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Monday, February 28, 2005
Water of Life
One of my favorite places in all the world is Muir Beach. It's a kind of soul sanctuary, just an hour's drive away but instantly accessible to my mind's eye.
You can take it all in at a glance from a steep hill to the south (but I'd recommend a long lingering gaze). The Pacific surf massages the western shore as it's done for millennia, surging with unstoppable salty power. The eastern edge of the beach is formed by a fresh-water creek which runs down from Mt. Tamalpais to meander parallel to the shoreline. Winter's rains fill the creek bed enough that it pushes a curving path all the way to the ocean, and at the right time salmon swim upstream to spawn.
The fresh water is thus a source of life not only for plants and thirsty people, but for a whole new generation of the fish.
My mind took me to that beach again when I re-read the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Long before Peter, Paul & Mary sang the tale, the Gospel of John told it in chapter four.
Briefly, Jesus and his disciples make a midday stop at Jacob's well, a local shrine in the state of Samaria. While his men go shopping for lunch, he sits alone until a woman comes to draw water for her daily cooking and chores. He asks her for a drink and before you know it they're deep in conversation about water and worship and personal details of her life he could know only by divine revelation -- seeing as they'd only just met.
This woman seems to have been shunned by her neighbors. Why else would she come to the well in the heat of the day instead of early morning when women normally made the trip? Sure enough, when Jesus asks about her husband she turns out to have had five marriages. I don't know how the men of her town treated her exes, but it's clear that her name wasn't on the invitation list for soirees and such.
But now that Jesus treats her without prejudice and introduces himself as the Messiah who'll put things right for all takers -- well, she can't contain her excitement! Bursting with joy, she rushes off to invite the whole town to come see and hear and welcome this most amazing man. And they do just that.
The fresh water she drew from the well must have tasted delicious to thirsty Jesus. But the water of spiritual life he gave back to her tasted like heaven to her soul. A whole new lease on life, she had. No more regrets over past mistakes. No longer stuck on the margin of social acceptance. Now she became known as the evangelist who'd introduced the whole village to Jesus Christ and everything he had to offer. Who knows -- maybe they even put a nice plaque on Jacob's well, enhancing the old shrine with a bright new meaning.
What I do know is this: She embodies the definition of evangelism someone wiser than me once gave. It's a case of one beggar telling another beggar where to find the food and drink. Nothing fancy or profound. Just showing up and telling the truth as far as you yourself have experienced it. Like sharing a drink of cool, fresh, life-giving water with a thirsty friend.
posted by Jack Buckley at
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
It's Never Too Late
The movie is "Shadowlands." Starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. He plays C. S. Lewis, an aging, tweedy, bachelor Oxford scholar. She's Joy Davidman Gresham, a middle-aged American divorcee with a young son in tow.
"Jack" Lewis is a curiosity to his colleagues. An ardent Christian, he's become famous for numerous essays on faith as well as a best-selling series of children's books, "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Joy's no-nonsense directness enchants Lewis. An adult convert to Christianity, she grew up ethnically Jewish but actually atheistic. Not your everyday church lady.
From the minute these two meet, the dramatic air fairly crackles. They flirt their way into deep friendship, then Jack surprises himself by marrying Joy as a favor to help her legally remain in England.
All this, while he lectures here and there on his book "The Problem of Pain." Ever profound and quotable, he's quite the hit with the literary masses. When Joy develops bone cancer the problem takes on intimately personal power, cracking open Jack's confident faith to let doubt and fear rush in.
Joy's suffering also opens Jack's heart to recognize that fervent friendship has been transfigured into romantic love. So they're married for real, by the church this time. And Joy's cancer goes into remission.
But only for a season. The movie's last act takes us through more pain and suffering, and now loss and grief as well. Beautiful to the eye, believably acted from start to finish, the film left me a three-hanky choked-up wreck.
It also gave me a perfect sermon story the next morning.
John 3 tells about Jesus' interview with a religious man named Nicodemus. This is where the term "born again" originates. We need, says Jesus, to be born "from above... again... by the Holy Spirit." Poor Nic is confused, wondering out loud how you can be born when you're growing old. In effect, Jesus assures him it's never too late to let God give you a fresh start in life.
It's a matter of letting God open you up, fill you up, fulfill your true purpose for living.
C. S. Lewis was born again in his 30s, and wrote a book about it -- "Surprised By Joy." How appropriate that his soul collision with this flesh-and-blood Joy renewed his life another way.
His philosophical "Problem of Pain" was followed a few years later by another book on the subject. "A Grief Observed" was Lewis's diary of his own deep dark pain when Joy was taken from him. Abstract belief had become realistic faith, tried and transformed in the crucible of life.
Only God knows how many millions have been "born again" through this one man's story, have discovered that it's really never too late to let God in your life for good.
posted by Jack Buckley at
Monday, February 14, 2005
Outta the Park
People of a certain age will remember Pogo Possum.
He was the hero of one of America's all-time best drawn comic strips, a denizen of the Okeefenokee swamp. His friends and neighbors included the cigar-smoking Albert Alligator, a good-hearted turtle whose name I forget, and the lovely lady skunk, Miz Hepzibah.
I thought again of these old cartoon friends while preparing yesterday's sermon.
The texts for the day were Genesis 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11. Two similar sets of temptations, two radically different results.
It was Pogo who said, during our country's next worst thing to a mental breakdown in the 1960s, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" The Genesis story tells us how true that really is.
In the Garden of Eden, Satan uses a snake to tease Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Once she's done it, she invites Adam to join her. And he does, just like that.
I believe that little story is the template for every temptation. Whatever the specific sin, we're strung along through the same kind of thoughts and feelings.
1. Doubt says, "I'm not so sure God knows what's best after all," and opens the door for sin.
2. Distrust wonders, "Maybe God doesn't really want the very best for me." That raises your spiritual blood pressure and sets you up for...
3. Desire, which thinks, "I don't even care what God wants, because I know how much I want THIS!" Self-love displaces love for God; self-gratification outweighs everything else.
4. Disobedience, in this context, is almost a foregone conclusion. For Eve, Adam, and all of us.
When Satan shows up in Matthew 4, he pitches Jesus three huge temptations. To each one, Jesus says a prompt "No way!" And he explains why. Simply put, he sides with God.
By resisting temptation here and all the way through his story, Jesus undoes the deadly damage of original sin. And he shows us the template for our own spiritual success.
That's when I remembered Miz Hepzibah.
Her creator Walt Kelly once drew a cartoon about how to cure the sorry state of the world. It featured Miz H. in the woods, beguiled by a snake holding a big ripe apple in his mouth. She hesitates, sizes him up, then swings her parisol like Barry Bonds' kid sister. The apple goes flying out over the farthest stand of trees.
Kelly's social commentary was simply profound (or vice versa). At the bottom of it all: the lure of self-serving sin. The solution: swat that sucker outta the park!
Just like Jesus.
posted by Jack Buckley at
Monday, February 07, 2005
More than Meets the Eye
It's an old cliche, but true anyway: There's much more to life than meets the eye.
Poets know it. Psychologists too. Even artists do. Who can ever look the same way at sunflowers and nighttime skies after drinking in Van Gogh's renditions?
When Jesus sat on a mountainside with his closest disciples to pray (in Matthew 17:1-9) they were stunned to see him suddenly glowing like the noonday sun. Things only got stranger when Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere to sit by Jesus, only for all three of them to be quickly enshrouded in a glittering cloud.
Topping it all off, God's voice boomed out of the cloud to say he was just delighted with the whole thing.
Now, no matter what you make of this episode, one thing is clear: Our cliche was validated! For three years these disciples had grown to know Jesus, trust him, and love him enough to follow him all the way to death if need be. But they'd never once had an inkling of his divine glory the way they saw it now. For one brief moment he could do nothing else but radiate God's own grandeur. Then, back to "normal" and swearing his men to secrecy about what they'd seen.
Of course, I believe Jesus was uniquely suited to reveal God's glory this way. But I also believe there are thousands and thousands of ways something like it happens in the presence of people whose spiritual eyes are open.
The past few days it's happened before my eyes. A woman in our church family is slowly dying, after 91 years of good life. She's dearly loved and greatly appreciated in her family, her church, and her community.
When I came here 11 1/2 years ago she anointed herself my personal deacon. "Everybody needs a deacon's practical works of mercy, and my pastor will not be left out." I gladly accepted that decree. Phone calls, meals, the inside dope... she was always available to help me find my way and stay fresh in my new job.
She also made sure in my first couple of months that I rode with her to meet a dozen shut-in people who needed to know their new pastor would tend to their lonely souls. Wide open doors welcomed me, thanks to her kind intervention.
At one time or another she held every official position in the church -- except pastor! She recruited and trained scores of people to carry the workload forward when she rotated into some new assignment. More recently she cheered them on from her sickbed on the sidelines.
Now, sitting by her side, talking and praying, I watched a mental slideshow of the reasons I love her so and will sorely miss her when she enters God's bright presence. I swear it was like looking into the shining sun, envisioning dear Janet Long aglow through the years with such a love for God and people that she found it impossible not to serve them.
Somebody said when I told this story, "I'd just love to see what heaven looks like a couple of days after Janet rolls up her sleeves and goes to work getting things organized." Amen to that.
posted by Jack Buckley at