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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Porch Sitting and Coffee Sipping (Ephesians 3:7-13)

What do we learn about God when we come into the church?

            According to Ephesians 2:19, we are members of the household God – we being “the church.” 
            This summer, I visited a guy.[i]  His house is old, mildewed, run-down.  Junk is piled everywhere.  Stacks of seemingly uses papers and old clothes lay about.  What can I learn about the man by what I saw in his household?
            He sits on his front porch.  He had invited me to do some porch-sitting with him.  So we sat.  As we talked, people would walk by; people who are having a hard time in life.  He lives in that part of the city where drugs are easy to get, but work, not so much.  There’s an abundance of heartache and a shortage of love.
He knew just about all who passed by, and they certainly know him.  Many would stop, and he’d say, “What do you need?”  He would give a bag groceries.  I don’t know who donated all the food, but he never ran out.  On the table on his front porch were clean, neatly folded used clothes.  He’d pass those out too, as people had need. 
            This is not all he does.  Sometimes he preaches at the church where he’s an associate pastor.  That’s how I met him.  Sometimes, he goes to prayer meetings with other pastors.  Sometimes he does advocacy work for the underprivileged in Durham. And sometimes, he sits on his porch.
            What can we learn about the man when we look at his household?  That he needs to clean up and maybe paint the walls?  Or, that he is ready to meet people in their need with compassion, kindness, prayer, and groceries if they are hungry and clothes if they need them? 
I visited another household – one in the part of the city with spacious green lawns and two-car garages[ii].  People don’t walk by these houses, they drive up to them.  This couple, near 80, has known me for 40 years. 
They invited me into their neatly decorated home.  For over an hour, we sat at their kitchen table, drank coffee, and talked about share memories.  We discussed life in the church and race in America.  At lunch time, they had prepared a table on their beautifully furnished, shaded back patio.  After a sandwich and some coleslaw, she said, “Rob, you haven’t had enough to eat,” as she refilled my empty plate. 
By the time I departed, I was full of food, and even more full of love from people who have loved me for as far back as I can remember.  And wisdom.  Gently, they poured the wisdom of their years into me. 
What can I learn about these people from their household?  That they have worked hard and enjoy the privilege of good education and good salaries and cultural refinement?  Or, that they love me and out of their household flows welcome and generosity?
Both my hosts showed me that God is welcoming – welcomes all.  They showed me God is generous.  They showed me God is ready to sit on the porch with me and listen.  They showed me God has a place at the table set for me.  And after each visit, I left with my cup full, God’s grace flowing out of me.  On Sunday morning, do people leave our church full, with God’s abundant love pour over?

Verse 10 caught me as I read Ephesians 3 this week.  Through the church, the wisdom of God will be made know to rulers and authorities in Heavenly places.  Are we ready for that?  Angelic beings, heavenly creatures we cannot imagine, supernatural forces both evil and benevolent, ask God, who are you?  What are you?  What wisdom will you share?  God responds, all you need to know of me you can know by looking to earth, to the realm of humans.  Look to my church if you want to know anything about me.  Whoa!
My family visited several churches this summer[iii].  We met some wonderful people.  But I don’t know if I would call the church (church worldwide) exalted based on what we saw.  One church didn’t really welcome us.  They were very nice, but they barely noticed we were there.  Another was so polished in their welcome, so refined in their method, it felt kind of like they wanted to sell us something.  Each church had its strengths and weaknesses.  That’s true of us too.  There are things HillSong does well.  And areas where we need improvement. 
However, we would miss the mark if we thought we had to strive for that improvement in order to be the church described in Ephesians 3:10.  The church does not make God’s wisdom known to the heavenly powers.  God does it working through His church, imperfect as it is. 
The great reformation theologian John Calvin says, “Truth is not extinguished [from] the world, but remains safe because it has the church as its faithful custodian.”[iv]  We have custody of the Word of God; we are responsible to share the Gospel and to do it in an inviting, loving way. 
Our sins separate us from God, but Jesus took our sins and the end to which our sins lead, death, on himself.  On the cross, Jesus shouldered it all.  Removing our sin and replacing it with righteousness, Jesus makes us right with God and each other.  And then in resurrection, Jesus defeated the last enemy – death.  So, as we come to life in Christ, we step into the Kingdom, into eternal life as sons and daughters of God.  This is the Gospel.  Paul calls himself a servant of this Gospel (3:7).  We, God’s church, have custody of this word and must care for it according to God’s design.  
Bible scholar Marcus Barth says it another way, calling the church a functional outpost of the Kingdom.  The world yearns to be rescued from the decay of sin and delivered to live in the Kingdom of God.  As Barth thinks about the church as the place where the wisdom of God is revealed, he imagines an outpost.  In the church, we’re not in the Kingdom fully, not yet.  But, we are connected and we point the way. 
Eighteenth century evangelist and founder of the Methodist Church John Wesley reads Ephesians 3:10 and writes that the church is “the theater of divine wisdom.”  The church is where divine wisdom performs.  It is where God’s ways are displayed and it is where we are affected by God. 
The church is …
·         a faithful custodian – caring for how the good news of life in Christ is shared
·         an outpost – pointing the way so people can escape the clutches of pain and loss and find their way into God’s arms
·         the theater in which God touches all who come with love and grace
·         the front porch where we sit together and pray and listen and welcome all who come buy
·         the kitchen table where we talk over cups of coffee

Pay attention because in these pictures, we don’t come to church to see what we can get.  We just come as we are, no pretensions, and we receive what God gives.   In receiving, with God doing the giving, we become the medium in which the wisdom of God is made known. 
We come wounded and broken.  God restores and heals. 
We come sad.  God sits with us in our sadness long enough for us to see that we are not alone, but rather are part of a family who loves us.  Sometimes the way we see God sitting with us is in others in the church, our friends, putting their arms around us.  No answers.  No solutions.  Just presence and love. 
We come confused.  God says, that’s OK.  Follow Jesus, even when confused.  Does the confusion clear up?  Sometimes?  Yes.  Eventually.  Always?  Not necessarily.  Some mysteries of God remain as mysteries.  But keep worshiping God, keep following Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will work through us. 
We come with our questions, our doubts, and our fears.  God says, yes, come.  And God loves us, through the love of the church family.

What does the world learn about God when the world looks into our church and we are living as a people in a dynamic relationship with God in which we give up all control and authority to God?
One lesson about God is seen in examining ourselves.  We have been created to be receivers, not achievers.  America celebrate achievers.  Look at what he accomplished.  We put those who have accomplished a lot on pedestals.  But God made us to be in relationship with God.  We are designed to receive what God has to give.  We probably have trouble with this because for centuries, we’ve been condition to work for what we have, to earn it, so we can tell ourselves we deserve it.  In the way of the Gospel, life, the love of God expressed through the cross and the resurrection, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, can only be received. 
Oh, we work hard.  We work hard to turn the other cheek, to respond to hurts with forgiveness, to know the word, to tune out temptations, to bless others with our generosity.  We work hard, but our efforts flow out of our gratitude for the grace we’ve been given.  We work knowing everything we have has already been given to us before we did a thing.  That’s the wisdom of God revealed through the church.
A second lesson is we are created for a home, not created for the marketplace.  The marketplace is not bad.  Buying and selling is a part of human interaction.  There are examples of smart business people who became devoted followers of Jesus while continuing to be smart in the game of commerce.  Jesus commended shrewdness.[v]  Yet, we were not made for business.  We were made for home and family.
In America and in other parts of the world, church has become big business.  Churches compete for one another to draw people.  In that climate, worship attendees become customers who must be attracted and then satisfied.  Church members see themselves as stakeholders or board members.  The church staff are viewed as employees.  And the senior pastor is a CEO. 
The New Testament presents an entirely different metaphor for church.  In the New Testament, church members called one another ‘brother,’ and ‘sister.’  Paul described himself as Timothy’s father in the faith.[vi]  Ephesians 1:5 says we are all adopted as children of God.  If we are unsatisfied with our family, we don’t shop around until we find a happier one.  We stick with one another through painful, hard times.  We come alongside each other, brothers and sisters in Christ, and together we pray for healing, forgiveness, and new life.  We laugh and cry and sing and dance together.  The church is a household, not one option among many in a spiritual marketplace.[vii]
What does the world learn about God when the world looks into the church?
Life is received from God, not achieved.  Our effort comes as response to God’s grace.  God is a giver.
Church is a family of believers who make up a household, not a Sunday morning option that serves to make the attendees happy.   Church goers who are in Christ have joy in all circumstances and are equipped to walk through darkness and pain because they lean on Christ.  Churches do not bend over backward to give people what they want; rather, they meet the needs people bring with the love of Christ – love expressed relationally, emotionally, and tangibly.  God has a place for you. 

I began with my experiences – porch sitting with one brother in Christ; kitchen-table-coffee drinking with two others.  This week, the wisdom of God is going to be made known in the world through this church.  Don’t be surprised.  God does this every week.  You may have been a part of it.  God may reveal divine mysteries through you this week. 
Ground yourself in Christ – bound to the Gospel by God’s grace.
Do some porch-sitting.  Sit with someone and listen deeply, ready to welcome any who come, and pray for all.
Do some kitchen-table coffee sipping.  As you do, with gratitude, receive the grace of God others will pour into you.  Don’t keep your brothers and sisters in Christ at arm’s length.  Let them pour love into your heart – let someone love you to overflowing. 
The wisdom of God won’t only be revealed through us, but also to us. 

[i] My visit to Alan Jones of Mosaic Church in Durham, August 2017.
[ii] My visit to Sandy and Emerson Shelton in Richmond, VA, August 2017
[iii] The period of my Sabbatical, May-September 2017.
[iv] Institutes, Book IV, chapter 8.12.
[v] Luke 16:1-13
[vi] 1 Timothy 1:2.
[vii] Peter T. Cha and Greg J. Yee (2012).  Honoring the Generations, M.Sydney Park, Soong-Chan Rah, and Al Tizon, editors.  Judson Press (Valley Forge, PA), p.94.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Once Far off ... Brought Near by the Blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13)

Sunday, October 5, 2017

            Two Satursdays ago, I took a shovel to a weed patch.  Hiding under that invasive overgrowth is good dirt, ripe for a garden.  But the green blanket of nuisance is covering it, so I took to digging.  Forty-five minutes later, good dirt smiled through and said to me, “Fill me with your seeds.  Flowers.  Vegetables.  Greens.  Let beautiful and delicious things grow here.”  I dragged three cans full of weeds to the curb for pick-up, went in the house, cleaned up, and began folding the mountain of clean laundry that needed to be put away.
            The weeding wasn’t done.  I was just done weeding.  I picked it back up yesterday. I got more done but still wasn’t finished.  Again, I went inside to fold Laundry with college football on in the background.  Fold the laundry.  Put it away.  Rinse.  Repeat. It’s a lot of work to maintain a home.  It’s good work.  A blessing.  But still, a lot of work.

            “We are no longer strangers and aliens,” Ephesians 2:19.  We are no longer cut off from God or the people of God.  The verse continues, “We are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”  I mentioned three weeks ago that we would talk about HillSong as “the household of God.”  Our aim is to maintain this household so that all who come feel welcomed and feel at home here. 
            However, after setting that goal, I did a message about grace.  And then last week’s message was about how the Christian view of reality is more hopeful than any other.  In essence, that too is a message about grace.  Why so much emphasis on grace when the end in mind is to build up the household of God? I think people are scared of God; scared of what it will mean for them to be too close to God. 

            The question for reflection in your bulletin is “what, specifically, makes it hard for you to draw near to God?”  It’s unhelpful to be generic with this question. 
What make it hard to draw near to God? I ask.  Sin, you say.
That neuters the question.  You say, well sin is what cuts people off from God, so the answer must be sin.  It’s logical.
Yes, I respond, but which sin
Drinking to excess? 
Abusing power? 
Living in paralyzed fear when God calls us to bold faith? 
Living in affluence surrounded by need when God calls us to extravagant generosity? 
By saying “sin is what prevents anyone from coming close to God,” we avoid naming our individual, specific sins that prevent us from drawing near to God.  Church goers love condemning sin in general and especially love damning sins that don’t tempt them.  We don’t like it so much when talk of sin turns to our sins and thus to confession.  We have to confess things we have done, sins we have committed that hurt people and serve to separate us from a relationship of closeness and trust with God. 
Verse 13 says, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  I have seen people sit in the sanctuary as far back as possible during worship.  If we moved the back wall 15 further back, they’d be grateful.  Because up front is where the communion table is; up front is where the baptismal pool sits.  The big cross high up on the wall is up front.  That’s too close to God.  That’s terrifying. 
Why is it hard to draw near to God?  Before we can begin doing our part to maintain the household God has constructed in Christ at work in the hearts of people, before we can live as God has invited us to live, we have accept God’s invitation to come close.    That means we have to be honest with ourselves and about ourselves.  We’re sinners.
Twelve step programs get this right.  Hi, my name is Rob, and I am an alcoholic, or, I am an addict.  Stark honesty is essential.  What would church be like if every week, we began by going person by person, beginning our worship in raw confession.  Hi my name is Rob and I am sinner.  I am saved by grace, but though the Holy Spirit of God lives in me, still this week, I have sinned against God and against people.  How different would church be if instead of worrying about our “Sunday best” we live in confessional honesty?  We cannot draw near to God unless we do that.  If we do that God draws us into a bear hug of forgiveness and love.  Verse 13 says, “We’re brought near by the blood of Christ.”  That blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.  Sins are covered and forgiveness received as we confess, as we come to God with our full selves, as we are.
What comes between us and drawing close to God?  Fear of standing before the Holy One exposed in our sin. 
Another question that must be faced as we prepare to join our hearts with one another and live in the house God built as the household of God is this.  What new thing is God doing?
            Hear the language in Ephesians 2.  “At one time you … were called the uncircumcision.”  “Remember that at that time you were without Christ … having no hope and without God in the world.”  The view from Ephesians is that to be without God is to be without hope.  Those addressed were without hope.
            However, that changed.  “Remember at that time” yields to the language of verse 13.  “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  Something happened.  Something changed.
            This change occurs at two levels in Ephesians.  First, the individual is cut off from God by sin, but through Jesus’ work on the cross, the death sin brings is shouldered by Jesus.  So the individual is saved from death, saved for life.  Salvation! 
We saw this in Greg’s life.  He came to know himself as a new person, forgiven by God.  His baptism gives witness.  His baptism is public, a statement made before the entire church.  He is lowered under the water, dead in sin and buried.  But we don’t leave him under the water.  He is raised just as Jesus rose from death in resurrection.  Greg is raised to new life.  It’s the story of everyone who comes to God in confession and repentance.  Each person’s journey is unique, but we are united in our baptism.  What is god doing?  God is saving individuals.
            What else is God doing?  Reconciliation!  We are united in baptism.  Whatever may have previously divided groups of people is removed.  Race.  Ethnicity.  Social class.  Place of birth.  Country of citizenship.  It doesn’t matter what divides us because that division has been removed. 
            What is God doing? 
·         Saving individuals from death. 
·         Eliminating the divisions that come between groups of people. 
·         Building a house – a gathering of people into a family, the household of God. 

In Ephesians, the specific division is between Jews who follow Jesus and Gentiles who follow Jesus.  Ephesians existed as theological writing in the late first century when the church was a couple of generations old.  This is Jewish-Gentile tension had several decades to evolve into an ongoing institutional sickness that weakened the entire church.  One of the main reasons Ephesians was important as a letter is the profound statement of 2:15-16.  It says God [created] “in himself one new humanity in place of two, [reconciling] both groups to God in one body through the cross.”  This action put to death hostility. 
            Why is it hard to draw near to God?  Because of the specific sins you and I commit.
            What is God doing?  Saving people from sin and death, bring together groups who were hostile to each other.

            A third question: what hostility among us is bring broken down?
            Possibilities include the tension between white people who live privileged in society and non-white people who have to contend in society with privileged persons; also, the tension between people who deny there is such a thing as white privilege and those who insist it is an evil that plagues our culture; also, the tension between conservatives and liberals.  These and many tensions would divide us, but they cannot when we live in Christ because, he, “Puts to death the hostility” (v.16).
            Practically speaking, what does this mean?  It means your stand is not that important and cannot be what defines your relationships. 
Where do I stand on gun control? 
Where do I stand on birth control? 
Where do I stand on immigration? 
Where do I stand on tax reform? 
Where do I stand on big government v. small government?
Where do I stand on race relations?
            If, as I went through these questions, you thought of where you stand on each issue, you’re missing the point.  The first thing and the last thing is am standing in Christ?  Am I one forgiven, full of the spirit, ready to love, ready to forgiven, and ready to welcome my brother or sister, even the one who is opposite of me on all these issues?  Am I so grounded in Christ, I won’t run to Facebook to list all my stances in confrontational way that puts people with opposite views down because I know doing so will bring pain to my brother or sister?  I might post my ideas, but not in a way that demonizes people with other ideas.
            Facebook can be an arena of dialogue.  And it is OK to have opinions and hold them passionately.  But for the sake of who we are in Christ and for the sake of being a household that welcomes in people, all kinds of people, will I make it a spiritual discipline to show restraint in my language, in my use of social media, and in my expression of my passionately held views?  I will make sure that whatever I say is said in language colored by love and fragranced by Christ. 
            If you know that I love you no matter what your views are or who you voted for and if I know you love me no matter what my views are or who I voted for, then we can talk, laugh, shout, and cry together in our agreement and our disagreement because we are united in Christ.  If I trust you to be sensitive and not use language that hurts me and to apologize when you have hurt me, and if you trust me to be sensitive and not use language that hurts you and to apologize when I have hurt you, then we talk.  About anything.  The hostility has been broken down.  We are ready to work together to maintain the household of God.
            Jesus accomplishes a lot on the cross, more than we often acknowledge.  We know about the individual’s experience of grace.  Salvation is a work of the cross.  But so too is the work of reconciliation.  Groups welcoming each other – groups previously hostile to each other – is as important to God as the experience of individuals.  Salvation and reconciliation are both important.

            And so, we pray. 
In prayer, think about the group in society today that is the object of your hostility.  You don’t like liberals.  You don’t like people who post of Facebook.  You don’t like supporters of our current president.  You don’t like supporters of our previous president.  Think about the object of your hostility.
            Now confess sins hostility has led you to commit. 
Maybe you will need to go to someone and confess how you have thought hurtful thoughts about them or done hurtful things to them. 
If someone comes to you confessing, give them the grace you want God to give you.  Let this be a time where our hearts are wide open before God.  As church family, may we together pray, asking God to rain down grace, forgiveness, and healing.  We also want God to do some wall-busting.  O God destroy the hostilities that arise and divide us. 
In upcoming weeks, we’ll go deeper in Ephesians as we examine how we live as the household of God. 
This morning we pray for an in-breaking of the Holy Spirit.  May the Lord draw us together – to one another.  May the Lord provoke us to full-bodies, raw, honest confession.  And in that confession, may we accept God’s invitation to come close to Him.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Reader response to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"

With the man and his son, I traversed the bleak world in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and I imagined divinity.  This man is God – if God were written with a lower case ‘g.’ This is man is god, if god could be god and not be all-powerful.  He navigated a cold world of death with no benevolent deity sustaining things.  All he could do was survive and protect and provide for the young son. 

He got no help and was met with unfeeling obstacles.  What worsened the antagonism was the emotionless quality of it. When people came against him, they weren’t malevolent, even though he and the boy used the na├»ve term “bad guys.”  They were faceless enemies who had no care for the man and the boy.  The antagonists didn’t hate them.  They were compassionlessly indifferent.  The man and the boy, for the antagonists, were simply prey.

As I read and wandered the forsaken road, I thought this is God if God were impotent instead of omnipotent.

Upon finishing the work and reflecting upon it, I imagined something quite different.  The reason the opponents acted with unfeeling purpose was the need to survive and a ravaged, lifeless landscape.  Every character in the book is on one mission – survive this moment.  Thus, the humans are not gods.  They are not even human.  They are Darwinian mammals who sense no meaning in the world.  It is reduced to base survival of the fittest.

The man vainly clings to vestiges of human society, but bit by bit, he lets meaningful life slide through his fingers.  The ending is remarkably like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”  There, the surviving protagonist is canine, not human.  In “the Road,” the surviving protagonist have been reduced to something less than human.  In both cases, there is survival, but what does it matter?  What is life beyond the next moment?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Hope Words and Why We Believe Them (Eph 1:15-23)

Subways: underground trains in big cities.  In places like Washington DC and New York the underground system is immense.  The subways in Moscow are ornately decorated and quite beautiful.  But a lot of subways are not so pretty.  The platform is grimy, trash strewn, without benefit of sunshine (obviously), and overall quite drab.  Subway riders are harried, tired; thousands of people rushing to and from work where they will, in a high-pressure environment, give 10-11 hours of their lives, 50-75 hours a week. 
            The work, the rush, the gray, depressed environment; the underground metro is not a place of spiritual inspiration. 
Except …

            There’s that young woman.  Look at her down in this cave, dancing!  All we hear is the shuffle of tired feet, the screech of the trains coming down the line.  In those earbuds, what does she hear?  What music induces such beautiful body movement?  Poetry in motion
All we see are heads down, glum eyes set straight ahead.  Must get to work.  Must do the work.  Must get home.  Must not go crazy.  Must not slug anyone as I slog through this commute.  The subway iPod dancer’s eyes are closed.  As we muddle along in the shadows, what light does she see, she with her closed eyes, her smiling face, her dancing body?[i]
            She is Christianity.  Wait.  What?
            Where the world sees death, a Christian, one who follows Christ, one whose life is lived in Christ sees laughter.  We don’t mock the pain death brings.  We are sympathetic.  But, we know death is an enemy that has been defeated, and in Christ we have eternal life.  God gives beauty for our ashes, strength for fear; God gives us deep laughter and takes our grief.  We will be called “oaks of righteousness” … to display God’s glory.[ii]  In the Spirit, God is with us now and always, comforting us, emboldening us, filling us, and empowering us.  As we live in awareness of God-in-us loving us, we hear music others cannot hear.  We smile at happiness others do now know, cannot know.  We can’t help it.  We must dance.
            Look at her, so frivolous as she sprinkles beauty and grace all about this bleak subterranean world.  Look at us, witnesses to eternal joy and indefatigable hope – hope that cannot be broken or made weary.
            Except …

            We know too many people cut off from this joy and this hope, cut off from God and caught up in pain. 
            Twitter is the ultimate safe space because you can create any name you want as your user name.  You can put any picture in as your ID.  You can exist in the Twitter totally anonymously.  You can also follow whomever else is on Twitter.
            My Twitter handle is ‘revtennant.’  The picture is a photo of my wife Candy and me.  On my profile page is a picture of me on one of our church trips to Ethiopia.  My bio tells exactly who I am. 
            Occasionally, I will tweet scripture verses or quotes from authors like Eugene Peterson.  My simple aim is to get positive words flowing into the raging torrent of social media.  Tweets and Facebook posts can be impossibly negative, divisive, and provocative.  I too try to provoke.  I try to take words from the Bible to provoke people to hope, or at least to consider that hope might be possible.
            Most of the people who see my Tweets are church members, friends, family.  But, remember; on Twitter anyone can follow you.  Someone called “Atheist C Cat.”  Has reacted to one of my Christ-proclaiming tweets.  Atheist C Cat could be anyone – maybe someone from this church or formally of this church.  A-Cat’s bio says, “Skeptic.  Atheist.  Ex-Christian.  Cat lover.”  That’s it.
            A-Cat’s initial response to me was a low grade jab at God.  I posted a quote – “Everything God does is woven into the plot for your salvation.”[iii]  “Maybe the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect, loving deity should have created a perfect world where salvation isn’t needed.”
            I didn’t take the bait.  God doesn’t need me to defend God.  God’s reputation is intact.  Instead, I tried to pick up on A-Cat’s words and engage in a conversation.  I asked. “What would a perfect world look like?”
            “Different than the one we’re in.”
            “Couldn’t Christians and Atheists and Muslims and Jews” work together for good?
            And A-Cat responded and we went on this way.  I kept trying to guide the conversation toward a hopeful place and A-Cat kept going back to the inevitability of death and destruction.  I hope the conversation will continue, but where he or she last left it, was with this.  “I choose to live in reality as much as possible, even though it does appear bleak.  But the evidence leads the way.”
            Pay close attention to this anonymous atheist Tweeter who depicts him/herself as an ex-Christian and trolls Christian pastors with impotent barbs aimed at God.  She declares that reality is death and destruction.  Anything else – faith, hope, love – is fantasy.  Reality is humans will always be evil and malicious toward each other.  And evidence, the supreme standard for truth, leads to this fatalistic conclusion. 
            Two thought for A-Cat; first, I suspect many people feel just like her.  Many see the world and see death and try to make the best of a situation that inevitably leads to chaos and misery.  Second, in a world without God, A-Cat is right.  All people sin.  Sin is seen in real time in the way we hurt each other.  And sin up on sin, across the oceans across the span of centuries leads to a world that is spiraling to death.  A-Cat is correct.
            Except … subway iPod dancer seems oblivious, dancing, spilling color and light and music out all over A-Cat’s gray dying world. 

So the tension is clear.  Without God, without life in Christ, we exist as Darwinian animals whose only purpose is to survive and pass on our genes.  Eat, produce young, and then die, either a lonely death or a violent one.  Either way, there is no hope because this life is all there is and death is the end.  With God, living life in Christ, we stand in the midst of a decaying world bound for destruction.  Each one of us, each church, big or small, each individual Christian, stands amid the chaos and insists there is another story, a better story to be told and being told.  In Jesus Christ, God has come near.  In Jesus Christ, the Kingdom has come.  In Jesus Christ, we can have life, abundant, eternal life.  I’ll take that subway iPod dancer’s vision over A-Cat’s fatalism any day.  I want to dance like no one is watching.

Except … many people in the church, people who speak words of faith live lives that suggest they are find A-Cat’s argument more convincing.  A lot of Christians are beleaguered by doubt and or burdened by responsibility or immobilized by depression.  Some in the church live joyless lives that suggest whatever good we can hope for from God is coming much, much later.  We drag ourselves through our days with an aura of defeat.  Ignatius of Loyola defined sin as “refusing to believe that God wants my happiness and fulfillment.”[iv]
Questions; do we believe God wants us happy and fulfilled?  Do we believe God is able to help us be happy and be fulfilled?  Can God help with this?  If we say yes, God wants us happy, and if we say, yes, God can help with this, then here’s the biggie.  Is God willing to help?  But there’s even a bigger question than that.  Assuming God is willing to help, will we know it when God does help?  When God gives happiness and fulfillment, we recognize it? 
Or are we caught in smaller things?  God gives a good marriage, full of commitment and grace – a happiness that starts now and lasts to old age.  But, we miss the gift because we have misguided notion what a marriage should be and we spin our wheels trying to achieve something that will produce limited happiness that quickly runs out.  God gives honest work, but we miss the gift because we think we should be distinguished, accomplished, and respected.  We never stop to consider the burdens that come with prestige. 
I am not saying don’t strive for excellence.  I am saying don’t wait to be grateful.  See what God is doing in life right now and trust that God has good in store for you tomorrow.  If today, you carry pain, don’t let the pain define whether or not today is good.  Bring the pain into worship, into community of fellow Christ-followers.  Bring the hurt to the cross and see God standing with you in the pain and let God define what today is.
Philip Yancey references a survey in which Americans are asked what words they would like most to hear.  Three answers top the list.  You’ll guess the first one.  What is the number 1 answer to the question, ‘what words do you want to hear?’  It is “I love you.”  What’s number 2?  It is “I forgive you.”  Let’s see if you can guess number 2? 
“Supper is ready.”

Where do most people eat supper?  I think at home.  But some live alone, so supper is quiet unless the TV is on.  Others are in families, but the despair of the world had invaded the family.  So, with family around, the TV is still on.  No one is talking to each other.  Everyone sits zombie-like, letting the evening news or the 7 o’clock game show define reality.  Or the family is fragmented.  Some sit down to dinner, but others are at practice or at meetings.  Why is sister’s chair empty?  O she has soccer.  Why isn’t dad eating with us?  Had to work late.  Or the dinner table is the arena in which the family fights are battled out.  At least once a week, dinner ends with someone slamming down silverware and someone else leaving the table in tears.
            In the Kingdom of God, dinner is different.  It is with family no matter your age or marital status.  In the Kingdom, dinner is an affair where you are surrounded by people who love you and pay attention to you, and no one is in a hurry and no one is missing.  God, Ephesians 1:5 tells us, “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”  The Kingdom is family.  Verse 11, “in Christ we have an inheritance.”  And that inheritance is eternal life.  We say this with certainty because we know Jesus lived, no one, atheists or otherwise deny that he was crucified, and we are positively certain he was resurrected on the third day.  Ephesians 2:20 – “God … raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
            We believe these hope words because the strongest historical evidence is that the resurrection happened.  But evidence is not the only standard by which we assess truth.  We also look at experience.  We have experienced the love of God.  Through our lived relationship with God, we know God is here and God is good.  What I pray I could show Atheist Cat but also show my brothers and sisters in Christ who are overcome with negativity and disappointment is that God, as we know God in Jesus Christ, is Lord.  Jesus is Lord now, here.  And Lord wants us to receive love and forgiveness.  And the Lord has a place set for us at His table. 
            Those of us who have received the forgiveness and eaten at the table of the Father who’s adopted us are so full of love, we are free to dance like no one is watching.  We have music to share in the monotonous drone of godless life.  We have good news. 
            If you have known this good news but the hardness of life has driven it deep into the recesses of your heart, this morning, pray.  Ask God open the ears of your soul so you can truly hear Him say, “I love you.”
            If all you can see are your own failures they threaten to overrun you, ask God to open your heart so you can hear Him say, “I forgive you.”  And when you hear it, believe it.  Receive it.  You are a new creation, a child of God.
            If you know you are loved and you are forgiven, then you also know people who haven’t walked with Jesus.  You have people like Atheist Cat in your life.  Go to one of them and with grace say, “Your place at the table is set and ready for you.  Please come home to father.  Supper is ready.  ”

[i] Philip Yancey (2014).  Vanishing Grace, Zondervan (Grand Rapids).  In this message, I refer to several stories Yancey shares in this book including the iPod dancer, the references to Tim Keller and Ignatius of Loyola, the words people want to hear most.  These stories are found in chapter 4 (p.69-88).
[ii] Isaiah 61:3.
[iii] Eugene Peterson (
[iv] Yancey, p.79.  

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Time to Pray

We read these words in the Old Testament wisdom literature. 

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.

-      Ecclesiastes 3:1

If this were read in church, the reader would conclude by saying, “The word of God for the People of God,” and the congregation would respond, “Amen.”

Here are the next seven verses.

A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.

With the word of God teaching us there different times and seasons, in what season do we currently find ourselves – we people of the world – we the human race?  Is this the “time to hate?”  Or, “the time to kill,” as in kill the evildoers?  But who are the evildoers?  Who among us are qualified to determine who the evildoers are?  What if the killer of the evildoers is evil too?

What is the time?  What is this time for?

Houston.  Harvey.
Florida.  Irma.
Puerto Rico.  Maria.
Las Vegas. 
North Korea. 
Travel Ban.  “The tougher the better” – POTUS.
Syria.  ISIS – still.

The list goes on.  And on.  What is “the time?”  For followers of Jesus, this is “a time to pray.”  Aren’t all times “a time to pray?”  Of course.  This season, this Monday after the shooting near the Mandalay Bay casino is a time for specific prayer.  Weeping prayer.  Knees-rubbed-raw prayer.  Keep-me-awake-at-night prayer.

It’s the prayer of Jesus when he says,

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”   - Matthew 23

It’s the passion and compassion Jesus shows as his crucifixion looms.

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

How do we pray in days like these?  Note how deeply Jesus loved a people who were so lost in sin.  Pray in love.  Love Syrians and Koreans and refugees and immigrants.  And Vegas concert goers.  And Puerto Ricans putting their lives back together.  And presidents. 

This kind of love isn’t easy, no, not at all.  This kind of love is spiritual work.  It is response to the grace God has given in the cross and in forgiveness, but it is also acknowledgement of what grace means. God has to give us grace because of the state of the world and the state of our own hearts.  This love that fills our prayers and drives our prayer comes from knowing that God has welcomed us when we were at our worst.  Oh God, help me love those I don’t want to love.  Maybe that’s where prayer starts.

Pray stories.  Zero in on specific people affected by hurricanes or travel bans or mass-shootings.  Pick one small story out of the big story and pray into that small story in earnest, in sweat and tears.  Pray into the story until you feel the story. 

Obviously Christ-followers can give money to hurricane relief efforts and we must.  We can advocate for equal rights, oppose bigotry, support refugees, and volunteer in our communities.  We do these things.  The time is right to do these things. 

It is also a time to pray.