Tag Archives: Hope

Deep seated pieties

As I closed my eyes, I felt moved to a different time, and a different space.

In becoming familiar with our denomination’s new hymnal, Lift Up Your Heartsthere was a hymn sing at the annual gathering of delegated Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Elders from the entire denomination from around the United States and Canada.

***

My faith was nourished by a steady diet of rural Midwestern Dutch Reformed fare. We take religion and faith seriously, and we take the church seriously. We sang hymns. At the time I hated it. I loathed the hymns, I did not appreciate the simple faith of my farming community. The organ was ancient, the practices were dated, and nothing reflected what I estimated to be a lived Christian faith.

My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
for thee all the follies of sin I resign;
my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

Ever since I have gone to seminary, I have not particularly appreciated the personal language when it comes to Jesus, I have come to learn that perhaps the language of Jesus as “mine” is not always the best way to think about our relationship to God. I often find myself trying to avoid hymns like this, as I find them theologically lacking, and simplistic in piety.

The hymn-sing selections where chosen to represent different types of pieties, of which this hymn is one. It is a familiar hymn, it was a hymn that felt like Sunday evenings in my Christian Reformed Church.

I love thee because thou hast first loved me
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The hymn was being accompanied by a piano, and I could hear people behind me harmonizing. I closed my eyes, and I felt that I was moved to a different place and a different time. For a moment I stopped singing and simply listened to the intimately familiar words of the hymn.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death,
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath,
and say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I could hear the organ in my childhood church, and I could see the see the familiar faces who formed my faith. As I looked around my small country church, I saw a host of simple people, unrefined people, people of deep faith who loved God in their glorious ordinariness. At the time I wanted nothing more than to be rid of my church, but this hymn, reviled at the time, functioned almost as my heart language and brought me into deeper communion with the divine.

Despite how much I had desired to flee from my church of upbringing, rural Midwest Dutch Reformed pietism is so deeply imbedded into my very existence.

The piano began to crescendo in preparation for the final stanza

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

As I returned to my time and my particular place, tears streamed down my face as I knew not what else to do with my deep experience with God.

Reaching Into the Dark

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 7:11-17

This is a short story, only six verses to be accurate, but it is a wonderfully beautiful story. This story is another example of how, sometimes, silence can be more powerful and more significant than words. After all, there are only a couple of spoken phrases in this whole story. The rest is narration and silence.

So let’s look at the scene for a couple moments. Jesus was coming from Capernaum where he just finished healing a centurion’s servant. There, Jesus never even saw the centurion or his servant. What Jesus did see was the love of the community and the faith of a foreigner — neither of which would be expected for a Roman centurion. So Jesus was traveling again — Remember, Jesus traveled literally all the time. Perhaps Jesus was going to this town on purpose, perhaps he was passing through but decided to stop there.

Before Jesus even gets to the gates of the town he sees something out of the ordinary. There is a crowd coming out of the city. Jesus is trying to come in, and seemingly everyone is trying to get out. He hears the flautists and he hears weeping and wailing. As he looks closer he sees that in front of the group is a bier, which is not exactly a casket but does hold the body of a deceased person. At this point Jesus and his disciples, who were with him, realize that this is a funeral procession.

It was not only the disciples that were with him, but a crowd also came with them, and they were really wanting to know what is going on. One of the disciples approaches one of the bystanders and asks what is going on, and after finding out, he goes up to Jesus and tells him that the funeral is for a young man who was the son of that widow, and the disciple points out to Jesus his mother.

So now we have the crowd from the funeral procession and we have the crowd that Jesus brought with him, and there, in the midst of this now massive group of people is this one woman who has first lost her husband, and now her only son. Widows were particularly vulnerable because at the time, women depended on men for shelter, food, and pretty much everything else needed for life. So this woman lost her husband, and it would have been her son that was taking care of her, and now he died. All of this on top of the fact that a parent lost her child.

So there are a mashup of people with a crowd coming out and a crowd going in, and Jesus looked and he saw the widow, and he felt compassion for her.

It is this moment, I think, that really speaks volumes here. We see not only Jesus’ actions, we also have the opportunity to glimpse into what Jesus was feeling. His heart broke.

Jesus then walks up to the widow and says, “Do not weep,” which would be rather insensitive and offensive if it was not for what he does after that. Jesus then touches the bier, which is enough to make him unclean, and the pallbearers get the hint, so they stop for a moment.

Jesus looks at the pale, cold, lifeless corpse. As he looked at the corpse, he pointed his finger at it and said, “young man, I tell you, get up!” And suddenly with that, they boy sat up, and started talking. Why did he start talking? So that everyone there knew and we can know that he was actually alive. This was no muscle spasm that made it look like he sat up, he started talking.

This story is beautiful, if not in its words, in its silences.

This story is also somewhat unique. It is one of only three stories recorded in the gospels where Jesus actually brought someone back to life. Many people he healed, but only three he brought back to life. It is also somewhat unique because no one asked him to heal the boy. No one asked him to do anything. We read that Jesus saw the widow and he had compassion.

It reminds me of the raising of Lazarus. No one asked him to bring Lazarus back to life, but his heart broke.

Similarly, here we simply have Jesus who sees a mourning and grieving mother, but not only that it is a woman who has lost her only remaining support, and he has compassion, his heart breaks, he feels sympathy for this widow. It is this that drives him to action.

When I was young, I would sometimes see Jesus as somewhat aloof. He taught a lot, always knowing what others didn’t know, always understanding what others didn’t understand, always seeing things in a way that no one else saw. People would ask him to heal this person or that and he would, and then teach them something. Now, none of this is particularly incorrect, but it is incomplete. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete if we forget about this story of Jesus raising this widow’s son. No doubt the redemption of the whole creation was in view but this story, in part, teaches us that Jesus was not just interested in the redemption of creation but also about the care of particular lives in particular situations.

It is important that we pay attention to what Jesus does here. First, he sees her, then he has compassion for her, then he reaches out.

Amidst all of the people in the crowd, all of the people who were mourning — no doubt he had friends and neighbors — amidst all of these people he saw the widow. It is important to understand that this was not just a “look at” or a “notice” but he saw, he perceived, the tried to understand. So he sees, truly sees, this widow who has just lost her only son and he has compassion.

The word here refers not to something of the intellect, but to a gut-wrench. Jesus didn’t just have pity on her, he deeply felt compassion and sympathy in his gut. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what he saw. He knew that what he saw was not right, he knew what was happening was not part of God’s original order and design, he knew that parents were not supposed to bury their children, and he knew that this woman’s livelihood was in the balance.

So Jesus doesn’t just say, “oh that is just too bad.” No, this compassion drives Jesus to do something, so without being asked he first comforts the mother, and then reaches down to death, reaches into the unclean, into the impure, into the dark to bring life out of it.

Jesus reached down into that seemingly bottomless abyss out of which no one comes, and brought back a life, which no one would have ever thought possible.  I find it interesting that Jesus could have just spoken the young man back to life without getting his hands dirty, but he didn’t, he touched the stretcher on which the dead body was carried. In doing so, Jesus, in a way, reached down into the dark.

Now, I would guess that none of us have seen a dead person come back to life in quite this way. I have talked with medical professionals who have witnessed or been involved in resuscitations  but this is something different, this is a dead person who comes back to life, sits up, and starts talking.

So, this is all well and right, but how can we relate to this story?  I find that many Christians that I spend time with typically follow one of these two methods of dealing with these miracle stories. Either, one, we expect that miracles like this don’t happen anymore, and they only happened to teach something about Jesus, and since they are accomplished, there is no need for them any longer. The second method is to expect miracles like this, and then when they don’t happen, we assume that something went awry…there was lack of faith, insincere prayer, a besetting sin.

Many of us tend to fall into one of these broad camps, and neither of these are particularly better or worse than the other. We do this because we have a difficult time reconciling what we read in scripture and what we witness in our lives. I’ve seen parents bury their children. I’ve seen a mother bury her 9 year old son — and I was 8 and he was my best friend. I’ve been with a mother and father bury their newborn daughter who never made it home from the hospital. All of these were great people who did not deserve what happened, and if being faithful was the prerequisite for a miracle all of these people would still be living and breathing.

These miracle stories are not just about the individual person who is on the receiving end of the miracle. These miracle stories are to give a foretaste of the Kingdom of God when things are set right. These stories are to give a glimpse into our hope that God will restore the world into what it ought to be, a world in which blind will see, lame will walk, the sick are healthy, and parents do not bury children. They are to give the people in first century Palestine, and us today, a taste of who Jesus is, and what he is all about. They are to give a glimpse into who God is and what God is all about — after all, Jesus is God-with-us.

Perhaps we don’t see someone raised from the dead like this, but can we imagine Jesus reaching into the dark for us? I think that we’ve all seen it in one way or another. Someone with a terminal disease who has long outlived the projections of even the best doctors. The mother who has serious complications in childbirth, yet the child somehow survives. The four-year old boy who gets stuck by errant bullets and yet survives just fine.

But we also know about the sixteen year old girl who gets struck by a drunk driver yet dies even before they can get her to the hospital.

We live in a world full of contradictions. We live in a world when some people seem to get miracles and others do not. We live in a world where there seem to be far more people in need of miracles than there are miracles to go around. But one of the practices that we must continue to hone throughout our faith journey is our imagination. Our capacity to imagine where God might be working, and what God might be doing even if we cannot see it plainly. Our ability to imagine that miracles come in forms which are less glitzy, perhaps even less dramatic. Maybe, then, the challenge we face is not a world with too few miracles, but rather too few of the ones that we want, or the ones that we recognize as miraculous.

When we focus on only one view of what is possible, only one way to think of miracles, only one way that God works, we miss the fact that God works around us, all the time.

Elijah stood in a cave while God promised to pass by. First there was a great wind, and God has appeared as a great wind before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God. There was an earthquake, and God has appeared in an earthquake before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God either. And then there was a fire, and God loves to use fire, but scripture tells us that still wasn’t God. Rather, God appeared in the sound of sheer silence. Had Elijah just assumed that God would be show up in the same majestic ways that God has before, Elijah would have missed that encounter with God.

If we only accept that God shows up in this way or that, we will miss the ways that Jesus sees us, has compassion for us, and reaches into the dark chaos of our lives. Just as Jesus touched that stretcher of that young man, Jesus reaches into the dark of our lives, and can many times, work a miracle, even small, even if we can’t see it, even if we can’t recognize it for quite some time.

It is not our job to make miracles happen, and it is not our job to determine how God shows up. It is our job to try not to fear, to believe, and to pray. I hope that we will never stop praying for miracles, but we have to understand that when we pray, we are engaging God in relationship rather than pushing buttons on a vending machine. When we pray, we share in God’s purposes, regardless of whether things happen the way that we want, when we want.

So I want you to imagine, just for a few moments, where God might be present in your life, how God might be present in your life. Where might you see Jesus reaching into the dark? We don’t have to pray for God to show up, God’s already here. Our prayer is for God to make Godself evident, and for God to show Godself so that we can understand and experience God’s presence, God’s action, God’s long reach out to us even if we are, like the young man in this story, dead to touch.

Amen.

Hump Day Hymns: Christian, Dost Thou See Them

Hymnal

Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the powers of darkness
Rage thy steps around?
Christian, up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss,
In the strength that cometh
By the holy cross.

Christian, dost thou feel them,
How they work within,
Striving, tempting, luring,
Goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble;
Never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle;
Thou shalt win at last.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly,
“While I breathe I pray!”
Peace shall follow the battle,
Night shall end in day.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;
But that toil shall make thee
Some day all Mine own,
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near My throne.”
Andrew of Crete (660-732) [Trans. John M. Neale (1818-1866)]

Empathy is one of the most powerful of the human emotions. The ability to be able to understand, not just feel compassion, but to understand deeply what another is going through is significant. This comes not from reading, or studying, but rather simply by living. While many professions reward experience because one grows in one’s capacities to fulfill the tasks of the profession. The most significant thing, in my opinion, for ministry experience is not just growing in one’s skills, but actually living and the increasing capacity to empathize with others.

***

The trinity is likely one of the most difficult central and universal doctrines to Christianity, but is significant for many reasons, and one of those is that it allows God to have the capacity for empathy.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15, NRSV).

For me, it is the empathy in the fourth stanza which brings this hymn together.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;”

***

When I struggle, while expressions of compassion are good, there is nothing like an arm around the shoulder and an “I know how you feel” — and they actually do know how you feel. Even though someone cannot make things all better, someone who can respond with empathy, the concrete knowledge that you are not alone in your suffering, somehow makes it bearable.

This is what is so significant about the closing stanza of this hymn is that it expresses such an empathy. Not simply a “keep going, my child,” but a true empathy, the understanding that Word knows our weariness — because he experienced it too. I personally like the image of God the Son sitting at the right hand of God the Father° saying, “I know what that is like.”

That in and of itself does not make suffering go away, it does not make everything all better, but that does, in some way, make it more bearable.

_______________
°I use these terms in their gendered form, not because of the gender which is implied by the language, but rather because these are the relational terms which are often used in scripture and in the trinitarian formula.

Faithful Foreigners

Sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Luke 7:1-10

“Not even in Israel have I found such faith”

An unexpected statement, to be sure. After all, Israel is where the faithful were supposed to live. Ancient Israel was supposed to be the home of God’s people. Ancient Israel were thought to be God’s people to the exclusion of all others. But there is an interesting trend that we see throughout all of Scripture — the idea of the faithful foreigner.

A faithful foreigner is someone who was not a Jew, someone who was not expected to be faithful, someone who was not expected to be good.

For instance, there was Rahab, a woman in the city of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and refused to turn them over to the King of Jericho and helped them escape from the city. We also have Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israelite, and when her husband, his brothers, and his father all died, she went to her mother-in-law, Naomi who was left destitute by losing all of her male family members. Several times she instructed Ruth to return to her home so that he could have a life ahead of her. But Ruth committed to sharing her life with Naomi so that she would not be alone, and she settled amongst the ancient Israelites who hated the Moabites. These are but a couple examples among many of faithful foreigners.

Scripture is filled with these stories of foreigners who are faithful, we see good sprouting up in the midst of bad, belief showing up in unexpected places. Faithful people were supposed to be found in ancient Israel and there alone, but at times we see unfaithfulness in ancient Israel and faithfulness outside of it.

Here we have the story of yet another faithful foreigner, and a surprising one at that. The person in the story is a Roman centurion — a mid-level military officer. Now, in order to understand the scene here, we must remember that at the time of Jesus, the land of Israel, or Palestine, was under Roman occupation and rule. For many of us, it is difficult to actually understand what it is like to live in an occupied country, and understand what it is like to on a regular basis see soldiers from this foreign occupier walking down the street and through town, always with the threat of force, and always reminding you of the fact that you are not free, that you are beholden to a foreign power.

While many of us cannot fully understand this, we probably could imagine that the Romans, particularly the soldiers, were hated. Not just disliked, but actually hated. The Jews in first century Israel/Palestine wanted to be a free and independent nation again without the heavy weight of Roman rule.

So here, we have a Roman military officer, and this particular person turns out to be a faithful foreigner, of course, no one knows it yet, but we know it. This centurion had a slave — which is not unexpected — but what was unique is that he valued his slave highly, in fact, he valued him enough that when the slave became ill, he sought out a way to have him healed He goes to great lengths, in fact, for something which simply would not have been done. Slaves, to them, were just like any other property or tool, something to be used, and when it becomes worn out or broken, simply discarded and replaced.

But as we have seen, this centurion does not regard this particular slave at least, in the same way, but regarded him higher.

Now, this alone is not what makes him unique, we also see that this centurion keeps an interesting group of friends. We are told that when the centurion heard that Jesus was coming near the town, he sent some of his friends to go out and find Jesus. The friends that the centurion sent out were not only Jews, but they were Jewish leaders, significant people in the Jewish community.

He was well aware of the dynamics at play here. The centurion knew that he was a Gentile, an outsider, and that Jesus was a Jew. Perhaps he worried that Jesus would not pay attention to him, perhaps he was worried that Jesus would recognize him for being a Roman centurion, and ignore him. Perhaps he was worried that Jesus would not think him worthy of attending to his beloved servant.  So he sends these insiders to find Jesus and make his case for him.

The Jewish leaders go to Jesus and bring up the situation. They serve as a character reference for him. They tell him that he is not your typical Roman centurion, that he loves the Jewish people of the town, and that he even built their synagogue for them. This is quite a character reference. Someone who followed a different religion built for them a place of worship. What is important here is that he loves these people who are so different, he loves these people who speak a different language, people of different race and ethnicity, people of a different culture, people of a different religion.  It is because of this that they argue that the centurion is worthy of Jesus coming to attend to him and his servant.

So, Jesus decides to go and visit the centurion. When he heard that Jesus was coming, he sent out more friends to meet Jesus before Jesus got to his house. This is now the second time that the centurion has never appeared in person in the story, but always through friends. The centurion argues that he is not worthy of Jesus to come under his roof — remember historically, Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix well — and that Jesus should not trouble himself in coming to his house.

But then he says something particularly interesting. “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” This is what is interesting, the centurion does not ask for Jesus to come and touch him, he does not need to do any ritual surrounding the sick servant, he does not need to do any of that. In fact, Jesus does not even need to be standing by the sick servant to heal him, all Jesus needs to do is “say the word.”

After this, the centurion goes into this explanation of his life. He explains that he is someone with authority and that he commands soldiers. If he tells soldiers to “go” they go, and if he tells them to “come” they come. If he tells his servant to do something, the servant does it. The centurion is used to making things happen, he is used to giving orders which are followed out, he is used to speaking words and things being done. However, with his sick servant, he cannot do this. He cannot tell his servant to get better, he cannot order a soldier to make him all better. He is a man that is used to results and making these results happen, but now he cannot.

So why does he tell Jesus all of this? Why does he tell Jesus all about his ability to give orders and the fact that they will happen? Well, sometimes a well placed pause is more effective than speaking, and what the centurion is getting at is that he is used to giving orders, which are followed, and Jesus can do the same. Jesus can command that his servant be healed, and he will be. There is no, “do you think that you can do something?” There is no, “If you are able”.  There is only, “Jesus, I know what giving orders is like, and I am used to seeing my orders carried out. This is something that I cannot order, but you can order, and it will be carried out.”

This is the root of Jesus’ declaration that not even in Israel has he seen such faith.

Now, while the healing of the servant was great, and these healing stories are great, the story isn’t about the servant. In fact, I think that the main character of focus in this story is the centurion, and interestingly enough, he never himself appears, he only appears through friends and neighbors. The main event, I think, in this story, is not the healing of the servant, but rather the expression of faith from this outsider, this foreigner.

The thing that is so great about this story is not that the slave was healed, although that is good too, it is the fact that faith can show up in unexpected places, and that God can show up in unexpected places.

Throughout his life, Jesus spends a lot of time with outsiders. He spends time with the hated tax collectors, he touches the unclean lepers, he eats in the homes of Gentiles. There is something about outsiders that Jesus is drawn to them. Perhaps this was the first step in the change that the message of God isn’t just for this one ethnicity, but rather, for all kinds of people, perhaps Jesus is expanding the peoples’ ideas of who God is and where God works.

Perhaps Jesus is trying to show us that God can work even in the most unexpected places. I think that this story tells us that sometimes insiders lack faith, and sometimes outsiders show tremendous faith. Sometimes we also suffer from this insider/outsider mentality. We look at people who don’t go to church, and we label them outsiders, and sort of write them off. We look at people from other traditions, perhaps Pentecostals, perhaps Roman Catholics, and we write them off and do not expect to see any faith there. Perhaps we think that because we show up at a church, we have a special significance that others do not. But perhaps we forget that there is more to just showing up at church, or there is more than going to this particular church or that particular church.

There is a faith component, and that faith component comes through not only in our interactions with God but also our interactions with one another. This faith component opens us up to seeing faithful foreigners, seeing God in unexpected places. It is a trust, not in ourselves, but in God. I also want to add that faith is a process, and coming to faith is a process. Don’t listen to me and think, “if I don’t have it I may as well give up.” A tree does not appear from nothing, it begins as a seed, and there is water, and the sun, and other elements which helps that seed to mature and eventually sprout, and it takes a long time for the tree to grow into a big mature tree.  So I want to be sure that if you feel like you’re faith isn’t strong, or it waivers, or you have doubts, or you’re unsure if you have faith, that is okay. Remember, faith is a gift from God, not something that we muster up on our own.

The one thing that is important here is that we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God. Perhaps you have experienced this in your own life. Someone who you thought was incapable of faith, expresses the seeds of faith. Someone you thought would never come to church has snuck in the back door and sat in the back. Faith can show up in surprising places, and God can show up in surprising places, but we typically see it only if we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God.

Our passage says that even Jesus was amazed at the faith of the centurion. It is important that we retain the possibility of being amazed. When we lose the ability to be surprised, when we lose our ability to be amazed by where God shows up and works and is present in the unexpected, then we will miss most of God’s action and involvement in us, in others, and in the world around us. You see, you never know where God is going to act, where God is going to plant seeds of faith, who God is using for God’s purposes. Part of faith is being aware of where God is, and what God is doing, even in the ordinary and unexpected.

Hump Day Hymns: Come, Lord, and Tarry Not

Hymnal

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Come, for Thy saints still wait;
Daily ascends their sigh:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”:
Dost Thou not hear the cry?

Come, for creation groans,
Impatient of Thy stay,
Worn out with these long years of ill,
These ages of delay.

Come, and make all things new;
Build up this ruined earth;
Restore our faded Paradise,
Creation’s second birth.

Come, and begin Thy reign
Of everlasting peace;
Come, take the Kingdom to Thyself,
Great King of Righteousness
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

When I was a child, I was terrified by the thought of Jesus’ return. I was terrified of the world ending. I wanted to live out my life and not have it cut short. As I have grown, however, my outlook has changed. I long ever more deeply and desperately for the parousia.

In my community I am faced with depths of human suffering. Homelessness, poverty, unemployment, crippling hopelessness, murders, assaults, and prostitution. Every day is another example of how the world is not how it ought to be. While I stand before my congregation of people who all suffer and hurt deeply, people who are visibly broken and cannot hide it as others can, people who have a hard time reconciling the sovereignty and providence of God with their own life experience of barely being able to subsist, even with assistance.

What I appreciate about this hymn is that it, I think, cuts to the core of the issue. Some other hymns will talk about streets of gold and mansions. However, to be honest, I don’t care about mansions or streets of gold, I yearn for suffering to end, I yearn for things to be as they ought, I yearn to have a night with no sirens, and a morning when I can look at the news and see no shootings the previous night. I cry out, “Come, Lord, don’t waste anymore time! Why do you keep us waiting?”

This hymn is honest, and I think that it is both relatable and formative. Who cannot relate to deeply yearning for redemption, to wondering if God actually hears our cries, to grasping on to this hope as if our lives depended on it, even if we have seen no confirmation of it as yet? Streets of gold and mansions are fine, but they are not what I am concerned about, and I don’t know many people who are truly looking forward to streets paved with gold. The people that I know long for restoration and redemption, things to be how they ought to be, for suffering to end and to gain the ability to dwell with God and one another in peace and harmony. Most of the people that I know desire, more than anything, to see a fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah:

No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. (Is. 65:20-23, NRSV)

**

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Life on a State Highway

North Hwy 11

(cc) Melanie Lukesh on Flickr

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Romans 5:1-5

Paul was spending three winter months in Corinth. He has already been around the Mediterranean world a couple of times on missionary journeys, telling people about the good news of Jesus, starting churches for these new followers of Jesus. During these journeys he would also keep in touch with these churches and visit them.

Now, remember, he was travelling all over much of the known world without a car, airplane, or ship with an engine, so this is slow and difficult going, and it takes a lot of time.  At this point he is nearing the end of his life. He is about 53 years old, which by today’s standards isn’t that old, but in the year 57, that was a ripe old age. What Paul may or may not have understood, as well, is that he was also nearing the end of his life because just 7 or so years later he would be executed.

It is here that Paul sits down and writes a unique letter, that we have as Romans. It is a letter which is bursting with theological concepts and faith concepts, and is incredibly comprehensive.

Paul tells us, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; we boast in our hope in sharing the glory of God.” This is not to make us puffed up or filled with self-pride, but this is to enjoy and rejoice in the the fact that through Christ we have been reconciled with God, we are at peace with God. This is not just something to know, this is something to experience deep in our hearts, deep in our beings. It is something to feel, because this is the center of the Christian life, and this is the foundation for what is to come.

Paul continues, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings…” Here is where things get complicated. At first reading, I wonder, and you may as well, why would we boast in our sufferings?  Suffering is bad, is miserable, is not good. These are all true. But we must look at the relationship between the previous statement and this one. Remember, justification by faith, God making us right with God by faith is what gives us peace with God, and we rejoice in the fact that we have hope in sharing the glory of God. So, why do we boast in our sufferings?  We can rejoice in our suffering, because there is more going on that we can experience. He even continues, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

**

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28).

If anyone deeply knows suffering, it is Paul. He writes this not as how things ought to be, or need to be. You know the phrase, “hindsight is 20/20”? As an old man, by his standards, not ours, Paul has some time during the winter to reflect, to plan, and to look back on his life. He has been through a lot, as we just heard.

This passage does not say that we must suffer in order to gain hope, but rather, he is trying to reframe how they understand sufferings.

Suffering is a part of living in a fallen world. It is not only us that are not as we ought, the whole creation is not as it ought to be. A two-mile wide EF-5 tornado which slices through neighborhoods and homes is not part of God’s grand design. People that do not have adequate housing, people who are abused by others, children that are neglected, none of this is part of God’s order and design. Suffering is a consequence of living east of Eden and west of redemption.

As Paul sits before his parchment, ink well and stylus in hand, he looks back on his beatings, whippings, stonings, shipwrecks, and despite all of this suffering, all of this bad, all of these struggles, when he looks back on them, he can catch glimpses of God throughout the way, even when he couldn’t see those glimpses in the moment. What he gives is a progression that happens, not a formula to be followed.

Paul tells us that we can rejoice in the midst of our sufferings, because if we are justified by faith, if we have peace with God through Christ, if we will share in the glory of God, then nothing can take that away. As Paul writes later in this letter, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31b). That of course is a  rhetorical question, because it is its own answer. If God is for us, then no one is against us, ultimately. Yes, the powers of evil and the devil put up resistance, but we know how the story ends. We know that evil will be overcome, that death will be conquered, and all will be redeemed and restored to its former glory.

In the prophet Isaiah, we read the vision that we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks (Is 2:4) , that is, instruments of destruction will not be eliminated, but transformed, transformed into something useful, something which can be used to farm, to bring forth food, to encourage life. The real glory of all this is not that bad stuff will be gone, but that bad stuff will be transformed into good stuff.

While this will not be completed within our lifetimes we can get glimpses of this, and this is what Paul is telling us here. Suffering is not good, but it can produce endurance. Endurance can produce character, and character can produce hope. This hope is the most significant thing of the life of faith.

Part of this is the imagination of faith. Now, we tend to use the word imagination as something which is made up, fake, not real, but our imaginations serve important functions in faith as well. Imagining what could be, and what will be, imagining what God might be doing, even when we can’t see it, this is the stuff that sustains us. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. We can do this not because we are creative in ourselves, we can do this not because we can muster up enough wishful thinking, we can do this because we have been justified by faith, and because we have peace with God in Jesus Christ, and because we have hope of sharing the glory of God.

The real question, here, that we must consider is this: How big is God? Is God bigger than our sufferings? is God bigger than the bad that we experience?  The answer is not just whether or not God can just push the easy button for us, although many days I would greatly appreciate that, but whether God bring good out of bad. As we spoke of not long ago, Jesus proved that he is master of death not by avoiding death, but by dying and conquering it.

Now, I am under no illusions here, and I understand that we are all at different places here.

This past Thursday I had a church meeting in Fond du Lac, WI. There are a couple of ways to get to Fond du Lac. You can take the freeway, where it is a non-slowing, non-stop road the whole way there. But, there is the state highway system which runs a bit slower, and runs through small towns and villages. The trip may not be quite so fast, but it is more interesting. While we may prefer life to be a freeway where we can get on at the beginning and it is a nonstop expressway to hope. However, life is more like a state highway, with all of the good and the bad that comes with that.

This passage is like a state highway which runs through a bunch of small towns, and these towns are called Suffering, Endurance, Character, and Hope. We all live in these different towns, and we move between them. Some of us are in the suffering town and we can’t see endurance, character, or hope. Others of us currently live in the hope town and we can look back over our time living in each of these towns and we can see God’s hand in it. Others of us live in the midst of these two, and perhaps we can’t see either that clearly right now.

The good news of this is that we are not alone in our town, and that our town is not the only one. For those of us who live in the village of Suffering, Paul tells us that Endurance, Character, and Hope are just up the street. For those of us who live in Town of Hope, Paul reminds us that suffering is just down the street, and we will likely have to move back there. But, the good news, is that we are not imprisoned in one of these villages. We move between them°.

The best way to finish this journey is not to look back on it and say, “I did not suffer, I did not struggle.” The best way to finish this journey is to be able to get to a point where we can proclaim from the mountain tops with the apostle:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 37-39)

 

___________

°Illustration adapted from http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3210

The Future Hope to Live Now

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Revelation 21:1-10, 22-22:5

It was a difficult time for Christians. Nearly one hundred years after the birth of Jesus, a lot has changed. Christianity began as an off-shoot of Judaism, and many early Christians looked and acted a lot like Jews — because they were. However, as Paul and other missionaries continued to spread the message of Jesus to other areas of the world and to people who were not Jews — people like you and me — they came together not on Saturday, but on Sunday for worship. The Roman Empire did not seem to notice these people all that much when they fit in with the Jewish landscape, the Romans saw Judaism as a valid religion and they had relative peace with the Jews. However, once non-Jews began to follow the teachings of Jesus, Christianity was no longer a sect of Judaism and became something else to the Romans.

John was a very common name, just as it is now. John was a follower of Jesus who was living on the Greek island of Patmos. He is exiled there as a result of Christian persecution and has this vision. No doubt this vision includes some battles, after all, the Romans were a warrior people who put military strength above all else. So at the end of this strongly symbolic and metaphoric journey that is called the Revelation to John, we have this passage. This beautiful ending to his vision.

The Book of Revelation is to reveal the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. It is to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.

These chapters make up some of my personal favorite passages in all of scripture. All of scripture presents a story of God seeking out God’s people, people trying to turn away from God, and God turning God’s people back toward God. But here in these passages, that struggle, that dance does not exist. There is no turning away from God. There is no having to experience, sometimes painfully, of God turning us back to Godself.

These chapters share a vision, a vision of what everything will look like when this is all finished. This is a future which is not ruled by the Roman Empire, but by the Kingdom of God. It is a future in which the supreme ruler is not Caesar, but by the Triune God. It is a city which is not protected by the strength of military might, but by the light of Christ that never goes out.

But there is something interesting to point out here. The image here is not of going to heaven, as we typically understand it. You see, many times Christians talk about “going to heaven” and we can sometimes be so preoccupied with going to heaven that we forget about living life here on earth, we disregard life here on earth. We do the bare minimum that we think is required to go to heaven. This, however, is not a biblical concept.

Here, heaven is not somewhere that we go, heaven is not another place, heaven is not separate from the world. Heaven is not somewhere we go, heaven is something that comes.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among [people], He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” (Rev. 21:2-4a, NRSV)

The whole narrative of faith consistently shows God claiming us, before we are able to claim God, God calls us before we are even listening. God comes to us first, and then we come to God. Similarly, we do not go to God, God comes to us. This is one of the most beautiful things about this.

So the city of God comes down to earth, but it is not like the earth that we live in. It is a redeemed earth, a renewed earth. It is a city with no crime, it is a city with no drugs. It is a city with no vacant industrial buildings. It is a city with no foreclosed homes, a city with no condemned homes. It is a city where not windows are broken, where no windows need to be boarded up.

This is a vision which brings the creation full circle. The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible begins with a river, and two trees. A tree of life, and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we see here is a river, with two trees. Only here there are two trees of life, it is even better than it was, and because there are two trees on either side of the river, no one in the city is blocked from the tree of life.

This is fantastic, it is wonderful, and this is the kind of thing that could help the early church continue to keep hope in the midst of a hopeless outlook.

You see the true joy and true wonder of this story is not that we go to heaven after we die, it is not that God will take care of us when all is said and done, it is not that we will trade streets of concrete and asphalt for streets of gold. The true joy and wonder of this story is that God was with them, and God is still with us, every step of the way.

When the earth was created, God was there and active. When people fell away from God, God was there. God was there during good times and bad times. God was there during times of faith and times of rebellion. God was there during times of famine and times of feast. God is there during times of peace and times of war, times of persecution and times of flourishing. In the same way, God will be there in the end.

This hope that Revelation brings is not just for the future — it is that, but not only that.  It is the hope that God also brings now. It is the hope that God not only will have God’s hands in things, but that God does have God’s hands in things. It is the hope that God is involved with our lives now, the hope that God is present with us here and now, and it is this presence which allows us to love God and love one another right now.

Hump Day Hymns: O Thou from whom all goodness flows

Hymnal

O Thou from whom all goodness flows,
I lift my heart to Thee;
In all my sorrows, conflicts, woes,
O Lord, remember me.

When with a broken, contrite heart,
I lift mine eyes to Thee;
Thy name proclaim, Thyself impart,
In love remember me.

In sore temptations, when no way
To shun the ill I see,
My strength proportion to my day,
And then remember me.

And when I tread the vale of death
And bow at Thy decree,
Then Saviour, with my latest breath,
I’ll cry, remember me.
Thomas Haweis (1734-1820)

During difficult times, when I am in despair, I reach for hymns. I sing them to myself. The beauty of hymn meters, of course, is you can match up just about any text and tune which share the same meter. Many times when I don’t know the suggested tune, I will replace it with another tune.

So I sing hymns. I sing them when I’m doing dishes, or (quietly) when I’m on the bus, or when I’m pacing and overwhelmed with worry and unsure if I can make it through the day.

I sing hymns for two reasons. First, singing hymns, with the combination of words and music,  is distracting enough that I can momentarily gain relief from the nonstop tape of worry and fear playing in my mind, and second, it allows me to engage in something that can help me faithfully express my concerns and needs to God.

***

There are some that prize, above all else, spontaneity and extemporaneity of language of faith. While on a preaching assignment in seminary, one of my evaluations from the congregation included a critique of my use of written prayers. The evaluator noted that I should pray from the heart, not from the page. The assumption, then, is that only extemporaneous language is heart-felt.

On a day like today, however, I need to use the words of another — I need common words — to express myself. I am not able to form the right words. This is, of course, why we have the psalms. The psalms are a school of faith from which we never quite graduate.

So today, I am singing this hymn, a desperate plea that God remember me — us — but today, me. I love the simplicity of this hymn’s plea. “Lord, remember me.” The greatest good we could ever have and experience is not that God would eliminate all of our suffering, not that God would make everything better, not that God would do this or that, but that God would remember us. Remember us in our difficult state, remember us in our sufferings, in our conflict, in our trials, in our pains.

In this particular hymn, the hope and faith is deep and strong, yet in the subtext. Some hymns add a stanza or two at the end about the glorious deliverance that God will effect, but not this one. This one ends with a simple plea: Remember me.

I think that God appreciates it when we ask for specific things, specific actions, specific outcomes — all the while knowing that we do not really know what we want or need. However, there are times when we don’t see a way out, when we cannot imagine what peace and wholeness might look like, when a solution evades us, and all we can say is, “God, remember me!”

***

As a child, I never appreciated singing in worship. I thought hymns were boring and mundane. The organ seemed dated. I preferred an ever-changing repertoire of contemporary songs which mirrored the music to which I preferred to listen. But I am so grateful that I was able to grow up singing hymns. Congregational singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs has such a wonderfully long and rich history, and for good reason.

Today, then, I am using this time-tested practice to attempt to express my concerns to God, and hopefully to allow my faith to be formed.

O Thou from whom all goodness flows,
I lift my heart to Thee;
In all my sorrows, conflicts, woes,
O Lord, remember me.

Hump Day Hymns: Father, whate’er of earthly bliss

Hymnal

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free;
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My path of life attend;
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.
Anne Steele (1717-1778)

“God wants you to be a champion,” the man on television tells me. The man with the million dollar smile and the thousand dollar suit. “God needs you to plant a seed,” another one tells me. “But if you plant that $100 dollar seed — if you give something for God to work with, you will receive a harvest of ten-fold.” “Allow the blessings to multiply your material investments — name it and claim it!”

It sounds nice. It sounds attractive. All I have to do is think good thoughts and and say good things and Jesus will make all these blessings will flow my way? I must have been doing things all wrong for much of my life thus far.

This equation of God as a vending machine can be read both ways. If we do this, God will give us that. This also leads us to reading it the other way, if this bad thing happened, we must have done that bad thing to deserve it.

While one one level, it is one thing to think that God will give us whatever we decide that we want, the true damage of this line of thinking cuts much deeper. I minister in a poor community – in a neighborhood where wants and needs go unmet or insufficiently met. What truly grieves me to my core, though, is that when things are truly not going well, when they are not sure how they are going to pay their rent, when they get laid off…again, when their children get caught up in a multi-student brawl at school which require several police officers, people tend to think that God hates them. “I don’t understand why this is happening, Pastor,” they tell me. “What do I have to do to get God’s favor?” they ask me. “I pray, and pray, and pray, and it seems like God never listens!” they cry out in desperation.

This saddens me more than I can express.

But really, who can blame them, or anyone, who follows this line of thought. Turn on any television and you will get some version of prosperity theology.

I try not to alienate folks, but sometimes that goal is difficult. So I’m just going to say it…I don’t like prosperity theology.

I grate against anything that promises us financial blessing, worldly success, expanded territory, or anything of the like. I don’t like it because it attempts to offer an alternative to Jesus’s message of taking up our cross (whatever that may be for us) and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

What is so lamentable about this is that when we get so caught up in what God isn’t giving us and what we did or didn’t do to not get the thing that we wanted/expected/thought we needed is that we may miss the actual core of everything: God.

This is not, however, to exonerate the church from its responsibilities of mercy and care for physical needs. To be sure, the church must work to meet physical needs. We need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has access to clean water for drinking. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has a level playing field in the world. After all, the church is (and should be) a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

But, it is terrible to get caught up in the, “God didn’t give me this car that I asked for, so God must be ignoring me”, which can easily lead to the more insidious, “I am poor/troubled/&c., therefore God must hate me.”

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…“(John 9:2-3a)

***

The question that I always ask myself is this: “Is God enough for me?” That is, if God is all there is, if there is no prosperity or wealth, no worldly success or honor, no power or authority, if there is even no sense of security or stability — if simply God is all there is…will that be enough?

I think of the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism (if you can forgive the gendered language, I’m quoting directly):

Q: What is the chief and highest end of man?
A: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

God exists to be enjoyed. We are not to enjoy the things that God gives us or does for us, we are to enjoy God.

***

Hymns are formative — and this is the reason why the hymns and songs that we use in worship must be good hymns which speak honestly, deeply, and soundly into the Christian life. This hymn helps correct the prosperity fallacy.

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace…

Steele writes beautifully about desiring to be given a “calm [and] thankful heart”, to be free from murmuring — to live only to God, to allow God to be the light in our journey and to be the goal of what we seek.

My concern with over-materializing our relationship with God is that what we truly desire is not God but the material thing which has been promised, which we can attain or obtain. But this is nothing short of idolatry, and rings as hollow and shallow as idolatry.

The good news of this hymn is that struggles and even denials of “earthly bliss” are simply a part of life in the not yet. The challenge is to remember that the only “sweet hope” that we have — that we could ever have — is that “Thou art mine.”

***

Truly if someone like Anne Steele, whose mother died when she was three, was disabled at age nineteen, and whose fiancé drowned the day of her wedding…if someone like this can write these words, I can sing them and allow them to speak to my life.

Seeing with New Eyes

I wonder what Moses saw. After wandering with a rag tag group of refugees recently liberated from slavery, Moses stood atop a mountain and was given a view of the Promised Land, the land that God was giving to this people, the land which he spent so long looking for. But it was also a land which Moses knew that he would never step one foot into that land which was lush and fertile, a land that scripture tells us that “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27, NRSV).

Moses was very old and close to death. It would only be natural that he would be in a time of looking back at his life and considering whether it was worthwhile and meaningful. Moses set off to lead a people to a new land, but he would never be there to lead them into that land. He was charged with leading a people who did not want to be led, to bring to faith an unfaithful people, to teach a people who were not interested in being taught.

Perhaps Moses wondered whether it was all worth it; perhaps Moses wondered whether any of it really matters. So what does God do? God brings him to a mountain where he could see the land that he had spent much of his life journeying toward, yet would never enter.

Me? I would likely have been disappointed. Looking for meaning, and all that is given is a view of some property. But I wonder what Moses saw.

From the mountain he had a broad view of the land that laid before them, the land that would become their home, the land which would become a tangible sign of God’s favor, of God’s promise. What was before him, then, was land — but it was also much more than that.

I can imagine that Moses must have had a great imagination. Simply to stay with those people for so long would require a great imagination — not only to live with what is, but to imagine what could be. This is the essence of hope: not simply wishful thinking, but to imagine God’s future and our role in it.

***

John Calvin writes beautifully about vision when he likens scripture as new spectacles that allow us to see the world in new and different ways. What we look at has not changed, what we see is different.

***

Thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, I stand on a chancel and look out. I am certainly not Moses, but I do lead my own rag tag group of people who are seeking to follow God. There are people who are hurting, people with cancer, people who have had friends and family who have recently die. I look out at people of great faith, and I look out at people who would dance around a golden calf without thinking twice.

But my desire is not only to see what is there, but to see what I ought to see. Anyone can look at what is there, but it takes a special perspective to truly see. If there is nothing more to see than what is, then there is no hope. Hope is dependent on truly seeing, not just observing.

I wonder what Moses saw, and I wonder what I ought to see. I am pretty sure that Moses looked at trees, bushes, dirt, water, and roads. I am also pretty sure that Moses saw something much greater and much deeper.

For me, it is easy to see the “not yet” but is so hard to see the “already”. The best I can pray for is vision to see and not just observe.

What, dear reader, do you need to actually see in your life?