The Miracle in a Lunchable…

Someone asked me recently what is it about being at the beach that draws me in, and I answered that it was a spiritual experience to sit along the shore, especially at night, and listen to the waves crashing against the shore beholding the vastness of the universe above. Not only is it a spiritual experience, but it is humbling, too.

Actually, life is filled with humbling experiences. I pat myself on the back for being a regular at the Monroe Athletic Center, working out, doing cardio, trying to stay healthy. That’s great, and I feel real good about myself until I turn on the TV and the Bowflex guy comes on the commercial with his six-pack abs (yes, those abs he got in only twenty minutes three times a week on the Bowflex), then I look at mine and I’m humbled (and embarrassed!).

Life can be humbling. That’s the context in which we have to view John’s account of the story of the loaves and fishes. That’s okay because it is in the humility of life that we discover the stuff of miracles.

This story, the feeding of the five thousand, is the only miracle Jesus preformed that is recorded in all four Gospels. John’s version of the story of the feeding of the five thousand (or the loaves and fishes, however you chose to reference the encounter) is distinctive in that John’s is the only account that tells us about the little boy. Can we identify with that little boy? Think with me for a moment what it feels like to be a child in a large crowd. It’s intimidating. It’s scary. It’s challenging. It might even be humbling. Here’s this little boy in the middle of a crowd of Pharisees, Sadducees, big burly fishermen, rich people, poor people—5,000 men, John tells us and that doesn’t include the women. Heck, this little boy is not even significant enough to be counted. He is insignificant…almost as if he doesn’t even exist. Is that a humbling experience?

lunchableHe’s not just a little boy, but he’s poor, too. John tells us the loaves were barley loaves. Barley was the grain of the poor because it was the cheapest grain. And, the fish, well, they were sardines. Two little fish and a few slices of pita bread. This was the little boy’s Lunchable. This is what his mother had packed for him when he left home. He is a poor little boy with the worst sort of bread and a couple of sardines. When we understand this, we begin to see the power of the miracle.

The little boy was probably from a nearby village. He might have been out working in the fields or playing with friends when Jesus came by with this large crowd following him. Jesus comes along and the little boy gets caught up in the crowd. It gets late in the day and the crowd starts to stir. Some man (Andrew) comes along and asks for his lunch, “Jesus needs your lunch!” At first, he’s scared, but fear soon turns to pride—this teacher is asking for my lunch. Then, the pride turns to embarrassment as he says, “All I’ve got is my Lunchable—barley loaves and sardines.” It didn’t matter. Jesus took the barley loaves and fish and feed the crowd—maybe ten thousand people in all—and had plenty to spare.

I wonder why John makes mention of the little boy? I’m not sure why he mentions him, but I know the little boy teaches us that even the most insignificant among us possess the stuff of miracles. It was out of what the little boy had that Jesus found the building blocks of a miracle. Jesus desires to use whatever we bring. How many miracles in the world are denied because we won’t offer what we have to Jesus? We have time. We have skills. We have financial resources. We have expertise. We have so much to offer no matter how insignificant we believe ourselves to be.

Offering her little, a lady named Rosa made a difference. The story takes place in hell—Hell’s Kitchen, that is. Hell’s Kitchen is the most dangerous part of New York City. After her conversion, a Puerto Rican woman named Rosa wanted to serve. She didn’t speak a word of English. Through an interpreter, she pleaded with her pastor, Bill Wilson, “I want to do something for God, please!”

“I don’t know what you can do,” he said.

“Please just let me do something for God,” Rosa persisted.

“Okay,” Pastor Wilson said, “I’ll put you on a bus. Ride a different bus every week and just love the kids!”

That’s exactly what Rosa did. That’s how she offered to God the little she had in her own way, and as she had opportunity. In all, she rode 50 different church busses. She would find the saddest looking kid on the bus, sit down, put him or her on her knee, and whisper the only words she knew in English: “I love you, and Jesus loves you!”

After several months, she became particularly attached to one little boy. Because of him, she decided to ride just that one bus so she could be with him on the way to and from Sunday School. The little boy went every week with his sister, but he never said a word. All the way there, Rosa whispered over and over again, “I love you and Jesus loves you!”

The little boy never responded. One day, the bus stopped to let the little boy off at his stop. Before he got off, to Rosa’s amazement, he hugged her and stammered, “I, I, I love you, too!”

That was 2:30 PM. At 6:30 PM that same day, the little boy’s body was found stuffed into a garbage bag and placed under a fire escape ladder. His mother had beaten him to death. The story is unbearably tragic except in knowing that some of the last words he heard was the stuff of miracles. If he knew nothing else, he knew for sure he was loved by at least two people: Jesus and Rosa! Rosa offered her little bit of English, and what do we know that it made an eternal difference in that little boy’s tragic life.

We’re tempted to believe we can’t make a difference in the world. We’re tempted to believe that in the grand scheme of things, we’re just insignificant. We have nothing to offer. We’re not heroes. We don’t draw crowds. We don’t get press. But, here, too, God uses the insignificant, the overlooked, the little.

Jesus points out in the story, “not enough” is never the final answer. Because, when placed in the hands of Jesus, our human weakness becomes more than enough! Do we believe this? An African proverb says, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito.”

It is truly miraculous, when we allow God to work through us. We should never get in the way of God’s work, by trying to take things into our own hands and saying, “There is not enough to go around!”

What do you have to bring to Christ today? You may feel like you don’t have anything significant, or that you’re not significant. You may be like the little boy who only had his Lunchable, but Christ will take that Lunchable and transform it into an all-you-can-eat buffet. When I bring my meager fare, and you bring yours, God through the Holy Spirit does the work, and it is truly miraculous!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Delivery Not Included…

I’m not sure why I’m writing this blog, but with the Christmas season beginning in earnest and the Black Friday sales already being touted, I thought it a good time to offer my opinion on a subject that is getting a lot of press recently. This won’t be a long blog, but it will be a pointed

Retail brick-and-mortar has taken a big hit recently. Iconic retailer Macy’s reported disappointing sales for the quarter, setting off a trend of similar reports from other retailers like Nordstrom’s. That likely means as other giant retailers report their sales, the trend will continue. Experts say it’s mostly because of all the on-line purchases taking place these days. Yes, the smart phone and computer have changed the way we make purchases…even at Christmas, and it’s showing up in cash registers in brick-and-mortar stores. And I, for one, think that’s sad.

I grew up in retail. My grandparents owned a general mercantile (that’s Wal-Mart before there was a Wal-Mart) in the small town where I grew up. It was a community gathering place that was filled with people, especially on weekends. More importantly, it provided jobs and a healthy tax base for the community. That’s why I have a huge place in my heart for local retailing, and why I believe the move to more on-line shopping will ultimately impact our communities in a negative way.

Local shopping supports the local economy. The best way to support the local economy is to shop with local store owners. Even when we shop in the big stores (think Wal-Mart, Target, JC Penny, et. al.) we’re still supporting the local economy. That’s important. Supporting local retail keeps sales tax dollars local. Keeping sales tax dollars locally helps fund education, police and fire protection and infrastructure. We all demand our government provide those things, but every time we click on, or, or some other on-line site, we are making a practical statement that we want those things, but to save a dollar (or two) we’re unwilling to pay for them. Every time we click, we’re also diminishing the ability of local and national retailers to retain local jobs, which keeps more money in the local economy.

Yes, I know, there are places on our tax returns now where the law says we’re supposed to report on-line purchases and pay the taxes on those purchases. Seriously? How many of us track our on-line purchases throughout the year and actually fill in the blank appropriately? Not that many, I’m betting. Besides, that’s only for the 4% state sales tax, and that does nothing for the local municipalities and parishes (counties) that depend on sales taxes collections to fund local government.

Yes, I know, even shopping the big box retailers sends capital to corporate headquarters away from the local community. Still, there are local people employed in those big box retailers who depend desperately on those jobs, and their jobs pump money back into the local economy (unless, of course, they go home and order those new shoes from

There are only two reasons I can think of that people order on-line: cost and convenience. It’s easy to click a few icons, and in a matter of a few minutes have all my Christmas shopping done. What’s more, it’ll be delivered right to my door, or I can even have it delivered (already gift wrapped) to the person for whom it was purchased. And, I’ll save money (most of the time) in the process. Cost and convenience are great incentives for me to shop on-line.

But, I think there’s a greater reason to not, and that’s really what this blog is about. That greater reason is sacrifice. For me, shopping locally is a discipleship issue. A core principle in being a disciple of Jesus Christ is self-sacrifice. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to shop locally. Yes, it generally (though not always) costs us a little more money. Yes, it generally costs us a little more time, but we’re called (as disciples of Jesus Christ) to live in community, and that’s not only the community of faith, but the community in which we make our residence. We’re to be salt and light in those communities, and being salt and light also includes supporting local businesses and business owners with whom we go to school and church, with whom we play softball and soccer, with whom we share life. If we simply must shop on-line, let’s at least seek out local retail web-sites that sell the items for which we’re shopping.

Maybe I’m making more of the issue than I should, and yes, there have been times I’ve caught myself clicking the mouse for that on-line purchase (I’m not-the-perfect-pastor, remember?), but I really believe we can be an example of faithful disciples by supporting our local communities in every way possible–including with our retail shopping. Sure, there will be times when we can’t find that perfect gift locally, and for those times, I say “click away.” But, for all those other times, please…let’s go spend our dollars locally. Make the sacrifice.

Until next time, keep looking up…

My “Two Cents” Worth…

my_2_centsI find it interesting identifying the origin of popular words and phrases. No less so that the phrase many of us have often used, “But, that’s just my two cents.” Where did that phrase come from? Depending upon where one searches for the answer, we would discover that the English language contains many specific terms for goods or services that cost two cents (or twopenny, two-pence), some of them very old. We also might discover that over time two cent or twopenny also became descriptors of items that weren’t worth much, if anything. Finally, somewhere in the mid-1920’s, we discover the phrase became attached to the practice of offering unsolicited advice. But, the earliest reference to anything analogous to “two cents” appears in the lesson of the widow’s mite in the Gospel of Mark. In that earliest reference, the “two cents worth” has a totally different meaning than how we’ve come to us it. For the widow, the “two cents” was everything. For the wealthy who stood around her it didn’t mean much. I’m afraid we still take our “two cents” to be worth just that—two cents.

You know the scene. Jesus sits and watches as people put their offerings in the offering boxes around the Temple. There were 13 of them, in fact lined along the outside of one of the Temple courtyards. They looked like trumpets, and it was quite the show to watch persons go by and toss their coins into the horns. The noise would be predicated upon the type and number of coins a person dropped into the box (demonstrate with bucket and coins). There were even some who would make a show of their offerings. That might be why Jesus said in the verses just prior to the example of the widow:

38 Jesus also taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. 39 And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 40 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.”     (Mark 12: 38 – 40 NLT)

Remember that “the teachers of religious law” were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were teachers of the Law in schools and synagogues. They expounded on the Scriptures and preserved them. They were also referred to as lawyers and served as judges in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Jesus warns His disciples “beware of these teachers of religious law.” He gives several reasons for His warning, but note one in particular: “they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property” (verse 40). They exploited widows. Jews and Christians have always been charged with a ministry of caring for widows. The Apostle James, in his letter says: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). So, Jesus charges them with cheating widows rather than visiting them in their distress.

As Jesus sits watching at the Temple, condemning those “teachers” or “judges,” he notices who is putting what in the Treasury, and he notices who makes the show of it. Then, enter the “poor” widow who puts in her “two cents.”

Just how poor was the widow? The word “poor” suggests she was “utterly helpless, completely destitute, living in such absolute poverty that perhaps even needed necessities for survival such as food and shelter were lacking.” It was highly probable that she did not have another male relative to provide for her needs—no father, son, brother, or even a brother-in-law. Basically, there was no social safety net to capture this poor widow. No social security. No husband’s estate or pension. No pension of her own. She was not like Christy Walton. I actually read this headline this week: “The WalMart heir everyone believed was one of the richest women in America is actually poorer that people thought.” Christy Walton is John Walton’s widow, and she was originally believed to be worth $32 billion dollars. Turns out she’s only worth $5 billion. What a shame. Poorer than people thought, indeed! Definitely not the widow Jesus was referencing. No, I’m afraid we don’t know the value of the two pennies the widow placed in the Temple treasury.

We can’t fully grasp what it meant for her to put in her two cents worth. Jesus calls his disciples together and says ‘truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty, she put in everything, all she had to live on.’

Jesus knew that these are not just two coins, but the woman’s last two. According to the text, it was all she had to live on. The original Greek word used is ‘bios’ from which we get biology, the study of life. This widow put her whole life into the temple treasury that day. The widow gave 100% of her money. She is down to two worthless little coins and she trusts it all to God, she laid her whole self before God. For the widow, it wasn’t just a matter of giving. It was a matter of going “all-in.” It seems almost reckless to us. It sounds so much like a poor person sending in the last two dollars they have to a television evangelist. We scratch our head and wonder, “Why would they do that?” But, I might suggest it is reckless—reckless trust, and that’s just the type of trust God honors and Christ commends. Her two cents represents total abandon to the Kingdom of God. The widow could easily have retained one of the coins for herself (and we would have called it justifiable). It wouldn’t have been much but it would have been something. Instead, she gave her life. And the call of Jesus to us is the give all we have. That’s a reckless thing to do because we never know where it will lead us, never know what we might be called to do.

For the woman the giving was sacrificial. It’s never the amount given that matters, but the cost to the giver. It’s not the size of the gift but the sacrifice of the gift. I might even suggest that her giving was never about money. It was always about her heart. That’s what she put in the Temple treasury that day—she put her heart. She was totally committed.

A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they pass a church, they notice that a potluck charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggests to the chicken that they each make a contribution.

“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!”

“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”

Jesus contrasted two different types of people. Those who put a lot in, but their heart wasn’t in the right place. It was more about themselves than about the Kingdom. Then, there was the widow who put all in that day. What a difference!

Today a lot of people categorize church into one of two categories. The first category would be those who ask, “What do I get out of church?” Or, they might ask, “What does the church provide me?” Or, “Does the worship service give me strength and encourage me?” Maybe, “What am I getting when I attend church?”

The second category would be those who ask, “What do I give to church?” I give praise to God in worship. I lead and teach children and youth and adult classes. I serve others whenever I have an opportunity. I use my gifts and talents to organize and plan ministries. I give my financial resources to the local church. I join in a partnership with the larger connection of United Methodist churches around the world. I share my story about what Christ has done for me, and so I’m witnessing my faith to lead others to Christ.

We must be careful which question we find ourselves asking, for therein lies the key to understanding the value of our “two cents.” When we only ask the “what am I getting” question, we come perilously close to being the former in today’s text. Sure, they put in much from their abundance, but there wasn’t much heart in the offering. When we ask the “what am I giving” question, it reflects a heart tuned to the heart of God and to the needs of the world around us.

The truth is: When we’re not getting much out of church, it is most likely we’re not giving much to church. The life of a disciple is one whose heart is “all-in.” The widows “two cents” were everything. I trust my “two cents” will be everything, too.

Someone may ask, “Well what good can I do? I am too old, or too young. I am too poor, or too sick. I have too many children to care for. I am a widow. I am too busy. I am too weak. The job is impossible for me to do. It’s asking too much. What can one person do?”

Martha Berry was a lady with a vision to help children. She had a dream to start a school for poor children in Georgia. When she started she had no books, nor building. More importantly, she had no money. What she did have was a vision of how things could be, and she had a desire to go out and live out that dream. She went to Henry Ford to ask for a donation. Mr. Ford reached into his pocket and gave Martha Berry a dime.

Most people would have been insulted. Seriously, a multi-millionaire, and all he could give her was a dime? But, Martha Berry took that dime and bought a packet of seeds, and she took the seeds and planted a garden, and she raised the crop and sold it and bought more seeds. After three or four harvests she had enough money to purchase an old building for the children. She returned to Mr. Ford and said, “Look what your dime has done.”

Mr. Ford was so impressed that he donated a million dollars to the Martha Berry School for Children.

What is “two cents” worth? Everything. But, then again, that’s just MY  two cents worth!

Until next time, keep looking up…

What to Do When Your Job Stinks!

new-orleans-saints-wallpapersI’m a Saints fan, and sometimes I like to turn down the sound on the TV and turn up the sound on the radio, and listen to the radio broadcast from the Saints broadcasting network. It makes for a much more fan friendly broadcast to listen to the “home” team announcers on game day. I mention that, not because it has anything to do with this blog, but because I love one of the advertisers on game day. It’s River Parish Disposal Company. There’s nothing special about the company, I just love their motto. The motto of River Parish Disposal Company is “Business stinks. But, it’s picking up!”

That motto sums up the ministry of Jesus as we read it in John 11, at least on this day in question. Setting up the scene, Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. He’s been challenged by his co-workers and the two sisters of his friend, Lazarus. Let’s face it. It’s never a fun day to go to a funeral, and this was after the Jewish leaders had tried to stone him and arrest him. This was a day when Jesus’ job really did stink, and as we read in the text, it didn’t just stink figuratively, it stunk literally. So, what did Jesus do when his job stank? He cried! Sounds like what we do when our job stinks, too. Sounds like what we do when life stinks!

We think tears are something to be avoided. Johnson’s Baby Shampoo even has a “no more tears” formula. Our culture tells us “real men don’t cry,” and our music tells us that “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” But all of us do cry at some point in our lives. We cry at the graveside of a loved one, or at the loss of a job. We cry with a broken heart when a relationship goes bad, or we cry over a sin that overwhelms us. We cry (or we should) when we hurt someone we love, or when someone we loves hurts. As long as we live in this broken world we will experience tears.

Tears are good for us, though. Tears are a way for the body to release harmful bio-chemicals. Biochemist William Frey found in one study that emotional tears–those formed in distress or grief–contained more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (think onion peeling). Tears remove toxins from our body that build up courtesy of stress. Tears are like a natural therapy or massage session, but they cost a lot less! Additionally, tears release a natural soporific that acts as a tranquilizer to the body. That’s why we’re often tired after a good cry. Any way you look at it, tears are healthy. And, on this day, we get a good look at the fullness of Jesus’ humanity.

We know why we cry, but why did Jesus cry, especially since we know what he was about to do? One reason is simply the deep compassion that Jesus felt for those who were suffering. It is true that Jesus let Lazarus die. He delayed coming. His reasons were good and merciful and glorious, but this didn’t mean Jesus took the suffering it caused lightly. Even though Jesus always chooses what will ultimately bring his Father the most glory—and sometimes, as in Lazarus’ case, it requires affliction and grief—he does not take delight in the affliction and grief itself. Jesus is sympathetic, and as “the image of the invisible God,” in Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus we catch a glimpse of how the Father feels over the affliction and grief we experience.

Another reason Jesus wept was over the power of sin. As God the Son who had come into the world to destroy evil, Jesus was about to deliver death its deathblow. But sin grieves God deeply and so do the wages of sin: death (Romans 6:23). And ever since the fall of Adam and Eve he had endured sin’s horrific destruction. Death had consumed almost every human being he had created. It had taken Lazarus, and it would take him again before it was all over. Tears of anger and longing were mixed with Jesus’ tears of grief.

Another reason was the cost that he was about to pay to purchase not only Lazarus’ short-term resurrection, but his everlasting life. The cross was just days away and no one really knew the inner distress Jesus was experiencing. Lazarus’ resurrection would look and be experienced by Lazarus and everyone else as a gift of grace. But, it was not free. For as much as we see Jesus humanity in this passage, we also see the fullness of his divinity. As a matter of fact, chapter 11 is the turning point in John’s Gospel in the life of Jesus. From this point, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to die a horrific death. Jesus, who had never known sin, was about to become Lazarus’ sin, and the sin of all who would believe in him, so that in him they would become the righteousness of God. As the writer of Hebrews says, Jesus was looking to the joy that was set before him, but the reality of what lay between was weighing heavily, and it brought tears.

This might also indicate yet another reason Jesus wept—raising Lazarus from the dead would actually set in motion the events that would lead to his own death. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb would have taken a different kind of resolve for Jesus than we might have imagined. Giving Lazarus life was sealing Jesus’ own death.

As I reflect on this encounter in Jesus’ life, there are a few lessons I learn. First, Jesus is angry at the power of sin in our lives. He’s not angry with us—that would be counter to the gospel of grace. He is, however angry with the power that sin holds over us, and that anger is reflected in the words of our text today.

A second lesson I learn is that Jesus is moved by our tears. He cries when we cry. He hurts when we hurt. He suffers when we suffer, and he does so because it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Sin brings suffering. That’s the result of the fall of humanity. Yes, Jesus still gets charged with not doing something about all the suffering. He got charged with it that day, too. He doesn’t set aside our tragedies or sorrows, but he is with us in the midst of the tragedies and sorrows. He walks with us, and brings us comfort.

A third lesson I learn is that tears don’t last forever. Again, our music reminds us that “It Only Hurts for a Little While.” How many oceans could be filled with the tears shed by humanity through all the centuries? And, we stand at the graveside of a loved one and we ask, “Will it always be this way?” We ask, “Is this all there is?” The writer of Ecclesiastes basically says life is suffering, death and then we’re forgotten. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Psalmist reminds us “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5), and when that morning comes, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). After all, it was Jesus, on this same day he wept that he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25).

Jesus asked Martha if she believed that. He asks us, too. Do we believe that?

Until next time, keep looking up…