Henri Nouwen talked about how difficult it was to wait, as most people think waiting is a waste of time. He related waiting to a desert between where we are and where we want to be. And no one wants to be in a desert.
It’s been a tumultuous year, to be sure. The election, political divide, and international drama has caused enough angst to make us lose our dignity and civility.
It’s a tough deal to be a pastor these days. I’m working with people who have a wide variety of social and political views, and want to celebrate and complain about the way things are to whomever might want to listen. The Facebook landscape is a perfect breeding ground for these ideals (and the lack thereof). I’ve learned to filter out views that are too incompatible with my own. It’s not because they are different, because I think contrasting opinions can be an opportunity for growth and personal development. It’s just that there is enough hatred in the world that I can’t control, so when I can limit my vitriol intake I want to take advantage of it.
So, here I am about to enter the new year and I’m wondering what’s ahead. I’ve become more cautious about attributing every action or result to the will of God. Much of what is next is directly related to our attitude and actions.
I’ve appreciated the article by theologian Frank Tupper, as he talks about the distinction between God’s sovereignty and God’s being in control. It is too simplistic to say that everything that happens is “God’s will.” Yes, there are examples from Scripture to affirm what I would call “the providence of God.” We don’t always understand what is going on around us at the time, nor how certain events can be woven into the overall tapestry of life. I embrace the paradox of human freewill and God’s sovereignty, even though this tension is difficult to rationalize. It is biblical, but this approach is not logical. Still, we cannot explain away our own behavior with a fatalist approach to the future.
Whenever I struggle with current events, I return to the story of Joseph. Even after being sold into slavery and experiencing prison, God was still involved as evidenced in the phrase “the Lord was with Joseph.” When he confronted his brothers, who were afraid for their lives, Joseph responded with an understanding of a deeper purpose: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50.20 NIV).
It’s easy to hurriedly flip through the stories of the Bible and quickly see how they ended. Yet, the persons involved in these accounts were very much living day to day, without knowing how things would turn out for them. It was only with the benefit of time, experience, and perseverance that God’s people could look back and realize God’s involvement in them.
Looking back on 2016, I have come to believe that many of us Christians have forgotten what our task is supposed to be. We rely too much on the government to normalize and nationalize Christianity, rather than realize that work belongs to the church. Rather than lament political and social ills, perhaps we should take a cue from our spiritual predecessors and persevere. The apostle Paul (from prison), wrote to a fledgling group of Jesus followers: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.14-15).
There are many things about 2016 I’d like to forget. It was a rough year in so many ways, yet those experiences can make us more sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit. The challenges and disappointments we have gone through can make us stronger as the people of God. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens will be enjoyable. But, if we can adopt an eternal perspective, it will help us identify with the people of God through the centuries who have struggled and suffered. And our first world problems don’t compare in any way to people who are going hungry, being persecuted, and dying for the cause of Christ.
We’ve been blessed with many freedoms in this country, and while I am very much thankful for them, believe that they can lead to a sense of entitlement for the church. My hope for the church in 2017 is that we will move forward with a sense of confidence in Christ and persevere through what is yet ahead. This can be our finest hour. In order for this to occur, we must pray for “thy Kingdom come” while at the same time realizing “my Kingdom goes.”
For these next few days leading into 2017, I am going to hang out “in the desert.” I don’t want to launch out into another year without getting spiritually centered and remembering what it means to have “the mind of Christ.”
For sure, there are many lessons that I still need to learn about what it means to be a follower of Christ. I suspect there are others who will be with me in that desert for a while, waiting and listening for the Spirit to lead us forward.
We’ve finished an Advent season in which we celebrate Emmanuel “God is with us.” Let that be an affirmation for our faith moving forward. May we live each moment, trusting in God’s providence while we persevere as the people of God.
In the movie “Finding Neverland” Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a struggling writer who was inspired through a friendship with the Davies family to write a play called Peter Pan. It’s a story of an eccentric boy who never grows up and lives in a place, of course, called Neverland.
As opening night approaches, the theater owner voices his worry that an adult audience won’t appreciate the play and it will be a failure. In response, Barrie invites 25 orphans to the play.
It’s quite a contrast. The adults are dressed up in handsome tuxedos and beautiful dresses, seemingly unimpressed with the appearance of the theatre. The children enter and are immediately enthralled with the beauty of room, and laughter fills the room as the children enjoy what they see. The adults are caught up with the joy of the moment and follow the lead of the orphans. It becomes a magical experience for everyone in attendance.
Our church recently completed it’s participation in Operation Christmas Child. It’s collection week, and we made sure to pack up and send 100 boxes to a neighboring church who is serving as a collection site. This number is a personal best for our church, and it’s rewarding to watch our people engaged in an effort to improve the lives of boys and girls living in poverty.
I’ve been amazed at what goes in those boxes. Just little things for the most part. Dolls, and small toys. Gloves and socks. Even those plastic toys that come in kids’s meals at fastfood places are put in there. These “dollar store” items wouldn’t be missed by people in “first world countries” but they are precious to children who are desperate for any kind of gift. Their faces light up in gratitude for things that we would easily cast aside.
It’s Thanksgiving. I am wondering how our nation is going to celebrate the holidays–if at all. I’ve heard from several people who wonder aloud how they are going to be with family members who voted the opposite way from them in the presidential election. It’s apparent to me that the divisions and wounds are not healed, and we are a long way from any since of normalcy.
We’re quite good at acknowledging our own problems. These come front and center in our thinking. But, it’s harder to recognize that others who have a different worldview and opinion also struggle. Perhaps it would be useful the adage, “Let us remember to be kind to one another. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
The battle right now seems to be getting in the mood for Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I’ll take the days off and make the trip to visit family. We’ll gather around the table and enjoy a meal together, and I will offer a prayer for thanks for the people with me. Yet, I am concerned for us a faith community when it comes to realizing how much we have to be thankful for.
I’ve done a lot of funerals in my life; now I’m wondering if it’s time to do one for Gratitude. Can we recover the lost art of being thankful?
In Luke 17, Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. This is a journey to the cross. On the way, he is shouted to by ten lepers who cry out to be healed. They cannot get close to Jesus, they are social outcasts and make their living begging alongside busy highways and roads. Jesus does something that most of us would never do: he sees them and says something to them. Jesus responds, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Amazingly, they do it. The priests are the ones who would pronounce them clean and ready to enter society.
I’ve read this passage a few times, and I marvel at this exchange. There are no special words. Nothing dramatic. No “Be healed!” from Jesus. Simply a command to go, and they do and as they go they are healed.
That would be a great ending to the story, except it isn’t. One of them returns–a Samaritan. An important detail. A man who had two strikes against him with the leprosy and his heritage; now he still has the one. He falls to his feet in gratitude before Jesus who looks around and asks, “Where are the other nine?” Then he offers a personal message to the Samaritan, “rise and go, your faith has made you whole.”
Not only is the Samaritan physically healed. He is also spiritually healed. Salvation has come to his lonely house.
There is one characteristic about this Samaritan that sticks out to me: he has a BIG mouth. He is loud while voicing his problem to Jesus. And, he is loud voicing his praise to Jesus.
This Thanksgiving, it would be good if we could find a way to be as vocal with our gratitude to God as we are griping to God about our problems. I wonder who else we might find at the feet of Jesus.
There is a condition worse than leprosy; it’s called ingratitude. And, it’s contagious. May God help us remember the leper in each one of us who needed healing and acceptance.Gratitude is the path to grace.
It’s finally here. . . we are in the final few days of the ad blitzes. The news channels let us hear what the candidates are saying 24/7. Then, the talking heads tell us what we just heard.
It’s a strange season. And on top of that the Indians and Cubs are in the World Series. At the same time. We can be thankful for a short period of time for the distraction.
Here in this bell-weather, “show me state” of Missouri, airways have been saturated with enough attacks on our presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates to last a (political) lifetime. Even after living here for almost a decade, I am still having a difficult time getting used to all these commercials. I don’t recall getting this much media attention while living in Mississippi.
I’m pretty sure I know why.
I’m noticing the anxiety level creeping up. After the All Saints Day worship service, I stood in the Narthex like I usually do to greet people who have the time or desire to talk with the pastor. One of our older (very conservative) members asked me “Are you going to tell our people to vote next Tuesday (November 8) ?” I paused for a moment, thinking he might have said “who to vote for.” I assured him that I was confident that election day hadn’t slipped anyone’s mind, but that I usually encouraged people to vote.
It’s been a strange dynamic, this election cycle.
I’ve had folks tell me about the country’s demise if Hillary Clinton gets elected. I’ve also had others tell me pretty much the same thing if Donald Trump wins. My favorite response is from those who tell me it doesn’t matter because they are planning to move to Canada after the election.
This isn’t the first election cycle for me at our church. From the pulpit, I have seen a Republican U.S. senator sitting in a worship service next to the County chairman of the Democratic party. It’s a wonderful dynamic to see them talking to each other, knowing that they are friends but obviously have different opinions. And, I’m pretty aware of the political views of our people, not because I ask them, but because I know how to log on to Facebook.
We are a Baptist church, but I quickly add the “not that kind of Baptist” moniker to this identification. So, that means we are very diverse in our social, economic, theological, and political views. What my older, very conservative, church friend has been discovering as he and his wife serve the Lord with us, is that we don’t have a political litmus test in order to be part of the church. I have observed that this has been difficult for him, as he obviously has a preference for whom to vote for and that others should be urged to follow suit. It can be a surprise to learn that the people you love, know, and sit on the pew with have different political views. For some people, it’s a bridge too far to cross in order to maintain fellowship. That’s a sad reality. Churches ought to be a place where there is space for people who have different views but who also can affirm “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
I’ve never “endorsed” a political candidate. I believe in a free pulpit and the separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, but I recognize that after this election is over, we are all going to have to find a way to live with each other. Unless, of course, there are people who really are going to move to Canada.
I would expect some degree of angst about this political malaise from church people, but what has me more disappointed is the behavior of pastors. It’s discouraging when clergy endorses a political candidate, and when so much time is spent opining about the terrible state of affairs of our nation. A pastor friend, whom I love dearly, offered his “We need God in the White House!” lament to me over the phone the other day. I simply listened but knew, of course, that God wasn’t running for office. My greater concern has been praying that God would be evidenced in and through our churches.
It might be a good time to remember that our political candidates are not perfect human beings–far from it in fact. And, if we are going to demand public expressions of faith from them in order to get our vote, then we are simply begging to be deceived. The ancient yet timely words of the Psalmist come to mind: “Do not put your trust in princes (or in princesses, I might add), who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4).
This is not an easy time for our nation. Admittedly, this is an unusual election in so many ways. There’s a lot of frustration, anxiety, and fear. While affirming freedom of speech, I do want to urge caution against the statement “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and vote for _________________.” It’s bad enough when people in the pew say this, but when pastors weigh in like this, it’s theological malpractice.
As important as this election is, let’s take a breath and remember that we’ve been through this before. We need to act like it. And, we Christians should be focused not only on November 8th but what happens the day after.There is a more important and lasting Kingdom, and I want as many of us as possible to embrace that–no matter who you vote for on Tuesday.
Last month, I preached a sermon series from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Known as the “weeping prophet”, he had the unenviable task of informing God’s people they were about to go into exile. They would lose their homes, land, and way of life.
One of the passages related to a letter from the Lord to his people, indicating their period of exile would not be an indefinite period of time. It would last 70 years, after which God would bring them back to their homeland. Seven decades is a long time, but it is finite time frame. A key verse from that letter is from Jeremiah 29.11, in which the Lord indicates that he knows the plans he has for them, and that they will have a “hope and a future.”
We have a tendency to interpret many passages like this on a personal rather than community basis. However, these words were meant for all the people in order to encourage them about what is still to come for them. The application is that each one of us is part the whole, and what happens to one of us impacts the rest of us.
In a sense, I think that relates to All Saints Day. Saints of all ages can embrace not only a future but a sure hope because of Christ.
Our church will be involved in a remembrance on October 30. Yes, the children will be thinking about Halloween and gearing up to Trick or Treat. But, it’s also the weekend in which we think about Martin Luther and the birth of the Protestant Reformation. We owe so much to him and others who came before us; Luther recovered the theological triad of justification through grace alone, by faith alone, and in Christ alone.
The All Saints emphasis will be about those who have gone on to Glory. It’s important for us to realize that we are part of the people of God through the ages, sometimes called the “invisible church.” Those of us who remain in the “visible church” have an eternal connection with those persons who lived and died in faith.
The psalmist described the deep affection that God has for his people: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116.15 KJV). This is a beautiful reminder of God’s ongoing compassion and attention for those who met their death believing in God.
While some Christian traditions allow for the canonization of persons into the “sainthood”, Protestants have not interpreted Scripture this way. Baptists refer to “saint” in the plural tense, as it always appears that way in the Bible. Individually, each of us is not a “saint” yet collectively as God’s people we are all “saints.” It’s a wonderful image.
During the ten years of serving as pastor of UHBC, I’ve led or participated in at least 125 funerals. I’ve buried a decent sized church. We have felt these losses on a personal, emotional, and financial level. All Saints Day helps us remember our ongoing connection with them through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One day we will rejoin them in a great Homecoming!
We will also be reflecting upon parents, siblings, children, and other loved ones who have gone on to their eternal reward. These persons and others through the ages are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12) who are cheering us on in the race we have yet before us. Eventually, each one of us who knows Christ will join that congregation in the life beyond.
In a time where political rancor is dominating the media, it’s good to know where our ultimate place and destiny remains. This world is not our home. We are simply passing through. May God help us to enjoy the time we have in this life, live out our faith in words and actions, and give thanks that our place in the Father’s house is being prepared for us.