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…

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…

In This (Together?)…

the-scripture.co.uk

A Facebook friend conducted a (very unscientific) poll and asked the question, “What’s your least favorite term out of this whole COVID-19 thing?” My immediate thought was the phrase was “a new normal.” There is nothing about this new that should be considered normal by an reasonable person, and there are very few life adaptations that we should want to get accustomed too.

There were other responses that ran the gamut from amusing to sarcastic:

  • “Flatten the curve…”
  • “This mess…”
  • “Mandatory…”
  • “Cancelled vacation…”
  • “Social distancing…”
  • “Herd immunity…”
  • “Essential businesses…”
  • “Shelter in place…” (which really should be “shelter at home”)
  • “Together alone…” (Really? Is that even possible?)

Hardly Together

Well, you get the picture. Quite an interesting array of phrases used to capture our current climate. As I reflected on all the responses, “new normal” may be my least favorite, but the most overused (and incorrect) phrase is “We’re all in this together.” It only takes a cursory scroll of any social media, or three minutes into the latest newscast to discern that yes, we are all in this, but we are definitely not together!

Watch President Trump’s daily press briefings and tell me we’re in this together.

Watch CNN, and then watch FOX News and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the introvert who still has a job and earns a paycheck while working from home in flip flops and shorts while sipping cocktails, and then talk to the grocery clerk who MUST go to work and stand all day just to pay the rent and tell me we’re in this together.

Listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must not ease the “lockdown” restrictions too quickly, and then listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must open the economy immediately and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the person who has received the “stimulus” check, and then talk to the person who hasn’t and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the small business owner whose business has been declared “non-essential,” and then talk to the chairman of Home Depot and tell me we’re all in this together.

Talk to the person who lost a spouse or a parent to COVID-19, and then talk to the person who doesn’t know anyone with the disease and tell me we’re in this together.

I say again–We’re in it, but we’re definitely not together.

Where we sit determines our perspective. Even as I write that sentence, I’m remembering an encounter Jesus had one day with two very different people looking at life from two very different perspectives, yet their lives converged around Jesus, and because they did, they were both changed forever.

Perspective Matters

The encounter is recorded in Mark 5. Mark’s gospel characterizes Jesus as a person always on the move–on an incredible journey, if you will. But, it was a journey fraught with detours. On this detour, Jesus encounters two very different people:

  • He’s a rich man, she’s a poor woman
  • We know the man’s name, but the woman remains nameless
  • He’s an honored Jew, she’s simply a unclean, ostracized woman
  • He approaches Jesus from the front, but she slips up to Jesus from the back
  • He’s had twelve years of joyful life with a wonderful daughter, she’s had 12 years of miserable, incurable pain

The contrast of these two could not be more profound, yet they were in the same condition—utterly helpless. Sometimes, that’s the best place to be. Martin Luther gives us an example. Luther made the statement that his greatest insight into God’s grace came to him while he was “on the toilet.” That sounds crass to us in the 21st Century, but when we understand the phrase “on the toilet” was a common metaphor for being in a state of utter helplessness, it throws Luther’s statement into a different light. Jairus and the unnamed woman were right where Martin Luther was when he discovered God’s grace.

A Rich Man

Jairus was helpless because of his daughter’s condition. She was on her deathbed, and this father, knowing nothing else could help,  reached out to the only hope left open to him. As a leader of the synagogue, Jairus was obviously a man of some means. Well-respected in the community, he was a man who was “clean” as far as the law was concerned. But, his money, his position, his place in the community were all worthless in this helpless situation. In an act of sheer desperation, He reached out to this radical rabbi who has been making waves around the countryside.

Jairus had done all, and in that moment the only thing that mattered was his daughter. Not his position, not his place in the community, not his money. Clean, un-clean, sinners or no, Jesus was his last best hope to bring healing for his daughter.

There’s a great lesson for me here: No one is above needing Jesus.

A Poor Woman

The poor sick, nameless woman is a stark contrast to Jairus. For twelve years, she had been unable to go to synagogue, possibly the one Jairus now led. For her to be in the crowd at all was a monumental statement on her part, and it demonstrates her utter helplessness. Not only was she unclean, but she was dead broke. Mark says she has spent all her money and the problem was actually worse. She was broke physically, spiritually and financially. She was as broke as a person could get. Clean or unclean, crowd or no crowd, Jesus was her last best hope for healing.

Two incredibly different people in the very same situation, but the only thing they were together on was Jesus. I wonder if Jairus thought as Jesus stopped to help the woman, “Jesus, why waste such precious time on this unclean woman? My daughter is dying!” Jesus’ response teaches me that, just as no one is above needing Jesus, so no one is insignificant to Jesus.

Jesus came for the up and out, and Jesus came for the down and out. The only thing these two people had in common was a need for Jesus. Two distinctively different people from two distinctively different worlds bound together by a deep need for healing and wholeness. Their utter helplessness found them both, as Mark says, falling “at the feet” of Jesus. This encounter reminds me of the old saying, “the ground is level at Calvary.”

It is said that after the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, a devout Christian, visited a church in Washington, D.C. During the Communion service, he was seen kneeling beside a black man. (Turn your virtue signals off!) Later, when someone asked how he could do that, Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

Our Common Need

What makes that ground so level? The awfulness of our sins, the terrible price Jesus paid to forgive them, and the love He has for all people. We can all kneel together at the foot of the cross. In God’s economy, nobodies are somebodies and somebodies are nobodies. Life is not fair to the upwardly mobile or the down and out. One thing we need to remember is that bad times are bad times no matter who we are. The only thing we may truly be together in is our need for grace. Jesus loves us all, and is as ready to offer his grace to one as another. What matters is our openness to receive his grace.

Hope said they could find help in an encounter with Jesus. Hope brought faith, and faith is the key to surviving the bad times, or at least surviving them without bitterness and blame. To the woman, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, you’ve been healed.”

Then, friends of Jairus came and said, “You’re daughter is dead. Don’t bother him any longer.” Jesus only looked at Jairus and said, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.” Jairus had a choice to make: Trust Jesus, or trust the other voices around him.

Jairus chose to listen to Jesus. He acted on his faith, just like the unnamed woman, and he saw the life-changing, life-giving power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. There’s another lesson for me: Faith makes all the difference. Faith is believing something so that our actions are changed as a result. Belief about Jesus does not bring healing, wholeness or salvation. Following Jesus does!

Do we have faith in Jesus? Our actions should reflect that fact. I am reminded of the Roman officer who came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant boy. Jesus said, “I’ll come with you,” but the officer said, “No, I understand authority. I tell a soldier to do this and he does it. You just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus said, “I haven’t seen such faith in all Israel! Go, your servant is healed.”

If we have faith, we’ll hear Jesus and we’ll obey Jesus. Like, when he said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit, and teach them all things I have taught you. And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

I suppose we are more together than I give us credit for. The pandemic has left us all at the mercy of something totally beyond our control. In that regard, we’re pretty much helpless.

We also live in a world left helpless by the power of sin. How we see that sin depends on our perspective, but no matter our perspective, our need for Jesus remains the same. Church, do you think we can at least be together in that?

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…

Somewhere Between Holiness and Hell…

We are in the season of Lent. Lent is that 40 day period (okay 46–but Sundays don’t count) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that began historically as a time of spiritual preparation as early converts were prepared for membership in the body of Christ. It was also a time when those who had separated themselves from the body of Christ were reconciled through confession and repentance.

I’m struggling with what it means to “observe a holy Lent,” which we Methodists are invited to do on Ash Wednesday.

I can’t say that I like Lent. I don’t like Lent because I am convicted by how un-holy I can be.  I am convicted because Lent calls me to reflect on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, and as I consider his response to temptation, I realize my own failure in places that I’d rather not reveal here.

Confession

This time of reflection necessarily leads me to this whole idea of confessing my sins in the face of all those failures. Oh, I’ve got lots to confess, too.  I am reminded of a story I heard of four pastors who often met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one preacher said, “Our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confess their sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.”

In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to enjoying cigars and the third confessed to enjoying card playing. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn’t confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What’s your confession?” Finally he answered, “It’s gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”  I really don’t like Lent because it causes me to reflect and confess, and that’s just awfully painful.

And then, there’s just the whole idea of self-denial.  I actually have to give something up?  Come on, now!  You can’t be serious?  I enjoy my coffee, or my diet coke, or my red meat, or my…well, you have to fill in the blank, because I have too many of my own blanks to fill in (whoops! There’s another confession!), but you get the idea.  I just don’t see the need for self-denial, after all.  God has blessed me greatly, and doesn’t God want me to enjoy these blessings?  But because I’m a company man, and I want to at least appear holy, I acquiesce and I practice the Lenten observance by reflecting and praying and confessing and giving up.

A Land Between Holiness and Hell

What I come to discover through the observance of Lent is that I live life in a land somewhere between holiness and hell. I long desperately for holiness, but hell is so much easier.  I discover that one who is truly holy cannot help but enjoy the blessings of God—blessings like love, joy, peace and contentment.  I discover God’s grace poured out in a thousand ways in the most unnoticeable places, and I learn to say, “Praise the Lord!”

The observance of Lent reveals to me that what I counted as blessings (material possessions, health, good success) are more fruits of my own labors than they are God’s blessings, and the reality that any and all of those “blessings” are transient in nature—here today and gone tomorrow.  It causes me to wonder if there were no material possessions, no good health, no great success, would it affect my trust of Him?

I realize just how hollow I can be, and somehow, by some mysterious means in this realization, I am drawn closer to Christ (isn’t grace amazing?), and I don’t seem quite as hollow as before, somehow perhaps even a little more holy.  Forget that I was drug kicking and screaming to the observance. The Spirit has done His work—somewhat akin to the terrible tasting medicine we received when we were children.  We hated it, but it worked.

So, I invite you to observe a holy Lent.  Pray more deeply, reflect more seriously, confess more faithfully, and deny the comforts that shape us. Do so kicking and screaming, if you must, but be prepared to see the Spirit work and draw you closer to Christ. That is what Lent is about, you know.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Once the Dust Settles…

Now that the dust has settled on #gc2019, I thought I’d make one last post as a means of processing my reflections on the whole debacle in St. Louis. Honestly, the dust hasn’t settled on #gc2019. If you follow any social media at all, or anything remotely connected to the United Methodist Church, you are well aware that emotions are still high–I’m wondering if the dust will ever settle. Additionally, the Judicial Council will review the “Traditional Plan” in April and I suspect many of these same emotions will show up again…assuming, of course, that the dust has settled.

Here are my ruminations on #gc2019:

I can’t imagine the people who gathered in 1968 could ever envision a General Conference like the one in St. Louis. Surely they could never forsee a denomination birthed in the unifying of two parts of the body of Christ which produced a “big tent theology” could devolve into what the world witnessed in St. Louis. It was not a show of unity in the body of Christ. If anything, the gathering showed just how broken is this denomination called United Methodist.

Notice that I did not say “congregations.” I intentionally wrote “denomination.” Our denomination is broken. I’m grateful to David F. Watson for admitting that here. In spite of the denomination’s brokenness, there are many, many local congregations that are healthy and even growing. For that I am also grateful. It just proves the point that all church is local church. The local congregation is where disciples are made. The local congregation must be the focus of energy for the people called United Methodist now that the dust has settled.

The Traditionalist Plan prevailed at #gc2019. Notice I did not say it won. Nobody won. The Traditionalist Plan received the most votes by roughly a 6% margin. It didn’t matter which plan prevailed in voting there would be an emotional response by the other side. It wasn’t a matter of “if” someone was going to be upset, it was only a question of “who” was going to be upset. We should have seen that fact before we ever got to St. Louis. Our first clue should have been when the Commission on “a” Way Forward finished its work with “three” ways forward. If a group of 32 couldn’t agree on a single proposal, it was fairly certain a group of 864 wouldn’t find one either.

The results of #gc2019 sets up the denomination for more of the same once the dust settles. Some of our leaders have said as much–you can view that here. Some of our bishops will continue to enforce the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our clergy will continue to uphold the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our congregations will continue to welcome and celebrate same-sex marriages. Others will not. And, everyone will feel justified in the actions they take. Perhaps this fact indicates the obsolete nature of our polity in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps it is an indication that restructuring our polity needs to be the topic of conversation when the General Conference next meets in May of 2020 in Minneapolis, MN. It won’t be, but perhaps it should.

I believe that #gc2019 lost the one chance it had to provide a legitimate way forward. The Connectional Conference Plan was perhaps that vehicle. It would have provided space for all of us to stand firm in our convictions while maintaining some sense of missional unity. It is abundantly clear that we United Methodists are not functioning practically as one denomination. Very few (including myself) gave it much consideration. On legislative day, only 12.44% of the delegates voting gave it “high priority” status. The potential of passing all the constitutional amendments necessary to enact the plan was just too daunting for many to give it serious consideration. We may wish we would have reconsidered once the dust settles.

After witnessing #gc2019, I wonder who in their right mind would offer themselves to serve as a delegate in 2020? I know some Annual Conferences sent newly elected delegations to St. Louis, but most will return to their Annual Conference gatherings this spring and summer to elect new delegates for GC 2020.  Will there be any who offer themselves? Sure there will be. Will I be one of them? Probably.

Perhaps desiring to return to GC 2020 is like watching a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just can’t. My prayer is that those delegation elections don’t become a reflection of what happened at #gc2019. Hopefully, the relationships we’ve built with one another through years of ministry together will prevail once the dust settles, and we’ll elect strong, faithful leaders who will listen to one another, pray with one another and trust one another enough to move the United Methodist ship forward.

These ruminations notwithstanding, it’s time for me to refocus my energy on the local congregation I serve. There is enough mission and ministry right here to occupy my time. This is where we’ll make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I’m going to engage my passion for seeing the world connect to Jesus Christ. I’m going to engage my passion for growing with one another in Jesus Christ, and I’m going to engage my passion for being a local congregation positioned to serve the world for Jesus Christ. Once the dust settles, isn’t that what life in the church is all about?

I’m moving on now from #gc2019. I’ll not write anymore blogs about it (which only means there won’t be as many people reading it). I’ve committed to one more conversation in our congregation concerning it, but that won’t happen until after Easter. Otherwise, I’m moving on.

It’s time to observe a holy Lent. It’s time for me to repent of my own sin, not only as it regards the brokenness of our church, but also as it regards the brokenness of my own life. It’s time to ask God to forgive me, and it’s probably time to ask a few others to forgive me, too. It’s time to focus on the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and it’s time to focus on how I can be more like him and less like myself.

So, I’m moving on now. General Conference has spoken (for better or worse). Who’ll join me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

#GC2019–Today is a Day of New Beginnings…

Though Saturday was a “Day of Prayer and Preparation” for #GC2019, the Conference doesn’t officially start until this morning at 7:30 a.m., which is a change that was made after arrival in St. Louis as the Conference was originally scheduled to open with worship at 8:00 a.m. I haven’t heard why the change, but things…they are a changin’ already.

You can read a recap of the Day of Prayer and Preparation here.

Another development yesterday was a request for a declaratory decision by the Council of Bishops in reference to two petitions regarding the Modified Traditional Plan. I would provide a link to the request, but for some reason that page has been taken down. You can see for yourself here. I wonder…oh, never mind.

Anyway, the Judicial Council did rule both petitions were unconstitutional. You can read more on the decision here. I’ll reserve judgment on the ruling, though I do think it was designed to encourage delegates to assign a “low priority” to the MTP legislation as that work begins later today. Speaking of which, the GC will assign either a “high priority” or a “low priority” to all legislation today. The ranking will determine the order in which legislation is dealt with in legislative committee (I think that’s how it works).

Please continue to pray for the Conference and the delegations as the work officially begins.

You can follow the events live here.

You can get updates from United Methodist News Service here.

You can find regular updates here.

I’ll post as time allows and offer (in most cases) my running commentary, so check back periodically.

Until next time, keep looking up…