Tag Archives: Suffering

Future Glory

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Romans 8:12-25.

Henry was a fellow that I knew on the South side of Milwaukee. Henry lived outside, underneath an overpass which went over the Menominee Valley. Henry was a good guy, he had a good heart. He, of course, had demons with which he fought. He drank to excess, he was almost always in a some state of drunkenness.

Henry smelled bad, due in part to the fact that he lived on the street, and due in part to the fact that after a bender, he would sleep where we fell. He had no one to bring him into bed, or to pull him into a bathroom, or to change his clothes. He wanted to give up drinking, he really did. But he didn’t. In the winter it is hard to sleep, and so Henry, like so many other people in a similar situation, finds that drinking helps him get some sleep at night when the mercury drops dangerously low. Additionally, things were so incredibly miserable for him, that drinking is the only way to numb himself to the pain of it all. So in trying to escape his problems, he caused a whole new set. And in doing so, he entered into a cycle of destruction from which he would never escape.

He would spend his days going canning, that is, going around the city collecting cans into big bags, he would have a couple of secret places to hide his stash, and then when he had enough he would turn it in for scrap. Some times it would only be enough to buy a 40, but there were many other times in which he would have some left over and he would usually give it to the church.

Typically we only think of the cold when we know of people who stay outside, but that isn’t even the most dangerous part, the most dangerous part is the continual risk that one is at when they sleep outside. Every night Henry would try to sleep not knowing if he would get mugged or robbed or killed during the night. He would often keep a club next to him while he slept in case he was attacked during the night. Several times this would happen, and he would find that his ID card and his money was gone. We can lock our doors at night, but when you sleep outside, there are no doors to lock.

Henry was also an easy target for people who go out looking for trouble. On days when he gets some money and he drinks, his reactions are slow and he would often get beat up, sometimes to steal from him, other times just for the sick enjoyment out of it. But in spite of all of this, Henry would walk around with his snow shovel in the winter and shovel walks in the neighborhood, and especially of people he knew, and during the fall he would often find a rake and rake leaves for others.

Henry was the last person to leave after lunch after the service. Many times he would fall asleep and sometimes this would be frustrating, but as I reflect on it, it became apparent to me that it would likely happen because in the church he felt safe, he knew that there were people watching over him, and he could rest in relative safety.

But we would have to wake him, and so often I was the one who would be charged with that task, and I would help him up the stairs, not only because he was intoxicated, but also because being in his late fifties and being on the street for the last decade, it took a toll on his body.

As we would walk up the stairs toward the door to send him out into the world, he would express his frustration at the way that he would try to help people and in return they would steal from him (he would carry around all of his worldly possessions in a ripped backpack) or beat him, or some other way take advantage of him.

He would express his sense of utter hopelessness, that he wasn’t sure if there was a future for him, and if there was it likely would not get better. Henry had a lot of demons with which he battled, but the most significant one was this sense of utter hopelessness.

Henry was in bondage to decay, as the apostle phrased it.

There are roses outside of my office window here at church, and I greatly enjoy looking at them. But after too long, they begin to darken, and it seems that they have been ravaged by insects and they can’t keep going. The roses which were once beautiful become wilted and eventually the petals fall off.

Buildings which are vacant for even a short time begin to fall apart, literally decay before our eyes.

We have experienced, in the recent past, very personal examples of how we are in bondage to decay. Our congregation has lost several people recently. We have lost friends and family members in our own lives.

When we are sick or hurt, and family members and friends try to cheer us up by assuring us that things are going to turn out okay, but you still have that ever present realization that you are in bondage to decay.

“For the creation waits with eager longing,” the apostle writes, “for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of creation is in bondage to decay, and in some way, the earth knows this, the animals know this.

Not long ago I was standing by the kitchen window and there was a spider web outside right in front of the window. An insect had the misfortune of finding itself stuck in the web and it struggled to free itself from the sticky web that it cannot even see, to no avail. As it struggled, the spider masterfully walked along this web and approached the insect, and injected it with paralyzing venom, and once the thrashing stopped, the spider grabbed the insect and began the process of wrapping it in the silky fibers of the web.

Studies have shown that plants have a defense mechanism that releases chemicals when they are being chewed on that change the taste of their leaves so that they no longer taste pleasant. Recently a study was released that showed the same response when a recording of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf was played to the plant.

While this may sound strange, I think that the creation knows that it is in bondage to decay and it groans. The earth rips itself open with earthquakes, it hemorrhages lava from volcanoes. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts damage and harm all that is, but these pains are not death pains, no they are birth pains. The creation groans.

And it groans because Creation waits with eager longing.  You see, it is not just humanity that suffers from the broken state of the world, but the creation itself suffers as well. In the third chapter of Genesis, which we often refer to as the Fall of Humanity, but it is not just the fall of humanity, but the fall of creation. In the curses that are pronounced on the serpent, the woman, and the man, God says to the man, “cursed is the ground because of you…” Adam and Eve sinned, but all of creation paid the price.

The creation is groaning in great pains, but they are not the pains of death, but the pains of birth.

The creation groans because it waits with eager longing. It may seem odd to think of birds and ants and trees looking forward with longing, but is it so strange?

In scripture trees rejoice (Ps 96:12), floods clap their hands (Ps 98:8), the wilderness can be glad (Is 35:1), mountains and hills can burst out into song (Is 55:12), and stones can shout (Lk 19:40. Why should not birds and trees and roses and insects look forward with longing?

The creation groans, but not only this, but we also groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, for restoration. After all, our bodies are still subject to death.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” the apostle writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

You see, it is not just the sorry state of our present condition that the apostle so beautifully speaks, if that was all he was trying to get across, he would be preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. You see, Christians live in a world between worlds. Sometimes theologians will refer to this as the “already but not yet” It is the idea that with Christ redemption has already come and restoration has already begun but these have not yet fully arrived. It is a time of tension, it is a time of upheaval, in a true way, it is a time of cosmic revolution.

And it is important that we live in this tension, and neither become too “this worldly” that we forget that there is something more than what we can see or touch or experience, or become too “other worldly” that we forget that this life has meaning, this life is not just a waiting room, but this is the only life that we have. After all, this is not waiting for the main event, this is the main event. The new heaven and new earth is not the goal, it is the rest which comes after a life well lived, a race well run, a journey well trod.

So we must remember the hope that the apostle gives us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So while it is true that this is the only life that we will live, and this life is in bondage to decay, we must also remember that this is not all that there is from a cosmic view. There will be a point of restoration and redemption when all of creation will be loosed from its bondage and will be granted so great a glory, of which all of the great sufferings in this present world cannot even compare.

***

I wish that I could tell Henry that things would get better. There were times when he would sober up and clean up, and it was wonderful to see him in a better condition, but he couldn’t stay that way for long. I wish that I could tell him that if he sobered up that things would get better, but I didn’t know that. It was very likely that Henry would stay in this destructive cycle and eventually it would be the death of him.

And it was. After years of living on the street, of drinking so much, of being in and out of the emergency room from freeing cold, illnesses, and all the rest, he ended up dying after a short stay in intensive care.

And now, he can live into the hope that I had for him, that beyond the sufferings of this present time there would be immense glory, and there would be a time when he, along with all of creation, would be freed from this bondage to decay and can be restored to the glory for which we were originally intended. And this is what is in store for each of us, and the roses and insects and plants. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Wounds in the Body of Christ

Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial

(cc) Tabitha Kaylee Hawk

Eendracht maakt Macht

These words adorn the banner at the bottom of the crest of the Reformed Church in America. Often the translation into English is, “Unity makes strength” but, as I understand it, a better translation is “Concord makes strength” — a pulling together like a team of horses.

***

The Christian church today is fractured, but it has not always been. For nearly a thousand years, the Christian church was essentially unified throughout the world. This changed significantly with the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern church (Orthodox) and the Western church (Roman Catholic) excommunicated one another. For another five hundred years these remained the primary divisions within the Body of Christ.

The Western church experienced yet another major fracture when Martin Luther, in his attempt to reform the church, found himself considered to be a heretic and was cast out of the church. From this moment, the Protestant branch of the Christian church was born and continued splitting and fracturing over significant things such as the Doctrine of the Trinity and more trivial things such as the introduction of hymns in worship alongside the Psalms.

I, myself, am also aware of my own history and I, too, am involved in the fracturing the Body of Christ. In the nineteenth century, there was a split in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. As some of the Dutch immigrated to the United States, the Reformed people joined together and several then joined with the established Reformed Church in the United States. For a number of them, however, this union was short lived and they seceded and came together to form a second Reformed denomination on this continent. It is into this latter denomination that I was baptized and raised, and it was here that I learned the essentials of the faith. My ancestors were secessionists and it is through them that I participate in this…

Today I’m at That Reformed Blog. Head over there to finish reading…

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.

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

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.

Advent in Tension

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso

Many of my parishioners walk to church, as most of my congregation does not own a car for financial reasons. One of these was walking the two blocks from her home to church. In that short distance she was struck by a car and died as a result of the impact.

All of this while she was walking to church.

***

Advent is a time in which we prepare ourselves for Christ, not only the first coming, but also the second. Advent is a profoundly conflicted season, and a profoundly conflicted orientation for life. For those of us who have wonderful memories of the holiday season, Christmas is a wonderful time. For others of us who have bad memories of the holiday season, it can be incredibly painful.

Advent is a time in which we can understand most clearly the tension of the in between in which we live. We celebrate Jesus’ birth but we also look forward to Christ’s return.  We sing about the coming of Emmanuel and this is a cause for rejoicing. Yet we also face the stark reality that redemption is not yet complete.

A perfect example of this is a mother in her 40’s who gets killed because a car ran her over.

The already-but-not-yet is a difficult place to live. It is hard to sing “Rejoice! Rejoice believers,” while at the same time grieving the fact that life continues to be but a shadow of what it was intended to be.

In her book, Deeply LovedKeri Wyatt Kent bravely takes on the aspect of the walk of faith that few Christians dare speak of: depression and its relatives. Although “‘happy, happy, happy, happy, happy all the time,;” is popular in religious talk, it is often not rooted in reality (Kent). The good news, that she brings out, is that when we express our depression, our melancholia, our blues to God we follow in a long line of the faithful. Kent notes, “The Bible is full of stories of victory, but also of struggle” (Ch. 15, para. 12).

If the Christian life eliminates a place for sadness, suffering, and mourning, then the gospel ceases to be good news for real life. If God is only present with us in good times and not in bad, then God ceases to be good. If God forbids us from expressing emotions and thoughts from the shadow side of life, then God is not a refuge for us. If the Advent focus is too much on Christmas and not enough expressing a longing for the kingdom of God, we do ourselves and our spiritual formation a great disservice.

I always take Advent seriously, but this year, my Advent is more than simply sober, it is also somber. It is a time in which I can rejoice because Christ has come and I can mourn because the restoration is not complete. I can hope because the Kingdom of God is at hand, and I can despair because there is so much to the world which is in need of redemption. I can look back to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and I can look forward to Christ’s return.

This Advent, I am living in the tension of in-between the two comings of Christ, the tension of joy and sorrow, of hope and despair, of celebration and mourning.

***************************************************************************
This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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this building is a mess

Haartz-Mason

By WickedVT on Flickr

At 8:30pm standing over a flooding floor drain with a wet/dry vacuum trying to control the incessant water is not how I typically picture spending my one day off.

However, this is exactly how I spent four and one half hours of my day off: sucking up water, and emptying the bucket.

The only redeeming quality is that my beloved was with me.  She was able to share some of the burden with me, and she was also a wonderful companion to keep me company, to talk with, and to keep me from doing anything rash like filling the whole church basement with concrete and pretending that it never existed.

This was a problem which could happen to anyone, anywhere. It is not anyone’s fault, and there was really no better solution than just to try to keep it as dry as possible for as long as possible until we could call a plumber.

“It’s just that nothing is dependable,” she told me.  She didn’t have to say anything more, I knew to what she was referring.  Our church struggles financially, so there is no real sense of security there.  Our building is old with a lot of deferred maintenance, and so each day one never knows what surprises the building might be hiding and preparing to reveal.  Our community has a lot of challenges, and I never know what I will face when I get up any given morning.

I have found that I cannot depend on anything except to expect the unexpected.

Perhaps this is true of more things than just our church, though.

Perhaps this is a good lesson for me, someone who is always seeking to find security, dependability, and consistency.  Perhaps this is all one big object lesson to teach that seeking security and dependability in all of this is superfluous; after all, the only true dependability can be found in God.

After our discussion, I went back to the kitchen, turned on the utility vacuum, and continued sucking up water.

This old building is a mess, I thought.  Yes, it is a mess.  But so am I, and so are all of us, when it really comes down to it. Perhaps this is what I am reacting to so strongly and not simply the water.  Perhaps it is that in the fact that the building is filled with problems, and it serves as a mirror where I can see all of my own problems more clearly, without anything to cover them up or gloss over them.

Hump-Day Hymns: For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from oceans’ farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia!  Alleluia!
-William Walsham How (1823-1897)

I was eight years old and sitting in the sanctuary of my home church. This particular day, however, was different.  It was not a Sunday and there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary. At the front was a casket that held the body of my best friend.  We had met at that church, and was actually the first friend that I had made when our family moved to town. My friend was my age, and was robbed of his life when he was hit by a car.

The only dry eye, however, was mine. This was not because I was not sad, this was because I did not know what to think or feel. I felt sad, angry, and resentful all at once. It was far more than my eight year-old self was able to process. It was surreal, and it was difficult to believe. Eight year old children should not have to deal with losing their same-age best friends.

I don’t remember what songs we sang, I don’t remember what the responsive readings were.  I do remember the officiant and I remember the basics of his message. This was my first memory from a funeral and it was the first significant discussion of the resurrection of the dead. Although I didn’t understand it in that language, what I understood was that there would be a day when I would see my best friend again, that my best friend was alive and resting in the presence of God.

At the time it was difficult to hear this, I didn’t care if I would see him again “one day,” I wanted to see him that day. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to carve wood with our pocket knives again, I wanted to ride our bicycles together again, and I wanted to spend time in his treehouse again. The casket was closed, and I was unable to see him. My father tried to explain that it wasn’t my friend anymore, it was just a body; my friend was gone. Eight year-olds do not understand this.

I watched as the pallbearers carried my friend out of our church — the church that we shared — for the last time, and carried him across the street to the cemetery where he would stay for good.  I don’t remember much about the interment but I remember fixing the location in my mind so that I could make pilgrimages to his grave.

* * *

Fast forward eighteen years, and I find myself in a different sanctuary in the same town, surrounded by friends this time instead of family.  As before, mine was the only dry eye in the sanctuary. Unlike before there was no casket at the front of the sanctuary. As before, we were there because another one of my dear friends was robbed of his life far too soon. As before I was shocked and stunned, all the while attempting to make sense out of what was happening. I was twenty six at the time and still unable to process all that I was thinking and feeling.

Much like my friend before, I did not see a body, but I still heard my dad’s voice “It’s not your friend, it’s just a body. Your friend is gone.”  I didn’t believe that my friend was gone, I needed to see his body in order to truly believe with head and heart that my dear friend was actually dead.

Although only a few years ago, I don’t remember much from the service, although I do remember that it was a nice service.  I don’t remember the songs we sang, and I don’t even remember the message of the minister.  During the service, I kept thinking of that sermon that I heard eighteen years prior in a church down the street when the pastor was telling me that I would see my friend again, and that my friend was in the presence of God.

* * *

This hymn is a somewhat unique in that it is not a dirge and it does not express sadness and mourning.  In fact, this hymn praises God at the very time that friends and family who survive the deceased are mourning their loss.

When I am mourning I have difficulty praising God. I am busy mourning and being angry at God for something of which I cannot make sense or understand. This is one of the things which is so wonderful about hymns — they offer words when words cannot be found, and they provide a way to express faith even when faith is difficult.

This is a beautiful hymn which looks forward to the resurrection and gives thanks for the life that was lived.  Although I do not remember singing these words at either of these funerals, but the message sounds very familiar. It is not a message, but it is one that is needed to hear again and again.

Your friend is resting with God, and you’ll see him again.

A Cross in my Hand

I have a cross which is designed to be held in one’s hand. It was given to me when I was installed as pastor and teacher at my church. It has rounded corners and it is smooth to the touch.  It is unfinished and it is designed to absorb the oils from hands over time.

The cross is a somewhat strange symbol to wear and to put on our walls and to hold in our hands, but it is a fitting symbol.

The cross is not a symbol of death, but it is a symbol of new life.  It is not a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of victory. It is not a symbol which is exclusive to Christianity, but when viewed through a Christian lens, it becomes a wonderful symbol for the life of faith.

The cross is an object which helps me to reflect on the words of Jesus, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38, NRSV).

This is an interesting theme in Christianity: those things which often seem to be defeat, those things which often seem to be death, those things which often seem to be destruction are not ultimately what they seem — they lead to something much greater: life more abundant, victory more victorious, re-creation much more beautiful.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (Phil. 3:10, NRSV).

The cross is a symbol of our walk with Jesus and the road which is often laden with sufferings and trials.  I am learning that the point of the journey is not to avoid sufferings, but to learn to see God in the midst of them and to give thanks.

The cross is not simply a bridge to heaven, as some describe it.  It is an affirmation that we too must take on things which do not seem to be life-giving, we must take on suffering at times (not simply for the sake of suffering, but following God’s calling for us, even if it may lead to temporal suffering).  The cross is a symbol of the affirmation that “I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1).

It is a reminder that things are not always what they seem.  It is a symbol that life and liberation are what God desires for us and are what God will accomplish, but that sometimes they come through the guise of suffering.

It is a reminder to me that God has called me to be faithful — not happy.

It is a reminder to all of us that there is more at work than what we can see or understand, that God has desires which are slowly unfolding, and that we all play but a small role in this narrative.

I hold this cross in my hands, hoping for the glory of God to be revealed.  Hoping that God will bring peace. Hoping that God will bring resurrection and restoration to this lost and broken world, and my lost and broken life.