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…

Power and Purpose…

The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.

Famous Last Words

First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.

Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)

As I read these words, I make two discoveries.

The Power of a Passionate Love

The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.

Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.

Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.

A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.

He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.

Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”

This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.

The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.

The Power of an Incredible Purpose

The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.

Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:

33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).

We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!

I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”

“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.

“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.

The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”

Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”

“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.

God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!

Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.

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–Praying from the Cheap Seats, Part 2

The Dome at America’s Center set up for #gc2019.

Saturday was a day of prayer, but so was Sunday. When I tell you we’re in the cheap seats, I mean we’re a long way from the delegates on the floor, and an even longer way from the stage upon which the Council of Bishops sit and lead the General Conference. The Dome at America’s Center was designed and built for the St. Louis Rams (don’t get me started about the Rams!), so it’s designed to hold over 66,000 people. Believe me when I say it feels a bit cavernous with only a few thousand Methodists present.

I going out on a limb here to say the distance between the cheap seats and the stage where the Bishops preside might just be a metaphor. It might be a metaphor for how far removed our Council of Bishops seems to be from the “mainstream” of United Methodism. How so, you ask?

Much of yesterday was spent assigning priority to the legislation that would come before the GC. Delegates voted on each “batch” of petitions, assigning either a “high” priority or a “low” priority. The process was designed to help the delegates do the work that needs doing in such a short period of time. The vote was basically a way to rank the order in which petitions would be handled.

The results of the “ranking” were interesting (and I think telling). The Council of Bishops “overwhelmingly” support the One Church Plan, but in the General Conference, the OCP only garnered 48% of delegates who voted it “high priority.” Conversely, the Traditional Plan (which only received a passing nod from the Commission on a Way Forward) received over 55% of the delegates voting it “high priority.” Additionally, two plans for “disaffiliation” received more “high” priority votes than the OCP. At first glance…and this is only a first glance…it appears that the OCP will have a difficult time passing this General Conference.

Thanks to Rev. Chris Ritter for the photo of the ranking results.

You can read more about the process here.

There is still much to anticipate. Again, this vote was only a first glance. Legislative work continues today on the plans, and there will be opportunities to amend, substitute and table petitions. I suspect the supporters of the OCP have spent most of last night devising a strategy to advance their favored position, and I expect the parliamentary gymnastics will begin in earnest. It will be interesting, informative and educational to watch.

Here’s a video recap of the day produced by the LA Annual Conference:

Until next time, keep looking up…

Packing a Heart of Love…

It’s time to pack our bags for St. Louis. The special called session of General Conference of the United Methodist Church is set to begin this Saturday, February 23rd with a day of prayer, and will continue through Tuesday, February 27th. One thing is certain–everything will be different in the United Methodist Church on February 28th. No one knows what that “different” will look like, but no matter what happens, I predict everything will be different. I dare not speculate on what the difference will be. Heaven knows! There’s been enough speculation already to last a lifetime.

There’s one thing I hope all the 864 delegates, alternates and observers pack as they prepare for departure. That one thing is a heart of love.

We have just celebrated the day of love—Valentine’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation, people spent $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day in celebration of love. Valentine’s Day is the second largest Hallmark holiday, and it has, unfortunately, become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic and sometimes (judging from the Facebook memes), downright corny.

The Bible talks a lot about love, too, but it’s not the type of love the world talks about or that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. It’s a different kind of love, a love that requires more from us than romantic love or even brotherly love. It’s the different kind of love Jesus talked about as he taught his disciples about living the ethic of Kingdom of God. It’s an upside-down kind of love. It’s a willful, self-sacrificial love that is best reflected in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Listen to how Jesus describes how this love acts in Luke 6:

27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

As Jesus flips the world upside-down for those first disciples, I wonder if they had as much difficulty understanding what he meant as we do. I wonder if they had as much difficulty living them as we do. It’s one thing to understand. It’s another thing to translate that understanding into action.

Loving our enemies goes against our natural inclinations. Love our friends? Naturally. Love those who love us? Easy-peasy! Love our enemies? Why would I even want to do that?

It’s a clear call from Jesus for his disciples to swim upstream, to go against the flow, to be (in a word) different. We think Jesus wants to make us better. You know how it is, right? Come to Jesus and be a better person, be a better parent, a better spouse, a better employer/employee, a better citizen. Jesus’ words remind me that being a disciple is not about being better, it’s about being different–different from the world. Yes, being different will make us better, but better comes as a by-product of living a different ethic.

Jesus’ words are hard words to hear. It’s not really the message we want to hear in a sermon. We’d rather hear “How to Have Your Best Life Now,” or “Three Steps to a Better Parenting.” Yeah! Those are sermons that will really help us be better disciples! The sermon Jesus preached this day reminds me there is a vast difference between what I want to hear and what I need to hear. And, I need to hear these words as I pack my bags for St. Louis.

I need to hear these words as I pack because there have been a few times in the past two and a half years that I haven’t had a heart of love. We in the church can be really mean. Oh, not to those outside the body of Christ, but to one another. I’ve spent a lot of time since 2016 reading many articles and blogs and Facebook posts concerning the issues before GC 2019, and I have read a lot of very mean and hurtful things–I’ve probably written, or said, or thought a lot of mean and hurtful things myself somewhere along the way. For those times that I did (knowingly or unknowingly), I repent and ask forgiveness.

Here’s a side-bar: Just don’t read the comments! Comments get argumentative, and the internet and social media give us just enough cover to allow us to write hurtful and demeaning words that we would likely never say to a person face-to-face. Just don’t read the comments!

Frustration or anger (or grief) are no justifications to act unlovingly. No, that’s the way of the world. Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” That’s a very different reaction, indeed. It’s a different kind of love, too. It’s not what I want to hear, but it is what I need to hear.

I need to be reminded that the “great reward” that Jesus promises to those who live this different kind of love doesn’t have to do with big houses or full pockets, but it has to do with who we become–disciples.  There is much grace and transformation needed for us to live out the radical faith Jesus demands, and there is no greater reward than to live and act the way Jesus does. Jesus knows that we will never love our enemies without the amazing grace that transforms us and makes us different than we are. What changes us and allows us to love is God’s grace; a grace that is greater than all our sin.

I’m not speaking for anyone else, nor am I accusing anyone else who may be headed to St. Louis. I’m simply making my own confession that I have not always lived this ethic, or loved in the way Jesus demands. I’m not saying everyone going to St. Louis needs to pack a heart of love. I’m saying I do. If someone else happens to overhear the conversation Jesus and I have been having over the past week and are convicted by it, well, that’s lagniappe.

So, along with my toothbrush and changes of underwear, I’ll pack a heart of love. I pray that all the 864 delegates, the alternates and observers do, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

This Fruit is Always in Season…

I’ve been teaching from A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future on Wednesday evenings. The book is a collection of essays designed to cast a compelling vision for a renewed Methodist movement, specifically in light of the current debate within the United Methodist Church.

I bring the book up only because of the chapter I read/taught last week–“When the Holy Spirit Comes with Fire.” I won’t unpack the chapter here for you, but reading the chapter and preparing to lead the Wednesday night group caused me to dig deeper on the Holy Spirit. My digging reminded me of much I had forgotten (okay, not forgotten, but taken for granted) about the work and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My digging deeper took me specifically to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. In Galatians 5, Paul instructs the Galatians on living the Spirit-filled life (read the whole chapter here), and in that context he offers his list of he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know the list, right?

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I’ll confess my own conviction as I read that list again (I’ve probably read it one thousand times before). I was convicted because there was one noticeable fruit that I can acknowledge has been absent from my life, and I believe the fact that I’ve been consumed with General Conference 2019 has put me in this place. The missing fruit, you ask? Joy!

We are, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, supposed to be joy-filled people.  One of my favorite stories about a person with a grumpy personality begins with a man going into the doctor’s office.  As he walked in, he was met by the receptionist.  He told her that he had a sore on his chin that he wanted the doctor to examine.

She said to him, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said, “it’s just a sore on my chin. I don’t think all that is necessary.”

She repeated, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said.

“Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

So he went down the hall, took the first door to the right, walked in and saw another man already sitting there in his boxer shorts, shivering. He said to him, “Boy, that receptionist is really something, isn’t she? I just have a little sore on my chin and she told me to come down here, go through this door and take off my clothes.”

The man in the boxer shorts said, “You think that’s bad? I’m the UPS delivery man.”

There a lot of days recently that I felt like that nurse. But, joy is supposed to be one of the fruits that is always in season in the Christian.

What is this fruit of joy? The Greek word is chara, meaning “cheerfulness, calm delight.”  Unfortunately, I confuse joy with happiness. If I’m happy, then I am joy-filled, and if I’m joy-filled then I’m happy. That is incorrect. Joy is not happiness, and happiness is not joy. Actually, I can be happy and full of joy, but I can be unhappy and still be full of joy. Happiness is external. Joy, in the biblical sense, is internal. Happiness is based on chance. Joy is based on choice. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on Christ. Happiness is too often conditioned on what is “happening” to me. If people treat me well, and things are going good around me, then I am happy, but if things go wrong then my happiness is likely to be as fleeting as my circumstances.

Joy, however, goes beyond my circumstances. Joy throbs throughout Scripture as a profound, compelling quality of life that transcends the events and disasters which may dog God’s people. Joy is a divine dimension of living that is not shackled by circumstances. The Hebrew word means, “to leap or spin around with pleasure.”  Listen to the Psalmist:

16 But as for me, I will sing about your power.
    Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
    a place of safety when I am in distress. Psalm 59: 16

The Apostle Paul understood this, too. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians: Our hearts ache, but we always have joy (2 Cor. 6:10). Joy should never be dependent on what is happening around us. Too often, unsatisfied expectations, unresolved conflict (like we have in the UMC right now), or unconfessed sin can serve to steal our joy from life. These are just three reasons that joy seems such an elusive fruit.

But there’s hope!  And that hope is spelled J-O-Y! I was reminded of this pattern on a church sign not far from my house. I think it’s really what solidified the message I’ve reflected on over the past couple of weeks. It is Jesus, Others, and You. Joy starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of our joy, and Jesus is the example of our joy. If we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know joy. If we know Jesus, we should know joy.

Then, others. If we’re serious about desiring to bear the fruit of joy, we must make sure we are doing OK on the horizontal dimension of life by living in biblical community with others. We will never know joy apart from others.

Finally, you. You have the challenge, and here it is: Go to church, get connected to Jesus and serve others. You’ll find joy in great abundance, and you’ll discover that the  fruit of joy is always in season.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Injustice of it All…

The Power of Sports

Okay, so last week’s blog is officially the most read blog I’ve ever written…and it dealt with football! I’m going to forget for a moment what that might say about our passion for football (is football our idol? <–click the link to the left to hear David Platt‘s take on the matter) and focus on the issue of injustice since we all seem to be concerned with how unjustly the Saints were treated.

I find it interesting that the week after the Saints lose the game in such an unjust manner that I was scheduled to preach a sermon on the question, “Why does life seem so unfair?” God’s sense of humor continues to amaze me.

You may recall that one of the points of last week’s blog was that life is simply not fair, we just need to deal with it. I shared about Paul’s unjust treatment at the hands of the Philippians, but an even more compelling example is the life of Job in the Old Testament. Talk about injustice!

Job

You remember Job? (click here to read the summary of Job’s story) The Bible calls him a good, rich man–blameless and full of integrity who had ten children, land and livestock. In Job’s story, the curtain of eternity is peeled back and we overhear a conversation between God and Satan. God actually brings Job into the supernatural conversation. God, in bringing up Job, shows His trust in Job to choose rightly. This conversation reveals the inherent nature of humanity to choose the path we will walk through this life—this is God’s revelation of humanity’s free will.

Were we to read Job’s story (you can read the whole story here), we’d discover in the supernatural battle between good and evil, Job gets put in the middle, loses his family, land and livestock and becomes painfully ill. It’s a long story, but you get the point–Job is treated unjustly…and it appears to be God’s fault!

God chose humanity to be participants in the redemption of creation. The Bible opens in paradise and it ends with a restoration of paradise in the Book of Revelation. It’s the in-between that throws us the curve balls of life. In between, we see the entrance of sin and its destructiveness on God’s good creation. Literally, from cover to cover, the Bible is about God restoring His creation, and God chose humanity to be participants in that restoration. We participate by faith. The story of Job illustrates the difference faith makes in both the physical and eternal realms.

As God’s chosen participants in the redemption of His creation, God created humanity with the freedom for making moral choices. The result of that freedom is sometimes bad choices. A person chooses to drink to excess and then drive a car. That person wrecks and kills other people. Bad decision, bad circumstances. One of people’s favorite saying is, “Everything happens for a reason.” Yes, and sometimes that reason is people are dumb and make dumb decisions. I must be careful to never blame God for my own stupidity!

But, what of innocent suffering? When a child is stricken with cancer, or the forces of nature take their toll on families and communities and nations. What of those times? The same rule applies. Return to the Garden of Eden and the curse of original sin. That one event began an unraveling of God’s creation that has caused pain and sickness, and unleashed the power of the forces of nature for destruction, and we are left to deal with the consequences. Yet, God wants to use the suffering of this world to accomplish His purpose of redeeming and reconciling the creation to Himself.

The Source of Our Hope

Romans 8: 28 is one of the most overused verses in the Bible: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them,” but it holds out the hope that God is still on the throne even when evil has the world in its grip. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. God entered the world, limiting Himself to time and space, and when He did, He played by the same rules we play by. He suffered and died. It was in his suffering and death that the world finds its redemption, and it is in his suffering and death that we are called to be participants by faith in God’s eternal plan.

God doesn’t answer us for two reasons, I think. First, knowing the answer would not make the burden any less hard to bear. Second, God doesn’t answer because we are incapable of comprehending the answer.

We cannot see how God uses the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives to bring redemption, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t doing it. It’s been compared to making a cake. Raw flour by itself does not taste so good. Certainly, raw eggs are not something we include in our daily diet because they taste good—unless we’re Rocky Balboa. Bitter chocolate, baking powder and shortening are not good alone, but when we combine all the ingredients we get a wonderfully delicious cake.

God is faithful to trust us in the fight between good and evil. We fight by faith: faith in the One who has won the battle already, and we bear our pain and suffering knowing that, like Job, our faith matters. In the here and now, we make a difference by faith. In eternity, we make a difference by faith.

Yeah, I know that doesn’t answer the question for all time, but it is the best I can do for now. And, I bet this blog post won’t get nearly as many views as last week’s. I guess I should write more about sports!

Until next time, keep looking up…