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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Notes from the Pastor

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·         HillSong Church sent Candy and me away for a pastors-spouses retreat weekend at Caswell Beach.  Boy did we ever need it!  We spent the time getting to know other Yates Baptist Association pastors and their spouses.   We played games, walked on the beach, ate seafood meditated on scripture (1 Kings 17), and even got to watch a little bit of college football.  We are grateful for the way our church family blesses us and cares for us.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

·         I want to report that I delivered 30 backpacks filled with donations from you, the HillSong Church family.  I took the backpacks to the distribution point, Olive Chapel Baptist Church in Apex.  From there, they will be taken to a site in Appalachia.  We pray God will bless the children who receive these gifts.  As I drove to Apex with the backpacks, the thought kept running through my mind, “I am on mission.”  And so were you when you made your contributions.

·         Another way to be on mission is to volunteer with the food pantry, Saturday, November 2.  Sharing food with the hungry is Gospel work that honors the Lord and uplifts Jesus (Matthew 25:35, 40).  Be here at 10am to help set up. 

·         One more way to spread the good news of Jesus Christ is to invite your unchurched friends to church.  We all have relationships with unbelievers, beloved neighbors, friends, and family members.  Be a positive, gentle, joyful representative of Jesus and as your unchurched friends respond to your good will, let them know that can know the joy that you have.  And invite them to church.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Hope of a New Heart

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

            There’s a distance so great, it’s hard for us over here to understand what they’re saying over there.  We need to!  We need what they have over there.  We are 21st century Christians.  They were Jews exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC.  The word of God spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah is also God’s word for us.  How can we receive God’s word when the context in which it was originally spoke is so utterly different than the life we live in the world as it is now?  How do we span the gap of many centuries and receive the word of God? 
            We can ask questions.
            What was exile like?  Jews forced into exile Babylon probably lived in cramped, unsanitary quarters.  Most likely, they had to work long hours in menial jobs with little pay.  They had no civil rights.  They had no civil services.  To survive, they had to depend on their captors, the ones who forced them to live like this.
            What is life like for us, Christians in America?  Many think Christians’ social influence has diminished significantly.  More and more people openly declare that they have no religion: the “nones,” so labeled because when asked their religious preference, they respond, ‘none.’  As Christians lose our public voice, we fight with we each other.  In some cases, Christians are openly hostile to one another over theological or more often political or moral differences. 
            Does any common thread tie us to the Babylonian exiles, the original recipients of Jeremiah’s prophesy?  The circumstances are clearly different, but in both communities, a couple of dynamics are in play.  The exiled Jews were powerless.  Christians today feel like our public voice has been almost silenced.  The exiled Jews feared they might not have a future.  They feared annihilation.  Some Jesus followers today, with much anxiety, wonder what the church of Jesus Christ will look like in America 100 years from now.  Will anyone proclaiming the gospel in the next century?
            Written so many years ago and so many cultures removed from us, Jeremiah still speaks to us.  Listen these promises from God found in the earlier verses of Jeremiah 31.  The exiles desperately needed God’s words to be true.  So do we.
            “The people who survived … found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).
            The Lord said to Israel (and says to us, his church), “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).
            Next, God promises.  “Again I will build you, O Israel.  Again you shall take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of merrymakers” (Jeremiah 31:4).
“Again you shall plant vineyards … and enjoy the fruit” (Jeremiah 31:5).
            “Sing aloud … and be radiant over the goodness of the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:12).
            God promises reversal of fortune.  “Their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.  Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy.  I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:12e-13).
            God’s heart breaks for His people.  Calling Israel ‘Ephraim,’ God asks, “Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he the child I delight in?  As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.  Therefore I am deeply moved for him.  I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (31:20). 
            What do we see in Jeremiah 31?  God delights in his child.  He is deeply moved out of love for all his children, including each of us.  The New Testament epistle First John, in chapter simply says, “God is love” (4:7, 16). 
            All of the early verses in Jeremiah 31 lead up to this promise.  “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel. … I will put my law within them, and I write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (31:33).
            I was touched as I read the comments of Old Testament scholar Gerhad von Rad in his reflections on this new covenant in Jeremiah, the covenant written on our hearts.  Von Rad sees this as something so unexpected that the change God brings about is complete and irreversible.  Once God plants his word in our heart, the written word is no longer needed and sermons are no longer necessary because, with the word planted in us, we no longer sin.  Von Rad says, “What is outlined here is the picture of a new man who is able to perfectly obey because of a miraculous change of his nature” (Rad, p. 182, 183).[i]
            Can he be right?  When God inserts His law in our hearts, does it mean we are able to perfectly obey God’s will?  Read everything in the Bible that comes after Jeremiah 31.  We know that’s not right.  We know people failed as disciples yet were God-worshipers.  We know God did not stop speaking after Jeremiah 31.  There’s a Jeremiah 32!  There are other prophets.  Jesus and Paul spoke.  Gerhard von Rad was a renowned scholar.  What was he saying as he thought about the new covenant described by Jeremiah? 
            I think the point he raises that we need to come to grips with is the idea that we become completely new.  When God writes the new covenant on my heart and on yours, we are no longer who we were.  The exiles had to learn how to be the people of God while in exile.  We live after Jesus came, died, and rose.  Our meeting with God comes through faith in Jesus as Lord as we meet Jesus in the Bible and through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, leading us to confess Jesus.  Just as Jeremiah promised, God writes His will on our hearts. We become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).  The old me, the old you, has passed away.  We are made new in Christ. 
            In Romans 2:29, Paul likens this change to circumcision – the physical marker that indicates a man is truly of the people of God.  He writes, “Real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.”  That opens the way for non-Jews, uncircumcised people to be accepted as Jesus followers.  It also allows for women who don’t get circumcised to be marked as God’s people: marked by the Holy Spirit. 
But spiritualizing circumcision must not neuter the power of the image.  Circumcision is surgery, the most intimate form of surgery.  When God writes his law on our hearts, it is as invasive and bloody as when someone goes through surgery: open heart surgery. 
Does the change mean we don’t sin anymore?  Is that where spiritual growth leads?  This process used to be called sanctification.  Through our growth in Christ, we become so like him we become near perfect.  Is God able and willing to do that?  If the answer is ‘yes’ and God in Christ renders us perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, can we still be said to have free will?  Or do we become spiritual automatons who don’t sin because we don’t have the choice to sin?
I don’t know.  I want to believe God’s promises, spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.  I go back to all those words hope in the early verses of chapter 31.  Finding grace in the wilderness; seeing mourning turned into joy; exchanging our sorrow for God’s gladness; I think about the most difficult experiences in life and I want this all to be true.  I want God’s law planted in me.  I want God to give me a new heart and to help me see the world that way He sees it. 
More than wanting it, I believe God does this!  Based on my experiences with God in worship, in meeting God in the Bible, in seeing God in my own private prayer time, and in encountering God as God is at work in the world, I know these promises can be trusted.  God does a new thing in each of us. 
I still believe in free will.  Jesus walked on earth.  People could touch God -in-the-flesh, yet they had the choice to reject him and many did.  He chose twelve disciples to walk with him and spend all their time with him.  No one knew him better.  They were Jesus’ inner circle, but they still had freedom, and they used it.  One denied him, one betrayed him, and they all abandoned him.  We can be ‘in Christ’ and still make mistakes.  The exiles had to choose.  Would they wallow in exile-misery or choose to be faithful God even in their circumstances?  Christians today, must choose to live as new creations with eyes fixed on God or to join the world around us and reject God. 
What is the path forward?
The exiles had to learn to worship God and live as the people of God in Babylon.  Another group of Jews was in Egypt.  The diaspora became the context for living faithfully. 
Christians in a world uninterested in God, in a world that glorifies the self must declare that Jesus Christ is Lord; Lord in our homes, Lord in our church, and Lord of the world.  So many signs point to a world that’s turned its back on God.  Violence run rampant; decreasing faith and declining morality in our culture; in the face of these and other signs of societal decay, we stand certain of this.  Jesus is Lord. 
That means we are always people of hope.  As Hillside Church, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope.  Yes, Jesus died on the cross, but he also rose from the grave and promises to come again.  As we tell the good news about him, the Holy Spirit empowers us.  We are born-again, Spirit-filled people. 
Hope is God’s future for Hillside Church.  The reason we are in this neighborhood, in this town, at this time, ready to leap into the future with our new name and new calling is God placed us here with a mission and God calls us to fulfill that mission. 
Hope is trust that God’s goodness is without limit for those who choose to follow Jesus.  Through his prophet Jeremiah, God promised to write his word on our hearts.  We come before the Lord open, ready to be filled and sent out in his name.  It doesn’t matter how many people in our culture are believers.  We are sent to love all, believers and unbelievers alike.  We have the hope of a new heart and we are to share that hope.  The world needs it.

[i] Rad, Gerhard von (1962).  The Message of the Prophets, HarperCollins (San Francisco).

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Wet Shoes and Grateful to be Here

                “O man, my shoes are wet,” I thought to myself.  The shoes I’ll be wearing all day!  I kept walking.  I was hiking near my home.  It’s a beautiful hillside pasture with a wooded area, just under 1 square mile, and open to the public. 
            At 7:45AM, not much of the public was out walking the pathway through the tall, dew-soaked grass and copse at the north end.  With the morning fog not yet burned off, the pasture possessed a numinous quality I badly needed.  This year, 2019, I have had more sleep-deprivation than at any point in my life. 
            What kept me up last night?  Watching my beloved Detroit Lions lose to the, grrrr, Packers in a game in which the refs did all they could to ensure a Green Bay victory?  Possibly, but, I don’t think so.  I’ve been a Lions’ fan for too long.  They always lose to Green Bay that way. 
            So then, why could I not fall asleep until 2AM?  Why did I awake at 5AM? 
            A possible explanation is the wrestling I’ve been doing with God for much of this year.  The Almighty calls all of us to live as disciples of Jesus.  Part of my calling dating back to 1990-1991 has been to serve as a lead pastor of a church.  The arc of my career led to this calling and I embraced it with joy and unbridled enthusiasm.  Since 1997, I have been a pastor.  My self-definition is encapsulated in five words: Jesus follower, dad, husband, pastor. 
            My rounds of Jacob-like grappling with the Lord this year have me right back at the same calling, I think.  I think God still wants to me be a pastor.  So where is all the stress coming from? 
Life is different now than when I started, single, young, wide-eyed, optimistic.  I’m still optimistic.  But I have 25 years of lumps under belt.  That’s no condemnation of the churches I have served.  I love each one and still feel incredibly tied to my current church and my previous one.  But ministry, by its nature, beats the pastor up.  I am no exception.  The lumps cast everything I love – my family, the church, the Lions – in a more sober light.  And yes, I love God, and the lumps temper how I see God even as I realize God is more amazing than I previously comprehended. 
            So, I am as called as I ever was.  I love God more than I ever did. I love my family so much it hurts sometimes. I love the church and think about it all the time.  And worrying about these things, the very best things in my life, literally keeps me up night.  It’s not very inspiring for me, the pastor, to admit such anxiety.  Have I not read Matthew 6:25-34?  O, I have, trust me.  If I could control it, and force myself to not worry, I would.  But, I don’t know the future.  That unknown gets in my head.  I don’t know what else to say.  Points for vulnerability?
            This morning, I got to the office early and decided to walk and pray.  I wasn’t going to walk the pasture.  Didn’t want to get my shoes wet!  But then I passed a friend on the sidewalk.  He’s also a pastor and had just come from that same pasture.  He told me how wonderful it was.  I decided, tired or not, I needed that. 
So I walked.  And I met God in all His glory.  Well Ok, maybe not all His glory, but as much as He wanted to give me.  As much as I could take.  God did not give me any promises for the future.  God just let me know he was with me.  I don’t know any more than I did before I started walking.  I just know I got to walk with God.  As I finished the loop, I looked down at my now drenched shoes.  I thought, wet shoes, and I’m grateful to be here.
Here’s the best part.  God, who met me in that field, that “thin space,”[i] is here with me as I sit my desk.  It’s 1 in the afternoon and I’m tired.  Come on man, 2AM-5AM?  But, God is with me.  That’s all I get.  That’s enough.

Monday, October 14, 2019

God in Exile (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

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Sunday, October 13, 2019

            It doesn’t feel like exile, this life I am living.  Do you feel like you live in exile? 
            Some might.  In our community and our church family, we have brothers and sisters who are far from home and cannot go back.  Life here may be wonderful, but it’s a life they been forced into, not one they chose. 
            How the heck would I know what exile feels like?  I’ve lived in this country my entire life.  “American” is all I know.  I feel safe here.  Some here have lived in Chapel Hill or Carrboro all your life.  What could be more like home than this?  Yet, here, even if we love it here, we’re far from the home God has for us. 
The flesh is the part of each of us prone to sin and reject God’s goodness.  Sin lurks and sooner or later we give in.  All human beings do.  The fallen state of the world is the outcome of generations of humans sinning.  Look at the horrors happening to immigrants at the U.S.-Mexican border.  Look at the evils of the Jim Crowe south.  Look at the ways addiction wrecks people’s lives.  These are but a few examples of the effects of sin.  Wherever on earth “here” is, when we feel at home here, that’s the flesh at work.  In addition to leading us into the sin, the flesh also prevents us from seeing the good God has for us.
            God did not intend for us – we who are made in his image – to live with cancer, opioids, mass incarceration, divorce, aborted pregnancies, corruption from our leaders, war, and hunger.  These little hells are manifestations of the fallen state of the world; God never meant for it to be this way.  Yet, it is this way, and we, the church of Jesus Christ, live in the world as it is.  God has placed us in the midst of the misery.  Why?
            Jeremiah prophesied for 40 years in Judah: 40 years of ominous forecasts for the nation.  He warned of coming calamity, punishment for Judah’s rebellion God.  This rebellion was seen in Judah’s willingness to worship false gods.  It was evident in the way Judah’s elite class abused and took advantage of the poorest, most vulnerable people in society.  Judah trampled those at the margins, so God, sent Judah into exile in Babylon.  The wealthy and educated of Judah, the governing class, became people on the margins in exile.  The Lord declares “I have sent [them] into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:4). 
History says the Babylonians defeated Judah and destroyed Solomon’s temple.  Babylon overwhelmed many ancient peoples, Judah being just one.  That’s the ‘objective’ historian’s assessment.  By faith we know the Babylonians who appeared to be so mighty were nothing more than tools God used to get the attention of His people.  A century later those same Babylonians were be routed by Persia.  Unwittingly, they served God’s purpose.
How long would God’s people have to stay 1000’s of miles from home, in exile among godless heathens?  In the letter he sent, Jeremiah told the people not to listen to the prophets who promised exile would be short and they’d be home quickly.  Jeremiah was no second Moses telling the foreign king to “Let my people go.”  His message was very different.
“Build houses and live them.”  How long does it take to build a house?  “Plant gardens and eat what they produce.”  Ok, we’ll be here at least an entire growing cycle.  What edible crops come to harvest the quickest?  “Take wives and have sons and daughters.”  Whoa!  That’s a minimum of 9 months.  Well maybe the growing of the crops and the building of the house and the gestation period can all overlap. 
“Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease” (Jer. 29:6).  This exile will last until you become grandparents.  Grandparents are not mentioned much in the Bible.  Lifespans weren’t what they are now.  People often died before they ever became grandparents.  How long with the exile last?  Your entire life.
God did not create Israel or Judah for the purpose of rejecting Him.  God did not set up Babylon to be an imperial power that ravaged and enslaved her enemies.  God doesn’t cause human beings to be evil to each other.  God gives us free will.  Wonder why evil has run amuck in the world?  Remember, God allows humans being to choose his way or their own way.  When, in the flesh, they choose to reject Him, God allows the consequences to play out. 
However, God also works in the brokenness of the world to save it; to save all of us.  God didn’t create the evil conditions, but God doesn’t abandon us to evil either.  God uses exile as the moment He begins creating something new.
We exist to live in relationships of love with God and each other.  We don’t have what God intends for us right now, in the world as it is, fallen in sin, and certainly people who don’t know Jesus are not living the life God intends for them.  So, God places us – his church - in the midst of the world’s pain as his agents pointing hurting, lost people to His light.  Our purpose is to go to before God on behalf of our city, and to go to our city as agents of God’s goodness.  God has set us here for everyone’s benefit.
The entire story arc in the Old Testament flows from God leading Abraham to the Land to flight from the Land during famine to Moses leading the people out of Egypt back to the Land.  It appears that the land is at the center of the story, but that’s not the case.  The holiest of moments come when Moses receives God’s word for His people while they landlessly wander in the wilderness.  The pinnacle of life with God in the Bible story comes in the wilds of Sinai when all the people have is their complete dependence on God.  The Land is just a fulfillment of God’s promise.  God will always make His word good, in any land, anywhere on earth.
Landholding is rebellion against God, claiming for ourselves what God has given as a gift of grace out of His generosity.  Clinging to the past or holding tight to the life we know and control – that’s idolatry.  We think that past, known life is so great that we forget to trust that God’s tomorrow is infinitely better than our cherished yesterday.  We put more faith in what we know than in what God promises. 
So, God lets us fall into exile.  God leads us into the valley because God wants us to meet Him there.  When we thought life was so good, or at least understandable and manageable, we didn’t see God.  We forgot we needed Him. 
Land-loss is whatever it is that you or I lose when we decide we will not look back to the past or try to make our way to a past life.  What your life used to be; what the church’s life used to be; what the community used to be; we don’t look back. Moving forward from the past and from the life we had, good or bad, is an act of faith.  Walter Brueggemann writes, “Exile is the way to new life in new land.  One can scarcely imagine a more radical, less likely understanding of history.  In New Testament categories, death is the way to new life” (Luke 9:23-27; Romans 6:1-11).[i]
Last week we took comfort in Lamentations 3 and the promise that God’s mercies are new every morning.  Even with new mercies, we’re in exile, and that’s no accident.  The only way for the people of God is the way forward from right where we are.  There’s no going back, and when we truly understand what God has done in nailing our sins to the cross and giving us new life in Christ, we won’t want to go back.  Made new in Christ, we embrace the call to exile. We’re made for the Kingdom.  As we live our lives answering the exile call, God prepares us for our eternal home, the one we’re missing so much right now, even if we don’t fully understand it. 
So, if the world is broken and we’re called to live in the middle of the mess, what do we do?  Conveniently for us, Jeremiah answers that question directly.  Build houses.  Plant gardens.  Get married.  Have families.  Be rooted in the world.  Expand, do not decrease.  Don’t sink into holy huddles praying for the end of time.  Live!  We are active participants in the life of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Hillsboro and Pittsboro,Durham and Raleigh.  We are God-worshiping Jesus followers who live to draw others to Jesus. 
But, building, planting, and living daily life is just the beginning of how we answer the call to exile.  What else does Jeremiah instruct?  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”
HillSong church, soon to be Hillside Church, seeks the welfare of the city.  Physical disability makes life hard in ways God did not intend.  Jesus associated physical pain and sickness with evil from Satan.  Earlier this year, we built a ramp on someone’s home.  We plan to do similar projects in the future.  It was a collaborative effort that resulted in a wheel-chair bound individual having an easier time. We believe this contributes to our city’s wellbeing and our part in story is an expression of our obedience to the God who is at work in exile.
More recently, we opened a food pantry in our church because we believe hunger is evil.  No one in our city should have to deal with food insecurity.  Here in exile, we want to show our neighbors that God cares about them.  God wants all bellies to be filled.  By hosting the food pantry, we join God where God is at work.
Through hospitality we seek the city’s welfare, whether hosting the food pantry, the scout troop, the preschool, another church’s funeral service, or other groups that come in.  We welcome them with friendliness as we share the message that we care.
In addition to building, planting, and living, and seeking the wellbeing of the city by joining God where God is at work in the city, Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on the city’s behalf.”  Jeremiah told the exiles to work for and pray for the very enemies who had dragged them into exile.  Jesus says the same thing.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  The Jews in exile may have feared that the Babylonian God had defeated Yahweh.  Jeremiah exploded that reasoning.  You’re not in exile because God lost.  You’re in exile because God sent you there.  God is God in exile.  God is God everywhere.
That neighbor you cannot stand?  Pray for him.  You’re both exiles.  The president who makes your skin crawl, either the current one, the previous one, or the next one?  Pray for him (or her).  Jeremiah’s call to prayer called on God’s exiled people to care deeply about the “other” even though that other was also “enemy.”  Jesus extends that call to us.  To meet God in exile, we have to plant ourselves in exile, work for the good of the city, and pray for those around us. 
In a couple of months, we become Hillside Church, a community that follows Jesus, loves others, and shares hope.  God has given us a mission to bring people in our town to Him that they might know him, turn to him in faith, and join us in the journey out of exile and to our true home in his Kingdom.  We’re planting our church in exile as a step of faith, trusting we will meet God here and He will lead us to where we need to be. 

[i] Walter Brueggemann (1977), The Land, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.122.