Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Sunday After Easter

Easter is over!  What a relief. For those of us in the church business Easter is one of the busiest times of the year. There are Easter egg hunts, passion plays, holy week services, extra weekend services.  It can wear out even the most devout ministers.  Don’t get me wrong – we love all the planning and revel in the full houses we get to preach to on Easter Sunday but come Monday we all breathe a sigh of relief.  We made it through another Easter season.

We’re glad Easter is over. 
Yet, at the same time, we’re sad Easter is over. The Sunday after Easter may be one of the most depressing for ministers. The additional seats are no longer needed.  The gaps in our sanctuaries and worship centers return. We welcomed back some church members on Easter Sunday whom we hadn’t seen in weeks, maybe even months, maybe even since last Easter. And then the Sunday after Easter we look around for them and they’re not there. We’re glad they were here last week and will welcome them back next year with open arms.  But it is sad.  It’s sad that Easter is over. 
I know it’s just a fact of life for us ministers.  We were told to expect such through our training.  We even have become accustomed to it to some degree.  No minister in their right mind expects the same crowds on the Sunday after Easter. It’s a reality of the trade, so to speak.
If you’re one of those who show up for Easter and rarely come any other Sunday, I hope you don’t think I’m mad at you.  I’m really not.  Don’t think that I’m trying to make you feel guilty. That’s not my intent.  I do want you to know that you’re missed.
We loved seeing you Sunday, but we’d love to see you more often.  And it really isn’t all about having full churches.  I admit, we struggle with our egos and having larger crowds feeds that egotism that I suppose every preacher struggles with. But we really do miss you.  We want to see you every Sunday.
Certainly, we ministers are part of the problem.  Maybe we make so much of Easter that somehow we’ve communicated that the other 51 Sundays are not as important.  Maybe you wonder why we haven’t called, emailed, or texted you all those Sundays you’ve missed. Perhaps we’ve said something or have done something that has upset you. We’re sorry. We hope that our weaknesses don’t keep you away. Please forgive us. 
This Sunday may not be as exciting as Easter, but we’ll be here nonetheless.  We’ll have another sermon that we’ve worked hard on.  Our worship may not have as many “bells and whistles” this Sunday, but is God really looking for “bells and whistles”? I don’t think so. I hope that’s not why you came last Sunday.  
The Sunday after Easter is back to business as usual, but we believe it’s an important business.  This resurrection we spoke of Sunday is something to be celebrated every week. We believe that the real power of the resurrection is truly experienced when church is a habit and not just a holiday.  So, we invite you back – again and again.
We minsters will be back at it this Sunday and every Sunday of the year.  We love what we do. So, come to church the Sunday after Easter.  We’ll be looking for you!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Good but gruesome Friday

In February 2004, the film The Passion of the Christ hit theaters to the excitement of most Christians.  The movie was financially backed by Hollywood super-star Mel Gibson, so this was going to be a first-class production. It opened to full houses, but one immediate concern arose – it was so bloody!  The depiction of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion was so gruesome the movie earned an “R” rating.
Was this another example of Hollywood exploiting violence for box office success or was the representation of the passion gruesome because the event itself was gruesome? The consensus was that the movie was horrific because the event itself was horrific.  There was no way you could make the passion of Christ “G” rated.

But I wonder why?  Why did the event have to be so gruesome? Is there anything about how it happened that reveals to us something about the nature of God?

Before I address that question, let’s get two things clear.  First, Jesus could have stopped it anytime he wanted.  During Jesus’ arrest Peter pulls out a sword to which Jesus responds that he has 12 legions of angels at his disposal. All it took was a simple request and all this would come to an end.  Second, the way it happened was the way it was supposed to happen.  Jesus assures the apostles that Scriptures predicted that his death would be messy.  Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 make it clear that his death was going to be ghastly. 

Back to the question at hand – is there anything about the manner of his death that is significant? Here’s something to think about.

(1) His great pain corresponds to his great love. Who has made the greatest sacrifices for you?  Friends, family, and, most likely, parents come to mind.  It’s those people who love us most who are willing to suffer for us.  The cross was for our benefit and if Jesus was wiling to suffer like he did then he must really love us.  Who does something like that unless they deeply love you?  All that pain reminds us of his great love for us.

(2) His pain reminds us of what we have been saved from.  What he experienced should have been our experience.  We should have been the ones who endured all the pain.  We are the sinners.  We are the ones who deserve the punishment. All he went through, we have been spared of.

(3) He never asks us to do something that he wasn’t willing to do.  When Jesus calls us to follow him he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross.  Aren’t you annoyed by people who ask you to do something that they won’t do?  Jesus isn’t one of those people.  When we suffer for our faith we can be assured that he has walked that path.  And in his suffering, he leaves us an example to endure pain with endurance and grace.

(4) His pain assures us that he can empathize with our pain.  In addition to the obvious physical pain, he suffered the emotional pain of being betrayed, denied, and deserted by his friends.  He suffered spiritual pain as he bore the unfamiliar guilt of sin.  He experienced the full spectrum of pain in the passion and can therefore understand the pain we suffer. When we suffer we have a God who understands.

The pain of the passion reminds us the we are loved, that we have been rescued, that we have an example, and that we have a compassionate God. He suffered all that so we would know.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Undercover God

It’s odd that in the ordinary tasks of life God has a way of teaching me about him. 

A while back I was filling up my car at a local gas station when I saw an employee emptying out the trash cans by the pumps.  She was on the other side of the pump I was using, and I noticed her struggling to get the liner out of the trash can.  I reached over and gently held down the trash can to help out.  With just that little assistance she was able to get the bag out and go about her work. 

I expected a “thank you” but there was none.  Then I realized that she had never seen what I had done.  The trash bag she was lifting was blocking her view.  Besides that, I was partially hidden behind a pillar, so she never knew I helped! I guess she just figured that somehow, someway she managed to pull the bag out all by herself.  She didn’t thank me because she didn’t know that I helped. I was tempted to say something but decided the best thing to do was to remain anonymous.

I chalked it up as my “good deed of the day” and then it struck me.  How many times in my life has God helped me and I didn’t thank him?  How many times has God offered a little hand to assist me but remained anonymous? Does God do things like that?  Does God help us out ever so slightly that we don’t even notice?

Of course, there can be no definitive answer to those questions, because if God remains anonymous then how would we know?  Yet, I suspect that He does.  Looking back on my life I can see some curious times when in retrospect I suspect God was at work -- events that at the time I thought were mere coincidences or maybe even incidents that I attributed to my own strength or cunning that lead to a favorable outcome.  Maybe God was reaching around offering that ever so slight hand of assistance to help me out. Maybe there are some times in life when God acts yet remains anonymous.

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells a story of a man named Joseph (he of the technicolor dream-coat) whose life has more twists and turns than a downhill slalom. Eventually he ends up in a very favorable position yet all the events that led to that outcome could easily be attributed to coincidence or the normal events of life.  Yet, at the end of the story he credits his good fortune to the hand of God. In a meeting with his devious and betraying brothers who brought a good deal of grief into his life he says this: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good” (Genesis 50:20).  Joseph sensed God’s anonymous hand at work throughout his life.
That little experience at the gas station got me thinking that maybe God is helping me in ways I’ll never know.   It’s reminded me to thank God not just for his obvious and discernable help but for all those times he lends a gentle hand without fanfare.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Maybe with watchful and attentive eyes we can catch God every once in a while.  At the very least, we can give him thanks for those times when he works undercover.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The God Who Bothers

I don’t understand God.  I’m confident he’s working in the world, but I just don’t get why he seems to do some things and doesn’t do others.  I believe in answered prayer.  I believe in providence.  What really throws me for a loop though is the why, when, where, and how of things.  Even so, the fact that I don’t understand God doesn't surprise me.  If fact, if I did understand God then what kind of God  would he be? If God did everything I suggested, that would surprise me. I’m not surprised, but I am bothered.
It bothers me that God doesn’t consult me when he needs advice.  It bothers me when God doesn’t do the things that I think God should do.  It bothers me that God is silent when I think he should speak, and he speaks when I think he should be silent. God is bothersome, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
David, the great king of Israel and author of many Psalms, wrote this: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) He also wrote this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1–2)  And this is the man who was referred to as “a man after God’s own heart!” God bothered David.
The lesser-known but equally-bothered prophet Habakkuk opens his Old Testament book like this: “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?“ (Habakkuk 1:2) You can add Moses, Abraham, and Job to the long list of people who have been bothered by God.  I would suppose that your name has appeared on that list at some time in your life.   What are we supposed to do with this bothersome God?
Sadly, some people just quit believing in him.  I guess some would rather have a god who was predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious or have no god at all (if a predictable, aggregable, and less-mysterious god could actually exist seems almost as bothersome to me). But many a bothered soul has somehow managed to still believe. The above-mentioned David, Habakkuk, Moses, Abraham, and Job are all members of the bothered-but-still-believing club.  How is this possible?
When I look at these bothered-but-believing souls there seem to be certain qualities they possess.  They seem to acknowledge that they may not always know what is best.  They seem to give God time to work things out knowing his timetable is different than theirs.  They seem to know that running a universe filled with freewill gone amok is a little complicated.  They seem to trust God to such an extent that they refuse to stop believing that he has a long-term plan even if it appears that randomness is the rule. And maybe above all, they possess hope.  They have the unfaltering hope that a good, wise, loving, and all-powerful God has written a beautiful ending that will make all the bother worth it.
Are you bothered by God?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company. Join the club of the bothered-but still-believing!
(Note to reader: I encourage you to read the endings of Psalm 13, 22, and Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why I’m Glad Jesus was Born

It’s the seasons of lists, so I thought I’d put together a short list of why I’m glad Jesus was born.

(1) Jesus was a great teacher.  Even if you don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, it’s hard to deny the beauty and wisdom of his teaching.  Not only that, Jesus used so many different methods to communicate.  His Sermon on the Mount are some the most powerful words ever spoken.  His parables are some of the most well-loved stories.  His ability to turn a chance encounter into a spiritual conversation is remarkable.  Jesus knew how to communicate to a wide range of people long before educational theory was even thought about.  Not only did he communicate well, but his message is life transforming.  Imagine if everyone lived by his teachings.  What kind of wonderful world would that be?  I’m glad Jesus was born because he teaches me so much.

(2) Jesus made people think. If you think Jesus was the kind of teacher who just bellowed out rules and truths, you’re wrong.  Jesus invited people to discover truth that was already in us, but had just been covered up by years of tradition and assumption.  While he valued tradition, he despised its tendency to blind us to God’s clearly spoken word.  Some of his strongest opponents were religious leaders who were so steeped in tradition they had lost sight of truth.  He challenged them and their followers to see beyond tradition and seek truth above comfort and the status quo. One of Jesus’ often-used teaching methods was asking people open-ended questions.  Other times he would just tell a story and allow the hearers to come to the obvious conclusion.  Sometimes he did simply declare truth, but often he challenged us to think trusting that any honest-thinking person would realize the validity of his teachings.  I’m glad Jesus was born because he challenges me to think.

(3) Jesus showed us what a real human looks like.  From Adam until Jesus and from Jesus to today no human being has fully lived out the will of God in their lives.  Jesus stands alone as THE model of what God had in mind when he made us.  His complete trust in God, his unconditional love for all kinds of people, his resistance to sinful compromise all make him unique among the human race.  In observing Jesus, we can see what we all should aspire to be. I’m glad Jesus was born because he is the perfect example of how I should live.

(4) Jesus’ coming reminds me that God cares. Jesus’ birth is a vivid reminder that God both knows and cares about what is happening here on the planet he created. Jesus’ coming reminds me that God has taken full responsibility for us and, while we were the ones who left Him, He is one who will never desert us. His love is unconditional, unending, and undeterred.  Even though we all have left God he still came to be with us.  In fact, one of the names used of Jesus is Immanuel which means “God with us”. God saw our need and responded.  I’m glad Jesus was born because it reminds me that God really does care about me.

(5) Jesus’ coming ushered in forgiveness.  The very reason Jesus came was to be a sacrifice for us.  He came to pay the price for sin that none of us could afford. His perfection was more than enough to undo what Adam had done in the Garden of Eden.  His sinlessness made up for our sinfulness.  His obedience broke the curse of sin, set us free, and paved the road back to the Father.  I’m glad Jesus was born because in Him I can find forgiveness.

I’m glad Jesus was born.  Where would I be without Him?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Might Have Been

I don’t have a dramatic conversion story.  Sometimes I wish I did.  I remember as a younger Christian hearing stories of people sharing their impressive conversion stories and being almost envious of them.  You know them.  People who served prison time, who were caught up in heinous sins.  And then, someone shared the gospel with them and their lives were changed.  I remember hearing one of them years ago.  A guy named Joe shared with our group what he used to be like and we all listened with mouths agape and hearts amazed at how powerful the gospel had been in his life.  It’s not that my sins were any less offensive to the most holy God, but Joe’s sins and his deliverance made for such a better and more compelling testimony to the power of the gospel.  Sometimes I wish I had Joe’s story, but I don’t.

I wasn’t raised from birth going to church, but I was introduced to the good news at the relatively young age of ten.  So, I didn’t really have much time to sin that badly.  At least not badly enough to have a story that anyone would really like to hear.  Like all of us, I’ve had my struggle with sin, but I’ve never been addicted, imprisoned, or abused.  My story is really pretty simple.  I grew up believing, followed the rules (for the most part), went to a Christian college, married a Christian girl, and became a Christian minister.  Borrr-rrring

Sometimes I wish I had a better story.

People like me, and I suspect there are many more, can have the tendency to underappreciate the power of the gospel.  So, in the absence of a story of what used to be I sometimes imagine a story of what might have been.  What might my life have been like if I hadn’t heard the gospel at an early age?

Who can say for sure, but early on in life before God and the church became central in our family’s life there was a lot of alcohol in my family. Not that my parents were alcoholics, but drinking was more than social.  I can even remember pretending with my friends while playing in our pedal-driven cars driving to an imaginary bar and ordering drinks.  Alcohol, and perhaps even the abuse of it, was the trajectory my life was headed.  As a child I was exposed to unhealthy anger and even had moments of rage. Without the gospel, I’m confident that anger would have gotten the best of me many more times than it has. The list can go on.

I have in no way conquered the power of sin in my life, but, to the extent that I have, I give credit to the gospel.   To the extent that I am a good husband and a good father is a testimony to the power of the gospel.  I shudder to think of what might have been.  And in my shuddering, I give thanks to God who rescued me from the power of sin and death.  Just like he rescued Joe.

Maybe you have one of those impressive stories that everyone loves to hear.  Tell those and tell them often.  You are a witness to the power of the gospel.  But maybe you’re more like me.  Just an ordinary guy who has an ordinary story.  Take a moment and think of what might have been. How lost we would be.  Without purpose and without hope. Slaves to sin bound by our natural desires.

Shudder and then thank the Lord for rescuing you from what might have been and giving you the hope of what is to come!   

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Post-it Note Christianity

I’m a minister and, for the most part, the people I’m around know that.  But in the church I serve we don’t wear any special clerical clothing, so on occasion I find myself in conversations with people who don’t know I’m a minister.  That can create some interesting situations. I golf occasionally and it’s not uncommon if you’re golfing alone or in a pair to join together with another group to make a foursome.  Usually it’s around the third or fourth hole when the question comes up, “What do you do for a living?”  When I announce I’m a minster I can see the look of horror on some people’s faces.  Golfing can bring out the worst in a person and sometimes the language around the course is not what you might call “minister approved.”  So, I usually hear some apologies. 

Another common scenario is that after 10 or 15 minutes of conversation it’s found out that I’m a minister and there seems to be the need for some people to explain why they don’t go to church.   Recently I heard this: “I grew up (fill in a denominational name), but it didn’t stick.”  That phrase, “It didn’t stick,” got me to thinking.  Is that what Christianity is -- something that sticks or doesn’t stick? Is faith like a post-it note we slap on our chests so people will know what we are?

I love post-it notes.  They’re real handy but, by design, they’re not anywhere close to permanent.  I’ve also noticed that they’re not real effective for multiple uses.  The more you remove them and re-stick them the less sticky they become until eventually they don’t stick at all.  Post-it notes have a lot of valuable uses, but I’m inclined to think that one of those uses is not as a designation of our faith.  Christianity has to be more than a sticky-note, but sadly that’s how it’s seen by many.

A post-it note Christianity is convenient.  We can slap it on when we’re at church or with the minister and then painlessly remove it when we’re at work or behind the wheel. We can take it off when we go to the movies or surf the internet and reapply it when we sit down for our quiet time.  It can be removed when we want to use power and anger to win an argument and then reapply it when “faith” is more conducive in making a sale or building our reputation. Post-it note Christianity is quite popular, but it just doesn’t work.  The more you remove and reapply it the less sticky it gets until eventually it doesn’t stick at all.

After I heard that phrase, “It didn’t stick,” it dawned on me that faith was never designed to stick.  Faith was designed to be imbedded.  To be surgically implanted in our very beings.  To become a permanent fixture of our souls.  Anything less is not really faith.

Long before post-it notes and pens and pencils, an early form of writing was chiseling into stone.  It took longer, of course, but once it was engraved there was no erasing it.  I think that’s more what faith is like. Something permanently engraved on our hearts. The Bible talks about God’s word being “written on our hearts.”  What a beautiful image.

It’s either chiseled-in-stone or nothing.  Post-it note faith is not an option. So, what is it for you? Is your faith a post-it note faith or a chiseled-in-stone kind of faith? Only one will last.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of
your heart.
Proverbs 3:3 (NIV)