Category: Life

The Way Things Are

Since the death of George Floyd, people in our communities and our country – and even other parts of the world – have protested, rioted, and posted. University presidents and coaches, pastors and priests, politicians and pundits, teachers and homemakers and stay-at-home dads and all sorts of other folks have sent out statements – trying to urge those given to violence to refrain from it and at the same time acknowledging the tragic and horrid nature surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death. Adding to their collective feelings of the tragic, however, is the absence of surprise.

Perhaps it is out there, but I have yet to hear anyone express any degree of surprise by the way Mr. Floyd’s life was taken, nor have I heard anyone express shock that there have been riots that have ravaged communities across the US. It is unfortunate that people generally aren’t surprised but it is just the way things are and they have been this way for a while. We have a complex problem in this country, and it is taking a toll on us.

Complex problems take time, thought, persistence, and patience to solve. They also require courage and a willingness to act – especially if the solution is challenging and requires something of us. It also requires a willingness to toss out overly simplistic, reductionist solutions. However, humanity, broadly speaking, isn’t all that good at any of those things, which helps to explain – at least partly – why we are where we are.

As a pastor, I am tempted to say, Jesus is the answer. Honestly, I want it to be that simple and I do believe that my faith and that of those who share my faith in Jesus have a role to play – but just saying Jesus is the solution – just tossing that into the mix of things – comes across as one of those simplistic, reductionistic solutions that need tossing out. That may sound counterintuitive, but, sometimes people add their baggage to Jesus or they don’t fully appreciate what it means to look to Christ to bring hope and healing to a complex problem – like what we are experiencing in the US right now. And yet I believe that being a Christian means stepping into the mix of things and there are those who not only understand the complex problem of race and violence and murder – they also know how Jesus speaks into those things and what is needed from His people. One of those people is John Perkins.

I first met John Perkins in Charlottesville, VA – through a book that he wrote jointly with Charles Marsh. It is called Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (I’ve mentioned it before). Perkins and his wife Vera have worked to teach welcoming justiceand promote the principles of Christian Community development and racial reconciliation for over 56 years. And while Perkins is no stranger to the pulpit or to the demands of ministry, he is also no stranger to the violence of racism, nor to the brutality of some within law enforcement.

In 1947, Perkins’ older brother Clyde, a man who had fought in World War II and earned a Purple Heart, was shot and killed by a police officer in New Hebron, MS after Clyde responded to a derogatory command from the officer. Perkins – at the urging of his family that feared for his life – fled to California and vowed never to return to Mississippi. However, in 1960 – after coming to faith in Christ and being discipled for three years – Perkins, his wife Vera, and their family returned to Mendenhall, MS where they started a church, a day-center, youth programs,
a cooperative farm, thrift store, housing repair ministry, a health center, and an adult education program.

At the same time, Perkins provided leadership and support for civil rights, and voter registration, which lead to harassment, an arrest, and a subsequent brutal beating by law enforcement. The beating was so bad that Perkins nearly died and spent significant time john perkins 2in the hospital recovering. As he lay recovering, Perkins realized that he had a choice. He could either hate or he could live out of the Gospel.

Frankly, I would find it difficult not to hate the men – the people – who did the things to me that they did to Perkins. I think, if we are being honest, most of us would. In fact, someone I love deeply experienced prejudice and racism and I know hurt that caused him. Even as I write this I am having a tough time because I know the folks and I see them from time to time. And so, I can’t imagine how Perkins must have felt or how his family felt at the loss of his brother and after he was beaten and left to die.

And so, I pay close attention to a man who – after experiencing all of that – recognized that racism and bigotry of any sort cut across the intent of the Gospel. In fact, it was out of that understanding that Perkins began to promote the notion that racial reconciliation, as well as the development and re-development of poor communities, is a necessary part of the church’s mission and of discipleship.

Perkins wrote, “But in these latter days of my ministry, God is calling me to help churches see and incorporate reconciliation as an essential part of discipleship. The captivity of the church to our culture has left us so divided. And we think division is natural. We think the traditions we’ve inherited from our forebears are the way things have to be. But Jesus came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen. ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,’ Jesus said; ‘anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37-38). The call to reconciliation is a call to commitment—to take up the cross and give ourselves to this community in this place. The world needs a church that does something to interrupt business as usual where we are.”

These are the words of a man who experienced the murder of his brother from law enforcement. These are the words of a man who experienced the blows and beat down on his own body from law enforcement. And this man’s words to the church is that Jesus’ people are the solution to a complex problem. But the solution will require something of us all in order to overcome the way things are.

At A Time Like This We Need Salt

Have you ever said that someone is a salt of the earth sort of person?

It really isn’t a phrase we hear that often anymore – but it has always been a top-tier compliment. For ages, it was used to describe someone as a real-stand up sort of person. The sort of person that could be counted on to do the right thing in a difficult situation;  they didn’t quit or whine; they were reliable, moral, and of strong character. They were people who did what needed to be done and their word was their bond. Salt of the earth sort of folks were solid, stand-up, dependable.

When it was a bit more common in our vernacular, people used salt of the earth to 0_OZpJNGmNWhr2uR1Gdescribe people from all walks of life and all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds – but – interestingly enough – salt of the earth was a phrase Jesus used it to describe His people. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

I’ve always wondered just how many Christian folks have ever thought of themselves as the salt of the earth. Not many, I imagine – and that’s unfortuante because – given the state of things right now – salt of the earth sort of folks is exactly what is needed.

Think about salt for a moment. Today it is everywhere and so we may not fully appreciate what it meant for Jesus to call his people salt of the earth in the first century. In antiquity, salt was highly valued because of its multiple uses. It was an incredibly important commodity – and it often meant life or death.

First of all, salt was a food preservative. Think about how much we rely on refrigeration. Think about how much we rely on being able to put food in sealed containers. When the whole pandemic started, lots of us rushed to the store – and bought food that we could store so that – just in case – we’d have enough to eat.

We depend on refrigeration and being able to seal our food off from rot and decay. In antiquity, salt was needed to help preserve food from rot and decay. Without salt, people would have had a difficult time preserving food. But salt – in those days – was literally a life saver.

You are the salt of the earth – Jesus said.

Given that we know Jesus is using a metaphor – given that he’s not talking about literal salt – given that part of salt’s function was to protect against rot and decay – what do you think Jesus meant when he said you (as his people) are salt of the earth?

In antiquity, like today, salt was used as an antiseptic as well as a preservative. Even then, people knew that salt has healing qualities and the body needs a certain degree of salt in the right balance. Today hospitals use saline to reduce some types of bacteria, to clean wounds, and to clean out IV catheters. In antiquity, salt was used to treat wounds, stomach issues, skin issues, and a variety of other ills. In fact, in 2 Kings 2:20, Elisha takes some salt and throws it into a polluted spring, and “heals” it – purifies it. We use salt in a similar way with water purification.

In antiquity – in the first century – folks knew that salt was a life saving preservative that fought off rot and decay and they knew that salt had healing qualities.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

In antiquity, salt was highly valuable. In some cultures, it could be used as a form of currency – to some extent. People were sometimes paid in salt. In those days – soldiers and workers were given a salt allowance – which is where some believe we got the saying “that person is worth their salt.”

Salt was highly valued because it was highly useful. It kept away rot and decay. It brought healing. It restored people to health. It was necessary for life. It was valued like gold.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt was – and still is – valuable – and important because of all that it does for humanity. Its value is felt in every part of society. Life probably can’t be sustained without some measure of salt. It is important for perserving and protecting from rot and decay. It is important and valuable because it brings healing. It is valued and important because it does so much for humanity.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Again, I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth – especially in times like these – when cities are bracing and recovering from protests and riots related to the tragic death of George Floyd – when racial injustices continue to ravage the lives of people – when communities are divided by rhetoric, prejuidice, biogtry, ignorance – I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth?

But Jesus said that his people – the church – are the salt of the earth – which means that God’s people are to be about the work of preserving against rot and decay and we are people that bring healing. In fact, our value as God’s people in the world is bound up in our function as salt – at least that’s what Jesus seems to be saying when he compares his people to salt.

What use is salt if it isn’t used? Salt, like coffee, is made to be poured – to be used. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply be stored away. It is made to function. Its value comes from its proper use. Jesus even gave a warning about salt that isn’t used is really not worth anything at all. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

Salt is valuable because of how it is intended to be used in the world. It has a role to play – a job to do – and if it isn’t used for the job it was created for – it is obsolete, insignifanct – and people treat it with contempt or see it as utterly useless. One theologian noted, “Blessing is given to believers so that they will be blessings – to the world; salt is made salt in order to be salty in food. We are put on notice that while it is from nothing (gratis) that we have been made salt, it is not for nothing (frusta). We are to live for other people. Christians, we learn here for the first time explicitly, are in danger if they do not live as Christians. This is what is meant by the warning’s sad conclusion, ‘salt is absolutely useless except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ Here is deserved persecution. In the world, this ‘persecution’ often takes the form of simple contempt or of complete disinterest” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary).

Jesus said to his people – then and now – “You are the salt of the earth.” Jesus’ people are valuable to the world because we are to preserve the world from rot and decay and we are to bring healing to the wounded and weary. And that is exactly what our community needs now. It needs the church to be salt of the earth – to protect our communities from the rot and decay of injustice and racism and wickedness and to bring healing.

May all those who profess the name of Jesus be the Salt that the world needs.

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Keep It Simple

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Like thousands of folks, I have found myself sitting in front of my computer – my eyes bouncing between the faces on the screen and the little green camera light – for zoom-how-use-online-classesZoom meetings more times than I can count. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful. Without that technology, we wouldn’t have been able to connect as often as we have with family, friends, church, work, and whatever else. Of course, I’m ready to get back to the “new normal,” whatever that’s going to look like. In fact, the other evening I was part of a Zoom meeting where we discussed just that – the “new normal” for our in-person worship service (it’ll be June 14 by the way!).

As we talked through the important details for how our time of worship will change, my friend, Gary, reminded us of the acronym KISS. I’m sure you’ve heard of the KISS principle. It stands for Keep It Simple (some might add Stupid but Mom said no name-calling). I’ve read that the phrase was coined by someone in the US Navy responsible for designing equipment that would be operated during combat by someone with only basic training and a few tools. When all hell is breaking loose, when the bombs are falling and bullets zipping past, the last thing that person needs is for the equipment or the system to be overly complex; it could cost lives.

And so, the KISS principle was born; keep it simple – simple enough to operate during the most chaotic times. Avoid overly complicating things. Just keep it simple.

Let me get something out of the way; pastor-types (especially Presbyterian ones like me) can overly complicate things. I suppose that’s true for all sorts of folks – but – I know it is true for folks like me.

Years ago, I was asked to interview two well-known pastors. Both men served large, Presbyterian congregations but in different denominations. They are both good men and I’m not trying to disparage either one. I asked both pastors the same set of questions that had to do with helping people grow spiritually and leading their congregations through change, etc. While I expected different answers, I didn’t expect such a stark difference.

One pastor answered every question with “now Mark it comes down to these three things,” and “if a person follows these five principles, they will be successful.” I greedily wrote down what he said because it sounded good.

Like a lot of people, I like it when someone else just lays out the step-by-step action plan. You know the type of plans I mean? If you will simply do all the steps in A you will most certainly get B (with B being the result you want). In fact, that pastor seemed to be offering a blueprint – a map – for success (which as it turns out that was exactly what he thought he had – and you too can find those principles in his book). I left his office with a lot of notes, a signed copy of his book, and the notion that I had a real jump on things – that was until I met with the second pastor a few days later.

I sat down with the second pastor expecting the same sort of answers that the first pastor had given me. But right from the beginning, the second pastor made something very clear. He had one fundamental principle that stood as the foundation for everything he did as a pastor – indeed as a Christian.

He said, the whole of the Christian life comes down to staying anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person (including himself) into a deeper hqdefaultunderstanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs them (or him) to be – then it isn’t worth doing. With that in mind, he said, the job of the pastor is always to point himself and other people to Jesus – always.

That is the KISS principle -applied to the Christian faith – if I’ve ever seen it. The whole of the Christian life should be anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs us to be then it isn’t worth doing. And, given the sort of chaotic days we are all living, perhaps now is a very good time to put that principle into effect. And, rather than just leave it at that, at the risk of overly complicating things, I think an idea from the 14-15th century may help us to follow the KISS principle.

In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.” In order to stay anchored to the center – in order to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what sort of person he wants us to be, we probably ought to spend a lot of time meditating on his life. By meditate, I think Kempis meant that we ought to spend a lot of time mulling it over, contemplating it, reflecting on it, talking about the life of Jesus.

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Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.”

Of course, meditating on the life of Jesus isn’t going to give us a step-by-step action plan for everything we encounter. What it will do is anchor our lives to His life so that we don’t feel disjointed by when life gets complicated or confusing or when sorrows like sea billows roll. To meditate on the life of Christ a person has only to sit and read through the Gospels – and not all at once – just a section a day – a section that returns to the forefront of our imagination at various times throughout the day.

I’m not trying to reduce the Christian life down to the inane or trite. I do believe that we sometimes overly comlicate our faith. I think Kempis and the pastor I interviewed years ago can help us to keep it simple so that in confusing times, times of trouble, or even in the mundane, we can find ourselves gaining a deeper understanding of who Jesus is rather than flaying about looking for step-by-step instructions.

Meditating on the life of Jesus is, well, a simple act of devotion and I think it can tie a person’s heart and soul and mind to the center and thus help them to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants us to be. Let’s just keep it simple – meditate on the life of Jesus.

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The God Who Shakes Things Up

 For a long time, I thought of the Pharisees and scribes as the villains of the Bible. If you’ve ever spent much time reading the New Testament, you know why. They are always opposing Jesus. They conspire with other folks to have Jesus arrested – beaten – killed. But some years ago, while reading a book by Jerram Barrs (Learning Evangelism learning evangelismfrom Jesus), I was challenged to re-think them – to stop dehumanizing them – to recognize them as human beings rather than some nefarious creatures. That exercise has since changed my perspective and opened up a lot of life lessons.

For instance, in Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 parables. Those parables are told to an interesting audience made up of what seems like two or three groups of folks. They aren’t mentioned – but I’m sure that the disciples are nearby. But then there is a second group – tax collectors and sinners. They are the folks on the fringes of religious society. We might think of those folks as lost – right? I mean – that’s what religious folks usually think of when they think of folks on the fringe of their religious community. In essence, they aren’t what we might consider as church-going folk.

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But there is a third group of folks in the audience – Pharisees and scribes – and I’d like to focus on them for a while because I’ve learned a lot by seeing them as humans and not villains. They are certainly not what we might think of as lost. They are very much part of the religious society. But, as I think of them as human beings – as people who have a strong moral core – I wonder what made them respond to Jesus the way they did. While I don’t have it all worked out, I think it is safe to say that some of the folks reacted to Jesus the same way folks react to change and loss and dealing with the reality of who they are.

Let me see if I can unpack what I mean.

Luke tells us that a crowd gathered around Jesus made up of our aforementioned groups: disciples, tax collectors, sinner, Pharisees, and scribes. The Pharisees and the scribes saw the sort of people that Jesus ate with and they grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

As I’ve said before, I love words and one of my favorite words is the root word for the word grumble. In the Bible, the word for grumble comes from the word γογγύζω (gong-good’-zo). If you say it correctly, it sounds like it means. It means to murmur – to grumble – to complain. The word conveys the low noise that a crowd of folks makes when they are unhappy. Think about a court scene in a movie when the people are displeased with something someone says. That’s the sound of the word – and that’s the noise the Pharisees and Scribes are making when Jesus meets with tax-collectors and sinners. They murmur and grumble and complain.

Now we can quickly run past this and chalk it up to Pharisees and Scribes just being villains or we can stop for a second and ask ourselves why? Why were they grumbling?

Well, part of it has to do with the fact that Pharisees and Scribes kept a safe distance from those they considered “sinners.” It wasn’t like they didn’t understand that they themselves were sinners and in need of God’s grace and mercy. They knew that and acknowledged it and did what they thought was necessary to pursue right living before God. They wanted to make sure that they were as orthodox as possible and they wanted the rest of their society to do that same. So, they got a bit sidewise with people that were on the fringe of their religious community but were still associated with them by race and nationality.

So, it makes sense on one level that they would grumble about Jesus and the folks he’s spending time with. But, I think these Pharisees and Scribes are dealing with something else as well. I think they are dealing with change and loss and coming to terms with a the reality of who Jesus was saying they were – and when people deal with loss and change and coming to terms with themselves – they often grumble (γογγύζω).

I’ve heard people say it a thousand times, “I don’t mind change.” But – as soon as change starts to happen – suddenly they mind it – and very often – they γογγύζω. Why is that? Why is it that folks really don’t like change?

Well, if a few guys out of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School for Government know anything (and I think they do) it has to do with loss. People don’t fear change per se – they fear and hate and loathe the pain from the loss that invariably comes with change.

Think about that for a moment – think about the murmurs and grumblings that have accompanied this pandemic. I’ve grumbled myself. I really wanted to see Thatcher run track this year. I really wanted to have a huge party to celebrate Sherry’s birthday this year. I didn’t want to see my family and friends lose their jobs. I’d rather worship alongside folks on Sunday morning rather than ZOOM; I don’t like this change – but it isn’t the change per se – it’s the loss.

I think that these Pharisees and Scribes didn’t like what was going on with Jesus because all of a sudden – things were changing and they – like you and me – didn’t like it because they were dealing with loss. So they murmured and complained – they grumbled because they didn’t like what was happening and it was showing them and others who they really were.

In every instance with Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes kept losing power. They were losing position. Their way of thinking was being challenged. Their way of doing things and their way of seeing the world and the people in it were being challenged and they kept coming up short – and they knew it and so did others and they didn’t like it. So they grumbled.

And those guys were very human in how they reacted. I mean – look at who they are reacting to. Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were all flocking to see and hear Jesus. And what is Jesus talking about?

He’s talking about God. Jesus is telling tax collectors and sinners about God –people who are by all indicators – lost from a religious perspective. He’s even telling Pharisees and Scribes about God.

But that is what a Pharisee and a Scribe was supposed to do. They were the experts about God. They were the people that folks went to before. They were the ones that kept everyone straight about doctrine and practice and what was the right way to do this or that. But suddenly all of that is changing and they are feeling the loss that comes with change – and so they grumbled.

Their way of doing things – their way of looking at the world and the people in was being challenged – but challenged by whom?

Well – God. Actually, God in the flesh – God in the person of Jesus – the very Son of God.

That is what Christians profess, anyway. We believe that Jesus is the very Son of God – the logos who became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. And so, Jesus – the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of God – is standing in a crowd of people – and in that crowd are tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and Scribes – and the Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling and murmuring because the tax collectors and sinners are there and Jesus – the Christ the Son of God is eating with them and treating them like people and telling them about how to know God. And in reality, he’s telling the Pharisees and Scribes, too.

In all of that, we have to know that it is God that’s shaking things up for the Pharisees and Scribes. It wasn’t some sort of conspiracy by the tax collectors and sinners. It is God that’s doing this thing and I think that these Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling because they are dealing with loss and change and they are being forced to come to terms with a new reality about themselves and the person responsible for all of that is God in the flesh.

You know what? The idea that God is sovereign and rules over all things and all that comes into our lives isn’t something that was dreamed up by the Reformers in the 16th century. The idea of God’s sovereignty over all things is right there in the Old Testament – it runs from cover to cover in the Bible. The Pharisees and Scribes would have known that – just as much as we know that God is sovereign over all things – and yet they are as human as we are and when they are faced with change and loss and this new reality about themselves – they murmur and grumble – and eventually conspire to work against God himself.

But – if they had been paying attention to the parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15 – they may have truly been able to deal with change and loss and this new reality.

But to be fair, it isn’t just Pharisees that SCribes that are being subjected to the notion of change and loss and the reality of who they are. To be quite honest, the tax collectors and sinners are going to have to deal with the same thing. You see when Jesus enters a person’s life He doesn’t leave them as they were. He changes everything about them. When the Gospel hits its target, tax collectors – like Zacchaeus – are not able to defraud anyone any longer – at least not without being sorely convicted internally. In other words, people that meet Jesus – well – they can’t simply go back to the way things once were. And that can be a real loss – worth it – but a loss nevertheless.

I came to faith in Christ when I was a student at Carson-Newman. Coming to Jesus changed everything for me. Before that, let’s just say I was a bit adventuresome (as my wife says). But after coming to faith in Jesus I no longer did those things – which means I didn’t really hang out with the same crowd any longer. It isn’t that I didn’t like them or want to stay friends – it was just better for me not to be in the environment any longer. See what I mean about change and loss and dealing with this new reality of who I am?

That’s the power of the Gospel – that’s what Jesus does – Jesus brings change and loss and a new reality about who we are as human beings. The Gospel doesn’t leave a person unchanged.

That’s what God does in the lives of His people; He changes them and we all know that change can feel like loss. It can be painful. When God enters a person’s life, He changes the way a person thinks, and lives, and treats others, and thinks of themselves. But sometimes, in order for that change to happen – God has to shake things up.

So, in Luke 15, God is shaking up the world of the Pharisee and the Scribe and they are grumbling because of it. If you’ve ever read this text, have you ever thought about the intended audience of these parables? Granted, everyone heard, but the target audience was the Pharisee and the Scribe – the grumblers – the folks who were really being challenged by God to accept change and loss and the reality of who they were.

Look the Pharisees and Scribes were content in the way they saw the world and the people in it and their place in that world. But God intervened and shook things up and made them come to terms with the fact that God is a God who searches out those who are lost – and there wasn’t a person in that crowd that wasn’t lost – not even the Pharisee and Scribe. But they had to come to terms with the fact that they were lost – because they really didn’t know it.

At the core of these parables in Luke 15, Jesus is telling them about the very character of God – God is a God who searches for the very people that the Pharisee and Scribe had written off. God searches and restores tax collectors and sinners – but he also restores and Pharisees and Scribes, too. God is a God who shakes people up as He seeks and restores that which is lost to Him.

He leaves the 99 to go get the one. He turns the house upside down, to restore the one to Himself. That’s what God does – even today – but to do so – sometimes God shakes things up so that people go through change – even loss – in order to really see themselves the way they need to in order to see God for who He really is. God is the God who seeks and restores lost people – and there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t need to be found by God.

God is the God who changes things up and in the process He searches and restores people to himself. He does it all the time. He’s doing that at this very moment. And sometimes – very often – God challenges our perspectives in order to change our lives; he allows us to endure the loss that comes with change so that we can deal with the reality of who we are – and we are people who need Jesus.

Oh, a person might grumble and murmur – but God pushes through that nonsense.

The bottom line is, we are living at a time of change and loss and new perspectives. We are going to experience the loss that comes with this change. We already have to some extent. We really don’t know the full extent of the loss we will experience. But we can rest assured that God is sovereign and He is about changing us through the loss and I believe with all my heart that God is going to lead us through this change; He will be with us as we deal with the loss that comes with the change, and he will restore us more and more as we deal with the new reality of who we are and what we will become.

 

Luke 15:1–10 [1] Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. [2] And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” [3] So he told them this parable: [4] “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? [5] And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. [6] And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ [7] Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. [8] “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? [9] And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ [10] Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (ESV)

 

To Suffer and Persevere

It’s funny, the things I remember from my childhood. By things I mean literally things – objects – the stuff that was part of the warp and woof of our home. For instance, I can remember a vase that stood on a stand next to our front door. I probably remember it well because my brother – Dennis – and I were passing a football back and forth as we went out the door. If memory serves me right, I did not make the catch at the clutch moment – which ended the vase’s career.

But I also remember books. My parents – thankfully – had books everywhere. I suppose that is where I became a bibliophile. It is also where I learned to write notes in the margin of my books. I remember picking up books around our home and finding the notes that my mom had written – or sections that she had underlined. After she passed away, I was fortunate enough to get a few of her books – especially a few that held a place in my memory.

So, this morning – as is my custom – I walked into my study with a cup of coffee and was about to settle into my normal routine when a little yellow book on the lowest shelf of my bookcase caught my eye. I recognized it at once because it took a prominent place among my mother’s books – in fact I often saw it beside her Bible. I decided to throw my routine to the wind (which – if I’m being honest happens more often than not). I plucked the book from the shelf and started to flip through the pages of my mother’s copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

thomasakempisToday most folks don’t really know much about Kempis – and I will not go into much detail – but he was a remarkable thinker. Suffice it to say that he was a priest and theologian – of sorts – who lived and worked and prayed and studied in the 14th / 15th century (1379-1471). He wrote four books, which are all compiled into one – under the title, The Imitation of Christ.

Perhaps the most important contribution from Kempis is that he focused on spiritual maturity and depth. His insights into what it means to take care of the soul, what it means to walk deeply with Jesus have given shape to a lot of the world’s most well known Christians. In fact, The Imitation of Christ for ages was said to be a must-read for every person who professed faith in Christ and – if you have ever read it you know why it is so revered. Kempis doesn’t gloss over the human condition nor does he pull back on what is required of those who truly want to walk with Jesus. He provides insights into the soul and develves deeply into spiritual formation as only someone in the 14th and 15th centuries could.

IMG_0358The book was so important and so highly valued that for a very long time it was often given as a gift. In fact, my mother was given her copy by our pastor and friend, Rev. John Thrasher, in March of 1982. And sometimes a gift given once is a gift that extends IMG_0359beyond a singular recipient – and that is certainly the case with my mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ.

This morning, as I thumbed through Kempis’ book, I came across a section that had been starred and underlined. I think that was my mom’s way of saying, “Look here! Read this!” I’m glad I obeyed because Kempis puts forth an amazing prayer that speaks to me about something I tend to avoid.

Kempis wrote, “Ah, Lord God, holy Lover of my soul, when you arrive into my soul, all that is within me shall rejoice. You are my Glory and the exultation of my heart; you are my Hope and Refuge in the day of my trouble…Set me free from all evil passions, and heal my heart of all inordinate affections; that, being inwardly cured and thoroughly cleansed, I may be made fit to love, courageous to suffer, steady to persevere…Let me love you more than myself…”

I can’t recall the last time I saw suffering and persevering in any sort of discussion related to Christian maturity. Most of the time I – like many others – tend to avoid talking about suffering and persevering  – especially the way Kempis does. I think a lot of those deathblack-death-opener.adapt.1900.1who went before us – those who lived in centuries that dealt with plagues and political turmoil and economic disequilibrium and food shortages and those who were willing to say no to themselves – no to certain attitudes and behaviors that run counter to biblical principles – have something to say to us in the 21st century.

From what I take from Kempis, part of what it means to grow in Christian maturity is owning up to the fact that our desires are not always on track with what it means to be Christian – and thus he prays that God would free him from that and help him to suffer through saying no to himself, no to desires that aren’t in accord with the Bible – and continuing to say no when that thing resurfaces. That’s the internal struggle and often that struggle is like suffering and just like physical suffering, it can be a tough row to hoe. We’d much rather indulge and confess and try to repent than suffer through self-denial. At least, that’s true of me. But Kempis makes it clear that we really can’t expect to go very deep in our walk with Jesus if we are unwilling to suffer and persevere.

I don’t like it but, in my heart of hearts, I know Kempis is right. I know it is best to pray as he prayed – and pray so that I will love God more than I love myself, which means being willing to place God’s best for me above my own desires. Saying yes to God often means saying no to myself. And therein lies the rub – doesn’t it? To love God more than myself should mean that I’m willing to say no to myself and willing to suffer and persevere when necessary.

At any rate, I’m grateful that my mom had this book around. I’m grateful that it was one of the things that fill my childhood memories. And, I’m grateful to know that a prayer my mom read – a prayer that somehow spoke to her – is speaking to me today.

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Like A Man Running Out of Time

This is normally the time of year that college students start heading home and or start working summer jobs. But – given the addition of COVID-19 to our lives – a lot of students are either home already or well into their summer break already. My son, Baker, and I were talking about exams, grades, and summer jobs the other day – which reminded me of the summer just after my freshman year of college.

As it happens, my older brother – Dennis – owns and operates a masonry/construction company, and from time to time people who needed small repairs done on their homes would call him (they still do). That particular summer, there were several older people who needed some work done and Dennis thought that I would be able to do the work. I have to say it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – mostly because of the people I met and what I learned from them. In fact, just the other day I was thinking about one man I worked for and the valuable lesson I learned from him.

Mr. Buckholtz was standing in his driveway waiting on me to arrive. As I parked, I could tell that he was in a hurry to get started. After short introductions, he began showing the different jobs he needed to be done around his property. We moved around the place somewhere between a trot and a jog. That pace should have tipped me off about the speed with which the projects were to be done. After that initial trip around the place, I was off to work and work I did.

Over the next few days, I cut down trees and trimmed branches; I pulled up old shrubs tree-pruningand planted new ones; I carried stone and railroad ties (yes railroad ties). I painted and did a little masonry work. I plumbed and planted and shoveled at a quick step pace. He kept me working tree_branch_cutting_tsfrom the time I got there until the second I turned to leave. I didn’t mind the pace. I just didn’t understand it until a few days into the job.

Every day Mr. Buckholtz would get me started on a project and then he would head inside for a bit. He must have been watching me from a window because as soon as I finished one project, he was at my side inspecting my work. He would hand me a glass of water or tea or a sandwich and then inspect my work. He was always kind and complimentary about my work – even as he encouraged me to redo something or do something a bit better or a little different. As I rested for a few minutes, he’d ask about me – what my plans were – what I wanted to do with my life – that sort of things – and he sometimes shared little bits about his own life. Sometime during that first week, during one of those inspection breaks, Mr. Buckholtz said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.

Mr. Buckholtz explained that he was a man on a mission because his time was running out. He was dying and he had a lot of things that he wanted to get done around his house so that his wife and family didn’t have to worry about them after he was gone. In fact, everything he had me doing was for them. Then he said that time eventually runs out for everyone but he’d been given a gift of sorts. Due to the nature of his illness, he had a pretty good idea of what the future held for him and an idea of how much time he had left. He planned to take advantage of every minute in order to get things done for his family. He knew he had a short time left, which gave him time to do what he needed to do and say what he needed to say to those he loved.

I wasn’t the sharpest 19-year-old guy in the world but I was smart enough to know that I’d been given a gift of sorts, too. I was just at the beginning of my adult life and I was working for someone who was at the end of theirs. Granted, my own dad died when I was 14, but his death was unexpected and that sort of tragic end cuts a deep gash but it often only allows for grief rather than introspection. I was fortunate enough in the fact that my father’s last words to me were “I love you” and I’ve carried those words around like gold ever since. But, with Mr. Buckholtz it was different; he had time to say and do things for those he loved. He had time to think about his life and his death and what he wanted to do at the very end.

Okay, I know. I get it. Our own death isn’t something that we like to think about let alone talk about. Truth is, I’m taking a gamble here and hoping a few folks may allow themselves to read about it. For lots of reasons, we try to avoid the subject. We try to delay it. We try to deny it. We make jokes about it. We try to play it off like its no big thing. And then along comes a pandemic and we are suddenly reminded over and over of our mortality – and even then – some people try to play it off by saying – if it’s my time then it’s my time – but I always wonder when folks say that if they’ve ever actually given the notion of dying much thought.

Recently I was listening to an awesome podcast called Noble Blood. If you haven’t checked it out – and you are into history at all – if you love stories about nobility – you need to tune into Noble Blood. At any rate, on a recent show Dana Schwartz – the Henry-VIII-buried-2-1fdac08creator/host – pointed out the Henry VIII actually designed his own tomb. It was to be a shrine to how awesome he was (or thought he was). However, he never got around to actually having it built henry tombduring his lifetime probably because he, like most other folks, don’t like to think about their own mortality. So, Henry still lays in a temporary tomb in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle under a simple black stone.

A lot of folks are like Henry VIII. They don’t really want to think about their own deaths but perhaps they should and perhaps they ought to prepare for it and do and say what needs to be done now rather than hope for the time and presence of mind later one. But there was at least one king who not only thought a lot about His own death, he talked about it with his closest friends. He too, however, didn’t prepare a tomb. Turns out he wouldn’t need one for very long anyway – so why bother?

At the risk of sounding preachy (which comes with the territory), I think Jesus is a good model for living and – as it were – dying as well. I say that because if you’ve ever read much of the Gospels in the New Testament you may have discovered that Jesus repeatedly told his closest friends that His death was imminent and at the same time he didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or say what needed to be said.

Without getting overly theological, Jesus kept His death at the forefront of his attention. He knew it was coming and He was prepared for it and he prepared His friends for it as well. Of course, they didn’t seem to catch on but He tried to talk to them and prepare them all along. Granted, His death and resurrection are the cornerstone of Christianity – without which Christians are, as Paul said, fools. But I think that there is an additional lesson to be learned or perhaps a model for how Christian folks ought to live; I mean if Jesus was prepared and didn’t shy away from talking about his death perhaps we shouldn’t either.

If Jesus bore death in mind it’s probably not a bad idea for we mortals to do the same. That’s not to advocate being morbid or overly obsessed with death. But sometimes we spend a lot of time planning for retirement or going to extremes to deny or delay death or aging without even factoring in the end or worse, not being prepared for it. As a pastor, I’ve sat with folks who – at the end of their days – were sort of surprised that death was upon them but I don’t think that’s what Jesus would have us do.

Again, Jesus not only talked to His closest friends about the end, but also didn’t hold back or wait to do what needed to be done or said. In fact, reading through the Gospels you’ll discover how often Jesus spoke into the lives of His friends. In fact, he did that so often that when it came to the end, the things Jesus said and did in essence just summed things up and affirmed what He’d been saying all along.

For instance, if you’ve ever had the chance to read John 13-17 you’ll recall that text shows the scene just hours before Jesus suffered abuse and then was crucified. From John’s text (and others) it is clear that Jesus knew that his end was near. During His last hours, he turned his attention – not to himself – but to his closest friends/disciples and even to those who would turn to Him throughout the ages. The things that He said confirmed what He’d been saying and doing all along.

Believe me, you need to read John 13-17 to get the full picture of all that Jesus said and did that night. I just want to point out one thing from among the many things. After Jesus had served his friends an incredible meal – a meal that the church still tastes – Jesus told His disciples that He loved them and He told them they ought to love one another – because truth be told they were gonna need one another (John 13:34-35).

As I mentioned earlier, my dad’s last words to me were, “I love you.” What I didn’t tell you was that my Dad was in ICU at the time. I’m pretty sure that He knew he wasn’t long for the world. In those last moments, my dad wanted me to know that I was loved. I can’t tell you what a gift those words are to me.

In the final hours of Jesus’ life among us, He wanted to convey His deep and abiding love to His friends – both then and now. Imagine that. Jesus knew that He wasn’t long for the world and in the midst of that – He wanted to make sure that His disciples – his friends – that and you and me – knew He loves us. That’s a pretty amazing model that Jesus gives us.

I know we don’t like to talk about our own mortality. But I think Jesus gives us a great model where He not only talked about His death he made sure to do what needed to be done and said what needed to be said. He made sure to do what God would have Him to do in the world (which thankfully as God’s Son means that we can have the security of eternal life through faith Christ alone). But He also made sure to convey the important things to His friends – then and now. It is a powerful lesson to a culture that is being reminded at this very hour of our mortality.

A few days ago I was out in my yard and had to move a railroad tie – much like the one I moved when I was working for Mr. Buckholtz. I thought about him doing all that he could in the time that he had to do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said as a man who was running out of time. And then I thought about what I knew of Jesus and I hope in the time that I have left that I’ll do what needs to be done now and say what needs to be said now rather than later. I hope I’ll live like a man on a mission, like a man running out of time. I hope you do as well.

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Restoration

Take a second and read Psalm 126. I think it is incredibly timely.

[1] When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. [2] Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” [3] The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. [4] Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! [5] Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! [6] He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (ESV)

Isn’t that fantastic? It is just about perfect for our us – given the state of our community – the state of our world.

This Psalm can be broken down into two parts – and those two parts speak perfectly to our time as well as to the time that it was written. It reaches into their past – to a time when they had just come through an awful season and were restored – to a new season in which they are facing hardship but trust that God will restore their fortune/blessing.

Look at verse 1-3 again – that’s the first part of the Psalm.

We aren’t sure, well not exactly, when this Psalm was written but we can pick up on the fact that the Psalmist puts his mind back to a time when Israel was in trouble and God brought them out of it. Now – the trouble they were facing could have been exile – it could have been when they had been carried off by the Babylonians. It could have been a time when they were under siege. It could have been a drought – or a famine – or it could have been during a time of pestilence – a time of disease – much like we are facing.

In other words, Psalm 126 speaks to a time when God’s people had been impacted by elements beyond their control – and things were so bad that they felt disjointed and away from what they had once known. They may not even have realized just how good they had it before.

I think we can relate to that feeling.

But then God – all of a sudden – restored their fortune – God brought them out of the trouble. It was so amazing – the Psalmist says – that it was surreal. It was like it wasn’t even real – which is what he means when he says, “we were like those who dream.” It was as if they were in another world. They couldn’t believe how things had turned.

All of that leads them to laugh and be filled with joy. The tough time was in the rear view mirror – and they survived it and they saw the Lord’s hand in their lives and God restored them from that bad time – they came through it. But that was a long time again – but they remembered it like it was yesterday.

I’m a big fan of the book and even the movie Lord of the Rings. Not to overly simplify Tolkein’s great work – but the story revolves around a group of people fighting back against the darkness – against evil. They go through quite an ordeal. In the end, good triumphed but it was a hard-fought battle. They endured great loss. They suffered. They carried the marks on their bodies, minds, and souls.  But, when it was over – when it was all said and done – when their fortunes were returned – when the blessings of good days were back – when they reached the other side – the fellowship gathered together and they laughed and were filled with joy.

That’s what the Psalmist said the people of God experienced when God restored their fortune – when they came through that tough season years before. They suddenly found themselves laughing and singing – filled with joy – their ordeal was over – they still carried the marks – but they also recognized that God had done something great for them.

In fact, it was so clear that God had done something great for them that even outsiders noticed it – and they said, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

And God’s people said – you know what – you are right – [3] “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.”

How about you? Can you recall a challenging time in your life or in the life of your family – a time when you went through the wringer and God saw you through it?

Please bear in mind that verses 1-3 of this Psalm are a memory that the Psalmist brings up. Whatever it was that they went through (pestilence/disease/drought/famine) it was such a part of their collective memory that he didn’t need to be specific. All he had to do was mention that God restored them and they were filled with joy and everyone remembered. They kept the memory of God’s actions in their lives at the forefront so that it informed the present. They wrote it down. They talked about it and they relied on it to give shape to present challenges.

And that’s a good thing because – as life would have it – they entered another season of challenge – which seems to be clear from Ps 126:4-6.

The Psalmist turns from remembering what God has done in the past and to consider his present and the future –in light of all of that. So, he prays first – that God will, “[4] Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!”Negev-Desert-Israel.jpg.optimal

Just like He’d done in the past, the Psalmist prays that God will restore their fortune – their blessings the good times but that God would do it in a way that only God can do.

You see, the Negeb is a region in the southern part of Israel. It is incredibly arid – a desert. In other words, the Psalmist is describing a scene where there is no water – no life – dry – he is praying for God to pour out his spirit – his presence – and restore the fortune of God’s people who look barren, dry, parched, and barren.

Understand that the Psalmist isn’t being literal. He’s not talking about God opening up a river in the Negeb – although that would be pretty awesome; he is talking about God pouring out His Spirit on dried up people – people who have been impacted by whatever it is that is going on. And He’s asking God to do it in such a way that it is clear that it is from God. Only God can make a river through the desert. He’s asking God to bless them – to restore the blessing of knowing Him and being in relationship with God – so that they are like a river flowing through the dry land.

A river flowing through a dry land is a blessing and it brings forth abundance and beauty. It doesn’t just bless God’s people – it blesses all who are near the river.

Can you imagine the sudden flow of water in the desert – in dried-up river beds?

Have you seen those videos of arid regions after a sudden storm? I saw a video a few years back of Atacama – which is the driest desert on earth. However, every five to eight years, it rains and life explodes, and very soon the desert is covered in flowers of all colors. It doesn’t last long – but it is astoundingly beautiful.

That’s what the psalmist is praying for. He’s holding the memory of how God restored His people in the past in order to inform the way He prays for the present. He’s praying that God will restore the blessings of His people and it will restore their souls like a stream in the desert. And the thing is – we can and should pray the same thing even as we go through challenging times. We keep focused on what God has done in the past and we pray for God to do something now.

However, there is one additional touch to this Psalm and it is very important.

The Psalmist also puts a reminder to God’s people that rely on the image of working for a harvest. He reminds God’s people that “[5] Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” and “[6] the person who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

I love to garden and that love came from my time as a college student. I worked on a farm in order to earn extra money (I actually wrote a poem about that time – you can read River of Salvation by clicking here). I loved working on the farm. I learned a lot and even now I enjoy growing the food we eat. But, even as I sit here right now – my lower back aches from the work we’ve been doing in our garden and there is more work to be The Bountydone. But eventually, all that hard work will pay off and we will reap a harvest. But, I’ve got to go through the hard work – the challenging times in order to reap that harvest.

Now the thing is, I have an option – just like you. I could forgo all that hard work and just go to the farmer’s market. But in the Psalmist’s day – it wasn’t like that.

The Psalmist uses language that in his day would have sparked – clicked. They were an agrarian society. Their very lives depended upon what they could grow or catch. It is an easy and safe bet to say that nearly everyone grew some of their food – or caught it – or raised it. They were dependent upon the weather for food in ways that we can’t totally relate to. If they didn’t plant, they didn’t eat. If they didn’t get rain – the crops would suffer and thus the people would suffer. If there was a blite – they didn’t eat.

When they planted – they planted by hand – with rudimentary tools – tools that they had to keep sharp by hand. They had to work with animals and work with the soil and work with the sun and the weather and the rain in order to eat. It was tough and challenging but they couldn’t get around it they had to go through it in order to reap the harvest.

But when the harvest came, even though they still carried the marks on their bodies, souls, and hearts – they were filled with joy and laughter. But they go through it in order to reap the harvest.

The Psalmist is using that picture – the picture of working through the tough things in order to speak to God’s people about enduring difficult seasons. He reflects on the past – on how God restored their blessings their fortune in the past – in order to inform the present times – and reminds them that they have to work through the challenging seasons in order to reap the harvest – in order to see God restore their blessings their fortune – like streams in a desert.

And so the Psalmist is teaching us to pray for such a time as this. We are all going through a season of challenge. The Psalmist is reminding us to look back over our lives – to remember the challenging days – to recall how God restored our lives then so that as we go through this challenging time now we can be assured that as we work through it, God will again restore us.

Now, I’d like to ask you to do so something with me. I’d like to ask you to do what the Psalmist has done and remember a challenging time. I’d like to ask you if you can reflect on how God redeemed that time – how He restored you. That may be tough because you may be going through it right now or you may have a hard time seeing how God restored you. If you can’t speak to that, ask the Lord to help you. Ask Him to help you see how He restored you or how He will?

But I might suggest taking a look at something that happened a long time ago in order to always see just how God has restored the fortunes of His people. It happened in and around the first century. In fact, whenever you are struggling through a challenging time, there is always a way for us to remember how God has and will restore the fortunes of His people. Just remember what we celebrate on Easter Sunday. The empty tomb – the risen Lord Jesus is God’s way of restoring our fortune now and forever.

At the end of the challenging time, including our current conditions, we will have worked through it. We will be able to say, the Lord has done great things for us because we can see what He has done through Jesus. At the end of the challenges that are currently before us, we will be able to laugh and be filled with joy because of all that God has done and will do in our lives and the life of His church through Jesus. We are blessed because we can be people who have hope. That’s the fortune the blessing that we can have through Christ.

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