream, I would jump in the air and just float, at will, over the neighborhood, the city, the countryside. Sometimes when I got into bed at night I would hope for that dream.

But that is flying, not falling, which is presumably what happens when one steps out of an airplane. However, a friend who solo-dives once told me skydivers don’t feel like they’re falling; they feel like they’re flying – Superman-like. That, he said, is why they wear altimeters: they need to be reminded that they are heading to earth and need to pull the cord.

I was going to jump about five years and wanted to use the jump as a fundraiser for Beginnings Care for Life – a remarkable non-profit in our community. I even asked area pastors to join me and raise money for their favorite charities but none thought that “jumping out of a perfectly good airplane” was a smart idea.

Just before paying for my dive, I discovered the outfit that would take me up had a terrible reputation, so I gave up on the idea. A year or two ago, a friend at church. Jeanette Dembski, did a tandem dive for her 80th birthday and I told her that I’d always wanted to do that. Earlier this year, she told me she was going to jump again and asked if I’d be interested in joining her. I said yes without hesitation.

So, here I am again, scheduled to jump on September 15. I still want to use the jump to benefit others – the babies and children in our community, along with their parents. If you’d like to know more about Beginnings Care for Life, check out their website at http://www.beginningscare.com/. If you’d like to assist them in their good work by supporting my jump, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/jumping-for-beginnings-care. All gifts, minus the 3% fee gofundme charges, go directly to Beginnings Care for Life.

I’ll write a post-jump post and try to put into words what it is like to step out into the air at 14,000 feet. I’m hoping it feels more like flying than falling.

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Nevertheless: God’s Will and Our Will

Jesus taught his students that God is good and kind and loving. He’s better than we ever dreamed! But what about when things go sideways? Is he still good, kind, and loving when the thing we most fear happens? And what are we supposed to do then?

Before listening to this sermon, it would be good to read Mark 14:32-42. But take off your shoes before reading: you’ll be on holy ground.

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