Month: June 2016
Today is one of those days for me. Maybe it’s the rain outside that has me a little down, but I think it’s more. The news is overwhelming to me today. From the senseless shooting of 49 plus beautiful people in Orlando this past Sunday, to the 2 year old toddler drug off into the water by an alligator near the happiest place on earth in Florida. Add that together with friends suffering from sickness and unknown diagnoses, and it can start to wear you down. It makes me think of one word: lamentation.
Lamentation: “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow; weeping”
Oddly enough, one of my favorite books of the Bible is Lamentations. Believed to be written by Jeremiah the weeping prophet, it expresses Israel’s grief and sorrow at the sorriness of their condition. They are in exile, their land and home is in ruins, and they are lost. Their enemies abound and seem to have won. God seems to be against them and there doesn’t seem to be much hope. And you may rightly be wondering why on earth this is one of my favorite texts in the Bible! But here is the thing, in the middle of the lamenting and weeping and crying out to God in anger, doubt, and frustration, the author stops and offers this profound piece of theology, almost abruptly:
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” – Lamentations 3:21-23
I love the theology of Lamentations. The world is a wreck right now. It doesn’t make sense. All around is exile and hopelessness some days. I need something that lets me know that terrorism, hatred, violence, killing, disease, and death doesn’t win the day. I need something that lets me know and reminds me that these things don’t win, God does. I need something that reminds me that when it seems just the opposite, God hasn’t left and he is still Immanuel. And Lamentations is just that text.
I don’t go to church and have faith in Christ simply to be a nice, good, and obedient person. I don’t do it because it is advantageous to my social standings. I don’t do it because of fear of going to hell. I go to church and have faith in Christ because it gives me a lens through which to see the world. It gives me something to cling to and give me hope on days like today when it seems like hope has no future. I put my faith in Christ because when the world is caving in, I believe in the One who is steadfast in his love, who offers new mercies every morning, and the One who is faithful no matter the circumstances.
When it seems like the world is spinning in a circle of death and it seems God is far away, I cling to a text like Lamentations 3:21-23. I remember that though it’s hard to see, and against all odds God is near, he hasn’t left, and his faithfulness is great. Without this hope, I have nothing. And today I weep with, mourn with, and pray for those that are suffering.
Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness
Lord unto me
I love this idea of “thin places”. My understanding is that we get this term from Celtic Christianity, and it is those places where the gap between heaven and earth has collapsed and the two are somehow merging together. I confess I don’t fully understand and grasp the idea, but I think it is one of those things that you know when you see it. When God invades earth in Jesus Christ, we get the sense that his world is invading ours. His kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven, so I’ve heard a great Rabbi pray at least. Given that, I think there are those times where we can sense the Divine Presence of God and say, “I saw a glimpse of heaven.” I was privileged to have just that opportunity this past Sunday afternoon.
One of our sisters and dear friends in our faith family found out she had a brain tumor, and the doctors are expecting it to be malignant. You won’t find many people better than my friend Alita, and her husband Ron is one of my shepherds and spiritual mentors. I love these people, and our church does too. So you can imagine the emotions and feelings their families and our church is experiencing during this time. Alita asked the shepherds of our church to come and anoint her with oil and pray healing over her body, in line with the words of James the brother of Jesus. I am so thankful I got to be a part of this gathering.
During our prayer time, I watched one of our elders after praying over Alita rub the anointing oil on her forehead. Sure, there is nothing special about the oil per se, but the moment a person of God deeply engaged in prayer rubs this oil on the head of a faithful Christ follower, something special seems to happen. I’ll confess I opened my eyes to sneak a peak of this moment, and the look on my dear friend’s faces was that of the Holy Spirit alive and at work in their lives. The oil seemed to mix together with the tears of the saints gathered, and Alita was full of the Spirit. For a moment I think I was standing in a thin place. The barrier between heaven and earth seemed worn thin, and I got a glimpse of something holy and divine. It was a beautiful moment I’ll never forget. I thank God for these beautiful people who keep showing me the way of Christ and strengthening my faith.
And so I invite you to join me today in praying for my friend Alita and Ron. The tumor has been removed as of yesterday, and we await results. Our prayer is that the results come back saying it is benign, and we get surprised by good news. If you would, please lift up these special people in prayer over the next 24 hours as we wait on the outcome of these tests.
And when you go about your day, make sure you slow down enough to pay attention to possible thin places in your lives. I often look for God in the big and vibrant scenes, but I’m reminded that He often comes in silence, children, the face of the poor, mangers, and other unlikely places. Let us be attentive to these moments.
I have said before on this blog, but I will say it again. One of the best things I received from my masters degree at Rochester College was a deep appreciation and love for my local church. One of the things Mark Love continually taught us was that there is not perfect or ideal church. Each church has its own context and story, and its own bruises and scars. Even when we go to the New Testament what we have is a collection of letters written to mostly broken and struggling churches. There is no ideal church to restore, and no ideal church to strive to be like. The local church that you have committed to is a group of broken and messed up people seeking to follow Christ in their location and context. So Mark taught us that step one in ministry was to learn to love your church.
Eugene Peterson says, “On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations. Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat – and worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” – Under the Unpredictable Plant
In my young adult years, I was searching for the perfect church. I was growing to dislike my church and I thought that the church “down the road” had it all together. I thought if my church would just make this tweak or this adjustment, we would be fine. If we changed to this worship style, if engaged in these programs…just a few adjustments and we would be closer to that ideal church. But, there just isn’t an ideal church. Look closer at each one and you find a group of broken sinners seeking the way of Christ.
I’m thankful for my Hunter Hills Church family. I’ve only been here about 15 months, and we’ve already had our share of struggles and bruises. Before I got here and since this group of people began worshipping together long ago we’ve had our ups and downs. But one thing I’ve learned in my short time here is I love this church, these people who have become my family. I love our community and I think God’s got a great future for us. Even when we are soaring high and even when we are sinking low into the belly of a fish like Jonah, I look in at this group and see a family that I love.
And I think if you look with new eyes at your church, as good or bad as you think it is, you’ll see a group of people that you can grow to love. What if we quit striving for some ideal church that doesn’t exist, and quit striving to “fix” everything at church by adding or taking away programs (though these things need attention, but perhaps they shouldn’t be what defines us), but focused more on our life together and the kind of people God is shaping us to be. Not a people who have perfected the faith and how to “do church”, but a group of sinners on a journey to follow the Crucified Christ. When we learn to see ourselves and our churches that way, maybe we can learn to love our church, even with all of her quirks, bumps, and bruises. And maybe if we start by loving our church, maybe then we can see what God is doing and how he is inviting us to join him in his reconciling work.
I love my heritage in the Church of Christ. I really do. Though there was a time I was really tired of it and thought I might walk away, I have grown to truly appreciate these people who have passed down the faith to me. While I don’t always agree with them, I am thankful for their passion and desire to follow Christ. One of the things that revived my appreciation for our story was when I found out we were part of a bigger story, and that we were actually a part of the Church’s history that we wanted to pretend didn’t exist.
Church history wasn’t something we talked about growing up. As far as I knew it, shortly after the New Testament ended in about 300AD, Christians pretty much lost their way until about 200 years ago when we “fixed” everything. There was a big gap in my timeline. What revived my love for the Church of Christ was when I found out that most of my evangelical reformation friends had the same problem. Other than a few, many of my friends were telling me that they grew up with a narrow view of Christianity and thought they were the only ones whom God loved. This is true of Baptists, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other friends I’ve had conversations with. When I realized this fact, I discovered that the problem is we haven’t rooted our stories within the larger story of which we are all a part, which is something the Catholic church and those similar to it were able to do for such a long time.
What I needed to really help save my faith was to see that I come in a long line of people who have heard the story of Scripture and tried to follow in the footsteps of Christ. When I discovered that God had been at work all throughout history, and that he would continue to be at work in my life now. When I saw that our group in the Church of Christ was one of many that were trying to find out what it meant to follow Christ, I found that I had a lot of brothers and sisters throughout history, and my story was a part of a much bigger one.
We know today that kids are leaving the church after they leave home in rapid numbers compared to previous years. I’m sure there are many reasons why. The church has failed our children at times, our culture is becoming more and more secular and less and less Christian, we haven’t wrestled with tough questions about science and the Bible, etc. It is probably too dynamic and too hard to pin down all of the reasons. But I would like to add that maybe another reason is over the past 150 or 200 years, many of our churches have failed to help their kids see that they are part of a much bigger story that goes beyond our movement or denomination. I love how Ivy Beckwith puts it in Formational Children’s Ministry:
“…but most of all are stories our kids need to hear to see how they are connected to that vast cloud of witnesses the author of Hebrews writes about. That connection helps kids to see they are not alone in this life or this Christian pilgrimage. Familiarity with the history of the church helps them to see that the work of God in the world did not end with the last page of the Bible. Having an understanding of the history of the church and the people who made that history helps them to see the continued work of God over the centuries and assures them that God’s work will continue through them as well.” – Beckwith, page 46.
No matter what church you are a part of, you are a part of a bigger story that dates back thousands of years. I think it is important to capture this timeline and realize that God has been at work throughout the history of the world, intersecting his story into the stories of various people throughout history. God will continue to work through his faithful followers who seek the way of Christ. I appreciate my Christian heritage and the many others around me because I see we are part of a much larger story and a much bigger Church that has endured the test of time (literally), and will continue to do so by the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world.
When we struggle with doubt, sin, questions about the Bible and who God is, we aren’t the first to do this. We come in a long line of people who have tried to follow Jesus, have had great successes, and great failures. And each story attests to the faithfulness of God and his continued work in the world and in our lives. Let’s pass on to our children that their story of faith is a part of a much larger story, one that is cosmic in scope and finds its completion in Christ. Let’s pass on to our kids that their church isn’t some civic organization that encourages good behavior. Rather, let’s let them know that their faith is the living faith of people who have gone before them. Let’s let them know that their churches are linked with God’s global and historical Church that has come in many shapes and forms throughout the past 2,000 years. Let’s help them root their faith in a much larger story.
So I had a strange spiritual experience this morning. I usually expect God to meet me in places like a worship “experience” with music and dimmed lights. Or maybe on a long silent retreat. No doubt I sometimes have spiritual experiences in these moments, but it often seems God meets me in the unexpected times and places. This morning was just that kind.
I’m reading to George, my oldest son and my younger son Henry comes and joins us. We’re reading from The Jesus Storybook Bible (Which all parents should purchase and read to your children. It tells the overarching story of Scripture and God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation in a way your children will love and grasp.) George asked me to read the Adam and Eve story. So we get through creation, Adam and Eve, the perfection of the garden, and then how sin enters the world. Adam and Eve have been banned from the garden due to their rebellion.
I always read and thought about the story of God as one where we humans messed up, God turned his back on us, and history was spent trying to get him to like us again. The problem is, that is not a very biblical story when read in its entirety. I like the way this children’s bible tells the story though. It speaks of a God who loves his children so much, that he won’t leave them that way. Though they’ve chosen to turn their back on him, he follows them out of the garden and into the world, and pursues them to the point of giving himself up to evil in order to defeat the powers that have enslaved us. Listen to these words:
“You see, no matter what, in spite of everything, God would love his children – with a Never Sopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love. And though they would forget him, and run from him, deep in their hearts, God’s children would miss him always, and long for him – lost children yearning for their home.
Before they left the garden, God whispered a promise to Adam and Eve: ‘It will not always be so! I will come to rescue you! And when I do, I’m going to do battle against the snake. I’ll get rid of the sin and the dark and the sadness you let in here. I’m coming back for you!” – The Jesus Storybook Bible, page 36
I read these words through a quiver in my voice as I held two of my own children (with the third screaming in the background because she didn’t want to take her nap!). I was overwhelmed by the love of God. Tears entered into my eyes, and I couldn’t help but think about how much God loves his world and how it was his love that propelled him to, in Jesus Christ, die on a cross at the hands of evil humanity.
And here’s the deal, we can go into the world telling people a certain version of the story that sounds like God merely tolerates people who believe in Jesus. A story that sounds like God doesn’t much like his creation or his people, but will “let them off the hook”. We can go into the world threatening people with hell. But I think people are tired of living the hell they’re living, and they are looking for a different story: a story of God’s unending and relentless love. Sure, fear of hell may motivate some temporary change, but being compelled by the love of God may alter a life forever. At least that’s what Paul seemed to be saying in 2 Corinthians 5:14 when he speaks of the love of Christ compelling him to be who he is and do what he does.
When we proclaim the story of Jesus to our neighbors today, may it be a God honoring biblically based story of God’s rescue mission in the world because of his deep love. May it be this overwhelming love of God that has been changing hearts and lives for thousands of years.