Hurry Up and Wait…

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. So says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5: 22. That being the case, I must confess that I’m not nearly as spiritual as I give myself credit for because I don’t wait well. Of course, living through this COVID-19 pandemic has revealed there are a whole lot of us followers of Jesus who are a little less holy these days.

My heart and my prayers go out to all my clergy colleague friends who are waiting to re-open the congregations they serve. They are hearing a thousand voices, each giving advice (both solicited and unsolicited) about when is the right time to re-open, or even if they should re-open. Every voice is an opinion with most differing in the advice given. For most pastors, it is a no-win situation, and yet all they can do is wait.

Though I am not waiting to know when to re-open a congregation, I am waiting to discern God’s direction for my life. After 28 years in vocational ministry, it was clear to us (my wife and me) that a season away was needed. The waiting is no fun. It is anxious. It is confusing. It is challenging. Yet, waiting is all we can do.

Waiting: A Four-letter Word

The word “wait” has become a four letter word, and I mean that in the worst sense. I’d rather do anything than wait? In fact, sometimes I would rather do the wrong thing than wait. That old prayer, “Lord, give me patience—and I want it right now!” has never been more true. In this digital age, with information at our fingertips, I don’t like to wait on anything.

The famous New England preacher of a previous century, Phillips Brooks, was known for not handling waiting too well. One day a friend saw him pacing the floor like a caged lion and asked him, “Dr. Brooks, what is the trouble?” Brooks responded, “The trouble is that I am in a hurry, but God is not!”

“I am in a hurry, but God is not” characterizes my lives, even my prayer life. I pray and I expect the answer today, this moment, the way I desire. God doesn’t work that way! And, what I seem to forget is that waiting is no passive endeavor. I need to re-learn a couple of lessons from Jesus as I’m waiting for an answer to prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus was a praying man. The four Gospels record seventeen specific times Jesus prayed. He prayed in different places at different times and for different reasons, but there is no prayer more meaningful than the words John records for us in chapter 17. This is the “real” Lord’s prayer.

You may recall when teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus told them, “Pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” We call that section of scripture in Matthew 6 “The Lord’s Prayer.” In a sense, it is Jesus’ prayer – the model he gave his followers. A more accurate title, however, might be: “The Prayer of Jesus’ Disciples,” since he said to them, “You pray in this manner.”

John 17 is “The Lord’s Prayer,” par excellence. We do not rank Bible passages, because all Scripture is breathed by God as the Holy Spirit spoke through his apostles, and yet, many believers throughout the history of the church have sensed they were entering a holy place and time as they listen to Jesus pray what has been called “The High Priestly Prayer.”

This is the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, and in it Jesus prayed for the Father’s glory, and he prayed for his disciples…not only those first disciples, but also “all” who would come after them…that means you and me. That’s right, Jesus prayed for you and me.

The Father’s Glory

Jesus prayed for the Father to be glorified in him and through him, and in praying for the Father’s glory, Jesus teaches us how to pray in our waiting on God. Jesus said, “The hour has come…” What hour? The hour of his crucifixion! The glory of God in the cross. Glory in the suffering. Think about that a moment. We remember the mount of transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light and God spoke from heaven with a voice all could hear. I understand that glory.

And, the glory of the adoring crowd, throwing their cloaks and palm branches before him and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” I get that glory. But Jesus’ first words are “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” This can mean only one thing: the death for which God was born is now at hand.

How does the cross glorify God the Father and his Messiah? It glorifies God because it shows the cosmic significance of God’s holiness. Jesus is crucified, dead and buried to preach the surpassing beauty of holiness. This is not a peripheral thing – take it or leave it. God’s holiness holds the universe together – if it is undone, all is lost.

The cross also glorifies the misery of sin. If sin were one grain less awful than the Bible says, then Christ need not die to bring it to an end. But at the cross sin is painted in all its wretched colors, so that the hearts of God’s people will forever rejoice at their freedom from this enemy.

The cross glorifies God’s love: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” Someone said: “I asked Jesus how much He loved me. He answered “this much” – then he stretched out his arms and died.”

It was in his suffering that God would be glorified. What suffering are you going through? Our (my)  prayers, too often, are for deliverance. Jesus’s prayer teaches us that our prayer ought always to be, no matter what the circumstance, “Father, be glorified.” We may not like the circumstances, we may not desire the circumstances, we may not understand the circumstances, but our prayer is still, “Father, I’m in this place and my prayer is for you to take this life, take these circumstances and use them for your glory.” It’s a hard prayer to pray, but when we’re waiting for God to answer, we keep praying.

Jesus’ prayer was answered (in one sense), but it was answered only after he went through hell—literally.

Prayers Unanswered

In another sense, though, the prayer of Jesus remains to be answered. As I reflect on that fact, I confess and repent of my own impatience in prayer and in life. Jesus prayed for you and me. Notice that Jesus did not pray for health or wealth or care-free living for his disciples. He prayed for unity. That’s such a nice sounding word, and as we look around the Christian landscape, we know this prayer is yet to be answered.

So, how can we be unified with so much division? We need to realize that unity is received, not achieved. The gift of unity can never be fabricated by humans, it must be made real by the Spirit of God. It’s not a unity of organization or administration for which Jesus prayed, but a unity in personal relationships, and the unifer is Jesus Christ.

Union does not equal unity. In marriage, there can be a union of two people, but they can lack unity. Each person operates with different goals and dreams. Self-interest drives their union and therefore prevents unity in their purpose.

The pattern for unity of believers is unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organization, feeling or affection, but rather a unity of purpose, and Christians are drawn to one another because we are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ. He is the source of our unity.

Within the Church, there have been and will continue to be wide divergences of opinion and ritual. Unity prevails whenever there is a deep and genuine experience of Jesus Christ. Unity in the body of Christ prevails when Jesus is the focus, and if Jesus Christ is ever made to be less than the fullness of God born in human flesh, unity begins to fade…and the prayer of Jesus goes unanswered.

Waiting and Working

Jesus’ prayer is being answered…if not fully yet. That’s because there is still work to be done. We might say, “Jesus, too, is waiting for an answer.” He’s waiting for us to take up the work…the work of redemption and reconciliation. A truly unified community of people is a supernatural fact that has a supernatural cause. A unified Church compels the world to confess that God is at work among us. The world will never know the power of God’s salvation until the world can see a Church that is united by its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s the work Jesus left to us.

It’s also the prayer he continues to pray. Yes, Jesus is still praying for us. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 8:34—“Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

So, while I’m waiting for God…waiting for an answer…I pray and I work. I do it because I have faith. I believe the Father. I believe the Father’s love. Jesus prayed and prays because he believes the Father is faithful.

Sweeping across Germany at the end of World War II, Allied Forces searched farms and houses looking for snipers. At one abandoned house, among a heap of rubble, searchers with flashlights, found their way to the basement. There, on the crumbling wall, a victim of the holocaust had scratched a Star of David. And beneath it, in rough lettering, they found the following message:

I believe in the sun—even when it does not shine;

I believe in love—even when it is not shown;

I believe in God—even when he does not speak.

Well, God does speak, and God hears and God moves. But, I’m learning again that He does not always speak, or hear, or move immediately. Sometimes He waits to answer. God wants us to wait on Him for His answers.  Will you, with me, learn to wait, and in the waiting continue to pray, and continue to work?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Gotta’ Start Building Bridges…

I find myself praying more lately. I can’t think of a reason that’s not a good thing. The problem I’m having, though, is that my prayers usually lead me to questions, and I don’t like questions that don’t have answers. One of the questions my prayers have caused me to wrestle with is this: “Is the Lord calling me to plant a church?” As I’ve prayed about the answer to that question, it gives rise to another question: “Why do we need ANOTHER church?” I mean, really!

Religion

Search Google for “world religion” and you get 935 million hits. There are 21 major world religions, and countless more minor ones (though I suspect their adherents would argue their “minor” status). Gone are the days when everyone in our neighborhood and in our town are Christians. In my former neighborhood, I had a Hindu two doors down and Buddhists across the street. Such is our world today.

Then, I consider the confusion that exists in our own Christian world. Some estimates have the number of Christian denominations at 43,000. Actually, there are really only about 40 distinct “denominations” within the Christian family. The vast majority of the rest of them are offshoots of one of the 40 or so, but still, that’s a lot of divisions, right?

The digital age has provided easy access to the philosophies of the world’s religions. The proliferation of publishing houses and bookstores has made it easy to feast off the “faith buffet.” Search Books-a-Million’s website and you’ll discover 6,407 titles in the spirituality section. Inside the church, we’re no different. We feast off the same “faith buffet,” choosing books and authors that have little to do with doctrine consistent with our tradition, and more with the popularity of the subject matter. As a culture, we make our way down the buffet line, picking up a little Wesleyan doctrine, some Baptist theology to go with it, a little Pentecostal understanding for flavor, a smidgen of Lutheran understanding, and then put a little New Age mysticism on the side to sort of balance things out.

It gets really confusing for me, and I’ve been to school for all this stuff. I can only imagine how confusing it gets in the real world. Who’s right? What’s right? What’s a person to do with all this confusing information? How do we make sense out of a diverse religious landscape, and remain faithful to our own understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ? And, why do we need one more church in the middle of it? I think I can learn a lesson from the Apostle Paul.

Building Bridges

In Acts 17: 22 – 31, Paul is in the city of Athens, Greece. When Paul arrived in Athens he found himself in one of the most famous centers of philosophy, religion, art and architecture the ancient world had ever known. It was an incredibly diverse place. Certainly, it was as religiously diverse as our own day and time. The Greek historian Pausanias says that there were more idols in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. Paul could see them wherever he looked, and Paul was called to share the Gospel in that religiously diverse culture.

Athens was famous for its philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and Epicures. People sat around and discussed the greater philosophies of life. Paul was presenting the good news of the Gospel to the literary capital of the ancient world, the most cultured city on earth. This was the city where even Romans came to finish their education. Athens was the home of philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters and poets, and a great university where thousands gathered for study.

This was the environment into which Paul preached about Jesus and  the resurrection. It was unique. It was novel. It was challenging. Understand, for Paul to teach about Jesus and the resurrection was to put him in danger of being arrested like he had been in Philippi. Paul was taken to the Areopagus so he could present his views to the Council.

Areopagus is the Greek term for Mars’ Hill (verse 22). It was a place of assembly. There the supreme court of Athens met. The court was made up of 30 city officials. There the courts that sat concerning religious matters convened. The associations had something to do (probably) with Paul being taken here to speak, though the meeting was informal and not official. The hill is about fifty feet high, and was then surrounded by the most glorious works of art in Athens with the historic Parthenon in the background. It was in harmony with the spirit of the city that he should be called on to speak to gratify the curiosity of people seeking new thoughts.In this city, on this occasion, Paul sought to build a bridge so that he might share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building a bridge–that’s the lesson for I feel called to navigate through my prayers right now. How did Paul build a bridge in Athens?

Spiritual but Not Religious

First, Paul affirmed their spiritual nature. Paul noted their idolatry, but he didn’t attack them for it. As we read Paul’s writings, we find that he reserved his harshest words for believers in Jesus Christ, not for pre-Christian people. That’s instructive for me. I discover that affirmation builds up while attack tears down. Paul could affirm their religious nature, and in so doing, could find common ground upon which to have a conversation. Beginning a conversation with a non-Christian by telling them they are wrong only raises their defenses and closes their ears.  Acknowledging our common search for knowledge of the Divine is a great starting point if we hope to build bridges with those with whom we hope to share the Gospel.

The popular catch-phrase these days is “spiritual but not religious.” It is used increasingly to describe the “nones.” “Nones” are persons who do not identify with any specific faith tradition. They will often self-identify as people who are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand. That we have a spirituality at all makes us religious people, and it reveals the nature of our creation. I love how the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it in 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. We are spiritual beings. Paul sought to build a bridge to share the Gospel by affirming his listener’s spiritual nature.

Capturing Culture

Another way Paul sought to build a bridge was by using the culture to communicate Christ. Paul said, “You’ve got a lot of altars, but there’s one to the ‘unknown God’ I want to talk to you about.” Paul took the familiar and connected it to Christ. The culture (no matter how “un-Christian we believe it to be) is not the enemy. The culture is the culture. It can become a tool we use in sharing Christ with the world. THIS is the culture we’re called to live faithful lives in. God isn’t calling us to be faithful in 1968. He’s calling us to be faithful in 2020 and beyond.

So, we today, with the embrace of digital technology, must speak the language of culture if we are to be faithful in sharing the Gospel. One of the most encouraging developments coming from the COVID pandemic is the church’s transition to the digital age. We are in a digital culture, so the church must use digital language to communicate the Gospel. To be contemporary, to be relevant means to understand the culture. Understanding the culture affords us the opportunity to communicate effectively.

Affirming humanity’s common spiritual nature and understanding culture does not mean we can’t maintain integrity to the Gospel. Paul did so effectively. Paul preached Christ and him resurrected. That was a unique message, and it piqued the interest of those in the culture. But, Paul also preached God’s judgment, but in a not-so-judgmental way. Let me try to explain.

We are living between two ages. That’s perhaps why life seems so confusing. We are living in the shift between the “modern” and “post-modern” age. For the modern mind, there are many more absolutes. For the post-modern mind, things are much more relative. Take sin, for instance. For the modern mind, sin is a violation of God’s moral law, thus Jesus can easily be accepted as the atonement for that violation. Repent and trust Jesus, and all is forgiven. We can accept that and live faithful lives until we die and go to heaven.

To the post-modern mind, though, sin is not so easily seen as a violation of God’s law because morality, like everything else, is relative. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job of addressing the root issue of sin from this perspective—even way back in the first century. Paul addressed the issue of idolatry, calling attention to the idols everywhere in Athens. For Paul, the biblical definition of sin was idolatry. For instance, if we make a moral statement about adultery, which to the modern mind is classified as a violation of the moral law, then a post-modern would simply say, “You’ve got your morality and I’ve got mine.” That ends the discussion. If I were to tell them they were going to hell if they didn’t change, all I’ve done is make them turn a deaf ear to the Gospel. If, however, I tell them they are sinning because they are looking to the romances or relationships to give their lives meaning, or to give them what they are looking for, or should be looking for from God, then I have cast the conversation in a different light and hopefully can engage them in a deeper conversation concerning the power of the Gospel. After all, idolatry is putting anything in God’s place, and that causes anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, resentment, jealousy, etc. Then, Christ and his salvation can be presented as the hope for freedom.

Stated a much simpler way, the modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to forgiveness. The post-modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to freedom. Both are correct. Both open the door for the transforming work of God in Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel. Paul sought to build a bridge by affirming the common spiritual nature, and by connecting with them culturally while maintaining integrity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our task in this religiously diverse age.

Perhaps a parable can communicate it better than I:

A Parable

Once upon a time two brothers lived on adjoining farms. For forty years, they farmed side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed. Then, their long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding that grew into a major difference before finally exploding into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on the elder brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work”, he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. He did that to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – – an 8-foot fence –so I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset the farmer returned to find the carpenter just finishing his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. He didn’t find a fence. He found a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other. It was a fine piece of work, and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.”

The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”

I really don’t know that I’ve answered the question of why another church, but I know that there are more bridges to build. Maybe another church would help to build some of those bridges? Maybe not. Guess I’ll keep praying.

Will you pray with me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Too Stressed from Rest…

Confession time once again…I’m ready for this “Stay-at-Home” order to be lifted. I think I’m suffering from what “experts” (ugh! THAT word!) are calling “quarantine fatigue.” Basically, that just means one is tired of staying home. I’m tired of staying home and I work in an “essential” business and go to the office almost every day. But, I just want to go to the Mexican restaurant and have chips and salsa. I want to go to the movie. I want to go see my grandchildren play spring sports. I want to go to Dillard’s and buy my wife a Mother’s Day gift.

That’s a lot of “I” statements, and I’m sure there are some of you teeing up to pounce on me for my selfishness, but according to research done using cell phone data, I’m not the only one who has quarantine fatigue. More and more people are venturing out to beaches, parks and other places to break the monotony of quarantine. It’s interesting that the pandemic created one crisis. Now the quarantine is creating another. Apparently, people who are quarantined get bored, lonely and restless. Makes me wonder: Are we stressed from all this rest?

I’m not a simpleton. I know there are countless reasons we are stressed during this time. Many elderly are stressed because of the overwhelming impact the Coronavirus has on their demographic. Many small business owners are stressed by the potential loss of their livelihood. Many others are stressed from their lay-off from work, and many others are stressed by the financial impact the pandemic is having on their lives. But, stressed from rest, now that’s interesting.

Psalm 23

Quarantine fatigue puts me to pondering the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 must be the most-loved, most read and most quoted of all the Psalms. This psalm is called the Shepherd”s Psalm because it portrays God as a good Shepherd, who cares for and looks after his flock. The Psalm is attributed to King David. If anyone was qualified to describe God in this manner, it was David who had been a shepherd before he became a king. How often David must have gazed up at the heavens on a star-filled night whilst watching over his father’s sheep and pondered the very nature of God! Surely he must have pondered how much God was just like a shepherd. His years of shepherding had taught him a few things, and as he contemplated the shepherd’s work, he found a fitting description of what God does for his people.

There are a number of things David notes in this Psalm. The opening sentence really says all that needs to be said: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The NIV says, “I shall not be in want,” and the NLT says, “I have everything I need.” Everything that comes after the first sentence is unpacking what the Psalmist means by having everything he needs. Because we’re in the midst of a quarantine, and folks are even stressing from resting, my mind is captured by one idea David centers on—rest.

Man in a Hurry

We don’t often rest well in the 24/7/365 culture we were living in pre-pandemic. Rest is almost a forgotten art, but rest is integral to our human existence. We can’t wind the rubber band tighter and tighter. The tension has to be released, or sooner or later the rubber band will snap. When it snaps it will lead us to a mental failure, a moral failure or severe chronic health conditions. We’re seeing the same thing happen with quarantine fatigue.

I used to use a lot of Andy Griffith illustrations in my sermons. There’s one episode of the Andy Griffith Show that illustrates how we live most of our lives. The episode is entitled “Man in a Hurry,” and it’s about a business man from Raleigh (Mr. Tucker, I think is his name) whose car breaks down on Sunday. Of course, Wally, the owner of the filling station, isn’t available on Sunday, so Mr. Tucker convinces Gomer to try to fix the car. The man finds it imperative to get to Charlotte. No amount of coaxing will encourage the man to rest, relax, take it easy until Monday morning when Wally will be back and willing to fix his car.

He’s a man in a hurry. At one point, Mr. Tucker says, “You people are living in another world. This is the 20th century. Don’t you realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the earth. International television has been developed, and here, a whole town is standing still because two old women’s feet fall asleep!” Barney just looks at Andy and asks, “I wonder what causes that?” That desperate need to be on the run was broadcast in 1963—that’s the year I was born, folks. Things have only gotten worse since.

Rest

We need rest, and the Psalmist says that’s exactly what the shepherd offers his sheep. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” You know how it is, right? Living life with all these balls juggling in the air—you’ve got the work ball, the family ball, the church ball, the society ball. We run frantically around trying to keep all the balls juggling at the same time.

Take a look at one of those balls—the work ball. The average American works 47 hours per week. We can’t wait to get to the weekend, right? But then, we don’t rest because we have to keep the family ball in the air. There’s laundry to be done. The yard needs mowing. The hedges need trimming. The roof needs fixing. The kids have ball games. Juggle, juggle, juggle. Then, on March 17th, all that stopped. We were  forced to stop juggling the balls–to put them down, as it were. And now, we’re stressed about that, too. Ain’t life funny?

If we’re not resting, it might be a good indication we’re not following the Shepherd.  Even when we’ve been given the gift of time to rest, and the rest is stressing us, it’s a good indication we’re not following because the Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. HE does it. He does it because rest is part of God’s nature. God worked for six days and He rested. God looked on the seventh day and saw that it was “very good.” The work was complete. And God built that rhythm into life. God didn’t need to rest because He was weary from the work. God rested because the creation was complete. It was whole.

Yeah, we had to go and mess it up. But, we can rest because we are complete in the Shepherd. We find wholeness in our relationship with the shepherd, and I remind us that wholeness is really the definition behind this little thing we call salvation.

Rest comes as a result of contentment. Sheep rest when they are content. Phillip Keller in his great book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says there are four things that create discontent in sheep: 1) fear, 2) friction, 3) parasites, and 4) hunger. The sheep are able to rest when the shepherd addresses each one of those circumstances.

So, what are we afraid of? We can acknowledge there is much that promotes fear in the pandemic. Let’s name those fears. Where are the places of friction in our lives? All the memes on social media about home-schooling and drunk teachers are funny for a reason. Is it in a relationship? No doubt, the quarantine has caused a number of couples to deal with issues that have long been buried. What are the parasites that are drawing the life out of us? What are we hungry for (besides Mexican food)?  We find meaning, purpose and value in life when we depend on the Shepherd, not when we depend upon ourselves–even in a quarantine.

Finding Stillness

Rest doesn’t come easily or automatically for us. We must cultivate the art. May I offer some suggestions to aid cultivation?

  1. Block out time–even with an abundance on the calendar–to rest. Hopefully, you’ve established a routine even for the quarantine. Include intentional times of disconnect from the routine to stop and connect with the Shepherd.
  2. Don’t take yourself (or others) too seriously. There are things that are serious, but they are far fewer in number than we imagine.
  3. Laugh out loud every day at something. I didn’t say laugh at someone. That can be destructive. But, the wisdom writer of Proverbs says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
  4. Embrace the gift God is giving us to change the things in our lives that need changing. God is giving us the opportunity to reassess our priorities by learning what we can live without.

Rest is part of God’s provision for our lives. In the midst of quarantine fatigue, it seems a good time to be reminded that rest is part of the “all I need” the Good Shepherd provides. Perhaps that’s our greatest need. Maybe it’s why that’s where David started his greatest song.

Until next time, keep looking up…

I Have My Doubts…

I think we’re in a bit of a double bind. You know what a double bind is, right? A double bind is a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action. Our double bind comes because we’re being told we must “listen to the experts.” Well, which experts would that be? The ones who tell us we must remain in lock down due to the Coronavirus, or those who tell us we have to open the economy to prevent the collapse of our economy? I suspect which expert we chose to listen to has much to do with which side of the political aisle we occupy. I’ll confess that I have my doubts about the experts on either side, but that’s probably just a result of my natural cynicism.

Doubting Thomas

Of course, I’m not the first person to play the cynic and express my doubts. I’m remembering the Apostle Thomas this week after Easter. John relates the story in his gospel (John 20: 24 – 29) that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t present. The disciples told Thomas about the encounter, but Thomas said, “I’ll believe it when I see it” (the Lynn paraphrase). Thomas had his doubts, too. I’m feeling like I’m in pretty good company.

We just don’t expect dead people to live again. Why do we suspect it was any different in the 1st century? Doubting Thomas? Surely it would be doubting Lynn, too, if I were in Thomas’s shoes. I think Thomas has been the scapegoat for the church and everyone else who ever said doubt was wrong, or that it is somehow unfaithful to need a sign, or a vision, or a personal encounter.

Why can’t we ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, a skeptic, or worse, a hater? Are questions bad? Is there something wrong with admitting we don’t understand everything? Is it wrong to ask God to clarify a few things? I hope not! Think about Job. Job had questions. And the Psalms are full of questions, uncertainties, and not a few complaints. Even Jesus, hanging on the cross, asked the question of the ages, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thomas is just the next in a long line of faithful folks who raised their voices to ask God hard questions.

Faith is Hard

Thomas’ undeserved reputation notwithstanding, I learn two important lessons from his encounter. Lesson one: Doubt is a testimony to the difficulty of faith. It’s just hard to believe. Faith takes work, and honestly, sometimes I’m just too lazy to believe. Faith takes work because it puts us in uncomfortable places and begs us to ask tough questions. Genuine faith says it is okay for us to ask questions of God.

Faith is when we are willing to embrace the doubts, ask the questions, and face the answers. Jesus knew faith in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there he was willing to say, “If…” And, on the cross, too. The Apostle Paul knew faith on the Damascus Road and in a Roman prison. They knew, and I learn, that faith is believing something that is totally beyond my comprehension, but being unafraid to try to believe it anyway. Jesus could say from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Paul could say, “Your grace is sufficient for me.”

The Christian faith is not some cut-and-dried faith. Faith in Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to a set of rules, where everything fits, where everything makes sense, where all we have to do is connect the dots. That’s what the Pharisees tried to do. They had to explain everything in a formula; to make all life so that it could be answered by a set of rules, and if it didn’t fit within that hard and fast set of rules, it was rejected as heresy or blasphemy. Well, Jesus didn’t fit within their set of rules, and look what happened to him. Consequently, their eyes and their hearts were closed to the very thing God was doing in their midst. They were blind to the miracle standing right in front of them.

Sometimes, our faith will ask us to look outside the box; to color outside the lines, and believe some things that the rest of the world says are ridiculous. Some things like believing a virgin could have a baby (I believe that!), or that God and man could live in one person (I believe that, too!), or that Jesus would die for the sins of the world (and I believe that one, too!), or that Jesus could actually rise from the dead (we all better believe that one). Our faith may ask us to do things that the world says are pointless, and that will be hard work, indeed. That work will raise a few doubts, but the doubts will testify that faith is no easy thing.

Faith is an Encounter

Lesson two: Faith begins with an encounter. Like Thomas, until we see the risen Lord ourselves we can’t believe. Until we see Christ, the resurrection is about as silly as seeing Elvis at the convenience store, but a personal encounter with Jesus changes all that. When we encounter Jesus personally, the lines of our lives get blurry. The line between believing and not believing, and the line between life and death are suddenly crossed. Those lines once seemed so absolute. When I meet Jesus…not so much, anymore.

Thomas’ story is ultimately a miracle of faith. His mind was opened and his heart swelled with the words, “My Lord and my God!” All because he had a personal encounter with Jesus. Without the personal encounter with the risen Lord, Thomas would have continued to wallow around in his own doubt. At best, he would have been stuck in a world where the rules cling only to those things which are possible.

Do you know the difference in Thomas and the other disciples? Thomas was a week late, that’s all. The other disciples needed a personal encounter with Jesus as much as Thomas did. Remember, they were hiding in a locked room, cowering in fear of the Jewish leaders when Jesus first appeared to them. They were just as afraid and doubtful as Thomas ever was. Faith and understanding began only after Jesus made himself personally known to them.

That’s true for us, too. We remain in our own cynical, skeptical little world until Jesus breaks through the door of our locked hearts. There’s the miracle in all this: Jesus searches us out and finds us, even when we don’t want to be found. We can lock ourselves away from the world, we can lock out the Good News, but Jesus, if he wants us, breaks through that door. We Wesleyans like to call that prevenient grace.

No Second-hand Jesus

If a stone couldn’t keep Jesus in a tomb, I don’t think a wooden door was going to keep him from getting to the disciples with the Good News of his resurrection. We all need a personal encounter with Jesus Christ before we can declare, “My Lord and my God!” A second-hand Jesus just won’t do.

Encountering Christ was simple enough for Thomas. Jesus was right there. He’s right here, too. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples. He breathes the Holy Spirit on us, too. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus present with us today. The Holy Spirit is present in our worship. The Bible says God inhabits the praise of His people. When we praise God, He is present and we encounter Him. Through music, through the Bible, through study and prayer, we encounter the One who was raised from the dead because he has given us His Spirit to know He is here. And, we encounter Him every time we receive the Lord’s Supper or participate in the sacrament of baptism.

If others are to encounter Jesus they will encounter him through us. That’s why evangelism is so important. We have to leave our locked little worlds and share the story of the resurrected Christ with others. The world will have their doubts, but others will not know Jesus apart from us. They will encounter Jesus when they  see him alive in us, when they see the way he loves them through us, when they see the way we respond to those in need, when they see the way we care for all that God has entrusted to the church. We give others a first-hand encounter of the risen Lord, and that is where faith begins.

I will probably continue to have my doubts about all these experts and the Coronavirus, and I’ll just be skeptical and continue to ask questions, but one thing I’ll never doubt is Jesus, and His love for me. That’s one doubt we all need to reconcile.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Cost of Crisis…

Working from home (mostly) has given me much too much time to think, and I’ve been thinking about the depth of what’s been called the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a public health crisis, yes, but it has the potential of becoming so much more. Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Financial

It has the potential of becoming a financial crisis. We’re obviously in a financial slowdown as a result of COVID-19, but should the “stay-at-home” orders last much longer, we run the risk of creating a full-blown financial meltdown of the US and subsequently the world economy. Entire industries will be gone, and the recovery may last as long (if not longer) as the Great Depression. What’s more, the financial crisis will lead to more health issues, thus exacerbating the public health crisis. This is preventable!

Mental Health

It has the potential of becoming a mental health crisis. Fear has driven much of the panic surrounding COVID-19. Fear of death, first of all. We Christians, of all people, should have a better theology of death because many Christians have led the fear parade. Way back on March 23rd, R. R. Reno of First Things wrote a piece reminding us that we are not to fear death (we don’t desire to hasten it, but neither should we fear it). Never in my life have I seen so many followers of Christ shouting down other followers of Christ in such a public way–rooted (I believe) in two things–fear and self-righteousness. We are not being very good examples of Christ to a world that is hurting and searching for answers to tough questions. This, too is preventable!

The longer people are quarantined the more susceptible we become to loneliness and depression. As Genesis teaches, it is not good for people to be alone. We are created for community. For a society that was already struggling with depression, we don’t need any help to make it worse. Not to mention, and this is only somewhat related to mental health issues, but there is the increase in substance abuse and domestic violence.

I have a deep concern (and I pray daily) for those who struggle with substance abuse. The necessity of working a 12-Step program, of attending meetings and staying connected to accountability measures, is taken away in this time. Virtual meetings are no substitute to physically going to a meeting and encountering others on the journey face-to-face. I wonder if anyone has “modeled” the financial cost to our health care system (not to mention families) when many addicts relapse because they were forced into isolation? 

Culture

This shut-down has the potential to become a cultural crisis. This may, in fact, be the final nail in the Judeo-Christian western cultural coffin. There will be many who will not be bothered by that, but I am not one of them. The very foundation of the American experiment lies in the Judeo-Christian worldview. This pandemic forces us to the precipice of rejecting the very values that underlie our nation. We are, in the name of sacrifice, rejecting the true nature of sacrifice. Don’t tell the countless millions who have sacrificed their very lives that self-preservation is the essence of our existence.

Part of the cultural crisis is that faced by churches and houses of worship during this pandemic. They will never be the same, and the influence they once enjoyed in the culture will continue to diminish. There is some good that can come out of that. First, the church has been forced to re-tool. Second, the church has been forced to reassess its understanding of discipleship and evangelism. Third, the church has been forced to reflect upon its history and ask itself the question: “Is what we are what we were meant to be?” Already, some positive signs are emerging (which is hopeful), but I suspect that the landscape, both urban, suburban and rural will be dotted with empty, deteriorating buildings left by congregations unable to survive the financial impact of COVID-19. It doesn’t have to be so.

Constitutional

There is the potential that this becomes a constitutional crisis. This potential goes hand-in-hand with the cultural crisis mentioned above. I am still amazed by how quickly we, the people, surrendered our freedom to an over-reaching government.

The very fabric of our nation changed in the blink of an eye. The constitutional protections we have long enjoyed, which have been eroding for several generations, were, in one fell swoop, washed away, and I fear (there’s that word) we will never be able to reclaim them. Our freedom of assembly? Gone. The government said we shouldn’t gather in groups of 100 or more, then it was 50 or more, then it was 10 or more…then, it was stay at home. Yes, it was for a very noble cause–the health of “others.” Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for others. Noble, indeed.

There’s a fork in the road ahead when we will have to ask what’s more important, the survival of the other, or the survival of the whole? Stanford University School of Medicine professor John Ioannidis offers an interesting perspective on the subject that bears hearing. Which will we choose? Fear should not compel us to choose wrongly, but we’ll be aided by those who deeply desire to change the heart of who we are as Americans.

Political

All these measures were done without the U. S. Congress’ approval. Entire states and local communities were shuttered without a single legislative vote of any legislature or city council. Not one duly elected representative body gave assent to these measures. Actually, the legislators all went home, thus abandoning their responsibility to represent “We the people.” We, the people, are left to be led by executive mandate, whether federal, state or local. I’m sorry, but that sounds a lot like dictatorship or monarchy. If we’re not careful, and if those legislators who are the elected representatives of the people do not step up and begin to question what is happening, then this public health crisis will become a political crisis. No, what it may become is a revolutionary moment. 

Some may call me an alarmist (and I may be), but when I sit around too much, these are the things I think about. I suppose I should quit sitting around so much! I think I’ll go check my tomatoes in the garden (it’s a good thing I don’t live in Michigan!). That should take my mind off of the cost this crisis will ultimately have on all of us.

Even so,

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Controllables…

nintendo controlLooks like we’re in this thing for the long haul (or at least until April 30th) so I suppose we just have to settle in and adjust to the “new normal.” I’ve heard and read that phrase many times since March 13th when President Trump issued the national emergency in light of the Coronavirus. I must say that I don’t like that phrase because there is nothing normal about the situation in our nation and in the world. I think it is an acquiescence to the fear that is in us to accept this “new” normal. What we are living in is abnormal, and I, for one, will be fighting with all that is in me to get things back to normal when we finally “flatten the curve” on this virus.

But, what do we do in the meantime? For as many times as I’ve heard or read “new normal,” I’ve also heard or read some pundit or article giving advice about living in the meantime. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered during this pandemic, it’s that everyone fancies him/herself an expert. I’ve seen or read a lot of non-medical personnel offering “expert” advice on medical issues. I’ve seen or heard a lot of non-financial folks giving financial advice. I’ve gotten a ton of emails and seen a boatload of promoted posts on social media from “life coaches” trolling for new clients offering their services in the face of the pandemic–they’re all experts, too!

Well, I figured that I’m an expert in my opinion, so that should qualify me as an expert. With that in mind, let me offer my expert opinion on how we live in the meantime. It’s really simple advice, but I’ve found it incredibly helpful to me personally. The advice is simply this–focus on the things you can control.

There are so many things that are out of our control during this time. Rather than spend time focusing on those things, why not focus on that which we can control? Just makes sense to me. It was best expressed in a meme I saw on Facebook:Important Control

I’ve decided that I’m focusing my time and effort on the important things that I can control, and as the meme points out, that’s a rather small area. So, what are those important things that I can control?

Control My Inputs

First, I can control my inputs. One thing we can’t control is the amount of time we have to spend at home. What I can control is how much time I spend in front of the television streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime. Certainly, streaming services have changed the way we watch television, but there’s no mandate that we have to sit and binge watch the entire series of Tiger King, Ozark or Narcos Mexico. After watching the entire season 2 of Narcos Mexico in the first week of the “stay-at-home” order, I discovered my mind becoming mush.

I can also control how much news I watch. Let’s not forget, folks, that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are more opinion than news these days, and each has its own pundits who are driven more by agendas than basic facts. They’re also driven by advertising dollars, and they’ll do whatever they can to gain viewers. Fear sells, friends, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re buying too much of what they are selling, and it’s destroying us from the inside out. Rather than spending six hours watching news channels, why not watch President Trump’s press conference, your governor’s press conference and your local news, then make up your own mind about the facts?

Control My Attitude

Second, I can control my attitude. I can’t control the fact that “experts” base their models on “worst case” scenarios, and those scenarios are what get reported (see fear selling above) in the media, but I don’t have to succumb to the fear those reports often generate. I can choose to be fearful, or I can choose to be hopeful. After all, aren’t we who follow Jesus Christ, supposed to be the most hopeful of people? What does it say to a fearful world when the world see us reflecting the same fear?

I can choose anxiety, or I can choose peace. Part of my family was gathered last Sunday (we had already been around each other, so don’t judge!), and in our time together I shared a passage from John’s Gospel:

32 “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16: 32- 33 (NIV)

I wanted my family to know that though we may be separated for a time that we are never alone, and that should bring us peace. So, I’ll choose peace because I can control that choice.

Control My Actions

Finally, I can control my actions. I can’t control when someone treats me rudely in the grocery store for getting too close to them, but I can control how I respond when they do act rudely. Of course, it helps to remind myself that when someone lashes out because I violated the six foot rule or didn’t wear a mask, that they are reacting in fear, and that their actions are a reflection of their character, not mine. What I can control is whether I respond rudely or with an apology. I pray my character would lead me to respond with an apology, and to be more aware of others around me.

I also can’t control what someone posts on social media, but I’ve come to learn that I don’t have to respond to every idiot on social media. It breaks my heart that followers of Jesus are often so blatant in calling one another out on social media. Have a different opinion than another sister or brother in Christ? Fine. Rather than offer your alternative opinion in an often condescending way, why not simply post your own thoughts in a separate post without mentioning names? And, if the disagreement is sufficiently pronounced, why not message the person directly, or better yet, pick up the phone and call them. It is not a helpful witness to the world for them to see us fighting among ourselves.

So, I’m just going to focus on the controllables in my life. I don’t think “controllables” is a word, but it sounds good to me. I can control my inputs, my attitude and my actions. They’re all incredibly important, and can make the difference in how I endure the uncontrollable nature of the coronavirus.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Deferred Maintenance…

The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…

We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.

The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.

It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.

That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see?  I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.

But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…

Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”

God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.

The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.

Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”

“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”

“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.

“What made you bring it back now?”

“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.

During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.

Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.

Lent is a  journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.

It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.

God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”

We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.

So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.

Until next time, keep looking up…